book club picks · contemporary fantasy · review

Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King

34466922Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King, is a perfect example of an idea being more important to the authors than characters or story. The idea in this book is: what if all the women in the world were gone? It gets a Stephen King twist, of course. Here, the women have succumb to a mysterious condition that puts their bodies to sleep, cocooned in a web-like substance, and sends them to another world. Where this book goes wrong is that I think it required a lot of editing to get rid of extraneous subplots and characters and a lot more work to create characters that are better than stock villains and heroes. At times, I thought Sleeping Beauties was written like two men creating something that women might like to see because most of the men are just bad dudes and most of the women are victims or ass-kickers. Over and over, this book declares that women are better than men, using tired stereotypes that are as irritating as straight-up misogyny.

As women across the world fall asleep, Sleeping Beauties introduces a bunch of characters in Dooling, a small Appalachian town. Clint Norcross is a prison psychiatrist at a women’s correctional facility just outside of that town. He is one of the few good guys in the book, basically a white knight. His wife, Lila, is the town’s sheriff. With the exception of her jealousy and self-reproach, she’s also fairly uncomplicated. Their chief antagonist later in the book is Frank Geary, the town dogcatcher who drives the town to out and out war in the name of waking up his daughter. Surrounding the Norcrosses and Geary are a bunch of wronged women and the men who wronged them.

The most interesting character to me was, unfortunately, the most unexamined. Evie appears the day that women start to fall asleep. She steps out of the Dooling woods and kills a (male) drug dealer and one of his (also male) customers. After messily dispatching these men, Lila takes Evie to the prison for evaluation by Clint. There is no question there’s something not right about Evie. She knows a lot more than she should about the women’s condition and everyone’s secrets. She mysteriously claims to be the key to solving the mystery of the sleeping “sickness” and manifests some strange powers to back up that claim. The problem is that we never learn what she is, who she’s working for, or what anyone hopes to achieve by putting all the women to sleep. This was my greatest disappointment in the book.

Evie’s manipulations, coupled with the sleeping “sickness,” set up a massive war (complete with teargas and explosions) between those who want to let Evie do her thing (Clint) and those who want to use her to cure the women at any cost (Frank). Underneath this conflict is one between Men and Women. The sleeping whatever it is asks the characters (and readers) if women would be better off without men—but this question is woefully underdeveloped in the name of making that war more exciting plus poorly represented by characters that make it blindingly obvious how we should chose. The question is complex and should’ve been treated that way.

I recently read The Power, by Naomi Alderman, which also asked questions about gender balance and gender-based violence. Both books suffer from preachiness. I have yet to see a book that does justice to the inequality between men and women. The Power gave us a world in which women, once they had the ability to physically overpower men, became bullies. In Sleeping Beauties, the women shown to be superior to men in almost every way in a way that smacked of old sexist arguments about women being the “fairer sex” who gentle men when they can. I really wish that this book had created characters that were more than straw people.

I honestly can’t think of anything I liked about Sleeping Beauties. The fact that it was so long, at just over 700 pages, just made it worse. There is so much foreshadowing in the book about what is supposed to happen that it’s frankly annoying to have to wait for the payoff. So much of this book could have been edited out that I think it would’ve worked better as a novella or even a short story.

book club picks · horror · review

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

89717I’m not sure if The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, is a horror story that has lots of explanations for what happens—or if it’s meant to remain inexplicable. Either way, I found the story utterly gripping. Not only did I want to know what was happening, but I was intrigued by the way the the house comes to malevolent life in this novel and drives at least one of its visitors mad.

The opening paragraph sets a tone of dread and inevitable violence. It’s so forthright that it reads like a warning, one that the protagonists should’ve had before they decided to follow paranormal investigator Dr. Montague’s invitation to stay at Hill House. The good(ish) doctor wants people who’ve had possibly supernatural experiences to stay in the house to see if he can document real paranormal activity. His invitations don’t get many takers, but he does convince two women who already wanted to leave their current homes to try something different. Theodora and Eleanor agree to spend time at the house, along with Montague and Luke, a relative of the current owner.

It’s not long before things go bump in the night, literally. Over the course of the book, details about the house’s and the character’s history. There are tantalizing clues about what might be going on—repeated phrases and events, possible psychological interpretations, etc.—but none of my hypotheses really fit what happens in the few days that Eleanor et al. spent at the house. There are pieces that refused be forced into a complete picture. I’m rather glad that this book is a book club pick because it means I can hash out some of my ideas with fellow readers.

In spite of all the psychological terror, I found The Haunting of Hill House to be unexpectedly funny. The characters banter during the day, partly to cope with what happens at night, but also because these four weirdos click and enjoy riffing on each other’s statements. Without these moments of levity, I think I might have found this novel unbearable dreadful, in the full sense of inducing dread. Dr. Montague’s methodically nutty wife even had me laughing out loud.

The Haunting of Hill House is a strange, disturbing tale. Because the perspective moves in and out of Eleanor’s head, it’s hard to keep track of what might be real and what isn’t. It’s genius in the way it keeps readers off-balance for its full length; it kept me constantly guessing and reassessing what I thought I knew. Even if there isn’t an explanation for what happened to Eleanor and the gang at Hill House, I’m not disappointed in this book. Solutions aren’t everything. The reading experience is and I had a great time reading The Haunting of Hill House.

book club picks · graphic novels · nonfiction · review

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

It’s rare the people talk about the stage of life in which they exchange roles with their parents. This is surprising given how common it is for people to live into their eighties, nineties, or even hit the 100 year mark. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast shares the experiences she had in her parents’ last years in her inimitable style. Chast’s story is comic and sad and frightening and very, very human.

Even when they were younger, Chast’s parents were no picnic. Her father, George, was extremely anxious, becoming more so as he began to suffer from senile dementia. Caring for him meant calming him down, helping him through his confusion, and coping with his constant talking about everything that popped into his head. Her mother, Elizabeth, was an angry woman who would deliver “a blast from Chast” whenever someone had infuriated her. Elizabeth and George were completely co-dependent, Chast remarks at one point before growing angry at the pair of them for thinking it was a compliment.

Chast moved out of the family apartment in the 1970s, never planning to go back. She didn’t go back until September 2001, a few days before the Towers were hit. The state of the apartment made it clear that her parents were in decline. Until the very last years of their lives, George and Elizabeth were stubbornly independent. They only grudgingly conceded to Chast and only gave in step by step to Meals on Wheels, then an assisted living facility known as The Place, then to the nursing home.

Throughout those last years, Chast struggles with her sense of duty and the financial burdens and the fact that her parents drive her “bats.” The three of them had never had the best relationship, so what does a daughter who wants to do the right thing do? How much does she owe them? And what happens when those parents really want to be left alone instead of being cared for by nurses and doctors and other hired caretakers because they’re no longer well enough to be independent? Any answers to those questions would be platitudes or outright lies. Chast wisely does not even try to answer them for us. Seeing her struggles, however, raises important questions that everyone with aging parents needs to think about. (More ominously, it raises questions for people with children to consider.)

I’m glad Chast wrote and illustrated this book. Its immediacy and emotional honesty filled me with empathy for her. It’s rare to read something so honest; Chast does not hide her own anger and anxiety and turmoil no matter how she might be judged by readers.

I am really looking forward to discussing this book with the group.

book club picks · literary fiction · review · short stories

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters

I probably should have warned my book group about Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, a short story collection by Bonnie Jo Campbell, when we picked it last month. It’s been very well reviewed and the content of the book rings a lot of our bells: women’s issues, family relationships, profound psychology, etc. But when we picked it, I remembered hearing Rebecca Schinsky of Book Riot describing it in her mostly positive review as “every bad thing that can happen to women” (as best I can recall).

“Playhouse.” Our protagonist isn’t sure what happened to her at last night’s party. She remembers getting drunk and arguing with a few people, but that’s it until she goes to help her brother fix her niece’s playhouse. He tells her about two men and some pictures. Her brother keeps downplaying what must have happened as our protagonist grows more and more alarmed and disturbed. There’s a particularly good metaphor—a physical wound that hurts the protagonist but that no one except the specialists see—that makes this story the perfect rebuttal to, “What’s the big deal?” and “Why didn’t you tell them to stop?”

“Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.” This story is all internal monologue. Our protagonist has been rendered mute by a stroke. Her daughter grudgingly cares for her as she reflects on her hard, hard life. Unlike Susanna in “The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree” later in the collection, this protagonist’s life was full of hard work and the misery of bad (sometimes abusive) relationships with men. If only her daughter could hear her words as our protagonist tries to explain why she did the things she did. Our protagonist thinks:

All the men added together made the solid world—they were the marbles in the jar, and women were whatever sand and water or air claimed the space left between them. That’s how I saw things as a young woman, that was my women’s studies. Now I’ve come to know that women are like vodka poured over men, who melt away like ice cubes. (91*)

The women—battered and worn—live on after the men die. Maybe that’s all the reward women like our protagonist can hope for: a little more life.

“Blood Work, 1999.” The cliche tells us that the more we give, the more we get. For Marika, the more she gives, the more she just keeps giving. Her family is annoyed with her for giving away her inheritance to charities. They just don’t understand why she gives without getting any other reward than warm fuzzies. We don’t often see stories about saints. We could stand to see a few more.

“The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree.” I adored this story. Unlike many of the others in this collection, the protagonist Susanna is not broken. I’m glad it was the last story in the collection because I needed to read it after all the misery that came before. Susanna is a tough, hard-working woman in her 60s. For most people, one’s 60s are when one slows down and turns over work to younger people. But Susanna has grandchildren to watch, a baby donkey to nurse, a broken tractor and central heating system, and just too much to do. But she carries on because she wants to. She could kick out the grandchildren and get rid of the donkey. She could sell the farm. But she doesn’t. She worked for it and gets to keep her patch of earth and her family. And, as a bonus, she meets a man who loves and admires her for all of this.

That said, I am glad I read it. I’m really looking forward to tonight’s discussion. I do wonder if I’m the best audience for this book. This is a book that’s going to appeal to women, because it talks about our struggles. But I feel it needs to be read by men who don’t understand. Some of the stories, “Playhouse” in particular, are all about how women are discounted when we try to speak up. I recall a few months ago, when I spoke up about some of our female student workers being flirted with by male student who wouldn’t leave, my male colleagues didn’t see what the big deal was. It took some explaining to make them see the problem. I was angry and frustrated with them. How could they not see what I was trying to show them? If I had had Bonnie Jo Campbell in my arsenal, I would have made them read a few of the stories.

In summary, the stories in this collection are hard to read. They’re supposed to be. They’ll linger in my brain for a long time as I try to puzzle out all their layers of meaning. I highly recommend Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

* Quotes are from the 2015 kindle edition by W.W. Norton & Co.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to male readers who don’t see what women cope with.

book club picks · horror · review

The Shining, by Stephen King

The Shining
The Shining

Most of the time, I read the book before I see the movie. (If I see the movie at all, that is.) This time, I saw the 1980 movie version of The Shining before I read the 1977 novel by Stephen King. The biggest reason I read the book first is so that I can create version of the characters in my head before a movie puts a concrete interpretation there. Because I’ve already seen the movie, I couldn’t help but picture Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Cruthers, and that kid with the bowl cut acting out a slightly different version of events as I read. I kept waiting for the “Here’s Johnny!” moment even though I know Nicholson ad-libbed it. Because the film and the book are so similar (apart from the endings), it was hard to not compare the two. Both versions creeped me right the hell out. They succeeded there. But the endings? It’s hard to decide which is more satisfying. At this point, I can’t choose which version I prefer.

The plot of The Shining is simple enough to summarize. Jack Torrance, writer, recovering alcoholic, and very angry man, takes a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. The road to the Overlook closes during the winter, but the company that runs it needs someone to make sure the place survives the snow and the wind. For a writer and a recovering drinker, five months in a hotel with no alcohol and no way to get any is a great gig. He can finish his play. He can build new sober habits. His wife, Wendy, isn’t too keen but she’s willing to go along. Their son, Danny, is even less keen. He’s been having dreams about terrible things happening at the Overlook. Danny has what is later called the shine. He knows what people are feeling and thinking. Sometimes, he knows when things happen or will happen to people. The Overlook scares him, but he doesn’t have much choice about where he goes, being five years old.

The Overlook has a sordid, bloody history. Something “lives” there. It goes to work on Jack and Danny as soon as the Torrance family moves in and everyone else moves out. Things are good at first. Jack makes a breakthrough with his play. Danny learns to avoid bad spots. Wendy worries, but she’s a worrier. Nothing, at first, is objectively wrong. That changes when Jack gets interested in the hotel’s history. For a while, the novel treads the line between the supernatural and the more spectacular varieties of mental illness. Then all three start to get flashes of the hotel’s history—the suicides, the murders, the things that have carried on haunting the place—that can’t be explained away as hallucinations or tricks of the light.

What interested me most about this book wasn’t Danny; it was Jack. Jack is the kind of man who never takes responsibility for his actions. It’s the booze that makes him lose control of his temper. It was that kid who lost him his job at the prep academy. It was his father who made him the way he was. At the Overlook, Jack starts to blame his inability to control his temper on Wendy. The book is peppered with Jack’s attempts to put the blame on everyone around him. This would be bad enough, but it makes him susceptible to the hotel’s flattery and promises. Many sections in The Shining are told as streams-of-consciousness, so we’re in Jack’s head while it churns up his anger, guilt, and sense of entitlement. Even without Danny’s dreams, it isn’t hard to tell that while five months alone might be a good idea for Jack, it’s a terrible idea for anyone locked up with him.

The Shining is a hefty story at nearly 500 pages, but it didn’t feel like almost 500 pages when I read it. The chapters flew by. Even though I knew, roughly, what was going to happen, King’s prose completely captured my attention and it was hard to tear myself away when I had to go teach a couple of library workshops this morning. Early Stephen King is hard to beat for gripping, terrifying reads. I’m really glad my book club chose this for our November read.

All that said, I really want to talk about the endings of the book and the movie. If you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading here.



The ending of the original story of The Shining is spectacular, but not as iconic as the ending of Kubrick’s film, with the image of Nicholson’s pissed off frozen face. In King’s version, Jack has lost control of himself to the hotel and its ghosts. He’s beaten his wife. Then chases his son all over the hotel, intending to beat the boy to death. But when the moment comes, Jack fights through the hotel’s influence and saves his son. Jack gets his redemption. There’s no redemption in the film version. Kubrick’s ending is one of triumph over evil. King’s ending is more complex. For that reason, I might like the original ending a little bit more than the film ending.

book club picks · nonfiction · review

The Underground Girls of Kabul, by Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls of Kabul
The Underground Girls of Kabul

Reading Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul was a lot like reading Sophie’s Choice or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There’s not a lot of similarity between the three books, content- or style-wise. Sophie’s Choice and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are fiction; The Underground Girls of Kabul is based on the author’s experiences in Afghanistan and numerous interviews with Afghani women. What the reading experiences have in common is that they all made me profoundly, intensely angry. The Underground Girls of Kabul joins my very short list of books that have made me so incandescently furious that I wanted to hurl them across the room.

And this is precisely how any reader of this book ought to feel.

The “underground girls” of the book are the bacha posh—girls who are raised as boys for various reasons. Some parents choose to raise a girl as a boy to raise their odds of having an actual boy as their next child. Other parents need a boy to help work for family businesses or to help raise their reputation in their communities. Boys are so important to Afghan culture that bacha posh—as long as they can pass—are completely accepted. However, once a girl hits puberty, she must let her hair grow and put on dresses and headscarves and become a woman.

Jenny Nordberg spent years interviewing women and men and adolescents and bacha posh, investigating gender roles in post-Taliban Kabul and Afghanistan. Early in The Underground Girls of Kabul, Nordberg describes the difference between boys and girls thusly:

One kind of child is born with the promise of ownership and a world waiting outside. The other is born with a single asset, which must be strictly curtailed and controlled: the ability to one day give birth to sons of her own. She, like her mother before her, has arrived in what the Untied Nations calls the worst place to be born. And the most dangerous place in which to be a woman. (40*)

For a few years, the bacha posh get to take advantage of all the freedoms granted to males. Their sisters, however, learn to be quiet, to hide their bodies, to be still, to be perfect Afghan women. In a sense, the bacha posh are the luckiest girls in the country, at least until they have to turn back into females.

After the American-led coalition invaded Afghanistan and (temporarily) displaced the Taliban, women were able to regain some rights. But most of the gains were on paper only. Nordberg shows us how any changes to Afghan womens’ lives run into the long standing traditions that prevent them from being equals with men. Patronizing seminars for about empowerment (17) are pointless, Nordberg shows us, until every member of Afghan society learns that women not the weaker, stupider sex. As Nordberg writes, “Hope rests with these men [fathers and husbands], who control what happens to their daughters” (303). It’s galling, deeply galling, to admit, but Nordberg is right. Currently, any attempts to empower women are viewed as “a stand against men” (304). Power is viewed as a zero-sum gain. If women are to have more power and rights, who will have their power and rights taken away? And, as one of Nordberg’s interviewees, Azita, points out:

the burkas, and any other ways of hiding, will disappear only once there is safety and rule of law in Afghanistan. Until then, nothing much will happen in terms of easing harsh social codes and opening up opportunities for women. Because most of all, and first of all, there needs to be peace. (302)

The fact that Westerners and their money are leaving Afghanistan in droves means that peace and prosperity are not likely to arrive any time soon. Worse, as Norwegian political scientist Torunn Wimpelmann comments, “womens’ rights have increasingly become viewed as an elite and Western-backed issue by many in Afghanistan” (267).

Nordberg is skilled at showing us the limited, dangerous lives of Afghan women without making them appear pitiful or patronizing them. Her narrative follows a few particular women and their families. Azita is a politician from a remote province. Her youngest daughter is bacha posh and making the most of it. Through her, we see the advances and retreats in women’s rights. Nordberg introduces us to Zahra, a bacha posh who has reached the point when she must transform herself back into a female and is resisting every step. We also meet Shukria and Nader/Nadia, adult bacha posh. Shukria transitions back to a woman but always felt like an outsider and a failure as a women. Nader refuses to become a woman. She found a way to stay male and is helping other bacha posh fight to stay officially male.

Gender, Nordberg is careful to point out, is different in Afghanistan. In the West, we are coming to terms with the fact that gender is not tied to sexuality. Gender is a spectrum and is based primarily on culture. Nordberg summarizes the existing science by writing, “What makes a person and a personality is in fact a combination of nature and nurture, in the brain’s development in the womb and life experiences that follow” (178). There’s no reason to say that there are certain traits that are female or male, or that there’s a “natural” way of being a man or a woman; it’s all based on what a society expects of men and women. For the bacha posh, learning to be male or female was based on observation. For example, Nordberg writes of one former bacha posh:

By observing and imitating women’s behavior, Shukria now has arrived at very distinct ideas of the differences in male and female behavior.

“I had to change my thoughts and everything inside my mind,” is how she puts it. (175)

There’s nothing inherent about gender.

I am profoundly lucky. Biologically, I am female. I identify as a heterosexual cis woman. But the difference between me and women in Afghanistan is that I was born in the West. More importantly, I was born in the later quarter of the twentieth century, after generations of women reshaped society enough that I have equal legal rights to males in my country. (Social, it’s not as clear cut, but that’s another rant.) I never had to disguise myself to get an education. I wasn’t told what I had to wear or how to speak or act. My parents would never sell me in marriage to a man I didn’t know. I have the freedom to “identify” as a particular gender instead of being told what I am based on my anatomy. The girls in my family will never go through that Afghan women have to. We are lucky. I don’t know how the women and bacha posh in Nordberg’s book carry on, without giving in completely in to despair or rage.

Even though this wasn’t a pleasant read by any means, I think it’s an important book that should be widely read and discussed. The women of Afghanistan and women in similar societies should not be forgotten as Westerners leave these countries. Strange though it may sound, Nordberg’s book has a small, glimmering thread of hope. The bacha posh, though they’ve been around for centuries, are a sign of resistance. A society and a culture can change, given incentive and will.

As I read The Underground Girls of Kabul, I seethed. I kept myself awake at nights imagining what I would say to someone who believed that women were “natually” less than men. I’ve underlined so many passages from the book that I want to bring up with my book group that I don’t know how we’ll get to them all.

*Quotes are from the 2014 kindle edition by Crown Publishers.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Prescribe this book to readers suffering from ennui or apathy. Contraindications: Do not recommend to Men’s Rights Activists.

book club picks · literary fiction · review

The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright

The Rent Collector
The Rent Collector

Camron Wright’s uneven tale of redemption and education, The Rent Collector, is set in the very real garbage dump of Stung Meanchay, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sang Ly and her husband, Ki Lim, eke out a living picking recyclables out of the garbage. Most of their money goes to pay the rent for their shack on the borders of the dump. Their son is constantly ill and the family often have to use their rent money to pay for medicine. But everything changes on the day the rent collector threatens them with eviction when Sang Ly finds a children’s book among the trash.

The book leads to a bargain between Sang Ly and the rent collector, Sopeap Sin. In exchange for the book, Sopeap Sin will teach Sang Ly how to read. Sang Ly believes that education (via reading) will help the family find a way out of Stung Meanchay. The grouchy drunk Sopeap reluctantly agrees, because the book has sentimental value for her. Over a few short chapters, a rough friendship developed between the renter and the landlady.

While there are some beautiful moments towards the end of The Rent Collector, the book did not work for me. Sang Ly’s character wavers between illiterate naif and precocious savant. Most of the exposition sounds like it comes straight out of a journalistic exposé. If my book club hadn’t picked this book for this month, I would have dropped it within twenty pages.

The only character in The Rent Collector that rang true to me was Sopeap Sin, former literature professor/Khmer Rouge victim/rent collector. She’s the only character with any depth. She’s prickly and profound by turns. She’s haunted by what she had to do to survive the Khmer Rouge, to the point where she won’t pursue further treatment for her cancer. (There are further revelations about Sopeap Sin’s attempts to atone at the end of The Rent Collector.)

Unfortunately, Sopeap Sin is not the narrator and we don’t see enough of her to off-set the bland goodness of Sang Ly and Ki Lim or the barely described misery of life in Stung Meanchay. With the exception of the eponymous rent collector, this book was shallow as a slick of oil on a puddle.