Rachel Klein: The Moth Diaries (2002)

The Moth Diaries

Did you like being an adolescent? Looking back I can’t say it was much fun. I would even say it was pretty awful. A whole lot of insecurities, suffering and drama. When I studied cultural anthropology some years later we read Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, which was her first publication. At the time when she wrote it, cultural anthropology was seen as a means to better understand Western culture and society. When she went to Samoa Mead’s wish was to investigate adolescence in another culture and to see how much of what girls in the US went through was rooted in the culture. Pretty much everything that is experienced as awful when growing up in the US or Europe was missing in Samoa. While her research was later criticized for being to idealizing, it still contains a lot of valuable information. Maybe Samoa wasn’t the idyllic paradise she saw in it but the young Samoan girls decidedly didn’t suffer like many girls did and still do in Western societies.

The Moth Diaries depicts adolescence in its most dysfunctional forms. Obsessions, anorexia, self-inflicted wounds, suicide. It is an intense and intriguing book, a painful story told by an unreliable narrator, in form of diary entries. The microcosm of a boarding school, set in an old Gothic looking building adds further depth to the story.

Her psychiatrist later tells the narrator that she suffered from “borderline personality disorder complicated by depression and psychosis”.  The prologue tells us that she has left this behind. But is she really cured, is she really better? What prize did she pay for that? And was everything she experienced and witnesses just the output of a vivid imagination?

The narrator’s father has committed suicide. Her mother cannot deal with an adolescent and sends her to boarding school where the narrator forms a close relationship with another girl, Lucy. Returning after a longer holiday break, the narrator must realize that her best friend is more interested in the new girl Ernessa. Ernessa is pale and mysterious, she never eats or sleeps and the narrator is convinced that she is a vampire.

What is interesting in the way this is told is how the book manages to show that when you are alone during an important phase of your life, isolated even, and you are surrounded by suffering that you don’t understand, you may end up interpreting facts in a fantastical way. Or, to say it differently, you may have a psychotic episode.

While books like Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, tell a normal college story spiced up with vampires, The Moth Diaries does exactly the opposite. What really goes on in this boarding school, the obsessive dieting that turns into self-inflicted starvation, the claustrophobic friendships that turn into erotic relationships, the mobbing, all this is much more painful than the vampires populating contemporary high school dramas could ever be. Whether or not Ernessa is a vampire, is ultimately not that important.

What made me feel particularly uncomfortable is how the grown-ups deal with the girls in this book. With the exception of one or two teachers, they are all dysfunctional and abusive.

The Moth Diaries is an eerie and uncanny depiction of adolescence with a very Gothic feel. It is full of  inconvenient emotions, told by a narrator who is confused but at the same time extremely wise and insightful. One could call The Moth Diaries a contemporary and female version of The Catcher in the Rye. I found it painfully poignant.

The Moth Diaries has been made into a movie. Has anyone seen it?

Melanie Gideon: Wife 22 (2012)

9780007425501

Maybe it was because I was about to turn the same age my mother was when I lost her. Maybe it was because my husband and I were running out of things to say to each other. But when the online study called “Marriage in the 21st Century” showed up in my inbox, I had no idea it would change my life. It wasn’t long before I was assigned both a pseudonym (Wife 22) and a caseworker (Researcher 101). And, just like that, I found myself answering questions. Before the study, I was Alice Buckle: wife and mother, drama teacher and Facebook chatter, downloader of memories and Googler of solutions. But these days, I’m also Wife 22. And somehow, my correspondence with Researcher 101 has taken an unexpectedly personal turn. Soon, I’ll have to make a decision—one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life. But at the moment, I’m too busy answering questions. As it turns out, confession can be a very powerful aphrodisiac.

Sometimes you read a book but are not in the mood to write a proper review. Either because it didn’t live up to your expectations or because you waited too long and can’t do it anymore as it’s getting blurred. Still you’d like to write about it as it might be just the thing for someone else. Wife 22 is one of those books.

I’m not going to summarize the novel, the blurb will tell you enough of the story.

My final thoughts

I bought Wife 22 on a whim after having read the first few pages on amazon and thought it was really funny. I’ve never read a novel in which the way many people live these days was portrayed like this. The main characters constantly check their Facebook accounts, use google to look up everything, which is on their mind, their ailments, their hobbies. We learn a lot about the main character from seeing her google “hooded eyes”, “marital crisis”, and similar topics and in reading the answers to the questionnaire. Quite an original approach.

I quite enjoyed the first 150 pages. It reads like a mix between Love Virtually and the diary of an older Bridget Jones. The main character is endearing but the end underwhelmed me big time. If you are just looking for an entertaining, witty and very topical look at married life, this may just be your thing and possibly you’ll like the ending. (Let’s put it like that – I was waiting for something a bit wilder.) Personally I think it’s one of those books you can read but don’t have too, still, the right reader will love it.

A tip –  should you want to read it – the questions of the fictional questionnaire are at the back of the book. Many readers didn’t notice that. It’s fun to just read the answers and wonder what the question was but occasionally it reads like a riddle.

Melanie Gideon is the author of the memoir The Slippery Year: How One Woman Found Happiness in Everyday Life in which she writes about many of the topics raised in Wife 22 focussing on her own life.

Have you read Wife 22 or Melanie Gideon’s memoir?

Amanda Eyre Ward: How to be Lost (2005)

How to be Lost

How do you cope when someone gets lost?  How much time must go by until you allow yourself to move on? Does your life come to a standstill after the loss? How many possibilities are there in one life? These are some of the questions Amanda Eyre Ward explores masterfully in her lovely first novel How to be Lost.

The Winters are a dysfunctional family, rich and apparently happy, but there are some dark secrets hidden beneath the surface. The parents are heavy drinkers and their three daughters are often scared by their fights and excesses. One day the youngest, Ellie, disappears and the family breaks apart.

The novel starts fifteen years later with the oldest daughter Caroline working as a cocktail waitress in New Orleans. She’s left suburban New York shortly after the disappearance of her baby sister. Like her parents, she is a heavy drinker. She is not unhappy, her life isn’t what it could have been, she’s all but forgotten about her talent as a pianist, but this provisional life of drifting and temporary jobs suits her.

When her mother sees a picture in a newspaper, showing a young woman who looks exactly like the lost sister, all their lives are set in motion. Caroline will go on a trip and look for the young woman. The outcome of her search will free them one way or the other. Maybe it is Ellie and they finally find out what has happened or if it isn’t, they will be able to declare her dead.

What I liked a lot about Eyre Ward’s novel was how it manged to tell a riveting story in a suspenseful way but still captured the interior lives of the characters and did unfold the back story in a captivating way. It’s a book that asks a lot of questions and answers many of them.

One of the most interesting ideas is the theory of the split lives which is presented towards the end. The idea is that every time you make a decision, your life splits and someone else, somewhere, lives the life that you could have had.

The exploration of how many different lives we could have lived if at one given time something particular hadn’t happened or if, at another time, we would have made a different decision, fascinates me. Looking back at my own life so far, I see such a lot of “split moments”, moments where I could have done something different and would now be living a completely different life. Capturing this premise masterfully, is one of the strength’s of this novel.

Often when I read about a dysfunctional family I feel it is done in a much too biased way. With her gentle tone and the transformative ending, Ward creates a much more nuanced portrayal. There can still be a lot of love and deep and even healthy feelings underneath the dysfunction. And there is hope and the possibility of a new life for many children coming from families which seemed rotten inside.

How to be Lost is one of those novels I liked a lot while I was reading it but, unlike many others, after putting it away, it still haunts me.

Chris Pavone: The Expats (2012)

I saw Chris Pavone’s The Expats at the local book shop and the blurb sounded interesting. It said the novel was about a young married American woman, Kate, mother of two, who followed her husband to Luxembourg and reinvented her life as an expat mom. They meet another expat couple, become friends and some weeks into the friendship Kate starts to doubt that Julia and Bill are really who they say they are. As a matter of fact none of the people in this novel are who they say they are.

I’m not a fan of spy novels and if I had realized that’s what this was supposed to be, I wouldn’t have bought it but the blurb was misleading. It sounded much more like the story of a woman who reinvents herself, gives her life new meaning, which is a topic I love. Despite the fact that it’s a genre I’m not fond of and a very long novel, I was still willing to give it a try and finished it rather quickly. Unfortunately this doesn’t mean I liked it.

I wrote above that this was supposed to be a spy novel but I’m not sure it really is. It’s the story of a woman who had a secret she didn’t even tell her husband and that secret was, that she used to work for the CIA. Later, when she finds out that all the people around her have secrets, she tries to uncover them but that’s not really spying, is it? It’s rather a crime novel without murder, a thriller without danger. Still it’s quite suspenseful as there are many twists and turns or rather manipulative cutting and withholding of information. If you don’t mind that, you will find it gripping. Unfortunately I hate it when the twists and turns in a novel are not achieved in a natural way but simply through the cutting up of the story. Every time some question arose, some mystery was hinted at and about to be resolved, the author jumped back or forth in time. Annoying.

Another thing that I found hard to take is that Kate’s husband is called Dexter. How can you write a genre novel and call your main protagonist Dexter? Maybe Dexter isn’t as iconic as Ripley but he is not far from it.

Some other thing that bugged me – big time – were the cobblestones. Pavone spent some time as an expat in Luxembourg and clearly he wanted to share his insider information of Europe. Or rather what an American expat would call his insider information. I suppose one of the things that must have really made an impression on Pavone were the cobblestones. Sure, there are cobblestone roads in European cities but not everywhere. And why all his protagonists had to stand, walk, drive on cobblestones and not on roads, streets, alleys… I have no clue. I live in a very old European city, one with a big medieval old-town center and I can guarantee you, there aren’t all that many cobblestone roads and certainly not in the newer parts of the town or the roads on which cars drive.

I also really didn’t care for the country clichés. So Switzerland is just a rich ski resort? Everybody eats ham sandwiches in Luxembourg all the time? Paris… yeah well, Paris has sordid clubs and food, food, food. Amsterdam has prostitutes in windows (who knew?).

Still, as I said, I finished this quickly, as the first secret which concerns the identity of Julia and Bill is interesting. After that the novel was quite predictable. Maybe a forgiving reader might like it but I thought the construction was annoying and the whole novel was full of trite clichés and one-dimensional characters. Last but not least who wants to read a book in which people with an annual salary of 300.000$ have a hard time to make ends meet?

Richard Bausch: Peace (2008) Literature and War Readalong September 2012

Richard Bausch’s Peace (2008) is set in Italy during WWII. An American  recon squad comes upon a group of people and a cart. A German officer and a German prostitute are hiding on the wagon. When they turn it around, the German officer opens fire and kills two of the young American soldiers. Corporal Marson shoots him, while Sergeant Glick shoots the woman in the head.

It’s the end of WWII and German troops are retreating but not without trying to take down anyone they can with them. The mountains are hostile territory, it’s cold and it rains constantly. The little troop of men is demoralized. The life of a recon squad is usually very dangerous, they have to find out where the German line is and might accidentally already be behind the lines. After the shooting of the officer and the whore, three of the men are sent on recon again. Sgt Marson, Ash and Joyner. On their way they meet Angelo, a frail and very old Italian man and force him to guide them.

Marson, Ash and Joyner are as different as three people can be. Marson is the oldest, he’s 26, married and has a child. Joyner and Ash are 20. Ash seems to be deeply traumatized by something he experienced in Africa and which wakes him every night. He seems to be a good sort but starts to annoy Marson because he wants to denounce Glick. The murder of the prostitute has shocked him and he thinks Glick should be brought to justice. While Marson agrees with him, he feels it’s not the right time and he has problems of his own. They are on a very dangerous recon mission, it’s very cold and raining. They don’t know where they are and have to rely on a man he doesn’t completely trust. Many of the Italians have surrendered, many never really participated but there are still a lot of fascists who would gladly kill them. Plus he fights a battle with his conscience. Before shooting the German officer he had never killed anyone up close and the memory of it makes him sick. Tensions between the four people would be high anyway but Joyner is an aggressive bigot, anti-Jews, anti-Communists, anti-drinking. But swearing and abusing people constantly which is a huge contradiction.

Matters get even worse when it starts snowing and they hear shots. They find a dead German and later hear more shots coming from a village where, as the old man explains, Jews are being executed.

The three men are really tested and have to go to their limits. They fight the cold, are in enemy territory, traumatized by what they have seen so far and by their conscience.

I must honestly say I was not too impressed with this book. It’s told in chapters alternating between the past of the three men, what they had experienced in Palermo and their actual recon mission. The central conflict or theme, drawing the line between justified killing and murder, is shown but it didn’t move me. The book exemplifies how much it meant for soldiers to kill, it underlines that in WWII shooting someone from up close was in no way common and could cause a huge problem, triggering moral conflicts. Unfortunetly I never felt that conflict.

It’s hard to say why this book did so not work from me. I felt Bausch wanted to tell a story that wasn’t his and I suspect he watched a few movies in order to get a feel for what it was like but ultimately I felt he couldn’t make this story his and tell it in a moving way. In this it reminded me of Coventry but looking back I’d say, I liked that much more.

I’m aware this is a bit of an uninspired review but I’m really unfazed by this book.

I hope others did read along. I’m very interested to hear their thoughts.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Victoria (creativeshadows)

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Peace was the ninth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Maria Angels Anglada The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz. Discussion starts on Monday 29 October, 2012.

Literature and War Readalong September 2012: Peace by Richard Bausch

This year’s readalong is a chance for me to read some of the great novelists and authors I hadn’t had an opportunity to read before. Since I’ve first read something about Richard Bausch he was on my list of authors I must read. He is quite famous as a short story writer, his work has appeared in numerous collections and magazines. Peace (2008) is set in Italy during WWII. This isn’t a tale of the home front but from the point of view of American soldiers. It is towards the end of the war, in 1944. Critics called it one of the best books they’ve ever read. A.L. Kennedy called it, lean, compact, layered, darkly humorous, unflinching and lyrical.

Here are the first sentences

They went on anyway, putting one foot in front of the other, holding their carbines barrel down to keep the water out, trying, in their misery and confusion – and their exhaustion – to remain watchful. This was the fourth straight day of rain – a windless, freezing downpour without any slight variation of itself.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 28 September 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Jetta Carleton: Clair de Lune (2012)

Clair de Lune is Jetta Carleton’s long-lost second novel which has just been rediscovered and published for the first time this year. I read Moonflower Vine, her highly acclaimed first book, after I had seen it mentioned on Jane Smiley’s list of 100 best novels. Moonflower Vine was one of my favourite reads that year and Clair de Lune will most certainly be on my Best of 2012. I’m really glad I discovered a review on Natalie’s blog Coffee and a Book Chick.

Written in the 60s but set in the 40s in a small town in Missouri, Clair de Lune tells the story of a young woman who is trying to find her way, of a unique friendship between three people and of America just before entering the war.

Allen Liles dreams of being a writer and going to New York. Her love of literature is immense but she also craves the life of a writer, sitting in cafés, discussing.  For the time being she has to be content with a job as a teacher in a college in Missouri. Her love of books and her unconventional mind let her go ways that haven’t been explored before and thanks to the understanding college head she is allowed to offer an extracurricular discussion group. Her plan is to introduce the students to modern writers who are not on the syllabus yet. The students who sign up are as enthusiastic as she is and it doesn’t take long until they start to meet after the classes as well. With her barely 24 years, Allen isn’t much older than her students and none of them gives a thought to the fact that she isn’t allowed to meet them outside of the classroom. Her innocence and the happiness to find people who think like her prevents that it even crosses her mind that there could be a problem. After a few weeks only George and Toby are left and the three young people go out together on a regular basis or spend the evenings at Allen’s flat where they eat something, listen to music and discuss books and Allen’s’ own writing. They introduce each other to new books and pieces of music, one of their favourites being Debussy’s Clair de Lune. When they are fed up with sitting at home, they go to the cinema together or just walk the streets and enjoy the spring evenings.

As the weeks go by, a shift takes place and slowly Allen is drawn to Toby. They meet without George and  their friendship turns into a love affair. In her naiveté Allen doesn’t realize that she is in danger and when rumors start to spread, they have to stop seeing each other. When she finally realizes that she has made a mistake, she lives intense weeks of anxiety and fear.

Before the rumours started to spread the war had already cast a shadow over their friendship. Allen’s reaction is equally naive when it comes to her view of the war in Europe. She is certain that America will never be drawn into it, that the war is something that is dark and destructive but that they are secure and sheltered. George shares her views more or less but Toby loses patience with her and thinks she is very wrong.

The book centers on a few main themes, literature and friendship are but two of them. Convention versus freedom are other themes which are explored. In choosing an independent life, Allen is ahead of her time and although she is in many ways a naive young woman, she possesses a very original mind and is free of prejudice. Another main topic is change. Clair de Lune pictures a vanishing world. The US before entering the war  are very different from the one after. The times are changing and with them the needs of the society which is mirrored in the way the college changes. While this is a college which offers a broad education with emphasis on the arts, the younger faculty members want to get rid of the head and turn the faculty into one in which courses in economy and other specializations which lead to a career are offered.

I absolutely loved this book. I tried to slow down while reading but it was pointless, I just rushed through the pages and when I turned the last one I was quite sad. It contains such a lot of intense scenes and the most uplifting ending since I’ve read Nada last year. Since the largest part of the book is set in spring, there are a lot of wonderful outdoor scenes in which the three friends walk in the streets, stand in the rain or just stroll through the fog. There is a breathlessness and joy of life in these pages that is exhilarating. It renders the enthusiasm of young people for whom everything is a discovery, be it literature, art, music, love or friendship. At the same time there is the anxiety about war and the knowledge that the freedom and carefreeness they experience is going to end.

Have you read Jetta Carelton?