Bill’s Book Blog, 3/20/2021

I’m trying to read 104 books* this year. Here are some thoughts about the ones I read over the last week!

The first book I finished this week was Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013), but I’m not going to talk about it too much here because I read it for The Big Read Cast, the books podcast I do with my friend Joel. The episode is currently being edited, but it should go up in the next few days, so if you want to know what I thought about Americanah in detail, subscribe to the podcast and give it a listen when it comes out. In general, though, it’s a good book: Adichie is an insightful and witty writer.

The second book I finished was Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020). Let’s get the petty complaint out of the way: I hate the title. Mexican Gothic is a statement of genre, not a title, and though it’s certainly an accurate description of what the book is, the title makes the book seem less than it otherwise should be, as though it is just a genre exercise instead of an end-in-itself. Also, the book is significantly weirder than just “gothic” implies, and pulls from VanderMeer at least as much as it does from Bronte or Shelley. The book certainly is Mexican Gothic, but it is also Weird Gothic, or perhaps Fungal Gothic. Finally, by titling the book Mexican Gothic, this book feels like it is trying to exhaust all of the possibilities of that combination. I’m pretty sure there is space for other books set in Mexico that converse with the Gothic tradition.

Aside from the title, however, I quite liked Mexican Gothic, although it definitely exposed how little I really know about Mexican history. The book is set in Mexico in the 1950s, and makes a few references to recent events, and I was embarrassingly unprepared to recognize any of them.

Our heroine, Noemí Taboada, is the flighty daughter of a very wealthy man, who equally enjoys studying a dozen subjects in college and flirting at cocktail parties. One day, Noemí’s family receives a letter from Noemí’s newly-married cousin Catalina, and the letter is full of raving and strange portents. The patriarch of the family sends Noemí to investigate, partly out of concern for Catalina, and partly to make suppress any scandal before it can leach out into the world.

So Noemí goes to High Place, the vast, crumbling manor house in the Mexican countryside where Catalina lives along with the entire English family she has married into. The Doyle family is strange, secretive, and racist; her cousin’s new husband seems more interested in leering at Noemí than in taking care of his ailing wife; the patriarch is bedridden, and his moans can be heard throughout the house; the family’s youngest son seems kind, but spends his time picking mushrooms in the graveyard. The servants are quiet and lifeless, speaking is forbidden at dinner, and the house is full of neglect and mold; mold which seems to pulse and move when Noemí stares at it. She begins to have dreams she does not understand; dreams of women with shining, gold faces; dreams where the walls are made of meat and the drone of a million bees follows her around. What is High Place, what is happening to Noemí’s cousin, and if she doesn’t leave, what will happen to Noemí?

As is often the case, the answers to the questions are less interesting than the atmosphere created by the questions, but Moreno-Garcia doesn’t waste a lot of time: once the answers are revealed, the book is pretty close to over. And the atmosphere of doubt and madness that Noemí wades through for the first three-quarters of the book is delightful, if you like that sort of thing. Noemí herself is an enjoyable combination of flirty debutante and brave explorer. Many books like this would cast the heroine as a sort of black sheep or social outcast, but Noemí does just fine in polite society; if the strange manners of the Doyles leave her off-balance it’s because they’re weird, not because she is.

Moreno-Garcia does have an annoying tendency to undercut her (otherwise good) prose by telling the reader how they should feel about things rather than just letting that rise naturally from the work. Let me show you what I mean:

“The stone floor was almost bare of the luxurious mushroom growth, a scant few popping up here and there among loose tiles, and it was easy to see the gigantic mosaic that served as a decoration. It was a black snake, viciously biting its tail, its eyes aglow, and around the reptile there was a curling pattern of vines and flowers. It resembled the ouroboros she’d seen in the greenhouse. This one was larger, more magnificent, and the glow of the mushrooms gave it an ominous appearance.”

No kidding: the enormous mosaic of a black snake with glowing eyes appeared “ominous?” I never would have figured that out on my own! I am of course being a jerk: the prose is good and the book is sure better than anything I’ve ever written. But this quirk runs through the book and softens the impact of some of her more grotesque or emotionally affecting scenes.

This is a quibble. I enjoyed the book a lot, and will definitely check out more of Moreno-Garcia’s work in the future!

Current Progress: 23/104, or 22.12%.

Current average pagecount: 292.86

*I count anything originally published in a standalone volume as one book, and although there’s no specific page-length requirements for what constitutes a “book,” I want to aim for an average of 300 pages at the end of the year.

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