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[841] The Price of Salt (Carol) – Patricia Highsmith

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“She had seen just now what she had only sensed before, that the whole world was ready to be their enemy, and suddenly what she and Carol had together seemed no longer love or anything happy but a monster between them, with each of them caught in a fust.” (Ch.19, 245)

Published in 1952 under the pen name Claire Morgan, the novel chronicles the love affair between 19-year-old Therese Belivet and the wealthier, older and more worldly suburban mother Carol. Fresh out of the orphanage, aspiring to be a set designer, Therese works as a salesperson in a department store. An unlikely courtship ensues when she sends a Christmas card to the delivery address of Carol Aird after they met at the counter.

Carol was like a secret spreading through her, spreading through the house, too, like a light invisible to everyone but her.” (Ch.8, 95)

It seems that loneliness, suffocation in life, and unspoken desire all play a part to orchestrate thus relationship. Therese is haunted by a loneliness as a result of traumatized childhood. She’s haunted by the hopelessness of ever being the person she wanted to be and of the things she wanted yo do. Carol is in the throe of a different divorce and her custody right of the daughter is at stake. There’s an instant spark of attraction between them but neither knows how to react. They’re drawn to each other, trying for a friendship, but unable to resist deeper and more intimate relationship. They finally fall in love on the road trip to the west coast, but Carol’s husband tries to use the custody right to blackmail Carol in order to stop the relationship.

The book is written in Therese’s perspective. It’s well-structured, contemplative and sensitively written. There are more feelings, emotions, and yearning than actions. Carol is obviously the more mature and sensible of the two, as she is torn between her daughter and lover. The repercussions of their relationship calls Therese to grow as Therese is not used to think of other people’s feelings. She is called to mature into a confident young woman with a sympathetic grasp of who Carol is and what she is going through.

The book is a thoughtful character study, written in a language so relentless and unsentimental. An unbearable tension prevails throughout as the women flirt with not only desire but danger, danger on the sense that what they share is forbidden.

309 pp. Bloomsbury. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice

img_6605Off the beaten path in the quiet neighborhood of Venice is Libreria Acqua Alta, a bookstore that has resigned itself to constant flooding by keeping its books in bathtubs and boats. The first sight of the bookstore is far from curious, just a bookstore tucked away in an alley. But once I walked through the door, I can see stacks of books sitting on a gondola that runs the length of the store. The owner is accompanied by four house cats that sit peacefully near the counter.

Libreria Acqua Alta is composed of a number of over-stuffed rooms stacked wall-to-wall with books, magazines, maps and other ephemera. The books, mostly in Italian, are placed in basins, bathtubs and other waterproof containers. There’s a fire exit in the back which opens up to a waterway.

[840] The Girl Before – Rena Olsen

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“We are forbidden to talk about our lives before coming to live with Mama and Papa. I’ve been here so long I don’t remember my life before, but for the occasional flash of memory or feeling of deja vu.” (151)

The book is painful, profound and dark. Rena Olsen writes with a thoughtful sophistication and understanding of character and circumstances. Told through shifting episodes between present and past, the book recounts the arrest and investigation of Clara Lawson’s role in the shady human trafficking business run by her husband’ family. She is both a victim and perpetrator, therefore illuminating all the grey in a world one would prefer to be black and white.

At the beginning, without warning, her home is invaded, and raided by armed men who take her away from her husband and daughters. But as the investigation deepens and the story slowly unpeeled, it is revealed that Clara is living a life she thinks is absolutely normal. Her life, far from reality, is featured, and she is deprived of the memories of her childhood. She has lived in a world of deception, created and maintained by her “fostered parents,” who became her in-laws, for so long that she even believes they have rescued girls unwanted by their families and give them a better life. She grows up thinking dysfunctional relationship is the norm. The length of the book sees to her slow coming to terms with the reality.

The Girl Before is a psychological thriller dissecting the deep layers of one’s psyche. It’s a quiet suspense. Olsen spares the reader graphic details of the criminal theme. The alternating past and present frames really capture the heroine’s functioning and mentality; this style creates a mysterious tone. The fractured narrative illustrates her struggles to reconcile her two lives and understand how the innnocent, spunky girl she was before the abduction becomes a misguided woman indoctrinated to believe what she is doing is a blessing to others.

312 pp. Putnam. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[839] Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

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“I had no compassion for anyone unless his suffering allowed me to indulge in my own.” (Tuesday, 117)

The story of young Eileen is told from the gimlet-eyed perspective of the now much older narrator, who looks back to the days leading to Christmas 1964. The 24-year-old Eileen Dunlop was trapped at home taking care of her alcoholic father whose embarrassing indiscretions are the talk of the neighborhood. The house is filthy and squalid; his drinking, as she puts, places stain on her as a young person, making her tense and edgy.

But she is far from a likable person. At work in the juvenile correctional facility, she puts on a dead mask and takes care to show no emotion. In trying to pursue the dignity of which her life has deprived her, she becomes neurotically self-absorbed and insecure. She suffers from severe sexual and emotional repression, prone to obsessive behavior. She distracts her lust after the muscular prison guard by shoplifting. She entertains eerie thoughts and is wallowed in filth. She is motivated by one goal: to flee the squalor of home and move to New York City.

Didn’t she know I was a monster, a creep, a crone? How dare she mock me with courtesy when I deserved to be greeted with disgust and dismay? (Saturday, 57)

Self-loathing is the constant theme, and Eileen shows herself to be repulsive. The book is more a character study than thriller, although it has a short time span on the days leading to the surreal event. There’s a creepy Hitchcock touch to parts of the novel. A lot of it is played in Eileen’s mind—it’s ugly, disgusting, but also riveting. When that fateful event she keeps alluding to finally takes place, it’s like a thud. It’s unsettling but also feels unreal.

260 pp. Penguin. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Back from Hiatus

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Back from a work trip to Singapore, a family visit in Hong Kong, and a three-week trip in Italy.

[838] The Mystery of the Blue Train – Agatha Christie

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“A mirror shows the truth, but everyone stands in a different place for looking into the mirror.” (Ch.32, 291)

On the luxurious Blue Train Ruth Kettering, daughter of American billionaire Rufus Van Aldin, travels to Nice on her annual winter getaway with some precious rubies in her possession. Without her father’s knowing, she has planned a secret rendezvous with an old flame, of whom her father despises, in the French Riviera.

In another compartment sits Katherine Grey, who has come to wealth after she inherits a fortune from the old lady she has taken care the past ten years. Also on board is Dereek Kettering, who has no idea that his wife is on the train, and he is with his mistress, the actress Mirelle. The next morning, no sooner has Grey got off the train than she is called as a witness to Ruth Kettering’s murder. She has struck a brief conversation with Ruth Kettering who confided in her her troubles. What is more, Katherine Grey recognizes Dereek as the man she saw going into Ruth’s compartment on the night of her murder.

The story, though lesser known, is well-crafted, and the characterization nuanced. At stake is the precious jewelry that would benefit Dereek, but Hercule Poirot from instinct dismisses the obvious evidence that implicates the husband. There are things that do not add up: a lighter with the engraved ‘K’, the victim’s maid left the train in Paris and didn’t accompany her mistress, and the fact that Ruth’s face was disfigured. It’s the layering of issues and their underlying problems that are most impressive about the plot. Christie has deftly led reader astray from the original assessments, and there is more to the story than what appears.

Mystery aside this book is about women who are coming to terms of their own. Ruth Kettering is locked in an unhappy marriage; Katherine Grey is a woman who keeps her own counsel. They meet on the train just hours before Ruth was murdered. This is not a fast-paced mystery, but Christie has a way of bringing together characters, who at first seem so far apart from one another in distance and temperament.

317 pp. Black Dog & Leventhal. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[837] The Travelers – Chris Pavone

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“I was handicapped by my assumption that the serious business of espionage would be handled by equally serious reporters of world events.” (Ch.37, 523)

Will Rhodes is a travel writer whose job brings him to exotic destinations and in touch with influential people. Early in the story, he is off getting himself permanently compromised and ripe for blackmail in Argentina, where he is forced to become entangled with some international spy network. Some of the people in this book do have espionage connections, but Pavone doesn’t things that simple. The reader and Will Rhodes alike must sort out the real agents from the impostors. At the magazine, there is editor Malcolm Somers, whose furtive activities include something shady with Will’s wife Chloe, who after leaving the magazine, begins pursuing her own furtive career. A former editor has disappeared. A shady group monitors the moves of a number of people, including some of the staff at the magazine.

The idea of spy thriller set in the publishing world is clever but lagged in the execution. A travel writer’s life lends a good cover for spying, but as Will Rhodes becomes entangled in this global intrigue, the story actually falls flat because it is over-written, feels too long and meandering. The self-indulgent ruminations really slow the pace, so much that it takes 351 pages to convey what I have figured out at about page 100. The saving grace is the final third, when Pavone pulls together the many threads, connecting characters that seemed unrelated to the plot and stepping up the tempo.

606 pp. Crown Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[836] The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

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“Hallowness: that I understand. I’m starting to believe that there isn’t anything you can do to fix it. That’s what I’ve taken from the therapy sessions: the holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mold yourself through the gaps.”

The Girl on the Train is a fairly well-crafted thriller that revolves around the daily delusion of one woman, Rachel, who has been divorced and dismissed from fer job. She is the girl on the train who takes her mind off her beleaguered life by imagining the lives of others. Specifically, the lives of “Jess and Jason” who live at the house near the railway signal where her train stops every morning. To her they seem to live up to the exemplary marriage she had always dreamed of—until one morning on which Rachel sees something the completely shatters that image.

The book is full of secrets—everyone has them. The narrative makes up of those from three women, who are, between an alcoholic, a liar, and a cheat, all unreliable. They are also entangled in relationships that are gradually revealed. These little mysteries, personal secrets that exist outside of what we see on the surface propel the plot, which delves into the timeless question of how much can you really know a person. As Rachel is pulled into the lives of these people for whom she invents life details, she is restless to find out about their secrets. She probes and tries to recall exactly what happened on the fateful night the victim disappeared. She is prone to blackout and drunk dialling. The memory loss prompt means a blurry repetition of images redolent throughout the pages—blood, an underpass, a blue dress, and a man with red hair, all jumble in her mind.

I give credits to Hawkins for the bold move to create a flawed female lead. Her alcoholic lifestyle discredits her testimony. She wobbles in misery and the aftermath of a failed marriage, but she is quite magnetic in her occasional spite. She is more sympathetic than the missing Meagan, and Anna, the wife of her ex-husband. Hawkins juggles perspectives intentionally full of blind spots with great skill, building up a suspense along with empathy for an unusual central character that doesn’t immediately grab with the reader.

336 pp. Riverhead Books. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Solace in the Face of Disaster

An excerpt from “On the Pulse of Morning”, Maya Angelou

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.

[835] My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry – Fredrik Backman

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“They’re ferocious and bloodthirsty, and if you’re bitten by one you don’t just die; a far more serious and terrible fate lies in store: you lose your imagination . . . you wither away year by year until your body is just a shell.” (Ch.5, 46)

Elsa is an 8-year-old smartypant who gets bullied in school for her precociousness. Her only friend, and best friend, is her eclectic grandmother. Elsa’s precociousness along with her granny’s disregard for societal rules mark them as trouble to most people they encounter and make Elsa a pariah at school. To escape from reality, Elsa journeys to a fairy realm created by her granny, the Land-pf-Almost_Awake, with six kingdoms, each with its strength, purpose, and interlocking mythologies. When granny dies, she leaves Elsa a treasure hunt—she gets tapped to deliver a series of letters of various people in her building, and she is compelled to find out the secrets behind why there is a message of apology to all of them.

The fairy tales can often get the better of the main story. They can somewhat overwrought and tedious but Elsa’s adventures press on the pages. There is quite a system granny has invented for the relationships between her imaginary kingdoms. As Elsa learns about the troublesome day on which she was born, she is also enlightened to the philanthropic work her granny did as a surgeon and why her work had alienated her mother. It doesn’t surprise that the hunt reveals that each of the misfits in the building has a connection to her granny, and they are all hurt, damaged souls who have a story reflected in granny’s fairyland. It’s quite a complex tale and is intricately woven. Sometimes it gets really tedious, but it captures beautifully the honestly of children and obtuseness of adults.

(Note: I picked this up because of the universally acclaimed The Man Named Ove; but I am glad I have read this first and save Ove for later because the reviews are all in favor of Ove.)

372 pp. Simon & Schuster. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]