All posts by Literary Elephant

Hi. I'm Emily. If you're looking for someone excessively excited about books, you've come to the right place. I received my BA in English on the Creative Writing Track from the University of Iowa, which only reinforced my goal of making authorship my career. While I chase that dream, I'll be posting here. This blog highlights some of my experiences with reading, writing, and building a literary career. I hope you'll stay awhile, and talk about books with me. :)

Review: Hannibal

Two years ago, I picked up The Silence of the Lambs as my Halloween read, knowing it was a horror classic with a readily available film adaptation, but without realizing that it was actually the second book in a series. I had such a good time with it that last year I followed up by choosing Red Dragon as my Halloween read (the first book in the set), and this year I picked up the third, Hannibal (all three by Thomas Harris). Sadly, with Hannibal I found my first real disappointment of the series, and what a disappointment it was.

hannibalIn the novel, seven years after Hannibal Lecter’s escape from custody, special agent Starling struggles to find her place in the FBI. It’s very much a man’s world, and she’s made enemies high up the chain of command who take pains to knock her back every time she tries to take a step forward. When a tip comes in that Lecter has fled Italy after causing some murderous havoc there, Starling is the one who chases the lead- from a dark basement storage room where no one expects she’ll find anything. Meanwhile, someone else is chasing Lecter as well; one of his earliest victims (who barely survived, aided by a lot of modern technology) is out for revenge. Verger has a lot of money, and was left in such poor physical state that he spends what’s left of his existence just thinking- about how to get Lecter away from the law and into his own hands. Can Starling bring Lecter back into official custody? Will Verger take her down to get to Lecter? Will Lecter escape them both? The answers are here, and they’re disturbing.

“That didn’t mean he wouldn’t kill me any second if he got the chance- one quality in a person doesn’t rule out any other quality. They can exist side by side, good and terrible.”

There seems to be one book every year in my busy work season that seems nearly impossible to finish and puts me in a big reading slump. Last year it was The Bachman Books, a set of four stories which I very much enjoyed, all but one. I was afraid the challenge this year might turn out to be Ducks, Newburyport, but fortunately that was such an excellent read that I didn’t have any trouble getting through its thousand pages. Instead, it was Hannibal I got stuck on.

There are so many things to dislike here. The book starts promisingly enough, with a very film-able shoot-out scene that turns out to be as much about bureau and media politics as about the adrenaline rush. Starling isn’t the same woman she was in The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s been seven years- some character development is to be expected, and there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding her place in the bureau and the future of her career. Soon after, the narration takes us to Italy, where Lecter is enjoying all the fine things in life, and a blacklisted cop there discovers his identity. We are also introduced to the story’s villain, Verger, who likes to make children cry and throw his money around to shape the world into what he wants it to be. But for all these intriguing starts, it doesn’t take long for the book to drag.

Problem number one: the plot trajectory becomes clear early on, and then stagnates while we wait for it to play out. Verger is making arrangements to torture and kill Lecter, and he’s got some powerful helpers, in addition to an endless supply of cash. The FBI (other than Starling) does not have any interest in Lecter. Or at least, no confidence in catching him, and thus they’re eager to look the other way. Starling is the wild card, but even so, any reasonably intelligent reader knows Lecter and Verger will have some sort of confrontation (why else even include Verger in this book?). And so, from the time the major players are introduced, to the time they all meet, hundreds of pages are spent on very little plot movement. There’s no forward momentum.

Problem two: What fills the pages instead is a whole lot of attention paid to Lecter’s superior “taste.” I suppose with the title of the book being what it is, we can expect that this novel is an exploration of Hannibal Lecter’s character, though the extent of it took me completely by surprise. We get lessons on the cars he insists on driving, the food he insists on eating (and cooking), the music he insists on listening to, the silverware he insists on using, the clothes he insists on wearing, etc. Brands and descriptions are numerous. I can’t speak for everyone of course, but I’ve learned the hard way (ahem, Discovery of Witches) that I will simply never care about any character’s list of favorite wines. For me, the surplus of these details quickly crossed the line past productive characterization into what seemed like Harris showing off his expertise on “good culture,” complete with travel details.

Problem three: Relatedly, almost everything about Lecter in this novel felt like Harris simply reveling in his most famous character being in the limelight. Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs certainly contain gruesome details (major trigger warnings in all three books for murder, torture, body horror, cannibalism, etc.), but those scenes featured infrequently, when they served the plot. In Hannibal, most (if not all) of the gory details felt gratuitous. This entire book honestly felt like a celebration of Hannibal the Cannibal, the most perfect murderer. He’s not presented as a villain here. He’s lauded. And it comes across as ridiculous.

“His ego, like his intelligence quota, and the degree of his rationality, is not measurable by conventional means.”

Problem four: The ending. Despite being published in the 1980’s and 90’s, most of the content in these three books hasn’t age too badly. Starling is a pretty great female lead in The Silence of the Lambs, and there’s not much in the way of insensitive commentary that wouldn’t fly today. But this ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but Harris completely ruins Starling’s character. Worse, he does it in a way that taints who she’s been and what her motivations have been since the first time she met Lecter, early in The Silence of the Lambs. In paving the way for Lecter to have a glorious ending, Harris pulls down everything else that was good about this series. His female lead. Excellent detective work. Morality. Ugh.

Problem five: There’s no one to root for anyway. After such disappointment in the ending, I had to go back and ask: what would I rather have happened? And I couldn’t answer it. Though Lecter is a fascinating character, he’s a nonetheless a villain. Verger mixes the tears of children he’s personally antagonized into his cocktails, and Starling, the obvious choice for a heroine, seems a shadow of her former self (especially as we approach the end- if you know you know). There isn’t anyone in this book that I wanted to “win,” or even felt good about. I don’t need to like the characters to like the book, but disliking all of the characters when that doesn’t seem intentional is the worst.

I usually try to soften my negative reviews by ending on some sort of positive note, or at least recommending it to an audience that I think will get on with it better. The best I can say here is that for the first third (or possibly even half), I didn’t hate this story yet, and there are a couple of scenes that I will remember mostly fondly (Krendler’s fate, for one). Also I suppose if you’re in this series for the gore (or for expensive wine recommendations), you might enjoy Hannibal. I think that’s as close as I can get to positivity here, I’m sorry. I sincerely hope that anyone who has already read or is planning to read this one has a better time with it than I did.

“We assign a moment to decision, to dignify the process as a timely result of rational and conscious thought. But decisions are made of kneaded feelings; they are more often a lump than a sum.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I’m on the fence about reading book four, the final book in this series: Hannibal Rising. I believe it’s a prequel about Lecter’s early life and career (both as a doctor and as a cannibalistic murderer). The completionist in me wants to cross it off my list after getting this far in the series. But my lack of enjoyment with this book, and the reasons for it (mainly Lecter’s characterization) leave me thinking that I can’t possibly appreciate that book any more than I did this one. So, it might be time to move on to a new Halloween reading tradition.

What’s the worst book you’ve read lately?

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 7

My Faber Stories journey continues! In case you missed it, I’ve been reading through the 2019 collection of Faber Stories- individually bound short stories from a wide range of celebrated authors- since early this year. Originally a set of 20 stories (though always meant to expand, I think), there have been 10 more recent additions to the collection. I’ll link my reviews for the first 20 stories here: ( Mini-reviews part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6). Below are the first three I read from the new batch; I’m aiming to wrap up the rest of the new volumes in two more sets of mini-reviews before the end of the year. For now:

Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin. 4 stars.

This volume contains two short pieces by Fremlin, originally published in 1968 and ’70. Both are stories of hauntings, and both highlight a fraught mother-daughter relationship. The first features a teen girl home alone, ruminating about the house and her parents, when a mysterious girl her own age stops by and seems to understand everything. The second piece is the longer of the two, and focuses on a woman who, after the death of her sister, has spent years acting as a mother figure to her niece. Now that the niece is engaged and preparing a house of her own, her aunt has a terrible sense of doom hanging over the girl, and recounts her own past as she tries to piece together the reason for her increasing worry that her niece is in danger.

Both of the stories contain a twist at the end that answers the main “mystery” of their story, though neither are framed as a mystery, and neither has much of a plot. Where they excel is in their discourse on difficult parent-child relationships. The first story touches on the disparity in viewpoints: the child thinking she has some special insight into her parents’ personalities, the parents harboring a layered past to which she’s not privy. Building on this idea, the second piece shows the aunt’s backstory in the midst of her present fright, which contains enough depth to entirely explain the current situation. In this story, the protagonist’s history with her niece’s parents proves to have affected her entire relationship with the girl, though until this recent incident neither of them knew it.

In the end, though the broad strokes seemed fairly obvious, I enjoyed the depth revealed in each relationship, perhaps even more so in the final implications that each ending is actually a beginning of a new phase of life for these characters. The first story seemed the most predictable to me, and didn’t delve deep enough to really impress me, so that was a 3-star; the second piece I found much more intriguing, and landed on a 4-star rating. Overall I went with 4 for the volume because the themes and details did make these two pieces a very apt pairing.

Intruders by Adrian Tomine. 4 stars.

I had no idea until I picked this one up that it’s actually the first graphic short story to appear in the Faber Stories set (originally published in 2015). Each page includes a bit of text, with an image beneath, comic-square style.

The story here centers around a soldier back at “home” between tours of duty; though he’s staying elsewhere, day after day he comes back to look at the old apartment where he once lived with his wife. Someone else now lives in the apartment, and the soldier, after learning this new tenant’s schedule, begins to let himself into the place with his old key. Things eventually go wrong (of course).

Though the surface details of the plot are certainly intriguing here, making this a quick read aided by expressive art that furthers the story, what really drew me to this one is the subtle between-the-lines commentary on this soldier’s state of mind. It’s clear that his time in service has altered his behavior and perspective, which likely led to the split with his wife. In that respect, I think this is an excellent piece depicting some of the hardships soldiers can face, even after returning home. I was a little disappointed that Tomine shied away from greater conflict with the ending, but I appreciated the psychological insight nevertheless.

Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore. 3 stars.

Translated from Charles Perrault’s original French dating back to the 1600s, poet Moore here shares three early fairy tales. (“Early” here meaning that Perrault was the inventor of the fairy tale genre.) The pieces included in this volume are “Puss in Boots,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Cinderella.” Though these are all familiar stories now, the original versions vary a bit from their modern counterparts, meaning there are still a few surprises for the curious reader.

Unlike the two volumes above, the plots are the selling point here. The conflict is introduced early on, a magical element comes into play, and the hook is invariably, “how will this good hero/heroine get out of this mess?” From the introduction and Moore’s background in award-winning poetry, it’s clear that much attention has been paid to wording, and these stories are indeed very readable.

They’re also very dated. My biggest qualm here is simply that these tales are absolutely a product of their time, and were not modernized in translation. Princesses are supposed to be beautiful and charming and otherwise helpless while the king gives them away to whichever suitor he pleases, or a prince sweeps in to rescue them; the mother-in-law who doesn’t like her son’s wife is literally presented as an ogre; a man with hardly any property to his name impresses the king with gifts of small game, and easily gets away with lying about his title and land ownership. Some casual misogyny and pre-internet lawlessness are to be expected from this time period of course, but even so I wish we could celebrate this genre and these stories without perpetuating some of those less desirable elements that haven’t aged as well.

Even so, I found “Puss in Boots” clever and amusing, “Sleeping Beauty” captivatingly dark, and “Cinderella” simply a very pleasant read- she’s such an amiable character in this version that it’s impossible not to root for her happy ending. My only complaint about plot is that “Sleeping Beauty” really felt like two separate stories: one about the princess pricking her finger on a spindle and falling asleep, and one about the princess become a secret bride in a dangerous family. Both interesting, though the second half doesn’t quite flow logically and smoothly from the first. All three stories are engrossing and amusing, though unless you want to ruminate on helpless women and tricksters becoming rulers, there’s not any sort of moral to be drawn or thought path to continue down after closing the cover.

“A prince, young and in love, is always brave, and this one, true to tradition, went boldly to the forecourt of the castle. There, what he saw would have frozen the blood of the bravest. In the fearsome silence, everything everywhere had the look of death…”

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In conclusion, these were entertaining reads I’m glad I picked up, though none of them is compelling me to pick up further works by these authors. These all helped keep me going when I hit a bit of a reading slump in October/November though, so I’m grateful for that, but hoping for even better luck as I continue through this collection!

Have you read any of these, or have your eye on any of the other Faber Stories?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Wrap-up 11.19

Following my best reading month of the year, November was undoubtedly my worst. I did find a few good books, but reading was a real struggle this month, for a number of reasons. It’s only been in the last couple of days that I’ve been making a solid return to full-length books. So even though I’ve got a good-sized list to share here, I only read 3 books of “normal” length this month, a record low for me in recent years. But I’m back on my game, ready to finish the year strong with a promising December TBR!

Books I finished reading in November:

  1. Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli. 5 stars. This little nonfiction book, just over a hundred pages, was stunning from start to finish. It deals with children caught in the middle of the US border crisis. Luiselli’s perspective on this topic is compelling and close to the issue, and raises so many questions that we should be looking harder at trying to answer.
  2. No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg. 3 stars. Another piece of nonfiction, this one around just 70 pages, this collection of Thunberg’s speeches on climate change was well-done and convincing, though perhaps not the best place to start on climate change reading, as it’s a persuasive piece rather than informative.
  3. Intruders by Adrian Tomine. 4 stars. From the Faber Story collection, this short story about a man returning to his old home (where someone else is now living) between military tours is an interesting look into how a soldier’s perspective and behavior can change after active duty- and also the first graphic style to appear in this set. Review should be coming up tomorrow.
  4. Hannibal by Thomas Harris. 2 stars. The third book in the Hannibal Lecter series (and my third year reading this series, one book per Halloween), this one has been my least favorite by far. Though it was off to a promising start, it soon turned into a gratuitous show of Lecter’s less desirable behaviors and traits, overwritten and under-plotted. Review should be coming up this week.
  5. Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore. 3 stars. Another title from the Faber Stories set, this one includes three short translated fairy tales, familiar classics that are a bit different from their well-known modern adaptations. Though I found these an enjoyable way to pass a little time, they felt sadly dated (especially in regards to gender expectations) and didn’t offer any interesting takeaway for me. Review should be coming up tomorrow.
  6. Unbelievable: The Story of Two Detectives’ Relentless Search for the Truth by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong. 4 stars. This nonfiction piece (first published under the title A False Report) caught my interest when the Netflix adaptation was recently released. It’s the story of a girl who reported a rape, and wasn’t believed- only to be proven right several years later, when the rapist was caught by another police department. I found this a fascinating read, though I would have preferred the focus to be a bit more solidly on rape rather than policework; nevertheless, a great book. I also managed to watch the TV show afterward. A joint review should be coming up this week.
  7. Strange Planet by Nathan W Pyle. 4 stars. This is a little book of comics by an artist I found almost a year ago on Instagram. The series features “beings” (they look like simplistic aliens) who make their way through everyday events and encounters (as on Earth), with literal interpretations and humorous irony. It’s a thought-provoking collection, and a joy to read.
  8. My Son the Fanatic by Hanif Kureishi. 3 stars. Another Faber Story, this one is about a father-son relationship and the challenges of assimilation; as the (Pakistani) son grows older, he becomes more staunchly religious (Islamic) as his father adopts more Western customs. There was a lot of potential for deep and important conversation about cultural expectations here, which I felt was somewhat undermined by attempts at humor that might have worked better when the story was published in the 90s, but fell entirely flat for me in 2019. Review coming soon.
  9. Firestarter by Stephen King. 3 stars. I read this book (one of King’s earliest publications) in preparation for my buddy read of The Institute in December- I hear their themes are similar, and want to do a little comparison. I was also drawn to this one because it’s one of the works that inspired the Stranger Things Netflix series, which I love. It was a fun read, but felt unpolished and hastily written- which makes sense, as it came out at a low point in King’s life. Ultimately, a mixed bag full of highs and lows. Review coming soon.
  10. Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera. 4 stars. My last Faber Story for the month, this one takes place in one afternoon as a couple who had a brief affair years previously unexpectedly meet again. At it’s core, it’s actually an examination of age, with death looming morbidly in the background. I found the writing beautiful and evocative, which made up for the scant plot. Review coming soon.

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Some bookish stats:

Average rating – 3.5

Best of month – Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli

Worst of month – Hannibal by Thomas Harris

Books hauled 6, one of which I’ve already read, and most of the rest I’m confident I’ll get to in December, so not too bad! You can check out my haul and Dec. TBR here.

Owned books read for the first time – 7, though most of them were so short that I didn’t really make much of a dent in my own-unread shelves. Still, in numbers alone, that’s more unread books read than acquired, which is great!

November TBR tally5/21 if we’re counting all of the Faber Stories individually, which I didn’t in my haul, but I will for overall stats in the year so I guess we might as well start. You call follow this link to the full list of things I didn’t read in November, if you’re curious.

Year total – 114. My Goodreads goal for the year was 100, and my record from last year was 118, so I’m well on my way to a new record high!

 

Films I watched in November:

  1. Rebecca (1940) – A black and white Alfred Hitchcock classic. Rebecca was one of my favorite reads of 2018, and I realized this fall I had never actually gotten around to watching the adaptation. So I watched it this month, and absolutely loved it! It’s a very faithful representation of the novel, as far as I recall. I actually liked the protagonist even better in the film than I had in the book; I thought all of the actors were a great fit for their roles, really. It was nice to have a visual for Manderley. I borrowed this film to watch it, and honestly I’ll probably watch it again before I return it. Just excellent.
  2. Mindhunter ssn 2 (2019) – I checked out the first season of Neflix’s Mindhunter (based on the book of the same name, which I haven’t read yet, though I have read another book by the authors) earlier this year, and while it’s a slower-paced show without a lot of plot for forward momentum, I found myself hooked on the psychological aspects. It’s a show about the behavioral branch of the FBI interviewing serial killers to learn how to catch them earlier in the future- set in the 1970s-80s. At heart, it’s really about why people do what they do, at their very worst. Interestingly, I completely switched my stance on which character I found most interesting in this second season, and even though the plot seemed to move even slower, I’m still invested- eagerly awaiting season 3, which I don’t think is even confirmed yet.
  3. Tall Girl (2019) – A Netflix movie that’s gotten a lot of flak for the fact that the bullied “tall girl” is only 6’1″, and she’s a white girl leaning on her supportive black best friend, acting as though her problems are worse. I was just curious here, as a relatively tall girl myself. The verdict: it’s a satire, but poorly done. Though some of it is meant to poke fun at what is really not that big of a problem, some of the humor doesn’t come across very well so I can see why people were offended. There were a few questionable moments, though overall the messages seem well-meant.
  4. Unbelievable limited series (2019) – Also recently on Netflix, this 8-episode series looked absolutely irresistible. I managed to wait long enough to read the book first mainly only because I was so busy, which made internet time hard to come by. It was worth the wait. Most of the details covered in the book are also present here, and I thought the visual medium really made some of the details much more harrowing- seeing some of the victims flash back to images from their assaults was gutting in a way that reading the words in clinical language on the page couldn’t touch. It really brought the characters to life in a way that I wish the book had done better.
  5. Black Mirror ssns 1-3 (2011-2016) – this one’s an honorable mention, as I started but haven’t finished yet. I’m halfway into season 3. This one’s been on my list for A WHILE, so I checked it out and obsessively watched two and a half seasons. There are only a few episodes each season, but some of the episodes run well over an hour apiece, so I feel like I’ve spent some quality time with this series. Overall, this is the kind of weird, psychological everyday horror that I love, so it’s mostly going well. My only hang-up here is that only two of the episodes so far have felt like an appropriate length for their content- most of them seem to take a lot longer than necessary to get around to the point, and each of the episodes features a single idea, which is the main focus, wrapped up in a predictable plot, which could often be abbreviated to no ill affect. So, I love the concept, but not necessarily the writing. I’ll definitely watch the rest.

And, because you’ve probably noticed I’m far behind on reviews, here are a couple of links to non-review posts I’ve managed to complete this month, in case you missed them:

I’m getting back on my reading and blogging game, so I’m expecting to finish catching up in plenty of time for end-of-the-year posts and 2020 prep- but that means I’ll probably be posting 4-5 times per week through most of December. If you hadn’t noticed I was missing for the majority of November, you’ll certainly notice now that I’m back, lol. There are still about a week and a half’s worth of posts I haven’t caught up on in my reader, but I’m making progress there as well.

All in all, a downer of a month for me that’s finally making a positive turn.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you have a great month of reading ahead in December!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

TBR 12.19

For the final time, I am following my 2019 TBR goal of adding all of the new books I acquired last month to my “official” TBR, and for once I think I might come close to finishing the list! I’m going to make a serious attempt, anyway. It helps that with as busy as November was for me, I didn’t buy many books. I’ll list those first, then mention a few others I’m also aiming to get to before the end of the year.

New unread books on my shelves this month:

  1. The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. This was my BOTM choice for November, a nonfiction account of an undercover mission into American asylums. I’ve been very interested in madness, mental health, and flawed systems lately, so I’m highly looking forward to this one!
  2. American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan. Thanks to spooky October and Nonfiction November, I’ve seen a number of great reviews and recommendations for this nonfiction piece about a disturbingly prolific serial killer in recent history. I picked it up as an add-on through BOTM.
  3. Know My Name by Chanel Miller. This is a memoir about a well-known sexual assault case and its aftermath, which I’ve been itching to read since its publication and will definitely be diving into soon!
  4. Supper Club by Lara Williams. After my busy work schedule died down, one of the first things I did to reward myself for surviving the season was go to the bookstore. I wanted to pick up something I didn’t know a lot about but thought I might love, something I wasn’t specifically looking for, and this one jumped out at me. I believe it won the Not the Booker Prize this year, but happened just as my busy season struck so I haven’t really seen any reviews or revisited the synopsis!
  5. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I read an intriguing article about Owens a few months ago that spoiled some of this book, but I’m still intrigued to pick it up. I believe it’s about a loner girl accused of murdering a popular local boy. I wasn’t really planning to buy it right now but I stumbled upon a hardcover copy at more than half off, and I couldn’t resist.

A new book on my shelf I’ve already read:

  1. Strange Planet by Nathan W Pyle. 4 stars. Review coming soon. This is a little collection of Strange Planet comics, which I discovered on Instagram early this year and have been avidly following there. I couldn’t resist picking up the book and speeding through it right away. It features “beings” (they look like aliens) who have very literal or ironic encounters about everyday things.

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Other books I’m aiming to read in December:

  1. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. I’m taking part in a buddy read of this Women’s Prize winner this month! I remember nothing about this book other than that it’s historical fiction and wintry, with some magical realism, but I’ve already got a copy checked out from the library and am planning to pick it up either as my next or second-next read.
  2. The Institute by Stephen King. I’m also doing a buddy read of this latest King release, tentatively scheduled to conclude right at the end of the year. This one features a group of kids with special talents, who are kidnapped and taken to the Institute, where no one has ever escaped.
  3. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. I saw this was available at the library the last time I went, so I picked it up. I’m going to aim to wrap up the rest of the Booker longlist before the end of the year (except for Quichotte, but more on that in my Booker wrap-up). This one’s about a dying woman recounting the details of her life as her brain shuts down, and the friends trying to give her a proper burial.
  4. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I got a copy of this one at the end of October and meant to read it in November, but it didn’t happen (more on recent reading failure coming in my Nov. wrap-up). It’s about the lives of twelve people (mostly black women) in London, and it shared the Booker win. I’m really looking forward to this one, and it’s the title I’m undecided about whether to pick up before or after The Tiger’s Wife; I expect to get to it soon either way!
  5. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy. I’m on hold for this one at the library, so this is a tentative plan, but it’ll be the only title left on my Booker trek so I’m really hoping to get to it! I’m next on the hold list but whoever’s got it now is overdue to return it, so we’ll see what happens. I remember nothing about this offhand, although I think it focuses on memory.
  6. The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty. This is a Middle East adult fantasy sequel that I started reading earlier this year, and had to put down to meet another deadline. I was enjoying it, and can’t believe I haven’t picked it back up yet. I still want to finish before the end of the year- I’m halfway through.

All in all, a total of 11 books that I *should* read in December. The only one I really don’t care whether I get to or not is Where the Crawdads Sing, which I do want to read eventually but I don’t mind letting it wait a bit. The rest, I think I’ve got a good shot at completing! I’m also planning to read some more Faber Stories throughout the month, and to make some headway in The Vagina Bible; but if I don’t complete those projects before 2020 that’s okay with me, I’ll continue in January. I have one more library hold pending as well, but I’m not sure whether it’ll come in for me to read in December or January, and I don’t mind either way. And so, for the second time all year, I might actually be able to complete my “new books” TBR, or at least get close enough to feel good about it! Here’s to hoping for a strong end to a questionable reading year!

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

 

The Literary Elephant

2019 Almost-Favorites

Last year I started a new bookish Thanksgiving tradition: looking back at some of the books that aren’t quite going to make my favorites list for the year and exploring why I’m still thankful to have read them! (Here’s the link to my 2018 almost-favorites if you’re curious.)

Since I’ve not had the best reading year, putting this list together has been a great reminder that there have nevertheless been some gems in my 2019 reading! I’ll post about my actual top favorites next month, but these are books that I really liked, that I can’t let go without mentioning again! It’s not an exhaustive list of all the books I’ve enjoyed this year, not even when combined with my favorites list. I’ve narrowed it down to a reasonable length: 10 books. I’ve even made an attempt to rank them! (Titles are linked to my reviews if you’re looking for more info.)

thesilentcompanions10. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. This is a historical gothic/horror novel with a unique supernatural element. It stands out for its atmosphere and tension, its hint of modern feminism as a lens through which challenges in historic women’s lives are examined, and it’s pacey plot. What held me back from favorite status here is that the plot was really the main focus (evil paintings taking over a secluded house!), and plots don’t tend to stick in my memory very well. I’ll remember I loved reading this one, but the specifics (except for those evil paintings, of course) will fade away pretty quickly, I’m afraid.

mysistertheserialkiller9. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Longlisted for the Women’s Prize and the Booker, this little book captured a lot of attention this year. It’s a quick-paced mystery about a woman murdering her boyfriends and the sister who helps clean up after her. The deaths and details are intriguing, but what stood out to me most were the strong women and their close bond. I had so much fun reading this one, but it’s missing from my favorites list because it didn’t leave me with much food for thought; closing the cover really is the end of the experience with this one.

thehandmaidstalegraphicnovel8. The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault. I thoroughly appreciated Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a few years back, and this graphic novel format of the same story reignited my interest. The standout elements were the bold colors and clean lines of the artwork, and the superb narration. Everything about this was gearing me up for 5-star favorite status (even though the original novel was only a 4 for me!), but what held me back was the ending, deviating from the classic script just enough to change the entire direction of the story, paving the way for The Testaments and marring the read for me.

womentalking7. Women Talking by Miriam Toews. This short novel, based on the true tragedy of numerous sexual assaults in a Menonite colony, stood out to me for it’s jaw-dropping details, the cleverness involved in effectively utilizing a male narrator in a story about female power and voice, and for the intricate way the characters’ actions are tied up in their religion. The only aspect that held me back was the utter lack of plot; the title is perfectly informative in describing what happens in this book, and while I loved the statements it made, I have to admit it wasn’t a story with much momentum.

nonficminireviews6. Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli. In little more than a hundred (nonfiction) pages, Luiselli manages both to educate her readers about the children caught up in the US border crisis, and to give a sharp tug to the heartstrings. It’s a standout for its emotive prose, its bravery in speaking out against the US government, and its unique structure: framed around the 40-question form immigrating children need to fill out upon entering America. The only thing holding me back here- through no fault of Luiselli’s- is that this is an ongoing problem, which understandably means there are no answers or conclusions here.

aspellofwinter5. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore. The most compulsively readable Women’s Prize winner I’ve read so far, this historical gothic-toned tragedy kept me up nights because I just had to know what would happen next. It’s darkly beautiful and absolutely haunting, which are standout details in my opinion. I adored the style and atmosphere through most of the novel, and appreciated the focus on how women have been stifled and taken advantage of through history. What held me back is a shift in tone and direction at the end, along with how incredibly sad some of the details left me.

askmeaboutmyuterus4. Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman. Someone in my life talked to me about endometriosis this year, I heard about this book soon after, and was shocked to realize how big a problem it is for women not only to get diagnosed, but treated properly for this condition. What stands out most here is the way Norman uses her own diagnosis in this memoir as a springboard to explore a larger issue in medicine- unfair treatment of ailing women- both in history and modern day. Similar to my hang-up with the Luiselli piece, I’m holding back here mainly for a lack of resolution to an ongoing problem; I was left with plenty of questions, though I understand Norman couldn’t possibly have answered all of them.

driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedead3. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Much like with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Overstory, the plot didn’t entirely work for me with this one, though I appreciated basically everything else. I don’t often read (and even less often enjoy) books that focus heavily on animals, but the standout narrative voice (an old, eccentric Polish woman) hooked me immediately, and by the time I closed the novel I couldn’t look at animals the same way as before. (The narrator tries convincing her village that animals are murdering humans in revenge for their mistreatment.) What held me back was only that the structuring of this story as a mystery felt like tacking a cheap thrill onto a story that might have been a bit stronger as a straightforward exploration of a very intriguing premise.

humanacts22. Human Acts by Han Kang. This brutal little book delves into a student uprising in 1980 Korea; it’s a fictional account of the real event. The stand out element for me here was the way Kang posits that both vulnerability and abuse of power are inevitable human traits, necessarily existing side by side. It’s incredibly dark and sad, but certainly hard-hitting and effective. The only aspect that held me back was the frequent switch of perspective, not only from one character to another but also in point of view (1st, 2nd, 3rd person); these switches could be confusing at times, and did not always seem to serve any productive purpose.

marysmonster1. Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge. Here we have a graphic fictionalized biography of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein); it also includes the famous monster and plays up themes found in Shelley’s novel, transposed onto the stage of her real life. Standout features are the soft gray-scale artwork, the free verse narration, and the impeccable blending of fact and fiction. What held me back from including this on my favorites list is that it took me a while to get into this one; the book opens with Shelley’s childhood, through which both the “plot” and the writing are more simplistic and just felt a bit too YA or even MG for my current taste. (It becomes much more adult later on, I would not recommend to an MG or young YA audience- perhaps 16+.)

There you have it, folks: my 2019 almost-favorites!

After writing all of those little paragraphs for each book, I’m realizing it was a bad idea to end them all on the downside I found to each of these books- the goal was to talk them up and hopefully persuade some more readers to give these titles a chance! Even though each of these stories comes with a reason it won’t be on my favorites list, these were all highly enjoyable 4- or 5-star reads for me that didn’t miss the mark by much! Some of the “flaws” I’ve mentioned are inevitable side effects of their topics (as with the ongoing-problem nonfiction pieces) or personal opinions that other readers might feel very differently about (like the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel, which I think Testaments fans will appreciate, or Mary’s Monster feeling too young at first, which is unlikely to bother readers who pick up MG/YA more regularly than I’ve been doing).

And so, I’ll close here with a reminder that there’s more to reading than lists and numbers (even though both are present in this post…). Take a moment to look back at your reading year with me and appreciate the upsides to some of the books that you won’t be featuring on your favorites list; consider what you’ve gained even from the books you aren’t going to be gushing about at the end of the year. Sure, we all find some duds, but at the end of the day, we still love reading.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

The Literary Elephant

Nonfiction November (Prompt 5)

Sadly, my busy season this year prevented me from taking part in most of the Nonfiction November prompts during the weeks they were going on (I might still participate late), but I couldn’t miss out on the final week now that I’m back! This week’s topic is from Rennie: New Nonfiction on My TBR (focusing on titles we’ve found through Nonfic Nov posts).

This is really the perfect prompt for me after my recent blogging/reading interruption, as I’m going back through the posts I’ve missed and adding plenty of recommendations from other bloggers to my TBR! A disclaimer: I’m not completely caught up yet, so I’ll still be checking out more lists and adding to my TBR after posting this, but I wanted to get to this prompt before the end of the week in case anyone else wants to join in before the end of the month.

And to share the love, I’ll be linking back to the posts I’ve gotten recommendations from so that if you’re looking for more nonfiction (or even just great bloggers to follow) you can find those here as well!

Let’s jump into the list.

68783. sy475 Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Posted by: Diana @ Thoughts on Papyrus. She’s written an excellent post about nonfiction books dealing with the mind and mental illness!

I first heard about this book in high school, but I had forgotten all about it in recent years until seeing it again in Diana’s post! It’s about a young woman’s experience at a psychiatric hospital; in her account, “she draws attention to the absurdity of the rules and to the embedded sexism.” (Diana’s words.)

40121993The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang

Posted by: Hannah @ I Have Thoughts on Books.

I had seen this one when it was released but then hadn’t really heard much about it after the initial buzz of excitement faded. Hannah’s review makes it sound like essential reading from an important perspective, and very well-written as well! In fact, both of the nonfiction reviews in Hannah’s recent post sounded so good that I added the second one she talks about there to my TBR also:

40046084 Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

(Also posted by Hannah)

This is a memoir “about coming of age and reckoning with desire as a queer, biracial teenager” (words from the synopsis). It’s also a story about family, loss, and forgiveness. All of that sounds good of course, but what sold me was Hannah’s insisting that the structure of the book is excellent, with a surprising and impactful ending.

32076678. sy475 The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Posted by: Portia @ The Owlery Reader (and others)

I had never heard of this one before, but it’s appeared on several nonfiction favorites posts this month, and it sounds excellent! It looks like the author, who was at the time against he death penalty, signed up for a summer job helping to (legally) defend men accused of murder, only to discover a man she does not want to live in the wake of his crime. As she digs into his case, she also delves into her own past, and realizes crime and its consequences are not as black-and-white as she had imagined.

43231095. sy475 American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Marueen Callahan

Posted by: Sarah @ Sarah Ames-Foley

I actually talked to Sarah about this one as a spooky read back in October, but was excited to see it appear on her nonfiction favorites list! I was getting a bit burned out with serial killer true crime earlier this year, but Sarah says this one is particularly haunting and the killer surprisingly unknown, and I’m looking forward to checking it out! It focuses on Israel Keyes, who  committed numerous murders completely undetected for over ten years.

38362811 The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

Posted by: Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction?

I just added this one to my TBR today, after finding the link to Ren’s review in Sarah’s nonfic TBR post! This one had been on my radar but I was hesitant to add it since I’d never gotten around to West’s Shrill. After looking closer however, I think this one might be a better fit for me! At least to start with. It’s a humorous (and passionate) critical look at current issues and politics, which sounds right up my alley based on my recent nonfiction interests!

43726557 The Seine: The River That Made Paris by Elaine Sciolino

Posted by: Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction?

Much to my own surprise, I also added this one to my TBR today after seeing Ren’s review. (Seriously, are you followed Ren yet? Even- especially- if you think nonfiction isn’t your thing, her reviews are so detailed and interesting that you’re bound to discover you’re interested in more topics than you thought!) I don’t read a lot about nature or specific places (travel books), but the way Sciolino uses the Seine to explore history, culture, architecture, etc. sounds so intriguing, and provides the human connection I tend to need in the books I read.

25019 The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

Posted by: Kristin @ Kristin Kraves Books

I’ve got to admit, it was the Oxford English Dictionary detail tacked on to the end of the title that really drew my curiosity here. It looks like when the men who put together the OED were recognized afterward, it came out that one of them had been an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. I’m so intrigued.

Know My Name Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Posted by: Rachel @ Pace Amore Libri, Karissa @ Karissa Reads Books (and others)

This one was already on my radar (though I realized a week or so ago that I’d forgotten to add it to my TBR), but I’m so excited about it and recently picked up a copy so I had to include it with links to a couple of great reviews! Chanel Miller is Emily Doe, whose witness statement against Brock Turner in a sexual assault case was all over the internet a few years back. Here she shares not only her identity, but reveals a flawed system and examines the aftermath of a trauma. I’ll be reading this one very soon.

Are any of these titles on your TBR, or books you’ve read? What did you think? Help me decide what to prioritize, please!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Mini-reviews: Short Nonfiction

A little dip into non-fiction before November reaches its end! Two of the non-fiction pieces I’ve read recently are very short current issues pieces, so I’m going to talk about both of them together here, even though they cover different topics. The first is Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, about the border crisis between the US and Central America, specifically focusing on children seeking asylum in the US. Second will be Greta Thunberg’s No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, a collection of Thunberg’s speeches on the importance of climate change, from events/gatherings she’s attended around the world. Both pieces are meant to raise awareness and advocate for change.

nonficminireviews “Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.” -Luiselli

I read Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive earlier this year, a novel following a family on a road trip that revolves around the US border crisis. Tell Me How it Ends makes for a very apt companion piece to that novel (whether you’ve enjoyed LCA or not), though I imagine it would also be great as a stand-alone essay for anyone interested solely in exploring this topic through non-fiction.

In the essay, Luiselli reveals a bit about her personal life- her fraught experience with trying to get a green card, her own family’s trip toward the southern US border while learning about the crisis on the radio, and her work as a translator in immigration court. The parallels between her life and Lost Children Archive will be clear to anyone reading both pieces, but there’s also more to this essay than appears in her fiction.

Tell Me How it Ends, a slim volume just over 100 pages long, walks the reader through a questionnaire given to Central and South American children upon entry/capture in the US. As Luiselli lists the forty questions she, as a translator, has helped many children to answer, she provides commentary and anecdotal background based on specific encounters with immigrant children, on her knowledge of the immigration system, and on her perspective of where the line for what is moral and acceptable should be drawn. She provides history and statistics, direct quotes, and enough concrete information for the reader to feel grounded even in sections of the piece that are more opinionated. The path is clear from the evidence Luiselli provides to the conclusions she draws, though even those who disagree with her stance (for whatever reason) are likely to learn something worthwhile from the read. Furthermore, she’s a great writer whose skill really shines through when she puts aside (admirable) fictional constructs and simply speaks her mind, from her own perspective. I was certainly impressed with her fiction, but there’s an emotional depth to this essay that brings the topic to life in a whole different way.

” ‘Why did you come to the United States?’ I ask children in immigration court. Their answers vary, but they often point to a single pull factor: reunification with a parent or another close relative who migrated to the U.S. years earlier. Other times, the answers point to push factors- the unthinkable circumstances the children are fleeing: extreme violence, persecution and coercion by gangs, mental and physical abuse, forced labor, neglect, abandonment. It is not even the American Dream they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.” -Luiselli

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars.

Let’s switch gears.

Greta Thunberg is a 16 year-old from Sweden who, over the last year, has become a major voice in the matter of climate change. Completely alone and against the advice of her family, she began a school strike that has grown astronomically to include children and adults around the world, sparking much political and cultural debate.

This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second. They only care about what we actually do. This is a cry for help.” -Thunberg

Thunberg’s speeches (filling about 70 pages in the volume I read, although I know there’s a new expanded edition recently out in the US) are persuasive attention-grabbers with short, punchy sentences that are irresistibly quotable. It’s no wonder she’s received the level of global attention that she has; her words are full of momentum and all but impossible to turn away from. I’ve seen a couple of videos of Thunberg’s speeches, and can vouch for the fact that she’s just as magnetic in audio/visual as on paper.

That said, I did have a few small issues with this book. The first being that this simply isn’t a great place to start if you’re new to the climate issue, because there are very few facts in Thunberg’s speeches. She references specific reports and statistics, but doesn’t incorporate many of those findings and numbers into her prose. She mentions that we need to decrease carbon emissions by so much percent in this many years (the numbers are estimates and do change slightly throughout the course of this volume so I’m refraining from including specifics), but beyond urging that there’s a deadline this is not a scientific text. It’s based on science, but it’s a persuasive text. It reads like the persuasive papers I remember my class having to write in high school, where we could pick any topic that interested us and make an argument. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing- though it’s not quite what I was expecting, it does show how very true the title of this volume is: No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. If this 16 year-old can make a splash this big without a science degree (or even a language/writing one), what can the rest of us do? Thunberg plays up her age, her autism, her ordinariness. And she’s a sensation. To be honest, I was drawn to this book as much for the sensation she’s as for the climate discourse; I am planning to read further on the topic, so I can’t say that Thunberg’s speeches are ineffective, but I do think they would have been strengthened by a few more facts- never underestimate the power of a well-placed statistic.

In the end, I closed the book with a certainty that Thunberg knew what she was talking about, though I didn’t feel I understood the core problem any better than I had going in. I hope she keeps giving speeches and fighting for change, but I also hope that those who hear her speeches will look further and educate themselves on the matter before drawing conclusions.

“Our civilization is so fragile it is almost like a castle built in the sand. The façade is so beautiful but the foundations are far from solid. We have been cutting so many corners.” -Thunberg

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars.

Both of these pieces came to me when I needed something short and thought-provoking in my reading life, and both were perfect fits. Despite my final rating of the Thunberg collection, I did find both of these books gripping and well worth my time. I highly recommend them.

 

The Literary Elephant