My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

“Horror’s not a symptom, it’s a love affair.”

My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a magnificently chaotic ode to slasher, one that demonstrates an unparalleled knowledge of the genre, its logic & tropes. I saw quite a lot of reviews describing this as a slow burner, and sì, in some ways Stephen Graham Jones withholds a lot of the chaos & gore for the finale however, Jade’s antics and internal monologue are very much adrenaline-fueled, so much so that I struggled to keep with up with her. Jade’s awareness of and excitement at being in a slasher gives the narrative a strong meta angle, one that results in a surprisingly playful tone, one that belies the gruesome nature of these killings.

Jade Daniels, a teenage girl of Blackfoot descent who lives in Proofrock, Idaho, is in her senior year of high school but has no real plans or aspirations besides obsessing over slashers. She’s the town’s resident loner goth, who lives with her dad, an abusive alcoholic. Jade is angry: at her ne’er-do-well dad, at his friend(s), for being creeps, at authority figures, who don’t really listen to her, at her mum, for bailing on her, and almost everyone & everything Proofrock-related. The only things keeping her going are slashers, and she dedicates her every waking moment to them, to the point that her recollections of their plots, characters, and tropes, become an inextricable part of who she is. Jade has no friends to speak of and is regarded by most of the townspeople as being a bit of a joke and a total ‘weirdo’. The only people who keep an eye out for her are her history teacher, Mr Holmes, and Sheriff Hardy. Jade spends most of her time lurking in the shadows, dying her hair emo colours, creeping around Indian Lake and Camp Blood, the town’s local haunts.

When some magnates from out of town begin developing a piece of land across the lake, Jade senses a change and is proven correct when a body count begins…what’s more, the daughter of one of these uber-wealthy developers, would make the perfect final girl. Jade knows that a slasher cycle is about to begin. Rather than being alarmed by the realization that her reality is now that of a slasher, Jade is freaking excited. She has no plans to stop the slasher but wants to see the story unfold, so she does a lot more lurking about, hoping to figure out the identity of the slasher and witness the slasher cycle from up close. Her obsession with Letha does lead her to reach out to her, but her ‘you are a final girl’ prep talk doesn’t go down well. As I said, Jade’s exhilarated inner monologue is hard to keep up with, however, I was also so taken by her that I was more than happy to follow in her chaotic steps. Jade makes full use of her encyclopaedic knowledge of the slasher (sub)genre, and provides a myriad of references and asides that link what is happening in her town to existing slasher flicks, comparing the slasher’s modus operandi, speculating about their identity and their next victims. Meanwhile Mr Holmes, Sheriff Hardy, and Letha are quite concerned about her and despite the brutal deaths that are happening don’t believe Jade’s slasher theory. Things of course escalate, and Jade finds herself in the middle of a blood bath…

The plot is very much heavy on Jade’s internal, and often inchoate, musings and ramblings about slashers. Having spent most of her life venerating slashers, and hating everything and everyone around her, she’s positively thrilled by the prospect of a slasher going on a killing spree in Proofrock. Sure, her eagerness at other people’s violent and bloody deaths certainly raises a few questions, and people like Letha & co believe that her obsession with slashers and her conviction that a slasher is responsible for the deaths and freaky occurrences that are happening in Proofrock is just a deflection…while they are not wrong Jade isn’t ready to go there, throwing herself into her analysis of ‘her’ slasher.

There were so many elements that I loved in this novel. Despite my almost perpetual confusion at Jade’s references (I went through a horror movie phase aeons ago but have grown out of it since and never really delved into the slasher subgenre) and the breakneck speed of her internal monologue, I was utterly engrossed by her voice. Sure, she’s not what I would call a good or likeable person, however, her penchant for morbidity and her unrelenting slasher enthusiasm made for an endearingly offbeat character. She very much makes the novel. This is how you execute the Not Like Other Girls trope. Readers are made aware of Jade’s striving to be different: her botched hair-dyeing, her trying-hard-to-be-edgy-but-is-actually-just-grubby look, her commitment to playing the town’s goth girl, her sometimes willful and sometimes unintentional disregard of social niceties and norms…Jade really seems to make an effort to be perceived this way, to be seen as the slasher-obsessed girl and a ‘weirdo’. The end result is that Jade is different, not better than others, just different. Now, for all her self-dramatizing we can also clearly see that Jade’s edgy girl persona has become an inextricable aspect of who she is. Whether she became this way due to trauma, or whether her commitment to the role was such that she eventually became that person, it’s up to the readers’ interpretation. I for one read Jade as being a mix of those things. She grew up in a very unstable environment, with no support system to speak of, one of her parental figures is an abusive drunkard, the other was not only complicit in said abuse but eventually left Jade to fend for herself. Understandably, given her lack of control in her life, the violent logic that operates in slashers would appeal to her. However, similarly to Shirley Jackson’s alienated and alienating (anti)-heroines I wonder whether different circumstances would really have made a difference for Jade…
Anyway, her very presence in the story is fantastic for a number of reasons. She knows that her ‘existing’ in this slasher is an ‘aberration’: not only does she know too much about slashers but people like her do not usually feature in these movies. She flits between wanting to see sh*t hit the fan and wanting the slasher to well…slash her. One way or another, she’s hyped for it and not quite the screaming and scared side character that usually gets killed off in these films. Also, Jade’s intensity and morbidity reminded me of Merricat and Wednesday Addams, and similarly to them, she finds that other people are put out by what they perceive to be her strange behaviour and demeanour. When Jade begins talking or thinking about slashers and revisiting local horror lore, she seems wholly unaware of other people and the world around her. Yet, the other characters react in a very realistic wtf is her deal way that results in many surprisingly funny scenes. Jade’s zealousness over slashers also brought to mind, I kid you not, Patrick Bateman, specifically that scene with the card (where his overreaction is so extreme that he begins to sweat) and his music monologues. The conversational tone of the narrative adds a level of immediacy to the story and really work in capturing Jade’s wry voice. There were elements of absurdism that brought to mind The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher.

As things get bloodier and bloodier we do see a shift in Jade, but I appreciated that her character development ultimately remains very subtle and she remains her slasher-obsessed self. Learning more about her past and her trauma does ‘contextualize’ some of her behaviours, however, but we can’t quite reason away her slasher-mania as being the inevitable result of that trauma. Her ambiguousness made her all the more interesting to read about. While we learn all about what she thinks of slashers—its precursors & incarnations, its hits and flops, its tropes—much about her remains inaccessible to us. I didn’t understand her most of the time, and incongruently enough that made me like her even more.

The writing and atmosphere in My Heart Is a Chainsaw super solid. The writing has this snappy, energetic quality to it that not only really amplifies Jade’s slasher-obsession but it really adds to the action & otherwise murder-y sequences. The prose was also very effective when it came to pacing, as Jones’ rapid sentences really add fuel to the storyline. The atmosphere too is great. The narrative’s self-referential nature actually ends up adding to the story’s slasher ambience, as Jones’ is able to not only pay homage to slashers through his storyline (through’s jade’s non-stop references and asides about slashers to the actual implementation of the genre’s conventions) but he also makes this slasher his own, repeatedly subverting our expectations.

My Heart Is a Chainsaw was a riot. We have a gritty storyline, plenty of humour (from those ah-ah-that’s-funny moments to humor that is more on the lines of that’s-kind-of-fcked-up-so-why-am-i-laughing), and a protagonist whose flabbergasting antics I was equal parts obsessed and appalled by. Jones’ really captures Jade’s loneliness and anger, the long-lasting consequences of abuse, the complex ways trauma manifests into one’s behavior & personality…and of course, given the book’s focus on slashers and on being a slasher, Jade’s story heavily deals with revenge and violence…
I’m really looking forward to the next instalments…(am i the only one who read jade as queer-coded?)

ps the first time i tried reading this i wasn’t feeling it and dnfed it early on so i can see why the book’s overall ratings aren’t sky high…still, if you are in the mood to read extensively about slashers or don’t mind a morbid and chaotic af protagonist, i think you should definitely give this one a chance.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little

Action, cut, action, cut, action, cut, action, cut. These aren’t commands, not for me. They’re more like everyday punctuation. A capital letter. A period. An indication that I should pay attention to what’s going on in the middle.”

Pretty as a Picture tells a slow-burn type of suspenseful story, one that I would definitely recommend to movie aficionados as this novel shines a light on the realities of the film industry: from the demanding, if not downright tyrannical, directors and agents to the power dynamics and hierarchies that are at play in a film crew. This behind-the-scenes setting is perhaps the most interesting and dazzling aspect of this book.

Although there are certain elements within the narrative that would not be out of place in a thriller, Pretty as a Picture is above all a character-driver story. Marissa, our protagonist and narrator, makes this novel. While she may initially strike readers as yet another introverted ‘not like other people’ character—who is later on reassured by others about her looks and personality—Marissa not only experience things differently but others are aware of this and often make the point of commenting on it. Her poor social skills, her ‘ticks’, her struggle to read or understand other people’s tone of voice or body language, her dislike of physical contact….these all contribute to making small everyday things—such any type of social interaction—much harder for her.
Films help her navigate the world. When she doesn’t know what to do or say she turns to the films she’s watched. Sometimes she simply draws strength from the characters of her favourite movies, while on other occasions someone, something, or someplace might remind her of a certain film.

When her best friend, and former creative partner, moves out of their apartment and with her douche-y boyfriend, Marissa finds herself in need of an editing gig. Her agent pushes into accepting an offer for a film based on a true murder case. Marissa is told that the previous editor suddenly left so the director, Tony Rees, is desperate for someone to replace him. Marissa is taken to a remote island where she unearths more than one mystery: from the dismissal of various members of staff to the growing tension between the people working on the film…something is afoot. Marissa, alongside some new acquaintances, plays detective in order to find just what is going on this set.

The murder aspect of the story kicks starts around the half-way mark. Before then we are introduced to the story’s many characters and we get a chance to truly get to know Marissa. The slow yet atmospheric start gives way to an increasingly urgent storyline. There are some twists that are somewhat predictable but I still enjoyed seeing the way in which things unfolded.
Marissa is a distinctive narrator. Her interactions with others could be either funny, awkward, or tense, and I appreciated the way in which Elizabeth Little depicted her. We read about her vulnerabilities, her strengths, and her quirks.
The chemistry between Marissa and Isaiah adds a nice touch to the story.

Interspersed throughout Marissa’s narrative are snippets from her a true-crime podcast, ‘Dead Ringer’, run by two teenage girls who, like Marissa, are sleuths of sorts. These sections give us glimpses of what is to come, without ever revealing too much.
Filled with cinematic references Pretty as a Picture offers a sharp commentary about the film industry, the dead-girl trope, the way in which true-crime glamorises death, as well as insight into someone who is labelled as ‘different’ by their society.
Overall, Pretty as a Picture was a thoroughly entertaining novel and I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoyed The Lost Night, books by Riley Sager, or Still Lives.

my rating: ★★★½

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Readers, I am disappointed.

Plain Bad Heroines was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases…maybe I should have ‘hyped’ it so much. This is certainly an ambitious novel, one that is a few hundred pages too long. There were elements that I liked, but these were ultimately outweighed by my frustration toward the tone of the narrative, the dual storylines, and the characters.
Plain Bad Heroines begins at Brookhants School in 1902 when two students, Clara and ‘Flo’, who happen to be lovers are swallowed by “a fog of wasps”. Another death soon rocks the school, and all of the girls shared a fascination for Mary MacLane’s work (The Story of Mary Maclane & I Await the Devil’s Coming). The narrator, who playfully reminds us of their presence with plenty of direct addresses, footnotes, and asides. We do not know the identity of the narrator, but they posses an almost omniscient knowledge of the events they are recounting.
In the present three young women—all in their twenties—work on a film adaptation on a book called ‘The Happenings at Brookhants’. The book was written by one of these girls, Merritt (a character whom I lowkey hated) who happens to know Elaine Brookhants. Then we have Harper Harper, an up and coming actress/influencer whose personality revolves around her celebrity status, who will play Flo, and Audrey Wells (I actually had to check out her name as I could not remember it on top of my head…that’s how memorable she was) the daughter of a ‘scream queen’ who so far has an acted in B movies and ads.
The section set in the present doesn’t involve these three girls bonding or finding more about what happened at Brookhants. We are never told very much about Merritt’s book, so we don’t know how much they know about the whole affair. This timeline is also not all that concerned with filmmaking. What this storyline cares about is famous people: how they are followed by journalists or fans, how their lives revolve around instagram, how little privacy they have, and of their self-fashioning ways. The three girls do not really along. Their meeting, which happens quite a good chunk into this slow burner of a novel, reads like something that belongs in the realms ofGossip Girl or Scream Queens. And here I was hoping for an actual horror or at least something in realms of American Horror Story (the first seasons of course).
Our not-as-half-as-amusing-as-they-think-they-are narrator never really delves into these characters. It mostly describes what they are saying or doing. It focuses more on their ‘role’ (Harper=celebrity, Audrey=daughter of an 80s horror actress, Merritt=not like other girls writer). Their personalities are…kind of not there. Merritt is the only one with a semblance of one, and it ain’t a good one. The narrative tries really hard to establish Merritt’s ‘prickly’ personality (in a few occasion Merritt says or asks something generic and we are told “Merrit said like Merritt would” or “Merrit asked like Merritt would”). She’s petty, cruel, and domineering. She’s given a Sad Backstory™, so Readers are meant to let her behaviour slide. Except that this Reader could and would not. She seems blissfully unaware of her own privilege (she’s in her early twenties and has published a book, her mother teaches at a university and she has access to the library there, they are adapting her book and want her to be part of the process). She’s also not ‘plain’ looking. Her hair is pink because she’s Not Like Other Girls™ (a random character tells her she has “great fucking hair”) and she is also called hot by Harper. Yet, throughout the course of the book, Merritt acts like a fifteen-year-old girl who is spending too much time on Tumblr. Her pettiness is unwarranted and uncalled for, her jealousy is also over the top (she’s only just met Harper and she already jealous at the possibility of Audrey working alongside her…yet she knows that Harper is already in an open relationship).
Harper is also not plain. She’s famous, beloved, and uber cool. She has short hair, tattoos, smokes, and rides a bike. And of course, she also has a Sad Backstory™. The story mentions some family-related drama, but this a thread that is never truly resolved. Her motivations, desires, fears…who knows? I sure don’t. Maybe she likes Merritt? Maybe not?
While Audrey may not be plain looking, her personality is definitely plain. She doesn’t seem to possess any discernible traits.
Anyway, these three ‘work’ together (there are actually very few scenes that take place while they are working on the film sadly) and weird things start happening (we have wasps, weird weather, and a general heebie jeebies atmosphere).

The storyline set in the past had much more potential. Sadly, it doesn’t focus on Clara or Flo (their lives prior to their peculiar deaths of course) or Brookhants but rather it follows the headmistress of the school who lives in a house nicknamed ‘Spite Manor’. She lives with her lover, who also teaches at Brookhants. This timeline was definitely more Gothic, and there were scenes that struck me as quite atmospheric and well-executed. Sadly however the relationship between the two women was a let down, as it never struck me as the complex love story I was hoping for. Creepy things begin to happen, and they begin to grow apart. The deaths of three of their pupils forces them to question whether the ‘supernatural’ is to be blamed.

I was hoping for a Gothic love story, with some horror undertones. What we actually get is a work that is extremely meta. Some may find the narrator to be amusing, I mostly didn’t. The mystery is the most disappointing aspect of the whole book. It was very anticlimactic, as we simply get a chapter in which our narrator explains things to us. Flo, Clara, and the other girl are unimportant, they function as the Dead Girl trope. We don’t learn anything more about them after the 20% mark or so nor do we learn more about the book Merritt has written about them.
The storyline set in the present never reaches its apotheosis. Nothing major happens, there is no overlapping between the two timelines.
While I loved to see so many queer women, the relationships they have with one another are…a let down. Mean Girls ahoy. We have Merritt who says things like “Significant eye roll” or scenes in which characters take selfies, duplies, even quadruplies (uuuugh). More attention is paid to their hair and clothes than their actual personalities. Harper and Merritt begin flirting as soon as they meet, and later on, when there are more scenes of them together, they mostly bicker. They are sort of physically attracted to each other, but there is no real connection between them (I craved longing, passion, LOVE).
The creepy elements…aren’t all that creepy? If you have spheksophobia you might find this book scary…I mean, wasps do not inspire any real fear in me (I don’t like them, they strike me as kind of mean, in fact, I love CalebCity’s sketch on them). Mary’s writing is extremely camp and I just found it silly. While I could see why the girls back in the 1900s could be enthralled by it…I had a harder time believing that Merritt or Harper could find it as compelling.

Perhaps I approached this book with the wrong expectations (I saw Sarah Waters’ name on the cover so…) but Plain Bad Heroines was not the Gothic novel I was hoping it to be. The ‘past’ timeline was far from being a satisfying historical tale of paranormal suspense (I was hoping for something on the lines of Picnic at Hanging Rock meets A Great and Terrible Beauty). On the plus side: at least it was hella sapphic. I also liked the illustrations by Sara Lautman (I wish there had been more) and the chapter names could be kind funny.

Anyway, just because I didn’t think that this book was the bees knees (or perhaps I should say wasps knees) doesn’t mean that you won’t love it as it may as well be your cup of tea.

 

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars out of 5 stars

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Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese

“We become eternal by being held in memory’s loving arms.”

After I read Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk, I was looking forward to reading more of his work. And Ragged Company did not disappoint. Similarly to Medicine Walk, which felt like a long conversation between a dying man and his son, Ragged Company presents its readers with a dialogue-heavy narrative. Amelia One Sky, Timber, Double Dick and Digger are the makeshift family at the heart of this novel. After enduring personal tragedies and hardships they now live on the street, referring to themselves as rounders, where they spend their days drifting from street to street, on the lookout for warm spots, food, and drink. During a particularly cold winter they start seeking refuge in movie theatres, where they find themselves being swept away by the films they watch. They repeatedly come across the same man, a former journalist called Granite, who also views films as an escape. After the loss of his wife and child Granite views films as an escape from the pain of his lonely existence. While not everyone is keen on his presence, Digger for one is particularly against ‘Square Johns’ (that is ‘respectable’ members of society), our rounders form a sort of companionship with Granite.
When Digger picks up a winning lottery ticket, for the value of 13.5 million dollars, their lives are irrevocably changed. Because they don’t have any proper identification they seek Granite’s help. Although their newfound wealth drastically changes their lives and lifestyles, they have difficulty assimilating back into society. They carry their trauma with them, and are all similarly haunted by their past. As each character tries to confront their past actions and mistakes, the bond between our makeshift family deepens. Things don’t go smoothly for all, and at times no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to forgive yourself for the terrible things that you did.
As I said this is a very dialogue-oriented story. Whereas in Medicine Walk descriptions of the natural landscape offer breaks in the father/son talk, in Ragged Company the focus remains on the characters’ conversations and arguments. Still, First Nation beliefs and teachings around spirituality illuminate its narrative.
Although this isn’t an easy or fast read, I loved it. Wagamese has a gift for creating realistic characters, and an ear for dialogue. Although he doesn’t loose himself in sentimentalities he demonstrates careful empathy when writing about his characters’ suffering. Because the story is set in 1980s the films our characters watch and discuss could easily seem dated or obscure, but thanks to Wagamese skill for conveying his characters impressions of these films they don’t (if anything he made me want to watch those films I didn’t know about). Plus Cinema Paradiso gets a mention!
If you happen to have read other books by Wagamese or you watched and enjoyed Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers chances are Ragged Company is the book for you.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Ayoade on Top by Richard Ayoade — book review

Ayoade on Top is a hilariously strange book. Richard Ayoade’s critical analysis of ‘View from the Top’ (a 2003 romcom starring Gwyneth Paltrow) is a delight to read. Throughout the course of this short book Ayoade argues that this long-forgotten film is a modern masterpiece.
I found Ayoade’s dry wit and his clever observations regarding the film’s many ‘subtexts’ and his asides on Paltrow’s career to be ‘on point’. Ayoade’s humour may not be for everyone but I found Ayoade on Top to be a thoroughly diverting book.
You can watch him talk of this book here.
I would definitely recommend this to those who like in-depth takedowns of bad movies. Adroit, satirical, and whimsical, Ayoade on Top is a really entertaining read.

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

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Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue — book review

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“That’s what it comes down to, I suppose. I was obsessed with what I was, because I had no idea who I was.”

Scenes of a Graphic Nature is a thought-provoking and engrossing novel that is far darker than its brightly coloured cover suggests. After reading and being captivated by Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel, Promising Young Women, I had really high hopes for Scenes of a Graphic Nature.
The first person narration is engrossing and adds a sense of urgency to the story which follows Charlie Regan. Charlie, who is twenty-nine, is deeply unhappy: there is her father’s cancer, her strained relationship with her mother and her more successful best friend, her non-existent ‘career’ in the ever competitive film industry. In an attempt to make some extra cash Charlie has even begun selling photos, of a ‘graphic’ nature, of herself online. Given her not-so-great circumstances, Charlie feels understandably lost.
She finds some comfort in her father, whom she idolise, and his stories, one of which an account of his having survived a terrible tragedy. Inspired by this Charlie, alongside Laura, worked on ‘It Takes A Village’ a film that was based on her father’s story. When the film gains the attention of an Irish film festival, Charlie and Laura are invited to the event. With her father’s encouragement, Charlie set off to Ireland, hoping to find some guidance in the country she regards as her ancestral home. It happens that Charlie and Laura end up in Clipim, an island off the west coast of Ireland, and the place in which her father grew up. The people of Clipim however are not very forthcoming about the past, especially towards outsiders. Charlie however is convinced that someone is hiding the truth about the tragedy that irrevocably shaped her father’s life.

Similarly to Promising Young Women, there is a sense of unease permeating the narrative. From Charlie’s awkward interactions with her mother and best friend, to her sense of disillusionment towards her work and love life. Clipim magnifies the story’s ambivalent atmosphere and O’Donoghue does not shy away from portraying the ramifications of the British occupation of Ireland. Over the course of the novel Charlie, who is quick to emphasise that she is indeed ‘half Irish’, realises that she has mythologised Ireland and her own connection to this country. While I was very much interested in Charlie’s journey, and in the story’s engagement with colonialism, national and self identity, and in her shrewd yet nuanced portrayal of Irish–British relations, the plot tangles itself in unnecessary knots. The latter half of the novel veers into clichéd territories: we have the Town with a Dark Secret™, almost a la The Wicker Man, which is almost entirely populated by physically and verbally ‘hostile’ individuals, There Be Strangers™. Charlie herself makes many stupid choices (which do create tension), and seems unable to read a room. Towards the end the story becomes increasingly disconcerting, which in some ways I was expecting given how hallucinatory Promising Young Women ended up being. Charlie hits rock bottom, some bad shit goes on, and then we get a hurried explanation and ending. The violence of certain characters seems totally brushed aside, which was rather unsatisfying. Also, Charlie’s ‘investigation’ seemed less an investigation that her getting drunk and making wild accusations.
Even as the story become increasingly confusing, and frustrating, I was still absorbed by O’Donoghue’s prose. I liked the way she writes and the themes/ideas she explores. Her main character is an imperfect human being who can be selfish and reckless. Her loneliness and her disillusionment however are rendered in an emphatic light. Certain relationships, such as the one between Charlie and Laura, were believably messy.
Yet, as much as I appreciated certain aspects of the story, part of me knows that the Clipim’s residents were depicted in a less cartoonish way. In spite of Charlie’s interesting inner monologue, the storyline could have maintained a better focus. Still, I would thoroughly recommend this books as O’Donoghue’s writing is incredibly compelling and in spite of her blunders Charlie was an all too realistic main character.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today by Rachel Vorona Cote

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Not only was Too Much not enough but what little it offers is wholly problematic.
This book would have made slightly more sense if it had been published in 2010 instead of 2020. Its analysis of the social norms and literature emerging from the Victorian era are far from insightful or innovative. There are so many referencers to films that are now considered outdated and of little cultural relevance. Cote’s theory of too muchness is unclear and indecisive, and her chapters do not have clear topics.
Also, rather than normalising women who are viewed or have been viewed as ‘too much’ Cote glorifies them while tearing down women who do not fall under this category. What about female solidarity?
But I could have looked past all of this. After all, feminism is ‘in’, and there is nothing wrong with jumping on the feminist bandwagonexcept that I soon picked up on something rather disconcerting: Cote romanticises and idealises mental illness and self-harming.

From my rating, and my ranty review below, you can probably guess that I disliked this book, a lot.
For those readers who want to read some interesting, and feminist, analysis of Victorian literature I thoroughly recommend you check out Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.
If you have the time I also recommend Cynthia Nixon’s Be a Lady They Said in which she reads a poem about the impossible and contradictory standards society imposes on women.

My Review

In Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today Rachel Vorona Cote’s sets out to address the way in which mores and literature emerging from the Victorian era still bind women today. Combining cultural criticism with personal experiences Cote examines Victorian classics as well as fiction, films, and songs from the last and the current century. Throughout the course of Too Much Cote turns to her theory of ‘too muchness’. These perceived excesses—which range from emotional (such as crying) to the physical (from one’s physique to one’s hair)—make women undesirable within their society. Cote doesn’t clearly specify whether these excesses are seen as excess because they belong to or are originating from a woman, and would not therefore be seen as excessive in a man, or whether these excesses are a perfect response to existence in a patriarchal world.

In her introduction Cote writes that Too Much “draws significantly from nineteenth-century literature and culture, grounding its discussion in a historical period when women’s too muchness underwent vigorous medical scrutiny, routinely receiving a specific, vexed verdict” and that she will turn to Victorian works in order to gain accesses to female perspectives (Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, Charlotte Perkins Gilman) as these works convey the Victorian period’s anxiety regarding ‘the woman question’ (from their bodily autonomy to their legal rights and their role in a marriage dominated culture).
What I don’t understand is why Cote stresses this Victorian connection when in actuality she includes works by Jane Austen and dedicates almost an entire chapter to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels. Her introduction and the title of her book suggest that Cote will specifically compare Victorian literature and culture to ‘today’s’…why then dedicate entire chapters to Montgomery, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), or Britney Spears?

Cote’s analysis of these Victorian classics offer no new insights into these works or their authors.
After the introduction there are two chapters, ‘Chatterbox’ and ‘Nerve’, which seem to focus on the same subject: girls who are seen as ‘passionate’ in literature (Jane Eyre and Anne Shirley). The next chapter focuses on female friendships in a rather inconclusive manner. Is Cote telling us that female friendships are bound to have an obsessive if not toxic nature? Is she criticising Noah Baumbach’s Francesca Ha? Why then add her own personal experience with a friendship with another woman which was ‘too much’? Especially since in her case she suggests that one of the reasons why this friendship ended was because of her more-than-friendly-feelings towards her friend?
Cote writes of the sisterly bonds in Goblin Market and The Woman in White, suggesting that both of them have sapphic undercurrents (while I can see why the sisters in Rossetti’s poem can be seen as being lovers, Wilkie Collin’s sisters are merely affectionate with one another). Then she seems to complain about the way in which Anglo-American society would view a close bond between two women or sisters as sexual…and yet she is doing exactly the same thing. More importantly, this chapter also includes a long winded and unnecessary analysis of Heavenly Creatures a film that is rather dated, does not portray a typical female friendship, and most importantly, was based on the 1954 Parker–Hulme murder case. Why focus on this long-forgotten film instead of more recent releases which focus on female friendships? She mentions Elena Ferrante…so why not write more about her series? Or question the trend of female doubles in domestic thrillers?
We then have a chapter on the ‘Body’, and Cote once more writes her own personal experiences, this time with the notion of being ‘too fat’. Here she examines Victorian’s romanticisation of thin female bodies and the way in which a small physique and lack of appetite often denoted one’s altruistic and morally upright nature (such as Charles Dicken’s Dorrit). Once again Cote seems to criticise Victorian’s ideal of femininity and beauty, implying that one’s physical appearance (such as one’s natural hair) should not be regarded as reflecting one’s personality…and then she goes on to praise Lena Dunham from Girls for a nude scene in an “aesthetic defiance”: Lena “someone larger than a size two” possesses a body that “is not tame” but is “thick, firm, implacable” and “try as you might to sidle next to her in a murky bar or tug her arm on a dance floor or nudge her to the side on the subway, she will not budge”.
She finishes the chapter with the following:
“But when we are fat, when our hair defies gravity, when our noses are not perfectly pinchable, we’re interpreted as wild and unruly, and often foreign. This—I know, I feel—is good. We remind all those buttressed and soothed by patriarchy that we cannot always be trusted to comply and, thus, we become threats, fuses primed to be lit.”
Throughout this chapter Cote criticises the way in which previous centuries have dictated the way in which a female body should be like maintaining the argument that women should not be judged on the basis of their appearance…and then she goes on to do exactly the same, merely flipping this idea over so that women who are not skinny, do not have perfectly symmetrical faces or bodies, or have gravity defying hair cannot be tamed: they are ‘stronger’, more unruly, more confident…women who straighten their hair, go to the gym, get plastic surgery are ‘less’, they are tame, happy to let a patriarchal society dictate the way in which they should look. It appears that Cote is judging women on the basis of their appearance. Mmh…there is something vaguely phrenological about this way of thinking.
Also, Cote seems to gloss over the fact that it is often women who police other women’s bodies+appearance…then again, she is doing exactly the same thing.
I have ‘wild’ curly hair, and I always dislike when strangers or friends assume that it is indicative of my personality. It isn’t…tis’ my hair, nothing more, nothing less.
Cote also misses out on discussing why women are made to feel so aware of their appearance and why ideals of beauty are constantly changing (apropos the Victorians she could have pointed out that small waists are back in fashion).

In the following chapter ‘Crazy’ she discusses mental health. Here she starts with an over-analysis of lyrics from Lana Del Rey’s songs, and seems to view Lana’s songs as autobiographical (why are female musicians/singers always questioned about their lyrics in a way that their male counterparts are not? Can’t women write a song that is unrelated to their own life experiences?).
You would think that Cote would mention ‘the Woman in the Attic’ trope—popularised in Victorian literature—but before writing of Jane Eyre she discusses Pride and Prejudice…which is confusing given that 1) it is not from the Victorian era, 2) does not have a ‘crazy’ female character. According to Cote however it is Mrs. Bennet who is seen as ‘crazy’….wait, what? I don’t think many readers have ever regarded Mrs. Bennet as an example of the ‘crazed’ female. Mrs. Bennet says that her ‘nerves’ are delicate but to me it seems quite clearly an excuse to get other people to do what she wanted them to (in fact she reminds of Frederick Fairlie from The Woman in White). Also, Cote seems to have forgotten that P&P is a work of satire…
When Cote finally addresses the most ‘famous’, or infamous, ‘mad’ female character from Victorian lit. her reading adds nothing new, she unearths no new depths in the implications of her portrayal. She then discusses Britney Spears…at length. She seems aware that celebrities do not reflect the experiences of a ‘normal’ person…so why spend so many pages on the “plight of Britney Spears”? Wouldn’t it have been more relevant to examine why so many women are mis-diagnosed? Or why female neurodiversity is only now being openly talked about? Why bother criticising Silver Linings Playbook because it pays more attention to its male protagonist than Jennifer Lawrence’s character? And once again discussing celebrities such as Demi Lovato? Anything and everything that a celebrity does is magnified, so surely we shouldn’t compare their experiences to the rest of the female population?
Only in the last page does Cote mention ‘positive’ portrayals of female mental illness: Crazy Ex-girlfriend, Tuca and Bertie, and Jessica Jones. What about the thousands of YA books that openly discuss mental illness and addiction? Or the rise in novels that focus on female characters who are on the autistic spectrum?
As pointed out by
Emma Sarappo in her review of Too Much, Cote seems devoted to “the cult of the difficult woman”. In this chapter Cote hints that women who are labelled as ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ experience the world more keenly than those who aren’t. Depression shouldn’t be regarded as a medal of valour or some such nonsense. Those who struggle with their mental health or substance abuse should not be shamed nor should we romanticise or fetishise their struggle. Yet Cote seems to equated ‘troubled’ with ‘special’.
Also, in this chapter Cote suggests that alcoholism is condoned in men…which…really?!

The last few chapters talk about female sexuality, cheating, ageism…and cutting. The chapter on cutting is the most problematic chapter in this book. Here once again Cote mixes her personal experiences with her analysis of Victorian classics and contemporary culture. She writes of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, and finishes off by discussing Prozac Nation, Sharp Objects, and Girl, Interrupted. Here, I was momentarily fooled because finally, Cote seemed to be praising shows that do not romanticise mental illness or self-harming. Sharp Objects and Girl, Interrupted are personal favourites of mine so I was glad to see that their portrayal of self-harming resonated with Cote. Sadly, Cote completely destroys her previous arguments—in which she stresses that self-harming should not be used as a gimmick or idealised—by writing the following:
“A confession: I cut myself in the midst of writing this chapter, old habits quickened, I suppose, by the barb of memory. I am still learning that self-harm is not narcissism. A woman who is cutting is not indulging; she is carving out a route to survival, the only one that’s perceptible to her. And although she is no culprit, although she owes neither defense nor apology, she is already ashamed.”

Let’s remember that this is not a memoir about self-harming. This book focuses on cultural criticism and Victorian literature. Cote’s personal experiences can be somewhat relevant but they should not dominate the narrative of Too Much especially if she uses them romanticise mental illness and self-harming. Surely she is aware that her audience will be mostly composed by impressionable undergraduates? Surely she knows that this last ‘wink wink, old habits die hard’ comment is wholly inappropriate? Is she suggesting that the only way to write and understand self-harming is by doing the same thing? Or that once a self-harmer, always a self-harmer? That self-harming is an understandable response to existing in a patriarchal world or being labelled ‘too much’?
After reading those lines I felt nauseated. Her words were incredibly triggering and I had to take some time off reading. When I once again picked up Too Much I merely skimmed through the last chapters.

Cote’s popcorn feminism is simplistic and superficial. She tries to keep up with today’s woke language but ends up expressing antiquated ideas: that women should be judged on the basis of their appearance, that we should idealise mental illnesses, addiction, and self-harming, that being sexually active is more empowering than being inactive….generalisation after generalisation, Cote’s theory of ‘too muchness’ does not expand on why there are so many words, in the English language, with bad connotations, which are used almost exclusively to describe women’s behaviour/attributes/traits. Not all of these words point to ‘excess’: take prudish for example. Surely, women today are not only constrained by notions of too muchness but by the possibility of not being enough. Victorian’s ideal of a woman is no longer popular. While Victorian reviewers criticised Jane Eyre for being a bad heroine, modern readers adore Jane. If anything we criticise heroines who strike us as passive, as not being enough. Yet, Cote seems stuck in the early 2000s.
There are so many shows and books shows that depict in a non-judgemental way female desire, addiction, mental illness, friendships, and even masturbation.

I’m not sure what else to add…and I have nearly run out of characters…Too Much was problematic, inconclusive, and perpetuates outdated ideas.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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What Red Was by Rosie Price — review


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What Red Was by Rosie Price
★★★★✰ 4 stars

What Red Was is a stark and riveting debut novel that vividly depicts the lasting effects of rape on a young woman’s mind, body, and life. This is not for the ‘faint of heart’, and I am not writing this as some sort of snide but more of a heads-up since this novel portrays rape and trauma in an unflinchingly way. At times I was overwhelmed. The story will make you angry, sad, distressed, all the sort of emotions you should feel when reading about such a horrific act.
Another thing that I appreciated is that the story didn’t reduce its characters to convenient stereotypes. Nor did it glamorise depression, addiction(s), or self-harm. (Unlike a certain other novel out there…)
Kate wasn’t reduced to the abominable violation committed against her. She was a relatable and interesting character, and following her life prior to ‘that day’ really brought her character to life. Her friendship with Max was complex and poignant, and it didn’t fall victim to the friends-to-lovers cliché. The way their relationship changes over the years saddened me, yet it seemed inevitable and far too realistic.
Initially I thought that following the perspectives of Max’s family members detracted attention from Kate’s storyline but it soon becomes apparent that by shifting the focus to them made them into far more fleshed out characters. However uneasy this shift made me feel (especially when we read of the thoughts and general worldview of Max’s cousin) it gave the novel a more ‘democratic’ approach, were everyone, regardless of their likability had page-time.
This story is relevant, raw, and compelling even in its darkest moments. While I wished for a neater ending, I still would recommend this to those interested in reading a novel filled with fraught (and believable) familial relationships and a young woman’s uneasy path towards recovering her sense of self after being raped.

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Night Film by Marisha Pessl

 

Review of Night Film by Marisha Pessl
★★★★★  5 of 5 starsnightfilm

“As much as some people would like to believe, for their own peace of mind, that the appearance of evil in this world had a clean cause, the truth was never that simple.”

Sometimes, if we are lucky enough, we ‘bump’ into one of those novels. Those novels that make us stay up late, be late for work, and ignore our friends. Night Film is one of those novels (for me at least). I didn’t merely ‘read’ this book, I lived it. I was thrust into an increasingly alluring and almost labyrinthine storyline, and the more I read the more I forgot my own surroundings. I was desperate to know the truth behind Cordova but I was also weary of what this truth was. I could hardly hazard guesses of my own because I was so swept away by the narrative . The closer I came to the end the more nervous I became.
This is the type of book that tests the boundaries between real and unreal, providing an incredibly atmospheric setting and a breath-taking plot. The use of different medias (journal articles, police reports, interviews, websites, photos) makes the reading experience all the richer.

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The premise of the story is intriguing enough: the apparent suicide of the young daughter of a reclusive and mysterious film director sets in motion the investigation of a disgraced journalist. Did Ashley Cordova really kill herself? And if so, why?
Scott McGrath and Ashley’s father have some history. So, Scott’s search is initially sparked by a vindictive desire to shed some truth on Cordova. But what this truth is, it is hard to say.
Joining his investigation – and to his own displeasure – are Hopper, a drug-dealer who’d met Ashley years before, and Nora, a wannabe actress who ends up in possession of Ashley’s distinctive red coat.
The friendship between Scott and Nora is perhaps one of only wholly uplifting things of this novel. They have starkly different views and come from incredibly different places but they simply had that spark that made each of their interactions so entertaining and affective.
The people they encounter are rendered vividly trough both their dialogue and Marisha Pessl’s striking descriptions..
Another aspect of this novel that I really appreciated is its protagonist. Scott is hardly an all-round-good-guy. He is obsessed on Cordova, tends to disregard other’s opinions, and often considers others in rather stereotypical terms but, I think he does so because he is a writer, so he enjoys dramatizing what he see and observes. While his motivations are not selfless, he shows that he can be caring and capable of questioning his own assumptions.
The last section of this novel is almost delirious trip (to where nightmares are made). There is a crescendo of confusion and strangeness that is stressed by the narration itself. While I found the ending infuriatingly abrupt I also feel that it was the only way this novel could end. As much as I craved for a neat ending that would tie all loose ends, it was inevitable that Night Film would end the way it did.

A stunning novel that will remain with me for a long time (hopefully Cordova won’t make a cameo in my dreams…)

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