Book Review: See What I Have Done

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See What I Have DoneSee What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First (unedited) thoughts:

Sarah Schmidt takes her readers into the cramped, contentious confines of 92 Second Straight, home of the Borden clan. Through the vantage point of four narrators, she takes us through the infamous events of August 4th, 1892, when Andrew and Abby Borden were found savagely axed to death, and their aftermath.

Though Schmidt does not shy away from the murders, the tragedy only serves as an entry point for the author’s probing into the wounds of a severely dysfunctional family. It made me think of the scene early in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (stick with me here) when Mustapha Mond compares passion to water in a pipe. He notes that if you pierce the pipe once, the water spouts high and strong like a fountain. Pierce it many times, the pressure diminished and the water dribbles. He says, “Mother, monogamy, romance. High spurts the fountain; fierce and foamy the wild jet.” Schmidt’s portrayal of the Borden’s suggests a family ready to burst.

The author’s writing is lush, visceral, and often poetic. She often turns nouns into verbs, giving the world a sinister agency throughout the book. She also employs vivid and often disturbing imagery, most commonly rely on the senses of touch, taste, and smell. Various characters throughout the book are touching, sniffing, and tasting blood and rot. At times, it becomes overwhelming and even numbing.

That said, I often found the sense of sight, and along with it, space lacking. This is especially true with the characters’ movements through the house, yard, and barn. I often lost track of a character’s position, relative to other characters or other spaces at important moments. One character’s adventures in the house (Benjamin) especially confused me as he seemed. He managed to surreptitiously move around a house packed with people (or so it seems) without being seen. He spends quite some time under a table, farting and vomiting, and no one notices. It strained credulity.

Speaking of Benjamin, he serves as one of four narrators, the other three being Lizzie, her sister Emma, and the Borden’s Irish maid Bridget. Though prominent characters, we do not hear from Andrew, Abby, or Uncle John directly. Though I found the voices and tales of the sisters quite compelling and well rendered for the most part, I struggled more with the other two narrators. Bridget, I understood, allowed an intimate outsider’s view of the family. She served almost as the reader’s proxy, and through her we felt the general claustrophobic unease of being stuck in a house with such an unhappy family. Her own family story provided a contrast to the Borden’s. Though I felt her character came across as somewhat one dimensional and at times almost stock, her presence in the novel works for the most part. Benjamin is another matter. Though I think I understand why Schmidt includes his voice, I found his chapters almost intolerable. A product of a broken family, he provides an extreme of what Lizzie might have become. He’s angry and murderous and dumb and brutal. He at first operates as a bit of a red herring, and later as another outside set of eyes through which we watch Lizzie, I don’t think he brings anything to our understanding of this family or these events. Plus, as I mentioned before, his chapters are filled with narrow escapes that stretched believability.

I also found Emma’s last chapter unnecessary.

Schmidt’s prose probes the issue of how people can live so closely together and yet have so little understanding of each other’s inner lives. Over and over again, characters wonder what it might be like to look or live inside someone else’s skin or head. It almost suggests that the the murders of Andrew and Abby, in a way, might be read as just that, someone trying to peek into the hidden parts of someone near and dear to them. Though Schmidt’s continual liberalizing of this concept became somewhat tired, I also found it the most interesting question explored throughout the book.

To sum up, though I found the prose often beautiful and haunting, and thought the author offered two compelling narrators in Lizzie and Emma, I thought the inclusion of the Benjamin character (and to some degree Bridget’s character as well) took too much focus away from the sisters and the heart of the novel. And though rich with tactile, taste, and olfactory imagery, I felt the author could have rendered the spacial reality of the house much more clearly.

A compelling first novel, though not without its flaws.

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Book Review: In Harm’s Way

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In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its SurvivorsIn Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors by Doug Stanton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 Rating
Audiobook Version

I suspect I heard the story of the U.S.S Indianapolis for the first time much the same way most of my generation did–by watching the movie Jaws. Robert Shaw’s Quint, after some drinking and swapping of scar stories, reveals he survived the vessel’s sinking. In his quiet slur of a voice, he tells Hooper and Brody about the sharks, their dead eyes which roll over white when they sink their teeth into flesh. It’s a great scene and a haunting story.

Doug Stanton’s In Harm’s Way is no less chilling. Here, he lays out the full story of the that fateful journey, from the ship’s rushed departure from San Francisco with the component parts of the first atomic bomb all the way through to the survivor’s years long fight to exonerate their captain’s tarnished record. Though Stanton doesn’t skimp on background and scope, the vivd accounts of the seamen’s experiences make it a gripping tale. Stanton achieves this by zooming in on three survivors: Captain McVay, Marine Giles McCoy, and the ship’s doctor Richard Heinz, and following them through their ordeal. In taught and compelling prose, Stanton details the suffering of the 880-some men who survived the initial sinking, their four days afloat in shark infested water without food or water, and their heroic, if long overdue, rescue.

Stanton also follows the survivors and their crusade to vindicate their captain who was court-martialed (and later committed suicide).

Of the almost 1200 men aboard the ship, 900 went into the water on that July night. Rescue ships managed to save only 317.

Quint told a hell of a story. Stanton tells a better one.

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Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

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Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBIKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Really 3.5
Also, I listened to the audiobook version of this work.

A look into a fascinating yet disheartening (and often overlooked) passage of American history. The Osage murders represent the worst of American history: greed, colonialism, racism, ecological destruction, and more. Americans have a tendency to see the sins of their country as if through a turned around telescope; small and distant. Grann’s book helps turn the telescope the right way and brings this tragedy into better focus.

The book is competently written, though I felt that at times, Grann overreached when trying to give the work a novelistic feel. This approach worked better in his last book, The Lost City of Z, in part because he himself was more present in much of it.

I also felt the last section of the book fells a little flat. The first two sections are strictly historical, delving into the murders and their investigation. The last section attempts to move forward into the present day, showing the lasting impact of the crimes and his own attempts to research several unsolved murders. Overall it seemed underdeveloped, especially in comparison to the first two sections. Grann also quickly confesses to an inability to bring closure to most of the unsolved cases because of a lack of records. Still interesting, but less satisfying.

Also, I didn’t feel that Grann quite delivered on the “Birth of the FBI” part of the subtitle. I’m not denying parts of that story are here, but it never seemed to focus on the narrative.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. First, it’s competently written and well researched. Second, as an American, especially in a time when much of our country chooses to whitewash our country’s history, to dwell in some kind of rose-tinted nostalgia, these kinds of stories must be told ands studied and learned from. Must be reckoned with and, if possible, made right (which, I know, is not actually possible, but we should try anyway).

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Book Review: Fever Dream

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Fever DreamFever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 (Rounded up)

A slim, fast paced novel that grabs you by the short hairs and doesn’t let go. Complete with creepy kids, mysterious poisons, and a witchy woman who lives in a greenhouse. This was one of those works that I loved, but hated because I wished I had written it first!

The basic structure of the book centers around the fever dreaming Amanda, on her death bed, telling her story to a young, but somehow not so you, boy named David. David prompts her to search for important details within her memory of the last couple days, specifically looking for the “worms.” He often dismisses parts of her tale she finds interesting as “not important” and tries to keep her moving or redirect her. He often scolds her for missing what’s important.

The original title in Spanish, Distancia de rescate translates to Rescue Distance, a concept Amanda is obsessed with throughout the novel, which highlights one of the book’s main themes. The rescue distance refers to the distance Amanda would have to cover to save her daughter Nina if something horrible were to happen. She feels it like a rope tied between the two of them that grows taut in times of danger. In the end, though, when the real danger presented itself, she failed to feel anything and the rescue distance concept let her down. In this way, motherhood plays a major role in the novel, and how mothers, in spite of their best efforts, cannot always protect their children…in fact, often become the cause of their child’s tragedy.

Great book, beautifully written and translated, thought provoking and entertaining.

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“Every atom of my blood…”: Life has not done with us…

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imageBeing now forever taken from my sight,
though nothing can bring back the hour
of splendor in the grass and glory in the flower.
We will grieve not, but rather find
strength in what remains behind.
— William Wordsworth

When we the living gather, we begin to pay our duty to the dead. Our debt will not be settled in sorrow or tears, in grief or regret, but in memories, in stories. See, our job as those left behind, as friends, as family, is to remember. When those we love pass before us, we are gifted with their memory. And within each of us, there is a kind of heaven, populated with these angels, the souls of those we’ve known and loved. So every act of remembrance, whether we savor it in a moment of personal reflection or share it around a common table, is a kind of resurrection. It gives life.

So let ourselves become familiar with these angels of memory, behold them ever in our mind’s eye, and from our loved ones, we shall never be parted.

—-
I once read somewhere that each of us contains a certain number of atoms that once belonged to Shakespeare. Perhaps as many as a billion. As a writer, I thought that was pretty cool, to be partly constructed from one of the greatest wordsmiths ever. That if I could just tap into those particular atoms, I’d be set. The article went on to say that we are also made up of atoms from Gandhi and Mozart and Picasso. A billion here, a billion there. Of atoms that had once belonged to lions and worms and trees and dirt. Even stars.

In the words of Walt Whitman, of whom we are also made, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

This got me thinking. Death, yes, is the destiny of all that lives; it is the only promise life is bound to keep. I had always thought of dying as an end to things. The period on the sentence of all earthly life.

But now it seems it’s just another beginning. That through death, we do not leave life, but get to become an even greater part of it. That though we may lose the form of ourselves to which we’ve become quite attached, we do not cease to be a part of things.

Walt Whitman also wrote:

I depart as air…
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you

Our bodies consist of 7 billion, billion, billion atoms-that’s a 7 with 27 zeros behind it. Just think, then, of all that we may yet become. You can and will be anything and everything. A tree, a bird, a passing cloud. Made and remade. Countless people of every persuasion. For ever and ever. A star upon which wishes are made.

For even in death, life has not done with us. We begin a new journey, to mix and mingle with all things. A journey without borders or boundaries, without maps or measures.

From stardust were we made, and to stardust shall we return.