Norma by Sofi Oksanen, The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley, and Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

Yes, it’s the dreaded mini-review round up. Things are not looking great for my #20BooksofSummer challenge. This post will bring me to 10/20 books reviewed, and I just started reading #13. Anyone else plan to just keep going after September 3?

Norma by Sofi Oksanen

Norma is my second DNF of this challenge. When I decided to call it a day, I thought I was around 25 pages in, but I was actually around page 100. Not a lot happened in those 100 pages. And the whole “girl with magical hair that can predict the future” was a bit Karen from Mean Girls. I had the sense I was supposed to be taking it very seriously but I just couldn’t.

The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley

Speaking of books that take themselves a little too seriously, The Prison Book Club was a good read, but the tone did tend towards the overwrought at times. Walmsley used her experience as a victim of violent crime as a way to make sense of working with Book Clubs for Inmates. Strong-armed into it by her friend, the Club’s founder, Walmsley worked through her PTSD and other personal issues while connecting with several of the men over books.

The book was strongest when it focused on the bibliomemoir aspect, recounting the men’s discussions about and insight on the books. They ranged from non-fiction like The Glass Castle and Outliers, to fiction like The Book of Negroes and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Very much “book club books,” the men had surprising insights, often relating to themes of freedom, violence, and regret.

It was weakest when we were treated to Walmsley’s reactions to the prison and the prisoners – her wide-eyed obsession with how many of the men were tattooed, or her astonishment that the men tend to be strictly divided by race (“For some reason, the black men gravitated towards one side of the circle and the white men sat in chairs closer to me”). There’s more in this vein, and it’s rather cringey. She doesn’t seem to be aware of how she comes off as sheltered at best, or patronizing at worst.

For a much more thorough (and generous) review, check out Tales from the Reading Room. The book had enough good to balance out the cringier aspects, and if nothing else, provides a good reading list at the back.

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

My introduction to Rachel Cusk was her celebrated autofiction “novel” Outline, which I loved, then the follow up Kudos, which I hated, or rather, I put aside after less than 25 pages because it was infuriating me with its implausible dialog. Arlington Park is something completely different. Though billed as a novel on the cover, it’s really a set of connected short stories set on a single, rainy day in wealthy suburb of London, circa the mid-aughts (you can tell because people talk on, rather than look at their cell phones).

Had it been published ten years later it might be marketed as a Brexit novel because there’s plenty of “how did we get here” hand-wringing and increasingly naked disdain for anyone who doesn’t fit into the narrow confines of suburban paradise (the disdain is emanating from characters, to be clear!).

Our characters are a set of minimally-employed, bored, and often hammered women in their mid thirties. Most have small children; all are in desperate need of more childcare, a hobby, or both. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with the plight of working parents, but, if you’re a working parent who can afford childcare but choose not to avail yourself of it, I don’t know what to tell you? See also my review of Between, or a wretched example of this genre, I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson.

Cusk gets away with it because she’s a fabulous writer. Arlington Park is alternately infuriating, depressing, and hilarious. There’s a surreal sequence that takes place in a mall food court, and if you’ve ever gone to the mall with a pack of stroller pushing moms, you will experience the horror of recognition. Upon arrival:

Christine pointed at her. “You haven’t got a child!” she observed.

Maisie looked around her. She seemed dumbfounded.

“They’re both at school,” she said.

“I only just noticed,” Christine said, thinking that the last thing she’d do if she didn’t have children to look after was spend time with people who did.

The vignettes do escalate and coalesce into a bit of a plot as the women come together for a disastrous, drunken dinner party. I wish there was a film version of that, instead of I Don’t Know How She Does It. This is chick-lit (do we still say that?) at it’s best.

9 comments

  1. BookerTalk

    I recently started reading The Prison Book Club – not very far into it yet so haven’t come across those cringe-making observations. Thanks for the warning though

  2. sonyaunrein

    The end of Cusk’s 2nd in the trilogy, Transit, also has a disastrous dinner party! Must be a thing. I did finish Kudos last night and liked the books as a whole, even though (and especially) it culminates in the indictment of ex-husbands as complete tyrants.

  3. Naomi

    Magical hair? Nope.
    Book Club book? Skeptical. (I might be the only person in the world who didn’t really like the Will Schwalbe book.)
    Arlington Park? Maybe! I didn’t love Outline like you did, but Arlington Park sounds more like something I’d like. Having also just
    read your Literary Fiction Book Tag post, would you classify it as Literary Chick-Lit? 🙂

  4. Rachel

    Have you read anything else by Oksanen? I’m mostly liking Purge, I think, but it is… very strange. It makes me wonder about Finnish publishing in general because there is SO MUCH unnecessary stuff in there that I could see an American editor cutting out.

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