The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, was (probably) my last read from this year’s Tournament of Books. And, it was one of my favorites of the 18 books that made the cut for this year’s Tournament — it was a weird collection this year, I still love talking about books (and reading other people talking about books), so I loved it, but I’m kind of hoping the summer reads are more enjoyable.

The Mars Room tells the story of Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences after killing someone who I think it is fair to call her stalker. There are some flashbacks to her life as a dancer/stripper, which is where she met her stalker, leading up to the climax. Most of Romy’s story is told from prison, as she is both looking back on how she got here, dealing with the reality of life in prison, and dealing with additional terrible things that happen. I don’t want to spoil it, but the new horrible things that happen were the most upsetting part of the book for me — although, you should know going in, you will be swept into this book and it’s pretty intense.

In addition to Romy, we also get some chapters from the perspective of Gordon who teaches the GED class at the prison. He’s a hybrid insider/outsider because he’s not really part of the prison and he leads this whole separate life, but obviously also works there. Romy is actually pretty well educated, she graduated from high school and she’s not thrilled when Gordon gives her books she read when she was 14 (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, To Kill a Mockingbird — which for the record I would definitely re-read). Gordon is a pretty interesting character in his own right — he’s living in a cabin in the woods while working at the prison and thinking about his life both with comparisons to Thoreau (and his “retreat” from society) and Ted Kaczynski (who really retreated from society…). There are excerpts from Kaczynski’s journals which are terrifying and fascinating.

Additionally, we do get a little bit from Romy’s victim’s perspective, which I think was one of the novel’s strongest points for me — for most of the book you’re (or I was) 100% with Romy. And getting the other side of the story, that he’s both her stalker and her victim, she’s both his victim and his murderer. Don’t get me wrong, stalking and murder, both bad, but you really see where everyone was coming from on that particular night.

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt of the novel that was published in The New Yorker, as well as an interview with the author about that section. Strongly recommend you pick this one up.

I also read Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis which is the story of 17 year old Luisa who leaves her home in Mexico to travel with a boy two years older than her to Oaxaca, Mexico (the coast), sort of in search of dwarfs who have recently escaped a Soviet circus while touring Mexico. On the book flap, it also notes that “her father has set out to find his missing daughter” although that doesn’t really happen until like 20 pages from the end of the novel when he shows up and summarizes what he’s been up to while Luisa was thinking and drinking on the beach.

This novel reminded me a little too much of Call Me Zebra, which I did not care for, because so much of it is in Luisa’s head and I just never really got into it. I think I would have actually preferred to read the novel of her father’s adventure finding her (maybe I’m just old and I have an easier time identifying with the parent than the 17 year old making odd decisions). Also, man. The dwarfs really didn’t come into it much at all. Perhaps I was too fascinated by that weirdness and that wasn’t really the author’s point. The majority of the book is just Luisa at the beach:

But this is what beach holidays are about, you know, soothing monotony rather than variation, each day at the beach is meant to be the same, that’s what makes it relaxing, it’s the monotony that helps you unwind.

Ultimately, I thought Aridjis wrapping things up very neatly around her themes (the ocean’s power and ship wrecks and how these analogize to human life). But, that said, this took me forever to read for a 200 page book, so it’s not at the top of my recommendation list.

Currently reading: The Great Believers, and I think I have… seven books on hold at the library that will probably all come in at the same time.