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[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]

[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]

[834] The King of Torts – John Grisham

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“Were these people so blinded by the money that they honestly believed themselves to be defenders of the poor and the sick?” (Ch.15, 164)

As the title implies, the book is about a down-and-out public defender turned mass tort who brings lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies for their defective drugs and rakes in millions of dollars. From a mysterious source he also benefits from inside trading of the stocks. Soon Clay Carter takes on other cases and is noticed across the country as he amasses case after case against these companies, until he jumps on one bandwagon too many, compelled by greed, and starts making mistakes.

The book is off to a more gripping start as Carter learns about the conspiracy behind a drug with fatal side effect. Then it trickles to a tedious pace with long repetitions. It goes on about the indecent practices of mass torts, their shameless advertising and solicitation, ripping off their clients of their rightful settlements by charging huge fees. It’s a predictable book with little thrill element. Clay’s character is flat—it’s not like a good person was being corrupted by money, rather it feels like the author doesn’t know who the character is. The errors in judgment concerning the waste of money and lack of caution are more than unbelievable. I only recommend it if you need a no-brainer book that carries you over a long airport layover.

470 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]