Review: The Distance of the Moon

(Are you tired of my Penguin Modern excitement yet? I promise I’ll cool it after this month. But in the meantime…) I read another Penguin Modern! This is the 4th of the 6 I bought first, and I’m going to read the last two before the end of March and then take a little break from them. Maybe. My next 6 are already on their way to my mailbox. But first, I read Italo Calvino’s The Distance of the Moon, a set of short fictional stories involving astrology.

thedistanceofthemoonAbout the book: Qfwfq is a fount of stories, having apparently lived several billion years in our solar system and held on to remarkable memories of his cosmic experiences. Through Qfwfq and our narrator(s), these stories explore Earth in a time when the moon could be touched from its surface (“The Distance of the Moon”), at a time when Earth was not yet fully formed and lacked color (“Without Colours”), in modern times as an ancient family prepares for the sun to burn out (“As Long as the Sun Lasts”), and separate from Earth entirely as the narrator considers the pros and cons of imploding vs. exploding, the fate of all cosmic matter.

Italo Calvino is the sort of writer I could follow anywhere. I have read a few of his short stories before picking up this volume, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I found here. I know embarrassingly little about astrology, and I can’t say for sure whether the italicized paragraphs preceding each of the stories in this book are true scientific facts or not. I can say that this whole collection felt like an accessible lesson in astrology, with things like gravity, life spans of stars, and the big bang transformed into fantastical fiction that I just couldn’t put down once I’d started. I mean, granted, the whole book is less than 60 pages, but even so I usually take breaks between the stories/speeches etc. in these little volumes. This one I read straight through, and the four pieces seemed like stories that should be read together.

It’s difficult to classify exactly what I would say this book is. Certainly some sort of sci-fi/fantasy collection, but readers who don’t usually like sci-fi shouldn’t be afraid to read this book. There were a few times I wanted to call it (well-done) magical realism, and underlying it all there’s incredible romance. The general lesson in love seems to be that we want what we can’t have rather than what’s available, and the romance is more an intriguing side force pushing through the story rather than the main focus. But Calvino’s writing is certainly romantic, by which I also mean that it is generally beautiful and lush and captivating and whimsical. Calvino is doing more than telling stories here, he’s testing the language and wielding it with poetic mastery. Check out a couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.”

“He won’t be able to forget even for an instant that everything around him is temporary, temporary but always repeated, a mosaic of protons, electrons, neutrons, that will fragment and come together again indefinitely, a soup that will be stirred until it cools or heats up: in short, this holiday in the most temperate planet in the solar system is completely ruined.”

“For Ggge, light-years seem like flea jumps: she hasn’t realized that space is a glue you get stuck in, just like time.”

It’s hard to pick a favorite selection from this book. “The Distance of the Moon” started a little slow for me, but the Deaf Cousin and the changing orbit of the moon upped the intrigue. “Without Colour” might have been my favorite, though the banter and the look at the solar system through the eyes of some very long lives infinitely amused me in “As Long As the Sun Lasts,” and none of them got me thinking as much about existence and possibility as “Implosion.” They’re all such different stories and yet they certainly belong together, with a connection I didn’t feel between the stories in the last fiction volume I read from the Penguin Modern set, The Missing Girl.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had no idea what to expect from these stories going in, but they absolutely hooked me. I need more Italo Calvino (I started reading his short story collection Difficult Loves a few years ago; I think I should go back and finish it). I need more Penguin Moderns. As much as I love a good, long saga, I’m really appreciating these little sample-size volumes this month. I wanted to expand my reading horizons in 2018, and these glimpses at modern classic authors are really helping me decide which directions I should go with that goal.

What reading surprises have you encountered this month?


The Literary Elephant


Review: Stillhouse Lake

In the midst of a Christmas food coma, I started my first Kindle Unlimited read. Everyone was getting lazy after the big holiday meal, so I wanted something thrilling to keep me awake. Enter Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake, the first book in her recent thriller series. Three months later, I’ve finally finished reading Stillhouse Lake

stillhouselakeAbout the book: Life is no picnic when you unwittingly marry a serial killer. Gina had two children and a whole life with Melvin Royal before a freak accident put a car through their garage wall and ousted his gory secret hobby. But even after the arrests and trials die down, no one seems to believe Gina is innocent. How could she not have known? How could she not have helped? She changes her name, and the names of her kids. She moves again and again, hiding their identities, installing expensive security systems, using temporary phones and concealing their locations even from her own mother. There are too many threats against Melvin Royal’s family for Gina to be open and honest about who she is. Protecting her kids comes first, always. But after years of running, they’ve finally found a place that feels like home, and Gina starts taking risks again, doing whatever it takes to stop running– even when the murders start again, right outside her door.

In this moment, in all moments now, I can’t afford to be seen as weak. Not for myself. I have two children in the house, and I’m responsible for their lives—lives that are never safe, never secure. I will do anything I must to defend them.”

Right off the bat, I have to say that part of the reason this book took me so long to read is that I wasn’t enjoying it. I made it all the way to 45% before it stopped feeling like a drag and finally held my interest. I had seen good reviews for this book and I DNF so rarely that I stuck it out through 130 pages that I felt I was mostly hate-reading. That’s a pretty extreme reaction for me, and now that I’m finished I have some mixed feelings about it.

First, I do think it is a fault of the novel that those first 130 pages are stuffed with mainly scene-setting background info. We get a lot of information and small events that are only minimally relevant to the overall story, details that show over and over again how hard it is for Gina/Gwen and her children to hide in plain sight without really furthering the plot. It felt like overkill, and I found it especially annoying because we hear Gina/Gwen saying over and over that she’s gotten paranoid about safety, that she checks and double checks and flees at the slightest provocation and doesn’t trust anyone, etc; but even as she’s thinking all those things, she’s making exceptions. Anyone who reads mysteries/thrillers is going to see those lapses as the catalyst. A careful reader will see right through the excuses and know that something weird is going on and despite all her claims to the contrary, Gina/Gwen is going to get caught in the middle of the chaos because she’s overlooking things that even she knows she shouldn’t be. It all feels so obvious.

And of course, eventually Gina/Gwen realizes her mistakes, about 150 pages after the careful reader does.

I hate myself for not questioning that.

I had good reasons, but those reasons seem useless now. They seem like illusions.

But I did have to give some credit to that 45% eventually, because there was another detail in those pages that I thought seemed so obvious, that I ended up being wrong about. I appreciated having to second guess myself when Melvin Royal came into the story. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say more about the part that surprised me and made me give Stillhouse Lake a little more respect. Once I made it to the second half of the book, I got along with it a lot better.

There are no good answers, but this time I’m not just going to be strong. I’m hitting back.

My favorite thing about this book was also my least favorite thing: the perspective. I think that first 45% went so slowly for me because Gina/Gwen is the first-person narrator throughout, and there are so few other characters in that first half of the book to give the reader an idea of what other people think of Gina/Gwen. Seeing how other characters act around the main character (or vice versa) is a big part of characterization, and in the first half of the book Gina/Gwen is so solitary and consumed with her own thoughts and worries that the reader is given a very biased picture of her until some new friends and enemies finally enter the story more meaningfully.

This was my favorite aspect because so much can be done with a narrator who’s so focused on herself, especially if she’s lying or wrong about something. Her thoughts are presented as truths, though they might not always be. A careful reader is going to be looking at the other characters around Gina/Gwen and taking cues from their behavior around her rather than trusting her completely right away. But in this case, the perspective was also my least favorite aspect because Gina/Gwen didn’t live up to her wild card potential. The reader isn’t given enough information and time with the other characters to see what Gina/Gwen is wrong about before she does. It’s no use trying to piece the mystery together before Gina/Gwen, because there’s just not enough to go on until she’s suddenly putting the missing links together right along with the reader.

For that reason, I would call this a slasher thriller rather than a psychological one. It’s not the sort of mind-games novel where the reader is given the clues up front and tries to make crafty connections, it’s just the run-for-your-life-through-the-woods sort of  thrill. The clues aren’t all in place until it’s too late. But the action scenes are great; this is some of the best running-for-your-life-through-the-woods drama that I’ve ever read. The characters are gritty and real. The threat feels constant and close. If those first 130 pages could have been condensed into about 50, I would have really loved this book, and I think readers with fewer thrillers behind them aren’t going to have as much of a problem with that slow beginning. There’s a lot to like about this book.

“He also knows that a gun can’t protect you unless you protect yourself mentally, emotionally, and logically. It’s the punctuation at the end, not the paragraph.

Side note: I don’t have much knowledge about the families of criminals. I had a hard time suspending my disbelief at first about the level of animosity against Gina/Gwen, and especially against her kids. I could see there being a few crazies out there interested in revenge or just a continuation of the gore Melvin Royal started, but I couldn’t believe that they were constantly being  targeted by basically everyone. Shouldn’t there be some balance, especially after she’s gone through a trial and been proven innocent? Shouldn’t there be some good samaritans out there as well as all the crazies? Surely someone must see the rest of the Royals as victims?

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I really couldn’t give a higher rating after disliking the first half of the book so much, though I really did like it once the plot picked up. I liked it enough that I’m planning to read the sequel, Killman Creek, which is the only other book in this series that’s already published. I really prefer reading physical books and I’m fairly new to e-reading because of that, but I had a pretty good experience with this one, other than it not being my favorite book.

Further recommendations:

  • If slasher thrillers are your jam, try Riley Sager’s Final Girls. This one’s a bit psychological as well, but the focus is on the knife-wielding and gory deaths. There are more great running-for-your-life-through-the-woods scenes here, and some of the same commentary on targeting victims that Stillhouse Lake dabbles with.

Have you read any good thrillers lately?


The Literary Elephant


Review: The Missing Girl

I have another Penguin Modern review for you today. This is the first volume I’ve read that highlights fiction: it’s Shirley Jackson’s The Missing Girl. Though fiction is my preferred genre, I rather preferred the nonfiction samples of letters and speeches that I’ve encountered so far. Although this one grabbed my attention and kept me hooked in a way that the nonfiction volumes I’ve read did not do quite so efficiently, I know this one won’t impact the way I think about the world as much as Letter From Birmingham Jail and Create Dangerously did. But I still had a great time reading it.

themissinggirlAbout the book: In this 54 page booklet are three of Shirley Jackson’s short stories. They utilize Gothic, mystifying, and psychological techniques. The first story, “The Missing Girl,” takes place at a camp for teen girls where a roommate is reported missing and the clues lead to contradictions. Is there, in fact, a missing girl? Who is the missing girl?

“…what she says is that of course she loves Martha and all that, and of course no one would want to say anything about a girl like this that’s missing, and probably had something horrible done to her…”

The second story, “Journey With a Lady,” is an intriguing though less puzzling tale. It’s a story about crime and punishment, and perhaps most of all about lies, though those elements all appear surprisingly blatantly in the text. A young boy travels on a train and is at first disgruntled to share his seat with a nosy lady, who makes the train ride an unusual adventure.

The third story, “Nightmare,” follows a woman on an errand in New York City. She becomes more concerned as she realizes that she is the target of some sort of prize-game taking place in the streets that day.

“She realized she could never prove that she wore these clothes innocently, without criminal knowledge…”

“Nightmare” was my favorite story from the book, with “The Missing Girl” following as a close second. I picked up this particular volume from the Penguin Moderns because I read and loved Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House last October. The first and third stories did remind me of that work– masterfully done with a steady build-up to a delightfully confusing conclusion. The second story did not seem as sinister as I had expected, though it did lead me down some interesting trains of thought regarding right vs. wrong.

” ‘I’m not ever going to do it again,’ the woman said. ‘I mean, you sort of build up all your life for one real good time like this, and then you can take your punishment and not mind it so much.’ “

These are stories that make the reader think. Determining what is going on and how and why is generally up to the reader; the base of the story is provided, but there seem to be several options from which to form theories, which is my favorite sort of conclusion to a story. This book is for the lover of ambiguous endings.

“It was generally conceded in the town that the girl had been followed in the darkness by a counselor from the camp, preferably one of the quiet ones, until she was out of sight or sound of help. The townspeople remembered their grandfathers had known of people disposed of in just that way, and no one had ever heard about it, either.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This volume was a quick and engaging read for me. It didn’t expand my thinking quite like the nonfiction Penguin Moderns I’ve read so far, but it did engage me while I was reading and it seemed an accurate sample of Jackson’s work. Though I don’t think these will end up being my favorite Jackson stories, they did help me decide to pick up more of her work, so I’d say this was a successful read for me.

Do you like reading creepy books? I find I’m more a fan of the psychological than the slasher variety of thrilling; which do you prefer?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Create Dangerously

I adore the new Penguin Modern collection. My first foray into the set, Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, was such a success that I dove right into my next one, Albert Camus’s Create Dangerously. This is not the second book in the collection, but it is the next book in numerical order from the little handful of Penguin Moderns I’ve chosen to start with.

createdangerouslyAbout the book: Camus speaks about social pressures on art, and whether writers will be accepted by “the masses” if they agree or disagree with popular political stances. Even silence is a statement that artists must be careful of making. He explores whether societal expectations are influencing the art that is appearing in the world, and whether realism in art is desirable or even possible. In his second speech, Camus discusses the aftermath of WWII and the need to reignite the flames of intelligence that have been snuffed out in order for people to cope with the horrors of the war. Intelligence is an integral part in the worthwhile friendships that should be cultivated to overcome the remnants of war. In the third speech, Camus argues the need to fight for one’s freedoms, and to never surrender the freedoms one already possesses.

“…freedom is not a gift to be received from a State or a leader but a possession to be won every day by the effort of each and the union of all.”

I had a very different experience with this volume than I did with Letter From Birmingham Jail. I think that difference largely stems from the fact that I knew the material from Letter From Birmingham Jail better going in. I picked up Create Dangerously based only on recognition of the author’s name (without knowing more about him than his name) and the description of his speeches from the tiny blurb of this book.

“To create today is to create dangerously. Any publication is an act, and that act exposes one to the passions of an age that forgives nothing. Hence the question is not whether this is or is not prejudicial to art. The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies […], the strange liberty of creation is possible.”

My first obstacle arrived in the early realization that Camus was a philosopher. I don’t have a problem with philosophers as such, but one college philosophy class was enough to know that I just don’t jive with that branch of science. In a mathematical sense (surprisingly), I appreciate how structured philosophical arguments are. I also appreciate their logic. But when it’s all put together, reading philosophy feels to me like reading a bunch of crafty loopholes, and I just don’t enjoy it. Create Dangerously felt a bit like being back in that college philosophy class that I was so very happy to escape.

“So it is with art, which is nothing without reality and without which reality is insignificant. How, indeed, could art get along without the real and how could art be subservient to it? The artist chooses his object as much as he is chosen by it. Art, in a sense, is a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world. Consequently, its only aim is to give another form to a reality that it is nevertheless forced to preserve as the source of its emotion.”

The second obstacle for me was that Camus was French. I don’t have a problem with anyone who is French, of course, I just don’t know enough about French culture and history to fully appreciate philosophical arguments about freedom in the aftermath of WWII in France. That’s a failing on my part, not this book’s.

These difficulties made the book a much slower and carefuller read than I was anticipating, but I did reread certain passages and look up a few details about Camus and French WWII history to do justice to the three speeches of this book: “Create Dangerously,” “Defence of Intelligence,” and “Bread and Freedom.” The latter two speeches went much easier for me, although I may have just been getting used to Camus by that time. “Bread and Freedom” was my favorite of the three.

“If someone takes away your bread, he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master.”

Though I’m sure a few of Camus’s finer points went over my head entirely, I did feel that I was learning while reading this book, which is something I appreciate from my reading. I marked more quotes than I copied into this post for your perusal, and going back through them now I’m finding a lot of moments in Camus’s writing that are beautiful and inspiring, and they’re making me grateful for persevering through this book. If you’re attracted to the questions “what is art?” and “what is freedom?” and even “what is intelligence?” you would probably enjoy reading these works of Camus’s.

“Any artist who goes in for being famous in our society must know that it is not he who will become famous, but someone else under his name, someone who will eventually escape him and perhaps someday will kill the true artist in him.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I will probably reread this at some point to see if I can get more out of it, but I don’t anticipate it ever being a favorite. Nevertheless, I will definitely be reading more from the Penguin Modern collection. Even the volumes that indicate to me that I do not want to read more from this author, serve their purpose: they broaden my reading horizons and give me an indication of the author’s work without subjecting me to hundreds of pages of reading that I wouldn’t be able to finish.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Rainbirds

It’s so weird that I’ve read my Book of the Month Club pick early. Somehow I got into the habit of saving it for the last few days of the month, but now March is only half over and I’m done reading my March book, but it’s still too early to start anticipating what the next selections will be. I have plenty to read in the meantime (including some backlogged BOTM books), but still. It’s weird. This month I chose Clarissa Goenawan’s Rainbirds.

rainbirdsAbout the book: Ren Ishida’s sister, Keiko, has died. Due to an estrangement with her parents, Ren is the one who goes to Akakawa to collect her belongings and make inquiries with the police. She was clearly murdered, and though there seem to be no leads, Ren decides to stay in town for awhile and uncover what truths he can by virtually stepping into his sister’s life. He takes her job and living accommodations on a temporary basis, makes friends and acquaintances, and jogs the route along which she was killed. He learns a lot about his sister’s life, but at such a pivotal moment in his own career and love life his time in Akakawa is sure to change Ren’s life too.

I chose this book because I’ve read so little fiction set in Japan and I wanted a glimpse of that culture. Also the cover is bright and beautiful and perfect for spring. But ultimately I chose it because I’ve been in the mood for some contemplative literary fiction lately and I’d heard that this book was supposed to explore the grief of a man who had just lost his sister. I did find that here, but it wasn’t at all what I expected.

“Remember this, Ren. Sadness alone can’t harm anyone. It’s what you do when you’re sad that can hurt you and those around you.”

My first surprise was that there’s an element in this book that’s a little… paranormal? Magical? Ren has dreams about real people who are not actually present in his life. The dreams are maybe trying to tell him something, but in the end I found them more tone-setting than revelatory. Some of the details of these dreams are not at all realistic, and they don’t always seem directly symbolic, either. But they do have their place in Ren’s journey to the truth.

I suppose I would say Rainbirds fits into the mystery genre more than any other.  Though most of the clues are stumbled upon or gifted to Ren, he does the work of piecing them together himself. This book is full of surprises and the reader spends much of the tale trying to piece together what happened right along with the characters. But that element felt more like a background intrigue in a deeper story of self-discovery. Ren is grieving, recovering, and growing in this book, and though he is focused on his sister, it is a focus centered around saying goodbye and moving on with his own life. He never intends to stay in Akakawa indefinitely.

“She would never call me again, so I didn’t want to hear the phone ring. I closed my eyes. What was I doing here, all by myself in this town?”

Unfortunately, so much of this story centers around emotion, and I just didn’t feel it. Ren’s narration is thought-provoking and completely readable– once I’d picked the book up I couldn’t put it down, and the chapters flew by– but his reactions are so mild that mine were, too. I expected outrage and devastation from Ren’s confrontations with the murder suspects and the new insights into Keiko’s life, but I found only tepid wariness and surprise. When he considers that he might be in love, his attention shifts to his “urges” rather than any hint of excitement or pain. He speaks bluntly on occasion, but the only indications that he is as affected inside as his outward speech suggests are simple things like a refusal to drink his coffee, or a desire to stand out in the rain. There can be power in a quiet book, but with this one I needed more fire. As much as I enjoyed this plot and these characters, I know I’ll forget them quickly because they lacked the spark that would give them importance in my character-driven book-loving heart.

“There are enough single people in Japan to form a colony. There’s no need to involve me.”

On a smaller note, I found it a little confusing and conflicting that Ren could to care so much about his sister but doesn’t want to keep any of her things. I save everything, but I know not everyone does and there’s nothing wrong with either option. Still, I was left a little cold at the burning of some of Keiko’s belongings, the selling of her most personalized possessions at a bad price just to be rid of them, the requesting that his friend dispose of the urn after the ashes are scattered because Ren’s got other plans. I guess I just wanted to understand his reasoning better than the phrase “I don’t need these things” allows.

“I loaded my belongings into the trunk of the car. ‘I don’t know how I ended up with more things.’ ‘That’s always the case,’ Honda said with a laugh. ‘As time goes by, you get more and more baggage. It’s why we do spring cleaning every year, isn’t it?’ “

I was also a little put off by some of the male characters’ attitudes toward women, incluing Ren’s. There are times he’s very respectful toward certain women, but other times not. He recalls early experiences with sex as “conquests,” he lies about his identity to pick up women with his friends, he’s relieved to be caught cheating on one particular occasion because he’d been wanting to break up with his girlfriend and just didn’t know how to do it. Luckily, these were mostly small details woven into the backstory rather than major plot points, but I just don’t enjoy reading about women being perceived that way.

Despite my hangups, Rainbirds was one of those books that stuck inside my head to the point where when I wasn’t reading, I was constantly thinking about what would happen next and how the pieces of the puzzle would fit together. So I spent a couple of days reading more than I planned, and sped through the whole book. It wasn’t just the mystery that kept me wondering, but the new relationships Ren was forming, and the revelations being unearthed from his childhood. I was hooked on the characters all around, even if I did know that interest would wane when I reached the end of the book.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had fun reading this book, which I think explains my rating. It wasn’t a bad experience, but I didn’t feel like it was the sort of book I should have fun with. I just didn’t connect with the grief and loss and love at the core of this story, though I did enjoy reading about Japanese culture and the characters’ unique backstories. I’m glad I read this one. But I know I’m going to be looking for something very different in next month’s BOTM selections.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Letter From Birmingham Jail

I first saw this cute new collection of Penguin Modern books on Instagram and I couldn’t resist checking them out. It’s a 50-book collection of important works from important authors in tiny bite-sized pieces. Each book is around 60 pages long and contains short samples from modern classic authors. The first book in the set is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.

letterfrombirminghamjailAbout the book: Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter, written on the margins of a newspaper in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, takes up most of the pages in this slim volume. What follows is a short sermon entitled “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” The first work addresses a critical news article, encourages peaceful protest in response to moral wrongs, and notes the state of racism in 1960’s southern USA. The second work is a religious exploration of how to live fulfillingly. The three main points are to live with length (accepting yourself and using your unique gifts to make the world a better place), with breadth (accepting others and extending kindness into the world), and with width (accepting God and remembering that there are higher powers at work that will even the world’s imbalances in time).

The first piece of this book is (or should be, at least) an American staple. It has some specific things to say about Birmingham and 1963 America, which makes it a piece of history. But it also discusses morality and law, racism at large, the needs for peace and protest, and other topics that make it a timeless letter. King’s writing is patient and unoffensive even as he lists the offenses committed against him. He’s an inspiring writer because he possess both the raw talent to convey his ideas clearly and the desire to use his writing as a tool for world improvement. This letter shows the hardships King faced as an African American in southern US and it also shows the stand he’s willing to make and the risks he’s willing to take with his own life to help improve the lives of so many others.

“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

The second piece in this book is more religious; Martin Luther King Jr. (as well as his ancestors) was a Christian preacher, and this work reflects that. Having grown up with Christianity myself, I can’t say exactly how interesting this part of the book would be for readers with other religious backgrounds. Personally, I think it’s good to read about other religions to gain a better sense of the world and understand beliefs outside your own, but I know I haven’t read enough about other religions yet myself. I would be interested to hear whether some of the religious ideas in this sermon translate well to religions outside of Christianity or how an atheist might read them. The first two points King makes can be easily extracted from their religious base and seem to me like general good advice for all the people of the world. But the third point is entirely focused on religion and I’m not sure what affect it might have on readers who feel that it doesn’t apply.

“After accepting ourselves and our tools, we must discover what we are called to do. And once we discover it we should set out to do it with all the strength and all of the power that we have in our systems. And after we’ve discovered our life’s work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.”

So much has changed since these pieces were written in the 1960’s, so many of the messages conveyed in this book are still applicable today. Letter From Birmingham Jail reveals both how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Both of these pieces are beautifully and powerfully written. I’m so glad that America has seen writers like Martin Luther King Jr. who wield their pens to make a difference by speaking well and not just loudly. I hope there will be many more, and that King will always have a readership. I’ve had to read excerpts from Letter From Birmingham Jail in school, but it’s such a short and important piece that I can’t believe I never had to read the whole thing. I’m glad I finally corrected that. I would be interested to read more from this writer (which I believe to be the point of the Penguin Modern collection– these little samples encourage deeper delving), and I’m definitely going to be reading more from the Penguin Modern collection itself.

Are you interested in this set? Check out the list.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Blind Assassin

I’ve gotten into the habit of reading one of Margaret Atwood’s books every year. This is my fourth year, and fourth Atwood novel. This winter I chose The Blind Assassin, a 500+ page story with dual plot lines. It’s also one of my backlogged BOTM books from 2017, so I’m also making progress on my personalized 2018 reading challenge.

theblindassassinAbout the book: One could say Iris and her sister, Laura, were doomed from birth. Their once-affluent family falls on hard times in the first world war, and the descent of their heritage in the aftermath of that war and the lead-up to the second war leaves them tied to unpleasant fates. Now Iris is an eighty year-old woman of limited means and ill-repute, and spends her days writing a secret account of the downward spiral of her life. She has seen the deaths of most of her family and friends by this time, and narrates with an interesting blend of cynicism and hope. Between chapters of Iris’s present and past are excerpts from the book published posthumously in Laura’s name: a tale called The Blind Assassin that a pair of lovers spins for each other across months of clandestine meetings. In the end, Iris’s story will explain Laura’s.

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course.”

The layout of this book took me some effort to wrap my head around, though it makes perfect sense eventually. The narration goes back and forth between sections of Iris’s previously untold story and the one Laura published. To complicate matters, Iris’s sections slip between her present life at eighty years of age, and her personal history; though it’s fairly easy to tell which parts are which, these switches are not labelled and happen simply between one paragraph and the next. This goes on for several chapters and then Laura’s book takes several chapters. Laura’s sections are further complicated by the clear indication that there is some hidden connection to Iris’s story, and by the fact that they are interspersed with newspaper clippings from a wide range of dates. The news articles match parts of Iris’s story, though not in chronological order. That was the hardest part for me: until everything came together in Iris’s story, I had to keep checking the dates of the news articles to keep everything straight and make my educated guesses about what was going on behind Laura’s story.

“She stubs out her cigarette in the brown glass ashtray, then settles herself against him, ear to his chest. She likes to hear his voice this way, as if it begins not in his throat but in his body, like a hum or a growl, or like a voice speaking from deep underground. Like the blood moving through her own heart: a word, a word, a word.”

The Blind Assassin is a book for the reader who sees between the lines. It’s full of subtleties and quiet hints. The big answers are revealed more plainly at the end of the book, but if you don’t solve the mysteries before the answers are announced, it might take a second read to fully appreciate the details and ties woven into the novel before the reveal. Atwood does a superb job of layering the story so that the meaning changes when you have all the clues put together.

Bless you. Be careful. Anyone intending to meddle with words needs such blessing, such warning.”

The chapters about the lovers were my outright favorite; I loved hearing the woes of the people from planet Zycron in their stolen moments together. The taste of a fantasy story within the “real” story fit aptly in the midst of a lovers’ tryst and kept the pace of the novel moving when Iris’s chapters were (necessarily) bogged down with backstory. But even the backstory was more entertaining for me than some of the minutiae of Iris’s eighty year-old life. I adored her thoughts and commentary from that perspective, but I found that I cared little about the house she lived in and the changing of the seasons and current state of the town. Other than some of those scene-setting details, I did enjoy Iris’s older voice; it was amusing to see her simultaneously accepting and rejecting the help she needed from her younger friends, for instance.

“After having imposed itself on us like the egomaniac it is, clamouring about its own needs, foisting upon us its own sordid and perilous desires, the body’s final trick is simply to absent itself. Just when you need it, just when you could use an arm or a leg, suddenly the body has other things to do. It falters, it buckles under you; it melts away as if made of snow, leaving nothing much. Two lumps of coal, an old hat, a grin made of pebbles. The bones dry sticks, easily broken.”

At heart, this book is a tragedy. A beautiful tragedy with a little room for hope, but not much. The good days are already behind the main characters, if indeed they would have called any of their days “good.” But so much of the story is lovely, as well. Atwood makes beautiful use of metaphor, imagery, and sensory details. Her writing is fierce and constantly surprising. It’s a sweet center to a sour candy. Also, as the lovers note, there would be no happiness without pain, and given the choice, who wouldn’t take pain for a chance at happiness?

“In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This isn’t my favorite Atwood book, but it’s a strong contender (as each one that isn’t my favorite tends to be. I have yet to read a book by Margaret Atwood that I find disagreeable). In the few days since I finished reading it this book has been stuck in my head in the best possible way. It’s woven together so well, and so patiently; that impresses me more long-term than a fast pace and a flashy plot. I’ll definitely be picking up another Atwood novel next year, and I’m already on the hunt for my next top choice. Any suggestions?

Further recommendations:

  • In many ways, The Blind Assassin feels like a Canadian version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Though the stories are certainly not duplicates, readers who appreciate the tragedy and love and fiction of one of these novels will likely enjoy the other. In Atonement, a young English girl accuses a man of something she misunderstands, and the consequences reach deep into several connected lives.
  • Of course I must also mention another great Atwood book; this time I’ll go with The Heart Goes Last, a(n occasionally X-rated) dystopian novel about a group of people who volunteer to spend half of each year in prison after the economy fails and ravages the nation. It’s a book about love and control and danger in apparent utopias.

Have you read any of Margaret Atwood’s books? (Including The Handmaid’s Tale…) What did you think?


The Literary Elephant

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