Monday, February 1, 2021

the book group read (January) ... Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

 

9780735219090
Putnam, 2018
368 pp

hardcover



This will be a relatively short post.  It happens sometimes that a book and I do not get along well, and this is one of those.   I didn't know that would happen when I selected it for my in-real-life book group -- it is highly rated and garners glowing praise among readers and critics alike so I thought we should give it a go.  While it is a book that prompted much discussion, I couldn't help it ... I just didn't like it.   

There were two things that I was most keen on when I made my decision for the group to read this book. One, the first paragraph of the  dustjacket blurb reveals that a murder occurred in 1969, and that the suspect among the locals was the so-called Marsh Girl, Kya Clark, so I thought "okay, it's a murder story, I'm down with that", and  two, the fact that the blurb referred to this book as an "ode to the natural world."   As someone who often spends weekends hiking trails in Florida's Everglades, I could get behind that also.  The nature writing in this book was indeed fine -- I loved being in the marsh as the author described it, being in Kya's boat as she navigated the estuaries, and the way in which this girl could read the landscape from an early age.  There were other things as well, among them the way in which the marsh had  formed this girl so that even into adult life she related to people by comparing them to the behaviors found among wildlife.  It's easy to understand why these sections were so strong, since prior to writing this novel Ms. Owens spent time living in the wild and authored three nonfiction books, one of them winning the John Burroughs Medal for natural history writing in 1984.   The thing is though that as much as I enjoyed her forays into the natural world in this book, for me they weren't enough to save the story that played out here.   It was all too farfetched, too predictable, the characters were too stereotypical, it read like a YA novel, and the writing was just not strong enough to make it even halfway enjoyable.  The murder plot, which as an avid crime reader I was looking forward to, completely fizzled as it  was also predictable -- I knew who did it very early on.    At one point about a quarter of the way in, I was completely bored, and actually embarrassed enough that I sent my friend an email actually apologizing for choosing this book for the group.  

As I said in my goodreads post, that's me once again not agreeing with thousands of other people.  






I should know by now that just because a book is a bestseller doesn't necessarily mean it's good.  And quite honestly, me not liking this novel probably doesn't mean a thing to its author, since according to Wikipedia, by 2019 4.5 million copies had been sold.   I will say that going into it I really wanted to like it, but in the long run, it just wasn't my cup of tea.  And that's okay. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Dead Girls, by Selma Almada

 


9781916277847
Charco Press, 2020
originally published as Chicas muertas, 2014
translated by Annie McDermott
146 pp

paperback



I read this back in November but have reread it in the meantime, and it was even more powerful the second time through.  Dead Girls is described on the back cover as being a work of "journalistic fiction," defined as 
"a form of nonfiction that combines factual reporting with narrative techniques and stylistic strategies traditionally associated with fiction," 
used here to great effect to tell a story of three femicides that occurred over a short, six-year period in the 1980s, during which time Argentina was "celebrating its return to democracy."  The author's first exposure to femicide was at the age of thirteen, when as she says, a "dead girl crossed my path," although she also reveals that it was earlier,  during her childhood in a small town in Argentina's interior, that she came to sense that "as a girl"  she was safe nowhere, and that  "all the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet ... it was always your fault."   Not even the family home, "the protective family space,"  was safe, since violence could happen there as well.  That dead girl crossing the author's path was Andrea Danne (19),  who had been murdered in her own bed; the other two women whose stories she examines are Maria Luisa Quevado (15)  strangled, raped, body dumped,  and Sarita Mundin (20), a young mother whose body was discovered washed up on a riverbank.   As one might guess, this is not an uplifting story, but it is one that needs to be told.  Now. Today. 

Dead Girls chronicles the author's investigations into the deaths of these three women, whose murderers were never brought to justice.  Over the course of three years she meets and talks to their friends, family members, or to anyone who might have known anything about what had happened to them.  While some are willing to talk, in many cases she is met with silence and evasion.  She also combs through newspapers, reports, archives, while at the same time, reflecting on her own childhood and realizing that the topic of violence of women "was always there."  She remembers and discusses  conversations  about women in the neighborhood who were beaten by their husbands, or who were controlled by the men in their lives  to the point where, for example, wearing high heels was not allowed "because they were for whores," or  the wearing of make-up was forbidden.  As Ms. Almada says, these were discussions "grown women" spoke about "in whispers," while her mother talked about them "loudly, indignantly," before being told to be quiet (when children were present)  in code:  
"Careful, there's laundry hanging up ... as if saying those things were like saying dirty words, or worse, as if they were a source of unimaginable shame." 

While Dead Girls focuses on "three small-town girls murdered in the 1980s," their stories are set squarely within the wider context of  violence against women as she goes on to offer the names and brief stories of others who had met the same fate at the hands of men, as well as the  well-entrenched misogyny and commonplace violence that exists throughout the small towns in Argentina's interior.  This is not, as she also reveals, a new phenomenon, citing an account in a book that "catches her eye" about the case of a Polish girl from the 1950s who had the misfortune of having a boyfriend who was a "possessive, jealous and violent man." 

 In her Epilogue, before listing the names of femicide victims who died over the month's time  since the "new year began,"  the author writes that 

"In that time, at least ten women have been killed for being women. I say at least, because these are the names that appeared in the papers, the ones that counted as news"

leaving the reader to wonder about the ones who didn't count as news.  

As the back-cover blurb says, what she's written here is a "clear-eyed, multi-faceted account that has global resonance." While I recognize the huge importance of Selva Almada's book, at the same time, it's a very difficult book to read on an emotional level.  While reading it, I couldn't hep  thinking of Fernanda Melchior's Hurricane Season  -- in both books the authors offer a look into the economic and social conditions in these small towns that help to feed that violence, but also acknowledge  that crimes against women are all too often marginalized by the police or the politicians who have the power to change things but allow these crimes to continue.   

It's a tough book, but so worth it, and it's one I can very highly recommend.  I can also recommend Charco Press, a small but ultimately awesome publisher.