Book Review: A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

I love Flannery O’Connor! This short story collection was a birthday present from my brother and I was overjoyed to see this amongst my shipment of birthday books from him. The first book of hers that I read was Everything that Rises Must Converge, one her short story collections published posthumously. O’Connor was an extremely talented author from the mid-twentieth century American South who died tragically young from lupus after publishing one novel, Wise Blood, and the short story collection titled A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. O’Conner’s wit is unmatched, she is very easily my favorite short story writer other than N. K. Jemisin. A Good Man is Hard to Find is full of haunting stories that left me unsettled after reading them. O’Connor’s fervent Catholicism is also very noticeable throughout the stories, they’re all full of overtones of original sin and man’s unworthy nature. I really like O’Connor but I do have some reservations in recommending her stories to other readers for a few reasons.

One of the biggest issues with reading O’Connor these days is her prolific use of the n-word. And when I say prolific, I mean it. O’Conner uses the word intentionally, conveying the terrible meaning of the word every time it is written. O’Connor uses the word to highlight the fragility of the social order in the post war South but that doesn’t make it comfortable to read. Her use of the word is so problematic that it’s even brought up in the introduction by Lauren Groff. I don’t think that the short stories would have the same undertones if the n-word wasn’t used but I still was really uncomfortable reading some of the stories. I think if you do decide to read this story collection, you have to be prepared to read it critically and I would NOT read it aloud. Just because the word was written in the fifties and the author didn’t view it as problematic then does not mean that it is not a very, very problematic word. The other issue a future reader may have is the unsettling threat of condemnation and sinfulness inherent in man found in every story. I really enjoy reading the stories because of that element; it makes me more contemplative of my own actions. However, just because I enjoy it, doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone. Either way, these stories were a quick read that could be digested over a nice lunch hour. I would recommend the stories to the intrepid reader but perhaps not for those who can’t watch a scary movie without sleeping with the light on. O’Conner is the master of Southern gothic after all! Happy reading!

Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

This book was brought to my attention by my boyfriend. I don’t believe I had ever picked up a book by Ken Follett until this one and I was utterly enchanted. When we first started dating, I vaguely remember Jason mentioning that he thought that I would like this book but never gave it another thought outside of that conversation. He actually brought me his personal copy earlier in this semester and I was intrigued, but intimidated by the size. This novel clocks it at 806 pages which is nothing to sneeze at and was a mountain even for me! I am really glad that I read this book because it transported me to another world. It was first published in 1989 and since then Ken Follett remains a prolific fiction writer. I hope to read some more of his work but it may have to wait until I work my way through my stack of unread books! But without further ado, I give you my take on The Pillars of the Earth.

The novel is written through multiple perspectives, that of Philip, Tom Builder, and others. I think the way Jason described the plot to me still rings very true; it is a book about a town trying to build a cathedral. But it is about so much more than just the stone building and the people who inhabit the surrounding area. It is a story of resilience and perseverance through the worst that life has to throw at you. It really cheered me up because if these characters can survive through the novel, I can also survive through the pandemic! I loved reading this book which I cannot stress enough. As a scholar of medieval history, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I thoroughly enjoyed myself and found the book to be well researched. To me, there were no glaring historical inaccuracies and the way the novel swept through the history of the unification of England into part of the Angevin empire was fascinating. I would recommend this novel wholeheartedly. I think that it has something for everyone but that perhaps it should be read by those 14 and up. It is a little racy at times and a trigger warning is highly necessary for the first part of the book. Other than that, I cannot recommend this book enough to people! Do yourself a favor and book yourself a pandemic escape with this amazing read! Happy reading!

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

This was an odd novel but I really enjoyed it, mostly because of its quirks. I first ran across Convenience Store Woman while I was in Vroman’s in 2019. This particular copy was a birthday present from my lovely boyfriend who selected it for me from the Golden Notebook bookstore in Woodstock, NY. If you haven’t been, I would highly recommend once it’s safe to roam about to far-flung book stores. The book itself didn’t last long in my hands, I read it in an hour or two on a fine Saturday morning, well as fine as it can get in the wintery slush of February. I admit, once I finished the novel, I was somewhat puzzled and unsure of how I would write my review. I liked the book but I’m still not entirely sure why. Ms. Murata acquits herself well in her first English-translated publication and the story itself is interesting. The book left me in a contemplative mood and I’m glad that I digested it a little bit more before telling all of you about it. Quick sidetone, the baking will return soon! I’ve been so busy with the start of the semester that I haven’t quite gotten my rhythm yet but I hope to have it back soon. I hope that enough of you are interested in both the books and the baking to stick around and see what I get into next! Now, on to Convenience Store Woman!

The book follows Keiko Furukura, a thirty-six years old convenience store worker in Tokyo. Keiko has been a convenience store clerk for all eighteen years of her adult life in the same store, “Smilemart”. Being a convenience store worker has given Keiko a purpose in a world where she feels that she’s always on the outside, looking in. Throughout the book, Keiko struggles to balance between where she has found meaning and where others want her to find meaning. Keiko made me terribly sad at times, especially when she described her own alienation from those in her life and how the convenience store provided a place where she could escape that. I also understood her in a weird way. I’m around the age when Keiko began working at the convenience store and I understand the joy and pleasure that Keiko derived from working at a place where the rules and expectations are set for you and all you have to to do is meet them. I think there is comfort for all of us in Keiko’s story and I would recommend reading this book. I was greatly annoyed by Shiraha, one of the major male characters but I don’t think that should prevent anyone from reading the book. Disregard Shiraha and enjoy the rest of the book please! Happy reading to all!

Book Review: When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

This book was a huge hit this year! After the protests over the summer, I remember seeing this book on a ton of recommended reading lists. I sort of picked this one up on a whim and am glad that I did! The story was thrilling and kept me enthralled until the last moment! Ostensibly just a thriller, this novel examines deeper societal anxieties that are contained within the move to gentrify so much of the inner city. I found it informative as a primer on the other side of gentrification. As someone who had never lived in a city before coming to college, I hadn’t really understood why gentrification was fundamentally opposed by so many people in those neighborhoods. This book really helped me to grasp the feeling of loss and loss of control within the lives of people whose neighborhoods are being or have been gentrified. It’s not so much that the shops and new developments are totally out of the original resident’s price range but also the loss of all the familiar places and people that comes along with gentrification.

We meet our protagonist ,Sydney Green, at a moment of crisis. Her neighborhood is gentrifying, she’s unemployed for the summer and freshly back in Brooklyn after a painful divorce. From the first moments of the book, there’s a feeling that nothing is as it seems. Sydney’s mother along with multiple neighbors seem to have disappeared and a new pack of white neighbors have suddenly bought their homes. Sydney is barely hanging on to her own home supported only by her best friend. Soon, Sydney crosses path with Theo, her unassuming new neighbor and they begin a quest to discover the true history of their Brooklyn neighborhood. Sydney and Theo are led down a twisted path of treachery and discover more about their neighborhood than they thought possible. Their friendship survives the book but barely! The story kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time and I read this one quickly, in one or two days. I think my only issue was that there seemed to be some pretty major plot leaps in the final few pages that felt rushed. I felt like the conclusion just sort of slaps you in the face and I felt underwhelmed. However, I would still recommend reading this one, it is fun and thought-provoking, the best of both worlds. Happy reading!

Book Review: The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Spoiler alert. If you really want to be totally surprised when reading the Neapolitan novels, read no further! If you don’t mind a few little hints about the future of Elena and Lina, read on! “The Story of a New Name” is the second installment of the Neapolitan novels, which I promptly tore through once I finished “My Brilliant Friend”. Again, I’m glad I waited for long time before diving into these books so that I would never be left hanging unlike the adventurous readers who first picked this book up! I read this book in a couple days, sucked in by the existing knowledge of the Neapolitan novels and by the cliffhanger at the end of the first book. The end of the first novel really sets the tone for the second in a way that is entirely enjoyable to devour but heartbreaking all the same. Another shout-out to my boyfriend, this was my second surprise after coming back to school and it was lovely. I’m so glad someone had the forethought and insight on how much I would enjoy these novels because I don’t know what I would have done with myself if I hadn’t had this to devour after finishing the first novel.

“The Story of a New Name” picks up immediately after the end of “My Brilliant Friend”. Lina returns from her honeymoon with a rocky start to her new marriage while Elena goes off to college. I was shocked at how much goes on in this novel in a comparatively short time frame, it only covers about three or four years of Elena and Lina’s lives compared to the first which covered a decade and a half. Elena and Lina’s relationship remains like the ocean, ebbing and flowing based on the tides or whatever happens to being going on in their lives. Elena grapples with coming to terms with her feelings of profound loneliness and her perceived inability to belong anywhere at all. Throughout the novel, Lina and Elena continue to grapple with their true desires and how to get them in a world that accords a woman so little. I did really love this novel. I think it hit a deeper spot in my heart than “My Brilliant Friend” because I am in college and I relate to the emotional trials and tribulations of Elena in trying to establish who she is without losing who she was. I would absolutely recommend this one to all. I think it was better than the first novel, but I don’t think you can skip around in this series because you will lose a lot of context for why the characters act in specific and seemingly illogical ways. Let me know what you think, and as always, Happy Reading!

Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This is a very, very popular book. I don’t think I’ve been in a bookstore in the past five or so years without seeing this book. I hadn’t read this before because I was previously put off by the picture on the cover, it seemed a little old-fashioned and too “adult” for me. And it definitely was! I’m glad I waited until I was a young adult to crack this one open because it was truly a delight that was definitely not appropriate for my younger self to read. One aspect of any of Ferrante’s novels is the mystery and debate around the author herself, people trying to find out who are they really and are they really a woman?? I don’t really care about the ~mystery~ of the author, but I really appreciate a good story and this was one! It took me a while to get sucked into the novel but it eventually caught me like it has so many other readers. Also, quick shoutout to my lovely boyfriend who purchased this for me as a surprise for when I came back to school. I love receiving books from the ones that I love, so thank you very much! Shout-out to my parents for also feeding my lifelong book addiction, it was and is much appreciated.

Back to the book! Ferrante’s novel follows Elena Greco, a young woman from Naples through her childhood in “My Brilliant Friend”, the first in the Neapolitan Novels. Elena’s fate is intertwined with that of her best friend, Lina, a seemingly surly and unlikable girl. This novel follows the two girls from infancy into their mid-adolescensce and is told through the eyes of Elena. Ferrante’s novel examines the complicated nature of relationships of all sorts, our friendships, our romantic relationships, and even our familial relationships. Our protagonist Elena is extremely self-aware and this lends itself to her critical evaluation of every moment, for better or for worse. I liked this novel a lot more than I thought I would! It didn’t suck me in immediately and that was disappointing, but I now realize that Ferrante’s writings caught me in complex web that just took time to get stuck in! I would recommend this for 18+ both because of the complex themes and the tendency of Ferrante to include the occasional racy scene. Find it second-hand if you can, I’m sure there are many copies out there! Happy reading!

Book Review: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

This book was a wild ride!!! It was another one of my Christmas books and I was very happy to see it! I saw this in the same bookstore as “Hidden Valley Road”, which was Old Town Books in Alexandria, Virginia. This being said, I implore you all to try and patronize your local or independent bookstores as much as you can during this never-ending pandemic. Often books from local or independent sellers can be pricier than Amazon or other larger sellers, but when I have the extra money to do so, I try to think of the higher price as part of an investment in my community. Local bookstores provide so much more for their communities than Amazon can ever do so try to support them if you can! Back to the book! As I mentioned, reading this book is a journey and it was one that I thoroughly enjoyed with some minor misgivings about the author’s style. As a novel about opera singers, it is written as a love story to the art of opera and I would highly recommend listening to the operas or just specific songs as they are mentioned in the book. I didn’t do this and I think my reading would have been richer for doing so because I am not super familiar with opera.

The book follows Lilliet Berne, a fictional soprano from the Fin de Siecle in France. The book follows her recollections of her curious ascent to the heights of operatic fame and the cost of such a journey to herself and others. I loved the story which was inspired by Jenny Lind who ended her career touring America with PT Barnum and his circus. Lilliet’s life is full of twists and turns that were delightful to explore! My only issues with the book were stylistic. Mr. Chee chooses to not differentiate his lines of dialogue from the rest of his prose which can be confusing. I did get used to it eventually but not without irritation on my part. Furthermore, Mr. Chee writes the novel in a mix of past and present which can be jarring but I didn’t take as much umbrage at this as I did with the dialogue. I really loved the story, it absolutely drew me in but I was so frustrated with Mr. Chee’s style at certain points that I almost stopped reading. I’m glad I didn’t because the novel was delicious to devour but future reader, be warned! Happy reading and please support your local bookstore if you can! (My copy of The Queen of the Night was from Vroman’s in Pasadena, a fabulous bookstore that ships nationwide!)

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Hello again! It’s been a while; I’ve been goofing off on break and generally trying to enjoy myself before school starts again. This book was from my parents for Christmas and it was a lovely surprise. I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I saw it at Old Town Books in Alexandria, VA during the fall but held myself back from buying it at the time. I’m glad that I did because it was absolutely worth the wait! This book is the result of Kolker’s years of interviewing the Galvin family from Colorado. It’s a fantastic follow up after his last book, Lost Girls, which was a deep dive into the Long Island serial killer. This book was a great and terrible read. Kolker’s writing is delightful but the history of the Galvin family is a tragic one and it was tough just to read about it.

Hidden Valley Road tells the story of the Galvin family. The Galvins had twelve children, ten boys and two girls and six of those boys went to develop severe mental illness, mostly schizophrenia. The book follows all of the Galvin family, from telling the stories of Mimi and Don (the parents) to the heartbreaking stories of their children. Kolker also weaves in the story of the study of schizophrenia and mental illness which I found to be enormously helpful in understanding the cultural attitudes around the treatment of the six boys and the family and how that changed over their lifetimes. The Galvins’ stories were heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful and showed how one family could persevere in the face of so much. There is some description of sexual assault and domestic violence in the book that may be difficult to read for some. I did really like reading the book but some moments I had to put it down because it really heavy stuff. I came out of it with a lot of respect and admiration for those affected by mental illness. So I would recommend this one but maybe with some breaks! Happy Reading folks!

Book Review: Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

It’s been a while since I’ve posted and I’m glad that I have come back to my blog. I’ve been pretty vocal about sort of struggling during the holidays and this stage in the pandemic on my other social media platforms but not so much on here. I really like to reserve my blog to be a lovely and happy place where I just get to share things that went well or things that I really like. I forget sometimes that this blog is also supposed to be a chronicle of my life and that my life has its up and downs and sometimes the downs can be really tough to deal with. I had a crazy stressful period with finals and which continued in the lead up to the holidays. I have been feeling a lot better and on steadier ground since Christmas which is a good thing for me. But that’s just a brief little blurb into why posts haven’t been quite as frequent and how that’s okay sometimes! Anyway, on to the book review! This was one of the books on my Christmas list and I did read Brosh’s first book, Hyperbole and a Half. This is something of a sequel because it discusses Brosh’s life during and after the publication of her last book but it also explores a lot of her childhood memories.

The book explores a ton of subject matter and I actually think it’s the perfect book for a pandemic, especially the weird reality that we now inhabit. Brosh’s book is essentially a meditation on herself and her life through drawing. This book is definitely not as funny as Hyperbole and a Half but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Brosh went through a huge amount of major life events compressed into just a few years of her life and that’s a tough thing to talk or write about. I found that the last few chapters of the book were the most meaningful to me, where Brosh discusses her relationship with her self and what that now means to her. I think both of Brosh’s books are worth reading, Hyperbole for the hilarity and Solutions for the more mature and thought provoking content. There’s really not that much more to say, you’ll have to read the book if you want more! The book itself is pretty hefty, weighing much more than any other book of its size but its definitely worth the read. I read it in about a day and I loved it even if I wasn’t laughing but closer to crying while reading it. I hope that you seek this book out and let me know what you think. Happy reading!