Review: How Much of These Hills Is Gold

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch up on posts or blog hopping before my job got real busy; I’m already in sporadic attendance mode for the rest of fall. I will still be responding to comments and catching up on blog hopping *eventually* and I do have a few posts in the queue, but please excuse me for basically falling off the face of the internet for the next few weeks, and know that as always I’m still very grateful for your likes and comments and look forward to interacting more as soon as I can!

Between work and my killer reading slump, this particular review has been a long time coming, but the book was a pleasure to read so I’ve been hoping to do it justice despite the delay. I picked up C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold as part of my Booker longlist reading; unfortunately since finishing it, this title has missed a spot on the shortlist, which I think is a shame. If you’ve been curious about this one at all, I highly recommend still picking it up regardless!

In the novel, Lucy recounts her experience as the child of a gold prospector / coal miner in mid-1800s America. It’s a dying era throughout Lucy’s childhood, and her family struggles greatly to find work and survive. Complicating an already difficult career choice, they also face extreme prejudice as an immigrant family- Lucy’s ma was born in China and arrived in America as an adult; Lucy’s ba looks like his wife, but he was adopted in America as a baby and knows nothing of the land across the sea that Ma longs for. The lack of gold and the rough conditions around the mines make life difficult for all of them, but this is only the beginning for Lucy and her younger sibling, Sam, when they suddenly find themselves orphaned and alone.

“Point is, there’s always been gold in these hills. You just had to believe.”

How Much of These Hills is Gold is a poignant tale that takes a period often romanticized (or at least white-washed) in Western lit and reveals its dark corners, without tarnishing in the process the simple dreams of prospectors like Ba, who have a love for the natural land and want to see the prettiness the world has to offer without destroying the earth in the process. From her parents Lucy learns both a respect for the land and an abhorrence for the mining lifestyle. Zhang manages to provide the gleam of gold that one expects from a prospecting trail while also uncovering the poverty and hardship faced by those who move west and west and west again, trying to find any patch of earth that hasn’t already been picked clean and ruined by the growing hand of industry. The family’s status as immigrants also gives the story a fresh angle that will appeal to readers who don’t usually go for Westerns; there’s plenty of social commentary to be found here, a pushback against those who have been able to do whatever they please from positions of unjust power.

“What moves in the heads of these people each time they look at us and size us up, what makes them decide on one day to call us chink and the next day to let us pass, and some days to offer charity? I don’t rightly know, Lucy girl. Never figured it out.”

In addition to providing a very moving story, the book also sports an interesting structure. It is divided into four sections, the years presented unchronologically. But more intriguing is the way Zhang plays with reader expectations, especially when it comes to character. With Lucy as our main narrator, we meet most characters through her eyes, in the thick of things. As things progress, the reader is often surprised by central facts that Zhang has hidden only to reveal later when they have greatest impact. For example, the gender and sexual identity of Lucy’s sibling is presented very cleverly, warning the reader early on not to make hasty assumptions about anyone. And yet, even after learning this lesson once, it is easy to be surprised again and again as Zhang reveals more about Lucy, her family, and her acquaintances. It’s a bold and necessary reminder that people aren’t always as they seem, and that beneath their appearance lies someone’s complex, personal history.

“In Lucy’s fondest dream, the one she doesn’t want to wake from, she braves no dragons and tigers. Finds no gold. She sees wonders from a distance, her face unnoticed in the crowd. When she walks down the long street that leads her home, no one pays her any mind at all.”

My only complaint comes from a single section of the book, where Ba comes to Lucy in a dream to explain his side of things, posthumously (this is not a spoiler, Ba’s death is in the synopsis and occurs very early in the book). Though Ba’s backstory is just as incredible as the rest, it is the only part of the book that we don’t see directly through Lucy’s perspective, and the fact that his voice comes to her in a dream to fill in the blanks is a writing tactic that always feels forced and inorganic to me. It’s possible there is a cultural aspect to this section that is lost on me (there is indeed a focus on burial rights that Ma has impressed upon her children from her own homeland, and Ba’s burial is delayed as they try to fulfill these requirements) and if so I can’t criticize the intent, I can only remark on the way that it read for me, a non own voices reader. Furthermore, this section asks the reader to sympathize with a character who has previously been presented as a hard and unbending man, willing to hurt and manipulate those around him; the sympathy feels unearned, no matter how well Ba’s past matches up with his personality.

Others may also feel frustrated over the vague ending. The book ends mid-sentence as Lucy decides what she wants for her future; I must admit to rereading the last couple of pages a time or two to see whether I could puzzle out the meaning, but it remains nebulous for me. If you have an idea of what direction is meant by the ending please leave your theories in the comments! But I find the longer I sit with it, the less I mind not having this final answer. It means enough for Lucy to want something after the horrors she’s been through, and leaving her desire open-ended feels indicative of the sort of wide open dreaming that drove her family to chase gold and an elusive happiness for so many years, though the one thing that seems certain with the final sentence is that Lucy will not be returning to a life of prospecting.

Despite these two small hiccups, I relished Zhang’s sharp writing, her skill with metaphor and her ability to twist the knife at just the right moment to drive this narrative straight into the reader’s heart. This is a fierce story of sibling love and loyalty, the trials faced by an immigrant family, and a fraught chapter of history for many who’ve previously gone unheard. It’s an impressive work by an impressive new writer, one I’ll certainly want to read more from in the future.

CW: racism, child labor, rape, forced prostitution, children orphaned and/or abandoned, near starvation, mass murder (by fire), infant death, parent death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Despite my reading slump, which hit while I was finishing this book last month, I loved the writing and the narrative every time I picked this story up, and my slowness with reading and reviewing it should not be taken as a lack of appreciation for any part of this narrative. It would’ve made a great addition to this year’s Booker shortlist and I think will be one of my most memorable reads of the year.

The Literary Elephant

Booker Prize 2020: Shortlist Thoughts and Plans

Earlier this week, the Booker Prize for Fiction announced their 2020 shortlist:

The Booker Prize 2020 | The Booker Prizes

Thanks to the reading slump that hit me hard at the end of August and carried into the first half of September, I’ve only scratched the surface of the longlist so far and thus don’t have much in the way of significant reactions. But, upon first impression, I am fairly pleased with this result!

Real Life

The one title I was really rooting for did make the cut- Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. I loved this book, and would not be at all disappointed to see it take the win, though it’s too soon for me to place my bets. The other longlist read I would’ve been happy to see place (from what I’ve read up to this point) was C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold; I’ll still have a very positive review for that one coming soon and would recommend it despite its absence here.

The Shadow King

The other book from the shortlist I’ve completed thus far is Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King; it was a 3-star read for me, but I’m not surprised to see it here. There’s always one on the shortlist, it seems, that I can appreciate without truly liking very much, and this year I think that’s this book. I think it’s an important and beautiful story that many readers are right to love, though it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I don’t particularly want to see it win, but that certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen in 2020, we’ll leave it at that.

Shuggie Bain

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is one of my current reads; I’m taking it slowly as I pull out of my reading slump, but I am enjoying it so far and don’t have any reason to complain about its placement on the shortlist. I’m not sure I’m excited enough about it to want it to win, but it’s too early to say for sure (I’m about 1/3 through). But to have read nearly half the shortlist already considering how few of the longlistees I’ve gotten to at this point is very encouraging!

Actually, I’ve only read one book from the longlist so far that didn’t make the cut: Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would but didn’t expect to see advance. So, no real complaints about how things have turned out, based on what I’ve read to date.

Burnt Sugar

Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar is the only title on the shortlist I’m somewhat unhappy to see, and that’s only because I wasn’t initially drawn to the synopsis and thus wasn’t sure I’d take the time to read it. This is the only title of the shortlist that I’m still uncertain about getting around to- it looks like a bit of a challenge to get a copy in the US, and I’m still not particularly looking forward to reading it, despite having now seen some encouraging reviews. But I will definitely read this if it wins, and will maybe read it if it doesn’t.

The New Wilderness

I’ve not seen any rave reviews of Diane Cook’s dystopian The New Wilderness yet, so this is the biggest surprise on the shortlist for me. But I was already curious about the premise and managed to grab a copy through my library, so I’ll definitely read this one. I don’t really envision it winning, especially after Atwood’s dystopian novel took half the win last year, but I’ll have to read before forming a firmer opinion.

Speaking of surprises, I think the biggest shock of this shortlist is what isn’t included- Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light! So many readers (not excluding myself) were considering Mantel a shoo-in for the win, after her notable Booker Prize successes with the previous two books in her Cromwell series. I am still planning to read and review The Mirror and the Light regardless of it’s exclusion here, and actually I am pleased not to see it advance. It’s a very long book that would’ve impacted my motivation to continue with the shortlist right now, but moreso I’m excited by the prospect of removing the “safe” choice from the possibilities- now it seems that anything could happen, each of these six books is just as likely to win as the next. It gives the prize a bit more thrill, in a year when we really needed that, I think.

This Mournable Body

Last but certainly not least is Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body; like Mantel’s book, this is also a third-in-a-series title, though from what I hear this can be read as a standalone. I read the first book in this trilogy years ago and remember quite liking it though I’m hazy on the details now. I’m still looking forward to rereading that first volume (Nervous Conditions) and then diving into this one, and am further encouraged to see that the judges considered it shortlist material. Will they think it winner material? I can’t guess yet, but time will tell.

It’s an excitingly diverse shortlist, despite the fact that at least three of the authors are American (Avni Doshi would be the fourth, though she’s currently living in Dubai and Burnt Sugar was not originally published in the US… which isn’t to say Doshi isn’t American, but that perhaps her book is not best represented with that label.) The settings of the books take us from the US, to Ethiopia, to Scotland, to India, to Zimbabwe, and to an unspecified (but likely American) futuristic City. Four of the nominated authors are women.

Thanks to my library resuming interloan services, I do have all but Burnt Sugar on hand from this shortlist, so I expect to read at least 5 out of the 6.

I’ve also got Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road checked out (I would have cancelled the hold except it came in the same day the shortlist was announced; now that I have it, it is very short…). Additionally I purchased a copy of Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward, which I was hoping to see advance but can’t really comment on at this point, and earlier in the year I also bought Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light thanks to the Women’s Prize. I’m unlikely to read Colum McCann’s Apeirogon now, though I have a few suggested alternatives (own voices authors who haven’t been accused of sexual misconduct) on my TBR, including Susan Abulhawa’s Against the Loveless World, which I’d like to read regardless. Otherwise, I’m unlikely to read Gabriel Krauze’s Who They Was at all now, as it’s hard to get ahold of in the US and I wasn’t especially interested in it when I read the blurb, though I have heard some great things about it recently.

All told, this makes it likely that I will end up reading 10 out of 13 of the longlist titles; tracking down Burnt Sugar for shortlist completion purposes would increase the tally, but I’m undecided on that at present. (If you’ve read it, please advise!)

The winner is scheduled to be announced October 27th; I’ll prioritize reviews for any Booker titles I complete before then, but this is a difficult time of year for me to keep up with blogging so I can’t make guarantees, unfortunately. Nevertheless, it’s always great fun following the Booker prize and the reactions of other readers, so please share all your shortlist thoughts below!

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Gutshot and Death, Desire, and Other Destinations

The only two books I’ve finished reading so far this month are two surreal collections of very short stories. Both contain magical and/or speculative elements, both focus on human relationships, both are divided into very small individual pieces- flash fiction. And so, I thought it made sense to review them together, and I hoped this would be an easy entrance to resuming my reviews.

I read Gutshot by Amelia Gray as a buddy read with the lovely and astute Melanie, who has also recently posted a review that you shouldn’t miss!

Gutshot

For me, Gutshot was a fun read full of creative premises and surprising events. These stories typically begin with a concept that seems ordinary or at least straightforward, and then follows the trail down an imaginative path of bizarre what ifs. Gray often uses otherworldly elements as symbolism, as an exaggerated way of pointing something out about our familiar world or human habits/emotions in a new light. A man enters a mysterious labyrinth, hoping his peers will think him brave. A damaged gravestone reveals beauty in destruction and incites a frenzy. One story about marriage is titled ‘Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover,’ in which the reader is advised to literally eat her husband piece by piece for every move he makes, because inevitably he’ll go astray anyway and deserve such a fate. The stories are designed to make one rethink assumptions: a piece about swans, those lovely creatures who mate for life, actually reveals them to be rather disgusting. I’d be shocked to find anyone who can say that Gray’s writing is ever predictable or boring.

And yet while I found the stories engaging and pleasant to read, I found the implied meanings of them either far too obvious to excite me or too vague to unravel at all- and in both cases, the lack of a nuanced concept to ponder past the end of each story ultimately meant that very few of the pieces in this set were memorable for more than bare details and their ability to amuse me at the surface level.

There are two qualities that particularly appeal to me in short story collections- the first is a touch of the bizarre, which is what originally drew me to Gutshot. I love magical or speculative elements in fiction that push the boundaries of reality; for a short story to impress me it needs to be unique and punchy from start to finish, without a lot of backstory or elaborate world building to bog it down, and a bizarre twist is usually the best way to draw me in immediately and set the story apart. It’s also typically a fun way to examine the real world at an unexpected slant; fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative elements are great for commentary on society or human nature. Sometimes Gray achieves this, but other times the moments of unreality feel too silly and unexplored.

“Flesh is siphoned into a bowl and poured without discrimination into a freestanding grandfather clock that is set on fire and rolled into the street.”

The other quality I prefer (again just a personal choice), is that while the collection may have some broader theme or style that holds all of the stories together, each story should ideally also stand on its own. For the brevity of the short story to keep its appeal, it’s best to be able to dip in and out of the set, in my opinion, without feeling you’re missing something when you don’t read it all at once. But Gutshot doesn’t quite work in this way for me. The collection is divided into sections, and the closest I came to finding any depth of meaning from the book was to look at all of the stories in a section together and consider what they had in common. This of course necessitates reading at least one full section at once, which isn’t too challenging in a book of this size (just over 200 pages, each of the stories 10 pages or less) but just isn’t quite the reading experience I hope for with short pieces.

Across the five sections of this book, I found such concepts explored as: the danger in putting one individual above the good of the group, the violent and ugly side to love, the sorrowful and deadly nature of isolation, the consequences of loving something too much, and the possibility that nothing ever really ends, but all repeats again in its own cycle. The titular piece involves a man who has been shot in the gut; the shooter is remorseful and those sought for help are sympathetic, but none can provide sufficient care for the victim’s wound. Jesus Christ “helps” him in the end by telling him about people passing in a plane overhead. This is one of the stories that didn’t entirely make sense to me- is the focus on futility and despair? Is the message that kindness only goes so far? That the individual is small, and the world goes on? All a bit grim, and are we to determine from the title that one of these possibilities is central to the whole set? My confusion here is an accurate indicator of my struggle to find thematic depth throughout this entire read. I can make out some overlying arcs between the sections, but I am left frustratingly uncertain about what the reader is meant to take away from this experience.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m undetermined on whether I’ll try more of this author’s work- it sounds like she’s got a novel that might appeal to me more, and I do generally like unpredictable and puzzling fiction, but I didn’t quite get what I came for here despite my surface-level amusement with the stories.

Death, Desire, and Other Destinations

Next, I read Tara Isabel Zambrano’s debut short story collection, Death, Desire and Other Destinations, which released September 15. The stories in this set are incredibly short, most of them 2-4 pages in length; the longest is 9 pages, and it’s an outlier. Many of these stories also include some sort of otherworldly element, infusing the work with a dreamlike quality.

Unlike Gutshot, this collection manages to accomplish both of the things I enjoy in short story collections- it is packed with bizarre details that effectively further a point about the human experience, and each of the stories stand alone well, though the style and themes are consistent throughout the book, linking them all together.

The stories in this collection tend toward the sapphic, though there are a fair amount of exceptions. Zambrano doesn’t shy away from sexual descriptions in the relationships that unfold across these pages, which I liked in principle but occasionally found overbearing in practice. The characters are diverse or unspecified, which gives the set a very inclusive and limitless aura. As the title indicates, most of the stories focus on death and desire in some form; there are many losses and longings in these pages, including miscarriages, breakups, and various other endings and false starts. A woman who goes for a bikini wax would rather forget about her husband and enjoy the touch of the esthetician. A widow believes her husband, upon death, became one with their house. A poisonous courtesan who can kill with a kiss but not feel love becomes entangled with a girl even more deadly than she. One girl removes the heart from her chest in order to get to know it properly.

What I liked most about these stories is that each one digs into a particular emotion that is easy to comprehend and even relate to, never mind the fact that the characters include aliens, snakes, ghosts, and more. Zambrano writes about the nuances of the human heart, with an otherworldly slant (just the way I like). Her writing is full of unusual imagery, especially involving the body and weather/atmosphere, and I found her metaphors constantly thought-provoking even if sometimes challenging to decipher. Though these moments contain impossibilities, they always paint a clear and intriguing idea.

“The shining dust from the rubble streams in and mixes with your breath. Like a fish swimming to the surface for oxygen, you open your mouth wide, eat the day slowly.”

If I had to pick a genre I’d say these stories are speculative overall, though there’s a timelessness to them that makes appearances of modern devices and futuristic scenarios (like weddings on the moon being a common practice) feel shocking in the reminder that these narratives are grounded in real possibilities- in essence, if not in details. All of these stories are separate and complete in themselves, though none of them seem mutually exclusive, and small details (like a particular animal or object or personality) popping up casually later on gives the whole collection a beautiful sort of flow.

I think there will be a particular sort of reader best suited to this collection; so much of it is melancholy and possibly triggering (CW: miscarriage, death of a loved one, cheating, mild body horror), the writing is gorgeous but oblique, and the reader needs a certain willingness to accept things that don’t make literal sense. It’s dreamy and evocative, but also strange. I know this won’t be to every reader’s taste, but for the right reader I think there’s a lot to love in this collection and in Zambrano’s style. I know I enjoyed my time with it, and I hope others will too.

“Abandoned, I hold on to the shape her body has left behind in me, part home, part grave.”

If you’re curious to learn more about the author and her work, Melanie hosted an interview with the Zambrano a few weeks ago on her blog!

I received an eARC; it’s possible that quotes and details could be different in the final version of this book.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. So much about this collection was just perfectly tailored to my short story tastes, and I had a delightfully sad time reading it (I love sad books). Though there are too many stories for me to say I’ll remember them all individually, I can already tell that the broader topics and emotions will stick with me.

The Literary Elephant

TBR 9.20

Fortuitously, talking about my slump in my August wrap-up seems to have helped a bit in motivating me to pull out of it. Thank you all for the lovely and helpful comments on that post- engaging here again is already bringing some of the excitement back to reading and blogging for me. So here’s a slow start back into my list of pending posts, with my September TBR; up next, I think I’ll dabble in some blog hopping! I might even go crazy and read something this evening! 🙂

But before I get there, here’s a look at what I’m hoping will help with my awkward slump situation:

  1. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I might as well say right off that my Spotlight post for September will feature YA books (a category, rather than a genre). YA books are typically faster reads for me, so I think leaning into some Spotlight post prep will be doubly beneficial- quick reads are great for slumps. Even better, this one’s told in verse and has a low words per page ratio, which should really help someone (me) who’s struggling to turn pages. This will be my first Acevedo book, and all I know going in is that it follows a teenage slam poet.
  2. Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake. Another YA, this one is on my 20 in ’20 list and is also an LGBTQ+ story (I was sad not to find time to read it in June, but September’s a good a time as any!). It follows a set of twins, one of whom is accused of raping the other’s friend. I believe it’s a story of identity and self-discovery, of family and morality.
  3. Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour. Another YA, another LGBTQ+ story. This one was gifted to me earlier this year by a friend who loved it, and I often agree with her bookish opinions so I have high hopes for this sapphic romace.
  4. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. The other YA title from my 20 in ’20 list. I have reservations about starting another fantasy series before I get around to finishing others I’ve already started (why is The Empire of Gold still so expensive???), and especially when I only have one of the books on hand. But high fantasy is also good for slumps and I’m mood reading these days so it’s good to have something less contemporary on the list. I think this is a romance-based fantasy, in a Roman-inspired world.
  5. The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff. For a change of pace, here’s an adult nonfiction about a fairly recent piece of history. I was lucky enough to visit the One World Trade Center and the 9/11 memorial and memorial museum in New York earlier this year before the lockdowns, so this feels like the right time to get to this book.

And that’s my list. This seems like a good plan, theoretically, but I’ll be honest and say I have no idea whether this is what my wrap-up at the end of the month will look like. I also have a few Booker Prize nominees checked out from the library that I’m *trying* to carry on with, but at this point I think I just need to go where my mood takes me if I want to be able to finish anything. I should have plenty of reading time this month, though I may have less time for blogging toward the end of September. We shall see. In any case, I am still hoping to finish ALL of the books I’ve assigned myself in these monthly 5-book TBRs before the end of the year, so it’s likely you’ll be seeing reviews for these titles from me at some point even if I don’t manage them all this month. Rest assured, adult lit readers, I won’t post entirely YA content this month even if my reading skews that way. I’ve got a few adult reviews to catch up on as well, and more Booker content on the way.

As has become tradition, I’ll include here the new September releases that are on my radar as well. I may or may not get to any of these within the month, but I will be looking out for posts and reviews because I’m excited about these!

  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. Contemporary fiction following a Ghanian family in Alabama. Our narrator is a scientist looking to rationalize the suffering she sees around herself. Out Sep 1st
  • Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi. YA contemporary fiction told in verse, in which a teenage artist is wrongly incarcerated for a crime in his neighborhood. Out Sep 1st
  • One By One by Ruth Ware. Adult thriller set at a snowed-in ski resort. Eight coworkers on a retreat gone wrong find themselves fighting for survival… from the elements, and perhaps from each other. Out Sep 8th
  • Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land by Toni Jensen. Adult nonfiction/memoir about one woman’s experience as an indigenous American, told through essays on her encounters with gun violence. Out Sep 8th.

It’s a shorter list this month, but hopefully that’ll make it feel more manageable. I already have a copy of Transcendent Kingdom thanks to Book of the Month; I’m very excited for this one after loving Gyasi’s Homegoing a few years ago (and the first BOTM copy I’ve ever seen with a special effect in the cover design- gold foil! I hope this is the start of a trend!)

Have you read any of these books, or recognize them from your own lists? Let me know in the comments!

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 8.20

First off, apologies for my absence. I’ve barely been reading, I’ve not really been blogging, I’ve been slow at answering comments and reading others’ posts. Even so, I wholeheartedly appreciate everyone who has interacted with my blog over the last two or three weeks- I haven’t had the energy to respond in a timely manner, but there have been days when the comments I get here are the only thing to put a smile on my face, and I am immensely grateful for that.

So, August. I had lofty goals, and the month started incredibly well, reading-wise. And blogging-wise. Here was my TBR for the month:

Despite my strong start, I only ended up finishing three of these books. The month took a weird turn about halfway through when a new book in an old series left me trying to reconcile my past self and my present self, and reliving all that melodramatic teenage angst. The slump hit right around that time. Working around that, here’s what I managed to finish reading in August:

  1. How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. 4 stars. This is a wonderful memoir/how-to guide for those looking to swap out passive (and ineffectual) non-racism for active antiracism in their lives. Kendi uses his own learning experiences (including mistakes!) to show the reader in a relatable way how to self-reflect and do better. My review also discusses target audience at more length.
  2. Home Before Dark by Riley Sager. 2 stars. There’s always something compelling about Sager’s atmospheric thrillers, but so many things bothered me about this one. The structure, the basic premise, the layout of the “haunted” house. Others are loving this dual-timeline narrative of a possible haunting and mysterious deaths in Vermont, but the details just didn’t work for me.
  3. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. 4 stars. This is a soapy, dramatic contemporary about a young Black woman dealing with modern racism from people in her life who claim to be trying to help her. It’s a fun, quick read that brings important topics to the casual reader. Perhaps unusual fare for the Booker Prize longlist, but I found it enjoyable nonetheless.
  4. Tender is the Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica, translated by Sarah Moses. 4 stars. The only book I managed to pick up in honor of Women in Translation month, this is a brutal doozy that uses mass cannibalism as a satirical criticism of factory farming. You need a strong stomach for the details here and I wished the plot had received the same level of attention as the impeccable world-building, but it’s a great thought experiment for those who can stand to pick it up.
  5. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. 3 stars. This is a Booker Prize longlisted historical fiction piece looking at the Italian invasion of Ethiopia just before the start of WWII. It’s a beautiful and informative story, though it seemed less feminist-focused than the jacket claims and would have worked better for me if narrowed in scope. Not a bad book by any means, but not what I expected and I was perhaps simply not the right reader for it.
  6. Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer. No rating. I thought my Twilight-loving days were well-behind me, but I had a surprising amount of fun reading this long-awaited installment. It’s the exact same story as Twilight, presented from a “new” perspective. It has the same issues as the earlier books, though fewer plot holes, and told through the lens of Edward’s self-loathing and morality crisis it becomes much more interesting than the original romance. Even so, this is clearly a wish fulfillment book meant for long-time fans. My review is a fairly thorough overview of the pros and cons here (she says humbly) if you’re curious but not interested enough to pick this book up yourself.
  7. Different Seasons by Stephen King. 2 stars. This rating feels a bit harsh for only actively hating one of the four novellas in this collection, but these stories are popular among King fans and I had high expectations that were not at all met. This was largely a ‘meh’ read, but I don’t have much positive to say about it beyond finding it ideal for a buddy read. I’ll have a review that looks at each of the four stories coming soon (hopefully).
  8. How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang. 4 stars. Another Booker longlister, this historical fiction of Chinese-American children who find themselves orphans in the dying days of the gold rush is beautifully told. I loved the writing, enjoyed the surprises Zhang folded into the characterization, and found the story compelling despite having to battle my slump to get it. Review coming soon (hopefully).

Some stats:

Average rating – 3.3

Best of month – How Much of These Hills is Gold

Owned books read for the first time – 5 out of 8. I’ve started using the library again, now that they’re open again with pandemic safety rules. It’s nice to be back, even though I can’t really go in and browse like normal. Interloan services are such a boon for me. And I’m still making progress with the unread books on my own shelves.

Year total – 69 books read. I’m two books ahead of schedule for my 100 books in 2020 goal.

Non-review posts included:

My belated Spotlight on Thrillers post that just missed the end of July; and in that vein, I’ll include August’s Spotlight on Translated Literature in this wrap-up as well, even though it also came a little late and went up in early September.

All in all, a decent reading month despite the slump, despite the 2-star reads and the lack of 5-star reads. All of my 4-stars were very strong contenders and even though things have been weird I’ve mostly enjoyed what I read.

I’d like to say that September will be better, that I’ll be more active here going forward, but in all honesty my slump is still in full swing and on top of that I’m about to become so busy with work that I’ll likely be taking an internet break from about mid-September to mid-November. I’ll pop in when I can; I do have a few posts to fit in within that time frame, but I’ll likely fall behind on reviews, and on blog hopping. I’m aiming to catch up on my pending posts before then, but I just can’t make guarantees right now on how many I’ll manage and when exactly they’ll appear. I’ve got two unfinished reviews from August that I’d like to wrap up (mentioned above), a September buddy read post scheduled, a sort-of solicited review scheduled, my September TBR, and an update on the Booker in regards to the upcoming shortlist announcement all on my list of hopeful posts to finish soon.

And speaking of book prizes, the Women’s Prize winner was announced today. I was planning to finish reading the Mantel trilogy beforehand and post my prediction- since it’s coming late, you may or may not believe that I was correct in predicting Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell as this year’s winner, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. Congrats to Hamnet! You can find my review of Hament here, and my thoughts on the shortlist here in case you missed them. Since Evaristo had already joint-won the Booker and Mantel’s trilogy already had two Booker wins and a third nomination behind it, I thought Hamnet was the only one of the obvious three top contenders for the winning spot that could belong solely to the Women’s Prize, and I thought the judges would like that. Whether my reasoning was correct or not is anybody’s guess. Hamnet was a 4-star read for me, tied with Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, but it is the longlisted book I had the most fun reading so I’m happy with its win. It may not necessarily seem like a literary prize book and I can admit it has some flaws, but I think worse choices could have been made this year so I’ll stand by this. Since The Mirror and The Light is the only Women’s Prize book I haven’t read yet, and because it is also nominated for the 2020 Booker Prize at present, I do still intend to read that, and perhaps I will post some belated final thoughts on the 2020 Women’s Prize at that time.

In the meantime, I’m letting my mood determine what and when I read and blog, so I guess I’ll bookend this post with apologies and say I’m sorry for the state of disorganization my blog will probably be in for the rest of the fall season. I’ve got more Booker reads checked out from the library that I’m trying to get to- I’m currently reading Shuggie Bain, very slowly, but I’m also currently reading Stephenie Meyer’s Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined (the gender swapped version of Twilight) and have a lot of ranty thoughts I’d like to eventually share. But lately it seems I’m lucky if I feel up to reading the back of the cereal box. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with my reading, and I’m not looking for pity here because I feel fine about it, but I’m so sorry that this is affecting my blogging schedule and general level of engagement.

On the plus side, I’ve been writing like crazy. If I can’t get traditionally published, perhaps I’ll serialize my novel in my little corner of the internet here. It’s really coming together, I think. A silver lining.

Enough about me. Tell me what I’ve missed. How was your end of August / beginning of September? Thoughts on the Women’s Prize winner? Noteworthy WIT reads? Favorite Booker longister? Great new releases? Let me know below!

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight On: Translated Literature

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books. I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what translated literature means means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

What is Translated Lit?

This is a category rather than a genre. Translated literature is any fiction or nonfiction originally published in one language and then translated to another. Since English is my primary language, the translations I read (and thus the titles that will feature here) are editions now printed in English that originally came from… any other language. This is a personal limitation, not a boundary of translated literature, though I think English translations are among the most common.

Because this is a broader category, translated lit can fall into any genre, and indeed I’ve already mentioned some of the books highlighted below in other spotlight posts that focus more specifically on genre. I’m not sure whether literary fiction is actually the most often translated, or whether it’s simply the genre I’m most aware of in recent years and thus I’m a bit biased in that direction. Generally I think the books that are translated and the translated books most commonly read tend to be prestigious or popular in some way that makes them stand out; they’re linked to book prizes or selling particularly well in their original language, etc. But I don’t know enough about publishing politics to really comment on the process of what gets chosen or why.

My History with Translation

Inkheart (Inkworld, #1)

It was actually not until earlier this year that I realized one of my favorite series from childhood is actually a translation: the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, a fantasy in which fiction is brought to life as it is read. My recent realization here is a good example of why it’s important for translator names to be granted space on book covers- Bell must have put a lot of time and consideration into translating each of the three (long) books in this series, and I never would have known about her involvement if I hadn’t seen an offhand comment from someone with a sharper eye. Because translators are not always granted cover space and because I didn’t spare the time as a kid to investigate details like this, I honestly am not sure what other translated works I may have read unknowingly before adulthood. I think fairy tales especially are often translated.

I can’t specifically think of any other MG or YA books I’ve read that are translations. Even in adulthood, translations are a fairly recent interest and underrepresented in my reading life, unfortunately. The reason I’m now trying to actively increase my translation consumption is twofold- I want to learn more about the world, and I’ve learned more about publishing and privilege. I know books printed in English tend to have the upper hand in the kind of sales that allow an author to make a living solely from writing. I know that the amount of books that are translated into English is limited. I know that women authors, in particular, have been historically less likely to see their work translated, hence the establishment of WIT month – to celebrate women in translation throughout August and show publishers that there is a demand for women in translated literature.

Tender Is the Flesh

I try to make WIT a priority in August, though some years I manage more than others, and August isn’t the only time I read translations. My most recent translated read, in fact, is one I picked up in the spirit of WIT month- Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses. This is a brutal satire of factory farming and capitalism that shines a dark, cannibalistic light on modern society.

Translated Classics and Staples

Classics are a big facet of translated literature, and another of my main entrance points into reading translations. I was big on the Greeks and Romans for a while (aren’t we all at some point?) and got a good, proper start with translations in college by reading things like:

The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by C. Day Lewis, the mythologized account of the foundation of Rome following the destruction of Troy.

The Erotic Poems by Ovid, translated by Peter Green, a self-explanatory collection of poetry focused on love.

The Poems of Catullus, translated by Peter Green, another collection of Roman poetry preoccupied with illicit love.

Inferno by Dante Alighieri, translated (creatively) by Mary Jo Bang; this is an updated version of the classic story of Dante and Virgil’s descent into hell, in which Bang trades old allusions out for modern ones meant to give the contemporary reader the effect that the original would have had back in its own era.

The Iliad and the Odyssey

However, it was my more recent experience with The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Samuel Butler, that convinced me that translation style is really as crucial as the original content. It seems obvious, but it is important to keep in mind that languages can differ greatly- in grammar, in style, even in vocabulary. It is not always possible to do a direct word for word translation, and especially in poems and fiction prose, the way something is said can be as important as what is said. Translation is not a task that can be accomplished by anyone with a language-to-language dictionary, but requires particular artistic skill. Sometimes the best way to honor an original piece is to take a new approach in the format, or change words to achieve technical effects lost between one language and the next, etc. It took reading Butler’s very literal translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey, which takes Homer’s epic poems and delivers a dry word-for-word prose in its place, to teach me how important the artistic element is to translation. This is also the reason that it can be worthwhile to read multiple translations of the same work- translators can produce very different results from the same source material, and generally speaking none of them are “wrong.”

Further Translation Recommendations

If you’re just getting started with translated lit and aren’t sure what to pick up, here are a few titles I’ve enjoyed, labelled with descriptors you might already be interested in:

If you like sad literary tales: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. This is a tragic coming of age story about a college student and the erratic girl he loves.

If you like learning about culture and history: The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, are not to be missed. The former focuses on societal expectations and nonconformity as we see one woman adopt vegetarianism through the eyes of those around her; the latter tells a brutal tale of humanity’s violence as it recounts a deadly student uprising in 1980 Korea.

If you like magical elements: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. In this otherworldly tale, a secluded society stumbles onward as ordinary things disappear en masse around them.

Fever Dream

If you like short books that pack a punch, with a hint of puzzle to the plot: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Here we have a family in crisis, the mother weaving in and out of reality as she tries to piece back together what has happened.

If you like modern classics about family, love, and identity: The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Barbara Bray, follows a young girl’s sexual awakening as she enters an affair with an older man in an attempt to escape her struggling family.

If you like murder mysteries, there are plenty of choices, as these are oft-translated from many different cultures: you can go for a fast-paced whodunnit in which a writer is the top suspect, as in Katrine Engberg’s The Tenant, translated from the Danish by Tara Chace; or you can dig into a police procedural with historic and societal commentary as in Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls translated from the Danish by Signe Rod Golly; or if you’re looking for something compelling but light with a fantastic character study try Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Fiction is clearly what I gravitate towards, but even the fiction reader can enjoy nonfiction pieces like Albert Camus’s Create Dangerously, translated from the French by Justin O’Brien. This is a small collection of essays about the responsibility of the artist, freedom, and perseverance.

Because this list is short and my own experience is limited, I’m going to link some other bloggers’ 2020 WIT posts and other related content to put some additional titles on your radar. These posts feature books I’m excited to read and/or learn more about, and all of these bloggers are worth a follow for more excellent translated lit (and other) content! This is a quick list mostly of posts I’ve read and enjoyed in August that I think contain a good variety of content and some further links, and it is not by any means exhaustive; if you have any WIT posts or other translation posts you’d like to add to the conversation, please link them in the comments below!

The Liar

Callum has rounded up a fresh list of WIT recommendations; he’s also been reviewing additional WIT titles all through August.

Rachel discusses WIT month, including the official readathon (now concluded, but keep this in mind for next year!) and some personal TBR picks.

Fatma has compiled a list of translations, focused specifically on Japan.

Naty sets a WIT month TBR.

Ren suggests translated nonfiction.

Diana creates and answers the prompts of the Translated Literature Book Tag. This post is from last year, but I’d love to see more answers to this tag and encourage you to join the fun if you haven’t yet!

Translations on my TBR:

So many! I’ve really liked most of the translated books I’ve read so far, and so a fair portion of my translated lit TBR is further work from authors I’ve already read, including titles like Han Kang’s The White Book, translated by Deborah Smith; Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft; Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, translated by Stephen Snyder; Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell.

Vita Nostra

I also want to read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, a staple that focuses on societal expectations, identity, and conformity. Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s Vita Nostra, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey, a Ukranian sci-fi/fantasy featuring a magic school; Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees, translated by Diane Oatley, a generational tale of beekeepers that investigates the relationship between humans and nature over time.

There are some translated books on my TBR for particular reasons as well, like Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth, and Mareike Lukas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, translated by Michele Hutchison- the last two Booker International winners. Thanks to 2020, I’ve also got Albert Camus’s The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, on my list. I have a few translations on my list that I’d like to read both the original and translated versions of in order to test my skill at languages I’ve studied in the past- Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa, and Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney from the Old English. And of course, I pick up so many recommendations on the strength of reviews alone!

Why Read Translated Literature?

To expand one’s knowledge of the world. Reading directly from writers in countries foreign to you is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in new cultures and experience styles that may differ from what is common where you live. Narrative traditions and popular content can vary greatly, and experiencing those through translations is a great way to learn about people and their stories and storytelling methods from around the world.

The Emigrants (The Emigrants, #1)

But it isn’t always about branching out- thanks to translated literature, I was able last year to read a Swedish series about emigration that helped me better understand a piece of my own family history that might otherwise have remained nebulous for me. I read Wilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, translated from the Swedish by Gustaf Lannestock, to get a closer look at a story of immigration similar to my family’s past; if your family have ties to another place that is not very present in your life now, translated lit may be the answer that’ll bring you closer to another part of yourself, too.

It’s a way of bridging the gap. Of bringing people together. Of using the ways in which we are different to see also the ways in which we are the same.

Your Turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this category. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for translated lit, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about these books. That’s the point of this post! A genre or category can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

The Literary Elephant

Review: Midnight Sun

If you’re actively opposed to all things Twilight, feel free to skip this post; I’m going to be talking about Stephenie Meyer’s new Twilight Saga release here, the long-awaited Midnight Sun.

To start off, I’d like to point out that I was intending to read one chapter of this book per day over about a month (there are 29 chapters), and finish with a post titled ‘A Case Against Wish Fulfillment Books.’ This plan was derailed two weeks in when I finished reading the chapters that leaked a decade ago in the Midnight Sun manuscript; I ended up binging and quite enjoying the rest of the book. In place of that more critical post, I’m simply going to cover all of the discussion points I think other Midnight Sun readers will potentially be interested in; sorry to everyone who doesn’t fit in that category, but also… not sorry. My 2020 needed this diversion.

Midnight Sun is the same exact YA fantasy romance delivered in Twilight: a love story between a 109 year-old vampire in a 17 year-old’s body (Edward) and a human teenage girl (Bella), with a simple narrator POV swap. As with Twilight, the story starts with Bella’s first day at school in Forks and continues up to the couple’s evening at prom a couple of months later. The first twelve chapters are VERY similar to the corresponding chapters of the partial Midnight Sun manuscript circa 2008. If you’ve already got those firm in your mind (I suspect the audience for this book will largely overlap with the audience who read that leaked draft), you could skip right to chapter 13 if you felt so inclined.

I fully expected to enjoy this in a cringe-y, nostalgic, guilty pleasure sort of way, but am instead here to confirm that Midnight Sun is just as addictive as any of the Twilight novels ever have been, for better or for worse.

Having read both perspectives now, it seems shocking that one version of this romance could ever have existed without the other, that the two were not written simultaneously, so tidily do they complement each other. There are a few awkward moments in Midnight Sun where the established dialogue doesn’t quite match Edward’s newly revealed thought process and he has to wonder ‘why did I say that?’ or note that his behavior isn’t following his conscious intentions; the symbolism of the title and cover is also hit harder than necessary. But these clumsy maneuvers are few and far between, and on the whole I think Midnight Sun does an excellent job of connecting previously invisible dots; every time Edward speaks or gestures too fast for Bella to catch is now captured on paper. And these two spend so much time wondering what the other is thinking that having access to both of their thoughts suits the story. As far as I can tell the details track- I took a cursory look through the meadow scene from both books to compare, and found only minor differences between how actions are meant vs perceived, and which details are made note of or ignored by each character; these small differences are not mutually exclusive, and in fact I think they improve this project, exploring the idea that no two people experience the same thing in the exact same way.

I thought Twilight coming from Bella’s perspective was the perfect choice at the time- as the reader’s first foray into this world, of course it makes sense to introduce fantasy elements from the point of view of someone who is also newly discovering them. But in the same vein, Edward’s perspective is the right choice for a new Twilight novel today, when even those who haven’t read the books or watched the films likely have some knowledge of the story. Edward is all extremes, so the series might have died here if it had started this way originally, though he is by far the more interesting of the two, and the only character capable of breathing some life back into this overblown piece of pulp fiction. Seeing his point of view at this point allows Meyer to add depth to the now-familiar story that no other angle could provide. So much of this book is exactly the same and yet it also manages to be new and different, thanks to this one vital shift.

There’s no point in denying that this book is entirely gratuitous and unnecessary- yes, it’s a bit ironic to call any of these books necessary, but the rest of them do at least advance the scant plot; Midnight Sun adds virtually nothing new beyond Edward’s voice, and even this is not a surprise, as his position has been made clear from his dialogue in the rest of the series. This is, plain and simple, a wish fulfillment book for long-time Twilight fans, which is apparent even in the book’s dedication. I was prepared to hate it for not bringing anything new to a table that’s already stacked with a lot of issues, and indeed: the vast majority of the content here is comprised of the exact same plot, scenes, dialogue, and backstory that are already familiar from Twilight. The two books correlate practically chapter for chapter- about half even share the same titles. The two books are warped mirror images of each other. There are four extra chapters in Midnight Sun, and almost 200 more pages than Twilight contained, but that’s easily explained by Edward’s obsessive over-analyzing of every. thing.

“Not for the first time in my life, I wished that I could make my brain slow down. Force it to move at human speed, if only just for a day, an hour, so that I wouldn’t have time to obsess over and over again about the same solutionless problems.”

Some patience is clearly required, but I think those who are still interested after the twelve year hiatus from this series won’t mind that the final product comes with plenty of padding.

I do want to acknowledge before going further that the same flaws plaguing the earlier books of the Twilight Saga still exist here in Midnight Sun, though it’s clear Meyer is more aware of those criticisms by now. Unfortunately I think she spends more effort tying up little plot holes (admittedly a gratifying element) than addressing the more serious characterization problems, and some of those she acknowledges without cleaning up which actually makes them seem worse (Edward’s stalking and spying tendencies, for one, are fully acknowledged and dismissed). But to be fair I think it would be pretty hard to change the canon believably at this point, within the strict constraints imposed upon this novel. So, enter at your own risk- Edward is still a controlling, manipulative boyfriend no one should aspire to have, Bella is gilded a bit when seen through Edward’s eyes but still a single-minded idiot no one should aspire to be, the Quileutes are still presented unfairly as an antagonistic enemy, and the age gap in the romance is still uncomfortable (Edward thinks of the high schoolers as children). Additionally, Edward’s thought-reading reveals a lot of unpleasantness in the personalities of many formerly benign side characters, including Rosalie, most of Bella’s human friends, and even Bella’s mother.

On the plus side, there’s a lot more time spent on the uber-supportive Cullen family dynamic and on teasing out individual quirks for each of the vampires. Emmett shines as the best friend Edward ever could’ve asked for, Alice has some real prowess with the future visions (and I found her all-but-silent conversations with Edward incredibly amusing; Alice has always been my favorite Cullen), Jasper’s mood controlling makes sense and is put to fantastic use at last, and Carlisle and Esme’s kindness radiates off the page (though Esme is still the flattest of them all, sadly). There’s even a bit of silent observation from Edward’s side that endeavors to prove he loves Bella for more than the smell of her blood, which is a nice addition.

It’s still a romance, of course. But where Bella’s POV makes Twilight revolve entirely around the love story and the discovery of magic hiding in her ordinary world, Edward’s POV brings us less of a love story and more of a war with his own self-worth and self-control. The falling in love part happens early and easily, immediately apparent in the angst and (melo)drama if not in Edward’s conscious awareness. What drives this version of the story instead is his internal grappling; he loves her, but he wants to kill her. The thing he wants most is the thing he poses the most danger to. He can have momentary happiness, or he can endure intense momentary discomfort for long-term happiness. His long-term happiness on the other hand would require certain sacrifices from the object of his affections, and can he ask that of her? Her happiness is a double-edged sword that incites both pain and pleasure- which is stronger, and what will that mean for her future? For his?

Edward loathes himself for bringing someone he loves and believes innocent into his world of vampirism; he considers himself the monster, the nightmare, full stop. It’s a dark and anxious book, and the fraught self-hatred and denial is the main draw. It’s a book full of pain and suffering, much of it self-inflicted. The gloomy psychological battle won’t be for everyone of course, but if you’ve ever been Team Edward this is likely what you’ve been craving all along- Edward’s uncomfortable predicament has been clear through all of these books, though it’s never been this potent.

“As I stared at her, I began to feel almost agonized at the thought of saying even a temporary goodbye. She was so soft, so vulnerable. It seemed foolhardy to let her out of my sight, where anything could happen to her. And yet, the worst things that could happen to her would result from being with me.”

Because the reader already knows what is happening and how this world is built, and because Edward is the mythical creature rather than the painfully ordinary human, Midnight Sun is able to start in the thick of things even as it goes back to the very beginning, and it’s able to take the otherworldly aspects farther than Bella’s perspective allowed. Meyer knows the reader is already familiar with her brand of vampirism, and in any case by the time this story starts Edward has already been a vampire for close to a century, so he doesn’t get caught up in world-building minutiae the way Bella does.

There’s a bit more magical behind-the-scenes action going on here too, and a deeper dive into Edward’s backstory and his behavior unbeknownst to Bella. None of this changes canon content, and the extra details aren’t anything that couldn’t be guessed at based on remarks from the other books, but it’s still amusing to see in print. To be honest, I think being willing to laugh at these books has always been a prerequisite for enjoying them, and that’s no different here.

“For half a second I was distracted by the idea, the impossibility, of what it would be like to try to kiss Bella. My lips to her lips, cold stone to warm, yielding silk…

And then she dies.”

I mean, it’s so bad it comes all the way around the spectrum to good again. Like 90s horror flicks. I think this is why I can read Midnight Sun in 2020 and not something like The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes; the Twilight Saga all but begs not to be taken seriously, and thus is easier to pick back up even when reading tastes have changed.

Honestly I think the only thing here that will disappoint readers who’ve been more or less enjoying the series up to now is that as Midnight Sun nears its climax, as Bella breaks away from the Cullens to run toward her own demise, Edward is able to block out most of his worry about her safety when it should be at its most heady. Luckily the plot picks up with some grand theft auto and vampire magic to help redirect attention, but this doesn’t quite replace the glut of emotion I think most readers will expect in that scene. Ah, well. I suppose even vampires must have a breaking point.

In the end, I would argue that Midnight Sun is better than Twilight, although I think both objectively leave a lot to be desired, just as both have served their purpose and proved wildly entertaining in their own time and place. I don’t expect that Midnight Sun is going to win this series many new readers, however. Even though it is just another iteration of the first book, and would probably work as an entrance to the series, it doesn’t seem intended for that purpose. This is an expansion of known story, not an organic introduction to this world. Furthermore, I suspect this will be the end of the Edward-perspective books, which means anyone looking to jump into this saga is going to have to face Bella’s POV sooner rather than later if they plan to continue reading.

Enough of Edward’s thoughts and motivations are clear here that it’s easy to imagine how and why the rest of the series’ plot unfolds the way it does, and drawing out Edward’s perspective further would feel incredibly repetitive and even more superfluous than it does in Midnight Sun. He’s already (unknowingly) contemplating a lot of the issues that will come up for him in the future: how and why he might leave Bella, what that would feel like, how and why he might come back. Why a physical relationship between them would be dangerous. What he thinks about her potentially becoming a vampire vs staying human. His jealousy. His stance on letting her go or even encouraging a more normal life for her, separate from him. His anxiety when she’s out of sight. His fear of her inevitable death looming above everything else. It’s all here, and I think Meyer provides it with the understanding that it’s all the reader is getting. Midnight Sun adds an indulgent layer, but further books would probably become too cloying. Especially given that the second installment would just be a massive tome of severe depression, given the plot of New Moon.

And yet, despite the doom and gloom and obvious predictability, it is still fun. I suppose this is why wish fulfillment books exist.

“Run, Bella, run. Stay, Bella, stay.”

I enjoyed this read far more than I expected based on my present reading taste; I don’t regret picking it up, I’m excited to talk about it with anyone who’s read it or is planning to read it, and I could even envision doing a reread someday- I’d be curious to try Midnight Sun and Twilight side by side, scene by scene, eventually. But there’s only so much sparkly vampire romance I can take in one dose these days and I’ve hit my limit for now, so I’ll be taking a break.

Have you read or are you planning to read Midnight Sun? Hit me with all your Twilight Saga thoughts down below, I’m in some kind of teenage angst mood.

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Shadow King

I’m back with another Booker review! Today I’m looking at Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, a historical fiction account of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia just prior to the start of WWII.

In the novel, Kidane prepares to defend his country by rounding up local Ethiopian men, training them, and arming as many as possible. This includes taking an old rifle from a slave woman in his house; it is the one thing Hirut has left of her father, and she doesn’t let go of it willingly. While she searches the house determined to take back what is hers, Kidane’s wife begins preparations of her own: to bring the women to war alongside the men, and join the fight for Ethiopia.

“I’ll teach every woman how to make gunpowder. I’ll teach all of you how to shoot a gun. You have to know how to run toward them unafraid.”

I’ve got to admit, I’m having a tough time making up my mind about this book. When I first posted about the 2020 Booker longlist, I mentioned that there’s usually one long, ponderous book that I appreciate having read but do not particularly enjoy reading- I pegged Colum McCann’s Apeirogon as this year’s book fitting that description, but I think actually The Shadow King is that book for me.

First, the pros: I learned a lot. This is a piece of history I wasn’t familiar with, and I now have a better understanding both of Ethiopian culture and history, and the early maneuvers of WWII. The Italians, of course, are the enemy here, but there are also African soldiers standing with Italy, perspective chapters from an Italian photographer of Jewish descent, a runaway Ethiopian emperor and the peasant that takes his place- these help make it clear that good and evil are not black and white in this story. Each character is a complex product of the circumstances that have shaped them. The women who want to fight are constantly hurt, belittled, and ordered about by their own men, slaves are treated cruelly by their masters, and respect is often tinged with hatred and resentment among the Ethiopians. Hirut follows Kidane and Aster to war and plays her role despite the ways both use and abuse her- she carries on for Ethiopia and herself, even if it means standing beside them. Mengiste doesn’t shy away from depicting African violence and unhappiness, and at the same time shows how a flawed system is worth defending, even by those who are made small within it; for any progress to be made it needs to happen from within, starting at the personal level, rather than at the hands of foreigners who don’t understand the country or its people.

The language of the story is occasionally very beautiful, and occasionally very powerful. There are some incredibly moving passages throughout the book. But between these moments of brilliance, I was not caught up in the writing. For me, this is a long book that truly feels like a long book. It’s episodic, which never seems to work for me anymore, and I wasn’t emotionally engaged the way I expected to be based on the story’s premise and content (CW: rape, death, slavery, imprisonment, assorted war violence). The book is divided into digestible chapters of a few pages each, but I found it easy to stop at any given point and harder to pick the story back up.

I think what held me back most was the book’s depiction of women, and the story’s tendency to stray from them despite claiming them as the book’s focus. Mengiste says in her author’s note:

The Shadow King tells the story of those Ethiopian women who fought alongside men, who even today have remained no more than errant lines in faded documents. What I have come to understand is this: The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle. Women have been there, we are here now.”

The book’s greatest flaw may be that in order to tell the story of these women, Mengiste must also tell the oft-overlooked (at least in Western literature) story of this Italian invasion, men and all. Though Hirut, she of the stolen rifle, is always at the center of this tale, even the book’s title highlights one of the men involved in this war. The women fight alongside the men, eventually, but they are not man’s equal here. In fact they have very little agency, despite their determination.

Until about 300 pages in, the women heroes train alone and mostly off page, tending to the men and obeying as ordered when Kidane tells them their place is on the sidelines, not in the battles. In those 300 pages, they are raped, beaten, and otherwise taken advantage of, and the war is primarily fought by the men, at least at the level of direct confrontation. Even after the point when the women are allowed to join in the fray, there are two fantastic battle scenes in which the women are finally able to utilize their own power, but between these they are also imprisoned and left to wait upon the men they expect to save them. It would be wrong to suggest that the trials these women face do not require their own brand of strength and resilience, but it is a learned response, a strength thrust upon them in the name of survival, and I spent most of the novel wondering when they would step out of the shadows and claim something for themselves.

It is, of course, not fair to judge a book about a culture and history I’m new to by saying its characters simply aren’t the “right” sort of heroes. And that’s not exactly what I mean. It is to The Shadow King‘s credit, I think, to display these women as a necessary part of the process of defending Ethiopia, even when they ARE at the sidelines, even when to “earn” their place in the fight they must first battle their own husbands and masters and fathers to get there. Surely even before they enter the fray, the men’s efforts would not have succeeded without the women standing firmly at their backs. It’s a great argument to make, that power lies in endurance and in the silent support that is often invisible in history books. But there’s so much more here as well; in the end I think the celebration of female strength is diluted by the attention spared for other aspects of this fight in both the Ethiopian and Italian camps, and while I appreciated the greater political overview and sympathetic characters, I suspect the story would have felt stronger had it been less divided in focus. Had I not read in Mengiste’s note and the jacket copy that this was meant to be a story of strong women, I’m not confident I would have noticed any emphasis on that theme at all, and that is what I struggled with the most in this read.

“She is a soldier trapped inside a barbed-wire fence, but she is still at war and the battlefield is her own body, and perhaps, she has come to realize as a prisoner, that is where it has always been.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m torn between 3 and 4; I do think this is an incredible story, though I found the premise a bit misleading as to its actual content and was never quite fully hooked. Perhaps I’m a bit biased, having read and loved what seemed to me a stronger story of women at war earlier this year- How We Disappeared. I am glad I read this one, but I simply didn’t find it as effective as I’d hoped.

Up next for me on the Booker list: C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold (which I am loving so far)!

The Literary Elephant

Review: Tender is the Flesh

It’s August, and that means it’s WIT (Women in Translation) month! Since I have so many reading priorities on the go right now I’m not sure how many translations I’ll be able to get to in the next couple of weeks, but I’m off to a great start with Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses!

Before I get started… CWs for: cannibalism, dehumanization of marginalized persons, abuses of power (both personal and systemic), brutal deaths (animal and human), captivity, genetic modification, rape, and basically anything else horrible you can imagine one person doing to another. There’s absolutely no shame in skipping this review if the content isn’t for you!

tenderisthefleshIn the novel, a disease has supposedly rendered all animals lethal to humans- this means no more pets, no zoos, no stepping outside without an umbrella to fend off stray birds, and most significantly, a need for an alternative source of meat. Various vulnerable peoples are rounded up, and so begins the breeding of humans for the production of “special meat.” Our main character, an important man who keeps one of the big processing plants running smoothly, guides the reader through the new legal methods, all while dealing with a personal challenge: through no desire of his own, he is now the sole owner of a valuable specimen whose presence requires him to participate in this new societal scheme in ways that abhor him- at least initially.

” ‘I know that when I die somebody’s going to sell my flesh on the black market, one of my awful distant relatives. That’s why I smoke and drink, so I taste bitter and no one gets any pleasure out of my death… Today I’m the butcher, tomorrow I might be the cattle.’ He downs his wine and tells her he doesn’t understand, she has money and can ensure she’s not eaten when she dies, a lot of people do. She gives him a look of pity: ‘No one can be sure of anything.’ “

To call this book “dark” would be an understatement. I thought I was prepared, but there were still a few moments when I had to set the book aside and find relief in the fact that our reality has not reached this level of depravity… yet. Bazterrica does an incredibly convincing job of pointing out the ways in which our known world may already be heading in this (or an equally horrible) direction, grounding this premise in social, political, and environmental issues that are currently dividing opinions around the world. It’s a satire aimed at capitalism, factory farming, blind consumerism, and more. She also demonstrates that deft use of language (counting the victims as “head,” like cattle, and avoiding any terminology in the process or product that would render the eaten on an equal level with the eater) can be all that is needed to normalize today what seemed morally repugnant yesterday.

“The craving for meat is dangerous.”

In all transparency, I appreciated the intent of the novel a bit more than the execution. Bazterrica builds this world painstakingly, painting the image of a near-future dystopia that feels all the more real for its level of thorough detail. We learn here all the ins and outs of both one individual processing plant, as well as the greater societal changes that keep this world in business, and it truly is the stuff of nightmares. But the amount of actual plotting going on in these pages is minimal. Our main character, Marcos, often feels more like a writing tactic than a protagonist. We are told about his family’s past and his present circumstances; these do shape his decisions and explain his attitude, but important people in his life get only brief cameos on page, and even the problematic “head” on his premises is often relegated to the background while the narrative focuses on Marcos’s day-to-day tasks in the industry. The format reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which Offred is primarily used as a tool to explain the workings of Gilead; so too is Marcos a rather bland character who serves best as a guide. (And so too is there a focus here on normalized violence against women, though general humanity is the deeper theme of this book.)

But, despite my finding Marcos a bit lacking, the setting he is able to reveal to the reader is more than enough to hold the reader’s interest, and the psychological change evident in Marcos through the brief plot is fascinating to watch as well. At first I wondered whether a more willing participant in this system than Marcos might have made for a better lead- it would have allowed for more nuance in the revelations of ulterior motives, and would have made this society all the more horrifying by demonstrating directly how quickly it has been rationalized. But as things progress with Marcos and the person-turned-product in his care, the reader gradually sees his actions and mentality shifting in a way that is all the more frightening for how disgusted he’d been at the book’s beginning. I don’t want to say more about the plot than that, other than it’s worth reading for if you’re willing to wade through the gruesome details.

The only other downside for me was some unaddressed and unnecessary poor treatment of women. Marcos apparently has very little regard for the female half of his species, and with no point being made through his behavior I found it distasteful. Perhaps his misogyny could have been used to further the theme of power abuse or to hint at a gap in his persistent morality that paves the way for the greater collapse in his beliefs of basic equality later on. If it was meant to be read in these ways, I didn’t find that to be clear in the text.

“It disturbs him that there’s something feminine beneath the brutal aura she takes great care to give off. There’s something admirable in her artificial indifference. There’s something about her he’d like to break.”

The writing itself I found to be a bit awkward in places, and I’m not sure whether it’s Bazterrica’s style I didn’t fully get on with or just a bit of flow lost in the translation; either way, style is subjective so perhaps this will work better for other readers, and even for me it was not a major obstacle.

In the end, though I would’ve liked a few minor changes, I was utterly captivated by what Tender is the Flesh does have to offer (repugnant as it may be), and for anyone intrigued by the synopsis I’d say this is indeed a great WIT title to pick up. I’d love to check out more work from Bazterrica in the future!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. For content, this is probably the most disturbing book I’ve read all year, and it will be hard to top in that regard (not that I’ll make a point of trying). But I generally appreciate anything that succeeds in making me think and feel, and this book thoroughly succeeded on both counts even with the high level of horror and grotesquerie. I’ll be remembering this one for a long time.

Is this a book you’d ever consider reading?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Such a Fun Age

My Booker Prize 2020 reading is officially underway! I started with a quick read from the longlist to gain some momentum: Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, a contemporary novel that I had a good time with, though after reading I’m still a bit surprised by its placement on the Booker list!

suchafunageIn the novel, Emira is called away from a friend’s 26th birthday party for a late-night babysitting emergency; while the adult Chamberlains deal with a situation at home, Emira takes their toddler to a nearby grocery store, where the child enjoys looking at the nuts and smelling the teas. Except this time, Emira isn’t dressed like a babysitter, and when the security guard spots her holding the hand of the white child, he accuses her (a Black woman) of kidnapping. The situation is awful but resolved quickly, and Emira would like to bury the incident in the past and move forward. But Emira’s employer and her new boyfriend become a little too focused on proving how not-racist they are in the wake of this event, making Emira’s life harder in the process.

“For a moment she thought, What if I just took you and walked out the door? How far would we get? Shaunie’s apartment? Maybe Pittsburgh?

Such a Fun Age is a drama-filled novel that unfolds like a race-focused soap opera. As such, its characters feel somewhat exaggerated, their dialogue and actions somewhat insufferable, and some of the plot details a little too coincidental or extreme to feel truly realistic. Even so, it has an addictive, gossip-y feel and manages to convey a serious message without taking itself too seriously in the process. It’s a great summer read, a perfect book club choice, and a solid alternative to the often uber-white drama of similar titles in this style (think: Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had).

The major players include: Emira, just a regular woman struggling with adulthood, whose pure love for the child she babysits is a beacon of joy amid the rest of the negativity and harm apparent in this tale; Alix Chamberlain, the influencer mom obsessed with her public image and what she can get out of any and every situation, including her babysitter’s vulnerability; and Kelley, the man who films the interaction at the grocery store and strikes up a relationship with Emira, who turns out to be only one of the many Black people Kelley insists on filling every aspect of his life with. Reid does an excellent job of focusing on each character’s story individually, including spouses, friends, and colleagues. Through them we see a wider view of key personalities and relevant motivations; importantly, the white characters are not the only ones whose actions hurt Emira, though they are frequently the ones who take matters too far.

Every chapter seems to present its own excitement; every dramatic revelation, even the ones that feel eye-roll worthy, had me mock gasping in delight at the ways in which the narrative is pushed as far as it will stretch. There’s certainly something to be said for Reid’s ability to turn a weighty discussion into a piece this entertaining, and I think in doing so she’ll be able to take these important messages to an audience that might not have bothered with a more heavily literary presentation, a victory not to be overlooked. But I do wonder whether Such a Fun Age loses a bit of impact and with its levity; it’s a delicious romp for the casual reader, but Emira (and the real people who experience situations such as hers) stand to lose plenty when the allies they trust don’t actually have their backs. There needs to be something more than fun here if Reid’s intent is anything other than for readers to take these matters lightly.

“Alix had started her day in Manhattan, ready to tell Kelly, I know who you really are. But now she sat in Philadelphia, participating in a losing game called ‘Which One of Us Is Actually More Racist?’ “

Because this book relishes over-the-top details and lacks a certain depth and engagement with form that I typically expect from Booker nominees, I think I might have enjoyed this title more if I had picked it up outside of the context of the Booker- but I don’t want to imply that the book’s themes or author are a bad fit for a literary prize. I might even have liked this title better alongside last year’s Booker list. As is, I do think it’s easy to compare Such a Fun Age and Real Life (also longlisted this year) in terms of racist microaggressions and erroneous expectations of what modern racism looks like for twenty-something Black Americans; once that comparison has been made (which seems an inevitable result when the two appear on the same list), from a literary standpoint I think Real Life author Brandon Taylor simply accomplishes more with his prose and implications. None of this is to say Reid’s book isn’t worth the read, and I did certainly find it worth my time. I am glad the Booker nomination will put Such a Fun Age into more hands, but for me it’s just not a title that’s going to leave a lasting impression (there’s not much to mull over once the final page has been turned), no matter how much I may have enjoyed my time with it.

” ‘How difficult is it to tell someone, “Hey, your boyfriend likes you for the wrong reasons?” If someone told me that I’d be like, “No, he doesn’t. Mind your business.” It’s not like Alix can tell her to not be with him.’ Then Rachel added this as if it were an unfortunate fact: ‘Emira is a grown woman.’ / ‘But she’s not, though! […] Emira is still so young,’ she said, and with this, Alix felt her eyes begin to water. She let her voice crack to say, ‘What the fuck is he doing with her?’ a tear dropped into her napkin. The idea of Kelley truly having feelings for Emira seemed slightly worse than him using her for his own gain. Just the thought of it put a sharp buzzing sound into her head.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. As I said, I had a good time. I’m excited to see what else the Booker list has in store this year, though I hope the next titles I read will prove a bit more memorable. I am glad I didn’t let the hype or mixed reviews dissuade me from giving this one a try, but I’m hoping my next Booker review will end with a stronger recommendation; I’m currently reading Mengiste’s The Shadow King from the longlist, to review next week.

If you’ve read Such a Fun Age, let me know what you thought! If you’ve read other Booker longlisters recently, let me know which title has been your favorite so far!

 

The Literary Elephant

Conquering the world of literature, one book at a time