The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

I was so looking forward to this book! The premise is excellent – it’s exactly my kind of Faustian story. A young woman makes a deal with a dark god – she wants to be free… escape her village and her marriage… and live forever… The devil answers her prayer. Except, no deal is quite that straightforward. And so, while she escapes from her small life, she is cursed to remain alone, forgotten. No one remembers her, and anything she says, writes or makes is wiped from the world, from memory and history. She is not only out of the grasp of time, she’s cut out of life itself. Three hundred years of anonymity until… she meets him. Henry. And he remembers her.

The Good: You know, I expected it to be as cheesy as any period / fantasy romance. A good kind of cheesy! The book did start out that way. Those sweeping parallel storylines flitting between the 1700s and somewhere close to now, 2014, New York. Rich, silken prose dripping off the pages, vivid descriptions of the city-life and art and poetry… It was all so Ooh! But Ooh! is all there was.

The Bad: Pages and pages, and some more pages, of: nothing. Repetitive lines, overused similes, cluttered ideas, name-dropping, and so much maudlin drama. Here’s what I mean. These two lines are set in 17-something Paris (I guess) –

He does not say he will walk her home. And if it were midday, she would scorn the offer just to spite him. But it is late, and only one kind of woman walks alone at night.

You know what that last line means, don’t you? You know exactly what she means by a certain kind of woman – what it says about her, him, their times, the world. And yet, what the author gives us is two more paragraphs about it:

Addie has learn that women – at least, women of a certain class – never venture forth alone, even during the day. They are kept inside like potted plants, tucked behind the curtains of their homes. And when they do go out, they go in groups, safe within the cages of each other’s company, and always in the light of day.

To walk alone in the morning is a scandal, but to walk alone at night, that is something else. Addie knows. She has felt their looks, their judgment, from every side. The women scorn her from their windows, the men try to buy her on the streets, and the devout, they try to save her soul, as if she hasn’t already sold it. She has said yes to the church, on more than one occasion, but only for the shelter, never for the salvation.

I mean why – WHY – was that needed? This happens all the time in the book. What she has already said in ten words, she dwells on for forty more, throwing in the misplaced metaphors and the inconsequential details.. why? Because it sounds good? Does it even manage that? Half the book could have easily been chopped – the great premise was throttled by bad editing.

The Ugly: And yet, the lack of editing was not the biggest of my concerns. The most annoying bit was how all the existential questions that the book raised went conveniently unanswered in the end. What was the point of this book? What was the grand takeaway? It’s not a surprise to me that the author writes for young adults, because this book reads like YA, except with sex and a 300 year old character – wait no, it reads exactly like YA.

P.S. No issues with YA, I read it – just didn’t expect this to fall into that bracket.

Favourite Books of 2021 – Part 2

The past three months have been unreal. No words can describe my whirlwind of self-inflicted life changes – but it does reflect in the dark, dark reading choices. In no particular order, Part 2 of My Favourite Books of 2021 –

1. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong – a story of Alzheimer’s, caring for the old, caring for the young, unrequited love and coming to terms with death. It’s about all of this and still, breaks any of the stereotypes you may have associated with these themes. Khong’s charming, quirky, sad writing style is difficult not to like. Link to my review.

2. Lost Gods by Brom – WHERE HAS THIS BOOK BEEN! No, seriously. Why am I reading this now? Lost Gods is a story of a man who finds himself in the land of the dead and has to push his way out of Purgatory to save his family. It’s peppered with art by the author himself (who is an artist) and is just so incredibly detailed, it makes your skin crawl!

3. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – A modern adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, this is the story of a pair of British Muslim sisters whose brother has left the family on a terrorist path, following in the footsteps of their father. It’s the story of a family’s loss and the little, big things that make up identity – language, food, nationality, what you wear, whom you marry. A haunting tragedy. Full review here.

4. Nightbooks by J.A. White – A little boy who loves to write horror stories finds himself trapped in a witch’s lair. In an Arabian Nights fashion, the only thing that keeps him alive is entertaining the old witch with his ghost stories. What happens when he faces the dreaded writer’s block? I wish I had access to such delicious, and also tasteful, horror when I was in middle school. I loved this book!

5. The Dark Interval by Rainer Maria Rilke – Self help in my world often takes the form of writings by Rainer Maria Rilke. The Dark Interval is about life and death. It’s a set of letters that Rilke had written to his grieving friends. Beautiful… that someone could be so sweet, sensitive and practical, and say the right things, in the face of loss… where most of us would just blubber and grimace.

6. Peter the Great: His Life and Times by Robert K Massie – Wow, I’ve spent two months on this monster of a book! It is absolutely incredible just how much detail, intrigue and character Massie has managed to squeeze into the roughly 1200 pages of this book – not a word is superfluous. It’s an account, not just of the life of Peter the Great, but a biography of the whole of Europe during the long reign of this Russian Tsar. I will write more soon.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

I’m moving home, and reminding myself constantly that, “coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving,” (Terry Pratchett said that.) I stayed up reading overnight yesterday; or this morning. It felt good. Been a while since I did that. Then I ranted about the book on Goodreads. Sharing the rant here, too! A rare long review.

Amazon Blurb: Ruth is thirty and her life is falling apart: she and her fiancé are moving house, but he’s moving out to live with another woman; her career is going nowhere; and then she learns that her father, a history professor beloved by his students, has Alzheimer’s. At Christmas, her mother begs her to stay on and help. For a year. Goodbye, Vitamin is the wry, beautifully observed story of a woman at a crossroads, as Ruth and her friends attempt to shore up her father’s career; she and her mother obsess over the ambiguous health benefits – in the absence of a cure – of dried jellyfish supplements and vitamin pills; and they all try to forge a new relationship with the brilliant, childlike, irascible man her father has become

Disclaimer-ish: Okay, I want to get this out of the way – this book is nothing like the ‘kind of books’ I read, if all those many kinds can somehow be clubbed together as one thing that this book is not. Which is also to say that if this book were a ‘typical’ example of some genre, I am fairly certain I have no clue which, or how it lives up to others like it. Yep, the strange and uncalled-for disclaimer ends here. The obsessing and fawning and oohing begins –

Rant: I LOVE THE BOOK. It is so emotional. This is going to sound like a tangent, but bear with me. One of my favourite high school teaching moments is asking students to decide what the ‘sigh’ at the end of Frost’s Road Not Taken stands for – is it regret, relief, frustration, helplessness, or just a resigned acceptance, even an ironic celebration, of the inevitability of life taking its course. For me, it’s the last, always has been. This book is Frost’s resigned sigh stretched/packed into a novel.

I am someone who tends to live in the past, if I can help it; against my own better judgement. Tonight (or this morning, it’s past sunrise!) I am delighted that the book found me – on the precipice of a major life change, I think I needed to be told that I should salvage the present, and look up and away from that inevitable yearning for the past. I couldn’t stop reading it! I think I might read it all over again, just to see what I missed in my haste to devour it.

Khong does interesting things with language. She describes the main character’s attempts to make a relationship work as “grotesque, like trying to tuck an elephant into pants.” I came to a halt here at the ridiculous image. A simile shouldn’t distract you from the main prose and make you pause and puzzle over it, should it? Isn’t seamlessness a desired quality in a narrative? But. Tell me this didn’t make you smile! What a weird thing to say. Then there’s a passing comment about gutsy seagulls which look like Jack Nicholson, what with their piercing stares. I don’t think I will ever be able to look at a seagull or Jack Nicholson the same.

I made so many notes! Invented yoga poses, sabre-toothed squirrels, jokes hinged on a play on punctuation, and pronunciation, and pink loofahs. I just couldn’t steal away from the book to update my highlights on Goodreads or anything – and that’s a good sign right there.

An interjection of quotes:

Today we walked past a café’s colorful chalkboard and you asked me,
“Why is that sun wearing a bra on his face?”
“Those are sunglasses,” I told you.

~
“I’m just saying, if I were you, I’d forget about him,” she said. If I were you is something I’ve never really understood. Why say, “If I were you”? Why say, “If I were you,” when the problem is you’re not me? I wish people would say, “Since I am me,” followed by whatever advice it is they have.

~
I rip up the page. I mean to throw the pieces away but can’t. I put the pieces into my pocket to throw away later, or to forget to take out of my pocket and have destroyed by the washing machine.
It’s all so messed up. I think what it is, is that when I was young, my mother was her best version of herself. And here I am, now, a shitty grown-up, and messing it all up, and a disappointment.
What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person—what we felt about that person.
Here’s the fear: she gave to us, and we took from her, until she disappeared.

Rating: So why 4 stars? Some parts of the book are stretched a little too thin. One has to take the level of detail with a pinch of salt – the narrator’s dad’s journals chronicling her childhood weirdnesses are too unrealistic. Children do absurd things, but no child does so many absurd things, so consistently, all in one day – for so many days. It’s quirky, but the narrative framework is a flimsy support for it. The “fake classroom sessions” set up for the narrator’s dad also are impossible to pull off with such non-chalance. All the “side characters” unite in a mission to keep up a semblance of ‘normalcy’ for this man suffering from dementia; and the lengths they go to do it are over the top and forced. A small issue. If it was a book that was driven by the plot, it would matter more – but it’s not.

Recommendation: The book is not ‘ha-ha’ funny, but funny in the same sense as “life is funny!” A summary wouldn’t do this book justice, so I haven’t written one. I mean – what’s up there in the description is as much as anyone could say and it’s not enough. It’s not a book about breakups, or parents, or health, or Alzheimer’s or loss or memory – though it has all of that. You need not satisfy specific ‘experience credentials’ to get this book. You just need to have lived a little.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Book 1 of 2021. I have been seeing Normal People by Sally Rooney just about everywhere in the book blogging world, so I was keen to pick this book up when it was recommended to me. I like to read books that are not overly discussed at the moment, because then, I am afforded the luxury of lower expectations. Anyway, preamble aside, I was surprised by how much detail the Goodreads blurb went into, so instead of copying the whole thing, I’m sharing here only bits and pieces of the summary I had read:

Summary: “Frances is a college student and aspiring writer and the endlessly self-possessed Bobbi is her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and completely taken by her tall, handsome husband, Nick. However amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect…”

The book vaguely reminded me of a slim little story I had read years ago called Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill. “Can something be laid back and intense at the same time?” is how I had described it then and that glove fits this book too. Like Dept of Speculation, Conversations with Friends has ‘marriage’ as one of its main themes; it is, after all, another book about an affair. A trying topic, I did not expect to be so taken by Melissa and Nick’s difficult marriage. The circumstances of the affair raised issues like ego and vulnerability, poor choices and trust. But more than anything, the failing marriage portrayed how you only ever see others as extensions of yourself – paradoxically more so when you “know them better.”

But here’s the thing, what I loved the most about the book – this marriage – was not what the book was about. It was about friendship, as goes the title. I found Frances and Bobbi’s friendship interesting because it went against the odds – they were in no way alike and they were hardly ever honest with each other about their “inner worlds.” Yet, they were friends, unequivocally so; and would give each other just enough space in the event of any conflict, that their friendship somehow survived all the trials they put it through! I’ve been in friendships like that, albeit with less drama.

The writer used emails to show glimpses of all her characters’ perspectives and in doing so, showed us how their misunderstandings transpired. It was an interesting device because we saw many facets to each character, and it was hard to pin them down to any trait. Bobbi with Melissa was not the same as Bobbi with Frances; and Frances with Nick was not the same as she was with Bobbi. And the Frances we saw as the narrator, inside her mind, was not revealed to anyone at all. She cared so much about how she was perceived, she lost herself somewhere in all the theatre!

Unreliable narrator or not, I couldn’t help but call Frances two-faced! She was immensely dislikeable – not because of how closed off she was or how she changed colours, but because of how easily she let herself off the hook. Because no one knew the real Frances, no one could hold her accountable for anything – for her envy, her mistakes, her active aggression. Was she fooling herself too? They’re kids, they’re twenty one; I kept having to remind myself, as I watched her coolly carve her identity into whatever suited her then. Is anyone this deceptive?

I suppose one could call this story a portrayal of the modern idea of love, relationships and friendship – the sort of fleeting uncertain messiness. The Goodreads summary (that I clipped short) labels this lifestyle as “a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.” I can understand this too, also relate to it in some parts, but I cannot for the life of me claim to like it. And this is my issue with the book – I just don’t want to be part of this world, even if this world is very like the real world, or perhaps because it is so.

Rooney’s writing redeems the book and she leaves you with these teenie memorable moments and turns of phrase that beautify the drama.

“Afterward I lay on my side with A Critique of Postcolonial Reason propped half-open on the pillow beside me. Occasionally I lifted a finger to turn the page and allowed the heavy and confusing syntax to drift down through my eyes and into my brain like fluid. I’m bettering myself, I thought. I’m going to become so smart that no one will understand me.”

“I laughed to myself although there was no one there to see me. I loved when he was available to me like this, when our relationship was like a Word document that we were writing and editing together, or a long private joke that nobody else could understand. I liked to feel that he was my collaborator. I liked to think of him waking up at night and thinking of me.”

Have you read the book? Or Normal People? What did you think? I guess for all my complaints, I will pick up Normal People one day, after all.

Favourite Books of 2020 – Part 3

Hey, it’s January! This blog is getting ooold. Anyway, this post should have been written in December, but I have a lot of “looking ahead” bookish posts coming up and might as well start with this little unfinished Favourite Books Part 3. Links to the other two: Favourite Books of 2020 – Part 1 and Part 2.

1. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – I’d borrowed this gem from a friend and it came highly recommend and it was worth every moment spent on it. I have seen and read enough fiction around WW2 to feel compassion fatigue and a general wariness about picking up yet another formulaic designed-to-make-you-cry book. This was a breath of fresh air. The story is … – quoting the Goodreads blurb – … about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen – One word: genius! The Sympathizer is set at the end of the Vietnam War. As multitudes of Americans evacuate the country, our narrator is one of the locals who escape. He works for a general of the South Vietnamese army. Except… he’s actually been a North Vietnamese spy all along, a Communist sympathizer. What unfolds is a social satire of the Vietnam War, its depictions by American media, the alienation experienced by those rendered homeless, loss of identity in exile, and the Westerner’s misguided understanding of the East. It’s a comedy, tragedy and psychological thriller all rolled into one.

3. Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman – Full review here. A detective receives a mysterious phone call with some clues from her partner, and hours later, he is found dead. She sets off on a mission to find out what really happened, following the few clues left by her partner… only to be lead into a dark supernatural trap that lies waiting beneath our mundane world. It’s an American Gods meets Dresden Files kind of adventure – with shadow creatures, clowns, goblins… and could it be possible?… dragons! One of the coolest finds of the year.

4. The White Zone by Carolyn Marsden – A touching, sweet story about two ten-year-old boys, growing up in Baghdad, both of them innocent spectators and soon-to-be perpetrators of communal violence, in the aftermath of the Iraq War. In early 2008, there was a snow fall in Baghdad for the first time in a hundred years (in fact, it happened again last year after more than a decade.) This story is weaved around that one event, that miracle, that while it lasted, seemed to blur out the differences that waged war in lives of these boys. The story has an uncanny depth of character, and this subtlety, both surprising for a book means for young adults.

5. First They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks by Habiburahman – Quoting the Amazon blurb – “Habiburahman was born in 1979 and raised in a small village in western Burma. When he was three years old, the country’s military leader declared that his people, the Rohingya, were not one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups that formed the eight “national races. He was left stateless in his own country. In 2016 and 2017, the government intensified the process of ethnic cleansing, and over 700,000 Rohingya people were forced to cross the border into Bangladesh.” It is a small, personal glimpse into a modern tragedy, a political horror story that is too difficult to fit into words. Unimaginable!

6. What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by Sohaila Abdulali – Oh man, this book. You really need to have the stomach for this kind of brutal honesty; the kind that makes you uncomfortable, or “sounds funny” or sounds not-true, because it’s so beyond your scope of imagination. It starts out as a quasi-memoir, as Abdudali details her own experience and soon transforms into a cut-throat dissection of rape culture. A must read for any and all of us!

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

Until the past couple of months, I’ve been reading a lot of very heavy, kind of sad content. 2020 has been a weepy year, book-wise. Men We Reaped is another book that moved me to tears.

Synopsis – In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five men in her life, to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth–and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community.

Losing someone in an accident… losing them to an illness… I’ve often used and heard the term a “meaningless loss” and death does seem so pointless and meaningless; something akin to a tornado happening upon its victims at random and utterly destroying them from inside out. And yet, when it comes to the death in Jesmyn Ward’s life, the death that fills it and surrounds it.. calling it “meaningless” would be callous and a gross injustice. Because it is not accidental and it’s not “out of nowhere.” This book takes the random statistics you would find in the pages of a newspaper and fleshes them out, it flashes a light on the “meanings” and “interpretations” that we may choose to keep buried.

Is this a story of any poverty, any grief, any addiction or any illiteracy? As easily as you might find parallels to yourself in the book… you’re reminded that you’re still an outsider peering into something far more complex… because your grief and your loss may have been meaningless, and that is your privilege. Hers isn’t a story of the ‘inexplicable,’ it’s a story of neglect. It is a book about systemic racism. It is about the plight of the southern man. It’s about the writer’s love and revulsion in parts for her childhood in Mississippi. It is anecdotal, emotional, nostalgic… but this style of writing adds substance to the dry and objective, instead of taking away from it.

“What I didn’t understand then was that the same pressure were weighing on us all. My entire community suffered from the lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide the basics of good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us were perpetually less, we distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless. Some of us turned sour from pressure, let it erode our sense of self until we hated what we saw, within and without. And to blunt it all, some of us turned to drugs.”

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

This post should be called: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone – the good, the bad and the ugly. Here goes nothing.

The tagline of this book is a summary in itself – Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: a therapist, her therapist and our lives revealed. Gottlieb is a practising psychotherapist sharing her own tryst with therapy, along with stories of patients.

Things I Loved:

Therapists seeing therapists – The book begins with Gottlieb stressing on the fact that therapists seek out help too… Seeing her assert that she has the same struggles makes us warm up to the book… Do you ever wonder – “Do doctors get sick?” Of course they do. They’re human! We don’t need therapy because there’s something wrong with us. We find therapy useful because we’re… human. She normalises therapy by being both the expert and the vulnerable patient herself.

Dealing with mortality – Of all the patient stories, this was the one I appreciated the most – the idea of a young woman dealing with her own mortality. Gottlieb has explored the admittedly murky depths of this issue without slipping into drama or even that overwrought positivity. It could not have been easy being a therapist for someone in that position, with a terminal illness but with no certainty of the ‘how long…’ You feel for her, and you can see the relationship between these two people – Lori and her patient – and Life unfold before your eyes.

Little nuggets of insight – There were a lot of places in the book where Gottlieb gives us small bits of insight from existing research and theories and studies in psychology. These kind of went Bing! in my mind, because they were so relatable. Because I now had words for feelings I’ve felt and actions I have seen. Like this –

In projective identification, the man may feel angry at his boss, return home, and essentially insert his anger into his partner, actually making the partner feel angry. Projective identification is like tossing a hot potato to the other person. The man no longer has to feel his anger, since it’s now living inside his partner.

Man/boss stereotype notwithstanding, I do this ALL the time. (Sorry, Mom.)

Things That Didn’t Make Sense

Fact/Fiction? – At the outset, she informs us that she has changed the details of the patients just enough to make them unidentifiable. If this were true, considering that so much detail is revealed about each person, it makes one wonder, was this even genuine? Would it have been better as an autobiographic novel, drawing from reality, rather than fiction masquerading as fact?

Tone – About fifteen pages into the book, she calls herself an “unreliable narrator,” explaining how people (herself included) tell stories from their perspectives and tend to pick and choose, and leave out the unsavoury parts. I feel like she lets herself off the hook for that. She doesn’t hold herself accountable to the story.

She is also quite self-serving. For instance, she talks about a certain patient; and how she can’t help but have a caustic internal reaction to his behaviour; she finds him obnoxious and it colours her opinion of his struggles! This should have been an absolute no-no in her position! Her excuse is – “well, it’s bound to happen…” Can’t she call it a natural reaction, and still admit it was wrong? It’s tricky to write about yourself with authenticity, even the “unsavoury” bits. That was missing.

Things I Didn’t Like –

What’s the opposite of ‘crowning glory?’ This is the crowning failure of this book. It tries to be TOO much, failing to add up to anything. I vented my frustration in my Goodreads review that about sums it up – “I kept turning pages, flitting between this patient’s story and that, looking for a final point – a thread that connected them all into… one entire book. I didn’t know she was a columnist when I picked up the book; but now, I think I’d love her writing a lot more in crisp, limited doses!”

I don’t regret reading the book. I recommend it to those who ‘don’t‘ think therapy is normal, it can be a myth-buster, and will certainly transport you to the inside of a therapist’s office. The usual clichés are mercifully absent and it IS an important topic. To that extent, I did three-star it and do recommend it. A few weeks earlier I’d written about my own experiences in a post titled, We Need to Talk About Therapy. Do give it a read and share your thoughts!

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

*trigger warning for sexual abuse

SO I’m still in that phase of “I don’t know what to do with this site.” I’ve done something with it, but I’m not yet happy with what I’ve done. However, I did read this book recently and it has certainly been difficult to get my mind off it. So I thought why not go to the tried and tested basics and write a good ol’ review. I’ve been reading some interesting books this year and this tops the list of thought-provoking writing.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is the story of a woman in her thirties, named Vanessa, who discovers that one of her old teachers has been accused in a #MeToo scandal. Soon, we learn that Vanessa had an affair with the very same teacher. In fact, she had been in love with him. The story unfolds through her fifteen year old perspective. Meanwhile, in the future, the woman comes to terms with years of relationship mishaps, and the idea that her very first love was, in fact, sexual abuse.

It’s a controversial topic and it can be a trigger for many. So let’s start with what this book is not and who shouldn’t read it. It is not a love story. You are supposed to see the power play and the emotional abuse for what it is. This fifteen year old girl does glorify her romance with a teacher twice her age. She is obsessed with him, and she lets him convince her that what she feels is in fact love, and that love warrants sacrifice. Although it conveys teenage emotions – rather, because it conveys that young adult perspective so well – it’s not a book for teens. Strangely, the author had been writing the book since she was a teen; which is perhaps how she’s nailed that teenage voice. Yet it is that older, retrospective view, the growing realisation that these actions and feelings were misguided, that makes the book work.

It is not an easy read. The book is quite graphic. It is clear why Vanessa develops a crush on this teacher who charms her. Who lends her books on poetry, and brings out the poet in her. It is difficult not to love him, and as someone who’s loved all Literature professors ever, it is easy to share her fascination. It is when they start interacting that the relationship takes on a sickening, cloying quality. The ease with which he manipulates her, the small sacrifices she makes, the little things she finds herself agreeing to, the changes in her own behaviour that she justifies… seen from a third perspective, this is a hard pill to swallow. Much worse, I’m sure, if you’ve ever been in that position yourself. It’s frightening, compelling, disgusting – rolled into one.

My Dark Vanessa raises a very important question – something that we find difficult to address, awkward even, a kind of blurred line. What do we mean by “willingly” walking into an abusive sexual relationship? What do consent and complicity mean; is every relationship something of a power-play? Can a fifteen year old child have the agency that she presumes she does – could it be anything but manipulation when there is such a clearly skewed distribution of authority? What do you do with that murky, misplaced guilt of having “let” someone do that to you? As Vanessa puts it, “I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.

The author gives us multiple other voices from Vanessa’s story – her parents, other teachers, friends, her therapist. These beg the question – what do you do if this were someone you know? How do you understand, and show empathy, and reassess your ‘judgement,’ even before you help? It raises questions about victimhood, and what keeps Vanessa from putting herself into that box. She says, “This, I think, is the cost of telling, even in the guise of fiction – once you do, it’s the only thing about you anyone will ever care about it. It defines you whether you want it to or not.”

A scary, frustrating book; my review, if you can call it that, has been just a list of questions. But in the month or so since I read this book, I’ve found myself asking these questions to every new story that I read, real or fiction, that is about relationships, or control, or trauma. For that reason alone, this book deserves a reading, as harrowing and infuriating as the experience is. I recommend this video review for further insight into whether you should pick up this book.

“Girls in those stories are always victims, and I am not. And it doesn’t have anything to do with what Strane did or didn’t do to me when I was younger. I’m not a victim because I never wanted to be, and if I didn’t want to be, then I’m not. That’s how it works. The difference between rape and sex is state of mind. You can’t rape the willing, right?”

How do you rate books?

While reviewing books, I have always had a problem with coming up with a good rating system, that I can follow irrespective of the genre, type, size and author of the book. I mostly just follow the Goodreads system.

It goes like this:
1 star: Didn’t like it
2 stars: It was okay
3 stars: Liked it
4 stars: Really liked it
5 stars: It’s amazing
I don’t find it sufficient though. For one, it is very relative. I may give a 5-star rating to 11.22.63 by Stephen King as well as The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde; not that the books are in any way comparable or equal. I thought they were both amazing in their own ways; what I don’t get is how to convey this “in its own way” through a rating!
Consider the example of a review copy; where I know it’s the author’s first attempt at getting published. I have certain expectations from the book and when the book fulfills those expectations almost entirely, I give it a 4-star rating; because I do really like it. That doesn’t mean it is even close to being as good as Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which I also really liked (and hence gave a 4-star rating!)
Secondly, I think five stars are too few to judge a book by. So I either use half-ratings i.e. 2 1/2, 3 1/2 etc. Or I use ten stars. Either way, the first problem persists.
I have seen people rate individual elements of a books separately. For instance, theme, plot and characters, each with its own separate rating. This is, I think, the most justifiable method; but I don’t know how it exactly works. Which different elements would you rate separately and how do you decide the whole rating of the book?
I don’t tend to put much weight in the rating a book holds. Until now I haven’t come across a widely applicable rating system. Unless you have one. What do you base your ratings on?

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

The title of the novel The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett made me want to read it. When I started reading the novel, I hadn’t read any reviews or synopses and had no idea what to expect.

It is the story of a notorious book thief and a clever rare-book dealer who tracks him down. It provides a glimpse into the quite magical world of rare book collectors.

There is not much to say about the writing style. I found it a bit pompous, too literary; but it’s one of the things you learn to overlook when only the plot/ideas get you so involved in the book.
The author’s opinion about the fact that many collectors don’t actually read the books they collect was first surprising, then convincing. It is the love for the physical beauty of books that drives people to collect them. The yellowed pages, the delicate spine and that old smell, I’d be lying if I said never I loved books for all of that.
“Much of the fondness avid readers, and certainly collectors, have for their books is related to the books’ physical bodies. As much as they are vessels for stories (and poetry, reference information, etc.), books are historical artifacts and repositories for memories—we like to recall who gave books to us, where we were when we read them, how old we were, and so on.”
Don’t you completely agree? There are so many books that I do judge by their covers. So many books I don’t like but can’t manage to give away, because they have that special meaning, beauty attached to them. I have fond memories to associate with every book I owned as a kid; serious discussions along with bookish games and crazy fan-girl obsessions.
I still remember reading the first few pages of The Diary of a Young Girl in my school library. It was the first hardcover novel I read, and that edition carried pictures of the girl and her family and a map of the place she lived in; along with a few copies of the original diary entries scribbled in her own handwriting. The fact that I didn’t like the book as much as I thought, doesn’t remove the memory. The excitement it caused me to think that the book was actually someone’s life, gave me sort of a new perspective on reading. Like the author says, even physical artifacts (like books or paintings) carry memory and meaning.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves reading or loves to hold a book in their hands or loves, much like the author, to spend time in libraries, surrounded by books. It is one of the best books about books.
“Sitting in any library, surrounded by high shelves of books, I sense the profoundly rich history of scholarship as something real, and it’s both humbling and inspiring. This manifestation of reality is true of other artifacts as well. We can read about the Holocaust or where Emily Dickinson wrote her “letter to the world” or where Jim Morrison is buried. We can view online photos of all these places. Still, each year, thousands of people visit Auschwitz, The Homestead, and Père Lachaise. I suppose our desire to be near books rises from a similar impulse; they root us in something larger than ourselves, something real.”