Book Review: Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

I have mixed feelings about Death in Her Hands, the latest novel from the darkly complex mind of Ottessa Moshfegh. As a matter of fact, I find myself still processing the reading experience. Like her previous book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I found several moments of sheer brilliance with sharp prose and biting social commentary. Nobody encapsulates the voice of loneliness and that feeling of isolation quite like Moshfegh. However, Death in Her Hands is much greater than the sum of its parts. This psychological thriller attempts to make a statement, but like its narrator, often stumbles lost in the proverbial woods.

Death in Her Hands (2020) by Ottessa Moshfegh, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

While walking her dog in the secluded woods near her home, an elderly widow named Vesta comes across a handwritten note, carefully pinned to the ground with stones. “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” The problem is that there is no dead body. Vesta is deeply shaken by this note. A recent widow, she lives alone in this new area with no friends or family. Her curiosity about this mystery triggers an obsessive search for Magda’s identity and how she died. Soon, Vesta is on a quest to discover the truth, creating a backstory for Magda, as well as constructing a fictional narrative in her mind as to what truly happened.

As Vesta takes personal responsibility for solving Magda’s murder, we then begin to see that something doesn’t feel quite right. At times, our narrator seems to be in a proper state of mind, others not so much. It is then we are reminded that she is seventy-two years old and the combination of age and extreme isolation may be taking its toll on her. Vesta’s feelings about the townsfolk border between dislike and paranoia. Her quixotic investigation takes her to the public library, where she uses ASK JEEVES for tips on solving a murder mystery. Her fantasies on what most likely happened to Magda begin to bleed into her real interactions with various townsfolk. Magda’s backstory becomes so real that I found myself feeling a connection to this murder victim and forgetting momentarily that this backstory is merely the product of Vesta’s rambling imagination.

While the murder mystery served as the hook, I quickly discovered Moshfegh’s actual intention. The thriller concept is mere window dressing to the overall point of examining the ideas of loneliness and how we construct narratives, about ourselves and others, in order to make sense of our lives. Perception is reality. Moshfegh attempts to show us that understanding the truth is not black and white, as we begin to learn more about Vesta’s actual backstory.

“I liked that she was just Magda, a little name floating there in the soft birch woods wind. She was my Magda in that way. I had discovered her. And if the past was certain, and it held a certain truth, Magda’s past was mine to discover and know, and I felt I knew her so well already.”

Throughout Vesta’s narration, we slowly learn more about her life with her recently deceased husband Walter Gul (pronounced “ghoul”). Walter was a handsome, German professor of epistemology. Vesta’s initial memories of their life together painted this perfect picture of a happy couple. Over the course of the book, we gradually learn that their marriage wasn’t perfect, and that Walter was actually not a great husband. A snob, he considered most people, including his wife, as intellectual inferiors. She was much younger and more naïve to Walter, who mocked her looks and denied her making social connections. The inclusion of “Magda” as a real person in Vesta’s mindspace allows for several decades of resentment to finally come to the surface. A final reveal at the novel’s climax provides Vesta with an empowering and gruesome moment. Unfortunately, the point becomes obscured in a bizarre ending to the story.

Dark Day | Brown Alumni Magazine
Ottessa Moshfegh, Photo Credit: Dru Donovan

Similar to my experience reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I found Death in Her Hands to be greater than the sum of its parts. The final chapter attempts to bring everything together, but I was left feeling unsatisfied. I also thought certain sections could have been expanded on for better effect, such as a scene that takes place at a neighbor’s house shortly before a murder mystery party. While it would have been both interesting and surreal to place Vesta right in the middle of this event as it was happening, given her delicate frame of mind, we are only treated to a conversation with the hostess about the concept of death. I also got put off by all the fat-shaming that our narrator had throughout the course of the book. While I realize that this may have been done by Moshfegh to make her protagonist more believable, the focus on others’ weight and body type was just too off-putting for me. Overall, Death in Her Hands is a surreal experience, a magician’s trick that comes close to working, but loses itself along the way.

“What a strange responsibility it was to hold someone’s death in your hands. How did people go on with their lives as though death weren’t all around them?”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

 

Book Review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

As we enter another year with COVID-19 continuing to plague our world, it occurred to me that a new sub-genre of fiction may be emerging, that of “pandemic fiction.” I had been putting off reading The Pull of the Stars, Emma Donoghue’s novel of the 1918 flu epidemic, for two reasons: 1) I thought it would be depressing as hell to read during these chaotic times, and 2) historical fiction isn’t necessarily my favorite genre of literature. After finishing the book, I can safely attest to reason number one without a doubt. A story about a plague that resulted in the deaths of millions is hardly a laugh-a-minute read. However, Emma Donoghue embodies this story with so much beauty and heart that one cannot but help feel that spark of hope. My only prior experience with this writer was her unbelievably phenomenal Room, which became one of my all-time favorite books. After finishing The Pull of the Stars, I can now count two of Donoghue’s books as favorites.

The Pull of the Stars (2020) by Emma Donoghue, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

My appreciation for this novel begins with the meticulous research that Emma Donoghue put into creating an authentic experience. Within the first few pages, I was transported to a war and plague ravaged world, different yet similar to our own. The novel follows Nurse Julia Power over the course of three days in a Dublin maternity ward during the 1918 influenza pandemic. She is joined in her grueling quest of saving lives by a feisty volunteer assistant named Bridie Sweeney, and Dr. Kathleen Lynn, an actual historical person who was active in Sinn Féin and a fierce advocate for the downtrodden. The author’s notes at the conclusion of this book makes me want to research further into this woman’s incredible life. The graphic descriptions of medical crises and procedures–whether for both treatment of influenza and for childbirth–make for some nauseating, yet absorbing reading. Donoghue’s gift of providing accurate details may be a problem for the squeamish, as the following passage demonstrates:

“I considered an enema but decided that she’d been eating so little, there was probably nothing in her bowels. The pangs kept coming every three minutes, a clockwork torture. For all Mary O’Rahilly’s efforts, nothing in her great taut bump seemed to be descending. Could the head be stuck at the pelvic brim? Nothing was changing except that the young woman was getting limper and paler . . . “

I could provide several more examples that allow the reader to really “see” into this maternity ward, such as Dr. Lynn having to use forceps to retrieve a baby as blood poured from the mother’s body. Suffice to say, it makes for some interesting reading.

Another key ingredient that makes this such an absorbing read is the frenetic pace. True to how life must have looked to these overworked miracle workers, I found myself becoming anxious keeping up with the multiple crises occurring in the hospital. The novel is divided into four main sections, named for the colors of the stages for influenza of red to brown to blue to black. This detail serves more than framing the narrative, as it plays a very pivotal and heartbreaking plot point. I truly felt that I received a basic education on outdated medical practices. Another technique that Donoghue uses is the removal of quotation marks. Dialogue and the thoughts of our main character overlap in such a way it can make someone feel dizzy. While this took a moment for me to adjust, I found that it actually made me focus harder on the text in order to fully understand what was happening at any given moment. One problem I thought I had with the book was how the climax of the novel felt so rushed. After careful thought, I realized this was a brilliant decision as these characters lives move so quickly from crisis to crisis, that it leaves little time for the processing of feelings. In one of the novel’s few quiet moments, Julia reflects on how she wasn’t able to recognize her own feelings for someone as they were developing.

“This is where every nation draws its first breath. Women have been paying the blood tax since time began.”

Throughout the course of the novel, the three main characters shined brighter than the stars themselves. I loved all three of these ladies for their strength and willingness to be rebels for the greater good. Considering their limited resources, these women accomplished so much in advocating for a woman’s rights. Each character gets a wonderful scene that allows for some wonderful insight. This is such a fantastic novel about women’s empowerment, as well as touching on several other topics, such as the abusive homes run by the church, and the trauma of war, as reflected in the character of Julia’s brother. While the effects of World War I are important in the background of this novel, it’s the work of these women that is front and center to the plot. We also get to read about the sexual norms of this place in history, such as this idea that the woman is there to birth babies and nothing more. I suppose my one critique is Donoghue left me wanting so much more.

Akin by Emma Donoghue review – Room author loses her spark | Books | The  Guardian
Emma Donoghue, Photo Credit: Canadian Press/Shutterstock

I’m reminded of the old adage about history repeating itself. The world has so many patterns, some breathtaking to behold, others maybe not as much. From practices involving masks to faith in the government, to ridiculous theories on fighting the virus (my favorite is the sign recommending people eat an onion a day), there was no mistaking the parallels of this pandemic with the one we are currently facing. But I take comfort in what Dr. Lynn said about how “the human race settles on terms with every plague in the end….or a stalemate, at the least.”

The Pull of the Stars is Book 1 of 12 for the 2022 TBR Challenge.

“I gazed up at the sky and let my eyes flicker from one constellation to another to another, jumping between stepping-stones. I thought of the heavenly bodies throwing down their narrow ropes of light to hook us. I’d never believed the future was inscribed for each of us the day we were born. If anything was written in the stars, it was we who joined those dots, and our lives were in the writing.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

Running Your Own Race

After completing My 2022 Reading Goals, I realized that everything was focused on the quantity of books I will read this year. I say to myself, “I have to read two books this week.” For me, that’s not always doable. Some weeks, I might rip through the book I’m on, while other times I move a tad slower. While I always set a goal for the number of books I’m going to read that given year, I’ve never been too bothered when I don’t reach that goal. After all, it’s the journey rather than the destination right? However, I’ve noticed that sometimes I feel sad if I don’t read as many books as the next person. This thought process led me to start thinking about my own reading habits. Whenever I’m looking forward to a certain book, I tell myself that “I’m going to blast through this one.” For some reason, I was associating level of enjoyment by how quickly I finished a book. So now I’m wondering, does anyone else do this? Is this a useful association to have?

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Slow down Number 5

We often sing the praises of a book by saying, “I just couldn’t put it down.” This isn’t necessarily the same thing as reading quickly, because being that absorbed in a book would typically mean that you will finish it sooner. By that logic, would that mean that a book isn’t as good if I’m reading it in shorter bursts over a longer period of time? The more I think about it, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that a book can be very good, even if you aren’t spending every second of the day consumed by it.

For example, I’m currently reading The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. I’ve been a big fan of her writing since reading Room. Her latest book takes place in a fever/maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic in Dublin. It’s a beautifully written novel while also not shying away from the horror of that illness. Donoghue’s writing contains so many fascinating details that I’ve already filled multiple pages in my reading journal. So while I wouldn’t say I’m exactly “blasting” through this novel, I’m enjoying it immensely.

That brings me to another part of my reading experience: my journal. My method of writing a book review is to jot down different facets that grab my attention. Sometimes, it’s a great quote, other times just a really powerful scene, or even something that didn’t make sense. Then, I summarize it all in a nice (and hopefully) concise post. Every blogger has a different method, but this is the one that works best for me. I like absorbing literature, particularly when it’s meaningful to me.

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An essential part of my reading

Also, my experience reading The Pull of the Stars is reflective on the subject matter of the book, which definitely echoes time and again our current pandemic. While Donoghue suffuses the book with humor, it can be quite difficult to read during these hard times. Her descriptions are so thorough that you often feel as though you are really there. I’m enjoying the book, but it’s for sure one that I’m taking my time consuming. After becoming a therapist, I discovered that mindfulness is such an important practice in life for achieving calm. Our society has been trained to be as fast-paced as possible. While we may see the forest, the trees and all those wonderful details could be missed. Mindfulness is all about being engaged with the material. Through journaling and blogging, I’ve worked harder to be more engaged with the books I read.

This put to mind a great episode of the children’s show Bluey. If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon, you should look it up. The show is all about learning to play with young children, while also bestowing some valuable life lessons. There’s a great episode where the mother is teaching her children that life is not a competition, that “you should run your own race.” That quote has really stuck with me.

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Bluey has been an invaluable resource in my work as a children’s therapist

So if I can add one more goal for the year, it’s to not stress myself out over the number of books I read. I shall do my best to select books I will enjoy, and then I will absorb wonderful literature at my own pace. On that note, I shall close with a favorite quote from Thomas Newkirk from his book The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement: 

“We can learn to pay attention, concentrate, devote ourselves to authors. We can slow down so we can hear the voice of texts, feel the movement of sentences, experience the pleasure of words–and own passages that speak to us.”

What are some strategies you use to be a more mindful reader? Let me know with a comment below!

Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

My new year of reading couldn’t have gotten off to a better start! It’s been ages since a book completely mesmerized me the way this one did. You may remember the name Susanna Clarke from her previous novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a massive Dickensian fantasy novel released in 2004. While her long-awaited second novel Piranesi has a completely different feel and style, it remains no less impressive. I had first heard about the book through reading reviews from some of my fellow bloggers, and so I was planning to check it out from my local library. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait as I received it as a Christmas present from my lovely in-laws (shout out to my wife for maybe putting the idea in their heads). While Piranesi is a much shorter read at just under 250 pages, Clarke manages to create an entire Kafkaesque world with some brilliant and thought-provoking ideas on subjects such as thought, religion, and what is truly important in life.

Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clark, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Writing a review of this book is going to prove rather difficult because the true enjoyment lies in discovering what is exactly happening. As a matter of fact, I can’t even tell you the genre of Piranesi (fantasy? science fiction? surreal fever dream?). It is narrated by a man who refers to himself as Piranesi, and the story is told through his journal entries. For as long as he can remember, he has lived in the House, a labyrinthine-like structure with endless rooms, statues that line every corridor, and an ocean trapped in the lower levels that rises and falls throughout the structure. Piranesi knows no other world outside the House and spends his days as its caretaker. Besides being a meticulous record-keeper, he has learned several survival skills, such as fishing, collecting seaweed, and calculating when the tides will rise. His most striking characteristic is his reverence for the House and all its inhabitants, mostly birds. For Piranesi, there is no higher honor than to be the caretaker.

While it feels like a rather solitary and lonely life, there is someone else. Piranesi regularly meets with another inhabitant, a man who he refers to as “the Other.” As his only friend, Piranesi assists the Other in his research of discovering “The Great and Secret Knowledge.” While not understanding exactly what that knowledge actually is, Piranesi wants to please his one friend and help him in his experiments. However, Piranesi soon uncovers misinformation and discrepancies that lead him to question the motives of the Other, as well as his own memory.

That is all I’m comfortable with sharing in regards to the story. As you read and fall under the book’s enchantment, you will constantly find yourself struggling to differentiate fantasy from reality. While our protagonist is the consummate unreliable narrator, we soon discover that his lack of reliability is beyond his control. The absence of any memories prior to the House is a driving factor of this story. Often, Piranesi comes across as having both a brilliant mind and the mind of a child. While aspects of his story are quite tragic, there is also a lot of beauty to be found, such as his love for the House. While the Other values the secrets to be uncovered in order to gain power, Piranesi believes that the true value is The House Itself.

“The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.”

As I said, the excitement of his book is in unraveling the mystery as to what is actually happening to Piranesi. Clarke does a fantastic job with the pacing, as the audience will slowly discover the truth shortly before Piranesi discovers it for himself. While every question I had during the journey wasn’t answered, I was left satisfied and emotionally drained from the resolution.

Writing a novel with only two primary characters has to be a difficult task, but Clarke skillfully manages to create this extraordinary world in such a small frame of a book. She truly breathes life into every corner and crevice of this structure, making it a character within itself. During the course of his explorations, Piranesi has developed his own mythology for this world. With its crumbling stonework, decay, and endless corridors, it put me in mind of Mervyn Peake’s Castle Gormenghast. This work was also influenced by C.S. Lewis and discovering how it is influenced by a Narnia tale is part of the fun. There’s even a sly Doctor Who reference.

I did a little research after finishing the novel and learned of the real-life counterpart to the novel’s protagonist. Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was an Italian Classical archaeologist, architect, and artist, famous for his black-and-white paintings of labyrinthian structures.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi | The Gothic Arch, from Carceri d'invenzione  (Imaginary Prisons) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Gothic Arch, from Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons)ca. 1749–50, Photo Credit: metmuseum.org

I also learned that Susanna Clarke has struggled for several years with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. My thoughts go out to her for improved health and continued success in the future. Despite these health issues, she has created an award-winning novel that I know I will read again in the future. I really cannot recommend this book enough. Here’s to more great reads for 2022!

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

Book Challenges For 2022

After completing My 2022 Reading Goals, I told myself I wouldn’t do any challenges this year. Then, Adam at Roofbeam Reader announced he’s bringing back the TBR Pile Challenge. How could I say no when I have so many books to read?

Then, Karen at Books and Chocolate announced that Back to the Classics is returning this year too. Again, I can’t say no.

At this point, I’m in too deep so I thought I would create a third challenge for myself. Don’t judge me.

Here are my official challenges for 2022:

Here’s how it works: If you join the challenge, then you will commit to read 12 books (you are allowed two alternates) from your TBR list. Each of these books must have been on your TBR list for AT LEAST one year. None of the books may have a publication date of 1/1/21 or later. Once you submit the list, you are committed to to reading those 12 books, with the option of your alternates if you don’t like two of your choices. For the full run-down of the challenge details, go over to Adam’s blog (click on link above), read the rules, and make a commitment to reduce the pile. Those that complete all 12 of their picks will be entered into a drawing for a $50 gift card to either Amazon.com or The Book Depository!

I’ll update this page as I complete each review. Here are my selections:

  1. The Unconsoled (1995) by Kazuo Ishiguro
  2. Cathedral (1981) by Raymond Carver
  3. Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) by Jesmyn Ward
  4. Kindred (1979) by Octavia E. Butler
  5. The Book of Strange New Things (2014) by Michel Faber
  6. The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
  7. The Pull of the Stars (2020) by Emma Donoghue
  8. The Dinner (2009) by Herman Koch
  9. Possession (1990) by A.S. Byatt
  10. Sula (1973) by Toni Morrison
  11. On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute
  12. Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) Gabriel García Márquez

Alternates:

  1. A Murder in the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie
  2. The Outsider (2018) by Stephen King

This is another wonderful challenge as the theme is classic books published prior to the past 50 years. At the end, one lucky winner will receive a prize $30 (US) in books from the bookstore of their choice.

If you’re new to the challenge, here’s how it works:

  • Complete six categories, and you’ll get one entry in the drawing; 
  • Complete nine categories, and you’ll get two entries in the drawing; 
  • Complete all twelve categories, and you’ll get three entries in the drawing

Here are the categories and my “possible” picks for each one:

  1. 19th Century classic:  Oliver Twist (1838) or Bleak House (1852) by Charles Dickens
  2. 20th Century classic: A Farewell to Arms (1929) or The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick
  3. Classic by a woman author: Orlando: A Biography (1928) by Virginia Woolf or Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier
  4. Classic in translation: The Baron in the Trees (1957) by Italo Calvino
  5. Classic by a BIPOC author: Quicksand (1928) by Nella Larsen
  6. Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic: Lots of options here. A Study in Scarlet (1887) or The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I may read both of these since they aren’t long. I also wanted to read Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers and Murder in the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie.
  7. A Classic Short Story Collection: The Martian Chronicles (1950) by Ray Bradbury
  8. Pre-1800 Classic: Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift
  9. A Nonfiction Classic: Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) by Victor Frankl
  10. Classic That’s Been on Your TBR List the Longest: Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville or The Woman in White (1860) by Wilkie Collins
  11. Classic Set in a Place You’d Like to Visit: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo (Paris)
  12. Wild Card Classic: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) by Robert A. Heinlein (went with something fun by a favorite sci-fi author)
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Joel Reads Around the World

One of my goals is to read more translated works, so I’m making that into a fun third challenge where I read 10 translated works from 10 different countries. While I have some ideas, no commitments on selections at this time.

Participating in any reading challenges? Ideas for me? Feel free to let me know with a comment below!