Book Haul 9.18

The point of my 3-books-per-month-or-less goal was not to acquire exactly 36 books throughout the year, it was to avoid free-for-all book hauls like I’ve had the last three times I’ve hauled. Even the times I’ve “failed” and ended up with 4 books rather than 3 were at least structured buying months. Apparently I’ve lost sight of my goal now entirely because my book buying is getting out of hand again, and as much as I love having plenty of great choices on my shelves, all the unread books are beyond overwhelming. I don’t know why I do this to myself. I’m going to try extra hard to resist in October. And in the meantime, here are my new books for September, because apparently I just can’t stop:

  1. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker was my Book of the Month choice for September. This one was already on my TBR so I was excited to find it among the selections this month and immediately added it to my box. It’s a retelling of Homer’s The Iliad, with a focus on Briseis’s perspective. I’ve already read this book, thank goodness– I’m really trying to get my BOTM books under control this year and reading them within the month they arrive really helps.
  2. Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough. This book was also one of the BOTM selections for September, and after loving Pinborough’s last release, Behind Her Eyes, I was excited to give this one a chance so I added it extra to my box. I’ve already finished reading this book as well, though I was disappointed to discover that it was just a run-of-the-mill thriller full of characters I didn’t care for.
  3. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. Barnes and Noble had a big sale this month. There were two titles I wanted from the list, and the other one I had just ordered from Book Depository so I just picked this one up for $6 and called it good. I’ve noticed recently that I have developed a bad habit of buying YA fantasy novels that I think I want to read and then I don’t read them, so I’m considering doing a try-a-chapter thing to encourage myself to break the trend.
  4. Human Acts by Han Kang. I read Kang’s The Vegetarian earlier this year and loved it, and have been itching to read another of her novels lately. I’ll probably also buy a copy of The Vegetarian at some point, and if I like this one as much as the first I’ll definitely be picking up more of Kang’s work. This one’s a historical fiction novel about an uprising in South Korea.
  5. The Tommyknockers by Stephen King. My buddy read friend and I are going a little Stephen King crazy this year. We’ve read It and Sleeping Beauties already this year, are currently reading Mr. Mercedes, and we’re planning to read The Tommyknockers together at the end of the year; we agreed on this particular edition so that we’d have the same page numbers. This one’s an alien sci-fi story.
  6. Gerald’s Game by Stephen King is another title I picked up in the same edition as The Tommyknockers. I found these on Book Outlet, where everything is so cheap that might as well keep piling things into your cart until you hit the free shipping amount. This one’s about a woman who agrees to be handcuffed to the bed and is then stuck there when her husband suddenly dies. I think this one’s pretty psychological so I’ve already been intrigued enough to read the first chapter and it seems weird but promising.
  7. The Regulators by Stephen King. Another of the same editions. I want to eventually read all of Stephen King’s books, so I don’t mind slowly building my collection. And some of the covers of his older books are just gross, in my opinion, so I decided to pick up the ones I liked while they were available. (Although if the Hodder editions would ever re-release, that would be the dream.) I don’t know much about this one, but I think it’s got a Western vibe?
  8. Insomnia by Stephen King. This one was a disappointment. I ordered this title in the same edition as the other three, but received the wrong edition when my order arrived. I’ve never had this problem with Book Outlet before, so that was a bummer. I’m going to hold on to this copy for now, but I might try again later to get the edition I wanted because I know someone who would take this one off my hands if I ended up with two. This one’s about a man who sleeps increasingly less, and in his night walks discovers some bad/creepy things going on in his town.
  9. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. After choosing the Stephen King books I wanted, I had a little room left in my cart before I got to free shipping (this is my problem with Book Outlet: I go in for one thing I want, and end up buying seven things to avoid paying shipping) so I was just looking for anything that caught my eye at this point. I’ve read excerpts and short works of Wilde’s in the past for school, but I want to read a full novel. I believe this one’s about a man with a sort of secret double life.
  10. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I’ve been meaning to read this past Pulitzer Prize winner for years and just not gotten around to it. How could I pass it up for $3? All I remember from when I added this to my Goodreads TBR is that it’s a book about identity.
  11. Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll. I read Speak as a kid and was shocked and impressed with it at the time. I was thinking about rereading it around the same time this graphic novel was released, and decided I wanted to go that route. But it was always too expensive, and my library never got a copy. So when I saw it on Book Outlet for less than half price, I grabbed it.
  12. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. I picked this up for a couple of dollars, on a whim. I’ve read a couple of Carver’s stories and enjoyed them, and I’ve been wanting to get back into short stories lately.
  13. The Water Cure by Sophia Mackintosh. I’m basically in love with the Man Booker longlist this year and I’m treating myself to my own copies of about half the list. I don’t expect this is something that’ll happen regularly, so  I’m just kind of going with it, especially since so few of the titles were available through my library due to late US publication dates. I read this one obsessively as soon as it arrived– it’s a sort of dystopia about 3 daughters who’ve grown up on an island, taught to fear the outside world and men especially.
  14. There There by Tommy Orange. I’ve had my eye on this one since before it came out, and I’ve heard nothing but raving reviews since it did. (This is the other title I wanted from the Barnes and Noble sale but had just ordered elsewhere.) Also it’s a nominee now for the National Book Award and I’m just really looking forward to reading it and loving it. All I know is that it’s a book about urban Native American identity.
  15. November Road by Lou Berney. This is the second book I’ve ever won through Goodreads giveaways, and the first ARC I’ve ever received. (I’m actually not big on ARCs, I prefer finished copies.) I’ve just finished reading this historical thriller set around the time of JFK’s assassination; I enjoyed it but didn’t love it, and will have a review up for it before its release date and more info in my wrap-up on Monday as well.
  16. Asking For It by Louise O’Neill. Becoming a Barnes and Noble member was the best and worst decision of my bookish life. I cannot resist the sales/discounts. Anyway, I read and loved this YA contemporary fiction story earlier this year and am starting to pick up copies of favorite 2018 reads that I don’t own yet. This one’s about a girl who is raped and publicly shamed, as much by the justice system and her community as by the perpetrators. It’s a hard read, but so important.
  17. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green. I pre-ordered this one a while back when it was 40% off and then basically forgot about it. My John Green love has mostly faded in the last few years (I still haven’t read Turtles All the Way Down) but I’m curious to see what I’ll think about Hank’s writing. Also, this is the latest Barnes and Noble Book Club selection, so that added to my curiosity.

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That’s it. Whew. 5 of these 17 are already read, 4 of those within the month of September. Better than none, but still not good for my physical TBR. I’m happy with what I’ve got though, and that’s what counts. Hopefully my October TBR will be a little closer to the 3-book mark, but I know of a few things that I ordered in September that just haven’t arrived yet; even if I don’t buy anything new in all of October I don’t think I’ll be able to meet the 3-book goal. (So sad that that happens before October has even begun, but such is life.) Anyway, I’m looking forward to exploring so many of these new books in the upcoming cold months!

Which titles did you add to your shelves this month? Any from this list that you’ve read and loved?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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If October lasted a year…

… I might be able to read half the books I want to read this month.

I haven’t been setting monthly TBRs this year (though I’m still on the fence and might go back to a monthly list soon), but I did want to set aside some spooky books specifically for October. Reading scary-ish books is one of the few things I like about fall, so there are some books I save to read in October– which means some of these have been on October TBRs for years because I never have time for everything! Here are the spooky books that are looking good on my shelves this year:

  1. Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King: A book of short fantasy/suspense stories.
  2. Bird Box by Josh Malerman: A horror thriller.
  3. Dracula by Bram Stoker: A vampire classic.
  4. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan: A bookish mystery/thriller (that counts toward my reading challenge).
  5. Rooms by Lauren Oliver: A haunted house story that’s been sitting on my shelf for far too long.
  6. Vicious by V. E. Schwab: An adult sci-fi with a brand new sequel.
  7. The Woman in the Window by A J Finn: A popular 2018 thriller I’m borrowing.
  8. Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo: A companion Grishaverse book of short stories/fairytales.
  9. Pines by Blake Crouch: A horror thriller with a TV series I also want to watch.
  10. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: A haunted house/horror novel, recommended by Stephen King.
  11. These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly: A YA historical fiction thriller? I don’t remember much about this one but it looks creepy and it’s been on my shelf too long.
  12. Great Tales of Horror by H. P. Lovecraft: A classic collection of short horror stories.
  13. Deathnote : Black Edition Vol. 1 by Tsugumi Ohba, Yuki Kowalsky, Takeshi Obata: A fantasy manga/graphic novel.
  14. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: A popular fantasy novel about a magical carnival.
  15. Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake: A YA fantasy that I think was just recently completed.
  16. Agatha Christie: Classic mysteries. I have several choices on my shelf that I don’t know much about, I’ll choose on a whim if I get this far.

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This is not nearly the entire list of horror/thriller/mystery/fantasy reading material on my shelves. It’s just what I’m leaning toward this year.

But the problem with even this abbreviated spooky list is that I’ve got too many other things on my plate this year. I’ll have these books from the library:

  1. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Historical fiction on the Man Booker shortlist.
  2. The Overstory by Richard Powers: Environmental fiction on the Man Booker shortlist.
  3. Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini: A short illustrated prayer/poem regarding refugees.
  4. Sadie by Courtney Summers: A recent YA mystery release.
  5. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso: A graphic novel on the Man Booker longlist.
  6. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris: A classic horror novel from the Hannibal Lector series.
  7. (And possibly) The Bachman Books by Stephen King: A collection of four short novels originally published under King’s pseudonym.

And I also have these books coming to me in the mail:

  1. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green: A new YA contemporary novel, also Barnes and Noble’s current B&N Book Club selection.
  2. Milkman by Anna Burns: Literary fiction on the Man Booker shortlist.
  3. Normal People by Sally Rooney: Literary fiction on the Man Booker longlist.
  4. The Long Take by Robin Robertson: Poetry on the Man Booker shortlist.
  5. The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson: A horror/thriller novel.
  6. My October selection from Book of the Month Club: No idea what this will be yet, but I’ve never skipped yet even when I’m not thrilled with the choices so I’ll probably choose one.

And I’m trying to wrap up my current 5-book TBR by reading these books:

  1. Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff: The second book in a YA sci-fi trilogy with an unusual format.
  2. A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin: The third book (that I’ve already started) in the Song of Ice and Fire series.
  3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: A horror classic.
  4. (and a related bonus) The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss: A 2018 fantasy/mystery retelling of Stevenson’s classic.

Plus I’ve borrowed the entire Emigrants series that I want to return by the end of the year, with 3 books left to read in the next 3 months. They’re a little slow going for me, so I would like to keep going with those rather than leave them all till December.

So clearly I have a problem. I’m having a great reading month in September with 12 books already completed, but that’s not a usual occurrence for me, and I’m about to be super busy through probably all of October and part of November. I should still have reading time, but less. And much less internet time, so if I’m light on reviews and other posts coming up, I apologize in advance but I should be able to catch back up in November. I’ll basically only be home to shower and sleep in October. So this post is full of the books I might pick up soon, though I already know I won’t get to most of them. I do have some priorities that are probably too convoluted to explain (depending on which things arrive when and how long things are taking me), but really I have no idea what I’m going to be able to check off this list by the end of the month.

So if there’s anything on this list that you highly recommend, let me know to help me prioritize my October TBR!

What spooky reads are you looking forward to picking up this Halloween season?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Water Cure

Sophia Mackintosh’s The Water Cure is Man Booker title #6 for me, and this is why I’m reading all thirteen nominees this year: because this one didn’t make the shortlist but I absolutely loved it.

thewatercureAbout the book: Three daughters grew up on a sheltered island with only their parents and supposed “damaged women” for company. They’ve been told that the world outside their borders is full of toxins and contaminants that will harm and eventually kill them, and men are the most toxic of all– excepting their father, of course. In their little safe space, the daughters (and the women who come to them for healing) undergo daily exercises and therapies to combat the dangers of the world, including the emotions inside themselves. Young adults now, they have known no other life, but are thrust into the unknown as their family begins to break apart and men from the outside appear on their beach, seeking hospitality.

“Strong feelings weaken you, open up your body like a wound. It takes vigilance and regular therapies to hold them at bay. Over the years we have learned how to dampen them down, how to practice and release emotion under strict conditions only, how to own our pain. I can cough it into muslin, trap it as bubbles under the water, let it from my very blood.”

I did have a few hang-ups with this book, but I was willing to overlook almost anything for the delightfully unsettling atmosphere. Complimentary elements include: otherworldy setting details, questionable narrators, mysterious circumstances, and complex interpersonal dynamics. This place is vivid.

The world outside the girls’ boundaries is less clear; it’s hard to be sure whether this is taking place in present-day, or in a dystopian future, or some other fantastical world. But I was so immersed in the girls’ lives that the unanswered questions didn’t bother me, especially because the girls themselves don’t seem to know anything factual about the outside world either.

“Every time I think I am very lonely, it becomes bleaker and more true. You can think things into being. You can dwell them up from the ground.”

Other small issues include lagged pacing in the middle while everyone in the story is basically waiting for the other shoe to drop, as well as a few surprises in the girls’ knowledge and mannerisms that don’t quite match their sheltered upbringing, and a couple of plot developments that felt a bit rushed/contrived. Any one of these could have been major issues in another book, but Mackintosh’s writing and control of her characters is so smooth and capable that the story moves quickly onward before it snags and sinks. The Water Cure is short, sharp, and to-the-point.

One of the biggest upsides, on the other hand, is the characters. Mackintosh has created this beautiful array of men and women that are not flatly likable or unlikable, but draw the reader in completely. Despite a little initial confusion while figuring out which sister was which, it quickly becomes apparent that each character is unique and built from the specific circumstances that have shaped their lives. And the best part is that it is clear that they know more than they are letting on, that they speak about healing and openness and purity but that they also contain hidden depths, their own dark secrets and an awareness of the obvious cruelty in their “therapies” that they won’t admit out loud.

Which is another plus– the cures and treatments and exercises are presented on a surface level (by the daughters) as helpful in inoculating female emotions from attachments to the men that will inevitably hurt them, but the actual dynamic between men and women, between parents and children, teachers and students is much more intricate than is shown at that surface level. There is wonderful ambiguity here that leaves the reader free to decide whether the men are toxic, whether the daughters have been fortified or damaged by their parents’ efforts, and which acts might have been borne of the very sort of love that is so expressly forbidden.

“There is a fluidity to his movements, despite his size, that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing, and I wonder what that must be like, to know that your body is irreproachable.”

I was also fascinated by the interspersed entries from the Welcome Book that the girls peruse, entries written by the women who come to the island in search of healing and cures. Some are more specific than others, but all speak to the specific hurts of women. These sections do not further the plot, but they do add to the atmosphere and serve as a reminder that much of the girls’ knowledge of the world outside of their home has been gleaned second-hand from people seeking to escape it.

“It’s an old story and I’m so tired of telling it– the oldest story in the world and yet I can’t put it down, I can’t stop it from dragging on my body, so don’t make me tell it again. The story doesn’t end or even begin with me. You can imagine. You can tell it to yourself.”

So darkly dreamy. Brutal, and yet the reader floats through the story.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a wonderful time with this weird little book and can’t wait to see what Sophie Mackintosh writes next. Next for me on the Man Booker list is Washington Black, and from there I’m planning to focus more on the shortlist titles I haven’t read yet before rounding out the longlist.

My Man Booker reviews (listed in order of most to least favorite): Everything Under, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, Warlight, Snap. If you read and loved The Water Cure (or plan to), I also recommend picking up Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, another short, dark, magical novel; this one made the shortlist.

What’s been your favorite Man Booker read this year (from the 2018 longlist or any previous winners/nominees)? Or any others up for awards that have caught your eye?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Silence of the Girls

Booker Prize Winner Pat Barker’s new release, The Silence of the Girls, was one of my Book of the Month selections for September. It’s a somewhat-modernized retelling of Homer’s The Iliad with a heavier focus on some of the female characters– primarily Achilles’s new slave woman, Briseis.

thesilenceofthegirlsAbout the book: Briseis has married a king and done well for herself, even if her husband prefers another woman and his mother hates her for her apparent barrenness. She’s royalty. At least, she is until her city falls to Achilles. The men are killed, the goods looted, and the women taken to the encamped Greek army on the shores of Troy– Briseis among them. To the Greeks, she is no one. Maybe an important slave because of her previous royal ranking, but a slave nonetheless. She is given to Achilles as a war prize. In his huts and throughout the army compound, she becomes acquainted with the other women and the notable Greeks, just as the war is reaching its dramatic climax.

“I didn’t feel like anything that might have a name.”

The Silence of the Girls is a beautiful book that gives women a voice in a tale that’s been dominated by men for thousands of years. It gives a girl that Homer doesn’t honor with much mention a whole life, thoughts, opinions, and wishes. For that alone, I wanted to love this book, but in the end, I only liked it.

I have quite a list of pros and cons. First, this is a modernized retelling. It still takes place in ancient Greece on the same shores of the legendary city of Troy, but all of the dialogue comes from present-day Britain. This tactic makes the characters more reachable and human than those wisps of imagination, the gods. Giving them present-day mannerisms allows for updated commentary and an easier reading experience.

“It was astonishing the way really quite intelligent women seemed to believe that if they carried their eyeliner beyond the outer corner of the lid and gave it a little upward flick, they’d have Helen’s eyes.”

But the modernization didn’t work for me across the entire board. Briseis’s notice of and reaction to the unfairness of her circumstances is too modern in places to fit its story. The worst part of her slavery in The Iliad is that it is a common practice, it is the norm; though Briseis is not the only female slave whose main job is to warm some important man’s bed, she reacts to it in a way that reveals modern knowledge that such customs will be overturned, that there will be a time and place where women are closer to equals. This change made the book less of a cultural/historic learning experience and more of a modern outrage toward gender inequality, which could have been a clear enough theme through a more subtle handling of perspective.

Things do change. And if they don’t you bloody well make them.’

‘Spoken like a man.’ “

One of the biggest differences between Barker’s work and Homer’s is that The Silence of the Girls is more of a nuanced study of human character while The Iliad uses godly interference as reasoning for many outcomes. I loved the balance of gods and men in The Iliad, but to Briseis the gods are distant beings who don’t hear prayers or intervene. I missed the gods, personally, but their absence does allow for a deeper characterization. I was particularly moved by Patroclus in this version of the story, and hated Achilles with a passion I’ve never been able to summon for him before.

Which leads me to another pro/con: that Briseis’s story becomes Achilles’s almost as soon as she becomes his slave. To an extent, I liked what Barker does to control the narrative, showing the way ancient girls were silenced in greater history not just by taking their voices but every choice they could possible make:

“I’d been trying to escape not just from camp, but from Achilles’s story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story– his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.”

But that was also a frustrating element for me because it made the plot predictable. I think the fact that I had just read 3/4 of The Iliad (primarily because I wanted to read this Briseis retelling), took out any surprise I might have found in the storyline. Reading The Iliad with an eye out for Briseis’s tragedies put a lot of the ideas that The Silence of the Girls explores into my mind before I read it: the horror and brutality of being pulled from one’s home, seeing one’s family killed, and being treated as an object by your enemies were all emotions I was able to pull from the plot of The Iliad and the premise of The Silence of the Girls alone, and seeing them played out over a full 300 pages didn’t change the way those concepts affected me.

And then there were a few truly baffling moments, like this one:

“Even though it made no sense, to me or to anybody else, that the two most powerful men in the Greek army should fall out over a girl.”

(Why not? Helen started a major war. The same war, in fact, that this Greek army is fighting for.)

But despite a few dissatisfactions, I did find The Silence of the Girls to be a much pleasanter reading experience than The Iliad; it’s a quick, compelling read, and I think ultimately I would recommend it in place of The Iliad,or at least, to be read before The Iliad. It’s not so much a change from the original as a fairer presentation of the traditional story. Color picture rather than the black and white classic. I think I was simply expecting too much going in to appreciate the strong simplicity Barker weaves, though I might have loved it more under other circumstances.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been one of the highlights for me from my BOTM choices this year. I liked it better than Madeline Miller’s Circe, the other Greek mythology retelling I’ve read in the past months, but it didn’t impress me as much as I expected to be impressed. I’m more interested in finally picking up Miller’s The Song of Achilles to round out my Trojan War reading experience, but I think I need a little break from Troy. I’ll read The Odyssey first, for a change of pace.

What’s your favorite retelling?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Emigrants

I probably won’t be able to generate much interest in this book, but I’m going to talk about it anyway.

My grandma, whose family is originally from Sweden, lent me this 4-book series, Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrant Novels, about a family emigrating from Sweden to America in the mid-1800’s. The series is a fictional account written by a Swedish author in the 1900s after a fourth of Sweden had emigrated. I’m going to be reading the entire series, but this will be my only full review, featuring book one: The Emigrants; the rest will be mentioned only in my wrap-ups.

theemigrantnovelsAbout the book: The Nilsson family has lives on a small farm in Sweden. Karl Oskar’s father wore out his health clearing stones from the land over many years in the hopes that his sons would inherit better land than he had, and Karl Oskar begins his adult life as a farmer. He and his wife and their young children put every effort into the farm, but they have several bad years that it seems they’ll never be able to return from. Meanwhile, Karl Oskar’s brother, Robert, is employed as a farmhand elsewhere because Karl Oskar’s land cannot be further divided. But his employer is cruel and Robert ends up on the run. Both brothers dream of starting over in America, but they have little reliable information about the New World, and the dangerous sea voyage can take several months, if the ship manages to arrive. Everyone but the two brothers is against the move– but the Nilsson brothers are determined.

“His emigration was taken as a reproach, an insult even, to the parish as a whole and to each individual: the community and the people here were not good enough for him.”

This first volume is not a complete story in itself. It covers life in Sweden for the Nilssons, their decision to emigrate, and their sea voyage. The end of the book is just the end of a chapter (though an important chapter), and it’s necessary to read the entire series to take in this story. I know that’s a big commitment for someone without personal history involved. The writing is a bit dry in places, as it covers a lot of information rather than a lot of action (though there is plot), and it can be long-winded and repetitive. This is writing meant to evoke a time and place, so some interest in that setting is required for enjoyment.

“And he wondered if it were worthwhile to live, if he must remain a farmhand.”

So what’s to love? Well, American history. Swedish history. There are the major events of national history taught in schools, and then there’s one’s personal history. The Emigrants is full of characters that feel like my family.

And this is why I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be convincing many new readers to pick this up. It’s the familiarity that pulls me through, and I know that’s specific to me and to my family’s history. (Also other families in my area, I live in a Swedish/Norwegian area.) The names are familiar to me, the way they farm is familiar to me, their big noses and personalities and values are familiar to me. I know their religion. Even the climate seems very similar. My great-grandparents and their parents lived through journeys like the one described here. I’ve never had a reading experience like this before, and it’s been incredible.

“Here ships have sailed for thousands of years, but on this path wanderers leave no footprints.”

I often find that books about farming are boring. I don’t know why, because farming itself doesn’t leave one with enough time to be bored. There’s just something about manual labor and leaving one’s fortune to the whims of the weather that just doesn’t seem to translate well into literature. But Moberg brings these characters to life in a way that propels the narrative through layers of description. Each character has his/her own distinct relationship to farming and opinion of emigrating. They bear the emotional struggles of losing a child due to poverty occasioned by drought, and of losing to fire the entire season’s harvested grain, and taking responsibility for the lives of one’s family in the decision to risk the months at sea. Some characters are considered insane for trying to break with their community church to follow their own beliefs. One farmhand is ridiculed by his employer, another is injured. Everyone must leave something behind. Despite the heavy detailing of day-to-day life on the farm and on the ship, Moberg also infuses this novel with emotion and psychology, humanity that the reader can relate to even without personal experience with Swedish farms and sailing. It’s a beautiful documentation.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though I’m loving the personal connection I feel with this story, the writing is not the most stimulating. There are some very engrossing life-or-death moments, but otherwise this was a slow read for me. I’m determined to read the series, but it still seems a bit daunting. I think I’ll have a greater appreciation for the storyline as a whole once I’ve read the entire set.

Further recommendations:

  • A Man Called Ove is a great novel set in Sweden, by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. This one’s a more modern tale, and more humorous, but also captures a piece of Swedish life. Specifically, this novel follows a man who’s wife has died and whose decision to follow her to the afterlife is interrupted and derailed.

Which books do you enjoy because you feel a personal connection to the story?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Iliad

I had been meaning to read Homer’s The Iliad for YEARS. I read long excerpts for class and on my own, but I never actually made it through. Until now! It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience (more on that in a sec), but it’s an incredible story.

theiliadAbout the book: Paris has taken Helen to be his wife in Troy; she was Menelaus’s wife first, and he raises an army against Troy at the injustice of having her stolen from him. Heroes on both sides fight for honor, though Paris plays little part in the fighting, leaving the battle against the Greeks to his more capable brother, Hector. At the opening of the book, two of the chief Greeks are at odds with one another: Agamemnon has slighted Achilles, who then refuses to fight though he could turn the tide of the war. But even as Achilles holds himself apart from the battle, he does not remain untouched by it– he sends his closest companion into danger alone, and learns of his own impending fate at Troy.

There were two things about this book that combined to make finishing difficult for me: 1) I was already 100% familiar with the story so no part of it was at all unexpected, and 2) I disliked the edition I read. It seems to be a very literal translation (by Samuel Butler), which in theory is where I would’ve wanted to start and it is the copy I own. But the grammar and wording is clunky in places, and it felt like some of the artistry of the story is lost in trying to match the language so directly. None of the other excerpts I’ve read from other authors have been this awkward to read, and I was pretty close to giving up.

“On this, with fell intent he made towards the city, and as the winning horse in a chariot race strains every nerve when he is flying over the plain, even so fast and furiously did the limbs of Achilles bear him onwards.”

What worked for me in the end was to read only a couple of chapters at a time. I do plan to pick up a more liberal translation at some point with the hope of enjoying the telling of the story more, as opposed to just appreciating its bones.

What I did love about The Iliad is the duality to the story, the way that the men are fighting the war, but also the Gods are fighting the war; in some ways the players remain separate, but ultimately they’re all playing off of each other to the point where it’s hard to tell who’s really in control of events. I also find it so easy to root for both Hector and Achilles, even though they oppose each other. Both sides are humanized and compelling.

“No man may fight Achilles, for one of the gods is always with him as his guardian angel, and even were it not so, his weapon flies ever straight, and fails not to pierce the flesh of him who is against him.”

I’ve also noticed a personal change in my reading of this story. I was such a naïve reader when I first tried picking this story up; I would follow any character or any narrator anywhere, taking everything at face value. Now that I’m a smarter reader, and especially lately as retellings are being published with stronger female leads, I’ve been paying more attention to characters like Helen and Briseis, and respecting the role that the women play in such a man’s story. The Iliad is about war, a man’s occupation– the women only cry for their husbands in the background, or are offered as prizes in competitions. Even so, they have fascinating stories between the lines. A big part of the reason I pushed myself to finish The Iliad this month is that I’m looking forward to reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls within the month as well, a retelling of the Trojan war from Briseis’s point of view. (I’ll probably be reviewing it early next week.)

I know that Greek stories like The Iliad were originally meant to be sung from memory, not written and read. And I do think it’s impressive that such a long and detailed account could have been narrated this way. But I am not a listener of epic poems in ancient Greece, I am a reader in 2018. And there is something that doesn’t work for me in reading this book: the level of detail. I am very much a reader who likes to hold every detail in my head as I go, but there are so many specifics in The Iliad that no matter how many times I read it I will never keep every minor character distinct in my mind, which made this a frustrating read at times. There are 10 pages (in my copy) devoted entirely to listing the names of principal fighters on both sides of the battle. 10 whole pages. That was the hardest part of the book for me to get through.

Even after the naming of the fighters, there are a lot of individual skirmishes that occur during the battles in which the narrator describes each blow dealt by this lesser character to that lesser character, going from pair to pair, none of whom matter much on an individual basis in the grand scheme of the plot. I want to appreciate this level of detail, the way Homer shows which side is winning or losing by showing each man that stands or falls, but it’s an overwhelming amount of names.

In the end, though this wasn’t the translation for me, I was reminded of how much I love The Iliad‘s bones– the politics, the emotion, the mythology, the grit. It’s no wonder this tragic story has survived thousands of years, and is still captivating new readers all the time.

“For all our grief we will hide our sorrows in our hearts, for weeping will not avail us. The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a great story, and undoubtedly well-crafted. I was sad to feel during this read that some of the magic had been lost in this translation, but I loved the story anyway and look forward to reading it again someday in a more artistic rendering. I’m also planning to finish The Odyssey within the year (because I read Circe a few months ago and because Goodreads won’t count this toward my 2018 reading unless I finish both books in this bind-up); it’s translated by the same person so I’m a bit wary, but I feel like I’m on a roll so I might just keep it going in the background.

Further recommendations:

  • Virgil’s The Aeneid also looks at the Trojan War (though mainly the aftermath), including the best surviving description of the Trojan Horse scheme. I actually rated The Aeneid higher, but that might come down again to translation. They’re both great stories, though while The Iliad is Greek, The Aeneid features the (mythologized) account of the birth of Rome.

Are you a fan of any particular mythologies or ancient cultures?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Cross Her Heart

I read and loved Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes last year, and was excited to see her newest release, Cross Her Heart, available through Book of the Month Club for September. I knew going in that this new thriller lacked the sort of genre-bending twist that sold me on Behind Her Eyes, but even with that expectation I was disappointed by this run-of-the-mill thriller.

crossherheartAbout the book: Lisa has a good job, a daughter she’s proud of, a great friend… and nightmares about her dark past. No matter how much better she’s doing and how well-hidden she is, Lisa cannot escape what happened years ago. When signs from an old “friend” begin turning up in the present, Lisa doesn’t know how to cope. Ava doesn’t know how to deal with her mother’s newfound paranoia, and no one knows what to do when Lisa’s cover is blown and she’s spirited away to a safehouse– too late to save herself and Ava from the schemes of someone desperate for revenge.

“Life Is a series of deals, that’s what I’ve learned. Most get broken.”

I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what went wrong here for me– I think it was just a bit of everything. I will mention a few specific complaints, but I want to lead by mentioning that I’ve read quite a few thrillers now and my main problem lately seems to be that they’ve gotten predictable now that I know what to expect. This bothers me because I think thrillers, as much as any other genre, should hold up even (especially) if the reader is well-versed in the genre. But Cross Her Heart bored me within the first 10 pages, and never really improved.

One of the first issues I had with this book was characterization. I absolutely loved Marilynn’s character, but she is not the main focus (a tragedy) and the characters that do receive more attention are far more clichéd and unexciting. Ava is a selfish, naïve teenager whose mistakes are obvious from the start, and Lisa is the irksome mother who says her child matters more than anything, and yet she has no idea what’s going on in Ava’s life and makes no effort to keep her safe when scary things start happening around their home. And then there’s Simon, the sort-of love interest who really has no place in the story beyond giving depth to Lisa’s (and Marilynn’s) work life, which again, is not the main focus here. Other coworkers are clearly only present to add possibilities to the list of potential threats, and the people from Lisa’s past are flat and stereotypical, full of evil that lacks an underlying motive.

“I know that rage can lead to terrible things. Can leave someone with regrets like tombstones that have to be carried through life, backbreakingly heavy and deserved.”

Furthermore, the stakes are low. Lisa, the main target, states plainly and repeatedly that she’s willing to die for her daughter. If Lisa doesn’t mind dying, why should the reader mind for her? And with Lisa standing as this person’s sole target, why should I worry about anyone else? I couldn’t even bring myself to care about Ava potentially being stuck in the crossfire– she runs open-armed into the danger, and isn’t a very sympathetic character.

This cast is presented through a range of first, second, and third person perspectives. The sections are labeled by name and (predictable and tired) time stamps: Before, After, Now. The reason this format ultimately failed for me is that it allows for a repetitive duality to the reveals. Every plot twist is shown through at least two characters’ perspectives, hinted at in a sort of bland and overt way by one party and then expanded on by the next. This method muffles a lot of the novel’s shock and suspense.

The biggest obstacle though, is that this is not a mystery one could plausibly solve before the detectives. Pinborough withholds her clues. From the first chapter, it’s clear that the author (and many of the characters) know more than they’ll share; the mystery is a mystery only to the reader. When the author has to play her cards so close, you know the answer’s just too simple.

“Someone can do a terrible, unforgivable thing, and yet you forgive them if you love them. The heart is such a strange thing.”

And that ending– it’s just a little too neat. There are hardly any witnesses to the final act, the witnesses’ credibility should be questionable to the police, and even if the police have no trouble seeing the light there isn’t much to witness. Unless the culprit has made a full confession off-page, I just don’t buy how quickly things turn happy after the big showdown. In my experience, what is true matters a lot less than what people believe to be true, and there are a lot of beliefs that require overturning for this ending to work.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There was absolutely nothing gripping about this story for me. I wasn’t surprised, I only cared about one lesser character, and the writing style didn’t impress me. I think plenty of readers will be satisfied with the content of this novel, but I was hoping to be wowed. Sadly, Cross Her Heart was enough of a disappointment that I think I’ll be crossing Sarah Pinborough off my list of future interests; I think Behind Her Eyes was a one-off for me with this author.

Further recommendations:

  • Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is a twistier case that mixes past accusations with present-day drama. The main character of this story must also confront signs of danger in and around her own home and decide whether her friend is the person she claims to be.
  • Another big hit in the thriller world this year with a few thematic similarities (past crimes forced back to the present, teenagers gone missing, false accusations, etc.) is Riley Sager’s The Last Time I LiedThis one’s about a woman who goes back to summer camp where her friends went missing years ago, and new disaster strikes. Though if you’re really looking for a great thriller (and something more different), I can’t recommend Sager’s previous novel, Final Girls, highly enough. This one’s a slasher thriller about a woman who avoided a violent killer once– only to be targeted again.

Do you have a go-to mystery/thriller writer who always comes through? Or have you been disappointed by a thriller author you’ve loved in the past?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant