a lit-el forecast

5.22.21

Reading and blogging have been a struggle for me again this week, even though I’m enjoying the books I’ve had going and the reviews I’ve been working on. But my appointment is coming up on Monday to see whether I can do anything else to help boost my energy levels and concentration even if I can’t cure the fatigue. I actually feel pretty great today though, so I’ve caught up on some spring cleaning I’ve been putting off, watered the garden, and am hoping to knock out some great reading this evening. I was also paid back in full for a personal loan (plus interest!) recently so I’m going to use a nice book-ordering spree (okay Marija you win, I will get a copy of Brood) as incentive to catch up with my two outstanding reviews. Maybe when things arrive I’ll share a haul, since I’ve been somewhat short on book content lately.

In this week’s 365 additions, I’ve matched my nails to my reading material again, and swapped out Cat of the Week for Dog of the Week. I am not really a dog person (nothing against them, they just don’t give me the warm and fuzzies like cats do) so he doesn’t feature in my photos or conversation much, but we do have a dog named Duke on the farm, and when he snuck into my windy tree picture (there was a cat hiding from him up there) I decided it was a good time to highlight him and followed up with a photo of Duke in a puddle (it’s been a week of rain storms here). Playing in water is his favorite activity, though it hasn’t quite been warm enough to bring out his pool yet. He’s a German Shepherd and just turned two this week.

My week in books:

  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – 4 stars. I loved this dramatic look at gender and motherhood, longlisted for the Women’s Prize (and should’ve been shortlisted too, imo). It’s such an accomplished exploration of transitioning and detransitioning, with imperfect characters who feel very real and compelling even at their most sloppy or problematic. As a cis woman I didn’t expect to find so much to relate to here, but Peters offers some great dialogue across the spectrum of gender, on feminism and misogyny, sexuality and humanity, and modern society in general, which I loved. I was tempted to give a 5 star rating here, but in the end I felt that this was very much an Issues Book that wanted to start a conversation and put some fantastic characters out into the world, both well worth reading for in this case, but the scant plot took away from the story’s momentum for me. Full review coming soon.
  • Passing by Nella Larsen – ongoing. I’ve just got about 20 pages left of this little classic; it’s been a quick and engrossing read, and while it’s not exactly a new favorite it is such a solid read and interesting look at light-skinned African American women passing (or not) as white in 1920’s society; I really am annoyed at not having ever heard of it before Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (a modern take on the same experience) was published last year. (WHY are we still upholding stuffy white men as “classics” when Passing is so much more interesting than say, The Catcher in the Rye?) It’s not particularly plotty but it is nuanced and thought-provoking, and still feels relevant today, with a bit of added 20’s flair. I’m eager to finish this one, do a bit of compare/contrast with The Vanishing Half, and review them both soon.

My week in posts:

But don’t be deceived by the single post on this list! My bookish plans for the upcoming week may seem a bit ambitious compared to my output of late, but I’ve actually done most of the work for my next two reviews as well, and just need to polish them up. So my thoughts on Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground and Peters’s Detransition, Baby will definitely be up soon. Maybe as soon as I catch up on blog hopping. I also expect to finish Passing tonight and dig into The Vanishing Half, before (finally) diving into my Asain/AAPI TBR, starting with Frances Cha’s If I Had Your Face.

And that’s me, caught up.

The Literary Elephant

fashionistas of dubious morality

Review: Consent by Annabel Lyon

Women’s Prize progress: 9/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Consent

In this novel, two sets of sisters have grown into adulthood in imbalanced sibling relationships. Sara and Saskia both knew from young ages that their respective sisters were not neurotypical, resulting in higher levels of care and consideration- and lower expectations of achievement- from their families. Later in life, Sara and Saskia both find themselves (independently) in caregiving roles of greater primacy, having to attend to and make choices for their sisters in ways that their parents can’t or won’t. Both situations are further complicated as Sara and Saskia each pursue someone she believes to have taken advantage of her sister in some way, all while questioning whether she shares the blame for her sister’s fate. At this point, the two parallel narratives collide.

“‘You were her better self,’ David says. ‘And she was yours.’ / Sara hangs up the phone. I was her punishment, certainly, she thinks, taking the empty suitcase out from under the bed. As she was mine. But remind me again of our crime?

Consent is a juicy little book that delves into various forms of consent through two complicated sister relationships. Lyon beautifully demonstrates how sisters- even twins- can be simultaneously alike and unique, how they can need each other and loathe each other, how they can get things wrong and still remain inextricably bonded together. (I do not have a sister, but Lyon made me feel as though I did.) With this setup, she explores that connection of sisterhood in parallel with the question of mental capacity for consent- what can a neurodivergent person consent to practically, sexually, medically, legally? What if they are not officially diagnosed? Whose word can be trusted when claiming consent was obtained? If consent cannot be given, who then will make the choice? What if that mediator (inevitably) has motives of their own?

We always knew something was wrong, but the doctors wouldn’t diagnose her until she was an adult. They said she might outgrow her symptoms. She never cared about other people, about pleasing them or hurting them. She stole both my high school boyfriends just because she could.

While this book is very focused on two very specific cases of sisterhood and consent, and is more of a multiple-character study than an “issues book” dripping with direct social commentary, there’s clearly plenty of thematic depth to give this story some heft. Lyon’s crisp and direct prose certainly bears weight as well.

What really won me over though, is that on top of the literary strengths of the novel, Lyon also offers a fun mystery/thriller-esque element to the plot for a bonus dose of drama. Readers who like thrills and surprises may appreciate that Consent skews this way, though I wouldn’t recommend this book as a mystery/thriller because the twists are more like icing on top than the main dish here. The thrill also doesn’t quite land perfectly- the pacing is off, especially in the final section of the book when the reader is suddenly excluded from Sara and Saskia’s interiority in a way that belies the rest of the book, and the final events do seem a bit convenient and far-fetched, but (fictional) murder always keeps things interesting.

The other area in which this story faltered for me harks back to the title of this review- where you may have noticed that I have referred to the main characters of this book as “fashionistas,” an aspect of their characterization I’ve not mentioned again thus far. The crux of the matter is that while I found the dialogue and anecdotes around the art of fashion in this book fascinating, I also thought this passion felt completely irrelevant to the rest of this story. It is possible I’m missing something, I know that as a reader I tend to struggle with books about art- especially visual art- so this is something of a blind spot for me. There are certainly a few key moments where the treatment of clothing or perfume tells us something crucial about Sara and/or Saskia and their closest relationships, because fashion is their language, but somehow their love for fashion never feels properly coupled to the rest of this story. They could have been into gaming or artisanal cheese and it would have fit the book just as well, is what I mean- the dedication to clothing specifically struck me as somewhat lifeless and arbitrary, for the sake of shoehorning in some personality. Though the fashion focus never exactly feels insincere, and can be incredibly interesting, I was never fully convinced this book needed it at all, despite the impressive amount of page space Lyon dedicates to it. An interest in reading about art or fashion in particular is going to be a must for prospective readers, I think.

“Anyway, she did not have so many clothes. She curated and edited her collection relentlessly.”

It’s also worth noting there’s some repeated racism against a Korean man throughout this book, from one particular character, which I believe is meant to reflect poorly on the character speaking this way and to demonstrate the effect such a mannerism can have on a neurodivergent character who hears it often and doesn’t have full grasp on the concept of racism, but whether the slurs crop up more often than strictly necessary to make the point is debatable.

CWs: racism (including anti-Asian slurs), murder, death of a loved one, alcoholism

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. There were a few ups and downs here for me, but on the whole I was pleasantly surprised, found the read enjoyable and memorable, and am glad that the Women’s Prize longist nudged me to pick this one up. If you’re a prize reader who tends to like the more literary-leaning options from the lists regardless of how far they advance with the judges, this would probably be a great title to pick up.

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast

5.15.21

After a hectic and busy few weeks, I took some time these past few days to chill and unplug. I was able to see one of my siblings graduate from college this week, got my vegetable garden (mostly) planted, and went for my second dose of Covid vaccine (yay!). No pictures of my garden in The 365 yet because I planted most everything from seed and it’s not up yet, but I did snag a photo of the field corn coming up on the farm. It’s always nice to see the brown of the empty fields giving way to green in spring! Even when the plants are still so small you have to squint to see them, haha.

My week in books:

  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller – 4 stars. I’ve been interested in checking out Fuller’s work for a long time, but I was wary about this one based on lukewarm reviews and the raised expectations I can never avoid when a book is nominated for a prize; even though this isn’t a particularly flashy novel I ended up liking it more than I expected. It’s hardly subtle, and the events of the book seem designed primarily to push the book’s commentary, but it does introduce some great discussion around poverty, dependence, and mental health, and I’m a sucker for a good atmospheric backdrop. Full review coming soon; I considered (and mentioned) perhaps reading more of the Fuller books from my TBR for a bigger review post with some fun ranking, but I think I’ll focus on this one individually for now in order to wrap up with the Women’s Prize and perhaps return to the Fuller post idea when I’m more caught up with reading projects.
  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – ongoing. I’m liking this one a lot! It’s very character and theme focused, so again, not a lot of plot, but I love the dramatics and the nuanced exploration of gender. I’m about 2/3 through and wishing this one had made the Women’s Prize shortlist!

My week in posts:

  • None. I was hoping to get a review or two shared this past week, and I’ve started a couple of drafts, but I just couldn’t stand sitting behind a screen and trying to be ~productive~ when it was finally nice enough to be outdoors and I had the opportunity to catch up on sleep. Hopefully this next week I’ll get back to blogging again!

Which brings us to my upcoming bookish plans. If all goes well, I should have reviews of Annabel Lyon’s Consent, Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground, and Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby coming up. I’m aiming to finish Detransition, Baby this weekend, and that’s very nearly the end of my 2021 Women’s Prize longlist reading; next week I’m hoping to get through Nella Larsen’s classic Passing and Women’s Prize nominated The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett for a joint review post (though I think the review post will be for next week, not this week) and that will be a wrap on the WP for me, aside from Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet which I’m not planning to dive into immediately. I want to spend some time with my Asian/AAPI TBR before the end of the month!

(Does anyone have any idea where May has gone?)

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast

5.8.21

What a week! We wrapped up crop planting on the farm yesterday, and it was a hectic last few days. Honestly I think the only reason I managed to post this week was thanks to having a couple of solid drafts saved in advance. In The 365 updates are a couple more planting photos, including the tractor and planter in action, and the seed tender I’ve been ferrying around. That’s been my main role this planting season- I take the seed tender, attached to a pickup, to the farm supply place to get it filled up with seed (which is what’s happening in the photo) then I drive it out to whichever field is being planted, to go into the planter. And repeat. The main challenge for me with this is that I often have to back it into the field approaches, which is… not fun. But at least it’s in good working order! In contrast…

The last photo of this batch is the interior of another pickup we use (sparingly) for farm errands (I had to drive it at night this week, hence the bad lighting), and this one’s interesting because it’s older than me. (The dust buildup is actually not that old, it’s just the product of driving on gravel roads with the windows down.) You may be able to spot the little wrench in the bottom left of the dash that now controls the wipers, and at the top of the photo, the missing rearview mirror. (Its glue gave out suddenly. It’s temporary.) The air conditioner hasn’t worked in ages, which is mostly fine if you drive with the windows all the way open in summer, but this is the reason the passenger window got stuck all the way down in the door last year. That just got fixed this spring, so over the winter there was much appreciation for the heater that seems to run hotter every year- it could probably heat hell. I’m sure it’s fine. The fuel gauge is stuck on F until it suddenly flatlines on E, so we always keep a couple spare gallons in the backup tank. The high beams are controlled with a peg on the floor. I’m pretty sure there are no airbags, but the thing is like a tank. This is the vehicle I learned turn signals in, helping my dad make a light repair when I was small enough my feet didn’t reach the floor.

Cat of the Week is Fuji, an eight month-old black and white kitten who’s been uber friendly since day one. The story here is that Fuji had/has a sister who looks similar and is also uber friendly, who seems to be living four miles down the road now with a neighbor who mysteriously denied knowledge when asked. I suspect they just loved her too much to return her, which makes perfect sense. If I didn’t have so many cats I might be bothered, but I know they’re good cat caretakers we’ve gifted farm cats to in the past, and Fuji seems perfectly content with her other feline friends here so I’m choosing to be amused. Bonus appearance: Matchy being stealthy in a box!

My week in film:

  • Outlander ssn 4 [2018-2019] – I actually only watched the last two episodes this week; I’ve been slowly working my way through this season for about a month. As someone who was once a big Outlander fan (I binged all of the books about five years ago and got in on the first season of this TV adaptation) I have to admit this season was awful. It’s been trending downhill for a while, but this one was all-around cringe and horror. It’s set in colonial America, shortly before the revolution. So of course, Native Americans are being driven out of their lands, slavery is running rampant, and misogyny is everywhere. This season sits in a really uncomfortable position of striving for ~historical accuracy~ while also prominently featuring a more modern character (this is a time travel narrative) who tries to live by the morals of her own era but doesn’t believe she can make significant changes in a time period that is, for her, history. There’s a lot of racism here, including some truly bad choices made by the MCs we’re supposed to sympathize with. Slurs are used throughout this season, particularly against Native Americans. And this is all before we’ve even mentioned the terrible handing of a rape plot that goes from bad to worse when it’s used as a sort of plot twist, featuring a major misunderstanding in which people are blamed for things they couldn’t have known and then are dramatically forgiven for misunderstanding while the violence at the heart of the mess is never challenged. I’ve already been gifted season 5 (hence suffering through all of 4), and I am still curious about a few of the time traveling aspects of this series, but most of the published material is also set during these early years of the United States so I may have to abandon ship.

My week in books:

  • Consent by Annabel Lyon – 4 stars. This was a fun, almost literary-thriller type read that I initially thought would be a 5 for me, but as I’ve sat with it and started drafting my review I’ve bumped it down to 4. I had a few personal dislikes that I’ll cover soon in a review, but on the whole this book did a lot that I liked, with imperfect but vibrant characters who lead the reader through some interesting conversations around various forms of consent, utilizing sharp prose and including a number of twists that keep the plot interesting even though I’d call this more of a character or theme study.
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller – ongoing. I’ve got an eARC courtesy of Netgalley for this next Women’s Prize read, and though reading digitally tends to go a little slower for me I am enjoying this. It’s very atmospheric, which is something I particularly enjoy, and I appreciate the topics of poverty and dependence that this is digging into, though I’m not sure that’s going to be quite enough for me in the end. It’s just lacking a bit of spark. But I’ve still got about half left to go, so nothing’s certain yet!

My week in posts:

Plans for the upcoming week include sharing my review of Consent, and possibly Unsettled Ground. I’ll definitely finish that book soon, but I’ve got another of Fuller’s titles on my shelf from BOTM (and catching up with BOTM is one of my top 2021 goals) that I’m tempted to read for some sort of joint review (which would mean taking a few extra days before I’m ready to review). But whether I want to delay other reading projects to dive right into another of Fuller’s books will probably depend on how I’m feeling about the rest of Unsettled Ground. Stay tuned to find out whether it’ll be a single or double review. After Fuller, I’ll be reading Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters.

On the subject of upcoming plans, I want to share here my TBR for the rest of May, which I’ve assembled largely in honor of Asian American Pacific Islander heritage month. There’s also a whole Asian readathon going on throughout May that I encourage you to check out here if you’re interested in readathons and/or expanding your Asain and AAPI reading; even if you don’t want to join, Cindy’s put together a page on Storygraph with tons of Asian reading recommendations, by genre, country, and a few other great categories as well, if you need any reading inspiration! Personally I am not reading regularly enough at the moment (and am determined to complete my 2021 Women’s Prize journey before starting anything new) to commit to a community activity with specific prompts and a deadline (though I’m sure you’re welcome to commit to as much or as little as you can handle!). But I do want to make sure I’m supporting AAPI writers with my reading and reviews, so even if I don’t quite get to all of these within the month they will stay on my 2021 TBR to help hold me accountable:

  1. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue – starting off this list with the one title that’s not Asian or Asian-American reading; in honor of the Women’s Prize shortlist a couple of weeks ago, the Women’s Prize Squad (Callum, Hannah, Marija, Naty, Rachel, Sarah, and I) put together a little shortlist of our own based on 2021 WP eligibility rules. Last year we assembled a whole longlist, but agreed on a shortlist for 2021 in which each of us added any 1 book we would’ve liked to see shortlisted, drawn from the entire pool of 2021 eligible books whether they were officially longlisted or not. It’s a bit of fun for trading favorite books or most anticipated reads with each other, and I’m very excited about this list so I will be reading each of the titles and doing a round up at the end as I did last time. 2021’s Women’s Prize Squad titles include: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Luster by Raven Leilani, The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan, and The Pull of the Stars. This one’s an Irish-set historical fiction following a nurse during the Spanish Flu outbreak as she works on a ward of quarantined expectant mothers. Everyone seems to love this, and I’ve had great experiences with Donoghue books in the past, so I have high hopes.
  2. If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha – Also from our Women’s Prize Squad list and doubling as an AAPI read, I’ve just gotten this one in from the library. The blurb calls this story: “A riveting debut novel set in contemporary Seoul, Korea, about four young women making their way in a world defined by impossibly high standards of beauty, secret room salons catering to wealthy men, strict social hierarchies, and K-pop fan mania.” I am hoping for some great characterization and a nuanced dive into the strengths and pitfalls of modern Korean culture.
  3. Imposter Syndrome by Kathy Wang – Because I live in the US it’s important to me to focus some of my Asian reading on Asian American authors and characters, and this sounds like a fun one. It follows a white woman who’s worked up the ranks of a Silicon Valley startup, thanks in part to the Russians she spies for; our other main character is a Chinese-American woman farther down the company hierarchy who discovers the espionage. It sounds techy and mysterious, and brimming with potential for social commentary.
  4. Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa – this is a Palestinian-based story I’ve heard such great things about, thought we might see on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, and anyway have been wanting to read for months. It follows a woman born to refugee parents, who is made a refugee herself when the US invades Iraq. It’s not until she lands in Israeli-controlled Palestine that she is able to make a home for herself. This sounds like an incredible exploration of identity, and conflict in the Middle East.
  5. Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt – I wanted to up my intake of translated lit this year, which has somewhat fallen by the wayside in recent months as I’ve struggled to read much of anything in any sort of timely manner. But here’s a short Japanese novel depicting new motherhood in the face of failed marriage, said to include some deep underlying tension juxtaposed with incredibly beautiful descriptions of light. Shoutout to Ellen’s book recommendations tag post for reminding me that I need to read this one!

And just for fun, here are a few further Asian and AAPI recommendations for anyone in need, all of which have been favorites and/or very memorable reads for me:

Have you read any of these books, or have a top-notch Asian- or AAPI-authored title you want to share? Let me know in the comments below!

The Literary Elephant

the generational impact of trauma

Review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Women’s Prize progress: 8/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, the worlds of wealthy tourists and impoverished locals collide in historical Paradise, a beach-side Barbadian village. When a robbery goes wrong on the night that Lala’s daughter is born, it sets in motion a string of devastating events. …Or does it? As the story unfolds, rippling out from Lala’s perspective to touch on all of those ensnared in the fallout, the reader learns just how deeply ingrained the roots of this problem lie, how easily perpetuated by the wealth gap between the summering tourists and struggling locals, and we begin to understand that Lala’s pain is not new, but rather a fresh iteration of tragedy and misogygny inherited by generation after generation in Paradise, nearly impossible to escape.

“She did not understand that for the women of her lineage, a marriage meant a murder in one form or the other.”

Right off the top, I have to warn you this is a bleak book. Personally, I don’t mind reading bleak fiction, and coming on the tail as this one did for me of an extremely bleak nonfiction read, I had a very positive experience here, though I understand others may want to skip this one for its difficult themes and content. I’ve rounded up some CWs at the bottom of this review, and am mentioning that list now in case anyone wants to check before reading further.

What makes this book so dark and haunting is the relentlessness of the trauma, the Point of the book being (in my view, as you may have surmised from the title of this review) being that in a place with such imbalances of justice and privilege, pain begets pain; that misogyny, abuse, and injustice are a breeding ground for more of the same, internalized by perpetrators and victims alike, to be passed down from one generation to the next to such a point that even a newborn doesn’t seem to stand a chance. Almost every chapter reveals some deeper layer of despair in this story as the narration flits between linked characters, exploring past ghosts that persist as present motivators. Though this book covers a specific incident, in a specific family, it speaks to a much larger societal problem in which trauma is the norm, she who can’t take it with dignity is further punished and ostracized, and there are very few viable avenues for recourse or even exit.

“And she leaves Lala in the cold quiet room on her back with her legs still splayed and no feeling at all at the intersection of her thighs and it is nothing like the bliss on the posters in the clinic or on the TV ads or the faces of the wealthy tourist women who walk with their newborns on Baxter’s Beach. Instead, she realizes that she has now brought another person into the dark, that birth is an injury and having a baby has scarred her and when the nurse asks her if she wants to go with her to see her baby in the ICU she shakes her head No...”

While the painting of this unhappy picture is the book’s strength, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House also meets its primary downfall in this dogged focus on trauma through the ages; the narrative becomes so focused on what seems an exhaustive list of tragedies that the characters have little personality beyond their particular pains. Some characters want to leave Paradise, some want to rise above, some want to come back to experience it with better fortunes, but these longings are all tied to what has happened to the local characters here, reactions rather than innate ideals. They don’t have dreams or quirks that make them unique- they could all be anyone, dropped into the events that happen to them. Only their situations set them apart.

For example, it’s eerie to see that Lala could read exactly like her grandmother does, with only a number of years separating their fates; sure one earns her keep making dresses and the other braiding hair, but neither skill is mined for character depth and both cater in the same way to the tourists- this similarity makes the generational span of the family’s trauma abundantly clear, but it also, regrettably, comes across as though all of these characters exist not to represent people but to be vehicles of pain, suffering, and violence, first and foremost. If I could’ve changed one thing about this book, it actually wouldn’t be any of the tragedy in these pages, brutal though that can be; I would wish rather that the reader be allowed to know these characters a little better as individuals.

But even with this flaw in view, I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is still fully worth the read. I was immediately gripped by the writing; for such a tragic tale, Jones delivers a compelling narrative with plenty of momentum, the writing smart and artfully circular, spiralling around its points in a way that builds up dread and anticipation before honing in for the kill. Every twist feels both surprising and inevitable- the perfect combination I’m always looking for in fiction. I also found the use of multiple POVs engaging and well-utilized; Jones allows us to see most of her characters at first from a distance, through someone else’s eyes; she piques our curiosity with circumspection and only then allows us a close glimpse into each new perspective, which expands upon or challenges what we’ve learned from other characters in a way that makes each new piece vital in its own right. The shifting narration gives the book a fluid, communal feel, though Lala is always at the center. Other characters include Lala’s grandmother, mother, husband, friend, the police officer who questions her, and the woman involved in the botched robbery. All of these perspectives add their own flavor to what is clearly a larger societal issue, though they also all feed into that single common thread- Lala.

“Mira Whalen closes her eyes. Just yesterday she had ventured outside, just a little walk on the beach, and had seen the neighbor’s dog die, had seen a woman too terrified to report an assault she had suffered. Mira Whalen did not think she could muster the energy to go outside again. Mira Whalen didn’t think she could muster the energy for anything.”

It’s a heartwrenching tale that offers little hope, though the fact that the main thrust of the story is set in 1984 with occasional flashbacks to even earlier years does seem to suggest that living conditions on Barbados beaches may have somewhat improved up to present day. Despite the time jumps and character switches I never had a hard time following along and personally I didn’t find the trauma too difficult to read. The robbery gone awry and segueing as it does into a difficult birthing scene sets up the book’s tone well, so that additional revelations feel somewhat expected, not intended to shock the reader at every turn. And the writing, the writing. Jones’s prose has such flow and rhythm, and the mechanics of her paragraphs continually impressed me. There’s a bit of dialect in the dialogue that’s easy enough to parse. For those willing to take the leap with the content, there really is so much to appreciate here. This is a book that will stick with me, I think.

CWs: murder, rape (including rape of minors), difficult birth, death of a child (infant), incest, physical (domestic) abuse, gun violence, death of a pet (dog), animal cruelty (cats), infidelity, misogyny

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was halfway through this read when I assembled my Women’s Prize shortlist predictions, and that was enough to (correctly) include it on my list; I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is fully deserving of its place on this year’s shortlist and well worth the read, for the right audience.

The Literary Elephant

looking for a book?

The Recommendations Book Tag

I’ve been tagged by Naty and Eline, more than enough motivation to jump on board after enjoying Ally’s (original!) post for this tag! If you haven’t checked out their wonderful recommendations yet be sure to do so, they’ve highlighted some fantastic titles and this tag is a great way to find new books or perhaps re-prioritize what’s already on your TBR. 😉 I haven’t done any tags or recommendation posts in a while so I’m going to use this chance to round up some recent faves from within the last few months of my reading that I need to talk about more!

Rules:

  • Tag Ally @ Ally Writes Things so she can see your recommendations!
  • Give at least one recommendation for each of the prompts below
  • If you don’t have a recommendation, talk about a book you want to read
  • Tag some friends!

And now for the books!

A Book About Friendship

Outlawed

Outlawed by Anna North. This isn’t necessarily a book *about* friendship, but it does prominently feature a great group of friends, many of whom are LGBTQ+ characters and all of whom are ostracized from their reimagined 1800s Western society. It’s a fun romp that’s a bit over the top, but if a band of feminist & LGBTQ+ outlaws dressing as cowboys and running heists in the name of creating a sanctuary for the oppressed sounds at all your type, you may want to give this one a try!

A Translated Book

Hurricane Season

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the original Spanish by Sophie Hughes. Set in an impoverished Mexican village brimming with local tensions and long-lived superstitions, this little literary novel packs a big punch as it unravels, character by character, the truth of the Witch’s death. A string of flawed and unreliable narrators demonstrate the ripple effects of trauma and suspicion; though this is a book focused on darkness, brutality, and things gone wrong, it never loses sight of its characters’ humanity.

A Diverse Romance

One to Watch

One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London. Okay, the MC here is a straight white woman and if you caught my review a couple of months ago you may recall I hesitate to even call this book a romance, but hear me out. This story follows a plus-size influencer who agrees to star as the lead on a Bachelorette-style reality dating show. Though personally I’d categorize reality dating TV as something akin to a sport, there is some romance involved, and altogether I’d say the cast is fairly diverse, from skin color to age, sexuality, and body type, and one of the prominent bachelors is even a great single dad to a non-binary kid. It’s a quick read with a fun multi-media sort of format and plenty of sweet scenes, while also directly tackling representation issues in mainstream television.

A Fast-Paced Book

Interior Chinatown

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. From the outside this may look like an ordinary novel, but inside it is formatted like a screenplay and it reads like a dream. The style befits the main character’s tendency to view his Asian-American life as though it is a movie in which he is perpetually cast as Generic Asian Man behind white and Black stars. He longs to be upgraded to the role of Kung Fu Man, but over the course of the novel gradually realizes that even this goal is a limited box reflective of ingrained Asian racism in America. It was nearly a one-sitting read for me, loads of fun and also incredibly thought-provoking.

A Nonfiction Other Than a Memoir

Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America's Cheap Goods

Made in China by Amelia Pang. Speaking of China, I just read this absolutely heart-wrenching investigative journalism book about the state of forced labor in modern China, and though I have to caution you about the extremely dark content I cannot recommend reading up on this topic highly enough, especially for first-world consumers whose purchasing habits help drive the system. Lives are literally counting on buyers making smart, conscientious purchases and holding brands accountable for their sourcing of goods. I can’t deny this is a bleak read, but it’s also an important, life-changing one.

An Underrated Memoir

Notes on a Silencing

Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford. Despite its excellent cover and some great early hype, I’ve seen very few readers in my feed picking up this book, and I hope that will change. This is one of the strongest #MeToo books I’ve ever read, ranking right up there with Chanel Miller’s Know My Name; it follows Crawford through her boarding school days, during which she was raped by two upperclassmen boys, and the long years afterward when her school refused to take her claim seriously, made her a target among her peers, and took deliberate steps to stifle her legal case. Crawford also engages with the language we tend to use or avoid around trauma in a particularly interesting and useful way.

A Book With Fewer Than 10,000 Ratings on Goodreads

The Butchers' Blessing

The Butchers’ Blessing by Ruth Gilligan. This mysterious, Irish-set historical fiction novel chronicles the last year that the Butchers travel the countryside practicing their trade, a fateful time for Irish cattle as a bout of BSE (mad cow disease) heightens tensions to a near-panic. It’s a book full of such thoughtfully-drawn characters and of such thematic depth, a sad but beautiful exploration of the conflict between folkloric/traditional beliefs and the pressure to move as a nation into the modern world. It’s actually got less than 1,000 ratings on GR, which is woeful for such a brilliant work.

A Book With An LGBTQ+ Protagonist

Girl Made of Stars

Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake. YA titles appear pretty rarely on my blog these days, but there are some real gems in the category even for adult readers who prefer heavier themes, and this is one of them. It features a bisexual MC who must confront a trauma from her past in order to move forward with her non-binary girlfriend, all while caught in the middle of a scandal that hits very close to home- her twin brother has been accused of rape by his girlfriend, and while our protagonist loves her brother she also trusts her friend not to lie about him in this way. It’s a sticky situation that examines trauma and victim blaming with care and nuance, appropriate for readers YA and up.

A Book By A Trans or Non-binary Author

The Death of Vivek Oji

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. Emezi seems to be a popular answer for this prompt already, but they’re a favorite author of mine that I can’t refrain from mentioning here and I’ve not seen this book specifically listed yet, so I’ll add it to the ring. Vivek Oji is a heartfelt look at sexual discovery and prejudice in Nigeria, focusing on the devastating death of a character whose true identity was known only to a few close friends. This is a sad, beautiful character study with plenty of commercial appeal.

A Book With More Than 500 Pages

Legendborn (Legendborn, #1)

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. Another great YA recommendation, and a fantasy one at that! This one just makes the cut at 501 pages (according to Goodreads; I don’t have a physical copy on hand at the moment to check accuracy but I’m glad- this book’s worth the mention!). Following a Black teen through her first months on a North Carolinian college campus, this modern continuation of King Arthur lore dips into an intricate world with some fun magic, all while exploring deep grief and challenging racism throughout the college’s history- especially within (but not limited to) the secret society that keeps Arthur’s legend alive.

A Short Story Collection

Lot: Stories

Lot by Bryan Washington. I don’t read a lot of story collections, but this one was a standout. Each piece in this set takes place in Houston, particularly focusing on marginalized characters and communities. They’re immensely sharp and compulsively readable, and (if I remember the ratio correctly) every other story is a linked piece following a recurring protagonist through various stages of his young gay life. As a whole the collection is a wonderful microcosm both specific to its setting and indicative much more broadly of modern life in the margins.

A Book You Want Everyone to Read

Real Life

Real Life by Brandon Taylor. I’m putting this out there even though its style (reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s) will likely make it a bit of a hit-or-miss read for many; it was such a hit for me though- my favorite read of 2020!- that I’m still hoping for more readers to pick it up. This gutting little character study of a gay Black man’s struggle with racism (even among his friend group) in grad school takes place over one fraught weekend as our protagonist considers dropping out of his program just to escape it. It’s a quiet read, but it’s got teeth, and I just cannot recommend it highly enough.

Tagging some more people whose recommendations I’d love to see: Eleanor, Ellen, Karissa, Laura, Lou, Melanie, Stargazer, Stephen, and anyone else who wants to join! Please link or let me know if you try this tag so I can check out your answers!

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast

5.1.21

I have a lot to cover here, so this might run a little long. Feel free to skip around for whichever pieces of the post catch your interest. I generally try to bold the subject of each paragraph/section of these weekly updates so that it’s easier for you to pick and choose what you want to read- hopefully it helps!

It’s been a busy week, and either I’ve overexerted or am still adjusting to the vaccine or not quite as healthy post-covid as I thought because I’ve had a flare up with a lot of headaches and fatigue again. I’m lining up yet another appointment to make sure it’s nothing new going on, but other than needing to rest my brain a lot I don’t feel like I’m dying or anything, which truly feels like something to be grateful for these days, so I’m coping all right.

Even though it’s been a bit of a struggle (and my reading has definitely suffered for it but I’ve made my peace with that), there’s been a lot else going on, too. Planting season is in full swing on the farm- all of the corn is in the ground now so we’re onto soybeans. There’s a picture in this week’s 365 updates of the planter being refilled, with my dad making a little bonus appearance.

Also in The 365 is a puzzle I’ve been working on for a while and finally finished this week. It’s a cool concept- the specialized ‘birthday edition’ New York Times puzzle, depicting the NYT front page on the day I was born. I love the idea but unfortunately I got some pretty disappointing content on my front page. The articles include: US effing up in Iraq and fatally attacking own helicopters, mismanagement of a railroad line that left thousands stranded in bad weather, tobacco companies testifying in Congress that cigarettes aren’t addictive, a hospital settling on insurance fraud and patient abuse charges, and a Navy top admiral granted full pension in a 20 to 2 vote after a sexual harassment scandal (only one woman was on the panel). This last one was actually pretty grim to read in 2021; apparently something happened in 1991, when naval aviators sexually assaulted “scores of women” and then the investigation was bungled thanks to this admiral; this article goes on to say that “it was not clear” why the one man against giving full pension voted no. (Like, it couldn’t possibly be that he didn’t want to reward a man for allowing a lot of women to be violated without recourse for justice, right?) There’s also not a single woman in the bylines at all. One piece about the Vatican approving altar girls might seem like a victory, but then the article goes on to note that while the Vatican officially accepts them, many churches still oppose allowing girls this role and ultimately each bishop gets to make the choice for his own diocese. We are also reassured that women are still banned from priesthood. So. It was a thoughtful gift and fun to assemble at least, if not to read. I hope others who try this ‘birthday edition’ puzzle have better luck.

Cat of the Week is actually not my cat anymore; Fran(cis) was born on the farm, and is a brother to Heath (who featured in last week’s update) and Fuzzbutt (who featured several weeks ago), but I gifted him to an irl friend in need a few years ago (he’s 4 and a 1/2 now). They’re a perfect fit and I’m so glad they have each other. I don’t get to see them in person often so when I made contact this week I had to get a picture!

I had a bit of a TV binge while my brain was mush this week; I downloaded all 8 of the Shadow and Bone episodes from Netflix so I could even watch while I was waiting in the fields away from wifi, lol. I’ve actually watched the whole season twice already and can definitely foresee revisiting it again. And thus…

My week in film:

  • Shadow and Bone ssn 1 [2021] – I just loved this. It’s a great watch. It’s not flawless, but it is possibly the best YA fantasy adaptation I’ve ever seen. The acting. The filmography. The plotting! Combining Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy with her Six of Crows duology was the absolute best idea; I liked the Grisha books but loved the SoC duology so I initially wanted to watch this mainly for the crows, but I ended up enjoying every single minute. I was a little disappointed we don’t get to see more of Kaz as an individual yet (he’s my fave character), but Inej and Jesper are absolutely fantastic and so many hints are dropped for deeper characterization and plotting to come that I’m already so excited for season 2! Yes, Alina is still naive and annoying and self-centered, but I do not have a problem with unlikable characters and I find her believable enough that it works for me. She fits the story. And…I’m team Malina, apparently against the grain. To be clear, Malina has nothing on Kanej for me, but I’ve always liked Mal and I think the show does him more justice than the novels. I also (please do not cancel me) like his actor better than the Darkling’s. Sorry, Ben Barnes stans. Barnes is a great actor! And the Darkling is such a fascinating character! I’ve been going around saying “make me your villain” all week! But I have no desire to see Darklina as endgame. Anyway, the first watch was a fun binge and the second time through cemented this adaptation as a real favorite for me. Milo and the crows and Malina (in that order) gave me life this week. I need more. If you do too, you should check out Hadeer’s review, which is more coherent and detailed than my ramblings here and hits the nail on the head about the show’s racism.

My week in books:

  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – 4 stars. I thought I’d finish this like, last Sunday, but Ive barely been able to read at all and just managed to wrap it up before the end of the month. It’s a tragic historical fiction tale set in Barbados, very focused on generational trauma and class divides on an island populated by impoverished locals and wealthy tourists, with a huge wage gap between the two groups. I’ll have a review coming very soon, but the tl;dr is that while the characterization could’ve used a little work, the writing is sharp and compellingly readable. I think it’s an apt fit for this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist.
  • Consent by Annabel Lyon – ongoing. I’ve barely made a dent, but I already love the way Lyon writes about sisters and I have a feeling I’m going to love the character dynamics and prose going forward.

My week in posts:

Another thing you might have noticed happening this week was the announcement of the Women’s Prize shortlist! In case you missed it, the six books on the shortlist are (with links to my reviews where applicable): The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones, and No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. That’s 3 titles from my wishlist, and a shocking 5 of 6 from my prediction list! The title I guessed wrong was Ali Smith’s Summer, which I haven’t read yet, though I did include the title I missed, Unsettled Ground, as my runner-up guess, so I came very close! This was especially surprising and exciting for me after also guessing 5 of 6 shortlist titles correct last year– apparently I’m on a lucky streak! (Watch me tout this record as proof of my abilities next year only to get every guess wrong, haha.)

In any case, I’m actually pretty pleased with this year’s shortlist. Unsettled Ground is the only title that made the cut that doesn’t necessarily feel like shortlist material to me, though that’s based on reviews as I haven’t read the book yet myself, so that assessment may change. I didn’t especially like No One is Talking About This but I didn’t hate it either and I think it makes a decent, topical addition to the group. I’m thrilled for Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi and even more eager now to get to The Vanishing Half. I’m disappointed Detransition, Baby (by Torrey Peters) didn’t make the cut as it sounds excellent, though I’m still planning to read and review it regardless. Exciting Times was a longlist favorite for me, and I would perhaps have rather seen it advance than Unsettled Ground, but that may be down to personal taste. Exciting Times didn’t quite make my prediction list either so while I stand by my high rating I can’t say I’m surprised by the snub. I’ll likely have more to say once I’ve completed my shortlist (and longlist) reading, so I’m aiming to continue through the list in May and share a wrap-up post to conclude the whole experience when the time comes.

Speaking of wrap-ups, April ended this week, which means it’s time to do a quick round-up of my April reading. It was another low month for me, unfortunately. My April stats from Storygraph (you can follow me there @ literaryelephant):

I read 5 books in April, 3 literary fiction and 1 historical fiction all from the Women’s Prize longlist, as well as 1 unrelated nonfiction book. Storygraph is still showing about 100 pages more in my page count than I’ve marked in my bujo page tracker, and I do count the afterword and acknowledgement pages and whatnot if I read them, which I usually do, and I check that I’m logging the correct edition every time, so I’m not sure how Storygraph is coming up with so many more pages than I am. It will be interesting to compare the difference at the end of the year.

The books I’ve completed this month (linked to reviews where applicable) are:

No 5 star reads this month, although Made in China came close.

I completed only 1 book from my April 5-book TBR, though I don’t feel I was off track, exactly. I read three library books this month, which don’t always make it into my TBRs if they aren’t in my possession at the start of the month though I still need to prioritize them, and even though I didn’t stick to my 5-book TBR exactly, it was filled for April with Women’s Prize books and I was definitely reading along that theme so it wasn’t exactly that I lost focus. I still intend to catch up with my outstanding TBR books as soon as I can.

Speaking of catching up…

Because I’ve read only about half as much as usual the last two months, I am now considerably behind on my reading goal for 2021. I’m not too worried, because I’m still hoping my brain health will even out in the not-too-distant future and give me a chance to binge some great reads. Ideally, over the summer. Of course, the number of books anyone reads isn’t isn’t really important for its own sake, though I’m very competitive with myself and would be frustrated to miss my reading target for the first time since I started setting a yearly goal. It’s only May though so it’s too early to get stressed about it, and I won’t beat myself up about failing a target I’m just not capable of hitting at the moment. All we can do is the best we can do.

Looking ahead…

For the upcoming week, I should have at least two posts coming up, and this week I say so with more certainty. I very nearly finished a book tag I wanted to post yesterday, but then was called away to help deal with a flat tire before I could answer the last prompt; expect to see it on Monday. I’ll also have my review of How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House coming up very soon, because I borrowed a library copy and generally prefer to write my reviews before sending back my library books, which helps keep me prompt with those. Whether I manage to post more than that will likely depend on how much reading and writing my brain is up to the challenge of completing. I’ve given up trying to guess what will happen, it’s proven impossible. I’ll do what I can.

As for reading, I’ll ideally be finishing Consent and continuing on with my Women’s Prize reads– I’ve got Unsettled Ground, The Vanishing Half, and Detransition, Baby left, and I’ve not yet decided what order I’ll be reading them in so this week’s reading could include any of the above.

I’ve also not entirely decided on my May TBR, because while I am prioritizing my final Women’s Prize reads those have featured in previous 5-book TBRs (or in the case of Unsettled Ground I just don’t have a way of photographing the eARC into my usual TBR photo setup and am petty enough to omit it for that reason) so I won’t be including those books in this month’s list, and won’t start reading this month’s list until I’ve completed those reads anyway.

Furthermore, May is AAPI heritage month so I want to prioritize some books by AAPI authors in my TBR; I’ve chosen my two May BOTM titles to fit this goal, but of course they haven’t arrived yet, and I’ve got another AAPI-authored title on hold at the library that also isn’t in yet. So while I do have some titles in mind, and a few others on hand if these new ones don’t show up in a timely fashion, my list isn’t finalized yet; I’ll aim to sort this out before my next weekly update (this one’s gotten quite long anyway) and share my May TBR then.

Are you reading or posting about any books from Asian American authors for May? If you’ve read any recently or have an exciting title on your TBR, I’d love more recommendations!

The Literary Elephant

if you can’t stand to read about human rights violations today, scroll away now

Review: Made in China: A Prisoner, An SOS letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang

It pains me a little to warn readers off before getting properly into this review when I think it addresses one of the most important ongoing issues in the world today, and there are millions of people facing this issue in real time without the luxury of turning away out of discomfort, but… to help others we must first take care of ourselves, and reading morally difficult content may be counterproductive for some. In that vein, CWs include: confinement, forced institutionalization, genocide, gore, Islamophobia, racism, rape, slavery, suicidal thoughts, torture, and human trafficking. I’m going to talk about a few specifics in this review so again, turn away now if you’re not equipped for that today. But if you can, especially if you are a first-world consumer (don’t be fooled by the mention of America in the title; though written with an American audience in mind, this is a larger problem), I would highly urge picking up this book and/or educating yourself on the topic of ongoing forced labor.

Book Cover

Made in China is a new nonfiction book that opens with a US woman opening a package of party decorations and finding an SOS note sealed inside, written by the ailing Chinese man forced to produce the product. From here the book covers many related topics, including why it is so hard for the average American to make significant waves about this problem, how and why China came to be in the position to perpetuate forced labor of its own citizens, and the fate of the man who wrote this particular note. The book alternates between Chinese history, the horrifying extent of the current problem, and the moving plight of Sun Yi, one man caught in the maw of a dangerous system.

“Inspired by Soviet gulags, China’s first labor camps opened in the 1930s. China’s laogai system remains the largest forced-labor system in operation today. It includes a vast network of prisons, camps, and various extralegal detention centers. […] In these camps, millions of emaciated people must work fifteen to twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Many also undergo political indoctrination and torture.”

Made in China is a bleak book all around; I was initially dismayed at being given a detailed description of one torture experienced by Sun Yi straight away in the first chapter, but ultimately I think including something graphic so early on is a smart move on Pang’s part because it sets the tone for the darkness of the content to follow. Another smart move: sharing so much of Sun’s story with the reader. Made in China often threatens to bog us down in statistics, history, and politics, but Sun’s story spread across the book ensures that the reader never loses the human connection: the individual faces behind the numbers and facts. And Sun does see some victories- he’s got family and friends, and at one point a lawyer, to help him survive, people who support his decision even when he could walk free and clear of it all and chooses instead to expose as much of the truth as possible to help the others stuck inside. It can be hard to read about what Sun endures, but he is the beating heart of this book.

“He had been there so long he sometimes forgot he was alive.”

In addition to Sun as a subject, we’re also given some background on Chinese government, as a means of understanding why economic stability is tantamount to the current regime and how forced-labor and reeducation-through-labor camps double as a means of stifling potential rebellions. The chapters on Chinese political history, particularly relating to the persecution of Falun Gong (a type of religious/meditative/lifestyle practice) members, are among the densest of the book; one of the only downfalls to this reading experience for me was the feeling that each of these chapters could have been expanded into its own book without ever dipping into superfluity. There’s a lot of relevant information to cover, and Pang seems to do as well as anyone possibly could, condensing it into a readable length and sensible organization. Made in China can be a rough start for those like me who are woefully uneducated on Chinese life and history, but I do think this is a great overview that’s worth the patience required to sort through the denser pieces. The history is not enough to make one sympathetic to the regime’s choice of resorting to forced labor, but it does help the reader understand how China came to this point, and perhaps sympathize with those who know about and choose not to rebel against this system.

“Wolves would rather forage by themselves in the lonely wilderness, risking starvation and death than be well-fed in a cage. But humans are not the same.”

With that knowledge and Sun’s story to carry us through, Pang next delves into the breadth of the modern problem. Forced labor itself and all that entails sounds grim enough, but the surveillance methods for pinpointing ‘suspicious’ persons before any crime is committed, coupled with the fact that Chinese criminal courts convict in 99.9% of cases (for those allowed a trial at all in the first place), offers new frightening implications. Lest we brush that off, Pang presents an all but inarguable case suggesting that detainees are used not only for labor but also for organ harvesting, as the primary source for the entire nation’s billion-dollar transplant industry. And if that somehow doesn’t sound bad enough, wait until you get to the part where the people who are chosen as detainees and potential organ ‘donors’ are often those who practice any religion or philosophy beyond government-sanctioned ideologies. There is one entire corner of China populated primarily by Uyghurs, an ethnic minority Turkic people who have, historically, been practicing Muslims, and this is the area in which the forced labor situation reaches peak awfulness of genocide proportions:

“Once inside reeducation camps, the Turkic detainees attend daily indoctrination classes on official state ideology. They must prove they can reject Islam, forget their native tongue, and learn fluent Mandarin. There are reports of camps sterilizing Turkic women, while Turkic children are stolen from their parents and given to ‘orphanages’ that raise them as Chinese. In 2020, the Jamestown Foundation released a report analyzing Chinese government documents such as ‘family planning’ records. It found that between 2015 and 2018, forced sterilizations and abortions decreased the birth rate in two of the largest Uyghur prefectures by 84 percent. But this drop was not steep enough for China. The local government of one Uyghur region set a family planning goal of lowering the birth rate to nearly zero in 2020. Through forced sterilization and policies that strongly encourage interracial Han Chinese and Turkic marriages, the Chinese Communist Party is proceeding to wipe out an entire ethnicity.”

Pang has clearly done her research. Every statement of fact is sourced, with 40+ pages of notes in the back of the book linking each assertion to its roots, chapter by chapter. When she can’t claim something as a fact, she’s honest about the speculation, showing her path from fact to implication in a way that is nonetheless convincing for the lack of concrete proof. Considering that every survivor of these camps and every foreign investigator who questions or gets too close speaks out only at great personal risk, it is easy to see why some particulars may go unknown until an end to this problem has been reached. Even Pang closes her author’s note at the end of the book with a harrowing “thank you to my family in China, who knew nothing about this book; I’m so sorry if this will make your lives difficult.”

But Perhaps the scariest reveal of all for me here was just how hard it can be to do anything at all to help ease this situation from America, or even to refrain from supporting the practice monetarily. Where we put our money as consumers matters, but as a consumer it can be all but impossible to know for sure which products or brands to avoid due to forced labor sourcing. Even the company selling the the product may not know that their supplier is outsourcing for labor, because this is a layered issue where the truth can be hidden at multiple points. There are whole Chinese companies dedicated to fabricating factory records to outsmart audits, and the audits themselves may not be able to dig deep enough to discover illegal labor use in the time allotted.

“And so the million-dollar question is: Are any brands truly sustainable at the moment? Even companies that market themselves around ‘transparency’ and ‘sustainability’ often reveal little information about whether their audits can actually detect unauthorized subcontracting. I have yet to come across any companies that divulge how often they made sudden production changes, or how fast a turnaround they expect from factories. And without transparency about these sourcing practices, for all we know, even the most well-intentioned companies could be inadvertently sourcing from laogai factories.”

In my opinion, it’s going to be up to individual brands to risk higher profits by going out of their way to make sure that forced labor makes up no part of their production process. But that’s… the easiest possible way this all could end, in my view, and in a capitalist world it’s hard to imagine brands being that selfless by choice. Unfortunately it’s not hard to imagine several ways in which this could get worse before it gets better. There’s even some information in here about how our brains work while shopping in a way that motivates us to center the monetary cost over the human cost. And if that can be overcome, one also must confront the potential humanitarian disaster that could result from boycotting legal Chinese-produced goods along with the illegal forced labor stuff; while forced labor goods may make up a shockingly huge portion of the market, the majority of Chinese-based goods are probably not made this way, and over a billion innocent people depend on the stability of China’s economy just as much as its corrupt regime does. It’s bleak.

Pang doesn’t want to leave the reader entirely without hope though, and offers some questions in the final chapter of her book that we as consumers can ask of the companies we buy from in order to double check their production practices and help hold them accountable, but of course no one is obligated to answer these questions and the law around forced labor goods is slippery and full of loopholes. What we can all do, though, is be smart about our purchasing practices, and get into the habit of centering the human cost of the product over the monetary cost; so in case you don’t pick up this book for whatever reason, I’ll leave these purchasing prompts from Pang with you now:

  1. Do I already own something that serves the same purpose?
  2. Is this item so much better that I would be willing to donate three things in its place?
  3. If it were more expensive, would I still try to figure out a way to afford it? Or am I feeling an urge to buy this only because it’s extremely cheap?
  4. If the product I’m considering is an updated version of one that I already own, is my current one working just fine?
  5. Am I sure I will wear or use this product a lot? Or will this likely end up sitting in storage after one use?

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. And a good time to remind you that I rate based on personal reading experience, not on the importance of the content or objective merit of the book (which personally I don’t believe any person can do fairly). The experience was somewhat lessened for me by the extra effort it took to parse the densest chapters and keep up with shifting timelines, but I did by the end feel that I understood everything that had been covered and felt this an entirely worthwhile (and life-changing, tbh) read. I can’t emphasize enough how difficult of a read this is, but I also can’t recommend the read enough to anyone and everyone willing to brave the content. I cannot even fathom how this isn’t a hotter topic worldwide- let’s make it one.

(If you need any more incentive, May is AAPI reading month. I believe this book qualifies.)

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast

4.24.21

I skipped mentioning a Cat of the Week in my last update because the only cat that featured was Matchy, curled up in a sleepy ball, and it didn’t seem like the best way to introduce her. This week I got a rare lap cuddle with her so she’s making another appearance (legs for dayyyys)! I’ve already talked about how she was named for her matching eye marks (this photo is a bit deceptive, her markings are symmetrical) while her brother Patchy (they’re both 2 1/2) was named for his asymmetrical eye patch marking. At some point I’ll try to get them side by side so that the names will make sense, but Matchy isn’t big on human contact so she’s a bit difficult to grab photos of! Hence needing this documented proof that a lap nap occurred.

And below Matchy is Heath, who has been stripey and cute for 4 1/2 years already; he comes from our era of candy bar cat names. Heath’s funny story is that a couple of years ago he disappeared from the farm- he’s a big tom who thinks he’s the king here and when the weather’s nice he has a tendency to wander and expand his territory, so it’s not unusual for him to go missing for a day or two and I wasn’t worried at first. But he was gone for THREE MONTHS, and then we logged into the local humane society’s website for unrelated reasons and found Heath on their front page! Our local humane society is 20 miles from the farm, and we’ve never figured out how or why he ended up there. Furthermore, it turned out he was only with the humane society for one month, which leaves plenty of his time unaccounted for. He got updated shots and good care while he was gone, seemed totally chill about it all and no worse for wear. But of course instead of roaming free in the great outdoors he was living in a cage while he was with the humane society and they called him Corey, so it’s become a running joke here that we had to break him out of prison under a false name! Fortunately this seems to have curbed his craving for adventure.

In other news, my reading this week has been incredibly bleak:

  • Made in China by Amelia Pang – 4 stars. The only reason this nonfiction wasn’t a 5-star read for me comes down to the fact that it has to cover so much information in such a condensed space, which makes it a bit confusing to follow at times; but a full history of modern Chinese politics and forced labor is beyond the scope of a single work and it’s not Pang’s fault that this is a major issue with so little mainstream coverage, which made it a very difficult book to rate at all. As always though, I rate based on my personal experience with a book, not as a reflection of the book’s merit or importance of the topic. This is an incredibly depressing revelation of human rights violations ongoing today and I’m going to have a ton to say about this in an upcoming review. It’s a very dark and difficult read, perhaps even the most dark and difficult book I’ve ever read, but it should 100% be mandatory for everyone- and especially first world consumers- to know about what is going on with forced labor right now.
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – ongoing. I’m nearly finished with this one! And it’s also pretty bleak. If not for library due dates coming up, I would not have read these two books back to back. The upside to this one is that it’s fiction. The downside is that it deals with themes of generational misogyny and trauma, to the extent that there’s not much more to these characters than their pain, but aside from this small hiccup in characterization it’s an incredibly well-written and compelling story, and (thankfully) more literary than I’d expected.

Related to reading, I managed to catch up on three review posts this week! Those included:

All three are titles longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize. I am not planning to read all 16 books from the longlist this season, but I’ve got a handful left on my TBR and intend to round up and rank all of the longlisters I’ve read as soon as I finish. I’m expecting to pick up 12 or 13 of the longlisted books in total, though my plans could change slightly once the shortlist is announced- which is happening this upcoming week on the 28th! I definitely won’t be finished with my journey through the longlist before then, and thanks to my health issues this March and April I haven’t been able to be as much a part of the Women’s Prize reading community as I have been in the past. I’ve missed a lot of prize-related content, sadly. Between that and not having finished my longlist reading, I won’t be sharing a separate shortlist prediction post this year, and so I’ll share my few shortlist thoughts here!

From what I’ve read so far, I’d most like to see Transcendent Kingdom, Piranesi, and Exciting Times advance. These have been my 4 and 5 star reads so far. My 3 star reads, Burnt Sugar, Luster, and No One is Talking About This, I wouldn’t *mind* seeing on the shortlist, though I’m not rooting for them. I expect How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House will fall somewhere in the 3-5 star range for me, as well. The only lower rating I’ve had thus far, Small Pleasures with 2 stars, I definitely don’t want to see advance.

There are also a few longlisted books that I have yet to read but have high hopes for, which make up a portion of my shortlist wishlist:

  1. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  2. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  3. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  4. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  5. Consent by Annabel Lyon
  6. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

But my actual shortlist prediction (and there’s no way I’m going to top last year’s record 5/6 correct guesses) is as follows:

  1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  2. Summer by Ali Smith
  3. No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  4. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  5. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  6. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

I definitely feel a bit out of the loop as far as general public opinion on many of this year’s titles and what the judges might be going for as to overall tone and topics. I just haven’t read enough books or reviews or reactions to have a solid grasp of the whole, but it’s fun to take a stab at it nonetheless. It is perhaps optimistic to hope for half the shortlist to be comprised of writers of color when the longlist didn’t skew that way, but I think these are some really strong books that deserve the recognition. I also wonder if one of those England-set white-authored domestic mystery novels might make the cut since there were three of them on the longlist, but (in my limited view) none of them seem like a good shortlist fit. If I had to pick a runner-up, I suppose it would be Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground by default from those mystery novels, since I didn’t like Small Pleasures and don’t want to support Amanda Craig, who supports she who must not be named. I do still intend to read (and hopefully enjoy) Unsettled Ground, and I know many readers love Fuller’s writing, though personally I’ve not yet dipped into her work.

However it turns out, there’s a good chance I’ll be reading the shortlist and posting a winner prediction between the shortlist and winner announcement dates! There are only three books from the shortlist that I don’t really want to read- Craig’s The Golden Rule, reasoning stated above, and just because they don’t sound like my type of book at all, French’s Because of You and MacMahon’s Nothing But Blue Sky, though a shortlisting could persuade me on one of those, possibly. I’m also uncertain about my plans regarding Smith’s Summer. I do hope to read and enjoy the entire Seasons Quartet, of which Summer is the fourth and final book, but as I haven’t even started the series yet I can’t say for sure whether I’m actually interested in reading them all or whether that would happen before July 7 (the winner announcement date). I’d like to read at least the first book in the series before then to get a better idea of the set.

And now that I’ve been rambling on about the Women’s Prize long enough that I should probably have just made these remarks into their own post, I’m going to move on to my plans for the upcoming week.

I’m hoping to get at least three more posts shared, ideally my reviews of How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House (prior to the shortlist announcement if possible) and Made in China (because I just really need to talk about this book), as well as a book tag I’ve got pending. Next week’s forecast will probably include a brief round-up of my April reading, since next Saturday is the first of May (how?!). I’ll likely share my May TBR in next week’s update as well; I would’ve liked to include it here, but this post is long enough already and my reading has been erratic enough that my future plans aren’t finalized through May yet.

Even this next week looks a bit hazy- I’m planning to continue my Women’s Prize reading, but that’s all I can say for sure. I suppose top contenders for my next reads are: Annabel Lyon’s Consent, Torry Peters’s Detransition, Baby, and my eARC of Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground. (Please weigh in with recommendations!) Either way, I’m planning to continue my Women’s Prize reads until they’re finished, so these will all be coming up and I want to review as promptly as possible as I work through the rest of the list.

Anyone else getting excited to see what will be on the Women’s Prize shortlist? Which title do you most want to see advance?

The Literary Elephant

talking about things on the internet

Review: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Women’s Prize progress: 7/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, an unnamed woman of viral tweet fame reflects on life as a minor internet celebrity- the highs and lows of being plugged in to social media sites all the time. This rumination is interrupted, however, when a real life family issue claims our protagonist’s attention. As she learns about the genetic disorder Proteus Syndrome and spends more time logged off to lend support, she realizes that there are some important aspects of human experience that are not encapsulated in the digital archive- at least, not inside the circle of popular trends she’s familiar with- and she’s forced to reevaluate the time she spends online.

“What did we have a right to expect from this life? What were the terms of the contract? What had the politician promised us? The realtor, walking us through being’s beautiful house? Could we sue? We would sue! Could we blow it all open? We would blow it all open! Could we…could we post about it?”

No One is Talking About This is a short novel constructed with brief, fragmented paragraphs. They’re not all of individual tweet-length, and as far as I remember Twitter is never mentioned by name, but the comparison in style is obvious and suits the content. This is a book full of direct references to social media trends and usage habits; to some extent, it’s appeal is going to be proportional to the amount of time the reader spends online. Personally, I am not Online in the way that this protagonist is, so there were some references that I sensed probably had a deeper relevance that was going over my head, though I still understood and enjoyed most of the read- being online 24/7 is not necessarily a prerequisite here. To be honest, the reason I don’t spend more time on Twitter and other social media sites is because I know I have a hard time breaking out of the urge to keep scrolling indefinitely and it becomes a huge time suck; even from that perspective, there’s a lot to relate to in this book, as our protagonist knows perfectly well how ridiculous it all can be. Nevertheless, there’s that irresistible drive to feel more connected to the people of our time.

“When she set the portal down, the Thread tugged her back toward it. She could not help following it. This might be the one that connected everything, that would knit her to an indestructible coherence.”

But while I found a lot of individual statements about the internet spot-on, this wasn’t a novel that worked for me as a whole. No matter how directly some of the one-liners spoke to me, I never felt engaged in the underlying plot. Part of the reasoning for that may lie in the fact that our protagonist isn’t a very active agent throughout this story; she’s commenting on what has become for her a routine, daily existence, and next on something that is happening to a family member, something that she is witnessing but has no control over. It’s all observational. Another downfall is that this is a book in two parts: one about excessive internet (“portal”) engagement, one about Proteus Syndrome, and the connection between the two feels tenuous at best. Both are happening to the same person, essentially, and at that someone who is struggling to contain both experiences in her mind at the same time even while she is living them.

Furthermore, I felt the central message here- that being online is useless in the face of Proteus Syndrome- to be simplistic and somewhat unhelpful. To claim that no one is talking about Proteus is… probably not true. That it’s not a mainstream topic probably is true, but as an extremely rare disorder currently without a cure, I’m not convinced that more people worrying about it out loud on the internet (or elsewhere) would be particularly productive in the first place (which is not to say that no one should talk about it). Furthermore, though viral posts can indeed be shockingly arbitrary, the implication that there is no value to social media while “real things” are happening in the tangible world also feels like an unconsidered, extreme viewpoint. For this particular protagonist, yes, being online all the time and endeavoring to find fame through shitposts like “can dogs be twins” probably is unhealthy, but this is not necessarily the default experience. In fact, I would argue relatively few of us, even those who are Incredibly Online, are unhealthily ignoring real world problems in favor of crafting infamous tweets in the name of digital fame.

“‘I can do something for her,’ she tried to explain to her husband, when he asked why she kept flying back to Ohio on those rickety $98 flights that had recently been exposed as dangerous by Nightline. ‘A minute means something to her, more than it means to us. We don’t know how long she has- I can give them to her, I can give her my minutes.’ Then, almost angrily, ‘What was I doing with them before?'”

But aside from the fact that No One is Talking About This speaks about a very specific experience in a way that seems- perhaps a bit awkwardly- meant for the masses to find relatable, it is arguably an important story. Maybe more people should be talking about Proteus Syndrome, and about the myriad effects (both negative and positive) of modern social media use. Reading this book as an example of reality vs. internet conflict rather than the example allows room for some interesting consideration regarding modern life. If the reason you’re online is to feel yourself a part of the moment, why not read a new book that’s trending thanks to its Women’s Prize nomination and which focuses very intently on the state of our (digital) world at present? Though I felt I should’ve had more of an emotional reaction to the sad content here than I actually did, this read certainly sparked some thought for me about how I use my time online and how I balance internet and tangible-world time; it may do the same for you.

CW: death of a child

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This book certainly had its ups and downs for me, and it’s so current that if you’re going to read it I’d suggest doing it asap (already a few of the references feel dated), but it’s a book I’m glad I took a chance on. I related, I learned, I reconsidered. Though I don’t think this is presented well enough to be a literary masterpiece, it’s one of the most experimental and “of our time” books I’ve encountered so far on the Women’s Prize longlist, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it advance to the shortlist, and while I’m not especially rooting for that outcome I suppose I wouldn’t mind it.

The Literary Elephant

Conquering the world of literature, one book at a time