Fiction: “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn

sharp objectsThis is the last book I returned to the library over two months ago, so my memory’s going to be a bit weak on it. Apologies in advance?

Sharp Objects is Gillian Flynn’s debut novel. Gillian Flynn, of course, wrote Gone Girl, and, like when I read Gone Girl, my Harry Burns Tendencies reared their shaggy, bug-eyed head and yes, I read the end of the book first. Look, on the one hand, I feel it’s a testament to Ms. Flynn’s writing style that I become so intrigued with the plot and the suspense that I want to know the resolution so quickly that I am compelled to scan ahead for clues. On the other hand … I have got to stop doing that.

Before I even get into the plot, I do need to say this: this book? Is not a happy playtime of a book. The plot is well-written, and the resolution makes everything enjoyable, but dear Jesus – this is not a happy book.

This book contains the following triggers:
– Cutting
– Suicidal thoughts
– Münchausen syndrome by proxy (I don’t even care that that is a spoiler, y’all should be aware of that going in)

Firstly, the protagonist and our narrator, Camille Preaker, is a former cutter. She spent some time in an institution to overcome her addiction to cutting and depression, and she is still fighting those impulses when this story begins.

One of the things that not many people don’t know about me – mainly because it rarely comes up in conversation – is that I have a very active imagination. Meaning, when I read about something happening, I can sometimes even experience a phantom pain, almost. Or even watching a movie. One of my favorite movies is The Royal Tenenbaums. And the scene where Luke Wilson’s character shaves off his beard and then uses the same razor on his wrists – to this day, I cannot listen to “Needle in the Hay” without some phantom pain crawling around the inside of my own wrists. This paragraph I just wrote? I had to hold my wrists together a couple of times while I was writing it.

I can’t explain how or why this happens to me, but it does. So to hear detailed descriptions of how Camille would cut not just lines, but whole words onto her skin? Oh god — shivers, and not the good kind. There was one point where I had to put the book down and walk away, and then skip a couple of pages when I picked it up again.

I mean, kudos to Ms. Flynn for being able to create descriptions so visceral that they manifest themselves. But seriously, not a happy book.

Camille has flown to her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on the murders of two small girls in the town. Camille went to college and became a journalist in part to escape from her mother, Adora, who she felt never truly loved her. Part of that lack of love stemmed from the death of her younger sister, Marian, who died after a long illness. Camille doesn’t want to return to Wind Gap, but the idea of getting a jump on a national news story, as well as making her father-figure boss proud of her, compels her to make the drive.

It is just as awkward-awful as you’d think. Adora welcomes Camille into her house, but wants to know how long she’s staying. Camille spends every night drinking herself to sleep to stop the voices in her head. She cozies up to the police force and the special investigator sent by the Kansas City police force in an attempt to build her story; meanwhile, she keeps running into old high school friends who have all married and had children and resent their small-town life, whereas Camille resents the family they’ve been able to build.

Camille attempts to rebuild the relationship between herself and Adora and Amma, her preteen half-sister. Amma at first holds herself above and apart from Camille, but they bond eventually. Adora and Camille never really connect.

Aaaand I think that’s all I can say about this book without revealing some key points. (You can probably figure one out by one of the trigger warnings I posted above.)

Look, if you can get through this without wincing, good on you. While I appreciate that Gillian Flynn is an amazing writer – and admire her for being able to write in and on such dark subject matter – I don’t think I’ll reread this book. It was just too … not happy.

Grade for Sharp Objects: 3.5 stars

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Fiction: “Babayaga” by Toby Barlow

babayagaShortly after Erica and I finished reading Egg & Spoon, I found myself wandering the aisles of the Yarmouth Library. Now, I am used to browsing the Portland Public Library and Curtis Memorial Library, in my hometown of Brunswick – both libraries are filled to the brim with a wide variety of reading material. When I go to the library, I intend to spend at least thirty minutes perusing the aisles. So when I wander around the Yarmouth Library and all of their fiction – all of it – fits in one room?!

Well, needless to say, I was a bit gobsmacked.

Instead of browsing through rows upon rows like I’m used to, I looked at pretty much every book in that room. (I almost said “literally” just now, but decided against it.) When I got to the B’s and saw Babayaga, I shrugged and added it to my pile.

It … it was weird. The book, and having so small a library. The whole thing was weird all over.

The story of this particular babayaga takes place in Paris in either the late 1950s or early 1960s. I can’t remember which, and the book has since been returned to the World’s Second-Smallest Library (I’m sure there’s a smaller one somewhere else – there has to be). The plot involves two witches – babayagas – that escaped Russia after the Bolshevik revolution and are now attempting to hide in plain sight. There’s also Will, an American CIA agent hiding as an advertising executive, who’s just been told his position is being eliminated. He crosses paths with the younger, more beautiful witch, Zoya, who ends up falling in love with Will against her better nature. There’s also Elga, Zoya’s older colleage (who happens to be much more diabolical than Zoya), and Inspector Vidot of the Paris police force, who spends the better part of the novel as a flea.

To say this book is surreal would be the biggest understatement since I said, “Man, this show Hannibal is pretty good.” Obviously it’s going to be weird, what with the Russian witches and Parisians that speak perfect English and the people being Kafka’d into arthropods, or however the fuck fleas are classified. But Vidot never really reacts poorly to being turned into a flea; nor does Will really react when he observes a magic fight between Zoya, Elga, and Elga’s apprentice whose name I cannot remember. I don’t know if it’s because the novel takes place in France and the French are typically blasé about everything, or if the author is attempting to make a statement about the supernatural being just as mundane as everyday life. But whatever the reason, there were numerous moments where I felt someone – anyone – should react like this:

buffy cast scream photo buffycastscream.gifbut instead, everyone reacted like this:

tv-addiction-emma-stone-meh-gif

(if I had madder Photoshop skillz, I’d totally add a beret and cigarette to that .gif.)

ANYWAY. (drink!) For lack of a better phrase, the entire book felt very … existential. Like, it almost – almost, mind you – almost made me want to reread Les Jeux Sont Faits by Jean-Paul Sartre. And while I do have a compendium of essential existential works (wait – is that an oxymoron? Dear Friend Thomas, care to weigh in on this?), rereading anything in its original French (no translation, hurrah!) is daunting, at best.

If I remember the back of the book correctly, Babayaga is supposed to explore love as a concept, and I’ll be honest, I … didn’t really get that. At all. Sure, the characters extemporize on the emotion, but nothing really resonated with me.

Although there were some pretty epic quotes, of which I thankfully remembered to take pictures before I returned the book to the library. Yay forethought!

The novel’s narrative structure is broken up by the occasional poem, or “Witch’s Song.” These songs are supposed to shed enlightenment on the plot through the ethereal voices of Elga’s former babayaga coven. I really liked this last stanza of one of the songs:

Ghosts, they say, stay for three simple reasons:
they love life too wholly to leave,
they love some other too deeply to part,
or they need to linger on for a bit,
to coax a distant knife
toward its fated throat.  [p. 110]

For all of her crazy, Elga really is a feminist:

“I’ll tell you one important thing,” [Elga] said. “If you ever marry a man, don’t take his name. Tell him you’re untraditional, make a scene, have a fight, but” — she shook her finger in their faces — “always keep that one precious thing. Men want to swallow you down, take all of you, even your name, like a big fish gulps down minnows. I tell, you, your name is the piece they cannot have. I have been chased by the law and I have been forced into hiding, but I have always used my own name, in every country where I have ever been, even if the police know it, it’s no matter. Your name is the only important word there is. If you lose your name, you lose your strength, and here amid the beasts you need all the strength you can get.” [p. 268]

And here we have Zoya’s final thoughts about Will and the curse she has bestowed upon him:

Maybe the owls will guide you back to me, maybe not, but I hope with my whole heart they keep you running the wrong way. I hope they make you suffer through it all. It is the oldest and most simple curse on earth, and when properly applied, no cure can be found. Some might call it love.

(i didn’t cite the page because a) I forgot to take a picture of the page number but b) it’s also the very last page of the book. oh shit – spoiler alert!)

In the end, if I were to rank babayagas, the Baba Yaga from Egg & Spoon would be number 2 (Mad Madam Mim would be #1), and these babayagas would be … very much below them.

Grade for Babayaga: 1 star

Fiction: “Blue Lonesome” by Bill Pronzini

blue lonesomeAnother rainy day, another day of database entry; another day of surreptitiously writing reviews longhand.

So Blue Lonesome — this is a weird book for me.  Well, not that the book is weird — the book itself is fairly straightforward. My relationship with the book is weird, and rich with Alaina-History.

I first borrowed Blue Lonesome from my hometown library when I was in high school. I don’t know exactly which year it was, but I know it was the year that the library was housed in the old high school while the library was being renovated and expanded. It was awesome, because the old high school was just around the corner from where I lived at the time and I was walking there like, every other day. That summer was the same summer wherein I first read And One to Die On by Jane Haddam and The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor, and a couple of authors that have made it into my rotation.

Do you guys ever experience that type of visceral memory? I mean, when it comes to memories of reading – entire scenes seared in my brain, almost like an out of body experience, where I can see myself either reading the book or first picking up the book – I am lucky enough to have a few. I can see myself in the library picking up The Venus Throw and And One to Die On – it was a sunny, summer afternoon. It was in the second row from the windows, because that’s where the “new and notable” recommendations were, and right in front of the windows were the computers that we had to use because it was the nineties and no one had computers except rich kids and libraries, and no one had EVER heard of Wi-Fi. I guess I haven’t mentioned my memory of reading The Pelican Brief for the first time, but I was in my eighth grade Maine Educational Assessment test and I had just finished the section on reading comprehension, I think? Anyway, I couldn’t leave because it was eighth grade and teachers are practically prison wardens in that age group, so I finished reading And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, put that into my backpack, and pulled out The Pelican Brief. I can still see myself sitting in my car in the drive-through at the Starbucks near my old apartment, nose-deep into The Beekeeper’s Apprentice for the first time. And at least three Harry Potter-related memories (but here’s one for the road).

Anyway. It amazes me that I can see myself so clearly on that summer day, *mumblemumble* years ago, checking Blue Lonesome out of the library for the first time, but I can never remember any of the details of the plot.

No, for reals. This is the third? fourth? at least the third time I’ve read this book, and every time I pick it up, I remember that the impetus for the mystery is a character nicknamed Ms. Lonesome, that the bulk of the story takes place in authentic-Western Nevada, and that the entire novel is fairly bleak. I don’t remember Ms. Lonesome’s real name, I don’t remember the name of the narrator, the town he goes to, I can’t remember whodunit — nothing. The entire book is a blank. I know I liked it, so I pick it up again. I’ve done so three times in the past ten years but never remember any details. But I still know every goddamned word to the theme song to Ducktales. Granted, the latter is set to (very catchy) music, so I’m sure that helps, BUT STILL.

Oh great. Now I’m going to have that stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Okay, and before I get into actually discussing the book like I’m supposed to, please take note that the book could contain the following triggers: aftermath of sexual abuse / molestation; semi-graphic imagery of suicide; and snakes.


Blue Lonesome is both the story of Jim Messenger and his obsession with Ms. Lonesome, but also a meditation on the state of being lonesome. Jim is a CPA – a middleman in his firm in San Francisco, divorced in college and never remarried; his life has become rather routine and stagnant. Until one day, when he sees a woman in his diner who strikes him as being even more alone than he is. Jim feels … solitary, I guess; not lonely, but alone. He has friends – at work, and he dates a bit, but at the end of the day he goes back to his apartment and listens to his jazz albums and generally feels okay with his life; okay, but not necessarily content.

This woman at the diner, however – she gets to him. She eats the same meal night after night, never speaks to anyone but the waitress; doesn’t even look up from her plate. She not only exudes loneliness, but also physically and emotionally repels others away from her. And Jim becomes preoccupied with her – he sees her as a kindred spirit and wants to get to know her. But the only conversation is one-sided and slightly hostile.

And then one night, she stops coming to the diner. Jim tries to stop worrying about her, but finally gives into his curiosity. Having already followed her one night to find out where she lived (but not in a stalkery way, if that’s even possible?), he visits her landlord only to find out that his Ms. Lonesome had committed suicide the week before.

Still determined to learn more about this mystery woman, he pays the landlord $20 to view Ms. Lonesome’s personal belongings. Among them, he finds a book stamped as belonging to the Beulah, Nevada Library. He knows it’s a wild goose chase, but his compulsion makes him take his annual two-week vacation early and before he knows it, he’s driving into the town of Beulah.

Ms. Lonesome does not turn out to be the beloved missing person that Jim thought she’d be. Instead, she turns out to be – oh, shit. Jesus Christ, I only returned it to the library five weeks ago, how I have I forgotten that character’s name already?! GODDAMMIT. *Googles aggressively* ANYWAY. Ms. Lonesome turns out to be Anna Burgess Roebuck, the daughter-in-law of the town patriarch. Anna was run out of town after she was accused of murdering her husband and young daughter.

Yeah – she’s not so nice now, huh?

Jim gets involved in Anna’s sister, Dacy, and he tries to solve the mystery. He’s totally that One Guy who comes into town and Stirs Up Shit in the name of Clearing Someone’s Name, but it works here. Not just as a trope, but as a true way for Jim to overcome his own solitariness. By pushing himself so far out of his comfort zone in the name of clearing Anna’s name – because he is convinced that there is no way in hell that she would have murdered her daughter; her husband, maybe, he was kind of a shitheel, apparently, but her daughter? no way – he finds himself.

Also, Anna totally didn’t do it, because that’s how things roll.

There. Hopefully, the next time I pick it up from the library, I’ll remember what the book’s about. Or, at least, I’ll know I have a handy reference to remind me.

Grade for Blue Lonesome: 3.5 stars