Book Haul 3.18

New books for March! My goal this year is 3 books per month, maximum; I achieved that goal in February, but I gave in to temptation in March and went way overboard. :/ Here are the most recent additions to my (overflowing) shelves:

  1. Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan. This is my Book of the Month Club selection for March. There were some great choices this month, but again I succeeded in limiting myself to one selection. (I swear the month started out on such a good note, I had no idea I was in for such book-buying weakness later on.) I even read it within the month! It’s a sort of mystery/grief sketch of one Japanese man uncovering the secrets surrounding his sister’s untimely death.
  2. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. I had a 20% off coupon on the day this one released (a YA fantasy with an entirely non-white cast, the first book in a new series), which seemed like a sign. It’s surprisingly easy to find “signs” that I should buy a book. I don’t think I’ve bought any YA books this year, and I’ve hardly read any– but this one looked like a must. This is my current read and I’m certain I’ll finish it within the month; look at me go, reading my new books promptly! Review will be up next week.
  3. Penguin Moderns. I saw Ariel Bissett talking about this new collection of modern classics on Instagram and I had to check them out. They’re such beautiful little samplers of classic/influential writers from the 1900s, perfectly collectible with a nice range of content. I immediately wanted to read about half of the collection, but I settled on 6 to start and told myself I could buy more if I read and loved these first. I’m counting these as one book here (they’re only about 60 pages apiece so all 6 of them together is about the length of one book). I did manage to read all 6 this month. Here are the reviews: Letter From Birmingham Jail, Create Dangerously, The Distance of the Moon, The Missing Girl, Piers of the Homeless Night, and The Problem That Has No Name.
  4. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I found this hardcover copy in the bargain books section at Barnes and Noble on the day I picked up my parents from the airport. Long story short, they didn’t want to just be picked up from the airport, they thought they should run a bunch of errands as long as they were already out of the house and had a “chauffeur”, so I spent eight hours driving this day and I’ll be honest, when I had a chance to step in to a bookstore I didn’t try very hard to resist even though I already had my three books for this month. I feel kind of bad about not sticking to my allotted number of books (and carefully selecting titles I know I’ll read soon), but I needed a pick-me-up this day so I bought this family saga lit fic novel for cheap.
  5. The Circle by Dave Eggers. After I surpassed my 3 book limit, I let myself go a little book-buying crazy. I’ve been wanting to read The Circle for a long time, but really I didn’t need to own it this month and I picked it up in the store because the color of the cover fit my mood for the day (it’s a bright coral red, if you were wondering). I have no idea when I’ll get around to this one, and all I remember about the synopsis is that it’s sci-fi, and it revolves around some internet company that has access to a lot of private information and is maybe trying to take over the internet or do something shady?
  6. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I did have a coupon when I bought this one, and I bought it in store because every time I looked at it online I wasn’t sure what the size of the big floppy paperback I wanted actually was and I was afraid I’d accidentally buy the mass market paperback or something. I’ve really been in the mood for fantasy lately and I’ve heard that this one is superb. I’m a little hesitant to start because I know there’s no prospective publication date for the last book yet, and also I’m still in the middle of A Song of Ice and Fire. But I’m really excited for this one.
  7. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. I picked this one up kind of randomly, but as soon as I read the synopsis (I actually didn’t get any farther into it than the uncontrollable mind-reading aspect) I couldn’t walk out of the store without buying this one. As I said, I’ve been in a fantasy mood and I was exercising no restraint. This is a YA fantasy trilogy by an author I’ve been interested in but haven’t read yet.
  8. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Sons of Ares by Pierce Brown, Rik Hoskin, and Eli Powell. Back in the beginning of the month when I thought I could limit myself to 3 books, I was planning to order this one at the very end of the month (with a coupon, because saving money) so that it wouldn’t arrive until April, when I was expecting to go over 3 books anyway for my birthday month. But I ended up ordering it as soon as it was released on the 16th. At least I did read it right away (I love Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series) instead of growing my TBR shelf even more. This is a graphic novel prequel to the Red Rising series.
  9. Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. I was on the fence about buying this one, and if I had been closer to my 3-book goal I would have waited. I’m pretty sure I’m going to love this series, but in all honesty I haven’t even started the first book yet (Illuminae) and this is the third. But there was a good deal on the Barnes and Noble exclusive edition and, as you can see, the entire second half of this month was a new-book free-for-all for me. Obsidio is the third book in a YA sci-fi trilogy with a uniquely graphic narration style that uses different sorts of documents and files etc. to tell its story.
  10. The Illustrated A Brief History of Time & The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking died this month and it reminded me that I wanted to read his A Brief History of Time, a nonfiction science book. I found this cool illustrated edition that’ll be a great coffee table book (someday when I have a coffee table) and in the meantime I think the pictures will make it easier to read. Science was my least favorite subject in school, but I think mostly because I hated the hands-on part of it. I avoided chemistry like the plague. But I am interested in learning about the world and how things work, and reading beyond my usual comfort zone, so I have high hopes.


I’m pleased with myself for reading 3 (soon to be 4) of these 9 within the month; if I had stuck to my original 3-book goal, I would’ve made a dent in my TBR shelf this month. Instead I read 5 (soon to be 6) of my own unread books this month and added 5 unread books, which means my TBR shelf will be down only 1 book this month and not until I finish Children of Blood and Bone tonight or tomorrow. That’s the real goal of my 3-book hauls this year, to lower the number of owned, unread books on my shelves; so I guess I’m glad that at least I’m not ending the month in a worse position than I started. But better luck next time, as they say.

Have you read any of these books? What new books did you pick up this month?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Problem That Has No Name

I have reached the end of my first wave of Penguin Moderns. I bought 6 right away when the collection was released, and I’ve just finished reading the sixth: Betty Friedan’s The Problem That Has No Name. I’ve already ordered 6 more that should be arriving any day now, but I think I’ll either try to read them more sparingly or start reviewing them in my monthly wrap-ups so my regular posts aren’t inundated with all these short modern classic reviews. Unless you like these? Here’s one more to help the decision process in the meantime.

theproblemthathasnonameAbout the book: Betty Friedan was a publishing feminist in the 1950’s/60’s who captures the discontent of the American housewife in that period. Even before there is a name or a clear way to describe the problem that women were experiencing with losing their identities in marriage, the stirrings could be seen in statistics, hospitalizations, statements of complaint, and more. Friedan pulls sources together to make a case for the harm being done to women across the nation as society tells them over and over in every way that their place is in the household, as a wife and mother and nothing more. In two essays, “The Problem That Has No Name” and “The Passionate Journey,” Friedan outlines the first wave of feminism that culminated in women’s right to vote in 1920, and the second wave around 1960 when women begin to rise together again to win destinies as more than subservient childbearers.

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip-cover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to even ask herself the silent question: ‘Is this all?’ “

“Just what was this problem that has no name? What were the words women used when they tried to express it? Sometimes a woman would say, ‘I feel empty somehow… incomplete.’ Or she would say, ‘I feel as if I don’t exist.’ “

This is a nonfiction book with a lot of statistics, dates, names, etc. It’s an outline of where we’re coming from in regards to gender inequality in the US, and Friedan lets the facts do the work in persuading readers to join the cause.

“The wonder is that the feminists were able to change anything at all– that they were not embittered shrews but increasingly zestful women who knew they were making history.”

Although the information in this volume is a bit outdated– we no longer see a nation full of women stuck under the title “homemaker”– this is a great start for anyone interested in the history of feminism. And it’s shocking how very recent some of that history still is. Friedan writes about a time when women had legal rights, but were still expected to fit a certain mold that society formed for them. They were allowed to work and go to college, but society frowned upon the women who did and so those rights went unused in many cases. Women were pressured from every side to live a certain lifestyle, and they gave up so much of themselves to fit into the box the world wanted to put them in.

“The problem was dismissed by telling the housewife she doesn’t realize how lucky she is– her own boss, no time clock, no junior executive gunning for her job. What if she isn’t happy– does she think men are happy in this world? Does she really, secretly, still want to be a man? Doesn’t she know yet how lucky she is to be a woman?”

Women have made strides. We’ve come a long way toward equal treatment despite gender, but there are still issues to fight for. The issues covered in “The Problem That Has No Name” were new in their time, but they are largely battles that have been fought and won by now. In the pressure to be a perfect wife, a perfect mother, to work in the home and keep up appearances, women of Friedan’s time lost their personalities, their very humanness.

“It was the need for a new identity that led those passionate feminists to forge new trails for women. Some of those trails were unexpectedly rough, some were dead ends, and some may have been false, but the need for women to find new trails was real.”

Friedan writes for the generations of the future– for this generation, and generations to come. Though she discusses social issues of her own time, she writes with an eye toward documenting. She doesn’t want women to fall into another lull like the one in the twentieth century that led to millions of passive housewives with no real agency. She is remembering and reminding that each life is unique, and the fight for equality is not complete until every right is won.

“The women who suffer this problem have a hunger that food cannot fill.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I’m increasingly interested in feminism and this volume provided both new information for me and renewed my standing passion for the issue. For those that aren’t sure how they feel about feminism yet, this might be one of the books with the power to help you decide, as its very informative and briefly covers nearly 200 years of feminism. I don’t know that I will be reading more of Friedan’s work (I feel like I’ve gotten the gist from this volume), but I will be reading more feminists, and I will be reading more Penguin Moderns. I just might not be reviewing them the same way.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Piers of the Homeless Night

I thought I might want to read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, so when I saw a sample of Kerouac’s writing in the new Penguin Modern collection I added it to the list of those that I wanted to read. And I’m glad I did, because I have completely changed my mind about wanting to read On the Road.

piersofthehomelessnightAbout the book: This volume contains two journal entries that appeared in a book about Kerouac’s travels across America in 1960. The first piece, “Piers of the Homeless Night,” features a story about a specific encounter with a friend in one American town. Next comes “The Vanishing American Hobo,” which focuses on a single idea compiled from observations across many days of travel in many places. This second piece mourns the approaching end of hobo life in America.

“I myself was a hobo but only of sorts, as you see, because I knew someday my literary efforts would be rewarded by social protection…”

I haven’t read much stream-of-consciousness writing, and I’ve certainly read worse– but I simply could not get into Kerouac’s writing at all. The sentences are long and the punctuation sometimes falls in odd places (or not enough places), and though the pieces are coherent as a whole the path through them is slow and convoluted. I think I was following his points for the most part, but the whole book felt like one long ramble that I had to work to extract any meaning from. I’m not saying that this is a bad book and that there won’t be an audience who appreciates it, but that audience is clearly not me. Here’s a sample sentence, one that I actually enjoyed more than most of the others:

“See my hand up-tipped, learn the secret of my human heart, give me the thing, give me your hand, take me to the emerald mountains beyond the city, take me to the safe place, be kind, be nice, smile– I’m too tired now of everything else, I’ve had enough, I give up, I quit, I want to go home, take me home O brother in the night– take me home, lock me in safe, take me to where all is peace and amity, to the family of life, my mother, my father, my sister, my wife and you my brother and you my friend– but no hope, no hope, no hope, I wake up and I’d give a million dollars to be in my own bed…”

The first entry, “Piers of the Homeless Night,” seems at first the most focused of the two. It describes one particular event from start to finish with a small cast of supporting characters. The personalities of the main characters shine through wonderfully and the encounter is entertaining, but I just could not connect to this one. The stakes should feel high, but I was not compelled. But again, I think this was a problem I had more with the style of writing than the content. There were a few sentences I really did like, but they were needles in the Kerouac haystack, and they were generally the shorter, more traditional sentences, if anything in this volume can be called such.

“Deni meanwhile is very busy tellin me what a mess I’ve made of my life but I’ve heard that from everybody coast to coast and I don’t care generally and I don’t care tonight and this is my way of doing and saying things.”

The second story in this book was my favorite of the two. I didn’t get much other than mild amusement out of the first story but this second one made me think about America, about the dying way of life that involves sleeping under the stars. I could see both sides of the argument– of course people don’t trust those wanderers who prefer (or have no other choice than) to claim the wild world as their home; but on the other hand, traveling through the various terrains of the earth with all of one’s earthly possessions on your back and eschewing civilization sounds like its own kind of dream.

“In America camping is considered a healthy sport for Boy Scouts but a crime for mature men who have made it their vocation.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I did find some good thoughts in here, but even so I spent the entire time wishing for the end. I’m glad these volumes are so short, because I wanted to give Kerouac a fair chance and I think if I had tried any longer piece of his work I wouldn’t have made it through. The Penguin Moderns have been pretty hit-or-miss for me, but they’re so easy to devour in an hour or so that even after a couple I haven’t liked as much I’m still pretty excited about them in general.

Who are your favorite modern classic authors? Are there any you just can’t get into?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Red Rising Sons of Ares

It’s a long wait between Iron Gold and the release of Pierce Brown’s new novel, Dark Age, in September. But this graphic novel prequel to the series (entitled Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Sons of Ares) just released this month, and I thought it would be a great way to see a little something new from the Red Rising series before going back through a reread of the earlier novels in preparation for Dark Age.

sonsofaresAbout the book: Fitchner au Barca was born a weak link in the Gold chain, and the Golds have been trying to snuff him out since his infancy. But Fitchner survives, and always living at the bottom of the Gold pack teaches him to run, to fight, and to win. He learns to love the other dregs of society, and to see the injustice of a system that gives more power to the strong and takes advantage of the lesser echelons. He breaks the law to take a wife of another Color, and understands better all the time the corruption of a system that will not admit that she has value. Fitchner learns from his treatment at Gold hands how the lowColors live, and every moment brings him closer to a desire to break with the Golds and force a change in their corrupt system.

This is a graphic novel containing the six issues of Sons of Ares. The story goes back and forth between Fitchner au Barca’s backstory and the present heist he’s leading at the book’s opening.

I’m glad I waited to read all six volumes in the one book. I felt a little left out last year when the issues started releasing individually and I wasn’t reading them, but I think I would’ve gotten confused and needed plenty of rereads to stay on top of the story line if I hadn’t read them all together like this.

The action moves pretty quickly from one event to the next, leaving the reader to infer a bit about how the characters are getting from one place to the next and how the plot points lead into each other. It’s a little harder to juggle in the beginning before the characters are known, but once the reader gets the hang of the back-and-forth between Fitchner’s past and present and learns the members of his heist team, everything becomes clearer.

I haven’t read a lot of comics/graphic novels/visual stories, and I have no expertise at all with critiquing drawings. But I can say I enjoyed my evening with this book. The characters were identifiable enough that I could tell who was who, though they seemed generally kind of smudgy and unclear, which I also liked because I like relying on my own visuals in my head until I’m through all the novels.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I was getting much new information from this book. A lot of Fitchner’s backstory is explained in the series proper, so this book felt like a filling-out of the frame the series already laid in place. Brown notes in his introduction:

“In telling Darrow’s story it became more and more apparent that I would be doing a disservice to the overall tale if I didn’t trace it back to its roots.”

But enough of the roots are already there, in my opinion. Sons of Ares did not seem like a necessary chapter to the overall tale, after the information we’ve already been given. A lot of the big ideas about the wrongness of the Society and the dangers of their power hierarchy are repeat lessons from the novels, as well. And there’s one of my biggest pet peeves: a repeat of content from early in the book presented all over again later. (That was the one thing I would’ve changed about this book; a single panel– or maybe two– would have been enough to get the point across that the story had come full circle.)

perasperaadastraStill, it’s fantastic seeing some of the details of the series in a visual form and die-hard fans will find a lot to enjoy in this volume. If you’re still on the fence about this series, you probably don’t need to pick this one up, but if you’re like me,  desperate for another dose of the Red Rising world in the wait between novels… this may be just the pick-me-up you need.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had a great time with this book, even though didn’t excite me as much as the actual novels tend to do. I loved having another mode in which to enjoy this series– the visuals brought new life to some of the awesome details of this world, without being too prominent to override my own mental visuals. I’ll definitely read this again sometime, and it definitely made me more excited to start my reread of the Red Rising books soon! I just cannot get enough of this world.

What do you think about the Red Rising series? Are you interested in picking up the graphic novel prequel?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Rebecca

Reading Jane Eyre at about this time last year brought my interest in Gothic literature back to the surface. I bought a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a classic Gothic tale from the 1930’s, but sadly I kept putting it off. This year I made sure to add Rebecca toward the top of my classics list for 2018 because I knew I would love it, and sure enough…

rebeccaAbout the book: Our unnamed narrator is living a bland but tolerable life as the paid companion of a snobby woman vacationing in Monte Carlo. Everything changes when the two women meet the infamous Mr. de Winter at their hotel just before the narrator’s employer falls ill. As she convalesces, the narrator forms a friendship with the odd but endearing Mr. de Winter; though he does not mention love, he does offer marriage when the sudden end of the vacation threatens to separate him from the young woman he’s been entertaining. Without knowing much about Mr. de Winter beyond popular rumor and the memory of a pretty postcard of his estate (called Manderley), the narrator agrees to the match and leaves Monte Carlo abruptly to become the new Mrs. de Winter. She learns quickly upon arriving at Manderley that there’s an intense but secretive history surrounding the fate of the first Mrs. de Winter, and the end of that marriage might also mean the doom of her own.

“Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind. Of course we have our moments of depression; but there are other moments too, when time, unmeasured by the clock, runs on into eternity and, catching his smile, I know we are together, we march in unison, no clash of thought or of opinion makes a barrier between us.”

There is some romance in this book, but I would not call Rebecca a romance novel. Despite its ties to Jane Eyre, I would not classify Rebecca in the same category as Bronte’s classic. Ultimately, I would say it’s a tragedy. It’s psychological and character-driven, mysterious and macabre. There are underlying messages about female power, especially in a marriage (particularly in a marriage of the 1930’s. Things have changed a bit, though I think the lessons still apply). Rebecca is a lot of things, but foremost it’s a masterpiece.

My favorite aspect of Rebecca is the way the late and present Mrs. de Winters are reflected against each other. On the surface, Rebecca and our narrator are opposite in every way, though under their differences there is an unmistakable similarity between them. Even as the narrator ruminates over her predecessor’s personality, noting all the things that were perfect about Rebecca that are not about the new Mrs. de Winter, she’s emulating Rebecca. She’s becoming her, in some ways. The two are at once so far apart, and yet they present like different sides of the same person.

“She’s the real Mrs. de Winter, not you. It’s you that’s the shadow and the ghost. It’s you that’s forgotten and not wanted and pushed aside.”

The characterization/perspective is wonderful. Mrs. de Winter is so full of daydreams and assumptions that the reader has a clear sense of Manderley and all of its characters, while remembering that these are only Mrs. de Winter’s ideas of them, rather than facts. These pictures she spins of the various characters and locations are as much a reflection of our narrator as of the characters themselves, which leaves plenty of room for surprise as secrets are revealed throughout the course of the book.

But perhaps the most interesting detail is that Mr. and Mrs. de Winter are presented as the “heroes” of the book, though we know from the very first chapter that neither of them are winners in this tale. The irony of Rebecca is that there is no escaping the horrors of the past without losing the potential of a pleasant future. The events of Mr. and Mrs. de Winter’s star-crossed marriage have been in motion since Mr. de Winter first married Rebecca, and there is little any of them can do to come out ahead. The marriage they salvage is a farce at best, an empty display. That future is laid out in the first chapters of the novel, before the narrator goes back to explain how the de Winters fell into that fate. It’s pieced together beautifully, and in the end it reads more as a commentary on marriage and female agency than love.

“As I sipped my cold tea I thought with a tired biter feeling of despair that I would be content to live in one corner of Manderley and Maxim in the other so long as the outside world should never know. If he had no more tenderness for me, never kissed me again, did not speak to me except on matters of necessity, I believed I could bear it if I were certain that nobody knew of this but our two selves. If we could bribe servants not to tell, play our part before relations, before Beatrice, and then when we were alone sit apart in our separate rooms, leading our separate lives.”

The edition that I read also includes an afterword by Sally Beauman, who wrote a sequel to Rebecca in 2000 (I think). I don’t think I’m interested in reading a sequel by anyone other than du Maurier at this point, but I did enjoy Beauman’s afterword. I agreed with a lot of her points, and even when I didn’t they were certainly thought-provoking and engaged the text in an interesting way. I would recommend reading that afterword if you like Rebecca.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book, from chapter 2 onward. I wasn’t sold on chapter one (I don’t like plot-less descriptions of scenery, no matter how beautiful, or conveniently true-to-life dreams; both of these techniques appear in chapter 1), but in the end I saw that it had its place in the narrative and I appreciated the whole book. It all fits together so perfectly. I’m planning to pick up Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel sometime in the not-too-distant future because I think it will deliver more of the elements I loved from Rebecca.

Further recommendations:

  • Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is worth the read for fans of Gothic literature. Though there is a heavier romantic plot line, the book also focuses on a doomed marriage and its secret aftermath, which unravel in a psychological and creepy sort of way.
  • If you read Gothic books for the atmosphere and horror, try Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, in which a spooky old mansion slowly drives the narrator down an irreversible path toward tragedy.
  • And if the psychology and the superbly written structure of Rebecca is what you’re interested in, try Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a close look at the life of a woman who is increasingly disturbed even as she her life seems to be steadily improving from outward appearances.

Do you have a favorite Gothic novel? This is exactly my brand of creepy literature, so I’m open to all suggestions!


The Literary Elephant

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