Review: Ask Me About My Uterus

CW: child abuse, bulimia (affecting the narrator’s mother), medical mistreatment, chronic pain, sexism/misogyny

Earlier this year, I was talking to a friend who was very certain that she had endometriosis, who was having trouble getting her doctors to diagnose her condition and/or treat it effectively. Some of the details of her conversations with these doctors sounded absolutely unreal to me, and I became aware of this problem in the medical community: female patients with “female” complaints are treated dismissively. Even by female doctors. So when I heard about Abby Norman’s  Ask Me About My Uterus a few weeks ago, I ordered a copy immediately, wanting to better understand this insane phenomenon.

askmeaboutmyuterusIn the book, Norman opens her story on the day she first felt the pain that would come to define the rest of her life (so far). What begins as a few days of skipping class in hopes of recovering from her strange sickness leads to hospital visits, a surgery, a recommendation that she leave school altogether, and growing concerns as her diagnosis and treatment does little to combat her chronic pain. She takes the reader back through a childhood of abuse and perseverance, back further into a general history of female pain, and forward along the trajectory of her medical issues up to the date of publication.

I’ll warn you now, in case you haven’t surmised already: this is not a story that ends with a cure, with doctors being penalized for their failure to listen to women in pain, or with the resumption of Norman’s life and goals pre-symptoms. Ask Me About My Uterus contains its share of victories, but the problems it highlights are serious, numerous, and ongoing.

“If I, or any other woman whose gynecologic cancers or pathologies had gone undiagnosed, had just been sick in some other part of the body, in some other way, would it have been any different? Or would it not have mattered? Was the underlying preexisting condition being female? Does the congenital lack of a Y chromosome predispose a patient to worse outcomes regardless of what condition or disease they present with?”

If you’re thinking this book sounds too medical for your taste, never fear. Though Norman did work in a hospital for a time (and was able to access medical journals and see records that aided her personal research), this is not the writing of a doctor using impenetrable jargon to explore a niche condition. You come for an exploration of women’s pain, but you stay for a very readable memoir-style tale of one young woman’s eventful life. Norman begins to feel like a friend, whether any part of her experience is relatable to the reader or not.

“Of course, people lie to their doctors, too, but they usually lie to themselves first.”

Though Norman’s account is a very specific rendering of her own unique lifelong struggle with chronic pain (not limited to her endometriosis), perhaps the most shocking realization comes later in the book as we begin to see how very many women have been dealing with similar unresolved symptoms. There are plenty of infuriating moments when the reader sees how much of Norman’s unsatisfactory experience with the doctors who treat her (or refuse to) is a larger gender problem. Though endometriosis is not restricted to female bodies, the care that women receive for this condition is undeniably subpar. Furthermore, this indifferent attitude toward female pain extends well beyond endometriosis, and can be traced back hundreds of years. It’s hard to say whether Norman’s doctor paying more attention to her boyfriend’s concerns about his sex life than Norman’s reports of pain is more or less disturbing than accompanying historical factoids like this:

“It’s not uncommon to read old patient charts in which sexual relations- consensual or not- between patients and physicians were noted simply as a matter of fact, implying that such a relationship was not thought to violate ethical standards. It helped that, during the mid-nineteenth century, sedation was becoming increasingly popular as a first line of treatment for women for just about anything- particularly ether, which was highly addictive. Women who were in a semiconscious state were obviously particularly vulnerable to physicians who wanted to exploit them.”

I had only a few small obstacles between me and a 5-star read here, the first (due to no fault of the book) being that it simply wasn’t entirely what I had expected to be reading. From the title and subtitle (Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain), I expected this book to be… informational. Persuasive. And it is informational, but Norman’s personal life is the main focus. Her story is certainly persuasive and engaging, but it seems aimed at women experiencing a similar struggle with chronic pain who are looking for solidarity, and at the doctors that are being appealed to in hopes of initiating a change. I fit neither category. Though I did find it worthwhile to encounter a new-to-me perspective, the amount that I learned about the endometriosis struggle in general (especially after hearing about it from a close friend already) can be summed up in a few sentences; Norman’s life is a very interesting one that I appreciate having read about, but it left me wanting to know more about endometriosis than this book ultimately has to offer. And to an extent, I think that’s going to be an unavoidable reaction to any book currently available on the subject, as endometriosis is still a very nebulous disease with a lot of unanswered questions. I only wish I had known I was in for a mix of memoir and mystery when I picked this book up.

My other slight hangup had to do with the way Norman’s narrative skips through time. Though her chronology is clear enough that I followed the broad strokes just fine, there are some layers between her points that I found harder to place. For example, she mentions a specific job she had, or a person she lived with, or a period of time when she experienced a particular brand of pain, and uses each of those eras of her life to explore certain concepts or experiences. When it becomes confusing is when she references the same job/relationship/pain in a different context, leaving the reader wondering which events overlap and how they fit into the overall timeline. I think this confusion would’ve been completely resolved if Norman had used a linear chronology, but real life isn’t always structured in a convenient way for narration and skipping around allows her to keep the focus on women’s pain even in moments that aren’t strictly related to her endometriosis. There are also a few instances of past and present tense confusion within sentences and paragraphs, though generally what is meant is clear.

Aside from a bit of timeline confusion, Norman is a fantastic writer. She weaves real events, her own ruminations, and moments of humor and horror into her story, always circling back at the end of each chapter to drive every new element she’s introduced toward a common underlying purpose. We see bits of human history, her family history, and anecdotes from Norman’s friends alongside her own account, all centered around some aspect of female pain. She never looses a thread. Her perspective is one that every reader- nay, every person- should be aware of. I’m eager to spread the word.

“Even now, it’s been so many years since I’ve lived in a pain-free body that I don’t really remember what it feels like.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think anyone who has suffered from chronic pain or treated anyone for chronic pain is going to get a little more out of this book than I did, but I’m glad I picked it up nonetheless, and highly recommend it to anyone particularly interested in feminist and/or medical memoirs. Since the story is left open-ended, as Norman’s experience with chronic pain continues uncured, I would love to see a follow-up from her someday, and I sincerely hope the medical profession improves in the meantime. It was also very fascinating to be reading this so soon after The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments; I didn’t plan to focus so heavily on injustice relating to the female reproductive system this month, but they turned out to be excellent companion pieces. If you’ve also been reading Margaret Atwood lately… it might be time to pick up Norman’s book as well!

 

The Literary Elephant

TBR 10.19

Also to be known as: Spooky TBR! My favorite (reading, not weather) time of the year!

My TBR goal for 2019 was to read all of the new books I’ve acquired by the end of the following month. This hasn’t really been working out for me, but I’m continuing to track the info. So I’ll show you what new books came to my shelves in September in the first half of this post (the books that my TBR goal says I *should* be reading in October), and then I’ll highlight the spooky (and other) books I’m most likely to be reading!

New books I haven’t read yet:

  1. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara. This is a true crime novel about one woman’s pursuit of the Golden State Killer, whose identity was still unknown at the time. It won the Goodreads Choice award for nonfiction last year, and probably everyone interested in true crime has heard of it; I picked it up from the Barnes and Noble Book Blowout Sale at the beginning of the month.
  2. Far From the Tree by Robin Benway. This is a YA book dealing with adoption; I’ve seen several great reviews, and also picked it up from the B&N sale.
  3. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I had a coupon and decided I wanted to spend it on a former Women’s Prize winner- I picked this one from 2012. It’s a retelling of Homer’s The Iliad; while I enjoyed but didn’t love Miller’s more recent release, Circe, I think I’ll fare better with this one!
  4. How to be Both by Ali Smith. Another past Women’s Prize winner (2015). I found this one on Book Outlet, where everything is so cheap it’s impossible to only order what you came for… I’ve actually not read anything from Smith yet but I think I will love her writing! I want to be sure I read Autumn this season!
  5. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I’ve been (im)patiently waiting for this title’s US release. I’ve already read a few pages because I was too curious about the style to resist, and I’m liking it so far! It’s about an Ohio housewife ruminating on… well, everything.
  6. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Yes, this is the Canadian version, with a slightly different title than the US version. I saw the US edition on the B&N sale, but in the end I didn’t want to pay half price for the hardcover. When I saw this paperback on Book Outlet for $4 the week after, the price was right. I’ve seen mixed reviews for this reliving-the-same-day murder mystery, but above all it sounds bizarre and that’s my brand.
  7. Firestarter by Stephen King. I’ve heard recently that King’s new release, The Institute, might actually share a lot of similarities with this older publication of his that’s lesser known but popular among the Constant Reader (King fandom) crowd. I know this one involves a kid (or kids) with superpowers, and nothing else. I’m now planning to pick this up prior to The Institute.
  8. The Institute by Stephen King. The aforementioned new release. I was so excited about this one with its Stranger Things vibes (which is hilarious, considering Stranger Things was largely inspired by Stephen King books) and am kind of bummed that I’ve decided not to jump straight in. Again, kids with superpowers is all I know.

bookhaul9.19part2

(I’m sorry this is such a low quality pic- I’ve never been great at photography but I usually at least try for proper daylight!)

Of these eight, the titles I’m most likely to read in October are: Ducks, Newburyport, which I want to finish before the Booker Prize winner announcement, and Firestarter, because I have to read at least one Stephen King novel for Halloween month- this title is now at the top of my King list. It’s possible that I might also reach for The Institute, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and/or The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, all of which seem more or less in line for the fast-paced and/or disturbing sort of content I like to read in October.

I’d really like to get to both of the Women’s Prize winners before the end of the year as well, but I don’t think I’ll be picking them up this month unless I need a break from the horror genre.

And before we move on from the book haul portion of this post…

New books I’ve already read:

  1. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. 5 stars. I read this novella earlier this year and had such a fun time with it. It’s been nominated for several major awards, and though I never really expected it to win them, it is a book I think I’ll enjoy revisiting. Plus I had a coupon. I 100% will buy a book just to utilize a discount.
  2. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. 2 stars. I’ve always loved Atwood’s writing, including The Handmaid’s Tale (which this sequel follows), so I pre-ordered this one a while back. I read it promptly upon arrival, partially because of that prior interest, partially because I wanted to read it while it was on the Booker Prize shortlist. In the end, let’s just say I’m glad I was able to pre-order at a discount.
  3. One for the Money by Janet Evanovich. (I rated this one 5 stars originally, but have recently begun a reread that I think will bump it down to 3. I’ll wait until I’ve finished to say for sure.) This is a romance/crime novel that was published the year I was born- I recently did a tag featuring books from that year, which was the final push I needed to order a cheap copy from Book Outlet for nostalgic purposes and start a reread. It’s not exactly my taste anymore, but it’s a quick and humorous read with a lot of memories for me.
  4. Bag of Bones by Stephen King. This is one of my favorite King novels, and also one of the first of his books that I read, some dozen years ago. I’ve always wanted my own copy, and do plan to reread. I found this one on Book Outlet, and it matches several other King editions I already own, so the time was right. It’s a ghost story.
  5. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. 5 stars. One of the ways I’m trying to keep my own-unread TBR down is to use my book-buying urges (and those pesky coupons) to pick up books I’ve already read and loved, and want to own. This was one of my favorite books in middle school and I’ve been wanting a copy for ages- I was happy to find the same edition I originally read! This one’s about a teen who’s been raped, who pours her trauma into an art project.
  6. Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman. 4 stars. I just heard about this nonfiction/memoir last month and was so excited about it that I picked it up on Book Outlet immediately and began reading the day it arrived. It turned out a little different than I was expecting, but it’s an incredible read and very eye-opening. Review coming soon.

bookhaul9.19part1

Unfortunately, my unread stack is a bit larger than my read stack again, but I don’t expect I’ll be doing much book shopping next month, as my schedule is starting to go haywire and I have less time to spend both in bookstores and on the internet. Sadly, this means I’ll be less present on WordPress over the next month or two, but I’ll do what I can to keep up.

Other reading plans for October:

I’ve got Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore from the library, which means these will be my next reads. I’ll probably split time between these and Ducks, Newburyport.

Soon I’ll also have Hannibal by Thomas Harris from the library, probably my last library check out for the month. I’ve been slowly reading Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series at the rate of one book each October, and this being the third year I’m up to book 3.

I also want to focus on some other unread spooky books I’ve picked up earlier this year and failed to read in a timely manner. The titles I’ve most got my eye on right now are: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, The Phantom of the Opera and Other Tales by various authors, When the Sky Fell on Splendor by Emily Henry, Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach, and Strange Weather by Joe Hill. Plus I’ve got quite a few unread Stephen King books and plenty of spooky stories from previous years on my shelves, as well as the books I’ve already mentioned in my September haul. So, as you can see, no shortage of choices.

I can’t guarantee I’ll get to everything I want to, of course, but despite the excessively long work days ahead of me, I should still have plenty of small breaks throughout the day- which I’ve learned does not work at all for me for writing (which includes blog posts, sadly) but allows me to read more during the day than I normally manage. The silver lining. In any case, I’m in the perfect mood for all the horror reads, and I’ll keep up with reviewing them in season to the best of my ability.

Have you read any of these, and/or want to put in a vote for what I should prioritize?

I wish you many spooks in the coming reading month!

(Unless you’re not a fan of horror, of course.)

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

The Translated Literature Book Tag

Diana created this excellent tag post a couple of months ago and I immediately made a mental note to try it at some point! Then Callum helped me out by tagging me shortly after! To be honest, I’ve been putting this off a few weeks because I know my list of translated readings is not very substantial yet, and I’ve recently become more invested in trying to turn that around- but my life is so busy right now that I know I won’t be able to pick up all of the great translated titles on my TBR immediately just to do justice to this tag, so I’m going to try the tag now, and make a note to myself to return to it in a year or so and see how my answers have changed! These look like such interesting and versatile prompts that could be filled with so many different titles every time you try it (including some you haven’t read yet), and I think it’s important to any reader’s world perspective to keep picking up translated lit from countries and languages other than your own, so I don’t mind promoting a tag like this twice! I highly recommend checking out both Diana’s and Callum’s posts, and searching for others who’ve posted this tag as well, if you’re looking for some great translation recommendations!

And here’s my contribution:

1 – A translated novel you would recommend to everyone:

25489025Here are two, from the same author: The Vegetarian, and/or Human Acts by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. I recommend them cautiously because they’re both experimental in style and deal with very difficult subject matter, but I think for anyone who is interested in learning about other cultures or pieces of world history these novels are absolutely worth the challenge. The Vegetarian, on the surface, is about a Korean woman who decides she will no longer eat meat; her family and friends cannot accept her decision. Thematically, I’d say it’s a more universal look at how society judges a choice that’s uncommon or hard to understand in cultural context. 30091914Human Acts depicts a student uprising in 1980s Korea and its tragic aftermath. Thematically, it’s an exploration of the cruelty and vulnerability inherent in human nature. Both are brilliant, eye-opening, gut-wrenching books, and I’m eager to read more from Kang!

2 – A recently read “old” translated novel you enjoyed:

22054577I’m going with the very old, and very classic, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Though I had to read big excerpts from both books for high school and college classes and was already fully familiar with the plot and themes of both, I only read The Iliad in full for the first time last summer, and The Odyssey this past winter. I liked the characters, plot, and story arc of the former better, but found the latter much more engaging and immediately entertaining to read. Though I appreciated both, I do not recommend this translation (by Samuel Butler, from the Greek); it resorts to prose rather than trying for anything close to Homer’s epic poems, and generally sticks to such a literal translation that any artistic flare is quite lost. I’m planning to try other editions of both at some point.

3 – A translated book you could not get into:

165035I don’t think this is a bad series at all, but I have to go with The Emigrants (and the entire Settlers series) by Vilhelm Moberg, translated from the Swedish by Gustaf Lannestock. The only reason I was able to stay invested in this series is that the story of a Swedish farming family emigrating to the US in the mid-1800s and establishing a new family farm in the American Midwest is also a chapter of my own family history. Even with that connection, I really struggled to stick with the writing style, which I found rather dry, and the characters themselves are not the most engaging. It was fascinating to me to see some of the challenges faced by Swedish emigrants, but there’s really not a lot of plot here and I can’t imagine anyone without a Swedish farming background finding this series very readable.

4 – Your most anticipated translated novel release:

42983724Technically this book is already released now, but I’m still anticipating reading it: Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (and longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year). I’ve been so eager to get my hands on a copy of this strange little mystery ever since I first heard that brilliant title- I had the first hold in at my library before the official US release date, but it took so long for the library to get the book into circulation that I just got it recently. It’s either going to be my next or second-next read, and I can’t wait to see about this reclusive woman and her dying neighbors! (Could there be a more perfect time of year for this content?)

5 – A “foregin-language” author you would love to read more of:

21411194. sy475 I read my first novel by Haruki Murakami earlier this year: Norwegian Wood, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. I thought the writing was excellent and the story of love, loss, and grief quite moving, and I know Murakami’s other works tend a bit more toward the magical, which sounds potentially wonderful. After finishing this first book, I immediately added The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to my TBR, and have also since picked up a copy of After Dark from a convenient secondhand shop. I’m sure I’ll want to read more as well, but I’m looking forward to continuing with these two next!

6 – A translated novel which you consider to be better than the film:

I’m not sure I can answer this one properly. I don’t watch a ton of films in general, and can’t at the moment think of a single translated novel I’ve even seen an adaptation for! Perhaps I’d say that The Iliad is a better book than Troy is as a movie, but I actually thought Troy was a very interesting adaptation, though not perfect.

7 – A translated “philosophical” book you recommend:

36436073. sx318 I actually don’t like reading philosophy very much, but I did appreciate Albert Camus’s Create Dangerously, translated from the French by Justin O’Brien. Perhaps I appreciate it even more in retrospect than I did while reading- a common trend for me with philosophy (I appreciate the logic of it, but struggle with the circular nature and myriad loopholes). I think I’ll need to reread this one at some point because I think I can take more from it if I put more time into focusing on all of its points, but I do remember fondly some of Camus’s arguments about how and why we create art, and the need to fight for one’s freedoms, even the freedoms we’ve already won. There are three little speeches in this small volume, all worth the read.

8 – A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long:

2429135I think The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland, is the translated novel that’s been on my TBR the longest. I started reading it in 2012, but I picked it up right before I graduated from high school, and didn’t get far enough into the story to be excited about picking it back up that summer… so I never did. Since I own a copy, and am too stubborn to admit defeat, I’ll definitely try again at some point; I am currently more interested in reading this book because it’s firmly in my mind as an “unfinished project” than because I am excited about the story. In fact, I don’t remember anything about the story. Seven years is a long time to pause a book.

9 – A popular translated fiction book you have not read:

36739755. sx318 One novel I’m interested in that I see mentioned quite often and can’t believe I haven’t gotten around to reading yet is Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takamori. This is such a short book (just over 150 pages!) and focuses on one woman’s sense of identity and non-conformity. In theory, it sounds like something I would adore, and even if not, it would be nice to finally be able to weigh in on a title it seems like everyone but I have read!

10 – A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read:

37004370Specifically, I’m going to mention The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa here, translated from the Japanese (I didn’t realize there would be so many authors from Japan on this list!) by Stephen Snyder. This is a brand new (to the US at least) dystopian release in which the “memory police” can make anything disappear; the MC is trying to save her editor and career. This one’s been getting some buzz lately and I would love to jump on board, partially because I’m very interested in this author in general; I have several of Ogawa’s books on my TBR now and still haven’t read a single one- an issue I certainly need to remedy!

 

Since I’ve done a few tags this month and have already tagged quite a few friends, I’m not going to list anyone specific to continue this tag- but I really hope that anyone who sees it and reads translated fiction will decide to take part! I love finding translation recs through these posts. 🙂

Have you read any of these books? What’s your favorite translated novel of all time?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Testaments

At long last, after years of thinking of The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand-alone novel, after months of anticipation for its sudden sequel, after days of reading delays and blogging delays (oops), it’s time to talk about Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I won’t spoil anything from either book, but I’m going to assume that if you’re here, you’ve probably read The Handmaid’s Tale or at least have some idea of what it’s about.

I read this out of my own interest in Atwood’s writing and her portrayal of Gilead, but it was also No. 8/13 on the Booker Prize longlist for me, and 2/6 on the shortlist.

thetestamentsIn the novel, fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia secretly pens an account of the horrifying trials she faced during the birth of Gilead, the questionable choices she made from her position of leadership in the aftermath, and her own solution to the problem of female oppression in the former United States. Interwoven with her narrative are the testimonies of two girls experiencing major life changes at that same time- one who grew up in Gilead under the Aunts’ teachings, and one raised in Canada amidst protests and outrage for conditions across the border. These threads, of course, weave together with time.

“Gilead is a slippery place: accidents happen frequently. Someone has already written my funeral eulogy, it goes without saying. I shiver: whose feet are walking on my grave?”

It’s finally happened: I’ve actually disliked a Margaret Atwood book. But before I get into the negatives, I’d like to say that I do think The Handmaid’s Tale is well worth the read even for those who choose to opt out of picking up this sequel, and also that I think this is a book that will work better for many readers than it did for me. Should you read The Testaments? Picture it this way:

The end of The Handmaid’s Tale is a door slammed shut. The narrative ends at a crucial moment that is either very good or very bad for the main character, but before telling us which, Atwood locks that door and walks away, with the truth standing on one side and the reader stuck firmly on the other, left to decide for themselves where the story goes next. Surprisingly, The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel gives the reader a foothold, propping that door open just enough to offer certain implications, certain glimpses, into What Happens Next. There’s a big nod in The Testaments to the graphic novel’s final sequence. But ultimately, The Testaments throws that closed door wide open. Whether you’ll appreciate this sequel largely depends on whether you’re a reader who enjoyed imagining your own final solution when that door slammed, or whether you’re a reader with a lot of burning questions, pounding your fists on the door and wanting nothing left to uncertainty. It’s a choice each reader will have to make for themselves, rather than a flat verdict.

Because while The Testaments follows three new perspectives, we do find out here what happened to Offred.  Not every step of the rest of her life, but the general outline. This is going to satisfy a lot of curious readers, and alienate others.

Another divisive element is the fact that The Testaments is very much a book of its time. Where The Handmaid’s Tale is meant to horrify and frighten, its sequel is meant to empower and uplift. It’s not a book full of sunshine and happiness, but it tends toward female hope and perseverance in a way that its predecessor doesn’t. If this sounds like a tonal shift that interests you, odds are you’ll probably enjoy this more than I did.

But while I think opinions on whether this is a “good” sequel are going to vary wildly person to person, I think an argument can certainly be made that The Testaments is not Atwood’s best book. There are undeniably moments of brilliance in the writing, and Aunt Lydia is such a complex and intriguing character. I actually kept picturing her as Margaret Atwood while reading, though I think that has more to do with the fact that Aunt Lydia was the only character here who felt like she could have been a real person to me than any actual personality similarities (I do not know Atwood personally, obviously). For me, the pros ended there.

The cons were numerous. First, though there were some great lines, more often it felt like Atwood had lost all faith in her readers being able to pull meaning from her writing. Details are spelled out at an excruciating level:

“We joined a herd of other women: I describe it as a herd because we were being herded.”

“They were supposed to teach us how to act as mistresses of high-ranking households. I say “act” in a dual sense: we were to be actresses on the stages of our future houses.”

This lack of subtlety is not limited to the writing style itself; where The Handmaid’s Tale allows small plot details to speak for much larger problems in Gilead, The Testaments foreshadows it’s action-packed plot to such an extent that absolutely every major event and revelation actually feels anticlimactic. Additionally, the plot itself is such a standard dystopian arc that even without hints it would likely feel utterly predictable for anyone familiar with the genre, and everything comes so conveniently, impossibly easy to our heroines that I found it failed to even entertain at a basic level. Daisy and Agnes, the two younger perspectives, seem completely contrived and practically lifeless in the way that they react (or fail to react) to deaths, difficult tasks, and having their lives upturned. The format of the novel requires these women to look back on their experiences from some future point, but there’s no real attempt made at reflection, leaving even the structure feeling arbitrary and unrealized. Where is the crafting expertise Atwood utilized in The Blind Assassin? Where is the wacky, compelling plotting from The Heart Goes Last? Where is the care with which she created a new story from a beloved classic as in Hag-Seed? None of those skills seem to have carried over into The Testaments.

But you can take those opinions with a grain of salt, as many readers do seem to be loving this return to Gilead, or at least finding it wildly entertaining. Something that bothers me more than plot or characters, (something that I began to address in my review of The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel based on its ending, which was built upon in The Testaments), is the way that this change of direction from The Handmaid’s Tale even seems to subvert the original message of that book. The Handmaid’s Tale is cautionary- it’s meant to alarm readers into considering what might happen if we grow too complacent (this is aside from the fact that the details of The Handmaid’s Tale come from real problems women have already faced or are facing elsewhere in the world, but that’s another matter); The Testaments, with all its hope, says, “there’s no need to worry, even if things go wrong everything will turn out all right in the end.” It’s a comforting theme, maybe an inspiring one in some circumstances, but it seems to speak directly against the “let’s not let this happen in the first place” spirit of that first novel. Gone is the outrage that these circumstances might affect even one woman- in fact, outrage isn’t much of a factor in this novel at all. The optimism of its final chapter may even suggest that we might benefit from our world going so awry, because it would give us the opportunity to rebuild a country that seems already cracked and broken. Politically, it’s a perfect fit for 2019, and probably has something better to say about the ultimate fate of female oppression than The Handmaid’s Tale, but for me the message here just wasn’t as strong and didn’t quite ring true as a answer to the brilliant novel that precedes it.

Though this worked as neither a sequel nor a story in its own right for me, I’m not entirely mystified by the fact that it is having more success among other readers. Atwood is a big name in the publishing world for a reason, and The Testaments is not entirely devoid of merit. It is never my intent when I write a negative review to scare off interested readers, and I didn’t find this to be in any way an offensive book- just a book that completely failed to live up to its potential. I hope that it won’t win the Booker Prize next month… but I also hope that if you’re picking this one up, you have more fun with it than I did. Every book deserves to find its audience.

“Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to think that I would’ve been against any possible sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, despite my appreciation for its ambiguous ending, but this really wasn’t it for me. I’m not surprised at its commercial success so far, but I am a bit surprised it’s doing so well with the Booker judges. If by some chance this book wins, I will believe to the end of my days that it passed on the strength of the original novel that should have been worthy of a Booker win, rather than on its own substance. But I suppose I should close before I get any more petty. I’m glad I gave this one a chance, but sad that it didn’t live up to expectations. Maybe next time, Atwood.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Top of the TBR 9.23.19

Last week was a doozy and I fell quite behind on my blogging plans for the week, so here’s to hoping this week will go better! I’ve got some exciting things coming up, including my review of The Testaments… In future I might use this Monday post as a place to also preview my reading/posting for the week, but my schedule is all over the place this time of year so now is not the time, sadly. In the meantime, business as usual…

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 recently:

41817481Underland by Robert MacFarlane (Pub: May 2019)

How I found it: I’ve seen this one a bit on Bookstagram (I believe it won a prize that I don’t really follow), but it was Ren’s excellent recent review that made me look closer!

Why I added it: I haven’t read much (okay, *any*) nonfiction about nature / the environment… so far. But this one gives me Overstory vibes, which was a novel that left such a lasting impression for me that I think I should venture further into the topic. The way that humans have been using/destroying the planet has definitely been on my mind lately.

Priority: Low. This is something I want to read eventually, but am not in a rush for. The end of the year is a time when I like to finish projects I’ve already started rather than beginning new ones, which will probably become apparent throughout this list.

18770438Space Invaders by Nona Fernandez, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Pub: 2013)

How I found it: Every day last week brought the announcement of another category of National Book Award nominees; this is one title that caught my eye from the translated literature list!

Why I added it: I believe this is a story about a group of kids (now adults), who realize one of their friends may have been tied up in the politics of 1980’s Chilean dictatorship; they were old enough to sense that something wasn’t right, but too young to do anything about it. Plus some video game elements thrown in?

Priority: Low for now, because it’s not at my library, but we’ll see what happens with the award. I may add other nominees to my TBR as well as I find out more about them. Relatedly…

43152994Black Light: Stories by Kimberly King Parsons (Pub: Aug 2019)

How I found it: This is the only title from the NBA fiction longlist I hadn’t heard of, so of course I immediately looked it up.

Why I added it: It looks excellent. Here’s a bit from the blurb- “In this debut collection of enormously perceptive and brutally unsentimental short stories, Parsons illuminates the ache of first love, the banality of self-loathing, the scourge of addiction, the myth of marriage, and the magic and inevitable disillusionment of childhood.

Priority: Middling. There are a number of books on the NBA lists that are already on my TBR and I’m tempted to reach for some of them while the prize is going on. Or… I might stick to my end-of-the-year reading plans and focus on the NBA after the award announcements. I’m not sure yet.

12543Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (Pub: 1994)

How I found it: I had to read part of this for a college class and always meant to pick up the rest of the book; I did a book tag recently that reminded me I wanted to read this and didn’t actually have it on my TBR yet.

Why I added it: Writing is something that interests me and fills a lot of my time, so I do like to read tips and experiences occasionally!

Priority: Low. This is available at my library, so I’ll pick it up when I feel like it. I don’t have specific timing plans.

227603Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel (Pub: 1994)

How I found it: The same book tag put this one back on my radar.

Why I added it: I’ve been wavering on this one since it came up in a college class, but a few helpful comments on my tag post made me realize that even if the age that it snapshots might be in the rearview now, it could still be a worthwhile snapshot to check out anyway. This focuses on depression among “America’s youth.” (Quotations because this refers to the youth of 1994.)

Priority: Low. Everything is low because I’m swamped.

33917. sy475 The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (Pub: 2003)

How I found it: I’ve been meaning to read some of Lahiri’s work for years, and Melanie’s positive review of this one made this the title I am now most interested in.

Why I added it: This is a story about a family immigrating from India. I’m interested in the immigration themes/commentary, but also on the identity aspect, which is something I always enjoy. Bonus- it was previously nominated for the Women’s Prize!

Priority: Middling. I see this one’s available on Kindle Unlimited, and I’ve been trying to get going there again (currently reading: Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, slowly). At Melanie’s recommendation I just read a short story of Lahiri’s last week and liked the writing, so I would like to get to this one!

497499. sy475 The Door by Magda Szabo, translated by Lex Rin (Pub: 1987)

How I found it: I’ve seen this one around during Women in Translation month (August), but it was Rachel’s intriguing review last week that really piqued my interest!

Why I added it: This is the story of a relationship between two women- a writer and her housekeeper. I have only a hazy idea of what to expect here, and honestly that is very appealing. I’ve seen mostly positive but vague reviews, so I’m proceeding with the blind hope of feeling the same!

Priority: Low. I don’t have a copy, I’m swamped, etc. I’ll get to it when I get to it.

40642333The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson (Pub: March 2019)

How I found it: This is an adult fantasy that’s been on my radar since publication, but it was Naty’s good experience with this book recently that convinced me to look closer!

Why I added it: Fantasies in historical settings are perhaps my favorite type of historical fiction lately. This one’s set in 1490s Spain, which sounds excellent. I really don’t need to know more than that, though the mention of djinn doesn’t hurt!

Priority: Low. (Are you even surprised at this point?) This is available at my library, so it’s ready when I’m ready!

 

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

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Choose the Year Book Tag

I was tagged by the wonderful Laura Frey for this Choose the Year post! She’s got more info on the Booktube side of this tag on her post, and focuses on the books from 2000, so for more popular books from years past, check out her post and links!

After considering a few different years that were significant to me, I’m choosing to follow the “year you were born” trend and focus on popular books (according to Goodreads) from 1994. If you want to try this tag or are jut curious about he books from the year you were born, you can use this link to search popular titles by year on Goodreads:

http://www.goodreads.com/book/popular_by_date/xxxx

The tag prompts:

  1. Choose a year and say why.
  2. Which books published in that year have you read, or if none, heard of.
  3. Are there any books published in that year that sound interesting and would you read them now?
  4. Most obscure sounding book?
  5. Strangest book cover

I’m going with 1994 because obviously I wasn’t reading in that year, so it’s interesting to me to see which titles I’ve been drawn to over the last 25 years. I’m just going to scroll down the list in order of popularity and mention where I stand with each title. Numbers correspond to their rank in the Goodreads list, and titles are linked to their Goodreads pages.

One for the Money (Stephanie Plum, #1)1. One for the Money by Janet Evanovich. This was probably the first adult mystery book I ever read, very early in high school, and at that time I was absolutely obsessed with this series. I binged all of the books that were out at the time with a bestie- I think No. 16 was brand new and she bought the hardback with bonus stickers. Looks like No. 26 is coming out later this year, but after trying to catch up in college I realized this was no longer my reading taste and quit several volumes ago. It’s a trashy series (in a fun way) but I remember the first book having the best plot; I actually just bought a copy for nostalgic purposes, and am looking forward to a hilarious reread!

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle2. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. This one is on my TBR. I just read my first Murakami novel earlier this year (Norwegian Wood) and loved it- I was planning to pick this one up next just because I know it’s one of his best-known titles, but I found a cheap copy of After Dark at a secondhand bookshop that I’m now planning on picking up next. I don’t remember anything about the synopsis of this one but I like reading that way.

3861873. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Another on my TBR. I came across this title a couple of years ago when I was trying to complete a reading challenge that required reading a book from the year I was born, and this is the one I was planning to go with until I accidentally read another title that I didn’t realize fit the prompt… This is a true crime novel set in Savannah, Georgia.

400245. The Alienist by Caleb Carr. This is the title I accidentally read for that reading challenge. I hadn’t heard of it until BOTM featured it as an extra and I decided on a whim to give it a go. It’ a historical fiction mystery following an early psychologist (before the term was coined) trying to solve the crimes of mutilated child bodies found in New York. I remember some of the gritty details but didn’t fully get on with the writing style and structure of the novel, if I remember correctly. I’ll link my review here, but the tl;dr is a 3-star rating and a series I didn’t bother continuing.

438938187. Insomnia by Stephen King. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve read a lot of Stephen King and am slowly making my way through his entire list of publications. This one doesn’t seem to be a big crowd favorite but the synopsis does look interesting to me- a man who can’t sleep starts to see things around town and he’s not sure whether they’re hallucinations or not. It’s set in Derry, Maine, a fictional town Stephen King uses a lot and likes to cross-reference throughout his novels, which is a fun feature. This is one of his heftier titles though; this edition from my own shelf clocks in at over 900 pages.

8. Walk Two Moons 53496by Sharon Creech. This is a middle grade book I read when I was 13, at the same age as the main character. I remember that, and I remember really liking the story at that time, but to be honest I really don’t remember anything about it now and the synopsis is not ringing any bells. I did read Bloomability by the same author a year or two later, so it must have made a good impression.

31843110. A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. This is just an “I’ve heard of it” book. I’ve never been big on reading nonfiction about history or politics so even though I’ve seen this one around and know it has a great reputation I’ve never had it on my TBR. But this year has sparked a renewed interest in nonfiction for me, so who knows, anything could happen.

1254313. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. This is a nonfiction book that I had to read an excerpt from in a college writing class, and have always meant to read the rest of. I just realized it wasn’t actually on my Goodreads TBR but it’s been on my mental list. Frightening to think that my 700+ title Goodreads TBR is not actually exhaustive…

22760318. Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel. Another that I’ve heard of. This is a nonfiction/memoir about mental health among America’s youth. I’ve been on the fence about this one for a long time because it sounds very interesting, especially now that I’m more open-minded about nonfiction, but I also wonder if it’s a bit dated at this point? If anyone’s read this, please advise.

853577115. The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson. I LOVED this book as a kid. It’s one of those underrated Harry Potter / Narnia type books with a secret magical world that most people don’t know about. I think I read this one before the HP or Narnia series and those have stuck with me more over the years, but I reread this one several times and still have my copy in reasonable condition for posterity.

7059131185. Cristallisation Secréte by Yoko Ogawa. This is neat: the original Japanese edition of Ogawa’s very recently translated The Memory Police came out in 1994! I’ve not yet read any of Ogawa’s work, but a couple of her titles (including the English translation of this one) are on my TBR, and more are on my radar. This one’s about a world in which “memory police” can make things disappear, and one novelist at the center of the story hides her editor in an attempt to preserve literature. The Memory Police was just longlisted for the National Book Award’s translated lit category!

Those are all of the books that I’ve specifically read or been meaning to read from the 1994 list. I could go on with a few more children’s books I’ve possibly read and plenty of titles I’ve at least heard of, but I’m sure we all have better things to do with our time and I think I’ve already covered a decent mix.

So, the most obscure sounding book:58372

I think “obscure” is a matter of perspective, but here’s an interesting one. Whatever by Michael Houellebecq, translated by Paul Hammond, looks like a French novel about a thirty year-old man who writes weird animal stories. “A painfully realistic portrayal of the vanishing freedom of a world governed by science and by the empty rituals of daily life.” Maybe I should’ve saved this one for the strangest book cover prompt, but I’ll dive in again…

14288…And find this gem! (Can you tell that I find animal covers strange in general??)

Piercing by Ryu Murakami, translated by Ralph McCarthy, is apparently a “pulsating psycho-thriller.” I have actually heard good things about this author, but that’s definitely not a cover I would feel inclined to pick up. I’m not even sure what the red fibers in the top right are supposed to be? My gut reaction says blood, but if so that’s the strangest image of blood I’ve ever seen.

Quick disclaimer: I realize I picked foreign authors for both the strange and obscure prompts, which should in no way indicate that I think of foreign authors as strange and obscure… I’m judging based purely on the covers, brief synopses, and placement on the Goodreads list, not the content or quality of the books!

Tagging:

Kristen, Karissa, and Elysa. If this tag looks as fun to you as it did to me, I’d be excited to see some bookish highlights from a year of your choosing! If you’re not tagged and want to participate, please do!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Reviews: The Handmaid’s Tale Graphic Novel and Mary’s Monster

I read two graphic novels of sorts (one is very hard to categorize) last week, so here’s a two-for-the-price-of-one set of reviews!

 

thehandmaidstalegraphicnovelThe Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood, art and adaptation by Renee Nault – 4 stars

I picked up this adaptation of Atwood’s beloved modern classic as a quick refresher before diving into The Testaments (which I’ll hopefully be wrapping up and reviewing in a couple of days).

Initially, I realized that what I remembered most from the novel was the world of Gilead and all of its terrible rules of operation; I wasn’t quite as clear on the specific characters or events. The more I read, the more this pattern made sense, as the plot of this novel actually matters very little- it’s a vehicle Atwood (and here Nault) uses to explore the extremes of this political scenario. Our main character, Offred, isn’t special, she’s just the face chosen to show the reader the “norm” for the women of this society. Every other person that she interacts with- be they Handmaids, Marthas, Wives, Commanders, Guardians, Angels, Aunts, etc. are also singular faces representing a greater majority. They’re Gilead stereotypes. The power of the novel comes from the fact that for the reader, the revelation of every unjust detail of the  Handmaid’s existence is an event in itself. This is precisely why I wasn’t ready for a full reread of the actual novel yet- without its power to surprise with rampant sexism and very thorough slavery of women, The Handmaid’s Tale loses a substantial amount of its power.

With the graphic novel, excellent visual art made for a somewhat new experience with the familiar story. The colors used are bold and striking, with a tendency toward bright red, the style stark but not sparse. I thought Nault did a wonderful job of keeping each face unique and recognizable amidst a sea of matching uniforms. The art is understated but elegant.

The language also feels very true to Atwood’s original work; it’s been a little while since I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale so I can’t swear to Nault’s words being lifted directly from Atwood’s pages, but they gave me that impression. It’s a very faithful adaptation in content and spirit.

“Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.”

Well, faithful until the end. Throughout most of this read, it was a perfect 5 star experience; I couldn’t remember why I had only rated The Handmaid’s Tale at 4 stars and was fully prepared to love this graphic rendering even more than the original. But the last three pages take this narrative a step farther than the novel’s perfect, ambiguous ending, lending a hint of softness to what is otherwise a very bleak speculation of how far unchecked misogyny could go in the US. While I appreciate the framing concept behind those last three pages, and even marked a great quote from within them, they suggest a light at the end of the tunnel. This cautionary tale of what could (and does, in some places) happen to women in a world without feminism is buffered here by the closing indicator that no matter how bad things get, justice will win in the end. It seems to go against the entire purpose of the story, in my opinion. (Which is also part of the reason I’m struggling with The Testaments, but I’ll get more into that later.)

So, all in all, a fantastic rendering of a tale for the ages that I’d love to own a copy of someday, though I’d like to pretend the final scene it depicts doesn’t exist.

“As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it, but, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.”

 

marysmonsterMary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created FRANKENSTEIN by Lita Judge – 5 stars

I picked up this barely-categorizable work of art at Callum’s excellent recommendation, after adoring another ode to Shelley’s classic, Winterson’s Frankissstein. My love for Frankenstein grows exponentially the more I learn about Shelley’s real life, which of course is so intricately entwined with the themes of her novel.

“I am not just an unwed girl. / I can choose to forgive. / I can choose to live again, / broken but breathing, / half lover, half pain.”

Though I refer to this one as a graphic novel for ease of drawing on a familiar image, Mary’s Monster is actually a fictionalized account of Mary Shelley’s real life, told through non-rhyming poetry, and accompanied by gorgeous, haunting, black and white drawings. The color scheme reminds us that despite the first-person present-tense narration this story is grounded in the early 19th century. The art is pretty, with soft edges, but it conveys such a depth of pain and sorrow.

The book opens on Mary’s young childhood, and the tone and language put me in mind of YA lit (this impression was probably reinforced by the fact that it was shelved in the YA section at my library); I think this would be appropriate for a teen audience (perhaps English classes that require students to read Frankenstein might benefit from using this as an accompanying text), as long as readers are prepared for how dark a tale this is. As Mary grows up, her life becomes more tragic and complex, and all of her tragedies are caught up in her writing. Though I think I would have loved both Frankenstein and Mary’s Monster as a teen, I do however believe there’s a richer experience that comes from reading both as an adult.

So what is this story? It’s an account of Mary Shelley’s relationship with her eventual husband Percy (Bysshe Shelley) and with her own family, her struggle as a young mother and social outcast, the deaths she sees, and her resilience in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. Plus a lot of Frankenstein symbolism. Author Lita Judge has this to say of the of the book:

“The popular myth is that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was conceived spontaneously on a stormy night in answer to a dare to write a ghost story. That evening did occur, but countless events in Mary’s life before and after that evening played a much greater role in the horror novel’s creation. My story is an attempt to trace the many origins of her genius. It’s a testament to a resilient girl whose imagination, forged by isolation, persecution, and loss, created a new form of storytelling as a means of connecting with the very society that had socially exiled her.” 

I was slow to warm up to this one, but completely won over in the end. I am now in desperate need of a Frankenstein reread.

 

Ironically, it wasn’t until I suddenly remembered and promptly gave up on my goal to read more graphic novels this year that I picked both of these books up on impulse. I really should make a more serious attempt to follow through in 2020, because clearly the genre has a lot to offer. If you’re at all interested in The Handmaid’s Tale or Frankenstein, I can’t recommend these beautiful books highly enough.

Do you have any more graphic novel recommendations for me?

 

The Literary Elephant