Book Haul 5.18

I am shocked to say that for the second time in 5 months I have achieved my goal of acquiring 3 books (or less) per month. I was actually on the fence about whether or not I would make it this month because I ordered a few extra books toward the end, but according to my shipping info I won’t have to worry about hauling them until June– which means May has been a phenomenal success. It’s probably been about two years since I’ve hauled less than three books in a month, which is why my TBR shelves are a catastrophic mess. But this month, I’m back on track.

Here’s what’s new on my shelves in May:

  1. Still Lives by Maria Hummel. Book of the Month Club has some phenomenal selections sometimes, so it’s always a struggle for me to just pick one every month without worrying that I’m judging wrong and missing a great read, but I’ve been doing pretty well this year about sticking to one per month and it feels great to be able to finish reading my book within the month, and check out more books later on if the reviews look tempting. For May I chose Still Lives, an art-filled mystery novel about a missing woman who painted herself as dead women. I was attracted to the possibility of a feminist slant in this one, but unfortunately didn’t find much to excite me on that account. I am, however, pleased with myself for reading this book within the month, and I didn’t have a bad time reading it. You can click the title to see my full review.
  2. The Outsider by Stephen King. This is a brand new King release this month, so of course I pre-ordered it. (The fact that there may come a time in my life when Stephen King is no longer publishing new novels is one of my greatest sorrows.) I have heard that The Outsider is more of a crime novel than his usual brand of horror, which seems a little less exciting to me, but I am still looking forward to picking this one up anyway. If the cover is anything to judge by, it should be still be a creepily wonderful book, and I don’t want to know any more about the plot before I start.

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That’s it. That’s all I brought in new this month. I’m almost positive I’ll go over my 3-book goal in June because I was expecting one more of my orders to arrive within May, but for now I’m really happy with this list. New books are awesome, but I definitely feel better when I can actually keep up with them. I did manage to read more unread books than I acquired this month, so yay!

What was your favorite May release? Anything you’re excited about coming up in June?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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TBR 5.29.18

This year I’ve been assigning myself 5-book TBRs as I need them, to help me stay organized without the anxiety of a deadline at the end of each month. I haven’t been going through these TBRs as fast as I envisioned, because I’m still reading borrowed books and subscription box books outside of these lists, but they do help me keep some of my own unread books from falling through the cracks.

I’m just finishing up the last book  (Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood) from my previous TBR, which means it’s time to plan my next 5-book set. Here are my next priorities:

  1. Circe by Madeline Miller. I bought the UK edition of this book in April (with some serious cover lust), and I’ve heard such interesting things about it that it’s time to pick it up. I went through a long Greek and Roman mythology phase in school, but I haven’t been keeping in touch with those characters very well since I graduated. And Circe is not a character that I’ve ever paid a lot of attention to specifically, so I’m eager to see Miller’s take on her and the way that Circe will connect with names I’m more familiar with.
  2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m falling behind on my 12 classics to read in 2018, and I’m sad about it. I love classics, in the same way that I love jogging: it’s hard to convince myself to get started, but once I start I’m fine, and I’m always happier for finishing. Last summer I read and enjoyed Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but I think this novel will be more my type. I know only the barest details about The Strange Case but I’m anticipating creepy and psychological aspects, which I really like.
  3. A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin is a book I started in 2017 and haven’t gotten around to finishing yet. I started reading it just before taking on a huge amount of work hours last fall and just didn’t have the attention to spare for a book of this size (over 1k pages) at the time. But I was really enjoying it and I am planning to finish reading the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series (Game of Thrones!) this year (this is the 3rd book of 5 published) so it’s time to get back to it. I’m going to try to pick up where I left off (I’m only about 1/4 of the way through), but if I find that it’s hard to remember what was happening I will start over.
  4. The Oracle Year by Charles Soule. This is a recent Book of the Month Club book (an April selection) that I haven’t gotten around to yet. I ordered the maximum number of books in April to treat myself for my birthday, but the box arrived late and life got in the way. Regardless, I’m still looking forward to this sci-fi novel that deals with prophecy, and I need to make a dent in my BOTM backlog ASAP.
  5. Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Here is the sequel to Illuminae, which I read last month. I kind of wanted to just dive right in and binge the series, but it didn’t happen. This is another sci-fi book, though it’s YA and it’s narrated entirely through short, varied data files. The unusual narration is what originally drew me to this series, and honestly if I had known about the zombie disease and the wonky AI system, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up– but the first book worked for me, and I have high hopes for the second.

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And that’s my stack, which mainly what I’ll be reading in the near future. As usual, I have some other books I’ll also be reading in the meantime– I’ve got 2 books checked out from the library right now, and 3 more borrowed from friends and fam. Plus there will be new BOTM selections coming up in a couple of days. But an enormous TBR is par for the course, right? What kind of book lover doesn’t occasionally worry about being buried alive under their growing TBR piles? (If your TBR list is manageable, please share your magic!)

Anyone else feel like monthly TBRs just get you down? What do you do instead? (And what are you reading next, btw?)

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Notes on Nationalism

I cannot get over my addiction to the 2018 Penguin Modern series. I love these little snapshots of significant modern classic writers. I might try to read all of them eventually, but for now here’s one more: I just finished reading George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism.

notesonnationalismAbout the book: This is a nonfiction collection of three essays originally published in 1945 that relate to Orwell’s conception of nationalism. The first is the titular piece, “Notes on Nationalism.” It defines nationalism (which is not  synonymous with patriotism, as one might erroneously assume), divides it into three categories and lists types within those categories, before concluding with the purpose of addressing the problem of nationalism. The second piece, “Antisemitism in Britain,” examines one particular type of nationalism. The third essay, “The Sporting Spirit,” ties international sports games to the problem of nationalism. All three works are also colored by the effects and aftereffects of WWII, particularly with the role nationalism played in the conflict and the conflicts Orwell predicted it would continue to create.

“One prod to the nerve of nationalism, and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered, and the plainest facts can be denied.”

First, let me say that while I’ve had a lot of difficulty appreciating WWII historical fiction in recent years, I do find nonfiction from/about that time period especially impactful. One of the things I liked most about reading Notes on Nationalism was being able to see the general opinions and atmosphere that prevailed just after the war. There’s been so much focus on the war itself (at least in my own education) that I found this particular take on human psychology around that time, focusing on the cause and effects at the level of the psyche rather than the events of the war, quite a fresh approach.

The fact that it does seem so psychological, though, did make me more wary as well. Through much of the first essay I wondered how Orwell could make the sort of generalizations he does, presenting as fact what seems unprovable about the human mind– at least, outside of one’s own mind. Later in the essay, Orwell does acknowledge that he’s been writing about extremes, and emphasizes that the point of his essay is for people to understand and believe what is possible, rather than to assert that all humans experience the full extent of the nationalist causes Orwell has described. I was more willing to listen to his arguments after that, and I wish the essay had been structured in a different way so that I had been able to read more open-mindedly from the beginning, without spending the majority of the piece thinking, “but how do you know?”

“There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified – still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.”

The second piece, “Antisemitism in Britain,” is more or less an expansion one specific point introduced in the first essay, but it is also is the piece that helped me understand better where one can see nationalism still alive today. Though I believe there are some new categories (or at least categories that went unexplored in Orwell’s original essay) more apparent in recent decades, looking so closely at antisemitism (discrimination against Jews) helped me see other extreme prejudices against “nations” that have taken on a political nature in recent years.

“The point is that something, some psychological vitamin, is lacking in modern civilization, and as a result we are all more or less subject to this lunacy of believing that whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil. I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.”

“The Sporting Spirit” is my favorite from this collection. It’s so short, but I appreciated the juxtaposition of a popular event with the sort of post-war mob mentality examination that Orwell applies. And of course, international sports games and competitions are still ongoing today, though disagreements between countries are not currently at world war levels– something to be thankful about, in the midst of the prejudices Notes on Nationalism brings to light. I enjoyed the severe slant Orwell layers over something that is traditionally accepted as fun.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not a big political reader, of historic or current events; I like to know the basics of what’s going on at the moment, but I’ve got a bad memory for anything I learn beyond that. Even though Notes on Nationalism does go into specifics (and particularly into historical specifics by this point), it does contain the sort of general overlook that makes it applicable to other time periods. Those are the politics I like to read about: the timeless motives that move generations of people to their own specific actions. It’s a (dark) glimpse into humanity. I liked it a lot. I plan to read more of Orwell’s work in the future– so far all I’ve read is 1984.

Do you have any favorite modern classic writers?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Still Lives

From Book of the Month Club’s selections for May, I chose Maria Hummel’s Still Lives, an upcoming artsy mystery release that hits shelves June 5th. I particularly like that BOTM sometimes offers final copies of books before their release dates.

stilllivesAbout the book: Maggie Richter has a decent job as copyeditor at the Rocque Museum. Less decent is the amount of work she’s had to put into the upcoming exhibition of paintings for her ex’s new girlfriend, Kim Lord. Worse, on the night of the show, Maggie gets roped into staying for the event, where she will surely have to see her ex with the rising artist. Except Kim Lord doesn’t arrive. She may just be late, or pulling a stunt for her show (which is full of paintings of Kim posing as famous murdered women), but as days pass, her fate looks more and more gruesome. As visitors flock to the museum to check out the missing woman’s gory art, Maggie falls deeper and deeper into the mystery– especially when it begins to look like someone’s got their eye on Maggie.

“Over a century later, immense, overcrowded, and corrupted, that’s still the Los Angeles that people fall in love with, the Los Angeles that drew Greg and me, and Kim and her paintings, and even […]. It’s also the city where monstrous appetites meet private hopes, again and again, and devour them. Where ambition is savaged and changed to devastation, where a brilliant artist can […] while her party goes on, cups are raised, and bright beats begin to play.”

I had some mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it’s addictive and completely readable. I was constantly wondering what had happened to Kim Lord, and how Maggie and her secret investigation would tie in to Lord’s disappearance. I appreciated that Maggie is not a policewoman or journalist, or at the center of the official investigation. The L.A. setting came alive for me in a way that L.A. usually doesn’t, and the commentary ran deeper and in different directions than I usually see underlining this sort of missing female case. Furthermore, I must admit that though art intrigues me, I don’t know much about it; the way art– and particularly modern art– was addressed in this book was easy and entertaining to follow, and the narration didn’t get too caught up in trying to describe the visuals, but spoke instead of their significance and their place in the art world, which I found more engaging than an attempt to explain the colors and shapes that are better seen than imagined. The writing is full of evocative metaphor and specific character details that keep the narration fresh, and the subject is compellingly macabre.

On the other hand, I did experience some moments of doubt and confusion. There are so many names thrown into the first part of the book that I didn’t feel like I had time to connect with any of characters enough to tell them apart. I kept confusing Jayme and Janis with each other, I think there were two different men named Bas, and Greg Shaw Ferguson was sometimes referred to as Greg and sometimes as Shaw. Kevin and Ray seemed to have basically the same purpose in the story– to keep Maggie interested in sleuthing for clues when she shouldn’t. Kevin’s supposed attraction to Maggie makes no sense given her behavior and dialogue around him, and Ray has absolutely no reason to share information with Maggie or ask for information from her; they’re just fast friends that push Maggie through the story when she needs it. Then there’s the fact that Maggie is friendly with every person at the museum, and no matter what else is going on she’s quick to agree to all kinds of outings with them that don’t relate to the mystery in more than abstract ways. Maggie’s feelings for her ex change abruptly and with no apparent reason. Clues that lead to the first arrest in the case are never explained. In Maggie’s greatest moment of danger, she avoids and lies to people who would probably have helped her if she admitted what had happened already.

None of those are plot holes, exactly, but I did believe Still Lives could have benefited from answering more of the questions it poses.

And speaking of plots: this one wanders. Maggie makes assumptions and follows leads that go nowhere. Or go somewhere that doesn’t lead to Kim, at least. Still Lives is not the sort of book in which the reader can take note of all the clues at the beginning with any chance of figuring out the answer to the puzzle at the end. The reader learns the truth along with Maggie, and Maggie doesn’t take the straightest route through her discoveries. Delving into the lives of the main characters is as important in Still Lives as delving into the whodunit and why. But other than occasionally wondering ‘why are we going down this road?’ the insight into character is an aspect that I considered an asset to this book. But it can be important to know going in whether to expect a twisty high-stakes thriller with the evidence laid bare, or a more leisurely examination of motive and and means; Still Lives falls into the latter category.

My only real disappointment resulted from the fact that this book was sold to me as a feminist read. Other than a few comments on the injustice of the high percentage of females in cases of stalking, disappearances, grisly homicides, etc. there isn’t much to be found in the way of feminism. The lack of romance is a plus, but singledom does not equal feminism. I even felt that the crime’s answer, when discovered, and the final action that the culprit takes against Maggie, subverted any idea of feminism that might have been credited to the book. The motive follows a very un-feminist trope I don’t like to see in literature (or in life), and on top of that the criminal acts in the way they do without expecting their crime to solve the problem they were upset enough to commit a crime over in the first place. That sounds vague, but… spoilers are evil.

I’ll be back, I promise inside to so many people. It’s hard to see my destination, or who I’ll find there. I only know that I’m going.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was just a bland read for me. None of my complaints were big enough to inspire hatred, but none of the things I appreciated were big enough to inspire love, either. If you’re looking for escapism and an unpredictable mystery, Still Lives would be a good choice. It’s a quick and entertaining read, and I enjoyed it, but… I’m ready to move on.

Further recommendations:

  • Dan Brown’s Origin, for fans of modern art in recent literature. This is the latest Robert Langdon series novel (though it can be read as a standalone), which examines the clash of science and religion, with a focus on art and architecture. Most of the art in this book is real, though I do recommend looking up corresponding images as you move through the story to get the full experience.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Female Persuasion

2018 has been such a fantastic reading year for me (so far), even though there have been plenty of misses among the hits. Today I’m going to talk about a miss, but somehow thinking about how little I liked this book has also sparked new appreciation for my reading approach this year: trying all sorts of new things. Sometimes I find authors or subjects or series that only teach me what I DON’T want to read, but that’s valuable too. So I picked up Barnes & Noble’s first ever book club selection, Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion. It has an eye-catching cover, a feminist/finding-oneself story, and a tie to one of my favorite bookstores. But I didn’t like it.

thefemalepersuasionAbout the book: Greer is a bitter college freshman who lost out on an Ivy league education. Instead she’s at her safety school, not expecting much. On the first weekend, she checks out some parties with a soon-to-be friend, and experiences a sexual assault. The college takes as much notice of the man as it will, and Greer wonders what she could possibly do next to stand up for herself and women everywhere. Then she attends a speech given by a renowned feminist from years past, and finds her inspiration. She makes a valuable contact and learns to use her outside voice to spread her ideas to the women who need a vote of confidence as she once did. In addition to her political activism, she’s also balancing relationships with a wayward boyfriend, a queer best friend, a disappointing relationship with her parents, and a role model who’s grayer than she seemed.

I’m embarrassingly new to feminism, but even to me this book seems dated. Maybe ten years ago it would have made a bigger splash, but despite living under a rock I’ve heard this commentary before. Much of the book takes place prior to 2015, and even when the plot approaches present day, it doesn’t become more timely. Rarely have I been so bored while reading, though it wasn’t a slow read. The book seemed longer than it needed to be, but I fell easily into the writing and kept up my pace. The story itself was just too bland to make any sort of impression on me beyond the desire for something more.

“I think there are two kinds of feminists. The famous ones, and everyone else. Everyone else, all the people who just quietly go and do what they’re supposed to do, and don’t get a lot of credit for it, and don’t have someone out there every day telling them they’re doing an awesome job.”

But I will say that The Female Persuasion‘s characters are extremely well-developed. The characters are the strength of this book, though their stories didn’t always interest me enough to believe I really needed to be learning so much about them. Each character feels like a real and distinct person, and their lives intersect in interesting ways. They are not “good” or “bad” people, they’re just people, in a way that I wish more books were able to capture. The chapters utilize a third-person narration that focuses on different major characters at different points in the plot. Greer’s perspective comes up most often, but every other perspective interested me more than hers. Cory’s chapters were my favorite, perhaps because his character sees the most change, and positive views of male feminism are always intriguing. As I’m currently in my twenties myself, I also appreciated seeing these people trying to put their lives together, and watching that happen in the moments when they weren’t paying attention.

“Your twenties were a time when you still felt young, but the groundwork was being laid in a serious way, crisscrossing beneath the surface. It was being laid even while you slept. What you did, where you lived, who you loved, all of it was like pieces of track being put down in the middle of the night by stealth workers.”

Though some might say the beauty of this book is its ability to turn full circle, I was disappointed to see the story end on a new cycle of the same  process it opened with. There are differences between the characters, of course, and perhaps it is depictive of slow progress in feminism, but a new young idealist with the potential to surpass Greer the way that Greer surpasses Faith made most of Greer’s accomplishments (not to mention Faith’s) seem futile to me. Inspiring future generations is important, but inspiring them to fight the same fight that may never be won? That’s a cynical view, I know, but I ended this book feeling pretty depressed about the progress women have made and will continue to make– this book left me worried that I would not see substantial change within my lifetime, and that’s not the way I want to feel while/after reading a feminist book. That’s certainly not the only possible interpretation of The Female Persuasion‘s ending, but with Faith constantly criticized for old-time, privileged white lady views, seeing an up-and-comer have a moment of awareness during Greer’s moment of success made me think that Greer would end up the same way– renowned for a single moment and then forever shelved as old news. Everyone does what they can, but this book left me feeling like sometimes all we can do is not enough.

I so want it to be enough.

“Women in powerful positions are never safe from criticism. The kind of feminism I’ve practiced is one way to go about it. There are plenty of others, and that’s great. There are impassioned and radical young women out there, telling multiple stories. I applaud them. We need them. We need as any women fighting as possible. I learned early on from the wonderful Gloria Steinem that the world is big enough for different kinds of feminists to coexist, people who want to emphasize different aspects of the fight for equality. God knows the injustices are endless, and I am going to use whatever resources are at my disposal to fight in the way I know how.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I had seen Meg Wolitzer’s books around before Barnes and Noble announced this book club selection, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read them. Still, I do believe you have to try something once before you can say you don’t like it, so I’m glad I did pick up one of Wolitzer’s books, and now I’m confident that I don’t need to read any more of them. Her covers are often gorgeous, but that’s not enough for me. I’ll be looking elsewhere for feminist lit in the future.

Further recommendations:

  • If you do like Wolitzer’s style of character-driven feminism (which I know and understand why some readers do; I’m grateful for every reader who finds inspiration in books, even if not in the same books I find it in), you should check out Naomi Alderman’s The Power. The Power is a sci-fi/futuristic book that gives women the upper hand (literally) in world power, and explores through several diverse characters what might happen to the world as we know it if women gained dominance over men.
  • I also recently read Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which is a great example of feminist lit that’s also light enough for beach reading and features some truly phenomenal characters. This is also (perhaps primarily) an LGBTQ+ book, if you’re looking for an extra layer of equality advocacy. It’s a story about a fictional celebrity who’s willing to do whatever it takes to chase her dreams and make it easier for others to chase theirs.

What’s your current favorite feminist book?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Unforgettable Bookish Memories Tag

It’s been months since I’ve done a book tag. I wasn’t tagged for this one, but I’m in the mood for some bookish questions and this is one that’s been floating around my feed lately so I’m jumping on board.

  1. The First Book You Ever Read (or was read to you) – thecrayonboxthattalked.JPGI’m looking at The Crayon Box that Talked by Shane DeRolf for this one, which is a book I loved around the time I learned to read. I know my mom read a lot of books to me before I could read, but neither of us can remember a first book. I’m not even sure The Crayon Box that Talked was the first book I read myself, because I think I had the words memorized by the time I actually learned to read, and was just reciting it. But it is one of my earliest and fondest bookish memories.
  2. The first book you ever bought with your own money – ugliestrilogyScott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy (back when it was a trilogy). I was reading these in seventh grade when my parents suddenly decided that I wanted too many books and I would have to chip in if I wanted to keep adding to my bookshelves. Other than Christmas or birthdays, after Uglies I bought all of my books myself. I also started visiting the library a lot more frequently because I couldn’t afford all the books I wanted either.
  3. A book you stayed up all night reading – voyagerAll-nighters are usually guilty pleasure reads for me, because I worry that reading tired will make me miss things and I don’t want that to happen in a book I really love. One of my last all-nighters was also accidental: featuring Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. This is the third book in the Outlander series, which I was briefly obsessed with. I was planning to sleep  through the morning to make up for the lost night, but a family emergency involving a flat tire ruined that plan. I’m pretty sure I went out that same day to check out a copy of the next book in the series, even though I was probably yawning all the way through the library.
  4. What book or series will you never forget – harrypotterseriesThis is obvious, but I have to go with Harry Potter. I loved the series as a kid, but it’s also one of the few child-appropriate stories that’s just as fun to read as an adult, and not just for the nostalgia. So many times while reading YA (and I can’t read middle grade at all anymore) I’m left cringing at the way the stories seem dumbed-down and condescending, but Harry has lessons for all ages and Rowling is never talking down to her audience. Furthermore, it’s such a huge franchise that it’s a great connector for readers worldwide, and being a part of such a wide audience is pretty phenomenal.
  5. A book you frequently think about –  harperleeduo.JPGI’m going to go with two books here– To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, both by Harper Lee. The first was one of the few mandatory reading assignments from high school that I really loved, and it’s definitely remained a favorite over the years. But last year I read Go Set a Watchman, which upturns some of the assumptions made in To Kill a Mockingbird, and months later I’m still trying to sort out how I feel about the duo. I love the ways that they contrast each other and challenge perspective, but it’s definitely a set that’s hard on the heart.
  6. A scene that has haunted you for years after reading it – coralineNeil Gaiman’s Coraline includes a scene in which the main character gets trapped with the Other Mother, who has buttons for eyes. Weird eye details/injuries gross me out above all other physical details/injuries, and the button eyes of Coraline have stuck with me for years. Runner-up: Stephen King’s Misery, in which the protagonist is forced to eat his own thumb. These are the details that haunt me. (Great books though. Would read again.)
  7. An unforgettable character – sixofcrowsduoInej from Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology. She’s been through hell, but instead of letting it break her, every trial makes her stronger. She has an unusual and specific skill– tight-rope walking– that she turns into an admirable (though admittedly dark) career. She’s resourceful, she sets her own code to live by and sticks to it, she’s a loyal friend, and she chases her dreams. She knows when to let something go, and when to hold on. Also she’s Kaz’s best friend, which would be pretty amazing. I wouldn’t want to be either of them, but they’re inspiring to read about.
  8. A book that changed your opinion about something – gonewiththewindMargaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. This was the first classic that I read voluntarily, my freshman year of high school. It was long (over 1k pages in the mass market paperback copy I read) and I was so afraid that I was too young, that it would bore me and go over my head. But I loved it. This book started my love of classics, but perhaps more importantly, it taught me not to make assumptions about books I haven’t read, and to be more confident in my abilities.
  9. Share another bookish memory – This isn’t about a specific book, but lately I’ve been wondering if my reading rate has slowed down and I’ve been remembering this: in a high school English class, we were supposed to read so many pages per week outside of class, and then write little book reports every Tuesday and Thursday to prove we were actually reading. By the third report I realized I’d written about three different books instead of just reading the 50 pages or whatever was required, and I set a challenge for myself, to have a different book for every report. For the entire semester I read at least two books per week so that every report featured a different novel. I have no idea where I found that kind of time at that point of my life. I think  I was reading faster then, but less critically. The only book I specifically remember from those reports is The Shining.

Book nostalgia gets me every time, so these questions were right up my alley. If you’re interested in answering them, consider yourself tagged, and let me know in the comments so I can see your answers! I think it’s so incredible how people can unite over a shared love of books and still have such different memories and opinions about what they’ve read. It’s a beautiful world we live in.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

When Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was first released, I pushed it aside pretty easily. I had never read any of Reid’s books, and I wasn’t particularly interested in reading a scandalous story about a fictional celeb. I’m not even very interested in real celebrities. But every review I’ve seen for this book has been glowing, and I was intrigued. So I picked it up.

thesevenhusbandsofevelynhugoAbout the book: Evelyn Hugo was a nobody in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York, with a dead mother and an abusive father and a body that men blamed her for. She needed to get out, and she did it by latching on to her mother’s dream of becoming an actress. She married a poor man who could offer her nothing more than a ride to Hollywood, and from there her legacy began. Evelyn clawed her way up the film fame ladder through the 1960’s-80s, facing prejudices against her race, her gender, and her sexual preferences. By 2015, she’s ready to finally share her story with the world: to expose the truth of her personality and her husbands, without the lies generated by the film industry and tabloids. But the person she chooses to tell her story, a small-time magazine writer named Monique, realizes she may have an unexpected and disturbing connection to superstar Evelyn Hugo.

“You’re an idealist and a romantic, and you have a beautiful soul. And I wish the world was ready to be the way you see it. I wish that the rest of the people on earth with us were capable of living up to your expectations. But they aren’t. The world is ugly, and no one wants to give anyone the benefit of the doubt about anything.”

Let me lead off by admitting that I completely understand the hype surrounding this book. Evelyn Hugo is fascinating in her extraordinariness, but despite her growing wealth and fame, she never loses the humanity that attracts readers to her unfortunate life in her story’s opening. She’s had a rough life, and no matter how high she climbs, the reader can always see and relate to her struggles. She deals with prejudice in the industry, opinionated masses, domestic abuse, forbidden love, powerful enemies, and so much more. She doesn’t see herself as a good person, but she doesn’t regret the choices she’s made. I’ve never read a celeb story (real or fabricated) this important. It’s timely in its advocacy for equality, and it’s entertaining from cover to cover.

“But that’s a luxury. You can do that whey you’re rich and famous. You can decide that wealth and renown are worthless when you have them. Back then, I still thought I had all the time I needed to do everything I wanted. That if I just played my cards right, I could have it all.”

Unfortunately, through no fault of the text itself, the fact that The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is labeled as LGBTQ+ does give some of the plot away. I was pretty clear on which of Evelyn’s loves would drive this story, despite the seven husbands.

Perhaps more to the fault of the text, I also guessed Monique’s connection to Evelyn’s story. Evelyn specifically requests Monique for her interview in the first pages of the book, then immediately throws that interview out the window to give Monique a different kind of exclusive narrative. That, combined with some overt foreshadowing, also made a personal connection between Evelyn and Monique pretty blatant; I spent the story looking for Monique’s tie-in, which eliminated the final surprise and some of the tension for me. I read the entire book with a pretty good idea of its ending, which made this a book about the journey.

Though the journey is great, it also felt a lot like a checklist of social issues for Evelyn to overcome. Novels that challenge current social issues are so important, but I was a little off-put by the way it seemed at times like Reid was simply trying to collect them all in Evelyn’s career. Certainly I understand that one person can face multiple social challenges in their lifetime, but the way they piled up one after the next prevented me from overlooking Evelyn’s fictionality while reading this story.

But even if Evelyn remained no more than a character on a page for me, I’m so grateful that she exists in today’s world of literature. We need minority characters who carve a place for themselves in careers that have excluded them for too long. We need to remember how women have been overlooked and manipulated and victimized by the patriarchy. We need to see how people have been hurt by fast judgments against non-hetero romantic relationships. These are the novels that open minds and encourage change. And the fact that Evelyn Hugo can do all this even with a sort of anti-heroine perspective is fascinating and wonderful– so many of us see our failures more prominently than our successes, and can take a lesson from someone undeniably imperfect so much more easily than an unattainable ideal. Evelyn wields a lot of power, even if she’s not real.

“Never let anyone make you feel ordinary.”

One last thought: on structure. I love how easily The Seven Husbands switches between Monique’s present and Evelyn’s past. Their sections are not labelled, but I was never confused about which character I was following or which timeline they were narrating, which is an incredible win for Reid’s writing.

The news articles sprinkled throughout the book did succeed in pulling me into Evelyn’s world, and I liked the short breaks from the novel proper. But many of the news articles are superfluous, regurgitating information. I wish more had been done with them. One article was slanderous and less expected, but Evelyn knew just what to do to save her name. Evelyn always knows what the media will say about her, and how to spin her life into a scandal that’ll boost her fame; I was somewhat disappointed that she never guessed wrong– Evelyn says “this is what they’ll say about me,” and then an article follows saying exactly that. This formula grew boring after a while, though the articles do add to the atmosphere of Evelyn’s renown.

“I pretend that I am not furious and confused and heartbroken and torn up and disappointed and shocked and uncomfortable. I pretend that I am simply captivated by Evelyn Hugo. Because, despite everything, I still am.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a tough book to rate. I did waver for several days between 4 and 5 stars because I did particularly enjoy reading this book and I do think it’s spreading some important messages in an interesting way. But in the end I just didn’t love it quite as much as I usually love a 5 star book, perhaps because I was able to predict certain aspects of it. I will be keeping my eye out for Reid’s future works, though. I’ll be interested to see where she goes from here.

Have you read any inspiring books dealing with social issues lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant