Thursday, June 18, 2015

Pick or Pass: Aquarium by David Vann


Aquarium 
by David Vann
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015
272 pages
source: borrowed from the library

Summary (from goodreads):
Twelve-year-old Caitlin lives alone with her mother—a docker at the local container port—in subsidized housing next to an airport in Seattle. Each day, while she waits to be picked up after school, Caitlin visits the local aquarium to study the fish. Gazing at the creatures within the watery depths, Caitlin accesses a shimmering universe beyond her own. When she befriends an old man at the tanks one day, who seems as enamored of the fish as she, Caitlin cracks open a dark family secret and propels her once-blissful relationship with her mother toward a precipice of terrifying consequence.

My thoughts:
Overall, my thoughts about Aquarium are quite mixed and I've struggled to find a way to coherently express them. A reprise of my "Pick or Pass" review format seemed like the way to go.

Aquarium is a well-written and creative coming of age story. The book itself is aesthetically pleasing,  sprinkled with color fish photographs and fun fish facts. The page numbers and headers are a pretty watery blue. I'm glad I had a hardcover edition from the library... the physical beauty would have been lost on my kindle


Although no quotation marks appear in the book, there were many quotable passages.
 "The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable. My mother's anger extending infinitely, a rage we'd never escape. "
And yet...

Even though I gravitate toward 'dysfunctional family' stories, the way this child was treated by her mother just made me angry. So angry, in fact, that I could not enjoy the novel. Nor could I put it down. I read the book in under twenty four hours.

I still wonder whether there is ultimately any hope for these people? Probably not.
Plus, the lack of quotation marks really annoyed me.

How do you rate a creative, well-written novel that you didn't enjoy reading but couldn't put down? I have no idea.


Pick up Aquarium if:

  • you crave a creative, well-written novel
  • a coming-of-age story combined with family dysfunction sounds appealing
  • you appreciate an aesthetically pleasing book

Pass on Aquarium if:

  • a lack of quotation marks bothers you
  • your tolerance for the mistreatment of children is low
  • you think frequent references to fish might become tiresome

What do you think? Will you pick or pass?


29 comments:

  1. Vann's books sound a bit spooky. This one gives me a weird chill hearing about it. Though the fish & aquarium seem to give it an interesting spin. I might hold off for now but could check it out in the future. nice review.

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    1. Thecuecard - This book is definitely on the darker side and not exactly a fun read. I really appreciated the creative use of the fish and aquarium, this will not go down as a favorite.

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  2. Vann's books are usually pretty heavy and dark. There was one, the title escapes me, that made me sick to my stomach but I kept reading and could appreciate the writing for what it was. His stories are not enjoyable, but they stretch the mind. I think if you can appreciate that aspect, then you are willing to overlook the other stuff. That said, I am not sure I will get to this one.

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    1. Ti - This was my first experience with Vann and although I really appreciate what he was able to do here, I'm not in a hurry to sample his other books.

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  3. It would be pass for me, because I can't read about the mistreatment of children (or animals).

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    1. Lisa - That's usually a deal-breaker for me, too, but I just couldn't turn away from this one...

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  4. I've read all of Vann's books -- I do like dark reads. I thought this was a very good one and the lack of quotes, didn't bother me a bit, I think I was just too involved with the story.

    You did a nice job presenting this one fairly.

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    1. Diane - In some ways Vann reminded me of Herman Koch, whose book I did enjoy reading despite the darkness. I had a very hard time writing this review, so glad to know you think it's fair.

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  5. I got this from netgalley and read it on my iPad and didn't even notice the lack of quotation marks, something that normally drives me batty. Sorry you didn't love it the way I did.

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    1. Kathy - This was such a strange experience because I literally could not stop reading... yet was angry and cranky the entire time. My husband was very glad when I finally finished ;-)

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  6. I kind of want to read this because I'm intrigued by your response to it....but have a feeling I won't like it.

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    1. Emma - You never know... and even if you don't like it, it is physically a beautiful book and very well-written.

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  7. Great commentary on this.

    I think I understand your experience with this book. Some works are maddening but fascinating.

    For me the frustration for me can come from a character like you allude happened to you here, or it can come from an intriguing plot device or idea that is not developed enough.

    Occasionally I have read books where an author will not use quotation marks, I guess it is often a decision to write prose in a way that reflects the world differently. I agree that it can be disconcerting.

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    1. Brian Joseph - Thank you, and you are exactly right... this was maddening but fascinating.

      I suppose including quotation marks indicates a following of "the rules", but it is certainly an author's choice to abandon them. I remember listening to and, surprisingly, loving This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Later I found out there were no quotation marks in the book. Still wonder if that would have influenced my reaction if I'd read a print version.

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  8. This one sounds interesting to me! I loved the quote you shared. And, I love the pick or pass format!

    And -I felt this way about Sarah Lotz's The Three last year....don't think I even liked it, but couldn't stop reading.

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    1. Sarah - Most other reviews have been very positive and I had quite a few passages flagged. Glad you like the 'pick or pass' format... and you might really love this book!

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  9. Curious what prompted you to pick this one up? I'm trying to think of another author that doesn't use quotations and can only come up with Cormac McCarthy (which I think lends to the ambiguity of his stories). Though I have found that since I've become a mother, my tolerance for the mistreatment of children in books is much much lower than it once was!

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    1. Trish - I'd seen quite a few glowing reviews of this book and was already curious when Diane's (Bibliophile by the Sea) review prompted me to borrow the book from the library for a 'preview'... I couldn't stop reading!

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  10. Will not be on my to-read list. It's not like I don't know that people like this exist .... those who mistreat children. It's like the Holocaust. I know it happened. It's just that I've heard and read about it too many times, whether in fact or fiction format ..... and enough is enough; I don't need to read more. I'm getting too old to spend my time thinking about these things when I wake in the middle of the night, things that I can do nothing about or change. So many other great books out there to read.

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    1. JudyMac - I agree with you, though there was something about this book that just kept me reading.... even though I was cranky and not enjoying it, I just couldn't stop.

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  11. I don't think I could read this. I don't understand how someone could do bad things to a child.

    I've never read a book with no quotation marks. I wonder if it would bother me...I think it would.

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    1. Vicki - I think I was already annoyed and not particularly enjoying the book, so the lack of quotation marks was just one more thing...

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  12. I love the pick or pass idea! Would you mind if I used it too one day?

    Up until the end I was 'pass'. But then I read your options and I realised that somehow I will now 'pick' this bit :-)
    Thanks

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    1. Brona - That's the thing with 'pick or pass' ... definitely arguments on both sides that may help a reader decide. Feel free to adapt or borrow this format :)

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  13. I've read suspense thrillers with mistreatment to children "off-scene" but even those make me question my choice, likewise with animals and disabled people. Lack of quotes drives me nuts. I read a book a few months ago that didn't even differentiate where the conversations were, and embedded them in the large paragraphs. Ugh, that kept distracting me to no end and I lowered my rating based on that one disturbing style. I don't like to hunt and peek for my content. Good review!

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    1. Rita - Glad you liked this review. I think the situation you describe of not even differentiating the conversations would push me over the edge... not sure I'd be able to continue with that!

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  14. I have this on my wishlist - mostly for the plot. I don't know yet if any of what you mentioned would bother me - sometimes, they have, and other times, they haven't. I guess I will give it a try and see how it feels. I do like it though when I hate a book a lot but still want to read it - such books really are winners in a weird way because you care enough to want to finish it.

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    1. AThira - It's a very different reading experience when you don't like a book but still want to read...kind of a new one for me. Have you read anything else by Vann?

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. These conversations are my favorite part of blogging. Please check back, I almost always respond to comments!

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