Book Review: The Illness Lesson, by Clare Beams

A mysterious flock of red birds has descended over Birch Hill. Recently reinvented, it is now home to an elite and progressive school designed to shape the minds of young women. But Eliza Bell – the most inscrutable and defiant of the students – has been overwhelmed by an inexplicable illness.

One by one, the other girls begin to experience the same peculiar symptoms: rashes, fits, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. Soon Caroline – the only woman teaching – begins to suffer too. She tries desperately to hide her symptoms but, with the birds behaving strangely and the girls’ condition worsening, the powers-that-be turn to a sinister physician with grave and dubious methods.

Goodreads

The Illness Lesson takes place in the early 1870s in Massachusetts where Caroline’s father, Samuel Hood, has decided to turn their farm into a school for adolescent girls — a school that will teach them more than how to be housewives with good manners. At the same time, a flock of unusual birds that haven’t been officially “discovered” yet starts making nests on the Hoods’ property. Caroline remembers the last time these birds showed up, because that was when her mother died. When the girls at the Hoods’ school start coming down with weird ailments, Samuel Hood calls in a doctor that ends up treating the girls for “hysteria.” And if you know anything about the history of women’s “hysteria” and how it was treated, well…

I have a number of thoughts about this book, and they might be a bit rambly because it’s been some time since I read this. I’m going to just throw them out there in no particular order…

There *might* be some spoilery details over the next few paragraphs. You have been forewarned.

The cover is made to look like embroidery. It’s gorgeous.

I really liked that this book was set during the time of Transcendentalism in New England, because I am a huge fan of the Transcendentalists (I get a bit swoony about Emerson and Thoreau). Samuel Hood thinks of himself as a feminist and is very into opening this school for girls where they can be taught science and literature and philosophy and such. Samuel was also involved in a (failed) communal living situation at one point, which totally reminded me of the story of the Alcott family and their experience with communal living. But it is obvious by the end of the book that none of the men in the story are feminists. Nope.

The bit about the birds is very interesting. The birds sound gorgeous, the way they are described. I also like that they haven’t been officially discovered by scientists and that they are finally given a scientific name by the end of the book. I will say, though, that the synopsis of the book makes it sound like the birds end up playing a very sinister role in the story, and they don’t. Don’t be fooled. I really thought there was going to be a bit of the supernatural or a bit of…oddness…in this book that wasn’t delivered. The birds are totally innocuous, just doing bird things. And some of those things are kind of creepy in the eyes of humans, yes, but they are totally natural things. You learn that Caroline feels so strangely about the birds because in her mind they are tied up with the death of her mother.

There is a fictional book involved in the story that I kind of wish were real so I could read it. I thoroughly enjoyed that everyone (aside from Samuel) was so into it.

I saw it coming, but the “hysteria” part of the book and what ensues are the hardest parts to read. If you haven’t ever read about how women and their emotions were thought of way back when, or how hysteria was “cured,” then you’re in for a doozy of a surprise. And these are teenage girls we’re talking about.

You know what this book basically said? Even the “good guys” can be total shits. No matter how progressive they are or how much they claim to support of the rights of women, they can still, in reality, be total shits. But we already knew that.

There is also a conversation around whether or not women should be given this kind of agency and education that I found interesting. I mean, in those kinds of conversations, I shoot from the hip. Of course women (even 19th-century women) should be given agency and a good education! Right?

I really enjoyed The Illness Lesson, despite the parts that were difficult to read. Clare Beams is really good at writing with a 19th-century style. I kept forgetting that this book was just published. And again, I love that it takes place in New England with an undertone of Transcendentalism. I hesitate to talk too much about the characters because I tend to describe characters with overused phrases like “well-rounded” or “fleshed-out,” and that annoys me. I will say that I thought I was going to love Caroline and really dislike Sophia, but in the end, it wasn’t that simple.

The only thing that I think wasn’t as developed (or that didn’t live up to the publisher’s synopsis) was the role of the birds. And maybe I missed some kind of metaphor or connection. That’s definitely a possibility.

Have you read The Illness Lesson? What did you think?

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

UNPOPULAR OPINION FORTHCOMING!

Well, folks…

The Hype Monster got me on this one.

But before I get into my feelings about it, here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life – until the unthinkable happens.

Goodreads

Okay, where to start?

Where the Crawdads Sing was published In August 2018, and I *think* it’s been on the bestseller list ever since. It’s fourth on the NYT best seller list right now, and according to that, it’s been on the list for 77 weeks. Y’all, this book has been HYPED. People LOVE it. I don’t think I’ve heard one bad thing about it. People can’t stop raving about it and recommending it.

Hello, Hype Monster.

I think my expectations were too high. The publisher’s blurb about the book (taken from Goodreads and the copy I read) also says that Where the Crawdads Sing is “perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver.” Well, I’m a Barbara Kingsolver fan, and while I can see one particular similarity, that statement is misleading. This book is not on par with Kingsolver’s work.

There was something I really liked about the book, so let me speak on that first.

I loved Kya’s ecosystem and her relationship to it. This is where the Kingsolver statement comes in, I think. Kya is a natural biologist, even as a child. She doesn’t just live in the marsh, she is a part of the marsh. She knows more about her marsh ecosystem than any biologist. She interacts with every living thing in the marsh, and she treats the plants and animals of the marsh like family. Considering her family is so shitty and everyone abandons her, this isn’t surprising. Reading about the marsh and Kya’s relationship to it was the best part of the book, and I loved it.

I could have left the rest of it. The story didn’t draw me in at all. Typically, I can only read for pleasure on the weekends, and when I have to put a book down on Sunday evening that won’t be opened again until Saturday morning, I’m upset about that. All week I’m left wondering what’s going to happen next. That was not the case with Where the Crawdads Sing. I put it down on a Sunday night, and almost didn’t pick it back up again the next Saturday morning. I almost DNF’d it because I really didn’t care how it ended. The only reason I kept reading was because I had maybe 80 pages left to read and finished it out of principle.

And I can’t quite put my finger on where it went wrong. The story felt…cliche? I don’t know if that’s the word I want, necessarily. It didn’t feel original. It felt like a million other stories I’ve read, just in a different setting. The characters fell flat for me. I’m not sure I can believe Kya’s transformation. I’m not sure I’m cool with everyone who had any effect on Kya’s life — good or bad — being men. There were only a couple women in the story who really helped her, and they barely get any page time; they’re part of the background. I just…I don’t know. And I don’t like Owens’ writing style. The writing felt a bit choppy or stilted.

Why is it that I can write more about a book I didn’t like than I can about a book I loved? Sigh.

I gave the book three stars on Goodreads because the descriptions of the marsh and the way Kya interacted with it really saved the book for me. I loved that part of it. But I don’t think it deserves the amount of praise and hype it’s getting from all corners of the reading world. I don’t understand the high praise. Again though, that Hype Monster is real, and maybe my expectations were too high. The letdown might have been inevitable in this case.

Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? Were you as enamored with it as everyone else seems to be? If not, what didn’t you like about it? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Book Review: Weather, by Jenny Offill

Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

Goodreads

There is a lot going on in this little, 200-ish-page book that’s written almost like a collection of tweets. Each (short) page consists of maybe four paragraphs that are made up of just a few sentences. It immediately reminded me of Twitter and how the novel felt like Lizzie had collected her tweets over a series of months and put them in book form. I could have read Weather in just a few hours, had I not been under the weather (pun totally intended, heh).

I knew this was going to be a five-star book when I was maybe ten pages in.

What I loved:

— The format. The short paragraphs and the way they’re written read like the way my brain works — bouncing from one thought to the next, some thoughts taking my brain down a rabbit hole until I’m thinking about something totally different (and sometimes off the wall). It felt totally natural, like Lizzie was just writing her thoughts down as they were happening. But as a whole, they are organized in a way that makes sense and keeps the story flowing.

— I love that Lizzie works in a library. Be still, my heart. And I love that she’s called a “feral librarian” by her colleagues because she doesn’t have her MLS. [EYE ROLL] Whatever, dudes. The patrons don’t know the difference between someone who has their MLS and someone who doesn’t, and you’re all doing the same job. Get over it. Hahahaha!

— Lizzie’s answers to some of the more “out there” emails are fantastic.

— Lizzie avoids other mothers at her son’s school the way I used to when my kids were in school. I could never be a “soccer mom” or one of those mothers who gossiped with other parents. Nope.

— Offill is so good at capturing people in one short sentence. “…begins to act and she does not stop acting until the problem is solved” says so much about a person in so few words. You can picture that kind of person, right?!

— So much more, but no spoilers!

The title of the book has a double meaning, I think, because one of the main topics in Weather is climate change, but it can also refer to the changing social and political climates of this country after the election of Trump. And these two things together — answering doomsday emails and listening to people talk about where the country is headed — begin to affect Lizzie to the point of wondering how far she could carry her son on her back if it came down to that, and starting to think about who she would invite to live on her “Doomstead.”

It’s hard for me to put into words exactly how this book made me feel. It’s delightful even while the subject matter is sometimes very serious. One minute I would laugh out loud, and the next minute I would feel very contemplative. The way the novel is written and organized forces the reader to fill in the blanks, while it feels like Offill has already done that for us somehow. I give Offill all the props for making such a small book feel so large and powerful.

I borrowed this one from the library and I think I might read it again before I return it. I am contemplating purchasing it for my personal library so I can go back to it in the future.

Highly recommended.

Book Review: Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before.  Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable.  As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.

A poignant story of one college student’s romantic coming-of-age, Norwegian Wood takes us to that distant place of a young man’s first, hopeless, and heroic love.

From Goodreads

I’m not sure how I want to talk about this book. I’ve read a number of Murakami’s books, and Norwegian Wood is the most down-to-earth of the bunch. There is none of Murakami’s “typical” magical realism in this one. It is a pretty straightforward story (relatively speaking) about Toru’s coming-of-age and his coming to terms with death and the mental health issues of the girl he loves.

That’s not to say it’s a simple or boring story, though. In true Murakami fashion, it is anything but that. The characters are super interesting and there’s a lot going on. At the beginning of the book Toru is 37 years old and is reminded of his first, complicated love when he hears The Beatle’s “Norwegian Wood.” The bulk of the book is Toru’s memories of his college life and relationships in 1960s Japan.

Because I started reading Murakami with books like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84, I couldn’t help but notice the things that were missing from Norwegian Wood. Like I already mentioned, I’m used to Murakami’s magical realism, and I kept waiting for that to happen (it didn’t). I’m used to food being treated almost like another character in Murakami’s books, with descriptions of food and its preparation taking up multiple paragraphs (not in this book).

But Norwegian Wood is very Murakami in other ways. Music plays a huge role in NW, as it does in the other Murakami books I’ve read. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by him, but I think all of his books I’ve read focus on the different connections between people, whether those connections are coincidental or something more. NW definitely focuses on human connection (or the consequences of its lack).

I liked NW, but not as much as some of his other books. I think I’ve been reading so much sci-fi/fantasy lately that I felt slightly let down by the normal world of NW. That’s not to say that it isn’t good, though. It definitely is. And if you’re looking for a way into Murakami, but feel intimidated by some of the things you’ve heard about his books, Norwegian Wood might be a good one to start with. With that said, I should give potential readers a content warning for anxiety, depression, and suicide.

I’ve joined an online Murakami book club (which is great because I have no one in my physical world to discuss Murakami with), and we’re reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World next, so it’s back to typical Murakami surrealism! I’m looking forward to it.

Have any of you seen the movie adaptation of Norwegian Wood? What did you think? Is it good? Worth watching? Let me know!

The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh

Grace, Lia, and Sky live on an island with their mother and father. Their father, King, has staked out their territory by surrounding it with barbed wire on land, and by anchoring buoys in the water. These are meant to keep people from the mainland out, and to remind the girls that it’s not safe to leave.

Men on the mainland are violent and toxic. On the mainland, women are in perpetual danger from them. But on the island, women find a safe haven where they can heal from the violence and toxicity they’ve endured.

King puts his girls through strange therapies and rituals that are meant to keep them strong against the toxicity and degradation of the rest of the world. But when King disappears, the girls and their mother are left alone on the island not quite knowing what to do.

Then three men wash up on shore and their whole world gets turned upside-down…

My review:

The Water Cure was on the long list for the 2018 Booker Prize, and I can see why. The way Sophie Mackintosh writes is…lyrical? haunting? The writing alone drew me in. The story itself is certainly haunting, and the way Mackintosh tells it is (purposely) deceptive, which I also liked.

On the subject of deception, The Water Cure didn’t end up being at all what I thought it was going to be. It is dystopian fiction, but not in the way I was expecting. And that’s not a complaint, just an observation. I really enjoyed it and was pleasantly surprised when I realized where the story was going.

The whole story is based on fear, and fear is a powerful thing. King’s daughters have been raised to believe that everything outside of their “fortress” is dangerous and could encroach on their way of life at any time. If the toxicity of the outside world spreads farther, it could seriously harm them. They have been raised to be prepared for any and all emergencies.

“Emergency has always been with us, if not present emergency then always the idea that it is coming.”

Eventually, the outside world WILL get in, and they need to be prepared. They have seen what the rest of the world has done to the women who come to find sanctuary on their island, and it isn’t pretty. And the fact that the story is based on fear and on a lifetime of seclusion makes everything that happens in the story totally believable.

The story is told from the first-person point of view of the daughters, so we really don’t get any details about why the world is the way it is, or what caused it to become so dangerous and poisonous. We only know what Grace, Lia, and Sky are told or how they interpret what they’re told. I think this is a really effective way of making everything feel more mysterious and scary.

I found it interesting that I chose to read The Water Cure right after reading Tara Westover’s Educated, knew almost nothing about it going in, and it turned out to be another survivalist story about sheltered children who are raised to believe that everything outside of their family home is dangerous and out to get them. Though the stories are very different (not only because one is a memoir and the other is fiction), there are many similarities between the two.

Goodreads says that the hardcover edition of The Water Cure is 288 pages (I read the ebook), and the chapters are short, so it’s a quick read. It took me two days, but only because I had other things I needed to do. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “must read,” but it’s a good book and worth reading if it sounds like your kind of thing. I really like Mackintosh’s writing style, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way the story unraveled. I’m glad I read it and would recommend it to people who enjoy dystopian fiction.