Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Night Film

I haven’t picked up any horror/mystery novels for a while, but summer nights are perfect for dark reads and it’s good to try new things, so I picked up Marisha Pessl’s Night Film in early June. (Yes, I know it’s July now and no, that was not a typo.) I’ve been struggling through this 600-page behemoth for over a month now, and last night I finally reached the end.

nightfilmAbout the book: Scott McGrath, disgraced journalist, is out for a run late one night when he has a strange encounter with a woman in a red coat. Soon after, Ashley Cordova is found dead. Ashley is the daughter of an eccentric horror film producer whose work is so controversial and terrifying that it exists only in illegal copies and secret underground showings– and the daughter may prove as enigmatic as Cordova himself. Police have ruled the death a suicide, but McGrath knows there’s more to the story and reopens the Cordova investigation that ruined his career years before. Two of his early leads, Hopper and Nora, attach themselves to McGrath’s investigation for better or worse; but the deeper they dig, the more it seems that nothing has been coincidental (including Ashley’s red coat), and everything is tied to an elaborate story part real and part fiction, a story that’s as compelling and creepy as one of Cordova’s films.

Freak the ferocious out— there were quite a few pages on the site devoted to Cordova’s supposed life philosophy, which meant, in a nutshell, that to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind. This was, in Cordovite speak, to slaughter the lamb, get rid of your meek, fearful self, thereby freeing yourself from the restrictions imposed on you by friends, family, society at large.”

The best part of this story is its atmosphere. Pessl writes with an eye toward the visual, coaxing the reader toward seeing this story like a film of the mind. The level of detail is rich and eerie, the metaphors evocative, the action scenes heart-pounding. The prologue draws the reader in completely, and the final chapters send the reader to new depths and heights.

“Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, you realize you’re standing on another trapdoor.”

But this is a 600 page novel. I think it would’ve been a stronger story closer to 300. Pessl does an excellent job of following every plot thread to its conclusion, but this story does not need nearly as many threads as it provides. Some of these arcs are barely attached to the main web of the plot, and some branch off entirely. For example, there’s quite a bit of information given about McGrath’s ex-wife and their daughter, who he sees only occasionally. These characters are absolutely irrelevant to the mystery, as are the ex-wife’s new husband, the daughter’s nannies, and everyone mentioned in between.

So much of this story felt contrived, as well. Everyone McGrath wants to interview is willing to share everything they know about Ashley or Cordova himself– two of his leads are so interested in McGrath’s investigation that they become active participants in it, and this professional investigator is perfectly content, even grateful (by the end of the book he calls them his family) to let them tag along, though they cause as many problems as they solve. Most of the side characters are flat, including the policewoman who helps McGrath behind the scenes for no apparent reason, and the professor/uberfan who, no matter how much he hates McGrath, will step out of his classes and invite McGrath into his home to share Cordova information with him. McGrath is the only person who gains from his relationships with any of these people; why are they so willing to give him whatever he needs?

“Dottie never forgot that night. She said later she felt as if she were an hors d’oeuvre he’d taken one bite of, then put back on the tray.”

There are so many details that some are left floating rather awkwardly. For starters, McGrath talks about his habit of running around the reservoir at 2 AM in the prologue, but does not exercise again in the entire 600 pages that follow, and is rarely awake at that time of night. When he ruminates on the wreck of his career, he mentions that money has gotten tight, but then proceeds to throw “bonuses” at his assistants, bribes to whichever sources need incentive, props and tools to aid his investigation, etc. He spares no expense, though he doesn’t seem to have any income at all for the duration of this novel. And then there’s the black magic expert he calls to help with “the grimmest situation”– when his immediate concern turns out all right, he seems not to remember the grimness of the underlying problems beneath it. The narration is very near-sighted.

But let’s look at the horror aspects of the book. In some ways, Night Film feels like a mishmash of every horror story that’s been done before: there are headless dolls, hedge mazes, witchcraft, corrupt doctors/therapists, deserted mansions, underground tunnels, misty islands, bloody clothing, anonymous phone calls, black hooded cloaks, mythical creature symbols, and about every other basic spooky detail you’ve ever seen before. It’s impressive that Pessl manages to pull all this together into one narrative, but in my opinion the best parts of Night Film are psychological. The scenes when it’s hard to tell fiction from reality, when McGrath feels like he’s in a Cordova film, when someone isn’t who they seem, when unexpected motives come to light or the truth seems closer to home than is comfortable. Parts of this book made my skin crawl, and that’s what kept me reading. I also loved the ambiguity of the ending.

“The truth about what happens to us in this world keeps changing. Always. It never stops. Sometimes not even after death.”

Another pro: this book has some cool multi-media aspects. Within the novel, there are articles, notes, photographs, etc. that fans of Illuminae and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will appreciate. And further, there’s a Night Film Decoder app that allows the reader access to additional content on screen, including videos, journal entries, etc. I didn’t look at all of the app’s content, but what I did see was interesting and I would recommend checking it out while reading if you’re enjoying the novel.

Another con: though this seems to be an adult novel, it reads like YA. McGrath is a grown man, but Nora and Hopper (and Ashley) are in their early twenties, and Sam is 6, or thereabouts. The vocabulary of the novel isn’t too advanced, every mystery is overly-explained, and Pessl uses Italics more aggressively than I’ve seen any writer use them– on every page, practically in every paragraph, she shows the reader exactly where to look. There’s no subtlety (which is not to say that the mystery itself is predictable).

“The space around Cordova distorts… the speed of light slackens, information gets scrambled, rational minds grow illogical, hysterical.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There were some things I really liked about this book, but they were outweighed by the things I really didn’t like. I appreciated that it was a novel that woke strong opinions, and Pessl is certainly a competent storyteller– but this book was not for me. In my younger years I might have loved this, which is part of the reason I couldn’t bring myself to DNF even though I was slogging through so slowly, but present me still can’t decide whether it was really worth the read in the end or not. I probably won’t be reading any more from this author.

Do you like reading mysteries in summer, year-round, or only in October?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing (published in 2016) has been on my TBR for a while, but a recent recommendation from a friend encouraged me to finally pick it up. And wow, do I regret not picking this one up sooner.

homegoingAbout the book: One African family morphs into two in the aftermath of a destructive fire. Two women and the descending generations of their families run parallel to each other as both branches continue to grow–unaware of each other– in the midst of the African slave trade. Some characters spend their entire lives in Africa, others in America– some see both. All are affected by the slave trade, even those who are never claimed as slaves or are born after its abolishment. Homegoing is an exploration of culture on a grand scale, weaving a large story whose ends won’t meet again for about 250 years.

“This was how they lived there, in the bush: eat or be eaten. Capture or be captured. Marry for protection. […] He would not be weak. He was in the business of slavery, and sacrifices had to be made.”

About the structure: each chapter is a vignette of a different character’s life; the two families alternate for narrative prominence, but each chapter is entirely different. Long plot arc lines are visible between the stories, but each chapter is essentially complete in itself, though each character’s story leans on the shoulders of the others. Homegoing is masterfully constructed, and the family tree provided at the start of the novel is an effective tool for navigating it if you can’t read the entire novel at once.

“Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”

Though many of the facets of African slavery that this book explores are already familiar– the British colonizers instigating tribal wars to turn Africans against each other, the inhumane conditions of the American cotton plantations, the fact that the legal abolition of slavery did not end unjust laws and racist treatment of African Americans, etc.– the focus of the book is not on any of these details individually. It’s about the accumulation of every tragedy and horror, and they way these hardships link Gyasi’s characters.

“…what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, that he, and everyone else, existed in it– not apart from it, but inside of it.”

About the characters: each chapter’s main character (and each important side character) is utterly unique. There are so many perspectives woven into this story, and though I did have favorites, there was not a single character’s chapter that I disliked. I was sadder to see some chapters end than others, but I found Gyasi’s writing so compelling that each new chapter drew my attention as fully as the last.

About Gyasi’s writing: she pinpoints injustice, racism, and unchecked power without a moralizing or sentimental eye toward the consequences. Homegoing is a sort of history, not a blind accusation. Blame falls where it should, but never on the reader, no matter their color. Each character has their own particular flaws and desires, losses and successes. There is no general line drawn between “these people” who are right and “these people” who are wrong; even the villains of these stories are unique individuals with their own motives, and their faults are laid on them individually (or as a group based on their time and social station) rather than the entire white race through eternity. Gyasi does not sensationalize or sentimentalize any detail of this story, and the objective voice that shines through as a result is Homegoing‘s greatest strength.

“When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book from the very first chapter. I am anxiously awaiting whatever Gyasi will publish next, and I will definitely be buying my own copy of this book when I return the borrowed copy to my friend. I don’t need to wait another 5 months to know this book will be on my favorites list this year.

Further recommendations:

  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This is a book that covers some modern social issues of gender and perspective, filtered through a specific aspect of African culture– the ogbanje, evil spirits born into a troubled child, creating a fractured self. If, like me, you finish Homegoing wanting more African literature in your life, this is a great choice that challenges Western perspectives.
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This one features a magical realism twist, and addresses African slavery in America as it has never been done before. If you like Homegoing (or not) and want a fresh perspective on the African slave trade, don’t miss this book.

I haven’t read a lot of African literature, and I feel like I need some more. Any suggestions for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Circe

I went through a mythology obsession in college, a strong enough one that I almost minored in Classics without intending to. I’ve had an interest in the Greek and Roman gods as far back as I can remember. So when Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles was published, I added it to my TBR– but sadly I never got around to reading it. When Miller’s Circe was published earlier this year, I was determined not to let the same thing happen twice. I bought a beautiful edition (let’s be honest, every Circe edition is gorgeous), and this month I read the story.

circeAbout the book: Circe, the eldest daughter of a god (Helios, the sun god) and a nymph (Perse), is trapped between the mortal and immortal worlds of ancient Greece. Though she has the parentage and longevity of a goddess, she has the voice of a mortal, and is much more interested in the human world than the gods’. She learns early that she has little power against the gods and their ways, and that to exist in their realm is to be their plaything. So when Circe is exiled to Aiaia, her banishment is– at least partially– a blessing. On the island of Aiaia, she learns to hone her witching skills and take charge of her own life. She won’t be leaving the same way she came– under someone else’s orders.

“Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure. No matter what I did, how long I lived, at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished.”

Ultimately, Circe is a modern expansion of a relatively small chapter in Greek mythology. While Miller does a great job matching up the details so that everything seems technically correct, Circe just doesn’t quite feel like it belongs in the canon. There were certainly times while reading that Circe gave me the impression of fanfiction– an excuse for Miller to play with pre-existing characters. Some references (or entire recaps) of known stories about the gods gave this book an air of tourism through traditional Greek mytholgy.

As far as familiar names go, there are plenty in Circe. I was afraid that my knowledge of the gods had gone a bit rusty in recent years and that references would go over my head. I am not at all an expert– but I did feel that I knew more than Miller assumed her readers would. Many of the side characters that make appearances in Circe’s tale are explained in plenty of detail, even on the occasions where the character’s role in the story seems so slight that it’s hardly necessary. The betrayals, the spurns, the banishments– Circe is so mild-mannered and quiet, so willing to accept whatever fate she is given, that the little secrets she gets away with and the punishments she endures tend to fall flat. Much of the tension of the story revolves around Circe’s introspection, but even when she notices how unjust the gods’ rulings are she does nothing but think about it. So little actually happens that every side arc where Circe’s story brushes with one of the greats seems contrived just to include that great god or goddess. I did find some of Miller’s characters particularly intriguing– Telemachus, Deadalus, Pasiphae, even Glaucos– but for every character I enjoyed, there was another that felt largely irrelevant to Circe’s main plot arc, no matter how often she thought about them afterward– like Prometheus or even Hermes.

“All those years I had spent with them were like a stone tossed in a pool. Already, the ripples were gone.”

Let’s go back to the fact that Circe seems mild-mannered. From my college electives, I remembered only that Circe was a sorceress with the ability to turn men into pigs. We do see that scene in Miller’s Circe, and it does have its place within Miller’s narrative, but to me that felt like the only piece of the story in which Circe was a strong, independent being following her own instincts. I expected to see more of that Circe in this book, but instead I found a woman unhappy with her lot, simply letting things happen and suffering through an uncomfortable eternity before she’s ready to act. Even when she does use agency, her choices follow the path of least resistance. The way she attained the poisonous spear-tip is particularly anti-climactic because it seems she is finally going to fight, but in the end no fight is required. So many of Circe’s choices seem to go this way. So many of her battles are invisible tests of will. So little seems at stake. Where is the strong, dangerous witch?

“I had felt untouchable, filled with teeth and power. I scarcely remembered what that was like.”

I can see why this book is so widely loved: the writing is easy to read and engrossing, the story emotional and beautiful in places (especially at the end), and the references to canon Greek mythology are plentiful and well-explained for the reader who’s maybe heard of Pasiphae and Athena but doesn’t quite recall their stories and personalities. It’s Greek Mythology for the layperson, perhaps. That’s not to say knowledgable fans will necessarily be put off by this story, but Circe seems particularly aimed at readers who want Classics: 2.0– the readers who will delight in the fact that Circe has none of the long chapters completely filled with names that can be found in Homer’s stories.

“Let him be a hero. You are something else.”

This review has been largely negative, and the fact that Circe fits a style of episodic tales that I just haven’t been jiving with lately probably contributed to my low impression of it. As did the huge amount of hype that preceded my reading. But none of this is to say that I hated Circe in any way. Though there were disappointments, it was fun to see some of my favorite Greek mythology characters again, and I appreciated Miller’s command of language. The ending made me want to dive back in all over agin.

circe2My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I did like this book, but that enjoyment took some effort. The gods are still as fascinating as ever, but Circe lacks the sense of history that other mythological tales have provided for me. It’s gorgeous, but… a little empty? I’m still interested in picking up Miller’s The Song of Achilles, and hoping that volume will be a better fit for me.

Have you read either of Miller’s books? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Why I Am Not Going to Buy A Computer

This is the last of my Penguin Modern reads for a while– I’ve reached the end of my second batch and the third hasn’t arrived yet. But for now, here’s a review Wendell Berry’s nonfiction, titled Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer.

img_2172About the book: In a short (5-page) essay fittingly titled “Why I Am Not Going to Buy A Computer,” Berry explains why he chooses to write by hand in an increasingly technological era. 5 response letters are printed following this essay, to which Berry in turn responds briefly. This is followed by the second essay of the book, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” in which Berry argues again, at greater length, why he stands by his original decision not to buy a computer despite the responses he has received opposing his stance.

“But a computer, I am told, offers a kind of help you can’t get from other humans; a computer will help you to write faster, easier, and more… Do I, then, want to write faster, easier, and more? No. My standards are not speed, ease, and quantity. I have already left behind too much evidence that, writing with a pencil, I have written too fast, too easily, and too much. I would like to be a better writer, and for that I need help from other humans, not a machine.” 

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this particular volume is that the entire book, though made up of separate pieces written at different times, revolves around the same topic. Most of the other Penguin Moderns I’ve read that contain multiple works have felt rather arbitrarily grouped with nothing more in common than a loose similarity in tone or theme. But Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer examines all sides of the same argument, remaining consistent from the first page to the last.

On the other hand, my least favorite aspect is Berry’s skill (or lack thereof) at arguing a point. At times he will say “there is no evidence to support this person’s claim” and then on the next page will say “I know there is no evidence to support my claim but this is how I feel and that is argument enough,” and so on. (That’s a paraphrase.) And underneath his flimsy attacks and counterattacks, I found Berry’s writing (at least on this matter) rather petulant. Berry argues like one of those people on social media sites that leave wordy, antagonistic comments just slightly off point and then continue to engage with every other commenter on the post.

“I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil.”

Though Why I Am Not Going to Buy A Computer is the most recent volume I’ve read from the Penguin Modern collection (written in 1987-89), it already feels a bit outdated. Some of Berry’s points are no longer applicable– for example, it is no longer true that to write in the woods, you must carry a pen and paper along– computers are more portable than they were in the late 80’s. They can do a lot more for the user than they once could. I found myself wondering throughout the book what Berry would say about buying a computer today.

But that is not to say that these essays are now irrelevant. Though his arguments may have stemmed from a different time and place, they do make the reader question his/her own motives in using a computer. In seeing that use as an active chocie rather than a mere habit. Berry asks the reader to consider the environmental effects of producing and consuming technology, as well as the effects on family, the workplace, the home, etc. Is technology doing more for you than you are for it?

“My wish is simply to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.”

I did wish that Berry had fleshed out his first essay more thoroughly to begin with, as the first essay did feel rather bare-bones and I think much of the negativity in response might have been avoided if Berry had taken more time to support and explain his reasons the first time around. But since that didn’t happen, I did enjoy seeing how the original essay evolved over time, how Berry came back to it and reacted to the response letters it received.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This book made me think, though I did not particularly like Berry’s writing style, disagreed with some of his points, and felt that other points no longer applied to the current situation. I’m glad I read this one, but it didn’t overly impress me. I have ordered 6 more Penguin Moderns and I will be reading them in upcoming months, but after reading 4 only mediocre volumes from the collection in June, I’m ready for a little break.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Asking For It

I first saw this book on Rachel’s blog, and the things she had to say about it completely sold me. I had not heard of Louise O’Neill or her YA novel, Asking For It, but now that I’ve read this book I will never be the same.

askingforitAbout the book: Emma O’Donovan is beautiful. The most beautiful girl in Ballinatoom (small-town Ireland). Her looks allow her a certain amount of popularity and cruelty. She has many friends, although most of her socializing is for show and her own personal amusement. It turns out, despite what they say to her face, most of the people who know her don’t like Emma. So when she gets a little reckless at a party, being a little more daring than usual with drinks and drugs, she is raped and humiliated and no one seems to care. Pictures circulate on the internet. Everyone at school shuts Emma out. Her family is quick to punish, and the law is not on her side. The legal case will take years, and likely go nowhere. In the meantime, Emma’s life is destroyed as the boys blame her for the consequences they face. Everyone seems to think that Emma is the problem, for crying rape, when all along everyone knows she was asking for it.

“Skirts up to their backsides, and tops cut down to their belly buttons, and they’re all drinking too much and falling over in the streets, they’re practically asking to be attacked, and then when it happens, they start bawling crying over it. As your other man said, what do they expect?”

I have never been so close to DNFing a book. Sometimes I put a book down for ages, but never forever. If I think a book is bad, boring, or just not my taste, I soldier through. Asking For It had none of those problems. In the past I’ve been worried that I’m too callous/cynical because I can read anything without crying into my pillow at night.  But Asking For It, fiction though it is, hit me hard. Several times while reading I had to put the book down, and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to pick it back up again.

“Boys are always telling me I’m beautiful, their eyes roaming around my body hungrily, as if looking for a place to plant a flag.”

A lot of the rape stories I’ve read lately have focused on “small” incidents, with the intent of proving that every sexual assault is unacceptable. Asking For It is not one of those stories. What happens to Emma is not “small” in any way. It’s shocking and devastating to read about how uniformly her community turns against her in the aftermath– but the horrors of this book are so real and important. This is supposed to be uncomfortable. Asking For It is a novel that’s not afraid to face hard truths. Emma fails to grasp a lot of the messages that this book is imparting, but they’re clear nonetheless: no matter what Emma wore or how she behaved, what happened to her is not her fault. The consequences the boys face for what happened to her is not her fault. Trying to capitalize on her beauty in an environment that has shown her that her beauty is her entire worth is not her fault.

I also want to talk about the fact that this is a YA novel. Emma is 18, a year from graduating. There were times while I was reading that I thought, “Wow, I would not want a teenager to read this and hate the world as much as I do right now.” But in the end, I think it’s even more crucial for young readers to experience stories this dark, because these things do happen to teenagers, to girls (and sometimes boys) who are unprepared and don’t think it could ever happen to them. Rape culture is that bad.

“How is it that two eyes, a nose, and a mouth can be positioned in such varying ways that it makes one person beautiful and another person not? What if my eyes had been a fraction closer together? Or if my nose had been flatter? My lips thinner or my mouth too wide? How would my life have been different? Would that night have happened?”

Okay, I’m talking too much about what this book made me feel, and not enough about how well it is written.

Asking For It is divided into two parts, “Last Year” and “This Year.”  They are presented chronologically, and each fills about half of the novel. “Last year” starts before the rape, showing Emma with her family, friends, strangers, and acquaintances. The reader sees that she is mean, she is jealous, she is selfish. Reputation matters more to her than genuine regard, and every move she makes is calculated based on what her peers will think of it. It would be easy to hate Emma, but the novel also shows that she acts this way because she feels cornered. Ballinatoom has always put her beauty ahead of anything else, so she feels she must use it to her advantage, and that if she loses that advantage she will be left with nothing. It may be hard to like Emma at times, but she’s also got the sort of explosive personality that makes things happen and sucks the reader into the story immediately with the intensity of a ticking bomb. It’s impossible to look away.

“(I imagined Mam dying, what I would wear to the funeral, the glamour the tragedy would give me. I thought about how much easier my life would be if it were just me and Dad and Bryan.)”

The only detail I found issue with is the way Emma’s friends treat her immediately after seeing the pictures from the night of the disastrous party. They’re quick to exclude and blame her, and I just couldn’t understand how any girl (or person, for that matter) could look at pictures like that and think that what happened was voluntary. I didn’t understand how no one but a school counselor was concerned at all that Emma might not have wanted what happened. Clearly they dislike her enough to want to blame her, but I can’t imagine witnessing anything like what happens to Emma (as several of her peers do) and not thinking, “Oh my god, that girl needs help.”

” ‘You know I’m on your side, right? I was just asking if it was, like, rape rape.’ “

Side note: this has little bearing on the actual story, except as far as Irish law is concerned regarding rape charges, but I did love the Ireland setting. I didn’t realize before this novel, but my reading life has been sadly empty of Irish literature. I loved the sound of the names, the rhythm of the dialogue, the glimpse of culture. I will have to pick up more Irish lit in the future.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was emotional and incredibly difficult to read, but it does what it’s designed to do, and does it well. O’Neill has an undeniable command of language and a knack for unspoken meaning, and I will absolutely be reading more of her work. I’ll probably even buy my own copy of this book at some point– it was convenient to get it through the library this time, but I want to be able to revisit it and loan it out.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve read and loved Asking For It (or haven’t yet) and are looking for more lit about rape culture, you should pick up Not That Bad, a collection of essays edited by Roxane Gay. This is a compellingly readable assembly of nonfiction from 30 writers who’ve dealt first-hand with some aspect of rape culture. It is just as eye-opening and important as the concepts highlighted in Asking For It.
  • Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is another powerful YA novel about rape culture. Though this one’s dark and tragic as well (involving murder as well as rape), it’s a little more hopeful that things can change for the better.

Have you read a book that’s completely shaken you? A book that was difficult to read but you ended up glad to have experienced it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Lance

In case you missed it, I’m basically obsessed with the 2018 Penguin Modern series. It’s a set of 50 modern classic samples that run about 60 pages each, to give the reader a taste of modern classic works and authors. I’ve read 11 of them now, have 1 left to read on my shelf, and just ordered 6 more. I can’t stop. Today’s title: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lance.

lanceAbout the book: This volume contains three of Nabokov’s short stories, written over a period of 20 years. These include: “The Aurelian,” “Signs and Symbols,” and “Lance.”

What connects all three stories is a very purple and plotless writing style that manages to be simultaneously beautiful and unsettling.

“Only by a heroic effort can I make myself unscrew a bulb that has died an inexplicable death and screw in another, which will light up in my face with the hideous instancy of a dragon’s egg hatching in one’s bare hand.”

I’ve read Nabokov’s Lolita in the past and loved it– as much as one can love such a story. Though it deals with alarming subject matter, Nabokov filled Lolita with vibrant characters and train-wreck tragedies I couldn’t look away from. I mention this because I expected to find similar aspects to love in his short fiction, and was ultimately disappointed on that count. I don’t remember such elaborately ornate prose in Lolita, but that seems to be the main focus in Lance. Whole paragraphs with no discernible purpose beyond aesthetic make up the bulk of this little book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I wish I had known to expect it when I picked up Lance because it’s not to my personal taste.

“The name of the planet, presuming it has already received one, is immaterial. At its most favored opposition, it may very well be separated from the earth by only as many miles as there are between last Friday and the rise of the Himalayas– a million times the reader’s average age.”

But let’s take a brief look at each of the stories.

“The Aurelian” features a shop-owner whose true passion is lepidoptery: the study of moths and butterflies. He sells what he needs to to make ends meet, but his heart is in his collection and his growing desire to travel and capture specimens of his own. An unexpected chance to do so leads the story to a surprisingly dark ending. This is the purplest of the stories and my least favorite of the bunch, though I appreciated seeing the intersection of Nabokov’s interests in literature and butterflies.

“Signs and Symbols” is the shortest and, in my opinion, simplest of these stories. What looks at first like an ordinary day– as ordinary as it can be, in this family– spirals to extremes through a series of large and small events revolving around a visit to the family’s son in a sanitarium where is mental health is being monitored. I thought this one would turn out to be my favorite, but….

“Lance,” the titular piece, finds the perfect balance between unsettling theme and lush prose. At first this spoof on science fiction bothered me, but for a story that condemns the very genre it follows it turned out incredibly well. This is the story I pulled all of my favorite quotes of the book from, but beyond the lyricism of the wording, “Lance” also offers some interesting insight in sci-fi, space travel, and the human condition. Though it got off to a rocky start for me, it turned out the best of the set.

“Deep in the human mind, the concept of dying is synonymous with that of leaving the earth. To escape its gravity means to transcend the grave, and a man upon finding himself on another planet has really no way of proving to himself that he is not dead– that the naive old myth has not come true.”

The whole book reads almost as prose poetry; each word is chosen so carefully, to such great effect. These stories sound wonderful read aloud, and they look beautiful on the page. Nabokov is clearly a gifted writer, and the darker sides of these stories add an extra layer of flavor and intrigue to what might otherwise be “pretty” work.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. Though I can appreciate Nabokov’s skill, this book just didn’t suit me. There’s definitely an audience for it, but that’s not me. Purple prose isn’t my schtick, and though the little disturbing details saved these stories from being a total wash for me, they weren’t enough to make me truly enjoy reading this volume. I’m glad I read Lolita first, to know that I do like some of Nabokov’s work more than I liked this sample of it; maybe his novel writing is simply a better fit for me; I will definitely reach for another of his longer books before any more of his short stories.

Have you read any Nabokov? Which of his novels should I try next?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: When I Hit You

Though I read a lot of popular commercialized titles (I get major FOMO when it comes to books), it’s often the literary novels that really inspire me. And this year, the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist looks so full of incredible literary fiction that I’ve added  several of the books to my TBR. This weekend, from the shortlist, I read Meena Kandasamy’s incredible novel, When I Hit You.

whenihityouAbout the book: An Indian woman, recently heartbroken after falling in love with a politician who would not publicly acknowledge her, finds a man more suitable for marriage. At least, she thinks so. She meets him online, where they share exciting intellectual and political discussions and debates. This man, she thinks, is like her, and he can teach her something she wants to learn. Her parents approve the match. The marriage happens quickly. Within months– withing weeks– the narrator’s husband is abusing her, cutting off her contact with the outside world and mistreating her inside the confining walls of their home. He interferes in her career and her correspondence, forces new habits into her life, and he hits her. She spends most of her brief marriage wanting to fix what can’t be fixed, wanting to escape without finding the means to, and holding on to a belief in love long after her husband has failed her.

“Abstractions are easy, but my story, like every woman’s story, is something else.”

I loved the structure of this book. Usually I cannot stand a book with little or no plot, and When I Hit You contains little mystery. Our narrator opens the novel with a reflection on her escape from the abusive husband. This tactic immediately reveals a few points that might have added shock or suspension later on: the fact that the husband habitually beat the wife, and that the wife managed to leave the marriage. But When I Hit You is not the sort of book to use abuse as a plot device; taking away the mystery gives our narrator the room she needs to explore the novel’s true purpose: the how and the why.

“In place of a firing squad, I stare down the barrels of endless interrogation. Why did she not run away? Why did she not use the opportunities that she had for escape? Why did she stay if, indeed, the conditions were as bad as the claims? How much of this wasn’t really consensual?

Kandasamy shuts down every possible argument that blames the woman for her abuse. The novel shows the slow escalation of marital discord, noting at every progression of manipulation and violence the blocked exits. The power of When I Hit You comes not from dramatic displays of violence– very few instances of the beatings are shown with any elaboration on specifics– but from the narrator’s increasing desire and inability to flee.

My favorite part is the way this structure allows the narrator’s past and future to intersect. The timelines fold over each other in a way that time can only manage to do on the page, and it’s beautiful.

“And I am thinking of how I am someday going to be writing all this out and I am conscious that I am thinking about this and not about the moment, and I know that I have already escaped the present and that gives me hope, I just have to wait for this to end and I can write again, and I know that because I am going to be writing about this, I know that this is going to end.”

Speaking of beauty, the entire book reads like a sort of poetry. The chapters are broken down into sections, and those take their own forms: discussions of etymology, letters to imaginary lovers, phone calls from the narrator’s parents, stories from Indian culture and history about women, men, or marriage, and even the occasional poem makes an appearance. The chapters are introduced with excerpts from published women who’ve written about violence. There are flashbacks prior to the marriage, and sections that show its aftermath. The whole book is made of small pieces that flow seamlessly into one overarching tragedy, and if it doesn’t incite desire for social change in the reader, I doubt anything will.

“Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape. The shaming is in being asked to stand judgment.”

A few aspects of this book will haunt me for ages. For example, the fact that though the husband’s abuse is the source of the narrator’s problems, in actuality she is boxed in from all sides. No one asks if she needs help,  and the few people she might be able to turn to dismiss her concerns. Her parents, her neighbors, her doctors, her friends, her lawyer and the police, even the wording of her divorce papers… they all side with the husband. They all believe that she has done something to provoke him, that she has not tried hard enough to make the marriage work, that anyone stupid enough to marry a bad man deserves what she gets. As though any of these possibilities makes her abuse okay.

Another piece that will stick with me is the non-violent manipulation, the coercians that drive the early part of the novel forward. Before the beatings and the rapes, there is the violation of privacy in the narrator’s internet accounts, the severing of her career, the verbal spars that belittle her. I entered this book expecting to find physical abuse, but it’s the ways that the husband took over the narrator’s life and eliminated her choices that I won’t be able to forget.

But as bad as things get, as bad as things continue to be for women who have no control over their situations, there is hope for a better tomorrow. At the back of my copy, there is a short section titled “A List of People You Should Give This Book To (Annotated with Some Reasons Why);” it makes for a great conclusion to the reading experience by engaging with the purposes of the text and examining the ways such a book can create change in the world. My favorite part takes a look at the meaning of the title, which is shown in the novel to be a fragment written by the husband:

“Kandasamy creates a male character who can and does claim every special snowflake backstory– abusive childhood, state persecution, military trauma, a poet’s sensitivity. And in the end it matters not a whit because he crumbles to dust like any replaceable oppressor who made a choice to participate in dehumanising someone. It may be his words as the title of the book but it is her story and she has cut him down and out and through; appropriating his violences for her profession as a writer. The book, as they say, does what it says on the tin.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I cannot think of a single thing that would have made this book any better, and it is absolutely a new favorite. I’ve already ordered Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, the Women’s Fiction Prize winner, because I need more lit fic from this year’s list in my life.

Further recommendations:

  1. Throughout When I Hit You, I was strongly reminded of a past literary love, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, despite obvious subject differences. The Bell Jar follows its narrator through mental deterioration into insanity. Though both are works fiction, they reflect certain aspects of their authors’ real experiences, and both broke my heart in a similar way. If you like stories about writers coming through hardships, both of these are great contenders.
  2. If you like the way When  I Hit You informs on Indian culture, you should pick up Akwaeke Emezi’s 2018 release, Freshwater. This one reveals lesser-known aspects of Nigerian culture in a similar way; both books are intellectual, eye-opening discoveries for readers with little experience with these countries.

Have you read any prize winners or nominees lately that have especially impressed you?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant