TBR 8.19

I have way too many reading commitments stacked up for August, so the books I acquired in July that I’m *supposed* to be reading next month are probably going to take a backseat for now. Nevertheless, since reading my newly acquired books by the end of the following month was a goal I set for myself this year, I still want to track my progress even though I’m expecting it to be an utter failure this time around. So I’ll do a quick run-through here of the books I’ve hauled this month, followed by an overview of other books I intend to read.

New (unread) books on my shelves this month:

  1. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. My July BOTM selection, a new nonfiction about female desire I’m very intrigued about!
  2. The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan. I picked this up in an excellent secondhand bookstore that I visited with a friend on her birthday; it’s one of McEwan’s titles I’m most curious about, and strangely unavailable at my local library and bookstore.
  3. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. I’ve yet to read anything from this author (regrettably!) and fortuitously came across this one in the same secondhand shop.
  4. After Dark by Haruki Murakami. I read and loved Murakami’s Norwegian Wood earlier this year, and have been wanting to try more of his work. I found this one at another secondhand shop.
  5. Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney. (There aren’t any secondhand shops close to where I live, so when I had the opportunity I went a little crazy!) Beowulf has been on my TBR for ages, so this was a rather arbitrary time to pick it up, but perhaps having a copy on hand will give me the motivation to finally read it. This edition shows the full Old English text alongside the translation, which appeals to me because I studied Old English in college and want to see how much I remember!
  6. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. My last secondhand grab this month. I included this title in a Top of the TBR post this month and have suddenly been itching to start in.
  7. Wilder Girls by Rory Power. A lot of attractive new releases came out in July, but this is one that fascinated me the most. YA usually goes quickly for me and the synopsis looks great; I expect to be reading this one soon!
  8. The Philosopher’s War by Tom Miller. This is a sequel to Miller’s The Philosopher’s Flight, which was one of the weirdest and most fun books I picked up from BOTM in 2018.
  9. Different Seasons by Stephen King. Barnes and Noble was having a B2G1 sale on SK material (plus discounts!) which I couldn’t pass up. This story collection includes “Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body,” two SK stories I’m most excited to read!
  10. Skeleton Crew by Stephen King. I know less about this story collection, but I do find it easier to read thicker books when I don’t have a library due date looming ahead, so have been waiting for a good opportunity to pick up a copy of this one.
  11. Strange Weather by Joe Hill. I’ve not yet read any of Joe Hill’s work, but given my appreciation for Stephen King’s writing (SK is Hill’s father) and the similarities in style/content that I’ve heard the two share, I really need to remedy that situation. I’ve had my eye on this one since it was released, and like the thought of starting with a set of shorter pieces. (This is a set of four short, related novels.)

tbr8.19

I’d like to pick up as many of these new-to-me titles as I can, because I am pretty excited about this month’s haul list, but I do also have a few other reading plans in mind.

First, August is Women in Translation month, so I want to be sure I’m supporting some translated women writers in my reading and reviewing throughout the month. The titles I’m going to aim for picking up in August are:

  1. Human Acts by Han Kang. I bought this after loving Kang’s The Vegetarian last year; I expect I’ll love this one as well, and it’ll feel good to tackle an owned-unread book that I’ve neglected too long!
  2. Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi. This is another owned-unread book, though much newer. I was hoping to get to this one in July, but it just didn’t happen. This is the 2019 winner of the Man Booker International Prize.
  3. The History of Bees by Maja Lunde. I recently rediscovered this book on my TBR, and feel that it’s time to finally pick it up.

August is also prime time for the Booker Prize longlist; I don’t think I’ll be able to read the full roster, but I am expecting to pick up these titles within the month:

  1. Lanny by Max Porter.
  2. An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma.
  3. The Wall by John Lanchester.
  4. Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.
  5. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry.

Additionally, as though I didn’t have enough to read, I’ve tentatively agreed to another Stephen King buddy read, which will necessitate my completing:

  1. Finders Keepers by Stephen King. This is the second book in the Bill Hodges trilogy. I own a copy, and enjoyed the first book, but have been slow to pick this one up.
  2. End of Watch by Stephen King. The third book in the Bill Hodges trilogy, which I also already own.
  3. The Outsider by Stephen King. A related follow-up to the Bill Hodges trilogy, and the actual title I expect to buddy read, if I manage to complete the others in time. They’re all of reasonable length, by King standards, and the first book was a pretty quick and immersive read, so I’m hoping I can fly through these pretty quickly.

And last but not least, I also have two books already checked out from the library that I was hoping to squeeze into the end of July, which didn’t quite happen.

  1. Lock Every Door by Riley Sager. I’m actually planning to start this one today, and am really looking forward to it!
  2. The Need by Helen Phillips. This is a short thriller that looks pleasantly disturbing, and is a new release I was really excited for. I’m not sure I want to read these two thrillers back-to-back, but they will be due for return soon and I expect to finish them both within a week or so.

All in all… 23 books. There’s no way that’ll happen, so I’ll certainly have to prioritize some categories here above others. I managed to finish 9 books in July (and am expecting to finish a 10th tonight- my wrap-up should be coming up tomorrow!), so I’m realistically hoping to complete about half of this absurdly ambitious TBR.

Have you read any of these? Anything you particularly recommend?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Advertisements

Review: Again, But Better

Earlier this month I mentioned in another post that I don’t read YA contemporary romance anymore, and here I am eating my words. In all fairness I did not pick up Christine Riccio’s Again, But Better because of its synopsis. I’ve been following Riccio’s writing updates on her Booktube channel since early 2016; though my interest in YA content (and thus most of her videos) has severely declined, I stuck with her writing series.

When Again, But Better was finally published this spring, I had to check it out because 1) seeing a physical, finished product after watching a complete stranger talk about it conceptually on my phone screen for several years seemed like a fascinating experience I couldn’t pass up, and 2) there’s been a lot of backlash against Booktuber books, which some believe are published for their easy marketability rather than story quality; that’s a judgment I didn’t feel I could chime in on without ever having read a Booktuber book. After waiting on a long hold list, I finally got my chance this month to pick up Riccio’s book. Results: It’s not the most accomplished debut I’ve read, but I certainly don’t resent its publication!

againbutbetterIn the novel, Shane leaves New York for a study abroad semester in London. Though she’s been making good grades and pleasing her parents with her progress toward a medical degree, she’s not happy with her college experience and is eager for a fresh start. So eager, in fact, that she signs up for a creative writing program in London that has nothing to do with her major, and takes an internship at a travel magazine. And, best luck of all, she’s rooming next to a cute boy who makes her want to stick to her resolution to try new things! But of course, it’s all too good to be true. When the trip takes a sour turn, Shane’s left wondering what she would do with a second chance.

“I was trying really hard to do what I thought was the right thing for so long, and turns out maybe the right thing was the wrong thing… It’s hard to come to terms with that.”

Riccio states in an author’s note before the novel proper that this is a fictional story, based on her own experiences. I think the extent to which Shane is Christine will be fairly obvious from the start for readers who have any familiarity with the author. Her sense of humor and personality (such as I have gleaned without having met her) seem to be a direct match with her characterization of Shane. If you pick this up because you enjoy Riccio’s social media presence, I think you’re far more likely to find this an appreciable book.

Again, But Better is divided into two parts that each take up about half of the book’s space. The first half features Shane’s semester abroad in 2011. (There are so many pop culture references that forgetting the year is impossible.) The second half features Shane’s second chance. Both parts are immersive and entertaining, though perhaps longer than necessary. The transition between the two is abrupt, with an unexplained magical element tying the two together; this feels like lazy writing- the magic is easy, convenient, and totally unviable as an option for readers looking to take advice on second chances from this story- but it allows Riccio to demonstrate her point clearly and keep the story light, so I suppose it serves its purpose in the end.

” ‘Could we have gone through a wormhole?’

‘Magic is more plausible than a wormhole,’ I argue.

‘Wormholes are scientific.’

‘Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.’

‘Shane it’s magic; that’s why we can’t understand it.’

‘Hogwarts could be real!’

‘I can’t believe this is a serious conversation I’m having.’ “

The constant attempts at humor were somewhat exhausting and unnecessary in my opinion, but the characters ultimately struck me as believable. Shane is painfully awkward, the love interest is flawed but kind, their roommates bring new and worthwhile perspectives to the mix. Though I would argue that both halves of the story could have endured some shortening without losing anything vital, Riccio does an excellent job of circling back on even the smallest scenes to imbue meaning; every inclusion is deliberate and the layering of detail complex. The writing is not without skill, though I’m sure time and experience will hone it further.

I did have a few small hangups with the premise, though. Thematically, this is a story about stepping out of your comfort zone (particularly in college, though not necessarily limited to that environment) and taking chances. Making room for your dreams instead of focusing only on obligations. I can get behind that. And while I don’t think the narration means to present study abroad as the cure for introversion, and it certainly doesn’t present introversion as some sort of serious personality flaw that must be overcome at all costs, I did find the implication that the key to jump-starting your life is to travel and abandon your major a rather privileged and simplistic stance. Additionally, I think the book skirts one of the biggest issues it raises: how to make that grab for independence. Shane learns the hard way that she can’t make her stand on her parents’ dime, and though their lack of support adds an interesting challenge to the narrative, the story skips straight from that conflict to Shane’s settled life several years later. Of course, Again, But Better is a fictional romance, not a self-help book. I love that it depicts a young woman falling in love without giving up her own goals. But I did feel a bit of disconnect between its apparent aim to inspire and its lack of realistic suggestions.

But, Riccio says in her acknowledgments:

“I hope you enjoyed my first book. I hope it made you happy in some way or another. I hope you laughed. I hope it made you want to face your fears.”

I did enjoy the read, parts of it made me happy, I laughed twice, and I did close the cover in the end with the mindset of wanting to take a chance in my own life. In this, Riccio’s intent seems to have been met. She also states that this was the story she wanted to read when she was twenty (Shane’s age), and I am quite sure that if I had read this as the naive, introverted twenty-year-old that I was, I would have loved this book. It does have a lot of elements that were missing for me in the books I was reading at that time- modern college-aged protagonists, a search for elusive independence, proof that failures and disasters even of one’s own making are survivable, familial discord, YA pop cultural references, Beatles appreciation, etc. It might not have been a perfect fit for me even then, but I would have appreciated knowing I wasn’t the only one skipping parties to stay in and read. And as such, I’m grateful that other twenty year-olds who struggle to find their place in college will have the opportunity to discover a book they might relate to in that way.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. All in all, an interesting reading experiment. Would I read more from this author? I’m not sure. Though I enjoyed this book and am curious to see where Riccio goes with her writing career, this isn’t a genre I reach for often and I don’t particularly want to read another self-insert story. I picked up Again, But Better to cap off my experience with her writing videos for this novel; in the future, I’ll decide whether or not to pick up her work based more directly on my interest level in the synopses.

How do you process reading a book written by someone you know, or feel like you know? Do you find it difficult to separate the author from the story?

 

The Literary Elephant

Booker Prize Longlist 2019

I am skipping my Top of the TBR post again this week, this time because all but one of the books I’ve added to my Goodreads TBR over the last week (and I’ll include that one outlier in next week’s post) have been Booker Prize titles. I’m sure by now everyone who’s interested in following the prize has seen the list, so I’ll try to keep it brief here and just stick to my own plans as far as what I’ll be able to read and review from the list in a timely manner.

I’m not even sure what to say about overall thoughts- my anticipation levels were so high just to see this prize list, and I’ve not read many of the titles or authors yet at all so I’m going to postpone making judgments. But I can say that other than My Sister, the Serial Killer (which I found so easy and fun to read and already appreciated as a nominee for the Women’s Prize earlier this year) none of the titles/authors longlisted this year really surprise me. I really loved the Man Booker longlist last year, as it pushed me to read so many books that I might not have gotten to yet (or at all) otherwise- The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, Everything Under, Normal PeopleMilkman, even The Overstory (which I didn’t love as a narrative but has forever changed the way that I think about trees)! Sadly, I don’t really expect to find quite as much enjoyment and discovery from the 2019 list, which looks more grave and ponderous to me. So maybe I’ll end up disappointed, but I do want to follow along as best I can anyway, because apparently I choose what I read based on curiosity rather than expectations of enjoyment. And so.

I’ve already read:

mysistertheserialkillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. This was my first 5-star read of the year. It moves at a quick clip and is light and humorous on the surface, with enough thematic depth underneath to give the reader something to sink their teeth into. It’s entertaining, but not a throw-away story to read once and forget. I was delighted to discover how much texture Braithwaite was able to create in such a short novella-length piece; it really is the balance of light-hearted irony and heavier emotional impact (the sister bond! the feminist undertones! the difficult morals!) that so impressed me.

lostchildrenarchiveLost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. Though clearly well-written, timely, and intellectual from the beginning, this marvel of fiction wasn’t solidified as any sort of favorite for me until I reached the second half of the story. Luiselli’s skill is readily apparent in the section told from the woman’s perspective, but the child’s perspective in the latter half combines that prowess in craft with a level of innocence and tragedy that (again) won me over with its balancing of opposites. I would say this one fits the “grave and ponderous” description for me, though I appreciated it enough that it is the only title I was sincerely hoping to see on this longlist.

On hold from the library:

The Wall  Lanny  An Orchestra of Minorities

Both Max Porter’s Lanny and Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities were on my TBR before the longlist announcement; these two, plus Lanchester’s The Wall, seem to be the only longlisted titles I haven’t read yet that are also readily available in the US at this time. I was able to put library holds on all three books; I expect to read each of them in August. These were all titles that immediately caught my attention on the longlist- I’m not sure if I’ll end up loving the books as much as their synopses, but I’m glad I’ll be able to read them before the shortlist announcement in early September.

Ordered or pre-ordered:

Frankissstein: A Love Story  Night Boat to Tangier  The Testaments (The Handmaid's Tale, #2)

I always enjoy Atwood’s writing, and appreciated The Handmaid’s Tale enough a few years ago that I pre-ordered The Testaments weeks ago; it’s set to release in September, about a week after the shortlist announcement. I’m honestly a bit disgrntled to see so many sequels/modernizations in this year’s longlist, as they sometimes require additional reading. (At least, I usually do prefer to read the original text first.) I am excited about Winterson’s Frankissstein appearing here though; I have already read (and loved!) Shelley’s Frankenstein, so I’m tentatively expecting this will be a good fit for me. Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier also looked too good to miss in  its longlisted moment; I should be reading both Barry and Winterson in August, and Atwood in September.

Which leaves:

Girl, Woman, Other  Ducks, Newburyport  Quichotte

I’m interested in Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, but don’t see any US release date for it (please correct me if I’m wrong, I’d really like to pick this one up!). For now… I have no definite plans of if/when I might pick this one up. Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport was at first a strong NO for me, at 1000+ pages and divided into only a very few sentences (I’ve seen claims for 1, 4, and 8 sentences, I’m no longer sure which is correct) it certainly seems daunting. But the more I consider this, the more intrigued I am to see how Ellmann pulls this off in a way worthy of a Booker Prize nomination, and I’ll almost definitely be picking up a copy upon its September US release to give it a try. I think my interest will hold long enough for this to happen even if it isn’t shortlisted. But the Rushdie, Quichotte, is less certain. Though I’m sure it’s a fine book that I’ll want to read eventually, I (unfairly) hate that it’s here simply because I want to read Don Quixote first and don’t see that happening (much less both books) this fall. Of course if it’s shortlisted or wins the prize I may feel differently, but for now I’m not expecting to read this before the winner announcement.

The Man Who Saw Everything  10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything and Shafak’s 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World sound only vaguely interesting to me right now. Both are authors I would like to read eventually, and if these titles were more readily available in the US I wouldn’t hesitate to pick them up. But I’m not excited enough about their synopses to buy them, and sadly it doesn’t look like they’ll be available in the US prior to the winner announcement so I’m just not sure I’ll be able to pick them up. If they’re shortlisted, I might try harder to get my hands on them, but for now, I’m not making any definite plans.

In Conclusion:

Right now I’ve read 2 longlisted books, and am planning to read 5 more before the shortlist announcement and 1 after. Barring unforeseen disasters, I’m expecting to read 8 longlisted books for sure. I’m also tentatively hoping to read a 9th (Ducks, Newburyport) during the shortlist stretch, regardless of the shortlist. But I’ll probably post some sort of update around the time of the shortlist announcement, so I’ll check in again with my longlist progress and shortlist plans in early September!

Are you planning to read any of the Booker Prize nominated books?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Orange is the New Black

CW: Racism, sexism, drug trafficking. (All are acknowledged appropriately.)

I’m a little behind on reviews, but somehow that worked out just right for Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange is the New Black. I read this nonfiction book that the popular Netflix series is based on in anticipation of the final season, which released… today! I haven’t started watching yet, but am looking forward to seeing how the series ends with this final season.

orangeisthenewblackIn the book, Piper recounts a wild phase of new adulthood, when she was fresh out of college and became involved with a drug trafficking ring. After breaking free and building a new life where she thought herself safe, someone from the operation gave up her name and landed her in Danbury women’s prison. From self-surrendering at the entrance door to her release one year later, these are her experiences and opinions from inside a US women’s prison.

“Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are the primary reason that the U.S. prison population has ballooned since the 1980s to over 2.5 million people, a nearly 300 percent increase. We now lock up one out of every hundred adults, far more than any other country in the world.”

I’ll say right off the bat that the main criticism I’ve seen aimed against this book is one I very much agree with- that Kerman comes from a privileged background that eases her experience every step of the way. The fact that she acknowledges it numerous times throughout the narrative does not negate the clear differences between her own circumstances and those of the other women in the prison. If you’re looking for a memoir about an “average” incarceration account, Orange is the New Black is far from the best choice.

That said, I do think it has a few points of value for readers willing to overlook the disparities between Kerman’s specific situation and the overall predicament she’s trying to portray. This was my first time reading a prison memoir, and as such my knowledge on the subject is limited; coming from that perspective, I did learn a few things from this book. There are quite a few statistics included, and simple facts about the legal system and how prisons are run- particularly Danbury, though Piper does also see the insides of a couple of other facilities that give her a basis for comparison. She also includes anecdotes from other prisoners who’ve shared their backgrounds or interacted with her during her stay. There’s plenty of interesting commentary about injustices in the prison system to keep the novice reader engaged.

“There was absolutely no payoff for filing a complaint. A female prisoner who alleges sexual misconduct on the part of a guard is invariably locked in the SHU in “protective custody,” losing her housing assignment, program activities (if there are any), work assignment, and a host of other prison privileges, not to mention the comfort of her routine and friends.”

But the standout benefit for me was simply being able to put my thoughts on the Neftlix series into perspective. Though the show is based on this book, it becomes clear early on that the filmed version uses only the basic premise of Piper’s situation as its inspiration, and takes plenty of liberties from there. (Even the names are different, though Kerman notes that most have been fictionalized even in her own account.) Kerman’s prose is conversational, flowing, and easy to read, but the book is nothing like the plotty and dramatic Netflix series. Though the series may be based in fact from other real-life incidents (I really don’t know how much of the show is true to life, I’ve not fact-checked it beyond reading this memoir), it is important to keep in mind that it is produced for the primary purpose of entertainment; Kerman’s book drives that point home in the most incontrovertible way.

And, of course, though Kerman’s Danbury stay may not be a “typical” prison experience, she is nevertheless a woman writing about firsthand about her incarceration. Even if her level of privilege in that setting puts her in a tiny minority, it is still worth recognizing that this is one of the myriad experiences that are possible in that setting. The differences between her story and others’ does not make Kerman’s account less valid, which I think is worth noting alongside the criticisms.

“At any time, with one phone call, my family would have helped rescue me from this mess of my own making, yet I never placed that call. I thought I had to tough it out on my own. I alone had signed up for this misadventure, and I alone would navigate it to some conclusion, although I was now petrified that it might be a very dismal end.”

Sadly, the benefits of picking up this book ended there for me. While Piper notes the many struggles other women face in prison, she’s living in a cubicle room rather than a barred cell, and has quite a bit of freedom throughout the “camp” during the day. She has a prison driver’s license, a work assignment, friends, guards who want to give her special treatment because she’s an intelligent, blonde, white woman. She uses her Danbury stay as a chance to catch up on reading- friends and family on the outside send her new books practically as fast as she can read them- to find her zen through yoga, and to lose weight. Between applauding herself for her newfound thinness and juggling her visitor list to keep it under the maximum limit of 25 names without excluding any of her many supporters, it can be difficult to take Kerman’s gripes seriously. For instance, by the time Kerman complains about the inadequacy of Danbury’s job fair, she’s already assured the reader that she has a position secured for after her release- a position that a friend created for her specifically. Her attempts to complain on behalf of the other women at times feel instead like she’s putting words in their mouths rather than giving them proper voice. No matter how good her intentions, it is simply not possible for one to speak for the many, particularly in this case when Kerman’s experiences simply do not align with the other prisoners’.

“In the worldview of these burly, clean-cut young guys, I was clearly not supposed to be resident in this fortress. I probably looked too much like their sister, their neighbor, or their wife.”

All in all, a mixed read for me. I can’t deny that Kerman has some interesting things to say about an aspect of life I’m unfamiliar with, though in the end I think the book’s biggest flaw is that it wants to be more scandalous and revealing than Kerman’s mild prison stay seems to warrant. Though she does appear to have found some kinship and perspective through this experience, it is very much a show-and-tell narrative rather than a reflective piece. Orange is the New Black is not without its own particular merit, but this is one memoir with which I think it’s important to know what you’re in for before picking up, because it won’t suit everyone.

“I knew I wasn’t better than any other woman locked up in here, even the ones I didn’t like.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though full of ups and downs, this book put me in the perfect mood to return to the Netflix series one last time. (No spoilers, please!) Someday I will want to return to other prison nonfiction to round out my knowledge of what that experience might be like, and the extent of the injustices that exist within the system; for now though, I’m content to move my reading along to other topics.

What’s the last book you read that’s been adapted into a TV series rather than a movie? Which format did you prefer?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Stand

CW: Racism, sexism, manipulation of a mentally handicapped person (these first issues present mildly, as the products of a less-enlightened time), mention of cannibalism, mass deaths, gruesome/torturous deaths, use of nuclear weaponry, biological warfare, government conspiracy.

I’ve read a fair number of Stephen King novels now, and have unscheduled plans to make my way through his entire oeuvre. King’s work isn’t perfect (what is?), but not many writers provide the number and variety of books that King has turned out- his stories are good, but it’s also fascinating to see how his work has changed over the years, covering different genres, themes, styles, lengths, etc. But without the friend who suggested buddy reading The Stand this summer (King’s longest novel in the unabridged version- my copy is 1439 pages plus a two-part preface and a prologue prior to “page 1”), this book would still be sitting untouched on my shelf with a bookmark about 200 pages in, leftover from my first attempt 7 years ago. So even though The Stand isn’t a Stephen King favorite for me, it was fun to read with a buddy and finishing it feels like a major victory!

thestandIn the novel, the US government invites disaster by tampering with a weaponized flu virus with a greater than 99 percent mortality rate. Containment and vaccination attempts fail, leaving the Superflu to wipe out a vast majority of the world’s human population. The survivors begin to move toward safer places, their paths altered by encounters with others and by urgent dreams of an endearing old black woman in contrast to a frighteningly powerful “dark man.” As one crowd of survivors cluster around Mother Abigail in Boulder and begin to piece together a new sense of order from what is left of the old way of life, another group gathers in Las Vegas, ruled by their fear and reverence for the dark man and preparing for a clash with the rival city of survivors.

“Things had changed. The whole range of human perception seemed to have stepped up a notch. It was scary as hell.”

This  is a horror/dystopia novel divided into three parts. The first depicts the outbreak of the Superflu and some of the main characters’ predicaments at that time; the second features the division of the “good” group and the “evil” group, their travel patterns and initial attempts to re-establish life in their respective dead cities; the third narrates the outcome of the groups’ leaders coming into contact with each other under the impression that only one of the cities can last, at the cost of the other. Though each contains intriguing scenarios and strong characterization, the details of the first section stand out as the most compelling. There’s something so creepy and ominous about these characters discovering themselves suddenly alone in towns full of corpses, of traveling through silent cities and over roads cluttered with cars that have become tombs; many of the main characters begin experiencing recurring nightmares around this time, and though they understand that they’ve outlived a terrible disease, they don’t really know where it came from or what to expect next. To me, that initial terror of mass deaths and an unknown future is much more eerie than one mysterious man with a blurry face.

“The smell was hard to define in any way that could be correct yet less painful than the naked truth. You could say it was like moldy oranges or spoiled fish or the smell you sometimes got in subway tunnels when the windows were open; none of them were exactly right. That it was the smell of rotting people, thousands of them, decomposing in the heat behind closed doors was putting it right, but you wanted to shy away from that.”

King’s writing style tends to the informal; his characters speak in dialect, slang, colloquialisms, etc. and their personalities shine clearly through their thoughts and dialogue, which gives the entire narrative a conversational feel- like King is in the room with you, relating a tale about someone he once knew. This style is common across most (all?) of his work, though not always to the same effect. Where this tactic felt heavy-handed to me in Dolores Claiborne and gave the writing an unpolished feel in The Tommyknockers, it lends a sense of realism to the dramatic and otherworldly aspects of The Stand. The most frightening prospect of this novel is not the power of the dark man on the page, but in the way that King makes the destruction of the human species feel plausible and, to an extent, inevitable.

” ‘Maybe he’s not real,’ Nick wrote. ‘Maybe he’s just … that scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

But more than anything, what stood out to me most about The Stand was its length. It sounds obvious, but the very structure of the book makes it impossible to ever escape the fact that this is a very long book. What typically allows a thousand-pager to succeed for me is an early introduction of conflict, an intricate plot, and a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t arrive too early.

With this book, the Superflu is introduced early, but that is not the central conflict of this novel. Our main characters are immune to the Superflu. The sickness is, essentially, a well-imagined backdrop behind a quest for survival in a hostile world, in which the largest obstacle is not the Superflu, but a man named Randall Flagg, and the dark force that drives him. This element arrives hundreds of pages into the story (I’m talking 400-500 pages, in this edition), which is a substantial amount of reading to endure without any sense of where this story is headed, or to what purpose.

Furthermore, the plot is much simpler than expected for a book of this size. Instead of twists and turns, it takes its length from the sheer amount of detail and number of perspectives it follows through a straightforward premise. To King’s credit, almost everything included seems relevant to the story at hand, to the character arcs he pursues, and to the themes he highlights; someday, I’ll want to read the original 1978 edition out of curiosity over which 400 pages he managed to cut for The Stand’s first publication. (Note: this cut did not come at the urging of an editor who thought the story too ponderous at it’s proposed length, but from the publisher who thought the cost of production would drive the book’s price up too high to for its marketed audience.)

But the biggest reason behind this book’s failure to fully impress is its quick and sadly unsatisfactory ending. Though the final sequence makes sense, in that the characters act in ways that fit their motivations and circumstances, it deviates from the drawn-out pace of the rest of the story, and essentially circumvents the epic battle between good and evil (with plenty of religious overtones) that the entire novel seems to be pushing toward. The climax does play into some interesting themes and provide food for further thought about human nature, but simply doesn’t match the trajectory of the story up to that point.

“He knew this dark man all right, his was the face you could never quite see, his the hands which dealt all spades from a dead deck, his the eyes beyond the flames, his the grin from beyond the grave of the world.”

I could nitpick a lot of small points, as well. King isn’t always good at representing women fairly, and The Stand is a prime example of this struggle (the only woman with any strength on display in this novel is Mother Abigail, who is more of a one-hundred-and-eight-year-old figurehead than a character with proper agency); many of these characters seem to share the same personality and sense of humor, differentiated mainly by the unique range of circumstances each has faced; the updating of the unabridged version to a 1990 setting rather than the original 1978 seemed a bit clumsy at times and wholly unnecessary.

But nevertheless, I don’t regret the six weeks I spent with this novel. Though from 2019 the attempt doesn’t look quite as convincing as it might have originally, it does seem that King had an intent to step away from the righteous white male hero he often employs as a champion; the godly spokesperson is an old black woman who’s risen from a history of prejudice to lead thousands of do-gooders who are unquestionably devoted to her, and another of the most significant characters is a mentally handicapped man who turns out to be stronger and more reliable than those who think themselves smarter. Unfortunately it’s also apparent that most of the women are throw-away characters meant to fill the men’s beds, cook their meals, and carry their children, and the narration has an annoying tendency to refer to Tom Cullen as a “feeb,” but under some problematic details I do think an intent to show consideration and value to characters that aren’t clear King avatars is present.

Despite its flaws and hefty size, I’m not surprised that The Stand has been held up as one of King’s lasting classics. Its messages about survival and abuse of power are still relevant 40 years after the book’s first publication; the characters are still believable, the premise intriguing, the chapters engaging and readable despite their length. It’s psychological, spooky and unique (though also interesting at this stage in the game to compare and contrast with more recent counterparts that explore along the same lines), and ultimately worth the read for Constant Readers. I would not recommend The Stand as a starting point with King’s work unless you’re sure you’ve got the patience!

“But no one knows how long five minutes is in the dark; it might be fair to say that, in the dark, five minutes does not exist.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I didn’t enjoy every moment of this journey, it did make for a great buddy read. My friend and I would read about 200-300 pages a week (alongside whatever else we were reading), and check in to go over surprises in the plot, Easter Eggs, predictions for the next chapters, and whatever else crossed our minds. We scheduled six check-ins for this book, which provided manageable deadlines and “intermissions” to keep us on track and motivated to continue. In all honesty, though I think I have the discipline to have completed this on my own in less time, I would certainly not have enjoyed the experience as much as I did with my buddy and it undoubtedly would’ve taken me several more years to convince myself to start. In any case, I’m glad to have finished, and I intend to follow-up by continuing in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy next month.

Thanks to anyone who’s stuck with me this far, this has turned into a very long review!

What’s the longest book you’ve read?

 

The Literary Elephant

Top of the TBR 7.22.19

I skipped this post last week because I was off Goodreads during the Amazon protest, and didn’t have many new books to talk about either. Now that I have two weeks to catch up on, I have plenty of newly added books to choose from!

Top of the TBR is a weekly post I created that will showcase any books added to my Goodreads TBR recently, with a short explanation of why each title caught my interest. I’ll aim for 5-10 books per post; in weeks that I’ve added more than that, I’ll hold some back, and in weeks that I don’t have enough, I’ll include titles I haven’t discussed yet. Each title will be linked back to its Goodreads page for anyone interested in exploring further, as I’m not a fan of copy/pasting synopses. Anyone who wants to take part in this series with me is absolutely welcome! Please link back to any of my Top of the TBR posts so I can see what you’re reading! 🙂

Here are some of the new books I’ve added on Goodreads over the last two weeks:

41555931. sy475 Whisper Network by Chandler Baker (Pub: July 2019)

How I found it: I’ve been seeing this one around all month and can’t remember where it first popped up for me, but one of the recent reviews I’ve seen that helped convince me was this one from Jenna!

Why I added it: Office politics in fiction don’t often catch my interest, but this one sounds promisingly feminist. I’m also intrigued by the little flood of negative reviews I’ve been seeing for it, on the grounds that the characters seem unlikable; I often enjoy stories with unlikable characters and suspect that it might succeed for me in the precise way is seems to have failed for others.

Priority: Low. There is a possibility I could end up hating these characters right along with the masses, but though I’m willing to take that chance I’m just too swamped with reading commitments to pick anything up on a whim right now. In fact, I’ve got such a packed reading schedule that I’ll warn you right now most of this list is going to present as low priority mainly for that reason.

39127647His Hideous Heart ed. by Dahlia Adler (Pub: Sept 2019)

How I found it: I saw this post from Lala on Instagram!

Why I added it: This is a collection of retellings of popular Edgar Allen Poe stories from thirteen prominent YA authors. I love retellings of classics, I love horror and Poe, I’m attracted to these being short stories, and I’m looking forward to sampling authors who might write novels in this genre. I haven’t heard of all of these authors, so it’ll be fun to check out their work in these shorter pieces! I still like some YA but have fallen a bit out of touch this year, and a book like this looks like an easy path back into the age range. Everything about this just seems like a perfect fit for me.

Priority: Middling. I would love to pick this up in October, but fall is a difficult time of year for me to get my hands on new releases and I’m not filling my Oct. TBR this far in advance yet.

42245770. sy475 The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen (Pub: July 2019)

How I found it: I don’t remember exactly, I’ve been seeing this around for a while. Sarah Dessen was one of my favorite authors in middle school and I still tend to notice when she has a new book coming out.

Why I added it: In 2017 I reread my favorite Dessen novel, The Truth About Forever, and loved it all over again. Though I wasn’t at all interested in Dessen’s last release, Once and For All, my 2017 reread convinced me that I might still enjoy some of Dessen’s work, so I’m willing to give this one a chance.

Priority: Low. I was planning to reread Dessen’s Just Listen in November, and even though this one looks very summery (it takes place at a lake!) I just don’t think I’ll get around to it before November at the earliest, after my reread.

The Iliac CrestThe Iliac Crest by Christina Rivera Garza, Trans. by Sarah Booker (Pub: Oct 2017)

How I found it: In one of Callum’s exciting posts about books to read for Women in Translation month (August)!

Why I added it: I really want to incorporate more translations into my regular reading, and especially translations of women writers. I am working on a small list that I’ll try to tackle in August, mainly of books already on my shelves, but I’m also gathering some other titles that look fantastic for future reading. Callum’s description of this one sounded 100% appealing, as did the rest of his translation recs, of course! This one’s a short Gothic piece that appears full of commentary on gender identity.

Priority: Middling. This sounds like another title I’d like to rush out and read either for WIT month or as a spooky read for October, but I don’t know exactly when I’ll be able to fit it in, and I’ll have to track down a copy first!

967251In & Oz by Steve Tomasula (Pub: Sept 2005)

How I found it: Melanie mentioned this one to me! Her recommendations always seem spot-on to what I’m looking for.

Why I added it: The synopsis sounds wonderfully bizarre, and I expect it’s also thematically rich. It is: “a novel of art, love, auto mechanics, and two places: the actualities of the here and now and the desire for somewhere better. Five men and women- an auto designer, photographer, musical composter, poet/sculptor and mechanic- find themselves drawn together when they begin to suspect that the thing lacking in their lives might be discovered in the other place.” Consider me intrigued.

Priority: Low. This looks super interesting, but I’m not sure yet where I’ll find a copy.

42790782. sy475 Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher (Pub: May 2019)

How I found it: I actually stumbled across this title in a used book store last week, which was a sad way to discover I’d missed one of the Stranger Things companion novels completely. It was nearly full price and my last Stranger Things companion read was only a 3-star, so I didn’t end up buying it.

Why I added it: Though I don’t think I want to own this, I am interested in the companion novels connected to Stranger Things. This one looks like a history of Hopper’s life, which especially has my attention after the direction season 3 took.

Priority: Middling. I’m already feeling the wait between seasons 3 and 4, and would love to pick this up in the fall if I can get it through my library at that time.

153480Medea: A Modern Retelling by Christa Wolf (Pub: 1996)

How I found it: In Hannah’s fantastic post about unlikable but compelling female characters!

Why I added it: I’ve already loved or previously added to my TBR all of the other books Hannah included in her excellent list, so it seems like a safe bet that I’ll enjoy this one as well. I do like picking up the occasional Greek retelling.

Priority: Middling. I’ve barely read anything Greek all year, which feels a bit odd after reading two retellings last year, plus some original Homer. I don’t know when I’ll have time and will be able to find a copy, but I’d like to pick this up before the end of the year if possible.

44287149The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan (Pub: Nov 2019)

How I found it: In Ren’s post of great upcoming nonfiction releases!

Why I added it: I’ve been trying to increase my nonfiction reading this summer, and have been enjoying it enough that I want to continue making nonfiction a more permanent part of my reading regimen. This one is about a group of people who go undercover into an asylum in the 1970s, only to emerge when they can convince the doctors they’re sane. It sounds like a fascinating inside look at diagnoses and treatments, and a historical (if you can call 40 years ago historic) look at mental illness practices. I’m unversed in the topic, but so on board to learn.

Priority: Middling. Maybe by November my schedule will have mellowed out a bit and I’ll have time to pick this up as a new release!

36478784. sy475 The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary (Pub: April 2019)

How I found it: I’m not sure anymore where I first saw this title; it’s been on my radar since its release, if not before.

Why I added it: This looks like a romance that leans a bit more toward traditional contemporary than some from the genre tend to. I wasn’t sure at first if this sounded to my taste, but I keep wanting to like the romance genre and then struggling with it a bit, so it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to try another type of romance novel to see if it helps me decide where I fit in that genre.

Priority: Low. I don’t read romance often, and I do already have a couple of titles queued up for further romance genre experiments. Unsure of when I’ll get to this one.

43789029. sy475 Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy (July 2019)

How I found it: This one was just brought to my attention today by Rachel, who finds the best books. (Seriously, if you’re not following her blog, you’re missing out!)

Why I added it: “Reminiscent of the suspense of Shirley Jackson and soaked in the folk horror of the British landscape, Water Shall Refuse Them is an atmospheric coming-of-age novel and a thrilling debut.” Everything about this appeals to me. Also historical heat wave. Accidental drowing. Rural seclusion. Family unraveling. It sounds so promising it almost can’t be real, haha.

Priority: Middling. I really wish I could pick this one up right away, especially since the heat wave setting sounds perfect for summer reading, but I’ll have to find a copy and try to squish it into my overflowing reading schedule.

 

My reading taste is so varied that my Top of the TBR lists never look very cohesive, but this one really is quite a mix! A couple of literary fictions, but otherwise all different genres and even a couple of different age ranges. Maybe someday I’ll find a niche, but I’m not in any hurry.

Have you read any of these books or recognize them from your own TBR?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Recursion

CW: suicide, death (including death of a child), gun violence, nuclear attack, Alzheimer’s diesease

Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter may very well have been one of the books that “broke” the thriller genre for me. I read it in early 2017, only a few months before every thriller I picked up started to seriously disappoint me (with the major exception being Riley Sager’s Final Girls). It was my first sci-fi thriller, and such an all-around fun experience that there was no way I could miss Crouch’s 2019 release, another sci-fi thriller, titled Recursion.

recursionIn the novel, Barry is investigating a suicide in which the victim (prior to jumping) claims to have been affected by False Memory Syndrome- a new “disease” slowly sweeping the world that leaves those affected with two sets of memories, one “real” and one “false.” His investigation soon becomes much more hands-on than he intended. Meanwhile, Helena has been forced to switch her life’s focus from saving memories for those with Alzheimer’s to erasing all traces of her invented technology from the world; she learns the hard way that manipulating memories- even with the best of intentions- can only go horribly awry.

” ‘What’s more precious than our memories?’ he asks. ‘They define us and form our identities.’ “

Much in the spirit of Dark Matter (comparisons are inevitable), Recursion is also a story of what-ifs, in which some of the main characters are able to re-live parts of their lives as though they’d made different choices. Both titles examine some of the moral and emotional consequences of altering reality, as well as dissecting the science (in a novice-friendly way) that might lead to these possibilities. And of course, both are fast-paced adventures full of unique threats and psychological twists and turns.

Recursion opens on Barry’s first brush with False Memory Syndrome, which provides a perfect introduction to a concept that is, at first, as mysterious to the protagonist as the reader. When the time is right, the story doubles back to Helena’s research efforts, switching to a new protagonist with more knowledge on memory and the pertinent technology to guide the reader through a phase of discovery. Of course the two plotlines eventually merge, as Helena and Barry meet and unite against a common enemy- someone who wants to use Helena’s invention to change the world in the name of progress, no matter the consequences.

“Memory is … the filter between us and reality. You think you’re tasting this wine, hearing the words I’m saying, in the present, but there’s no such thing. The neural impulses from your taste buds and your ears get transmitted to your brain, which processes them and dumps them into working memory- so by the time you know you’re experiencing something, it’s already in the past. Already a memory…We think we’re perceiving the world directly and immediately, but everything we experience is this carefully edited, tape-delayed reconstruction.”

If the science sounds intimidating or you think sci-fi just isn’t the genre for you, rest assured that it’s largely a conceptual backdrop to a fairly accessible thriller plot. Crouch throws in a few sentences that must be based in fact- statements about neurons firing in the brain, memory storage, and déjà vu- but the rest is one big thought experiment mainly featuring the fictional logistics of time travel via memory. As long as you understand the gist (the heroes and villains are obvious enough), it’s really not strictly necessary to pay close attention to all of the specifics. In fact, even the scientists in Recursion require plenty of trial and error with the equipment in order to understand what it’s capable of. There’s no need to worry about getting bogged down in details.

It’s a smart, exciting ride that balances right on the edge between realistic and fantastic, with just enough realistic detail to ground the reader while allowing the imagination plenty of room to run free.

“Time is an illusion, a construct made out of human memory. There’s no such thing as the past, the present, or the future. It’s all happening now.”

But there are a few ways in which the layering of timelines frustrated me. Note: these are fairly small issues that come down to stylistic preference.

First is the repetition. There are moments, days, and even years that some characters experience repeatedly; in a few instances, a particular event is written out numerous times, back to back, highlighting variations. This tactic does lend credence to the matter of false/dead memories causing insanity, depression, and/or suicidal thoughts, but I nevertheless found it annoying to know I was reading scenes that were ultimately not leading anywhere productive.

Second, once it becomes clear that characters who possess the proper knowledge and equipment can revisit key moments limitlessly, the stakes are lowered. It is infinitely harder to worry about heroes dying or villains causing irreparable damage when one only has to make provisions for re-entering the moment if things turn sour, and try another path.

Third is the way that these relationships are skewed by the lack of chronology. There are several occasions in which a character must introduce him- or herself to someone they already know well, which allows for alliances to be formed with proof of knowing someone else’s secrets rather than a gradual rapport built from circumstance and personality. As a consequence, I can recall many of the events of this book, but I would struggle to tell you what kind of person any of the main characters are beyond basic motives- doing what is right, saving the world, making a name for oneself with a life-changing invention. Unfortunately, I did find it harder to invest in characters that I wasn’t able to fully understand, and books in which the characters feel like afterthoughts to the plot (even a stellar plot) never have quite the same strength that character-driven narratives do for me.

This is starting to look like a list of complaints rather than a recommendation to read a book that I had an excellent time with, but that is only because I can’t help comparing my Recursion reading experience to that of Dark Matter, which I enjoyed slightly more- possibly only because I happened to read it first. In the end, both are great books that I can’t see disappointing many readers, including those who are wary of the sci-fi aspect. My only gripe here is that when I have read a book that I loved (Dark Matter), I don’t hope for the author to write a very similar book that will give me a repeat experience (Recursion); I hope for something that raises the bar. Though I think Recursion is an excellent book on par with Dark Matter, it  wasn’t quite the step up into new territory that I was most hoping for.

“We have made it far too easy to destroy ourselves.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been an extremely difficult book to review, because 1) everything is a plot twist so it’s hard to talk about without spoilers, and 2) I struggled to find the right balance between explaining why I both had a great time reading it and yet also didn’t. I believe this is a personal quirk, that for something to impress me enough for a 5-star rating it has to be great but also hold an element of surprise; sometimes greatness itself can be a surprise, but with a follow-up title I definitely need something new to supercede the greatness that I was already expecting based on the first book. (Does this make sense to anyone other than me?) In any case, I’m still on board to read more of Crouch’s work- I’m hoping to pick up Pines this October, and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for future publications as well.

Have you read any of Blake Crouch’s novels? What’s been your favorite so far?

 

The Literary Elephant