Literary Escapades. Monthly Reviews, 8/2020

Welcome back to the Monthly Reviews series, where I chronologically list last month’s reads, along with a short reflexion and opinion regarding each book.

All of the links lead to in-depth blog posts from this site.

Here’s what I read in August:

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian (1985)

While I enjoyed McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men for all its rough and bloody violence, narrow perspectives, ongoing high suspense and the possibility of brutal death lurking around the vorner, Blood Meridian did not push my buttons the way No Country managed to.

I’ll give any book by McCarthy a chance any day and I did try to get through Blood Meridian. The way he describes the emptiness of the desert, the highly dangerous life of the outlaw, the daily violence of a soldier’s life and the hard truths of war and killing – all of it has the same sombre Hemingway-like tone and feel to it. No doubt that this is a manly masterpiece of manhood.

Unfortunately, I found the plot to be too vague, the focus on single scenes to be too distracting and the way the story is composed and framed to be quite irritating.

This was not the book for me.

Hubert Selby Jr: The Demon (1976) and Requiem for a Dream (1978)

Selby is a fascinating person and an exceptional writer. Having dealth with drug addiction, poor health, poverty and any and every kind of human being, he has a unique way of describing the finest details of the lives that belong to drunks, prostitutes, thieves, workmen and common people.

Selby extracts the not-so-common, the darker aspects of their minds, and puts those rather unnerving thoughts and inner demons into very simple words. His way of showing someone going mad, someone’s situation worsening to the very brink of their human existence is a – horrifying, but – magical experience.

While Requiem is the more known of the two, The Demon is a true highlight: the novel describes a regular man’s growing appetite for self-destruction, parallelled with his guilt and remorse, and their daily and hourly struggle for the upper hand and control. The way Harry White loses control over his family, his home and his life is one of the most painful and accurately written stories I have read in my entire life.

For those of you who are not afraid to look into such corners of the human mind, The Demon is certainly worth a read.

Marlene Steeruwitz: Partygirl (2002)

Although the title would have you thinking that this is a fun novel about a life full of celebration, Partygirl is anything but. It is a retrospective collection of fragments, written by a woman who has suffered a great loss early in her life and carries that trauma until the very end, where another great loss takes place.

Modelled by a tragic short story by Edgar Allen Poe, Steeruwitz adds further perversion into the details of Madeline and Roderick Ascher, who start off as loving siblings in a stabile family. In their childhoods, many things go wrong, and suddenly Madeline finds herself more and more alone.

This novel deals with loss, inner emptiness, the passive nature of female social roles, structures of power in high society, mental health issuses – and anything and everything related to the aforementioned.

Partygirl tricks you into thinking it’s a sort of feminist book, but all it really does is to point out how very depressing Madeline’s existence has been and how that development had been determined from a very early point in her life.

Stylistically and psychologically speaking: Steeruwitz has executed her novel perfectly. The story is highly depressing and utterly devastating, but if you have the guts for it, Partygirl is for sure a recommendation to read.

Jackie Thomae: Momente der Klarheit (2017)

Jackie Thomae writes about one of the most revelatory experiences in a person’s life: the moment where one makes the final decision to break up with their significant other.

Thomae elaborates the break-up scheme to siblings, friends, family members and, of course, lovers (of all shapes and sizes but mostly from the music and movie industry) and divides her loosely connected protagonists‘ perspectives into separate chapters.

Each chapter is devoted to the events leading up to and following the execution of the respective decisions, and also describes the respective parties‘ well-being and further developments after the break-up.

Thomae’s effort to bring up a topic so uncomfortable and to make it very relatable is already commendable in itself. On top of that, she has added a humane element to both sides of the argument (there is empathy reserved for every human character in this book!), and even manages to sprinkle a little laughter on top of her otherwise emotionally delicate scenes.

This novel is a strong recommendation for anyone with a sense of humor.

Lauren Wilkinson: American Spy (2019)

Lauren Wilkinson’s first novel has been celebrated since its publication and received the high praise of making Barack Obama’s summer reading list. As a thriller, the book is interesting, suspenseful and – from time to time – slightly controversial.

Obama himself called Wilkinson’s novel „so much more than a thriller“ and this is the main criticism American Spy has been getting from critics and readers alike. Branding this book as a thriller seems to be a major oversight, since I also find it to be far too intelligent to belong to that genre.

Wilkinson has crafted a layered protagonist who has seen some level of success in every sense of a full life: Marie is a mother, a daughter, an undercover agent, a beautiful woman and an intelligent person. So it is only to be expected that her life story comes with reflections on feminism, racism, misogyny, the harsh reality of women who want to succeed in corporate structures such as the CIA and the FBI, and an entire family history with a plethora of interesting characters and back stories.

Next to that, the love story seems somewhat shallow and rushed, although is it supposedly the premise of the entire book – or rather Marie needing to write down her life story and leave it as an inheritance to her sons.

The second half of the novel seems quite rushed, and the fact that there is a cliffhanger does not please me either.

Nevertheless: For a debut, such matters can be forgiven. Wilkinson’s novel is witty, funny, insightful and interesting. And so much more than a thriller.

What were your reading highlights this month? Let me know in the comment section below.

(Photo source)


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