Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3/5
A transposition of Dickens’ David Copperfield from Victorian England to Hillbilly country (the Appalachians). Damon (quickly nicknamed Demon) Copperhead is born to a drug addled and largely unconscious single mother in a rickety trailer. Kingsolver’s first line (getting us right into Dickens territory): “First, I got myself born. A decent crowd was in hand to watch, and they’ve always given me that much: the worst of the job was up to me, my mother being let’s just say out of it.” From this point, the book proceeds for 560 pages documenting the story of this one lovable and very lost boy through a childhood of poverty, foster care, addiction, and loss.

The writing is detailed, heart felt and persuasive — almost too much so as the absolute unfairness of almost everything that happens to Damon is described in such detail and with such clarity on his resulting feelings, it is literally hard (for me) to keep reading. His character is so complete and so genuine that you feel helpless watching him get crushed time after time by people and situations that were not of his making.

Aside from the emotional toll this book took on me, the storytelling was superb, with real depth ranging across a whole slew of people and situations. If you can squeeze out your emotional sponge and put it somewhere out of reach, you’ll love this wild storytelling ride. Some real insight into what it would be like to grow up in this environment.

Thank you to Harper Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 18th, 2022.

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3.5/5

A low-cost housing complex (The Rabbit Hutch) in a dying small town in Indiana, a set of disconnected neighbors, and a build up to a freakish act of violence that somehow weaves them together. It’s a bizarre and convoluted story that races from humor to creepy and back again without a second thought, culminating in an act that brings all the loose strands together. The writing is stunning (see the quotes below), the wildly diverse characters rendered in full technicolor detail with ongoing and minutely documented social commentary attached to individual observations. The characters: a lonely online obituary moderator, a young mother with dark thoughts, a 70ish couple decidedly not keeping up with the times, and a group of four teenagers who have aged out of the foster care system, including Blandine who is seeking meaning in the writings of the mystics — Hildegard von Bingen from the 12th century in particular.

It’s brilliantly done, bringing psychology, philosophy, and reflection to bear on the ways all of these people trying to make sense of their own lives. The author has a pointed ability to see into the motivations, experiences, and fears of those who appear rather anonymous on the outside. From the mystics to sexual grooming to isolation to the environment to the effects of noise pollution (my favorite) — the book was intellectually interesting and humorous in places, but — I admit — overall had a doomed, hopeless feel. I made it a “daytime only” read. However, I did not find the end depressing — I think that is important to note, and I wish I had known that ahead of time!

New words (for me):
Misophonia — People with misophonia are affected emotionally by common sounds — usually those made by others and usually ones that other people don’t pay attention to. The examples above (breathing, yawning, or chewing) create a fight-or-flight response that triggers anger and a desire to escape.
Balayage: a technique for highlighting hair in which the dye is painted on in such a way as to create a graduated, natural-looking effect.

A few quotes, but there are a million more…

“Joan apologized three more times, then returned to her seat, feeling evil. As usual, when she confronted the world about one of its problems, the world suggested that the problem was Joan.”

“…the cackles and squawks of three tween girls overthrow the words on the page, infuriating her. They sound like chimpanzees. Just when Joan thinks the tween cackling will stop, it gets louder, engulfing her flammable peace along with the compartment.”

“Tiffany is insecure, cerebral, and enraged. Pretty in an extraterrestrial sort of way. Addicted to learning because it distracts her from the hostility of her consciousness; she has one of those brains that attacks itself unless it’s completing a difficult task.”

“She did bring a book, but she wasn’t reading it, just bullying the ink into sense.”

“And then on top of that — weaponzing a person’s isolation — it convinced every user that she is a minor celebrity, forcing her to curate some sparkly and artificial sampling of her best experiences, demanding a nonstop social performance that has little in common with her inner life, intensifying her narcissism, multiplying her anxieties, narrowing her worldview.”

“It’s moments like these when Joan fears she is a subject in some elaborate, federally funded psychology experiement.”

“She feels like a demanding and ill-fated houseplant, one that needs light in every season but will die in direct sun, one whose soil requires daily water but will drown if it receives too much, one that takes a fertilizer only sold at a store that’s open three hours a day, one that …

“They are elite, climate controlled, dentally supreme.”

“Frequently, Hope wondered what it would be like to vacation in her cousin’s psychology.”

“She always knew that she was too small and stupid to lead a revolution, but she had hoped she could at least imagine one.”

The Lost For Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland, which will publish June 19, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 5+

Welcome to the spiky interior world of Loveday Cardew. By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

Loveday has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” Not bad!

She works for Archie — the rich, eccentric, and larger than life (in more ways than one) bookstore owner who feels that “good relationships are more important than being able to see your feet.” Through the accidental recovery of a Liverpool Poet book, she meets Nathan — a cravat wearing poet who daylights as a magician. Nathan teaches her that you can “write a different story for yourself” — both in terms of the future and the impact you allow from the past.

The book is simultaneously a tender love story, a positive recovery tale, and a foray into the literary world. There is no catalog of horrors, but we do follow the trajectory of a woman who is establishing her own life in the wake of a tragic childhood event. I appreciate that this event is not painted in black and white — there is a realistic complexity to understanding how things happened the way they did and what she can do to become a fully realized human being. Here is a hint — performance poetry has an unexpected role to play!

A great comic style. As an example, when admitting that used book stores have to pulp the extras, Loveday says: “Five million copies of The Da Vinci Code were published in 2003. How many of them does the world still need fifteen years later? A lot less than five million.” (FYI, personally, I might suggest “a lot less than five” — not a huge fan).

Some of my favorite lines:

“She seemed the type who went through her days tutting like a pneumatic disapproval machine.”

“Nathan came over and the nearer he got the more I wanted to run, and cry, and touch him, and blurt, and hide, and kiss him and generally behave as though Barbara Cartland had just sneezed me out.” Love the comic ending on a sentence that was hurling into heavy-duty romance territory!

“It felt as though his words, rather than heading out into the air, were falling off the edge of his lower lip, drooping into my hair, and sliding down the side of my head and into my ear.”

Top recommendation!