mini book reviews #6

march 23

HUNGER MAKES ME A MODERN GIRL – Carrie Brownstein

This was an insightful read; Carrie Brownstein’s Sleater-Kinney years are laid out honestly without being sensationalist. In my opinion, the best passages are those that reflect on the public and personal realities of creating art, interacting with and within the punk and indie music scenes, and generally navigating life in “the real world” from a place that’s often romanticized (ie, the idea that famous musicians’ lives are glamorous, which is not necessarily true). I thought there were a lot of interesting points explored specifically about exclusivity within radical communities like the Olympia scene that Sleater-Kinney came out of, and questioning how restrictive groups that are based off of nonconformance from the mainstream can be, and that thinking about those environments is very relevant to consider about the social justice-type discussions occurring today — at what point do things become too insular, rejecting the mainstream to the point of pretension or inability to affect any real change? (Not that the book will really answer those questions, but I felt like it gave me a lot to mull over in my head. It’s a book I will likely reread.)

Also, I started listening to Sleater-Kinney as a young teenager (probably like age 14?) and I completely lacked the music history knowledge to understand the context of their music, so I really enjoyed that perspective on the band itself, as well as hearing new-to-me backstory on some of their songs.

THE WIND UP BIRD CHRONICLE – Haruki Murakami

Toru, the classically Murakami passive male protagonist, is down on his luck, and drifts into a number of bizarre psychic scenarios, initially in an attempt to revive his marriage, but also to try and make sense of it all. It’s difficult to summarize the premise without giving away the major plot points, but I personally think the spirit of the novel can be almost entirely captured by a long section in which Toru is (not completely involuntarily) trapped in the bottom of a well in near total darkness. It is very focused on the idea of individual fate and the relevance of seemingly insignificant life events to fate, as well as that some people have evil or pain inside them so profound that it is as if they aren’t human, or even that we all have the potential to lose humanity as a result of incredible pain.

This is probably my least favorite Murakami novel that I’ve read so far (after Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and 1Q84). The narrative itself is interesting; there’s a lot of spooky weird surreal stuff that happens, in classic Murakami fashion, and so I enjoyed reading it overall. I guess what bothered me about it was the use of violence and sexual abuse as more symbolic/metaphorical elements than anything else. It’s an intensely violent book, which is not necessarily always bad, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. I never enjoy media that sensationalizes on pain, but I don’t necessarily think it should never be depicted; the world is painful blah blah blah, but the style and context of that narrative make a huge difference.

Murakami writes a lot of female characters as really defined by sexuality and sexual suffering more than anything else about them, and definitely in a way that he does not write male characters. I feel like the adaptation of female sexuality and the reality of experiencing sexual abuse into symbolic or surrealist elements (ie, this woman’s “defilement” is a metaphor for her life) is heavyhanded; in trying to be insightful for literary purposes, he never really captures the actual depth of that experience. While the arc of a woman grappling with rape/the aftermath can certainly be compelling, I have grown to feel like Murakami’s handling of this type of narrative is unnecessarily poetic and simplified, to the point where I actually cringed.

THE CASUAL VACANCY – JK ROWLING

While I wasn’t wildly impressed by this book initially, it did grow on me throughout the course of reading. The novel focuses on the lives of people in a small town called Pagford, following the death of a local politician. This sets off a string of events related to ongoing political conflict in the town that is primarily related to class issues that are present in some form or another in almost every community. It starts and ends with intensity, but at times I felt that the middle was mired down by the pettiness and self involvement of the characters; it’s a dark story, but primarily in the sense that it depicts some of the worst qualities of normal people. It manages to do so in a way that isn’t insufferably boring for the reader, which is what allows the book to be an enjoyable read.

Any discussion of JK Rowling’s books is kind of set up against this backdrop of existing in comparison to the Harry Potter series, which I think is a disservice. I had heard people saying they didn’t like it, which honestly is part of the reason why I didn’t bother with it until now, but I thought it was good overall, especially once you get into it.

MOTION SICKNESS – URSULA PFLUG (ILLUSTRATIONS BY SK DYMENT)

The back cover offers a pretty succinct summary – “Motion Sickness, a flash novel consisting of 55 chapters of exactly 500 words, each accompanied by a scratchboard illustration, follows one woman’s humorous and poignant misadventures in the worlds of employment, friendship, dating, birth control, and abortion.”

I feel like I come across books fairly often that I think are good as creative works, but also that I don’t particularly like, and this definitely fit into that category for me. The writing style is unique and defined in a way that fits the content, and there’s enough action to help move through the story despite the narrative meandering around Penelope’s inner life, so from that perspective I do think it does a good job of exploring topics like abortion and relationship violence. However, I also felt like it was a little dramatic and self involved, which was mostly what put me off about it.

(I got this book as a birthday present from Amanda — she reviewed it on her blog also, if you’re interested in a different perspective.)

xoxo,
rori