Book Haul 3.19 / TBR 4.19

My 2019 TBR goal is to read all new books I acquire by the end of the following month. Which means that I’m listing my March books here, which will double as my April TBR. This tactic has had a lot of ups and downs for me so far, but this month I’m excited: I’m pretty sure I’m going to succeed in April, with reading time to spare!

Part of the reason for this excitement is that I’ve already read a few of my March books before April is even upon us. Short books only, but I’m still encouraged.

I’ve already read:

  1. The Victim by P. D. James.
  2. Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall.
  3. A River in Egypt by David Means.
  4. Mr. Salary by Sally Rooney.
  5. Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore. These first five are titles from the Faber Stories collection, a set of individually-bound short stories that I’ve been adoring. These are only about 40-80 pages each and so quick to read, but I’ve found them very thought-provoking and worthwhile. Here are some brief reviews if you’re interested in learning more: (part 1, part 2).
  6. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden. I picked this one up because of its placement on the 2019 Women’s Prize longlist, which I’m trying to read in its entirety before the shortlist announcement; as that is only a month away, I did make an effort to pick up a couple of the titles in March. This one was disappointing for me (full review here) so I’m a bit bummed that I resorted to buying a copy, but it wasn’t available to me any other way and I did at least have a discount code.
  7. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn. Another Women’s Prize longlister; this one I don’t regret buying at all. I’ve just finished reading it, so my review is still upcoming, but this was a captivating little gem.

Which leaves ->

To read in April:

  1. Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. I picked this one up for half price in the Barnes and Noble book haul sale at the end of February, but it arrived early in March. It’s a historical fiction novel with magical elements that I’ve had my eye on for a while.
  2. Lot by Bryan Washington. This was my Book of the Month selection for March, a collection of connected short stories set in Houston that is said to read like a novel.
  3. When the Sky Fell on Splendor by Emily Henry. A BOTM extra from March; they’ve had quite a few new YA and non-fiction extras the last couple of months, and I might pick up more extras when I’m more caught up, but for March I limited myself to this one title that was already on my TBR. It’s a sci-fi story about a group of friends who maybe witness a flying saucer crashing down in Ohio.
  4. Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton. Another Women’s Prize longlist book. This one is historical fiction set in Philidelphia, featuring a freed slave trying to rewrite her own story to save her son.
  5. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. Another Women’s Prize longlist book. This one is fiction based on a partially-written Truman Capote book that was meant to expose the lives of real women who had trusted him.
  6. Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro. This title and the following five are more Faber Stories. I had been limiting myself to 3 of these per batch, but I had a coupon code early in March and decided to just go ahead and pick up the titles I was most interested in, to save a bit of cash later on.
  7. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes by Alan Bennett.
  8. The Country Funeral by John McGahern.
  9. The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan.
  10. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones.
  11. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah.

bookhaul3.19

It looks like a long list, but eleven of the eighteen books I picked up this month are short stories from the Faber Stories Collection; they’re so quick and engaging to read that they’re basically negligible. Of the eleven books here on my April TBR, six of them are those single short stories (I might even read a couple more this weekend before April begins), which leaves only 5 full-length books. I can definitely read more than 5 books in a month. Which is good, because I also have library holds on the two Women’s Prize titles that I haven’t accounted for yet (Ordinary People and Lost Children Archive). And as always, there’s no telling how the month will actually go.

But for the first time all year, I don’t have any doubts or exceptions already in mind before the month begins; I’m pretty sure I will actually read all of these books. The stack looks so manageable, a nice change, and it reflects my current reading priorities: finishing the Women’s Prize longlist, and catching up with my BOTM selections. I hope this TBR will help me stay on track. I will report back at the end of the month.

And in the meantime, I’ll be posting my March wrap-up on Monday, which will reveal how well I did with my Feb haul / March TBR.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

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Review: 99 Percent Mine

I don’t read a lot of romance, but I did pick up Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game last year. That was a pretty good time, so I was excited to pick up Thorne’s 2019 release, 99 Percent Mine.

99percentmineIn the novel, Darcy Barrett returns from a shift at the bar to find her childhood friend, Tom, ready to start work on the renovations of the cottage she and her brother have inherited. Tom is used to dealing with the Barrett twins’ frequent disagreements and high expectations, but he’s still worried about the responsibilities associated with starting his own renovation company, and about losing his friends in the process of fixing up their house. With tensions high between the twins and Tom caught in the middle, flighty Darcy is forced to face her fears by embracing the cottage’s new look and fighting for the romance she always ran away from.

At least, I think that’s what the book is about. The strongest impression I’m left with at this story’s conclusion is one of confusion- I don’t know if my brain just operates on different circuitry than Thorne’s or what, but starting around the halfway mark I was completely lost.

I think my main issue with this plot is that it’s one of those angsty misunderstanding types in which the drama could have been avoided entirely if the characters had simply shared an honest, adult discussion at the beginning of the novel. It’s clear to the reader early on that Tom and Darcy are in love, and that their reasons for trying to stay away from each other are not big enough to hold them back once all of their truths are out in the open. But it’s practically impossible to avoid predictability in romance, so I tried to overlook the obvious ending and enjoy the ride. Unfortunately, that became increasingly difficult to do.

The next obstacle for me was characterization. I found it incredibly difficult to keep track of whether Darcy was chasing Tom at the moment, or trying to hold him at arm’s length. Both characters wavered so often and for so little reason that I struggled to understand their dynamic at any given point of the story. I think Thorne was going for a we-want-each-other-but-don’t-think-we-deserve-each-other vibe, but both Darcy and Tom seem to have the emotional instability of teenagers who take everything to heart and change their minds at the drop of a hat. These adult characters act completely immature: Darcy gives up her dream career after one bad review and Tom all but abandons ship when he has to admit that he’s not capable of 100% perfection. Darcy throws tantrums. At many points its unclear whether their friendship or potential romance is more important to them, or whether they believe it’s best just to leave the other alone. I love complex characters, but I had a hard time connecting the dots even between one sentence and the next with these two.

Even more off-putting than the inconsistent characters though, is the completely nonsensical writing that surrounds them. 99 Percent Mine reads like an unedited first draft, free of simple mistakes like typos but in desperate need of some revision. The story opens in the bar where Darcy works, giving the reader insight into a setting and an array of characters that receive only bare mentions throughout the rest of the book, if they reappear at all. There’s a sort-of-friend with benefits who does absolutely nothing for the story. Darcy complains about her paychecks barely covering the cost of her health care (she has a congenital heart defect, which is actually one of the few things I appreciated about this book), but then goes on to fund pizza parties for the entire renovation crew on a weekly basis.  She seems to hate her brother for everything except the fact that he’s her brother, which made their relationship almost as difficult to comprehend as the romance with Tom. Even at the micro level, details don’t match up; at one point, Darcy phones a friend and asks for a ride; the friend agrees before going on to talk about something else, but without any mention of ending the call Darcy is suddenly speaking to a different person and making other plans for the afternoon, and the friend never shows up. I think that was about the point at which I gave up reading for any purpose other than to finish.

” ‘One hundred percent mine.’ He considers that, then maybe he remembers the desperate hug that my brother gave me. He tips his head toward the door. ‘Better let him have one percent of me.’ He smiles, and I laugh. ‘Okay. Ninety-nine percent mine. That’s got a nice ring to it.’ “

It hurts me to list so many complaints after enjoying Thorne’s The Hating Game as much as I did. In the acknowledgements of this book, Thorne talks about being shocked by her debut’s success and a bit scared to publish again afterward, and I think that shows in 99 Percent Mine. But I also think that with this one out of the way, there might be another Hating Game-quality story someday. The first half of this book did strike me as perfectly competent, but somewhere along the way it unraveled. As always, it’s entirely possible that I’m missing something or that other readers will simply find more to enjoy than I did, but I feel confident in saying that this one probably won’t be received as favorably as Thorne’s debut.

If you’re picking up 99 Percent Mine just for The Hating Game‘s epilogue, you might be disappointed there as well. The additional scenes packed into the back of this novel (epilogues for both 99 Percent Mine and The Hating Game) are only a few pages long each, and absolutely unnecessary caps to their respective stories. They read like wish-fulfillment scenes, little snippets that exist just to give the reader the thrill of seeing characters they liked in print again, even if just for a kiss. But I understand that most people picking up Sally Thorne’s books are probably looking for the easy angst and kissing and happy endings, so there will likely be plenty of readers who get more out of this novel and its extras than I did.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. This book started out well enough for me- not any kind of personal favorite, but at least I could follow it- and then spiraled out of control in the second half. I had high hopes for another The Hating Game, but I think I’m swearing off romance for a while instead. I’ll still be interested in seeing how Sally Thorne might do with a third book, but I think I’ll wait and see how it does before committing to it if she does continue. I may just be the wrong audience for this genre, Hating Game aside.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Daisy Jones & the Six

I know I’m not alone in saying I’ve been highly anticipating Taylor Jenkins Reid’s brand new Daisy Jones and the Six ever since reading and loving her previous novel, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn HugoIn some ways Reid’s two most recent books are very different, but I think on the whole they will largely appeal to the same audience.

daisyjonesandthesixIn the novel, a writer decides to track down and interview everyone with a connection to infamous rock band Daisy Jones and the Six, a major music phenom of the 1970’s. Through a series of interviews, the band members and their associates recount exactly (or as close as they can recall) what happened to bring the band together and then tear it apart.

The biggest difference between Daisy Jones and the Six and Seven Husbands is the narration style- Daisy Jones is written entirely in snippets of dialogue taken from interviews, and formatted like a documentary script. The characters reveal thoughts and actions and conversations from the past, but the interviews take place years later, in/near present day; this allows the book the advantage of taking the reader through the band’s heyday in the 70’s as though the events are happening for the first time, but also lends an appealing air of nostalgia. There are, of course, limits to this narrative style, and in some places the level of specificity given to details from 30+ years prior feels implausible, but overall Reid does a great job of displaying and explaining inconsistencies and differences of opinion between characters; those small moments of disbelief can often be chalked up to faulty memories, eroded by time and emotion. The style won’t work for every reader, though I would bet it’s an interesting audiobook if you find yourself struggling with the printed format.

But logistics aside, Daisy Jones is such a MOOD. I have not been able to stop listening to 70’s and 80’s rock vinyl since I opened the book, and have been binging band films. This book is fictional, but Reid has clearly done her research and The Six feels like it could have been a real band. Even the casual/confessional approach to addictions and bad behavior adds to the atmosphere of the rock scene in this iconic era.

“Drinking, drugging, sleeping around, it’s all the same thing. You have these lines you won’t cross. But then you cross them. And suddenly you possess the very dangerous information that you can break the rule and the world won’t instantly come to an end. You’ve taken a big, black, bold line and you’ve made it a little bit gray. And now every time you cross it again, it just gets grayer and grayer until one day you look around and you think, There was a line here once, I think.”

One of the upsides to turning this sort of story into a novel is that the music is all up to the reader’s mind- there are lyrics from the band’s biggest album printed in the back of the book, but of course we can’t hear what Daisy Jones and The Six might have sounded like; each reader can make the band their own, in a way. If you like any band from the 70s or thereabouts, you’ve got an extra shot at enjoying this story.

Though extremely fun to read, however, once I started getting into listening to real music and watching band films I did wonder what the point of creating a fictional story like this could be, with so much real material out there and more in the works. But I did come up with an answer: I believe the Point of investing in a fictional band story lies not in the music or even in shedding light on the historical moment, but in the social commentary Reid is able to layer into this modern take on it. She delivers women who see themselves as equals, whether or not they were treated as such at the time. She gives the least-glamorous band members a chance at their own voices and perspective. She talks about the drugs and alcoholism many successful bands ran the risk of falling into without romanticizing them. When frontman Billy Dunne pushes his ideas without consulting the others (again), he’s called out on it.

“He was just pissed because I knew how much power I had and he would have preferred I either not know it or not use it. I am sorry but that is not my style. I mean, it shouldn’t be anybody’s really.”

I could almost argue that this isn’t a book about rock at all, but about the challenges of overcoming addiction and making tough choices that are ultimately the right call. Reid has filled this story with such relatable personalities and timeless messages that the music on the surface comes off as only one layer of the depth Daisy Jones and the Six has to offer. My only real complaint is that things get a little sickly sweet when the writer’s identity is revealed toward the end, but the story’s final note won me back over. This book was a hit for me, and I’m sure it will be for many readers.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though I think Seven Husbands is perhaps the more accomplished of Reid’s most recent work, Daisy Jones was an absolute delight to read from the first page to the last. I won’t be forgetting this story or these characters any time soon, and I can’t wait to see how this will turn out in film. I’m so on board for whatever Reid writes next.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Praise Song for the Butterflies

Women’s Prize No. 11/16

After disliking Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant, I decided to continue my journey through the 2019 Women’s Prize longlist with another title I was a bit apprehensive about- I am very much a “save the best for last” sort of person. Enter: Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden.

praisesongforthebutterfliesIn the novel, we follow Abeo, the eldest child in a well-off African family who lives in the fictional country of Ukemby, as well as various characters of significance in her life. The first chapter begins with Abeo a toddler in a loving and fortunate family, and progresses through her early childhood- the addition of her baby brother to the ranks, visits from her American aunt, and the gradual fall of the family on hard times. From here we see Abeo left in a shrine to become a “wife of God,” and witness the atrocities that happen to the girls there. Finally, we see the consequences of those traumatic years carry over into Abeo’s teen years and adulthood.

“She realized right then that her complaints would be filed in the trash, the assailants would never be pursued, and possibly they would even be encouraged.”

I went into Praise Song for the Butterflies with very low expectations, which made it a bit less frustrating to finish than Number One Chinese Restaurant (which built up my hopes with a strong start), though in the end I’ve settled on the same rating for both.

After an intriguing two-page teaser about adult Abeo, the story starts all the way back at (almost) the beginning of Abeo’s life. Unfortunately, within paragraphs of this proper start to the story, I knew McFadden’s writing style simply wasn’t for me. Though the narration mainly follows Abeo, we get quite a bit of head-hopping into the minds of her family and acquaintances. But each character is flat, driven by a single motive or characteristic, and present only to push the plot to its next point of crisis. Furthermore, there is absolutely no subtlety:

Abeo so wanted to spit, but instead she muttered, ‘It’s okay, Auntie.’ Even though it wasn’t.”

Some details- especially the events at the shrine- might have retained more power to horrify if left in implication, but McFadden does not trust anything to the reader’s imagination. Even when the narration skips ahead several years, the writing hones in on the details deemed most important, leaving the reader with an odd specificity riddled with large gaps of the unknown.

But the most jarring aspect for me was that the story never feel like more than a fiction, though the basic concept rings very true; it reads like arbitrary names and adjectives have been added to the bare bones of a real-life narrative, but the seam where fact and fiction join is painfully apparent throughout the work. This feels like a novice writer’s first attempt at storytelling, though McFadden has published something like fifteen novels under her own name and a pseudonym. Certainly this subject matter deserves attention, but with fiction I need more of a hook to keep me invested than a straightforward introduction to a subject. Especially a subject I must have learned something about previously in my reading or schooling; this book failed to surprise me at nearly every turn. I suspect it will be most effective for readers who know little to nothing about ritual servitude practices in Africa- though either I’m wrong about this or surprisingly few people are aware of this historical practice, if the ratings for this book are anything to judge by.

There are also some pointed attempts at social/cultural commentary that I found frustrating in their lack of nuance. Often, they felt presented as excuses for the characters to behave in the simplistic ways that they do:

“You are the man of this house, the husband, the head of this family, the decision maker. Don’t worry about her. She is the wife, the mother of your children. It is her place to walk behind you, not ahead of you and not beside you.”

“Apparently, the law was just a few words on a piece of paper that the government had no intention of actually enforcing.”

But in the end, for all of my gripes about the style in which this story is presented, I was relieved not to find the book overly sentimental or sensationalizing. For my utter lack of enjoyment in its telling, I did find this book surprisingly readable; it’s fairly short, but I finished it even faster than I expected to, with little resistance. Instead of loathing the book, I felt only disappointed by it. I’m afraid many literary readers will feel the same, although I do believe there is an audience for this story, and I hope Praise Song finds those readers.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I think going into this one with low expectations made reading this book a much easier experience than it might have been otherwise. Though I didn’t like it at any point while reading, it wasn’t a hate-read either. It’s unfortunate that the only two books I’ve read knowingly so far from the Women’s Prize longlist have been 2-star reads for me, but it’s hard to imagine that the list could go anywhere but up from this point, which is encouraging. I have no interest in reading further titles from McFadden, but I am still fully committed to finishing this longlist.

In no particular order (I’m hoping to finish the longlist in time to rank my favorites and predict the shortlist later on), here are the links to my reviews for the other longlisted titles I’ve read:

Freshwater, Milkman, My Sister the Serial Killer, Normal People, Circe, An American Marriage, The Silence of the Girls, Number One Chinese Restaurant, The Pisces, and Ghost Wall.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Looker

I’ve read two books widely classified as “thrillers” so far this year, and it’s probably telling to admit that the one I liked the most was the one that felt the least like a true thriller. I was drawn to Laura Sims’s debut, titled Looker, for its similar placement on the edge of the genre.

lookerIn the novel, an unnamed woman’s obsession with her neighbor (“the actress”) grows as her life begins to collapse. She hasn’t been able to conceive, her husband has left her, and she’s digging herself into some trouble at work. In an effort to push away all the complications that weigh her down, the actress becomes more and more of a fixation for this woman.

Much like Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer, Sims’s Looker is a captivating little novel (only 180 pages!) with thriller elements, though classifying it as a traditional, full-blooded thriller would be to its detriment. Rather, Looker is a psychologically-driven character study of one unnamed woman’s mental deterioration over the course of a few weeks.

Though much is made of our narrator’s preoccupation with the actress- and indeed this facet of the “plot” bookends the story- it is only a side-effect of the greater issue here: the woman’s frustration with her inability to conceive a child of her own. Years ago, she and her husband moved to this neighborhood full of families-in-the-making, close to a park, with the spare room of their apartment a permanent nursery-in-progress. If at times Looker seems confused about what sort of book it is trying to be, that may come down to the fact that our narrator focuses on the actress in order to avoid what is truly on her mind.

” ‘A kid, do you have a kid?’ She’s looking at me intently now. Careful now, careful. ‘No,’ I say. ‘I don’t.’ I try to say it lightly, breezily, like it doesn’t mean a thing, like it isn’t weighed down with the agony of years of trying, of my lost marriage, of the terrible emptiness of that extra room, but I fail. Sadness and the bitterness of failure lodge in the back of my throat, and I see that she has seen it. Sensed it. I panic.”

Looker brims with potential. There are so many feminist undertones layered into the story with varying degrees of subtlety; the woman notes feeling blamed for her inability to conceive- by her husband, her doctor, her community- as well as for her impending divorce; she feels fiercely the hypocrisy of her boss lecturing her for a transgression he has committed himself. But all of this is tainted by the fact that she is essentially going crazy because she can’t have a child. The kicker is that it’s unclear whether she wants one for any reason other than the fact that she can’t conceive. Unlikeable characters can certainly be compelling in their own way, but this woman seems contrary for the sake of being contrary, always wanting what she doesn’t have and quickly tiring of what is within her grasp. What should have been a moving and tragic situation becomes a bit absurd when the reader realizes how uncomplicated the situation is. We learn early not to trust much that this woman says, even within her own thoughts, though Sims never uses the misdirection that should be possible through such a lack of trust to any advantage.

But disappointments aside, this is a fast-paced stunner of a book that could easily be read in one sitting (though technically I read it in two because I “sampled” about 20 pages the day before I was actually intending to read the book). Sims allows for white space between paragraphs and proper breaks between scene shifts, but there are no chapters. It is hard to stop once you’ve started. The story takes a detour in the middle when an incident at school (our narrator is a professor in a dwindling college English department) pushes the actress out of focus for a time, but Sims does not loose track of where the plot is headed. When the final act spins out on the page, it manages to hit that sweet spot right between surprising and inevitable.

“How does one get to live such a charmed life? How does one get to literally have it all? It strikes me as funny- that billions of us should be schlepping along, some of us barely surviving, while one person gets to be praised and lifted up by eternal light.”

I was left with one major curiosity: how the woman’s relationship with her husband ended. She thinks about him often and he does make a couple of small appearances, but much of their relationship is left mysterious. It is clear that this woman’s take on events is not necessarily a fair depiction of things, but I think Sims missed an opportunity by avoiding showing what the final straw was for this couple, as it seems to have marked the beginning of the narrator’s madness.

Nevertheless, Looker is certainly engrossing and unique as-is, a debut full of promise for what Sims might have in store. Anyone looking for (whether you know it or not) an unusual, thriller-like vignette will find this an intriguing read.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though this one was dark and fun to read, I predict that it will turn out to be rather forgettable. Looker has a lot of potential, but there’s something a bit distasteful to me about a woman going crazy because she can’t have a baby, and being jealous of another woman as a result. But this is Sims’s first novel, and it certainly holds enough promise that I’ll be interested to see where her writing goes next.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Norwegian Wood

I’ve long been meaning to read more globally, so when a friend mentioned Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood as one of her favorite books, it seemed like the time was ripe to cross a well-known Japanese author off of my want-to-read list. Or at least, one of his many intriguing titles; Jay Rubin (Murakami’s English translator) states that Norwegian Wood was the book that established Murakami’s “superstardom,” so it seemed as good a place to start as any.

norwegianwoodIn the novel, thirty-seven year-old Toru Watanabe hears a Beatles song that sends him back in memory to his first two years at college in Tokyo, 1968-1970. In this time, he runs into a girl who shared a close mutual friend with him- a mutual friend who committed suicide a couple of years previously. With this shared grief and confusion between them, Toru and Naoko begin a habit of Sunday walks through the city. An incident on Naoko’s birthday brings the two both closer together and farther apart. In the meantime, he meets another girl from his own classes who slowly invades his life and leaves him wondering whether he can ask for more than to care for a damaged girl who can make him no promises.

“The years nineteen and twenty are a crucial stage in the maturation of character, and if you allow yourself to become warped when you’re that age, it will cause you pain when you’re older.”

Essentially, Norwegian Wood is a romance in which one young man falls into the dilemma of loving two women at the same time. But the novel does so many other things that to dismiss it as a simple story about a love triangle would be an injustice.

This is a book that delves into Japanese culture, evokes a particular moment in time, and perhaps most prominently, focuses on mental health. Though arguably overstuffed with suicides and a mix of sexual content, this novel manages a beautiful and tragic balance of love and grief. Naoko talks about why she thinks their friend ended his life so unexpectedly; she tells Toru a story about her dead older sister; and through Naoko’s letters and Toru’s time with her, the reader steps deeper and deeper into the troubled mind of Naoko herself. The list of complex characters does not end there, however. It seems that every person who finds a place in Toru’s life in these two formative years is battling to overcome some unique personal struggle, and Toru certainly earns his sad place among them.

“No truth can cure the sorrow we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see it through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sorrow that comes to us without warning.”

Murakami’s construction of the novel prevents the central deaths from feeling sensationalized; in the first pages, the reader learns how Toru’s relationship with Naoko will end, making this a powerful story about self-discovery and timeless love rather than a shocking plot. In fact, there is very little plot. Norwegian Wood is a dark, slow, self-contained bildungsroman that will appeal especially to fans of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. My only criticism is that the careful way in which the two deaths that most affect Toru are explored is somewhat undercut by several side characters meeting similar fates. Even Storm Trooper, whose departure from the story is left mysterious, leaves the reader with a nagging worry that only the butt of endless jokes in a book brimming with death and depression can.

If you’re thinking by now that Norwegian Wood sounds like a very sad story, punctuated by tragedy after tragedy, you’re correct. When I had finished the novel, I went back to the opening paragraphs to reread the older Toru’s impression of the Beatles song and found myself moved nearly to tears- a rarity for someone usually so adept at compartmentalizing fiction. But the reason all of this sadness is so effective is that Murakami buoys the reader along with all of the promising emotions of Toru’s first loves; it’s a perfect blend that hurts only after it manages to elevate.

The 1960’s is not generally an era I find myself interested in reading about, but Murakami transports and captivates. The sheer number of Beatles songs mentioned in the text made me happy, the commune-like sanatorium kept me intrigued, and the period-appropriate catchphrases amused.

We have both Murakami and Rubin to thank for beautiful, accessible language, and a story that will surely last many times the length of the few decades it already has.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Admittedly, I went into this book with such strong trust in a recommendation that I didn’t even bother reading the synopsis until after I’d finished the book and the back cover was simply the only text left. I’m so glad that I’ve finally read one of Murakami’s novels, and this one impressed me on such a level that I will certainly be picking up another. I’m thinking The Wind-up Bird Chronicle next (though I don’t know when that might be), but I’m certainly open to other recommendations!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

Women’s Prize No. 10/16

Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant was the first title I picked up from the 2019 Women’s Prize longlist titles I haven’t yet read, for the arbitrary reason of it being the first one to arrive in my possession.

numberonechineserestaurantIn the novel, Duck House owner Jimmy Han wants to break free of his father’s shadow and build a legacy of his own. In the eleventh hour of his shady plan to swap his father’s old Chinese restaurant for Jimmy’s own brand new Beijing Glory, he tries to back out of the scheme, to ill affect. Gradually he will learn that his actions have affected every person connected to the old Duck House, and that these friends and family are a more important part of his life than he ever realized.

The familiar saying “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” seems to be a fair sum of the concept behind Number One Chinese Restaurant. The narration follows several characters who’ve played a role in making the Duck House what it is, including staff and other members of the Han family, as well as an influential backer of dubious intent. Each is driven by his or her own dreams and desires, seemingly oblivious to the fact that years of acquaintance and working toward a common purpose have forged an unbreakable bond between them all.

“They were all friends, if one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who, after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together.”

For me, this book started promisingly; I found each of the characters intriguing and was invested in learning the eventual fate of the Duck House as well as unearthing the secrets behind its precarious state of existence. I loved the restaurant’s dynamic, with its mix of languages and its internal power structure. I wasn’t hooked but I was having a good time with no complaints. This lasted for about the first third of the novel.

Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. Let me preface my issues with the book from this point by noting that there’s not necessarily anything wrong with Number One Chinese Restaurant; it simply alienated me in every conceivable way, thus ruining my experience with it. I found that I cared less about each of the main characters as I learned more about them. Jimmy, an unlikeable man from the beginning, began to grate on me to the point where I dreaded reading his sections at all. I lost interest in both the Duck House and the subsequent Beijing Glory, and with them went any last investment in finding out how Jimmy’s colossal mess would end or wanting it turn out any particular way. The elements that intrigued me most- the origins of the Duck House, as well as Jimmy’s parents and their relationship with the manipulative mafia man Uncle Pang- are left largely mysterious and unexplored. Even the real estate agent on the outskirts of the plot seems to have a more interesting trajectory than most of the characters that the narration does follow, though I thought all of them could have been described much more briefly to perhaps greater effect.

At the very end of the novel, there are a few lines that made me think Li was aiming for a story about immigrant experience, about the difficulty of coming to a new country and succeeding in the restaurant business as a means of survival, and the equal difficulty of later escaping it. I think I would have liked that story. But at no point in Number One Chinese Restaurant did I ever feel that this was a theme the novel was working toward. Jimmy certainly has a complicated relationship with the Duck House, which he both loves and despises for myriad reasons, but his attempt to break free of it and begin his own restaurant from scratch felt more related to his own ambition and familial relationships than any sort of consequence of his immigration. Furthermore, he was just such an asshole that I might have been happier to see his failure than success by the end of the novel.

The writing style struck me as competent and readable, which helped me through even after the novel had lost all sense of enjoyability. I did find occasional attempts at meaningful commentary:

“In China, they would have seemed a strange couple, with Ah-Jack clearly decades older than she was and both of them dressed in stained formal-wear. But in this waiting room, they belonged together if only because they were both Chinese.”

but each such statement seemed only to scratch the surface of its potential (in this case, the cultural ignorance of many Americans and the importance placed on appearances), and the narration would move on before I felt that I had gained any fresh perspective. In the passage above, the narration is more concerned with the development of this pair’s friendship/romance than in the ways they are perceived by the outside world. And I think ultimately that is my main criticism of the novel- the restaurant is such an insular environment that its themes and morals are nearly impossible to transfer to any situations outside of this one fiction; when even that fiction devolved for me, I felt like there was nothing left to gain from the novel.

But I will readily admit that Number One Chinese Restaurant‘s placement on the Women’s Prize longlist- from which I’ve already read and enjoyed nine titles- may have skewed my expectations. Some of the titles I’ve previously loved from the longlist are certainly tough acts to follow, and this is the first book I’ve picked up knowingly from that list. It’s entirely possible that these circumstances have affected my reading experience, and I’m hoping that recognizing it now will prevent future disappointments as I continue through the longlist.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. It’s been a while since I’ve rated anything 2 stars, and I’m still feeling a bit uncertain about it. This has probably been the most challenging book I’ve had to review so far this year. I didn’t hate it- I just don’t have anything pleasant to say about it at this point. As always, it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed something or that key meaning has gone over my head. I’ll be very interested to see what other longlist readers will think of this one, though personally I hope to see other titles with more to offer advancing to the shortlist.

In no particular order (I’m hoping to finish the longlist in time to rank my favorites and predict the shortlist later on), here are the links to my reviews for the other longlisted titles I’ve read:

Freshwater, Milkman, My Sister the Serial Killer, Normal People, Circe, An American Marriage, The Silence of the Girls, The Pisces, and Ghost Wall.

 

The Literary Elephant