1990s Chunkster Classics

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

We Were the Mulvaneys

Five words from the blurb: family, farm, rape, tragic, consequences

Joyce Carol Oates was one of those authors I’d always wanted to try. She has written over forty novels so it was difficult to know where to start, but a quick Twitter conversation suggested We Were the Mulvaneys might be her best, so I bought a copy.

The Mulvaneys are a fairly wealthy family who live happily on a big farm, seventy miles south of Lake Ontario. The three brothers and their sister, Marianne, grow up as well respected members of their community, but everything changes when Marianne is raped and the family must cope with this massive emotional upheaval.

I initially loved this book. The descriptions of the family and their surroundings were vivid and engaging.

You could do an inventory of the Mulvaney staircase and have a good idea what the family was like. Staircases in old farmhouses like ours were oddly steep, almost vertical, and narrow. Our lower stairs, though, were always cluttered at the edges, for here, as everywhere in the house, all sorts of things accumulated, set down “temporarily” and not picked up again, nor even noticed, for weeks.

The pace was slow, but I didn’t mind as I loved becoming a part of their happy world. Their little stories about every day life were compelling and I came to feel I knew exactly what it would be like to live amongst them.

Unfortunately things went downhill after about 100 pages and I’m in the unusual position of having conflicting reasons why. On the one hand, I want to criticise the book for being too ordinary, failing to add anything new or interesting to the sad story of teenager who has been raped; but on the other hand, I didn’t think the plot was very realistic and POTENTIAL SPOILER HIGHLIGHT TO READ I thought that such a strong family would have bonded together, not fallen apart in that way. I guess the truth is that I just got bored. The plot was too slow to justify the length and I fell out of love with the characters.

Joyce Carol Oates is clearly a talented writer and I can see myself enjoying some of her other books, but I’m afraid this one wasn’t original or entertaining enough for me.


Which other  novels by Joyce Carol Oates would you recommend?

The thoughts of other bloggers:

 It is such a complete portrait of the human experience… Book Lust

…it was worth reading, if only to quench years of curiosity. Literary Amnesiac

I could write more about what happens, but I can’t be bothered to, which sounds dreadful, but that’s how the book made me feel by the end.  Book Snob

2013 Chunkster

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Five words from the blurb: America, Nigeria, experiences, race, relationships

I’ve enjoyed all of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s previous books and so was keen to try her new one. Americanah is very different in style and feels like a more accomplished piece of writing, but I missed the raw emotion of her earlier books.

Americanah focuses on Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman, who moves to America. She begins a blog that highlights race issues in the country and when she returns to Nigeria we see how America has influenced her as she struggles to adapt to life back in her native country.

Adichie does a fantastic job of creating characters. I quickly felt as though I knew them personally and I loved the attention to detail. Entire scenes zinged with life and the dialogue felt natural, leading to several amusing passages.

“That not food!” Halima scoffed, looking away from the television.
“She here fifteen years, Halima,” Aisha said, as if the length of the years in America explained Ifemelu’s eating of a granola bar.

I also loved the blog entries. I thought they did a wonderful job of highlighting the differences between the treatment of blacks and whites in America. It was a wonderful device that allowed Adichie to show her skills as an essay writer to the full.

You see, in American pop culture, beautiful dark women are invisible. (The other group just as invisible is Asian men. But at least they get to be super smart).  In movies dark black women get to be the fat nice mammy or the strong, sassy, sometimes scary sidekick standing by supportively.  They get to dish out wisdom and attitude while the white woman finds love.  But they never get to be the hot woman, beautiful and desired and all. So dark black women hope Obama will change that. Oh, and dark black women are also for cleaning up Washington and getting out of Iraq and whatnot.

The main problem with the book was its length. The plot wasn’t complicated enough to justify the 470 pages and I found that I lost interest on several occasions. There were even a few points when I considered abandoning it. If you are happy to be immersed in the life one or two individuals then I’m sure you’ll love this book, but I longed for a more compelling plot.

It also lacked the emotional power of her earlier novels. I’m sure that most people will be glad that this book isn’t dominated by war and tragedy, but I found the scenes of everyday life less interesting. My experience with this book reminds me of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – another case where it is obvious the writer’s skill has improved (since writing Middlesex in this example), but with the increase in polish and literary depth comes less excitement.

I’m probably being overly harsh, because I was expecting so much. The writing in this book is fantastic and there is a lot to love; it just didn’t become a favourite in the way I hoped it might. Recommended to people who enjoy character driven novels.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

one of the best books I’ve read this year. Slightly Bookist

Americanah is about a lot of things, and so it eventually turns out to be about nothing in particular. Amymuses’s blog

Interesting, not compelling Ready When you Are, CB



2009 2010

The Great Perhaps – Joe Meno

The Great Perhaps has one of the best first lines I’ve read:

Anything resembling a cloud will cause Jonathan Casper to faint.

The premise of this book is fantastically original. The central character, Jonathan, suffers from a rare form of epilepsy which causes him to have a seizure if he sees a cloud. To avoid clouds Jonathan becomes a palaeontologist, searching for prehistoric squid in the depths of the ocean.

Jonathan’s wife, Madeline, is studying the violence of pigeons; his daughter Amelia is making bombs in her bedroom and Thisbe, the youngest member of the family, is discovering Christianity. The book also follows their grandfather, Henry, who is dying and decides to utter one word less each day.

This book is a fantastic study of an American family. I was impressed by the way each person had their own unique voice, realistically capturing the thoughts and behaviour of their age group. The book is narrated by each character in turn, with a different writing style being used for each person. Some people may think the styles are gimmicky, especially Madeline’s which consists of 26 different thoughts each ordered by the letters of the alphabet, but I loved it! The continual change of pace and style kept me gripped and allowed there to be humor as well as deeper moments in which the complex relationships within a family could be observed.

The plot itself is quite simple, but I was desperate to know whether one of Amelia’s bombs would go off or if Jonathan would ever find his squid. It was easy to read, yet covered many important themes. 

I don’t think I’ve read a better book about an American family – I’d vote for it to win the Pulitzer prize this year.

Highly recommended.