The Grip of It by Jac Jemc

Title: The Grip of It
Author: Jac Jemc
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 3.75-4 / 5

Goodreads

Why I picked it up: I saw it on Lithub, I think, and I was interested in the cover and when I read the blurb it was basically like “couple moves into haunted house” and I was like “ok yes.” Didn’t hurt that it was published by FSG. It’s true that they don’t really publish my favorite books, but the books I’ve read that are put out by them are consistently compelling and worthwhile.

What it’s about: A couple moves into a haunted house! Or, well, maybe, I don’t know…isn’t that usually how it goes with a haunted house tale?

What I liked: I really like Jemc’s writing. Some of the descriptions are beautiful as well as creepy. This novel is like…a mood. Very atmospheric. The narration switches back and forth between chapters from wife to husband, although it’s not always super clear at first who’s talking. That can be a little disorienting (because it’s usually just back and forth but sometimes it seems like one gets two in a row) and adds to the confusion that the characters themselves are experiencing. It’s great at creating its tension, which is kind of a constant low-level and pervasive thing and it reminded me of “weird fiction” I’ve read (like Southern Reach). That tension combined with the great writing made the whole novel feel hypnotic.

What I didn’t like: I thought the resolution was “just okay.” It was in keeping with the rest of the book, which is a plus, and it wasn’t bad, but with a book like this a great ending can really bump up the rating.

Overall / recommended: I said in my intro that FSG consistently publishes compelling and worthwhile books. This one is no exception. This would be a great time of year to read this unsettling book.

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Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Title: Shotgun Lovesongs
Author: Nickolas Butler
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 2-2.5 / 5

Goodreads

Why I picked it up: I was trying to find something to read to Peter. This was in my school library, I heard good things, so I texted him a picture of the jacket copy and he okayed it to try. We made it through like 10 pages of the first chapter before he wanted to throw the towel in. I didn’t really have anything else lined up for reading for myself so I just continued it.

What it’s about: A small town in Wisconsin. A bunch of dudes, and one chick. One of them (one of the dudes) is a cool famous singer. Other of the dudes are rich pricks, poor farmers, or recovering alcoholic(?) former rodeo stars who are treated like simpletons by their friends.

What I liked: I guess…the drama? That’s kind of what kept me going. Also, you can tell Butler loves Wisconsin, and it kind of made me miss the Midwest a bit, as well as my own dwindling and financially declining small hometown. Small towns are awesome. You kind of get a feel for that in this book, and it was a high point.

What I didn’t like: Kind of contrived and reminded me kind of chick lit. It seemed kind of high on sensationalism and certain specific events and kind of low on real character development and depth. That’s not always a bad thing and it can be fun and make for an enjoyable read. But I wasn’t really in the mood for it, I guess. I think I was just expecting something more.

Overall / recommended: This is a light read with some family/friend drama (it’s pretty good). It’s mainly focused on male friendship and is set in the “heartland” and feels pretty white American. It is good at what it does, and if those things sound appealing to you, you will probably really like it. I think I would have liked it better if I’d been in the mood for that.

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward by Mark Lukach

Title: My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward
Author: Mark Lukach
Genre: Nonfiction / memoir

Rating: 2-2.5 / 5

Goodreads

Why I picked it up: A friend suggested it and let me borrow it. I’m a sucker for any book I can talk about with someone!

What it’s about: As you could probably guess from the title and the fact that it’s a memoir, this is a book about the author’s wife’s mental illness.

What I liked: I appreciate the author writing about his experience for a few reasons. One is that mental illness, and often bipolar in particular, is stigmatized, misunderstood, and considered scary or whatever. It’s also a little less unusual, in mental health literature, to get the family’s perspective rather than the person with the illness itself (or at least that’s my impression with my limited experience with the knowledge).

What I didn’t like: I think I would have enjoyed this more if Lukach had talked about how relatively lucky the couple’s wealth made them when dealing with this. Yeah, mental illness can affect you just as badly or worse regardless of a high income, but your income plays a huge role in how well you can handle the fall out and recover from it. It was kind of shocking to me how many financial resources were at their disposal and allowed them to come out of the ordeal just fine, which would probably not have been the case if they both couldn’t have taken years off work topped off by a four month international vacation. Also, relatedly, he got a ton of help from both their families, an enviable position as many with those who have had to suffer through this either alone or isolated within their nuclear (rather than with friends and extended) family.

Overall / recommended: It was an easy and quick enough read, so if you have an interest in the subject, you may find it worthwhile. For everyone else, it doesn’t stand out enough / isn’t well written enough / doesn’t contribute enough new insights to really recommend it.

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

Title: Forest Dark
Author: Nicole Krauss
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 3 / 5

Goodreads

Why I picked it up: I put it on my to-read list because I liked the cover and someone I follow had wanted to read it. I entered a Goodreads giveaway for it, and lo, it arrived in the mail. Bumped to the top of my reading list!

What it’s about: Jewishness. I think. Right? It’s kind of two separate stories. One follows Jules Epstein, patriarch who has been giving all his worldly possessions away lately before mysteriously disappearing in Israel (this is all covered right off the bat, not a spoiler!). The second story is…I think supposed to be kind of autobiographical or something, since it’s about a Jewish author named Nicole. She’s having a hard time writing a novel so she goes to Israel.

What I liked: I liked that the whole book kind of had a dreamlike quality to it. It kind of seems fantastical, almost like magical realism but not quite. You’re  not quite sure what is ever going on and if the characters are being put on by the people they meet or not, so it kind of lends this foggy uncertain air of possible unreality to it. Which, well, I dig it. I also really liked her writing. Despite the somewhat low-ish rating (though 3 is still “I liked it”), I would definitely give Krauss another shot because of the way she writes her sentences.

What I didn’t like:  The overall execution was, to me, meh. While there were definitely things I thought were interesting, I was often just like “huh.” And not “huh” in a way that’s like “huh…that is really something” but like “well…huh.” She tries to be all meta and maybe a little postmodern here, which is good if you can do it well, but I was, as I say, meh on that. It didn’t feel very cohesive to me, and she gave herself an out here by being meta about writing a novel, but to me it’s just… it’s gotta work. And it didn’t really work so well. And, a lot of the things she ruminates on in the novel, while well written, are just…I don’t want to say “unoriginal” but maybe, you know, been done better before. Only they’re stated in a way like it’s super profound. I don’t know. I feel like I’m being mean. I haven’t really thought about it much since I finished it.

Overall / recommended: I would maybe recommend this, depending on the reader. Like, it’s one of those books where I’d want to know “why do you read?” As I’ve said, I think the writing itself is strong. It’s the story and the characters where it falls apart for me. But, I would definitely give her another shot based on this book. I think it was creative and maybe ambitious and also maybe I didn’t totally understand what she was doing since I’m not Jewish/well versed in Jewish literature/history/cultural touchstones.