Review: Remembered

Women’s Prize No. 16/16

I was ecstatic (and to be honest, a little surprised) that I managed to finish reading the Women’s Prize longlist mere hours before the shortlist reveal! You can find the rest of my thoughts in my longlist wrap-up, but I do want to give a fair look at Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered before completely switching my attention to the shortlist.

rememberedIn the novel, Spring goes to visit her son in the hospital as he lays dying from injuries sustained in a streetcar accident that he may or may not have caused. The accusations against him have more to do with his race than any factual evidence, but if Spring can’t change public opinion she can at least help Edward’s soul find its way to heaven (and his birth mother) by sharing the truth of his ancestry with him. With her dead sister by her side, Spring begins to tell the tale of slavery and freedom through several generations of family history, making sure it’s told the way she remembers it rather than the way it’s been publicly recorded and opined by the (white) masses.

“Either I’ll tell it my way or it won’t get told.”

I thought this was a good title to cap off my longlist experience, as it didn’t strike me as overly similar to anything else on the list (I’ve been noting a ton of thematic overlap this year) and it moves along at a decent pace. The plot moves smoothly and quickly from one scene to the next, focusing on each situation just long enough for the reader to engage with the characters and then moving along before the prose has a chance to dip into any exposition that’s too overt or sentimental- something I struggle with in Civil-War-era fiction.

At this point, I’ve read plenty about the evils of slavery in US history, which made a few sections of this book feel rather expected and already-done. But ultimately, no other title I’ve read on this topic has managed to convey the complex level of competition slavery forces between people who live and work together with quite the same finesse that Battle-Felton manages in Remembered. I was stunned by the heart-breaking way that Ella learns the other slaves aren’t necessarily on her side, even as they claim to be helping her. We’ve read about the wrongs that plantation owners and overseers have performed against the African Americans sold into their “care,” but have we heard about the wrongs one slave would perform against another? Especially the wrongs that come from a place of love? I found Mama Skins’s actions regarding the two teenaged girls she cares for to be the most nuanced and compelling part of this book.

I also particularly appreciated the juxtaposition of the news clippings alongside Spring’s firsthand account. I found this a very effective way of demonstrating the disparity between what might actually happen (or what people remember having actually happened, memory being an entirely different beast) and the way events are written and distributed for public consumption. I found this especially poignant immediately following Luiselli’s also-longlisted Lost Children Archive, which addresses the same topic.

“Freedom come alright. For most of us, it hasn’t come on horses or with golden trumpets. Wasn’t no angel going around saving all the slaves. Some owners turn people loose. Some slaves walk off. Far as I know, wasn’t nobody going round checking if people had set slaves free. And don’t seem like nobody’s making sure we stay free either.”

Unfortunately, other aspects of the story did not work quite so well for me. The ghost appearing to Spring might have made for an interesting spiritual/supernatural element, but instead she felt more like a device for Battle-Felton to convey information to Spring, information that might have been just as effectively left to deduction or assumption. Also, Edward’s position as a scapegoat for the streetcar accident seemed at first a deft move toward showing the ways Spring and her family are still hindered by unjust white whims long past the official date of emancipation Instead Edward’s impending death felt like a contrived reason for Spring to narrate the history that fills most of the novel. I suppose for me the things Remembered seemed like it most wanted to say didn’t always seem to match up with the way the story was being told.

Which, of course, is a stylistic issue, a matter of opinion that’ll vary widely between readers. In the end, I mean only to say that this book was full of ups and downs for me; I have no argument against Remembered, but it didn’t provoke the same level of excitement in me that other longlisted titles have. I think this may have been another sad case (see: Number One Chinese Restaurant) of a prize-nominated book that I might have found more enthusiasm for if I had read it independently of the Women’s Prize. On the other hand, I might never have heard of it without its inclusion on the longlist, and I am grateful to been introduced. I’m not sure where that conflict leaves me.

“When I get mad about them telling me all they think they know about my life, they call me angry. They say it like I ain’t got no cause at all to be upset, sad. Can’t hardly feel nothing without somebody telling me how I should feel instead.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a quick read for me, and I think a good title to herald the end of my time with the longlist. It was easy to get through but it also made me think, which I enjoy in a book. It just didn’t sway me strongly one way or the other, and those seem to be the very hardest books to review.

 

The Literary Elephant

Women’s Prize 2019: Longlist Wrap-Up & Shortlist Prediction

I didn’t post my initial reaction to this year’s Women’s Prize longlist or my plans to read it in its entirety, but I have been slowly working through it. I’ve now officially finished reading the longlist and am looking forward (with much excitement!) to Monday’s shortlist announcement. Without further ado…

The Longlist

When the Women’s Prize 2019 longlist was announced on March 4, I was shocked to discover that I had already read nine (!) of the sixteen titles. I read seven of them in 2018, up to a year prior to the announcement, and two in early 2019.

Having already read over half of the list, I decided to try finishing the longlist before the shortlist announcement. I didn’t declare this intent very loudly because I wasn’t entirely sure it would happen (the only other longlist I’ve read took me about six months to complete. I have a long-standing habit of jumping around genres and reading commitments).

Of the remaining seven, I was familiar with only two titles (Number One Chinese Restaurant and Lost Children Archive) at the time of the longlist announcement. But I was game for the rest.

At this point, I have read all sixteen books, but I have one left to review (Remembered). I wanted to prioritize this overview/prediction post as many hours as possible before the shortlist announcement.
remembered

I’ve arranged the photos above in the order that I read the longlist. Below, I’m listing each of the titles in order of my personal preference, from most to least favorite. Here’s how the longlist turned out for me (titles linked to my full reviews):

  1. Milkman by Anna Burns, 5 stars
  2. The Pisces by Melissa Broder, 5 stars
  3. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, 5 stars
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, 5 stars
  5. Normal People by Sally Rooney, 4 stars
  6. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, 5 stars
  7. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, 4 stars
  8. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, 4 stars
  9. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, 4 stars
  10. Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, 3 stars
  11. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, 3 stars
  12. Circe by Madeline Miller, 3 stars
  13. Ordinary People by Diana Evans, 3 stars
  14. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, 3 stars
  15. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, 2 stars
  16. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden, 2 stars

(Yes, there’s a 4-star in the midst of the 5-stars, that’s not a mistake. Normal People felt like a 5-star book based on the literary merit I saw in it and its ability to bring out all sorts of emotions during my read, but I rate based on enjoyability and it resonated with me so deeply at one point that it made me very uncomfortable, which I acknowledged with a 4-star rating. It still has a solid place among my favorites.)

There were more extreme highs and lows for me in this longlist than in the last longlist I read, the 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Unfortunately, most of my top favorites came from the nine titles I read before the longlist announcement, and most of my least favorites came from the titles I read most recently. I’m usually a save-the-best-for-last type, so I would not have chosen to read them in this order if I’d had more control over it. But overall, I do think this is a very strong list and almost everything felt worth my while. I don’t anticipate reading the entire longlist every year, and with that in mind I do feel at the end that this was a great year for me to read every title.

One of the most interesting aspects of this particular longlist is the way that so many of the titles felt linked to others from the list. I enjoyed piecing together so many ways in which these titles seemed to be speaking to each other. Someone more savvy with graphics might have been able to map this out better, but I’m simply going to list some of the similarities I encountered:

  • Circe and The Silence of the Girls and The Pisces: retelling Greek myth elements
  • The Silence of the Girls and Circe and Swan Song: giving voice to familiar women history has regarded unfairly (perhaps)
  • Ghost Wall and Lost Children Archive: (inadvertently?) leading one’s children astray
  • Freshwater and The Pisces: challenging gender norms, examining mental health
  • Milkman and Bottled Goods: exploring the consequences of rumor in a time of governmental conflict
  • Number One Chinese Restaurant and My Sister, the Serial Killer: exploring hurtful/helpful sibling relationships
  • Normal People and Ordinary People: elevating the everyday
  • Ordinary People and Swan Song and Remembered: questioning and pushing the bounds of hauntings/ghosts
  • Ordinary People and An American Marriage: depicting black relationships in the modern world
  • Praise Song for the Butterflies and Remembered and Lost Children Archive: raising awareness of historical (and recent) societal wrongs
  • Remembered and An American Marriage: depicting racial injustice

There are probably many connections I’ve missed here, as there seem to be SO MANY thematic similarities in this list and I waited too long to start jotting them down. It’s so interesting to consider how the conversations these books seem to encourage are both related to one another and also tangential to each other. But sadly, some of these pairings seem so closely tied that I find it unlikely that both titles would pass on to the shortlist. (For instance, does anyone expect to find TWO Greek retelling books advance?) It bothers me that these similarities might limit the shortlist, but even in my own predictions I’ve taken such considerations into account.

Also taken into account: the fact that some of these titles don’t need the publicity that a win would grant them. (For instance, Milkman and Normal People have already received quite a bit of buzz, largely due to their places on the Man Booker 2018 list, which Milkman went on to win.) Then there’s the fact that this longlist is nicely balanced as far as both topics covered and countries represented, which I’m sure the judges will want to reflect in the shortlist as well. And so my six favorites from the ranks above are not actually my predicted contenders for the shortlist.

The Shortlist

The books I hope (and might more realistically expect) to see advance are as follows:

  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
  • The Pisces by Melissa Broder
  • Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Some additional thoughts- I would not mind Milkman advancing to the shortlist, though I rather hope it doesn’t win for the mere fact that it is already a prize winner and there are other great contenders here. I would not mind seeing My Sister, the Serial Killer advance, though I think Ghost Wall is the stronger novella and I doubt more than one of the three novellas will advance. Based on popularity in other reviews, I would not be entirely surprised to see Swan Song, Circe, or Number One Chinese Restaurant advance, though personally I hope not to see that happen.

If shortlisted, I will probably reread: Ghost WallThe Pisces, and/or Freshwater in the lead-up to the winner announcement.

The Winner

And finally, I’m going to predict a winner. I’m actually going to predict two winners at this point, though between the shortlist and winner reveals I’ll limit myself to endorsing only one of the six possibilities. But as we’re still at sixteen contenders for the moment, I’ll say that:

  1. The title I most want to see win at this point is Freshwater
  2. But the title I think is actually most likely to win, based on its general reception and strong merit, is Lost Children Archive.

I could be completely wrong about all of these guesses. In fact, I probably am. I’ve never predicted a shortlist or prize winner before, so I feel rather unqualified though I am having a lot of fun pondering the choices!

Speaking of fun, I’ve been loving seeing so many differing opinions and reviews of these longlisted titles! Literary prizes are a great way to join in with a large group of readers who are all talking about the same books at the same time. And I’d love to talk about theories and preferences even more in the comments below, so if you’ve read any of these titles, please let me know what you thought, and what you hope will happen next!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

Review: Lost Children Archive

Women’s Prize No. 15/16

I’ve been in a major reading slump (probably due to some things going on in my life this last week, not the fault of any particular book), but I’m still trying to finish the Women’s Prize longlist before Monday’s shortlist announcement. I have mostly positive things to say about my penultimate longlist read, Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, so I don’t think my slump has been much of an issue in this case (other than slowing me down).

lostchildrenarchiveIn the novel, a family of four sets off on a road trip from New York to the American southwest. They’ve been together for four years- the woman and her daughter, with the man and his son- while the adults worked on a soundscape project in New York City. As a documentarian and a documentarist, the two have much in common, though in the end their methods and motivations for recording sounds differ enough that they are now considering going their separate ways to work on new projects, each their own. In the meantime, they drive south: the man chasing Apache history and the woman following the child migrant situation toward the border, with the two kids in the backseat listening to all of their stories. Of course, children have their own ideas about how to solve problems, and the boy’s decision to take his family’s impending separation into his own hands complicates everything.

“Officially, Pa was a documentarist and Ma was a documentarian, and very few people know the difference. The difference is, just so you know, that a documentarian is like a librarian and a documentarist is like a chemist. But both of them did basically the same thing: they had to find sounds, record them, store them on tape, and then put them together in a way that told a story.”

Lost Children Archive is an ambitious and highly literary book, large in scope. It’s perhaps most impressive structurally; the story is divided into sections that correspond to the boxes of documentation riding along in the trunk of the family’s car. The first part of the book is narrated by the woman, the second part by the son; mixed into both halves are a set of elegies the two read (together and apart) throughout the journey. There are also maps, images, lyrics, a twenty-page chapter comprised of one loooong sentence, and so much more. This is the sort of expertly-crafted book that is difficult not to appreciate, though it’s the emotional draw that makes this novel more engaging than a merely intellectual pursuit.

In the first half of the book, the mother’s perspective, I had a hard time finding a compelling hook to keep me invested. The woman isn’t sure what direction her new project will take, or whether she wants her four-year relationship to end, or how she can help her friend, whose daughters are among the missing migrant children. There are more questions than answers, and though the family has a destination in mind, their travels feel meandering and a bit aimless. I marked many statements for their lyricism and/or power, inciteful remarks about the state of the border policies in the US, the way history is remembered or forgotten, the meaning of family, of documenting, etc. These passages made me think and gave me something to appreciate, but they were not quite enough to fully convince me that this was a book I needed to read.

“More and more, my presence here, on this trip with my family, driving toward a future we most probably won’t share, settling into motel bedrooms for the night, feels ghostly, a life witnessed and not lived. I know I’m here, with them, but also I am not.”

The second half of the book, the son’s perspective, won me over completely. In part because of the way the plot picks up at this point, but also because I simply found him so much more fascinating- odd for me feel more connected to a young boy than a woman adrift, but here we are. I don’t always like stories told by children; the voice can feel forced in its ignorance. I did wonder over a few moments here whether this boy truly seemed like a child rather than an adult’s idea of a child, but ultimately I was convinced. This was the link I needed to bring all of the threads of the story together in a meaningful way. On the surface, the Apache tribe may not seem connected to the influx of Mexican and Central American children, to sound documentation, or to a family road trip. But as the children absorb their parents’ passions and concerns, the stories of fallen Native American chiefs mesh with the tragedies of lost children, which mesh with the songs they hear in the car. The boy brings an almost-incongruous innocence to overlay the book’s heavy subjects, softening a harsh reality without indulging in sentimentalism.

There are so many parts to Lost Children Archive that I think the entrance point will be different for all of its varied readers, but Luiselli blends each aspect so seamlessly into the next that finding one facet of this story that speaks to the heart will likely shape the entire reading experience. It’s a marvel of formatting, speaking to an important and timely topic, told from the perspectives of flawed but likable characters. It’s a hit-or-miss sort of book I suppose, as finding or failing to find an emotional connection could make or break the experience (respectively), but for me this was undoubtedly a hit.

“No one decides to not go to work and start a hunger strike after listening to the radio in the morning. Everyone continues with their normal lives, no matter the severity of the news they hear, unless the severity concerns the weather.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It took me a while to get into this one, but once I was in I was in. I’ll be honest- there were moments in the first half when I seriously considered jumping ship; I could see the bones of a great story but it just wasn’t grabbing me. Stuck in a slump, I needed to be grabbed. Only my determination to round out the Women’s Prize longlist (on a deadline, no less) kept me going. But I’m so very glad it did. Though it’s not my Favorite from the longlist, I would not be surprised or disappointed to see this one win.

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

Freshwater, Milkman, My Sister the Serial Killer, Normal People, Swan Song, Circe, An American Marriage, Ordinary People, Praise Song for the Butterflies, The Silence of the Girls, Number One Chinese Restaurant, The Pisces, Ghost Wall, and Bottled Goods.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Swan Song

Women’s Prize No. 14/16

Some might say it was a mistake to leave the longest title on the Women’s Prize list so close to the end, and those people would probably be right. Instead of getting the more daunting books out of the way early on and saving the best for last (as I usually prefer), I’ve been reading this longlist entirely in order of which titles are most readily available to me, a sensible but much less perfect system. Though I began Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song with ease and plenty of amusement, there were certainly days this past week when I wondered whether I was going to make it through the longlist- or even this particular title alone- after all. But I’m pleased to be able to say I’ve finally made it out on the other side, with only two titles left to go.

swansongIn the novel, literary wonder Truman Capote comes into fame after the success of his true crime novel, In Cold Blood. With his newfound wealth and influence, he befriends high-class socialites and other prestigious public officials. Briefly, he lives the good life of black tie parties, expensive lunches, Cartier watches, general renown, and oh so very much gossip. Things take a turn for the worse however, when he attempts to expose the secrets of his real friends in his magnum opus, a novel that drags the transgressions of high society members into the public spotlight in a way that seems more scandal than art. The six “swans” who felt most betrayed by Truman’s final (unfinished) work are given voice here as the author falls from grace.

“He thought it was art, Babe. What he did with In Cold Blood. Reportage as fiction.”

For about half the book, though not completely sold on the execution of what seemed to me quite an interesting premise, I was at least highly entertained. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, but I found them fascinating nevertheless. Greenberg-Jephcott uses an intriguing blend of narrative styles that I enjoyed, especially when the backstories of the swans are introduced. I’m also partial to the blending of fact and fiction; premise and personalities completely aside, I loved being able to find real photos of all the main characters. For these reasons, the first half of the book passed quickly and easily for me.

But about 250 pages through, those novelties were no longer enough to satisfy and I began to dwell so much more on criticisms- the first and foremost being that this book seems too long. It’s hard to say exactly what could have been cut, as ultimately I appreciated the stories and backstories of each of the swans (some more than others of course, but I can’t name a single one of the main six that I would specifically prefer to exclude), as well as most of the anecdotes from various points in Truman’s life. There were sections that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of name-dropping that I wouldn’t have missed if removed, but none of the actual content of the book felt out of place.

In the end, I think the element that made this story drag for me was the nonlinear chronology. The story jumps around in time, connecting “present” moments to glimpses farther into the past that are meant to add meaning or significance to what happens later. Though the years are noted in the chapter headers, the frequent switches left me feeling like I never knew exactly where I was in the story or where it was headed, if anywhere at all. Admittedly, the early promise of Truman’s demise gives the glamour an appealingly dark edge that a straight chronology would’ve lacked, but a more grounded format might’ve moved the story along with a stronger sense of purpose.

Speaking of purpose, let’s take a look at what this novel is trying to accomplish. At first glance, its a story of justice or perhaps revenge, with the plural narrative voice of the swans giving these outed women a chance at voicing their own side of events. Upon closer inspection, Greenberg-Jephcott goes to no pains to paint these women in any sort of positive light. I don’t need characters to be likable to find them compelling, but to feel invested in a story I have to be able to root for something. Instead, I found the women unapologetic (or unaware) of the selfishness and greed that Truman was so intent on exploiting. But on the other hand, the narrative never led me to feel that Truman was in the right for sharing what was told to him in confidence, either. I found him just as self-serving and misguided as his swans, which led me to wonder exactly what I was reading for if I didn’t particularly want either camp to “win.” This is a work of fiction, rather than an accurate history of events (though clearly a lot of research went into this book). If not for hard facts, and if not to stretch the “truth” into some more favorable or inspiring light than history provides, what’s the draw? After reading the entirety of Swan Song– all 467 pages of it- I still can’t give a solid answer.

“Because of who Truman was, that evening will always be perfect- nothing could hope to rival it. But because of who he became, it can never exist again. He has taken it with him, and for that, above all else, we can never fully pardon him. One cannot forgive the tainting of the sublime.”

Theoretically, I love the idea of this book. I love that the women’s lives aren’t softened to make Truman out to be a monster he wasn’t, and I love that Truman’s actions aren’t excused in a way that belittles the wronged women, no matter how much they may have deserved (or not) to have their secrets revealed. And yet for all its potential, Swan Song simply seems to lack an extreme or an excitement that secures it as a meaningful story rather than a gossip-riddled piece of once-and-done entertainment.

There’s a lot more I could say about this book- about the terrible words used to describe Truman, most often related to his short stature and homosexuality; about the odd juxtaposition of the narration referring to Truman throughout the book as “the boy,” even in his most adult moments; about the great potential of the plural narrative voice that I felt was ultimately not capitalized upon; etc. But the heart of the matter is that Swan Song felt to me like a book one reads for fun, and I just wasn’t having enough fun with it. It’s likely that readers with more knowledge of Capote’s work (I’ve only read In Cold Blood and watched the film for Breakfast at Tiffany’s so far) would take more from this reading experience than I did. I am more interested in reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s and even Answered Prayers at this point, so I can’t say Swan Song was an entirely ineffective read, and nor would I want to. With some revisions, I could have adored this book. As it is, I felt that it simply didn’t live up to its potential.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had high hopes for this one after starting in with such a high level of amusement, but I just couldn’t maintain that level of interest through all 450+ pages. It certainly makes for an interesting addition to the Women’s Prize longlist, though; there’s an almost-supernatural moment toward the end with Truman and the swans that reminded me of Ordinary People– yet another similarity tying the longlisted titles into one big web.

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, Ordinary People, Praise Song for the Butterflies, The Silence of the Girls, Number One Chinese Restaurant, The Pisces, Ghost Wall, and Bottled Goods.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Ordinary People

Women’s Prize No. 13/16

The longlist for the Women’s Prize this year seems to feature many books that share similarities with others, either stylistically, thematically, or tonally. As I enjoyed both Normal People and An American Marriage, the titles I consider most closely related to Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, I picked up the Evans novel with the hope of appreciating it just as much. The prospect of an additional supernatural element lacking in the others offered further reason for excitement.

ordinarypeopleIn the novel, a party is thrown in London to celebrate Obama’s 2008 election to presidency in the US. Attending this party are two black couples, one pair married, one pair not. Both families include children, and have been living together for several years. Over the course of several months, the relationships of these four adults- old friends, though they don’t live nearby or see each other often- fluctuate as they each struggle to find their place in the world. During this time, Melissa tries to convince Michael to take her seriously when she complains that their house is haunted, and Stephanie pushes Damian to confront his feelings regarding his father’s death. Ordinary life is lived, day by day.

As the title would suggest, this is not a book about heroes or villains going on adventures and taking world-changing risks. It’s a quiet story about a handful of people who could be any people, in a year that’s significant only in the ways that any year could be combed for significance. Like anyone, these characters change their minds, are sometimes wrong, find the answers that they’re looking for in narratives they create in their own minds.

“Who was she, really, inside? It was as if there were two of her, one at the back, drowning, and one at the front.”

It’s easy to ask- early and frequently- “So what’s the point?” There will likely be readers who find such a story tedious and unworthy of the time it takes to read. To be honest, I spent a lot of my own reading time wondering whether I would fall into that camp. I couldn’t bring myself to care whether Michael and Melissa would stay together, whether Stephanie and Damian would break apart. And yet, Evans captures something so personal and familiar in the narration of their lives that it’s all but impossible not to see bits of yourself in these pages. I found myself sympathizing with each of the characters at different moments, feeling in turn a little connected to them all. There may not be anything flashy about Ordinary People, but it does serve as a neat reminder that all of humanity is built of slightly interconnected stories just like this one.

“It’s not so bad, when it finally happens. You think the world is going to collapse around you but it doesn’t. You can see yourself clearly again. You realise that the fear was the worst thing.”

Though Obama’s monumental election actually receives little page time, it is worth noting as one of the events that helps shape these characters’ lives. The 2008 recession also finds its moment here, as do John Legend’s early albums and Michael Jackson’s fate. Though there is a certain level of transferrable ordinariness throughout the book, highlighting certain cultural moments like these also keeps the novel from becoming too generalized. We may (mostly) be ordinary, but there is no average, universal experience. Evans finds a wonderful balance between the relatable and the specific.

For a little extra flair, there is also a possible haunting that becomes increasingly prevalent toward the end of the story. There are hints toward what will come in the first half, but the maybe-ghost becomes much more present in the latter portion of the book. I say “maybe”-ghost because Evans leaves the reader to decide who is haunting the house: an external force, or Melissa’s own paranoia, borne from the pressures of a crumbling relationship and a new baby. I found this blurred line the most intriguing aspect of the story, and the chapter in which this issue comes to a head was easily the most engaging chapter of the book for me. Though if this is the only part of the synopsis that interests you, be warned that it makes up only a small portion of the novel.

At its core, Ordinary People is about falling out of love, and finding it again. Maybe. It’s about learning how much of yourself to give to the people who need you, and how much to keep for yourself. In beautiful, flowing prose that makes it easy to keep reading even when doubting the purpose of the overall story, Evans knows just how to draw the reader in.

“They were partners, in the very tedious sense of the word, and the difficult thing was that they couldn’t talk to their best friends about it, because they had been each other’s best friends.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I think Evans manages an incredible sort of commentary with Ordinary People and its narrative style perfectly fits the concept, I did find myself rather bored for long stretches of my reading time. I can’t think of any way the story could be improved for a more engaging experience, and I did find the premise and tone very similar to Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I LOVED; but somehow Ordinary People failed to excite me in any of the same ways. Perhaps the ties I drew between it and Normal People were to its detriment, though I think even if I had read Ordinary People first I would still have preferred Normal People in the end. Overall this was just… okay. There was nothing wrong with it, but it’s not a stand-out for me among the  other longlisted nominees.

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, Praise Song for the Butterflies, The Silence of the Girls, Number One Chinese Restaurant, The Pisces, Ghost Wall, and Bottled Goods.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Early Riser

It’s happening. I’m falling behind with my Book of the Month books again. I’m not too upset about it (I’ll get to them eventually), but it does mean that I just finished reading one of my February selections, a very wintery book, in the warm spring weather of April. (Oops.) Fortunately, the Winter of Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser is such an otherworldly setting that it feels more like a fantasy world than a season.

earlyriserIn the novel, a young Charlie Worthing will work just about any job that’ll pay in Morphenox, the dreamless drug that eases almost every member of the human population (who can afford it, at least) through winter hibernation. A brave few serve as Winter Consuls, overseeing the sleeping masses through the three harshest months of the year. Charlie takes a chance on the Consul service (whose members get their sleep in the summer and stay awake through the inhospitable winter storms) and ends up in the worst sector of Wales without a proper mentor during a raging blizzard, right in the middle of the biggest mystery in Morphenox history: a mystery of viral dreams.

“The only evidence I had that this wasn’t real was that I knew it wasn’t. Nothing else.”

Early Riser is the first book I saw BOTM advertise with a warning, as a challenging read. I thought, “well, I’ve been around this reading game long enough, a challenging read doesn’t bother me,” and promptly forgot about the warning label. I remembered it as soon as I started in on the book, however; Early Riser is DENSE.

Though set in a sort of parallel world near modern day and with similar geography to our present reality, the history of Fforde’s world is not exactly the history we’re familiar with; the characters still play scrabble and view the Mona Lisa, but Morphenox has shaped society for decades and skewed connotations and perceptions. Every cultural reference comes into the novel with its own history or definition, there are a lot of new words and systems, some crucial to the story and some thrown in for world-building. Like the schtumperschreck, a gun so high-powered it can barely be lifted for use. Most of the names are imaginative like that, terms that require memorization rather than self-evident rewordings of existing objects and ideas. There are instances where the characters speak or think in ways that are meant to recap important details or plot points, but even so this is a book that requires a reader’s complete attention. There are also a lot of characters: some who aren’t who they say they are, some who are basically zombies, some who are actually two characters rolled into one. Part of the plot takes place in Charlie’s dreams. All in all, a warning label is not remiss.

” ‘We’re all something we’re not,’ he said. ‘Every one of us is stuck between the person we want to be and the person we can be.’ “

But if you are the sort of reader who likes to fully immerse in fiction, Early Riser is a wild ride. From the nightmare creatures who may be real, to tampered dreams, to corporate espionage, to gunfights in white-out blizzard conditions, I guarantee you’ll never know quite where this story is going next.

Perhaps the most intriguing element, however, is that Fforde leaves the gender of the main character up to the reader. “Charlie” is one of those names that could fit a male or female, and many would probably fill in that blank without noticing that this choice is made in the reader’s mind. Other characters are given gender pronouns, but not the main character. Charlie seemed more like a man to me, but I wonder whether this is simply due to the fact that I am a woman, and the lack of female-specific concerns made me feel that Charlie was not a woman. I waited through all 400 pages to see some indication one way or the other, but Fforde never provides concrete evidence. Which is a neat idea and it’s intriguing to peruse other reviews and see all the disparate ways readers have imagined this blank-slate character. On the other hand, if (like me) you notice early on that no gender is specified, you may have a hard time picturing Charlie. This was a small point of frustration for me throughout the story, though I do not begrudge Fforde’s attempt.

Also of interest is the formatting of the book, which includes footnotes (which I thought were fun but not strictly necessary) and excerpts from fictional historical texts at the start of each chapter (which I found very amusing and generally helpful in envisioning this world but also very distracting from the main plot). Both of these elements, though not entirely effective for me, do help immerse the reader in this wintery world and in Charlie’s mind.

“It’s the loneliness. In the Summer it simply makes you glum, but in the Winter it can be fatal. I’ve seen strong people collapse inside.”

The only real setback for me came from a lack of danger. The reader is told over and over that Charlie’s chances of survival are slim, but there’s no real worry of Charlie dying an untimely death. Unexpected saviors intervene, or Charlie is lucky, or someone sacrifices themselves for the sake of the mission- which requires Charlie staying alive, of course. In most books, the reader expects that the main character will live through most of the narration, so this shouldn’t have been a problem, but there’s a disconnect between the stakes claimed loudly in the narration and the actual likelihood of Fforde allowing Charlie to befall even a minor injury. This killed some of the tension and excitement for me, as I wasn’t particularly invested in the characters more likely to meet their demise.

“As long as I had value, I was safe.”

Initially, I picked this book up because I was interested in its viral dream aspect; earlier this year I loved Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, and was hoping for another weird sleep saga. Early Riser is certainly weird and does have some Inception vibes, but I found the Winter far more compelling than the dreams in this case. Don’t let my middling rating fool you- I’m sure I will remember parts of this story for a very long time, and the world stands out as one of the most thoroughly-imagined settings that I’ve ever read. I’m glad I picked this one up.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I had a good time reading this and loved the rich world and unpredictability of the plot, I also had a hard time reading very many pages of this book at a time. The lack of fear for Charlie and the constant need to parse new terms and concepts distanced me from the story, even though overall I would say I found the plot impressive. I wish I had made time for Early Riser back in the depths of winter, as much because of the book’s density and length as its setting.

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 3

The time has come again- for another round of Faber Stories reviews! I’ve now read eleven of the titles in this little set of twenty singly-bound short stories; you can check out my first and second batches of reviews if you missed them, and I’ll be talking about four more of the stories below.

faberstories3

Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore. 3 stars. 

The synopsis of this 1998 story opens with the news that the central character will accidentally kill a neighbor’s baby at a holiday picnic. Indeed, this happens within the first two pages. Though of course no one quite blames her, this unfortunate woman retreats into herself, feeling unfit for “normal” life in the aftermath. This is essentially what drew me to the story.

Much to my disappointment, the scene of the accident, though well-crafted, is brief and then almost forgotten; the woman’s seven months of self-imposed house-arrest pass in only a few sentences. The bulk of the story instead takes place at an artists’ retreat in Italy. The woman’s attempts to come to grips with what has happened include only two or three mentions of the baby, focusing mainly on her divine massages at a local shop and her conversations with the other artists. This journey to self-acceptance felt so cold to me because it seemed that Moore had left the inciting horror of the situation entirely up to the reader’s imagination and instead skipped ahead to moments near the end of the grieving process that felt a bit unearned, with a forced amount of whimsy.

Essentially I felt that it wasn’t the story I had expected to read based on the synopsis, which was understandably short to match the story. But there are certainly beautiful and humorous moments here, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed this more if I hadn’t made assumptions beforehand.

“Normal life is no longer possible for me. I’ve stepped off all the normal paths and am living in the bushes. I’m a bushwoman now. I don’t feel like I can have the normal things.”

Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro. 4 stars.

This piece from 2009 I picked up primarily because this is one the authors I feel somewhat ashamed for having neglected to read thus far in my life- the synopsis about a man who inadvertently steps into a dispute between his married college friends (and is supposed to convince the wife that her husband is great by showing himself to be subpar) didn’t interest me near as much as the name on the cover. I went in with high expectations for the writing style and low expectations for the story.

And came out completely smitten with both. This is a wonderful little story that continually takes things a little farther than expected, in the best possible way. There’s no magic, nothing supernatural, no man behind a curtain to manipulate events. In an entirely plausible and awkward situation, Ishiguro manages to take a simple plot to incredible highs and lows. It had me sighing sadly, laughing aloud, and utterly awestruck.

Only the slow start and the odd solution the narrator’s friend has concocted to put his marriage back on track kept me from a 5-star rating here; I know I’ll be revisiting this story with fondness in the future.

The Shielding of Mrs Forbes by Alan Bennett. 5 stars.

From one Faber favorite to another! This 2011 story stood out to me initially because of its high rating (4.28 on Goodreads right now), but also because of its intriguing premise: one man tries to keep his homosexuality (or bisexuality, it’s not entirely clear which way he identifies, but what matters for the story is that he’s a man interested in other men) hidden from the rest of his family.

But the story is actually so much more interesting than this suggests; instead of one man with one secret, Bennett delivers an entire family, all keeping various parts of the same secret from one another. The man’s wife has her own reasons for staying in the marriage despite her husband’s bizarre and somewhat criminal situation; his parents are involved in their own scandalous ways, and none of them quite knows the full truth about what’s going on. There are beautiful layers of irony and espionage woven into the tale, and Bennett’s prose is delightfully aware of its link between these fictional characters and the reader observing them.

Though none of the Forbes family members are particularly likable, they’re certainly dynamic. If you pick up only one volume from this collection, I think this is the one that really shouldn’t be missed- though I haven’t read them all yet to make an entirely fair comparison.

“This is where love generally comes in: whether the inequality between the partners is physical or social or indeed financial, evening up the score is what love is about. Still, even in the most perfect of unions there’s often detectable an element of bestowal.”

Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones. 3 stars.

A teenaged boxer spends all year preparing to best the fighter who beat him last season. Though this very male story (originally from 1998) didn’t seem exactly my cup of tea from the synopsis, I always find it interesting to check out the work of Iowa Writer’s Workshop grads, of which Thom Jones is one. And actually, once I’d started reading, I realized I’d read this story once before, probably in high school.

Jones does a great job of building up the tension of this story from the first mention of Kid Dynamite’s boxing aspirations to the anticipated fight- but in a brilliant storytelling move, it is Kid Dynamite’s reaction to the fight that the reader will remember most.

This is a perfectly adequate story that unfortunately just didn’t excite me in any way. It’s not a story that requires a male audience or even a passing interest in boxing, though I’m sure either of those qualifications would help; for me it was simply a straightforward coming-of-age tale that didn’t stand out from other stories with similar themes.

Concluding thoughts: This batch came as a bit of a surprise as far as ratings; Terrific Mother was the title I’d been most anticipating among these four, and it turned out to be my least favorite of the bunch; conversely, despite the high ratings for The Shielding of Mrs Forbes I picked it up rather arbitrarily one evening and was surprised to find my first 5-star rating from this collection. I’d be interested to read more from both Ishiguro and Bennett, and I feel like I should give Moore another chance even though I’m not particularly enthusiastic about that at the moment. On the whole, I’m still really enjoying this collection of stories and planning to continue with at least one more batch.

Have you read any of the Faber Stories? Which has been your favorite?

 

The Literary Elephant