CBR5 Review #27: The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball

Why I Read It: I actually had the pleasure of meeting Kristin Kimball and her husband, Mark, last spring, when they came to my college to give a reading. I was one of two students in the English department asked to have dinner with them, so I got to get a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at who they both really are. I hadn’t read the book at that point, and now I’m mad at myself that it took me so long to get to it!

My Rating: 5 stars

Summary: In the 90s, NYC-based writer Kimball traveled to the Pennsylvania countryside to interview Mark, a charismatic young farmer, for a story. After falling in love with him, she abandoned her city life and moves with him to upstate New York, where they began a life together on a large farm–one of the first to implement the complete-diet CSA model (meat, veggies, dairy, etc). This memoir is about their first year or so on the farm, following Kimball’s transformation from city slicker to country girl and exploring life, love and getting dirty.

My Review: I loved this book so, so much. I think I would have loved it even if I hadn’t met the Kimballs before reading it, but knowing them only served to enhance my enjoyment. First of all, they make great characters. Theirs is a true love, the kind you can easily feel on the page and that is quickly apparent in person, too. They play off each other so well, and clearly just adore each other despite their significant personality differences. Their romance is at the center of the memoir, and it’s interesting enough to carry the plot. Kimball is really relatable–smart, funny, and totally out of her element–and Mark…well, Mark is one of my newest literary crushes. He’s sweet and romantic (in addition to being stubborn and a little irrational). He’s also hilarious, both on the page and off, and their dynamic together is really fun.

I also love how this book depicts farming realistically and honestly. It’s so easy to idealize going back to the land, but Kimball really makes you aware of how challenging and frustrating it can be. She clearly loves what she does but makes it clear that it’s hard work, and this book is just as much of a warning to naive would-be farmers as it is a love letter to the work. It was so cool to see how farming really works, and especially in the way the Kimballs do it (that is, with an emphasis on traditional practices, horse-drawn ploughs vs. big tractors, and sustainability).

Kimball also does a wonderful job at interweaving themes of love and identity and community into the farm-related stories. This is a book about farming, of course, but it’s also just as much of a book about finding oneself, learning to love (and compromise), and discovering a home. Kimball’s simplistic voice and liberal use of humor keep these themes from becoming overly sentimental–I was emotionally engaged but I never felt like the narrative was cloying.

Should You Read It? Absolutely. It’s a near-perfect memoir full of heart and humor and I highly recommend it to everyone, even if you’re not someone with a pre-existing interest in farming.


CBR5 Review #26: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

Why I Read It: Because Russell is amazing. Swamplandia!, which I read last year, was excellent, and I’ve read multiple short stories by her in various collections that I really enjoyed.

My Rating: 3 stars

Summary: With her characteristic satirical eye and witty voice, Russell takes on the weird, the otherworldly, and the dystopian over the course of ten twisted pseudo-fairy tales. Some of the standouts include the title story, which is about exactly what it sounds like, and “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” on which Swamplandiais based.

My Review: I had mixed feelings about this collection, unfortunately. Usually I stay away from “weird” fiction–I’m a bit more traditional in my literary tastes, and have a hard time staying engaged when reading experimental writing. I can handle the sort of weirdness that Russell excels at in small doses, but ten stories worth was a little overwhelming. I think I would have enjoyed this collection much more if I’d read it incrementally, purposely spacing out my reading of the stories to better understand/absorb them.

One of the reasons I loved Swamplandia! so much is that Russell grounded the story in a very vivid world and featured an incredibly powerful main character who I couldn’t help but fall in love with. The world and the plot might have been bizarre and off-kilter, but Ava was real and strong and endearing and that helped balance out the more out-there aspects of the novel. That emotional root was missing for me in a lot of the short stories featured in this collection, which was especially problematic in the character-driven ones (no surprise that my two favorites were a) the one I already had a connection to and b) one that didn’t feature a central character). Because I’m not someone who inherently enjoys these kinds of stories, I need something else to draw me in, and I felt that that “something” was missing.

I also felt like the stories ended too abruptly, and I wasn’t really satisfied with any of their endings. Russell’s style seems to be to cut things off mid-action, to leave the reader with a sense of confusion/ambiguity, which can work in some scenarios but really bothered me when it happened in virtually every story. These felt more like clips from larger works rather than full-formed pieces in their own right.

There were absolutely positives to this reading experience, though. Russell has an incredibly fresh and interesting voice that remains consistent over the course of all ten stories. She’s smart and witty and satirical–the closest literary comparison I can make is George Saunders, but Russell absolutely has her own vision. I appreciated the cohesiveness of the collection in that regard, and the stories include some seriously funny moments. Her blending of humor with trauma and the supernatural is really creative and captivating, and some of the ideas behind her stories are so weird it’s hard to think of how she came up with them (for example, one is about the Oregon Trail-like journey of the family of a minotaur). That creativity is pretty stunning, and I think this collection demonstrates how much promise Russell has as a young writer. And again, she clearly refined and learned how to balance out her out-there ideas in Swamplandia!, so I really look forward to reading more of her work as she continues to mature in her writing.

Should You Read It? It’s definitely worth picking up, if only for the two stories I noted above. And if you’re someone who loves dystopian/experimental fiction, this is definitely the collection for you.

CBR5 Review #25: The Purity Myth by Jess Valenti

Why I Read It: Because this is a Very Important Feminist Text, I love Feministing.com (Valenti is its editor-in-chief), and I’m really interested in sociological conceptions of virginity/femininity/sexuality.

My Rating: 4 stars

Summary: It’s kind of hard to summarize, so here’s the synopsis from Valenti’s website: “The United States is obsessed with virginity from the media to schools to government agencies. The Purity Myth is an important and timely critique of about why this is so, and why it’s problematic for girls and women. Analyzing cultural stereotypes and media messages, Jessica Valenti reveals the overt and hidden ways our society links a woman’s worth to her sexuality rather than to values like honesty, kindness, and altruism. Valenti takes on issues ranging from abstinence-only education to pornography and exposes the legal and social punishments that women who dare to have sex endure. Importantly, she also offers solutions that pave the way for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity, including a call to rethink male sexuality and reframe the idea of “losing it.” With Valenti’s usual balance of intelligence and wit, The Purity Myth presents a powerful and revolutionary argument that valuing girls and women for their sexuality needs to stop–and outlines a new vision for how it can happen.”

My Review: This was a really great book, and was very readable despite being a somewhat academic/research-based text. This is definitely a result of Valenti’s wonderful voice and use of humor throughout–this is a serious subject, but she presents it in a funny, entertaining way, using personal experience and anecdotes to illustrate the points she’s making. (This did get a bit over-the-top at times, though, as her snarky asides appear as footnotes on literally every other page. These would have been more effective if they’d been used more sparingly, as I got a little tired of them after a while).

The content of the book is so interesting and really well-researched. I considered myself pretty well-versed on the issues discussed, but Valenti synthesizes all the information out there and presents it in a really compelling and well-organized way. There were great little pieces of trivia scattered throughout, and so even though I know a lot about the topics at hand, I still found myself shocked at some of the quotes and statistics and anecdotes she shared.

I think this book is pretty empowering and definitely important for people to read–the issues in general are ones that more people should be conscious of and feel comfortable recognizing/addressing in daily life. We live in a culture that both expects women to be highly sexualized and punishes them for being so, and Valenti does a really excellent job of exploring how that manifests itself (through rape culture, abstinence-only sex education, and double standards when it comes to male vs. female behavior, to name a few examples). Awareness is the first step (and maybe the only course of action) towards eliminating these problematic views in our society, so I hope that more people pick this book up and listen to what Valenti has to say.

Should You Read It? Yes. If you’re someone who is interested in feminist theory and discourse, you’ll love this book; if you’re someone (male or female) who has never considered these issues, I think you’ll find this book enlightening.

CBR5 Review #24: The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman

Why I Read It: This is another childhood favorite that I decided to revisit.

My Rating: 5 stars

Summary: Set in a world that is clearly a parallel/futuristic version of our own, The Golden Compass is the first in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The main character, Lyra, is a normal eleven-year-old girl, being raised (parentless) at Jordan College in Oxford, England. Her life changes when she observes a presentation that she wasn’t meant to see, and she is sent on an exhilarating, oftentimes dangerous journey across Europe and into the Arctic, trying to discover the truth behind the disappearances of children that have been plaguing the country, and the mysterious “Dust” that she keeps hearing about.

My Review: This is such a good book, and is one of the best examples of how Young Adult/children’s fiction doesn’t have to be dumbed down. Pullman clearly respects his readers, regardless of how old they are, and doesn’t shy away from big words and bigger themes. I remember appreciating that when I first read it (when I was maybe 10) and I certainly appreciate it now. This is smart writing, plain and simple, and at no point did I think to myself “Wow, this is clearly a kid’s book” (which often happens when I read fiction aimed at younger readers, regardless of how good it is). This isn’t just a good children’s book–it’s a good book, period.

Lyra is easily one of the best female YA heroines of all time. She’s smart and savvy and snarky (whoa, check out my alliteration) and totally bad-ass. And she’s realistically flawed, which is really wonderful. She’s not perfect, and I loved that. Instead, she’s a real girl: stubborn and rash and reckless. She’s up there with Hermione and Alanna in my book in terms of heroines to look up to (so, the best of the best). It’s strong female characters like her that helped me become a feminist/cool lady, and I can’t thank Pullman enough for creating her.

The story itself is really engrossing and the world Pullman has created is incredibly well-developed, with its own mythology and history and societies that feel grounded in reality and very believable (despite the fantasy elements of the plot). I love that Pullman sets very high stakes for his characters; his villains are truly scary, and Lyra’s safety is never a certainty. Also, this book really sets up the rest of the trilogy well, laying the groundwork for bigger mysteries and adventures and deeper exploration of complex philosophical/moral issues.

Should You Read It: Absolutely. Like I said, this is a very good book, and one that any adult can enjoy despite its designation as a children’s book.

CBR5 Review #23: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Why I Read It: I loved Life After Life, was lukewarm on Started Early, Took My Dog, and wanted to check out more of Atkinson’s stuff. Also, I’m still very much on a literary mystery kick–I can’t get enough!

My Rating: 5 stars

Summary: The book opens with three distinct mysteries, all taking place in Cambridge, England. A toddler goes missing; a beloved daughter is murdered; a young wife goes crazy. Fast forward to the present day, when all of these cases remain unsolved. Jackson Brodie, a private detective, suddenly finds himself investigating all three, and is drawn deeper and deeper into the past–both those of his clients, and his own.

My Review: THIS is what I wanted Started Early, Took My Dog to be. The intertwining mysteries worked so well here, and I was so engrossed in this book that I finished it in a matter of hours. This is a compelling and well-written mystery, and I loved it. It was everything I need in a good mystery: compelling and intriguing crimes that aren’t too hard to figure out, twists and turns, an interesting protagonist, a satisfying conclusion. I like being kept guessing, and this definitely fit the bill.

Brodie is a great main character, and I can see why Atkinson chose to write more books about him. He’s a well-balanced character, a sane observer of the chaotic mysteries he’s been asked to solve yet also complicated enough to remain interesting. I liked him a lot, and I felt much more connected with him than I did in Started Early, Took My Dog (although I did read the books out of order, so this could be an issue with me and not the books).

Should You Read It? Yes! This is a really great crime novel that will fill the Stieg Larsson/Tana French-shaped void in your life (if you’re like me and are obsessed with literary mysteries).

CBR5 Review #22: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Why I Read It: I have a bit of a fascination with shipwreck stories, starting with my full-blown obsession with the Titanic at age 8 or 9 (when I read virtually every book, fictionalized or not, having to do with it). So, just the fact that this book is about the aftermath of a sunken ship was enough to sell me.

My Rating: 4 stars

Summary: In 1914, Grace Winter, a young newlywed, is on trial for murder after being lost at sea. The story is told in the form of a diary written to exonerate herself, and we slowly learn the backstory of how she came to be accused.  When their ship sinks in a horrific accident halfway through their voyage from England to the United States, Grace (separated from her husband) finds herself in a small lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with thirty-eight other passengers–and must struggle to survive.

My Review: This was a pretty good read, and is the perfect summer/beach book. It’s quick and very engaging, and is definitely a page-turner. Once you start reading you really just need to find out what happens, so it was hard for me to put down and I ended up finishing it in just a few hours.

I think Rogan used the diary/flashback device fairly well–when authors do that, they run the risk of losing the suspense of the plot, because the reader knows what to expect–but the reasons for Grace’s trial are so vague at first that this didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story at all. Rogan also did a very good job of creating a story independent of the inevitable Titanic comparisons, and while there are clear similarities and connections, this is very different. So much of the horror of the Titanic was based on the ship actually sinking, whereas in this book that’s glossed over a bit and the focus is very much on life in the lifeboat. Rogan captures the fear and intense struggle for survival incredibly well, and it was definitely a bit hard to read at points because it was so vividly described.

The character of Grace was my biggest issue with the book–she’s a very unreliable narrator, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, and in this case I think it sort of alienates her from the reader. Even though it’s a first-person narrative I never felt connected to her or particularly sympathetic towards her, and at times actively disliked her. I was also very much aware of how skewed her perspective might be, although I think Rogan did that on purpose and definitely plays up an angle of uncertainty when it comes to Grace’s innocence/the motivations behind her actions/what she claims to be the truth. She’s an interesting character, but as with most unreliable narrators, she’s very frustrating and makes it difficult to know what’s real and what’s not.

Should You Read It? Overall, I liked this book a lot. It didn’t have a huge lasting impact but it’s an engaging read and, again, good for those times when you don’t want to think too hard about what you’re reading.


CBR5 Review #21: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Why I Read It: It’s one of those books that’s been on my “have-to-read” list forever.

My Rating: 5 stars

Summary: Set in Gilead, a dystopian/futuristic version of the United States, this is the story of Offred, who now occupies one of society’s established social castes: the Handmaids. The country is now run by a Christian theocracy that has re-imposed Puritan ideals on society, so although this is a recognizably modern culture, it is an ultra-conservative, paternalistic, and racist/homophobic one. Offred recounts her own story as a Handmaid, interspersing it with glimpses of her old life–a life that is very much recognizable as our own. Through her, we come to understand how society shifted so drastically, and the effects of this on society’s members, especially women.

My Review: Wow. This book was phenomenal, and one of those books that truly deserves its designation as a classic. For some reason I was expecting it to be drier, or to feel dated, but it’s completely gripping and feels incredibly fresh and modern, despite having been written almost thirty years ago. It’s terrifying and sad and beautifully written, and–and this is the mark of really, really good dystopian literature–it feels real. Some of the lead-up to the government takeover by the ultra-conservative Christian group now in power could have been inspired by events from the last couple of years, and the bits of Offred’s old life that we see are so clearly grounded in the world that we inhabit now. The possibility of something like this actually happening makes the novel even scarier, and I couldn’t put it down. I loved how Atwood reveals bits and pieces of the world slowly, often dropping shocking ideas into dialogue and narrative very casually, and I thought it was much more effective than having pages of exposition on what the new world is like and how it got to be that way.

Offred is a very relatable narrator, too, and it was a smart choice to have her be (before the takeover, at least) a normal, average woman. She represents the clashing of the old world with the new well–although she conforms to the new societal standards of behavior imposed on her, she is able to separate herself and observe them from her old perspective, making the narrative that much more chilling. The pain of her loss (of her old life, her family, and of her independence) is clearly felt, and I was really invested in her story.

This is a book I really wish I’d had to read for a class in college, because it’s so ripe for discussion. You can analyze it from so many perspectives, and there are so many themes/motifs to dissect. I kept getting ideas for papers when I was reading it–this would have been perfect in a gender studies class, for example.

The ending (the last chapter or so) is a little odd and I didn’t like it much, but that was just about my only complaint, and it didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment of the book.

Should you read it? Absolutely. This book is fantastic.

CBR5 Review #20: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Why I Read It: Because it’s being hailed as one of the best books of the last year.

My Rating: 4 stars

Summary: Before leaving for a tour in Iraq, 21-year old Private John Bartle makes a promise that he’ll keep his new friend, an idealistic 18-year-old soldier named Murph, safe. He does his best to keep his word as the two navigate the terrifying and bloody battlegrounds of the Iraq War, as they both struggle to maintain their sanity and, ultimately, survive.

My Review: This was a really difficult book to read. I tend to avoid books like this, actually, because they make me so sad and kind of make me sick to my stomach. War is hard to confront, and that’s actually why I forced myself to read it: the Iraq War is a defining aspect of my generation and the times we live in, and recognizing the sacrifice made by those who were/are fighting (and how lucky I am that I don’t have to be one of them) is important. This is an incredibly realistic, very graphic, and completely moving account of one man’s experience of the war–haunting and disturbing and completely stunning. Kevin Powers is an Iraq veteran and you can tell from the way he writes–it’s deeply personal and he transports the reader into that world.

The logical point of comparison is Tim O’Brien’s ouevre, and it’s a pretty accurate one. If you’ve read anything by him, you’ll know what The Yellow Birds is like. It is fiction, nominally, but there’s such truth behind the words and such power in the things both authors describe. The Things They Carried is the defining book of Vietnam, and I can definitely see The Yellow Birds occupying that title for the Iraq War.

Powers does an incredible job of capturing the horror of battle, the detachment from death, the trauma of loss. I was completely absorbed and yet I almost wanted to stop reading because the story is so heartbreaking and so stomach-turning. He is a truly brilliant writer, with some of the most poetic prose I’ve read, which actually has a kind of jarring effect when juxtaposed with the things he’s describing.

It’s a book that makes you think, and, like O’Brien’s work before him, Powers makes you face the grim realities of war head-on. It’s not a fun read, but it’s an important one.

Should You Read It: Yes–it’s clearly a modern classic and truly captures the horror of the Iraq War.

CBR-V Review #19: Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

Why I Read It: Because it’s a feminist classic and is kind of a must-read for all women who write, read, and consider themselves feminists.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

Summary: Isadora Wing is bored. She’s on her second husband, a rather stuffy psychiatrist, and she’s looking for someone to shake things up in her now-predictable life. When she accompanies her husband to Austria for a conference, she meets Adrian Goodlove, and begins to explore and understand what it is she really wants, both emotionally and sexually.

My Review: I was kind of divided on this book–I loved some aspects of it and was lukewarm on others. It’s definitely an important book, and one that I’m glad was written, as it was definitely a game-changer back in the 70s when it was published. Isadora is a pretty amazing protagonist–she’s funny, smart, independent, and sexually liberated. She’s very frank about her sexuality, and the sexuality of humanity in general, and she (or, I suppose, Jong) has some very progressive views about a woman’s role in society, marriage, and attitudes towards sex. This book opened the door for women’s fiction, I think, and as a writer (and feminist reader) myself, I am deeply appreciative of what Jong accomplished.

That being said, I think this book is fairly dated. Although it was shocking at the time of publication, I thought it was very mild when it came to racy scenes and sexual explicitness. It is unusual for the level of sexuality that its heroine displays–it’s pretty cool to see a woman own her sexuality and make no secret of the fact that she has needs and desires that are just as valid as a man’s. Casual encounters are no big deal to Isadora; she’s not one to get sex and emotion confused. She goes for what she wants and doesn’t apologize. She’s honest and funny and at times the book read like a diary, or a gossip session with a best friend over cocktails. Isadora is a real woman and deserves her place in the pantheon of feminist heroines throughout literary history.

I also thought the writing was kind of sloppy and the plot was weak. The strengths of the novel lie in its ideas and in Isadora’s unique voice; all other elements were less than impressive. We’re inside Isadora’s head a bit too much, and there isn’t enough compelling action to balance all that navel-gazing out. For that reason I had a hard time staying engaged. It was Jong’s first book, which makes sense–I just felt like she needed a good editor to cut out some of the rambling and tighten up the prose.

Should You Read It: Yeah. It’s an important book, and one that really shifted a lot of attitudes and practices in writing.

CBR-V Review #18: The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

Why I Read It: I loved The Leftovers, so when I was finished with it I wanted to stay on my Perrotta kick and picked this up because it was the only book by him available at my library.

My Rating: 2 stars

Summary: Ruth is a single mom and a health teacher at the local high school, who recently got into big trouble for implying that sex can be an enjoyable act. As a liberal feminist, she’s annoyed by the conservatives who are, as she sees it, imposing their religious views and warped perspectives on sexuality on the school, town, and country as a whole. On the other side of the political/moral spectrum is Tim, a soft-spoken ex-addict who has found Jesus and believes it’s his duty to spread the word of God throughout the community. The two clash and come together over the course of the novel, grappling with simultaneous mutual attraction and opposing views on just about everything.

My Review: I didn’t like this book. Normally I think Perrotta is a master of creating complex, nuanced characters who occupy a moral grey area–they, just like real people, can be good or bad. His portrayals of American suburbia are among the best ever written, in my opinion. But here, he fails miserably. I felt like this book was poorly thought-out and it seemed like he’d just rushed through writing it, because all of the complexity was gone. These are broadly-drawn characters, black and white and completely stereotypical. The path of the story is clear from the first chapter and there is no ambiguity or surprise in the plot. Perrotta’s usual humor and satirical eye are present, but watered down. This is just a pale, uninspired imitation of his best work.

Where the book really failed for me was in its characters: I disliked every single one. I found myself rolling my eyes whenever Ruth appeared on the page, even though I share most of her political views. Tim was slightly more interesting, and I think it was a smart choice to feature a character who holds beliefs so completely different from Perrotta’s, but ultimately he was just kind of boring and didn’t come to life for me. These characters could have been so fascinating (I don’t think I’ve ever read a book from the perspective of an Evangelical Christian, and some of Tim’s grapplings with his faith had the potential to be incredibly moving and interesting) but again, there was no complexity. I knew exactly where they were coming from and where they were headed, and that lack of depth made it very difficult for me to enjoy this book.

I think it’s a topical novel and one that could have really been important and interesting given our current political climate, but it ultimately felt really half-baked and didn’t seem to come to any meaningful conclusions. Perrotta was seemingly the ideal author to take on this subject, which is why I’m confused as to how he failed. It’s disappointing, because again, he had a lot to work with. At his best, Perrotta’s books linger with me for days after I’ve finished reading them, their emotional impact transferred off the page. This was the only book of his that I’ve had trouble finishing–hopefully his next effort redeems him.

Should You Read It? No. Perrotta has many other books that are far better than this one. Go read Little Children or Election instead.