Books I Read This Month - January 2014

I had a bit of time to read this month, but I'm not expecting that in the next few months, as I wrap up my university studies. Here are the first books I read in 2014!

Memoirs of an Imaginary Best Friend by Matthew Dicks

I really, really wanted to like this book. I had high expectations because of the fascinating premise—the story of the kidnapping of an autistic child told from the perspective of his imaginary friend—so perhaps that is why I didn't enjoy it as much I thought I would. The premise is brilliant, but the characters were not nearly fleshed out enough for my liking, even the imaginary narrator. The autistic boy hated a few things passionately, and he loved other things just as passionately, but he did not have much personality aside from his quirks. The imaginary friend and narrator was a bit one-sided for being a narrator, even if he was simply the product of a child's imagination. The writing is great, and the plot is amazing, and I will admit to getting teary-eyed at a few points, but I expected more depth from the characters. People who love suspense and stories with children as the main characters will enjoy this, though.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

I've read one other work of Virginia Woolf's before, and I had the same opinion of it: a bit jumbly, lofty, and hard to understand. This is another book I really wanted to like, though I didn't feel cheated as I did with the previous novel, just a bit disappointed in myself rather than with the book, since I had a hard time following the plot. This book is told from the perspectives of six different people, told through their thoughts over the course of a couple years after they graduate high school. It is definitely eye-opening as to the experiments writers can succeed in when writing perspective, but it's hard to get something from it if you don't read slowly and closely. I tried, and I think I succeeded to an extent. Definitely recommended for writers.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I read Karen Russell's short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, recently and simply died of envy of her writing abilities. This novel, runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize last year, did not disappoint in the least, except for the ending was vague and did not wrap up the story very well. I feel like I need to say that as a warning to people who read it. You should definitely, definitely read it, especially if you are a writer, but just be warned that the ending drops off. Sorry if this is a spoiler, but I don't want you to have your expectations up and then be disappointed; I want you to love this novel too! It takes place in an alligator theme park in Florida, where a family lives on a remote island. When the mother and alligator wrestler dies of cancer, thirteen-year-old Ava (the narrator) hopes to follow in her mother's footsteps and save the park from financial ruin. Some pretty weird stuff goes on, such as Ava's older sister falling in love with a ghost and Ava being kidnapped, sort of, by a man who works with the birds on the island, and Karen Russell does a brilliant job of making the reader believe that these things are true and good, as the young characters believe. A child's perspective on life is significant to the story, and it is a coming-of-age story in this sense, as the bleakness of reality is slowly revealed to the reader over the course of the novel, as Ava slowly realizes it as well. The ending was a sad lead-in to adulthood for the siblings, but the journey there is mystical and well-wrought. Russell's writing is flowery, but only in the good ways.

St. Lucy's Home for Girl's Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

I simply had to read Karen Russell's other short story collection, and I loved it as much as the other one. She has a way of making the really out-there, fantasy-like plot lines and events seem normal, and by making the normal things seem strange. The stories are so original, and I have no idea how she could possibly come up with this stuff. Anyway, highly recommended.

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

This is another very lofty, high-attention-required novel, which I read mostly because the author is a professor at one of the MFA programs I have applied to for the fall, but I heard about the book before I heard about the program and thought it sounded interesting, just didn't get around to reading it until now. The narrator, a newly wed who moves with his wife to a secluded area in the woods where they build a small house near a lake, is extremely introspective. His wife suffers several miscarriages, which come to define the trajectory of their marriage. Some strange, dreamlike events which do not seem real in the least make this read more like an allegorical tale rather than an actual story, but, if this was the author intent, then he succeeded. The book is loaded with dualities: male/female, urban/rural, human/animal, land/water, young/old, parent/non-parent, forest/clearing ... I could go on. The writing style is quite experimental, not recommended for the light-of-heart, but worth a read if you are interested in different methods of storytelling and especially in symbolism and allegory.

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

Ah, Ian McEwan, one of my favorite writers of whom I have not (until now) read any of the earlier works. This, his first novel, has a good dose of weird and creepy, as four siblings deal with the death of both their parents without telling anyone they've died, so as to stay together and avoid the foster system. It's a bit gross, but engrossing, a bit awful, but awfully intriguing. Another one not recommended for the weak stomached, but it's a quick read for those who enjoy psychological books and the exploits of misbehaving children.

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

An unmarried couple goes on vacation to an Italian city and meets another mysterious couple, who introduces them to their odd sexual appetites. I found the voice of this novel to be the most engaging, and it inspired me to write a short story with a similar, suspenseful and psychological voice—though definitely not with a similar theme or premise. McEwan is odd, often labeled "macabre," which I suppose I didn't really understand until reading these two books, having only read some of his later, more mature works until now. This novel just as unsettling as The Cement Garden, but it has not put me off of Ian McEwan at all. I look forward to reading some of his other novels in the future.