Mrs Caliban: 4/5 Stars
This is a re-released novel from 1982, so if you’ve seen the cover but didn’t know about it, like me, perhaps you’ll be excused. It has a wonderfully smart and funny tone to the whole thing. We find our protagonist, a married housewife, doing household chores, thinking about the silence of her marriage, when she hears a news report of an escaped water monster terrorizing the town. She goes on, prepares for her day, and after time, the monster finds her in her home. She comes to realize very quickly that he’s no monster at all, but instead a very sensitive, alluring, and gentle creature who has escaped from a lab. She of course sleeps with the creature and begins to love him. She also has to hide him from her husband, and what starts as a very literal fish out of water story turns into a comedy of manners. The book is really funny and the narrative voice is very strong.
Now you’re thinking, wow, this sounds a LOT like The Shape of Water! And it does! And it is! So I looked into what I recall the Shape of Water plagiarism claims, and while some seem far-fetched (like Amelie) others don’t. So here’s what I think. Given that between that movie, Splash, the novel The Pisces, and The Little Mermaid….this is just a genre now and there are different takes. It’s so weird that a novel written in the 1960s about a guy hooking up with a dolphin thought that he wasn’t stealing from well….Greek myth among other sources…..well, you get my point.
Puckoon: 2/5 Stars
The only novel by Spike Milligan, most well known in the UK and Ireland for tv comedy appearances and a seven part memoir about his time in WWII, this novel takes place in Ireland at the time of partition in a town literally split in two by the new border, and the troubles therein. The book has a lot of fun comedy tropes like the narrator harassing his characters to motivate them, a lot of puns and other plays on words, and goofiness abound. And of course, plenty of weirdly confident racism. All in all, this feels like an artifact of a book, more than an actual book. It has the feel (and the internal art and narration style) of a Mad magazine book, and for me, today, about as much appeal. I got that sense throughout that I was clearly reading other people’s favorite book or one of their beloved touchstones, but I couldn’t particularly enjoy it. What I did like about it though was some tongue and cheek references to those other two vaunted Irish novelist Flann O’Brien and James Joyce (but given how funny and weird their books already were, it just drew unfortunate contrasts).
Mexican Gothic: 2/5 Stars
The critical reviews I read about this book pretty much nail the ups and downs here. It’s got a great log-line–a teenage Mexican girl finds out her cousin might have married into a weird abusive rich family and she’s sent to investigate; it’s got an excellent cover–seriously, go look at it; and a solid title–especially in terms of promise. But book just seems to be fundamentally missing something (or many somethings). So some things that stand out to me. The tone is absolutely melodramatically syrupy serious and stodgy, so much so that at one point mid-way through I realize there hadn’t been a single joke in the entire book. Later on there is a joke, and it lands like an anvil because it was so rare. It’s a kind of opposite of levity feel to it, where a poorly inserted joke reminds you how desperately not funny the rest of the book is. And books don’t have to be funny (I don’t actually believe this because they should be!), but if the plot of the books asks you to take on some ridiculous plot points — and I don’t mean the plot is bad, just that the plot is fundamentally unserious, as in supernatural tropes, you can’t ask me to be invested in the dangerous and seriousness without something breaking in. The other big issue for me is that there’s little character development. Now that could be a “I am working via tropes of gothic novels” and I get that, but the character development here is shallow. The whole things comes across like a mashup of Joyce Carol Oates or Daphne du Maurier (both of whom have written some perfectly good gothic unfunny novels), but can’t seem to work out how to make the book enjoyable to read.
Sea Monsters: 4/5 Stars
A wonderfully impressionistic and ruminative novel about teenage life in a Mexican town in the 1980s. I think about the best thing a writer can do is give me a familiar but distinct story where I can find a lot of myself in there through shared experiences, or shared sensibilities, or a sense of shared humanity (any makes a book good, all three make it great) and then carefully also provide distinctions and differences that expand those experiences into something really rewarding. So the novel is a kind of breathless meditation of a story where Luisa skips school one day to travel through her country with a boy, look at strange and alluring things, and think about them. She’s working through stresses and drama (and traumas) from her life, while trying to make sense of who she is and what’s going on. Like a lot of good writing about adolescence, this book (though any number of adolescents could read it and enjoy it) has a lens of an adult looking back and trying to reckon with the some of those horrifying mysteries we put ourselves through in our youth. The fundamental powerlessness of being young, the questions, the worries, and the inability to do much about them except try to escape. All of this makes this book warm and sympathetic in ways that books try to, and often fail.
The Hour of the Star: 4/5 Stars
This is a short novella from Clarice Lispector (the Brazillian writer of Russian descent). I am not always the biggest Lispector fan in part because my brain doesn’t always make clear sense of very short, loaded, symbolic writing. But I did really like this one, and felt that the authorial tricks (not gimmicks, but more so playing) were really good. So we have a novella published after the author’s death as well, which is fraught, but the subject of the book is the writing of books. This is moved forward through a series of conversations in the books as well as some interesting authorial intrusions about scenes that have just happened. Because of the shortness of the title and the ideas embedded this works. The story itself is a relatively simple one of a girl in Brazil with little means in terms of money, education, or access trying to find her way through a society that bars people without those things from existing freely. So the conversations about free movement in writing coupled with these scene work together in a kind of pincer movement feeling of closing in. That’s the way the novel feels, but added to that the authorial intrusions about the story and the real-world story of Clarice Lispector dying as she’s finishing this novel the whole thing takes on a kind of four dimensional sense of impending doom and ominous looming presence. Especially given what I find to be very scary, real world feelings of despair and dystopian in writing.