Mexican Gothic

The parties at the Tuñóns’ house always ended unquestionably late, and since the hosts enjoyed costume parties in particular, it was not unusual to see Chinas Poblanas with their folkloric skirts and ribbons in their hair arrive in the company of a harlequin or a cowboy.

Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Del Rey 2020

It’s always tricky to read a hyped book, I’ve mentioned this before. Is it a hype because people jumped on the band wagon, or does it really deserve all praise?

I wanted to say that I don’t know with this one, but I think I do. The promo laid it on thick that for once this wasn’t a Latin-American author writing magic-realism and that her scares were genuine. Magic-horror, terror, gothicness! I, far from a fan of horror, was curious because of the denial. I understand – no-one wants to be cornered as a one-trick-pony, but why not promote the story if it was So Different Than Any Other?

Maybe because it isn’t. Noémi moves to a scary, old house far away from civilisation to help a cousin that sent her a nerve-wrecking letter. Is it abuse, is it gas lighting or is it [add drums here] something else?

I won’t answer that question, but will say that Moreno-Garcia takes her time for a build-up only to throw everything at you in the last fifty pages.

It’s a nice roller-coaster ride, but nothing we haven’t experienced before.

Sex and Vanity

Dearest Lucie and Charlotte,

Sex and Vanity, Kevin Kwan, Doubleday 2020

Yes, the author of Crazy Rich Asians and the rest of them.

Is it fair to judge a book like this on more than its promise and if it’s delivered? Like a “real” novel? Well, there’s different kinds of judging of course, but what if I just mention what’s going on?

The plot is an enemies-to-lovers trope. Although the hate seems to be one-sided, and isn’t very clearly motivated. He wears speedos and looks good in them? He’s different from other men and makes her feel things? Okay, I guess?

But maybe that’s because of my next point: characterisation. It’s not great. For any of them. Every character gets one trait, and most are high in clichés.

Surroundings? World-building? Yes, ma’am! Here’s what we came for: Kevin Kwan is a who’s who and what’s what on riches, royalty, relationships and rumours. It’s lavish and lucious and enormously over the top all the time. It’s empty glitter filled with names you might not even recognise, but it all sounds very glamorous and filthy rich.

Just read quickly: there’ll be too much sparkles in your eyes to notice the things lacking.

Frankissstein

Lake Geneva, 1816

Reality is water-soluble.

Now, what to think and say about this one? Unlike The Body in Question, I’m struggling because I’m thinking too much about this story. It’s bewildering, it’s scary, it’s also kind of soothing with showing you how humans and their ideas about identity, life and death have always been around and probably forever will be (in whatever shape).

This isn’t a retelling of Frankenstein, or maybe partly, or maybe only inspired by it. Mary Shelley gets a plot, so does Ry and Victor Stein. There’s layers and century-deep connections, but never in a Gotcha!-way.

Winterson surprised me with a memoir I liked (which doesn’t happen often, as recently mentioned), but I didn’t know what to expect with a novel of hers. After Frankissstein, I still don’t. I find it hard to believe that she could write something like this again, if it’s even a ‘this’.

I’d recommend this novel to everyone who allows themselves to be taken along for a ride. I’d also recommend it because I still don’t know how to place this story and would love to pick other people’s brains. While still in their heads, of course.

Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson, Jonathan Cape London 2019

The Body in Question

“When that door opens, sign out.

Sometimes I feel like I subconsciously read in trends. Recently I seem to be on the “Oh, the ending is already here?”-kick. Definitely not a conscious decision: I don’t like those kind of stories.

This novel is pretty two-dimensional, anyway. Not necessary because of the characters or the plot, just the feel of it. Nothing touched me, it’s just there. Maybe that’s the right fit for the protagonist, maybe that’s why it has such an ending as well, but instead I felt like even the small investment I had was a waste of it.

Should I have gotten insights on the American law system? On how women can feel rudderless and make bad decisions? Or is the story just there to make the reader slightly uncomfortable and feeling defeated?

The body in question is probably not the one in the probable murder case the protagonist is in a jury for. Maybe it’s hers, maybe it’s her husband’s, maybe it’s her body of work? I don’t care enough to ponder it.

The Body in Question, Jill Ciment, Pantheon Books by Penguin Random House LLC 2019

Notes from a Young Black Chef

About seven and a half hours

I think I’m getting the hang of this audio book thing. It even made me thoroughly enjoy a memoir!

This is the first time I’ve heard of this man; this novel is part of the Black Lives Matter-category in one of my libraries. That’s one reason I decided on borrowing it, the other is his function: he’s a chef.

And he makes the dishes sound so good, the passion for food and cooking so clear that his career couldn’t have been otherwise. There’s struggle on his road to it (and that’s putting it nicely), but Onwuachi has such strength that it turns into a rags to riches to rags to riches to rags Hollywood-approved story instead of self-pitying lamenting. And the author shares how and why he continuously had the strength to do so.

The good thing about reading an unknown’s (to you) memoir is that you won’t be confronted with things you already know; the bad thing is that it can make you wonder why you’re spending your time on a stranger’s story. In this case, it felt like I was listening to a Black Western playing out in streets and kitchens, brought so enticingly that I regularly cycled a bit further to just keep listening.

Notes from a Young Black Chef, Kwame Onwuachi, Penguin Random House Group 2019

Vinegar Girl

Kate Battista was gardening out back when she heard the telephone ring in the kitchen.

What a gross disappointment, ew. Sometimes a book just doesn’t fit you right from the start. In this retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew it starts with the introduction of characters that are quite impossible to love or even like.

This is followed by the plot (quite logical), a situation which main character balks at for approximately five chapters before completely giving into it without any clear motivation. If this novel set out to depress about how some women don’t have any outlook on life and what they want to do with it, it succeeds.

Something extra to grind my gears is that – after it has been shown that this guy she needs to help out might not be so ugly and annoying after all – there’s a demonstration of verbal abuse and aggression. And Kate just … takes it.

Combine this with an epilogue that is about as plausible as the Harry Potter’s one and it leaves a lot to be desired. Ten Things I Hate About You did this much more entertainingly.

Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler, Hogarth 2016

Heartburn

6 hours (approx.)

Read by Meryl Streep, so yes, another audio book! Good gravy, does the woman has a recognisable voice. No need to get into her acting skills here, but her reading fits this story very well.

Kind of well-off woman on her second marriage and second pregnancy gets cheated on. A lot of love for New York and little for other parts of the USA, she writes cook books, he’s involved with media and/or politics, a lot of dinner parties.

It’s juicy, rich people problems with sometimes a recipe added. Meryl Streep’s voice makes it sound like you’re listening on the traumas of a rich, eccentric aunt who – when she’s isn’t full of self-pity – has some snarky oneliners and a nice eye for details (this audio book definitely painted a lot of pictures in my mind). Here, the addition of the right reader, definitely elevated quite a common (but entertainingly written) story.

So, if you want to enjoy an Ephron-production just a little bit more, try an audio book.

Heartburn, Nora Ephron, Penguin Random House 1983 (first edition)

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me?

This was my first audio book! Read/listened to, not written. I’m not Mindy Kaling. Does listening to a story make you judge it differently than reading it? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure yet.

I have little experience with audio books; solely the idea just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m too old and too impatient to be read, and what if it’s a bad voice? The second argument made me gave up on two books before managing to finish this one. Mindy Kaling knows how to use her voice, doesn’t do other voices (too often) and has people come in for their own (male) parts. It helps.

What also helps is that her story is fun, her tone and story realistic without being too self-deprecating (never nice in a woman), and plenty happens (it’s a memoir, you might expect that, but Mindy shares it). Yes, there’s a bit of an overdose of numbered lists and sometimes you could feel a bit iffy about the vocabulary used, but this book is almost ten years old already and we as a society changed towards the better on certain levels regarding language.

I’ve started listening to audio books because I wanted something different during my runs. Mindy kind of paved the way.

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? (and other concerns), Mindy Kaling, Penguin Random House 2011

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Let me begin again.

Golly gosh, how to explain this? It’s a memoir, it’s a fever dream, it’s an obituary – maybe? And did I like all of it, any of it, only the parts that I read at night? It was, in a way, beautiful, though. A kind of experience hard to put into words.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of those titles that seem to be singing around in ‘Serious Reader’ circles for a while. It’s not loud enough to feel like it’s been hyped, nor is a celebrity book club attached, but there is the vibe of “Haven’t you read it yet?” around it. To me, anyway.

Ocean Vuong wrote poetry before, and it shows in his descriptions, his look on life, how it feels like he weighed every word before putting it down. It’s in juxtaposition with the subjects he writes down: the suffering of his grandmother and mother, the lack of family, being an immigrant child, being the only different one while growing up. All of it feels absolutely anchor-less.

Can you have an opinion about something that runs through your mind like sand through your hands? I’m sure you can, but I’m just going to stick with ‘an experience’ and a weird feeling of honour that Vuong allowed you in.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, Penguin Random House 2019

The Secrets We Kept

We typed a hundred words per minute and never missed a syllable.

While I’m absolutely lukewarm about stories that use the World Wars as their background, the Cold War or anything involving the USSR/Russia has easily my interest (peeked). The Secrets We Kept ads love for literature to that. Ace in the hole, you’d say.

I can’t pinpoint why it isn’t one. It’s an appealing, enticing story; easy to read, pretty easy to follow (several chapters keep you in the dark about who’s the protagonist now — at least for a page and a half) and voices could have differed a bit more from each other. But that’s details I discover looking back, not necessarily crippling me during reading the story.

The secrets kept the title mentioned are from both The Agency (American security) as from Russian individuals that dare do things The State doesn’t agree with. Of course, there’s secrets on other levels as well, and this isn’t  a Cold War story in the way of ‘pick a side and follow through’. These women and typists carry more responsibility than their detailed-described looks entail.

It’s a fun novel to read, easily calling up images and with no frills when not necessary. I’m honestly surprised that I’m not more excited about it.

The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott, Bond Street Books 2019