Category Archives: Book Reviews

Reviews: Riot Baby and The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including Tochi Onyebuchi’s adult sci-fi novel, Riot Baby, and Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, a short essay collection on race, feminism, and more.

 

riotbabyIn Riot Baby, a contemporary novel by Tochi Onyebuchi with a sci-fi/fabulist element, a young girl with the ability to see the fates of those around her witnesses the 1992 race riots in LA at the same time as her brother is born. Kev is healthy and whole, but the city is on fire, and Ella sees the racial injustices taking place. She does what she can to protect her brother, but as they grow up, Ella’s power increases in many ways, and the more she can do, the more she learns about the world, and the more it hurts her to see how much hate is aimed at Black people. She grapples over her responsibilities toward justice in light of her unique capabilities. Meanwhile, her brother suppresses his own rage and falls victim to a system stacked against him, buoyed onward by his sister’s dedication to change.

“I see Ella walking through Milwaukee’s North Side, past makeshift memorials to dead black kids: teddy bears, browning flowers, ribbons tied to telephone poles waving in the breeze, and I know that she’s been touching the ground around those memorials and closing her eyes and seeing the whole of it, whether the bullet came from some other colored kid’s gun or from a cop, watching the whole story unfold before her. She does the same with the Confederate monuments that rise from the ground in the South like weeds. Tributes to treasonous generals and soldiers serving Big Cotton. She touches their bases, feels their mass-produced faces, runs her fingers over their inscriptions. She wants to know who was hanged here. Who was beaten here. In whose name they were violated. She’s gathering it within her. All of it.”

This is a very short and powerful book, but it took me a while to get into it.

There were two reasons for that: the first is that Ella’s powers are an anomaly, and until the last section of the book (there are four) I didn’t feel that this otherworldly element was necessary to the story beyond giving the narration an easy way to depict Black experiences more broadly than two non-empowered characters would have been able to show alone. Ella’s ability to head-hop and see pasts and futures gives a much wider scope to the brutality and systemic racism against Black people on display here, but it takes most of the novel for that breadth of perspective to mesh with the specific experiences of the two main characters. However, I did eventually think they fit together very well.

The other hang-up for me reflects my own privilege and limited experience; it is not Onyebuchi’s job to cater to me as a white reader, it is my job as a white reader to learn about experiences beyond my own in order to be able to understand the conversations about racism that are taking place (both in this novel and beyond). In Riot Baby, the narration takes big jumps between scenes, characters, and even years. The problem I had was some difficulty keeping up; the pacing moves very fast, with the expectation that the reader will inherently understand the nuances of the barrage of injustices on display and be able to contextualize them without pausing for breath. Certain gaps in my own knowledge (Black prison life, the LA riots,  Black-on-Black crime) made this a challenging read for me in places because I could see there was significance and a greater history that I wasn’t fully grasping. I’m mentioning it not because this is in any way Onyebuchi’s or Riot Baby‘s “fault,” but simply because I think other white readers might want to brush up on some nonfiction before diving into this one, or at least keep an internet tab open and be willing to take breaks while reading to ask necessary questions.

That said, I appreciated being pushed out of my comfort zone and loved the heart of this story. Ella’s power and Kev’s suppression of his power present as a metaphors for rage under oppression; one embraces the emotion and endeavors to channel it into productive changes, and the other tries to squash it down just to survive in a white-washed world. Their relationships with each other and their powers show how people beaten down by racism struggle and cope both internally and externally. They are individuals to empathize with, but they are also carrying a world of pain on their shoulders and stand as representatives of a much larger whole. Onyebuchi strikes an incredible balance, and when the pieces fall into place it’s astoundingly effective and emotional, conveying decades (and centuries) of accumulated despair while also inspiring the fight for a better future.

I highly recommend this book to anyone intrigued by the idea of social issues explored through a fabulist element. I think Riot Baby has a lot to say and says it well; any difficulty I had with it is the result of my own lack of knowledge, but if you’re willing to do the work, I think you’ll appreciate where this book will take you. For such a small volume, it digs deep.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I cannot overemphasize how blown away I was by the last section of this book. Parts of the read were difficult for me, but they were supposed to be. I really liked Onyebuchi’s style and the themes explored here, and I’m excited to pick up more of his work in the future. I’ve already ordered Beasts Made of Night, and hope to get to it later this summer. I see it has some lower ratings on GR, but I think having learned a bit about Onyebuchi’s style here and how I need to approach his books as a white reader, I’m eager to give it a try.

 

themaster'stoolswillneverdismantlethemaster'shouseIn The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, five of Audre Lorde’s essays are collected. They are: “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” “Uses of the Erotic,” “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” and “Learning From the 1960’s.” All were written between 1977-1982, and still apply perfectly today.

“Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.”

These essays are fairly short, and the entire book amounts to just over 50 pages. Since it’s so brief, I won’t go into much detail about each of the individual pieces; if you’re looking for that breakdown of info let me recommend Callum’s excellent review from earlier this month (which reminded me I had this volume on my shelf and motivated me to pick it up, thanks Callum!).

The first essays here, on poetry and eroticism, appealed to me the least. There will certainly be readers more interested in those topics who will likely find them more inspiring and vital. I thought both were well-written and worthwhile though they didn’t speak to me quite as personally.

But the latter three essays, all of which deal with racism in various ways, and all of which are filtered through the lens of Lorde’s perspective as a Black lesbian woman specifically, felt so very powerful and crucial to this time (which is worrying, as it shows how little progress has been made since they were written). In these pieces, Lorde touches on feminism, and how hurtful racial divides within that movement can be. She talks about discrimination based on sexual orientations. And of course, racism and civil rights. She argues about how people can be oppressed in different ways, to different degrees, and none of the oppressed groups will find their peace until they unite under the common cause: justice and equality for all. She acknowledges those who have been hurt, and calls out those who have done the hurting, and it’s especially impressive to see her handle this where those two groups overlap, as with white feminists who ignore black women’s needs in favor of their own. It’s important that none of us get too caught up in a single cause to overlook the ultimate goal. As a woman and a feminist I found these essays a helpful reminder on how to be a good ally and advocate by respecting differences AND the shared cause. That’s particular to my experience, but I can’t think of an audience that wouldn’t benefit from Lorde’s words in some way.

“I am a lesbian woman of colour whose children eat regularly because I work in a university. If their full bellies make me fail to recognize my commonality with a woman of colour whose children do not eat because she cannot find work, or who has no children because her insides are rotted from home abortions and sterilization; if I fail to recognize the lesbian who chooses not to have children, the woman who remains closeted because her homophobic community is her only life support, the woman who chooses silence instead of another death, the woman who is terrified lest my anger trigger the explosion of hers; if I fail to recognize them as other faces of myself, then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own, and the anger which stands between us then must be used for clarity and mutual empowerment, not for evasion by guilt or for further separation. I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is one of those books I think EVERYONE should read. With this one to judge by, I look forward to getting back to the other volumes from the Penguin Modern set that I’d forgotten about, and to reading further from Lorde! This was a great place to start with her work, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she has to say.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

 

thecomletestoriesofflanneryoconnorFor today’s catch-up review, we’re looking at Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories. I’d read three of these stories previously but started at the beginning and read through the full collection of thirty-one stories in May alongside Melanie’s Month of Flannery O’Connor project. She’s more informed on O’Connor’s life and work than I am, so be sure to check out her posts, which tell a little about the content and publication of each story with some background on O’Connor’s life and overall thoughts on theme and patterns as well. Partially because Melanie did such a fantastic job covering each story (and partially because I didn’t take notes on the individual stories as I read them) I’m going to be talking more broadly about my experience with the collection and some things I’ve noted generally about O’Connor’s short story style.

“She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

The first thing to note about O’Connor’s stories is that they don’t make points so much as they make clear where there’s a point of contention to be grappled with. What I mean is, O’Connor seems intent on highlighting conflict- racial, theological, social- not with the intent of making a stance or guiding the reader’s thinking, but simply to demonstrate that the conflict exists, and perhaps to encourage the reader to consider multiple views before choosing one. Her stories often end without clear resolutions, which I think is why they’re so widely studied- the reader must sift for clues, and what the stories are actually saying is hotly debated.

For example, one of O’Connor’s best-known and most-read pieces, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is either a story of a woman seeing the error of her ways and finding grace in a moment of peril, or a woman blind to the error of her ways remaining selfish to the end, even at the cost of her lifelong faith. The ambiguity is the draw, and presents as O’Connor’s favorite modus operandi; to sow the seeds of discord and then leave the reader to decide- in the case of “Good Man,” to decide whether the old woman’s final act is a cheapening of her religion or a finding of it. So yes, the story is theologically themed, but it’s impossible to tell from the fiction provided where O’Connor herself stood on the matter or which way she expects the reader to lean upon reading.

This is also why I felt so conflicted about the portrayal of racism in her stories. What’s clear is that it’s there. The white and black characters filling these stories are always at odds, there’s no denying that. There’s no denying that the whites often consider themselves superior because of the color of their skin. It’s also clear that many of these characters suffer as a result of their racism. What’s unclear is what O’Connor’s stance is on all of it. Normally I would say it doesn’t much matter- I’m a big supporter of separating the art from the artist wherever possible, though I can certainly admit there are cases (especially with classics) where knowing a bit about the author’s circumstances can enhance the reading experience. But the fact that there is so much up for debate in O’Connor’s stories leaves the reader uncertain which way things are “meant,” and it’s hard to decide what to believe without knowing the author’s intentions- hence questioning O’Connor’s personal stance on the themes she returns to so often in her fiction.

Frequent use of racial slurs and stereotyping can be found in everything from the first story to the last, and O’Connor’s approach to race remains in-your-face and morally questionable throughout the book. I became increasingly uncomfortable with that facet of these stories, especially since I happened to be reading this as George Floyd was killed, protests swept across America, and the volume was turned way up on conversations about racism. There’s plenty of racism to be found in O’Connor’s stories.

There should never be a time where it’s comfortable to read about racism, but the tail-end of May 2020 was one of the absolute worst moments for it. However, while I agree wholeheartedly that racism should not be condoned or supported in any way, I think including racist characters in fiction can have a positive/worthwhile effect, if the racism is portrayed as an evil. It can be used as a lesson, as a cautionary device. And for the most part, that is how it came across for me in O’Connor’s stories. The racist characters O’Connor writes are often depicted as being in the wrong, and learning so. But there’s also some casual racism that is not challenged, which I chalked up to being a product of its time and place- though an article I read recently has made me reconsider that stance. The 1950s – 60s was still a time of significant racial inequality in the US, but it’s worth noting that America was undergoing a change in these years that other authors of O’Connor’s day handled in other, arguably better, ways. In that same article, one particular hypothesis jumped out at me: that O’Connor’s stories on racial tensions were perhaps a way for her to work through her own racism.

Apparently racism is much more apparent and overt in O’Connor’s essays, letters, and other works. I’ve not read any of O’Connor’s nonfiction, so I can’t speak on it, but the speculation about working through her own racist thoughts struck a chord for me even with only her stories to go on. I came to this collection much more interested in the fiction than the author- I knew O’Connor had been an Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad, and since my undergrad studies brought me in close proximity to that program (the grad students there led the undergrad creative writing workshops that I took part in) it’s been a personal interest of mine to read previous Workshop writers when I can, to see the fiction that was produced and published from that familiar environment. (If you’re looking for better alternatives from Iowa Writer’s Workshop grads, let me strongly recommend Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing for starters.) I didn’t intend to learn about O’Connor’s personal history or read her letters- it wasn’t her real life I was interested in. But now that I know a bit about them it’s not something I can ignore.

Ultimately, I have to admit that I don’t know exactly where I stand on whether O’Connor is doing a good thing with the content of her stories or not. I did feel most of the time that O’Connor was questioning and condemning racism through her fiction. But I also thought while reading that perhaps it was progressive for her to do that in her time- but her stories aren’t actually that old, and certainly other writers have done more in the way of calling out racial inequality at that time than O’Connor (these were the days of Martin Luther King Jr’s essays and speeches! He was not alone in challenging the status quo). I want to be able to say that she’s trying to do a good thing here, but I was left feeling uneasy about it all, and I suppose that speaks for itself.

I had the same uncertainties about what O’Connor was trying to say about religion; she’s clearly very concerned with morals and religious rituals, though it’s not always clear where she stands in the fiction despite being Catholic herself. In the end, I just wasn’t as concerned about whether O’Connor was supporting or condemning Christianity as about where she stood on racism. One’s stance on religion, I think, is mainly a reflection of personal choice, whereas one’s approach to racism can impact those surrounding (or in this case reading the work of) that person. Whether you practice religion or not should be up to you. Whether you practice racism should not be.

“She felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it.”

So why put myself through all this confusion? Why talk about O’Connor at all? Because she is, I think, a good storyteller (in the way that Stephen King is a good storyteller though he also has a knack for problematic writing). O’Connor’s characters, even the despicable ones, always feel like real people one might meet on the streets (or the farms) of 1950s Georgia. She doesn’t shy away from violence or death, which keeps her plot twists shocking and unpredictable. Her work feels like a snapshot in time- perhaps not a flattering snapshot, but it’s worth recognizing where people have been wrong, I think. Should Flannery O’Connor be remembered and studied? Perhaps. But if so, she should be recognized for her flaws as well as her assets.

I do like that O’Connor doesn’t try to tell the reader what to think; her characters’ actions and opinions leave no room for doubt, and yet conclusions on meaning are still left to the reader. She touches on law and politics, city vs rural life, academia vs spirituality, death and grief, parenthood and care for those in need, loneliness and community, and plenty more big toics that are still relevant today. Her writing noticeably improves as she goes, becoming sharper, more immersive, and I think more personal, toward the end of her career. The stories that originally appeared in her last collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, are (in my opinion) the most impressive. There’s also a beautiful sort of symmetry to the fact that this chronologically-organized complete collection is bookended by two attempts at writing the same story- her first published short story, “The Geranium,” was also her final work, rewritten as “Revelation,” a much stronger version, shortly before her death. She may not have been a good person, and her talent may have been put to better use with subjects other than race, but she is a skilled writer nonetheless. Do I recommend reading her work? …Not without a lot of caution and a firm idea going in of where you stand on racism and religion.

My favorite stories from the set included:

  • “A Stroke of Good Fortune” – A woman realizes something serious about her health
  • “The River” – A young boy is taken to be baptized by a babysitter and there discovers a way to escape his neglectful parents
  • “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – A family goes on a road trip and encounters danger
  • “The Lame Shall Enter First” – A man takes in a bright but troubled boy, hoping to give him and his own son a better start to adult life
  • “Parker’s Back” – A man gets a bold tattoo in an attempt to impress his wife

“He had not done anything. He was twenty-eight now and, so far as she could see, nothing occupied him but trivia. He had the air of a person who is waiting for some big event and can’t start any work because it would only be interrupted.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I originally pegged this as a 4 because most of the second half of the book consisted of 4-star stories for me, and I was willing to round up for writing growth. But now that I’ve read a bit deeper on O’Connor’s body of work and racist remarks, and as I’ve sat with this collection a bit longer and remember it a little less fondly in general, I’ve changed my rating to a 3 to acknowledge that initial and lasting discomfort over the lack of clarity in whether O’Connor is speaking against racism through these stories. There are certainly individual pieces worth reading, but I would recommend only picking this full collection up if you’re prepared to do a deeper dive into O’Connor’s life and work as a sort of author study; I do think there’s merit here and plenty to learn, but without putting in a substantial amount of work I’m not convinced the reader is able to draw any conclusions that really make the experience worth the time and effort.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Bunny

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I want this to be a long-term and sustainable project, which means catching up on the posts I’ve been holding back and mixing the Black-authored books I’m reading in with the rest of my content. I’ll have a review of Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby coming soon, and in the meantime I’m sharing some thoughts on Mona Awad’s Bunny, a fabulist novel about a grad level writing program, which I enjoyed back in May.

bunnyIn the novel, Samantha is taking part in an elite writing program at Warren, a (fictional) New England university. She is one of five students in her cohort, a group of all women for the first time ever. Their second and final year is now underway, but there are two problems- Samantha is hit with a dose of writer’s block, and the rest of the women in her group seem to have formed some sort of bizarre cult. Samantha has been making fun of them for a full year with a friend who’s outside of it all, but things change when the Bunnies extend an invitation to Samantha. She accepts with the hope that she’ll be treated less like a fifth wheel in the program, but soon finds herself deeply involved in the Bunnies’ crazy “writing” project, and reality melts away.

” ‘Rob Valencia,’ I tell the leaves. ‘His head exploded.’ When I say this, I realize how funny it is. A high, shrieking laugh comes out of me. It won’t stop.

She smacks me, hard. Just like that, I’m silenced. Then she strokes my cheek softly. ‘That’s what you think you saw, okay?’

Saw. I think of the silver, toothy blade that cuts things. Trees. Women. Cartoon animals. Skull hail. Brain rain. A severed, still-smoking ear.

‘Saw,’ I say. ‘I saw. I saw, I saw, I saw, I saw, I- “

She smacks me again, harder this time.

‘Things aren’t always what they seem, are they?’ I look at her cat ears. Her golden, pleading eyes. The smiling watermelons in my fist wink at me. The toothy blade of saw dissolves into silvery, light-kissed waters. I float on their buoyant waves.”

Bunny is an incredibly unique and polarizing book. We have, on the surface, a group of grown women acting like the grad student versions of Mean Girls or the Heathers, with an added dose of fabulism. In her first year at Warren, Samantha thought these women were weird- with the cat ears, and the sugary treats, and the over-exuberance, calling each other “Bunny” like they’re all somehow different versions of the same person. In her second year, when she gets her invitation to the Bunnies’ Smut Salon, Samantha discovers there’s more to it than the public display of ultra-girliness: drinks and pills that make her lose track of who she is and what’s happening around her, which is probably for the best while the Bunnies busy themselves turning rabbits into vapid boys with half-formed hands and a tendency to explode. It can’t be real, and yet it’s hard to tell exactly at what point the line between fact and fiction is being crossed, and how, and why.

The fabulist element is, essentially, an elaborate metaphor for killing one’s darlings. Usually, that’s a phrase used to mean culling aspects of one’s writing that the author loves but which don’t ultimately serve the story. Here, Awad presents it rather literally: the Bunnies conjure boys based on combinations of real people and idealized traits, and then have to “kill” them when they reveal their imperfections. There is, of course, more to it, and the process doesn’t always go as planned.

“She gives me the full hate bouquet of her smile. Every fuck you flower. She knows full well that I’m gripping an ax in my coat. She’s not stupid, she fucking invented this game, remember? She knows my every murderous thought, rising and falling like white feathers in a wild breeze. But whatevs. She sips her champagne slowly, savoring it under my wavering gun gaze. Because I’ll never actually go through with it, will you, Samantha? Killing us? Real people? Wouldn’t that be going just a little too far, even for you?

Through the metaphor, Awad is also able to draw commentary about the sexist criticisms women (writers) receive. We see characters judged or even shamed for tears and vulnerability, for the love interests and personal details that make it into their work, for the overt femininity in the cutesy dresses the Bunnies wear and their bubbly personalities. And since this is a campus novel, there’s plenty of fun poked at writing programs and the sort of dialogue that comes up there- “I like where this is heading but it just needs more, you know what I mean?” It’s a breakdown of stereotyping even as it relies on these stereotypes to further the point.

It all culminates in a great twist toward the end, but this is the book’s downfall as well as its boon- through most of the novel it’s clear that what’s going on is not quite real, and that there’s a deeper layer that the reader doesn’t have immediate access to. There are, essentially, two things going on at once, and the reader is allowed to see that while also being made to wait for the key that will fit those two levels of content together. It can be frustrating to recognize that we’re being held at a distance, and I must admit that even while enjoying the magical strangeness of the transformations and rituals there were moments when I knew that I was essentially just reading to find the clue that would make sense of it all.

That said, what meets the eye is wild and distracting, and clearly meant to draw the reader away from wondering too much about what’s going on behind the curtain. It’s not entirely successful in this regard, and I know other readers have found it even less successful here than I did, but for the reader willing to patiently follow the story’s path wherever it may go, I think there is plenty of amusement to be found in the whimsical foreground before the more serious Point is visible behind that (blatant) sleight of hand. And I think Bunny will make for a fantastic reread, as the big reveal changes the way certain elements can be viewed throughout the book. I flipped back through a few pages after reaching the end, and loved seeing some of the exchanges between characters in an entirely new light!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s bold, it’s unique, it takes writing at the graduate level to its extreme. I loved the experience, though I didn’t quite find it a flawless read. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Awad’s work in the future, and I’d highly recommend this title to anyone who enjoys very bizarre books.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Pet

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet, a prize-nominated MG/YA future-set fantasy book.

petIn the novel, Jam lives in a futuristic city called Lucille. Following a major revolution, it is now a peaceful place where everyone is treated equally, safety is a certainty, and monsters no longer exist. Or so Jam has been taught. But when a frightening creature comes to life from one of her mother’s paintings, it tells Jam that it has come to hunt a monster; after doing some research Jam learns that monsters can look like any one of us and hide in plain sight. The truth is, there aren’t any known monsters in Lucille, but Jam and Pet (the painting creature) set out to unearth an unknown monster and bring him to justice.

“The creature sighed and rustled its fur a little. If you do not know there are things you do not see, it said, then you will not see them because you do not expect them to be there. You think you see everything, so you think everything you see is all there is to be seen.”

Let’s start with age range. I had a tough time placing this one between Middle Grade and Young Adult; Jam, the MC, is sixteen in this novel, and most of the other characters are around her age or older. This typically indicates to me that a YA audience is the target, and based on the way monsters and angels and major government reform are explained, it seems potentially beyond the grasp of 8-12 year olds who might be reading without adult guidance for real world application. That said, the themes (that humans can do monstrous things unnoticed by society, that bad behavior deserves punishment in a way that is beneficial to society rather than cruel to the individual, that instead of a world full of good vs bad people we live in a world full of regular people who do both good and bad things) seem a bit simpler than the 13-18 year old crowd would be looking for. I’d probably recommend this most to 10-14 year-olds, with an adult to read along and discuss if possible. And ultimately, I think there are beneficial messages in Pet for readers of all ages; this is the sort of YA content that would probably also do well among adults who like teen stories.

Now let’s look more closely at content. I can’t give an own voices opinion, but I really admired the representation in Pet. In the first twenty pages, we have a trans girl with fully supportive parents, friends, and community who don’t question or ridicule her identity and help her get access to the resources she needs to be able to live in her body in a way that suits her. She also uses sign language by choice- she is physically capable of audible speech, but often prefers talking with her hands, which is completely accepted and supported by those around her. Jam is friendly with the local librarian, who uses a wheelchair. Later on, we meet Jam’s best friend’s family, in which there are three parents of equal authority, including a person who uses they/them pronouns that are always used respectfully in dialogue and the narration. There are characters with dark skin who, in this utopian setting, are not marginalized because of it. There is just no prejudice whatsoever, against any character, no matter how they present themselves to the world around them. It’s a beautiful thing.

Another positive is how close the peaceful city of Lucille feels at present- the oft-referenced revolution of Pet in many ways resembles what is happening in the US (and beyond) right now:

“The angels took the laws and changed them, tore down those horrible statues of rich men who’d owned people and fought to keep owning people. The angels believed and the people agreed that there was a good amount of proper and deserved shame in history and some things were just never going to be things to be proud of.”

The best part, I think, is that while the text supports holding people accountable for bad actions, it also suggests that no people are inherently bad. Being labelled a “monster” is a result of hurtful behavior, not a name given lightly to an entire group of enemy people. The “angels” are ordinary people making hard choices that come with their own costs, not perfect choices that please everyone immediately. Despite the apparent symbolic simplicity, there is deeper commentary on how we perceive and respond to criminality, with an end goal of peace among all people.

“Angels aren’t pretty pictures in old holy books, just like monsters aren’t ugly pictures. It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

But there is conflict, and a plot. The introduction of Pet and the possibility of a monster in Lucille is challenging for Jam, who has been told all her life that monsters no longer exist. Her parents encourage her to send Pet away, arguing that Pet must be wrong. When she goes to her friend’s house where this monster is supposedly hiding, she sees only happy people full of love for each other and she doubts. In order to find the monster, she must admit that there are still flaws in her society and among her family and friends. She must choose how much to tell her friend, and decide what to do with the monster. It’s a story of bravery and fighting for what’s right even (especially) when it’s not the easy route, and when it goes against everything that you’ve held as the truth.

For all its positivity, there is indeed a monster in this story. There is an adult who hurts a child, and while details are not given on page it is a difficult topic and astute readers will know what has happened. There’s also a gruesome consequence for the monster that might make an impression on younger readers, as well as occasional mentions of police brutality and untimely deaths when the importance of the revolution is being explained. There are some difficult topics at play here, but I think Emezi lays them out patiently and considerately, using them mainly for educational purposes, and I think that makes this an ideal book for young readers looking to learn about empathy between humans and fairness in society. And it’s a call to action for adults too, to stay vigilant, to believe victims, to look deeper than the surface to spot what is lurking beneath. For a short book aimed primarily at a young audience, Pet accomplishes quite a lot, and I wouldn’t wish to change a single detail about it.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Emezi is fast becoming a favorite author for me- if you haven’t read Freshwater yet, what are you waiting for?! The only reason Pet wasn’t quite a 5 for me is that I just don’t jive with books written for a younger age level as much as I used to. Even so, I found this a worthwhile foray outside of my comfort zone, and highly recommend it to basically everyone.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Real Life

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including a literary fiction novel that released earlier this year: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. It’s a stunning debut!

reallifeIn the novel, Wallace is a (Black) graduate student spending his summer doing lab work toward his biochemistry degree. Over the course of a weekend, he grapples with a major setback (probably sabotage) in the lab, while also sorting out his feelings about his dad’s recent death, and dealing with fraught, changing relationships among his (White) friend group. The magnitude of obstacles stacked against him and the deeply ingrained prejudices that affect even his closest friendships at the Midwestern school leave him wondering whether the education and career path he has chosen is worth the misery it is causing him.

“But to stay in graduate school, to stay where he is, means to accept the futility of his efforts to blend in seamlessly with those around him. It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life. Stay here and suffer, or exit and drown, he thinks.”

If you love literary fiction and are looking for the perfect book to read right now to support Black authors and also honor Pride month, look no further. This is it. It’s gay, it exposes all kinds of racism, and Taylor’s writing is incredible. To be honest I thought there were a few overwritten passages, but that’s really my only criticism for the entire book. I loved every page, was repeatedly stunned by the character dynamics and commentary Taylor was able to draw through them, and appreciated that the narrative voice was able both to teach me about an experience very different from my own and to reveal how I, as a white person, may be complicit in forcing this experience on someone else, whether I’ve been aware of it or not.

“There will always be good white people who love him and want the best for him but who are more afraid of other white people than of letting him down. It is easier for them to let it happen and to triage the wound later than to introduce an element of the unknown into the situation. No matter how good they are, no matter how loving, they will always be complicit, a danger, a wound waiting to happen… It’s the place in every white person’s heart where their racism lives and flourishes, not some vast open plain but a small crack, which is all it takes.”

One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it is simultaneously self-contained and expansive. The entire novel takes place over a single weekend, with most of the characters, conflicts, and themes laid out in the first chapter or two. From there, the same people go back and forth in the same places, over the same issues, and yet each new scene is a fresh moment of tension that spirals out from itself and grows toward confrontations that feel huge and breathless.

There are so many separate parts to this story, and yet they all circle the same problem: that letting a person of color through the door is not the only step required in ensuring they have the same opportunities as a white person. Wallace has a paid fellowship at the school, and yet he is constantly told he needs to “catch up.” He has a spot in a lab and a project to work on, but his labmates talk down to him and report him for things he hasn’t done. He has friends, but feels like they invite him out of obligation rather than a desire for his company. He’s having sex with the guy he has a crush on, but when Wallace reveals a trauma from his past, Miller reveals his guilt over hurting someone who didn’t deserve it, and is upset when Wallace won’t condole him. Wallace is stuck in cycles of being hurt, being unable to voice the problem without making things worse, and having to hold the hurt inside of himself as the only way to acknowledge when a wrong has been done and hold on to his humanity. So yes, technically he has the chance to get a biochemistry degree, but he feels like he must lose himself along the way- and what kind of opportunity is that? Not one that is equal to the opportunities his fellow students are experiencing, though many of them fail to spot the difference.

“Just because you say you’re sorry, or you say that someone doesn’t deserve something, does not erase the facts of what has or has not happened, or who has or has not acted. Wallace is tired.”

So much of this story is internal discord- Wallace does have agency and makes both good and bad choices, and the people around him do and say plenty that affects him, but Wallace isn’t trying to personally right an entirely wrong system. He’s trying to get by, as one does. The battles that he has with other people are typically one-on-one personal confrontations, mostly verbal. He’s wrestling with himself over how much unfairness he can take, and at what point the price of accepting it becomes too high. This shows both that the problem of racism is an ongoing issue, no matter what Wallace does or doesn’t do, and it shows some of the deep psychological affects that trying to live under racism can cause. It hurts seeing Wallace try to justify everyone’s shitty behavior, feeling like he “had it coming,” making excuses for others’ failures, or thinking he should have done something different to avoid being in the path of racism at all. There’s no avoiding it, of course. And Taylor doesn’t pull any punches in depicting just how toxic that can be.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I loved coming back to this book every time I picked it up and hated when I had to put it down. I suspect it’ll be appearing on my favorite reads of the year list. Really, I should’ve known I’d love this one, as Brandon Taylor was one of the contributors to Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture ed. by Roxane Gay, which made such an impact on me, so it should’ve been no surprise to find his writing so spot-on here as well. And I suspect the few overwritten wrinkles I saw will be hammered out of Taylor’s style as he goes; surely his next book will be even stronger. I can’t wait to read it.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Lot (+ We Need to Talk About BOTM)

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including this remarkable short story collection you may have missed last year! Today I’m talking about Bryan Washington’s Lot.

lotIn this story collection, each piece is a snapshot of a time and place in modern Houston. Many of the stories follow one young man through his teens and early adulthood as he struggles to find his way through family and relationship strife, a changing (gentrifying) neighborhood, and prejudice against his identity as a biracial (Black and Latino) gay man. In some cases, all of these opposing forces combine. Other stories woven in between are not directly related to the main character’s life, but showcase others facing similar challenges within the same community.

This is a fantastic book to read this month, both for LGBTQ+ Pride and in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. I would, however, recommend it mainly to an adult audience, and perhaps not to anyone searching for basic education about racism or LGBTQ+ issues, just because the points that Lot has to make are largely revealed between the lines rather than explicitly stated and explained. (One example that has stuck with me is when a “whiteboy” gives our MC a new name because he can’t pronounce his real one- the MC does not react or share with the reader why this is Bad, so it’s up to the reader to pick up on this one-sentence insult.) It’s a book that’s not especially geared toward the white gaze. However, if you’re looking for subtler commentary on life in minority groups in America, you may appreciate with Lot has to offer.

“Money issues aside, leaving the neighborhood meant leaving the shop. Which meant leaving Ma. Leaving her broke and alone. […] Ma’s daughter had left her. Her son had left her. Her husband had left her. So I couldn’t leave her.”

This is a collection about characters, but it’s also a deep dive into a place- Houston. The stories are very grounded in that setting, but in many ways the city feels like it could be any place in America, and I really would be surprised if there aren’t similar undervalued communities in every metropolitan area. That is part of Lot’s magic- it manages to be very specific while also hinting at a much larger scope.

In a similar way, it shows particular experiences of non-white queer life, and while these characters are presented as unique and are given plenty of specific detail, they also indicate some generalities that seem more universal- the incidents of prejudice, the struggle to stay out of poverty and receive appropriate aid, the lack of fair treatment and opportunities driving down-on-their-luck and overlooked people into questionable professions like drug sales. Washington zooms in individuals and elaborates on their life stories, but if the reader takes a step back from single trees and examines the collection as a whole they’ll see an entire forest laid out, full of people caught in the systematic oppression we’ve been hearing so much about lately. It’s a stunning balance.

“Some days are just bad, he said. Some people live their whole lives and not a single good thing happens to them. / I told him those were just the rules. He should follow them unless he had something new to say.”

Though these are all separate stories and most would stand alone well, it’s best to read them all together as parts of a whole. About half of them follow the same family via the same narrator and are presented in chronological order. The last story references characters and plot points from previous, seemingly unrelated, stories. A couple of the pieces particularly impressed me from the set (the very last story, “Elgin,” was my favorite!), but on the whole I found each story immersive and interesting, with something to add to the overall narrative. There wasn’t a single story I disliked. The only point of dissatisfaction I had with the set was based on personal taste- these are slice-of-life stories, where I tend to prefer short stories that are a little… punchier? I love short stories full of drama and emotion. Instead, Lot is a slow-burn that chips at the reader’s heart a piece at a time and works to build a larger story than any one piece encompasses on its own, which is an effect I adore in character-driven novels but find harder to navigate in short story collections, where the reader must “start over” again and again with each new piece. To be fair, I think Lot would’ve suffered as a novel and its strength lies in its interlocking structure, it just requires a different sort of patience than I was expecting.

At the sentence level, the writing style here reminded me of Junot Diaz’s, in terms of pacing and flow. As for content, Washington gives the sort of cultural glimpse I’d hoped to find in Diaz’s writing and instead found lacking (in the one story of his that I read). I’ve never been to Jamaica, Guatemala, Mexico (or any other country outside of the US, unfortunately) but I loved the way Washington brought little pieces of their culture into the story through food, language, and behavior. Lot’s narration feels insightful, effortless, and easy to get caught up in. Washington’s is a fresh voice with plenty to say, and he says it well.

“People think about things all the time, he said. All people fucking do is think. But really, he said, you do things or you don’t.”

(DO sign petitions! Donate! Speak up against racism! The time for thinking without acting has passed.)

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. In my effort to amplify Black stories by reading and reviewing more of them, I just want to throw a reminder in here that I rate on the scale Goodreads suggests, based on my own enjoyment of the novel, not on the merit of the book nor in any reflection of the author’s ability or person. They might not all be 5-star favorites for me, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth checking out! I think Lot‘s a great book and I’m glad I read it. I wouldn’t be averse to reading further from Washington in the future- and he does have a new release coming soon!

 

 

Before I sign off here, I want to say a little about what’s going on with Book of the Month Club, since I got Lot through their service. I’ve been a BOTM member since 2017, and I think the basic idea they’re operating on is a good one- offering a selection of hardcover new release books every month that members get to choose from, for only $10-$15.

But the current issue is that while protests were going on worldwide at the start of June, BOTM was promoting their June line-up, and conspicuously silent about the business’s stance on Black Lives Matter / current events. Finally, over the weekend, they posted on Instagram (their main social media outlet) an image featuring two non-fiction books by Black authors available through their site. On this post (which I’m not linking because the original text has been changed since), they received a lot of backlash in the comments for the fact that those two books were never main monthly selections for BOTM but farther down the site only as add-ons. A small gathering of six books on “antiracist learning” has been the only acknowledgment on the site of the recent protests. Further criticism included the fact that BOTM has included only 3 (out of 30) main selections this year by Black authors. Their selections are predominantly white, with an average of only one book (out of five) per month from an author who is not Caucasian. The majority of their judges, bookbassadors, and affiliates are also white. These facts, combined with the fact that the post came only after a fraught week of protests while BOTM promoted their own content, and the fact that their post of recommended reading offered no commitment from the company to work against racism in any way, drew a lot of ire.

In the midst of these complaints, at least one (Black) bookstagrammer announced publicly that her dissenting comments on the post had been deleted, and her account had been blocked from engaging with BOTM. Much of the Bookstagram/BOTM community is now calling for BOTM to issue an apology to this commentor, whose reasonable concerns were erased. Silencing a Black woman questioning the company’s committment to diversity and its current stance on BLM is… extremely low behavior on BOTM’s part, to put it mildly. I’m hoping there was some sort of accident or malfunction, that this happened only to one person, and that BOTM will share why it happened and commit to not doing anything like it in the future.

The reason I’m staying with BOTM for now despite their iffy (at best) response to current concerns of racism, is because after this debacle they released a stronger statement: it’s a general apology, a list of specific ways they’re planning to help fight racism with their platform and assets, and a confirmation that they stand with Black Lives Matter. The tone of their post and the comments seem to me genuinely apologetic and sincerely intent on doing better in the future. I’m glad they’ve been called out for questionable behavior and practices, and I’m not entirely satisfied with the way they’ve handled this yet, but I do think BOTM is in a great position to affect a positive change in the reading community (they have a HUGE influence in the US, even as they lose followers over this) and if they follow through with the list of goals they’ve posted it sounds like they’ll become a company I’ll be happier supporting. I’d love to see this major subscription service bringing diverse books to shelves across America (they’re only open to US readers at present) and supporting lesser-known authors who could benefit from the attention. While it is important to call out and challenge incidents of racism and put your money where it can best help those in need, I think it is also worth giving people/businesses a chance to learn and improve, and to support those willing to make that effort. I think it’s also important that when these companies send out their surveys to assess customer satisfaction someone is still there to advocate for positive change.

I’m sharing all of this here because I’ve pictured one of their books above, and don’t want you to imagine that I’m blindly ignoring what’s going on or in support of silencing Black voices in any way. I sincerely hope BOTM will become a better (more diverse and inclusive) service going forward, and if not, I will certainly be ending my membership.

That’s where I stand on that.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Nickel Boys

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, but this first one is actually well-known, and for good reason! Today I’m talking about Colson Whitehead’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Nickel Boys.

thenickelboysIn the novel, a teen boy named Elwood is doing everything right in Tallahassee, Florida. He listens to his grandmother, he excels at his after-school job, and he saves his money to pay his way through college. He listens to Martin Luther King’s speeches and wants to fight for civil rights. But he’s Black in 1960’s southern US, and his plan goes awry. Elwood is arrested for a crime he did not know he was involved in, and is sent to Nickel Academy, a reformatory school for boys under 18 who break the law (or are accused of doing so, at least). At Nickel, Elwood makes a friend, but it’s far from a happy time for either of them; it’s a brutal, unfair place, and the boys are lucky if they come out traumatized but alive- some are buried before they can break free.

“Boys arrived banged up in different ways before they got to Nickel and picked up more dents and damage during their term. Often graver missteps and more fierce institutions waited. Nickel boys were fucked before, during, and after their time at the school, if one were to characterize the general trajectory.”

The Nickel Boys is a slim volume with a lot to say. I think the synopsis conveys much of the book’s plot arc, but its strength ultimately lies in the smaller episodes that occur in these boys’ lives underneath the current of the story. I was afraid Elwood’s arrest would feel manipulative after he’s built up as such a positive character, but Whitehead doesn’t paint the boy as a one-dimensional wronged saint to play off the reader’s emotions. He uses incidents in Elwood’s young life to show both how Elwood occasionally puts himself in trouble’s way, and also how society continually throws that trouble into his path in the first place. Rampant racism in the Jim Crow south is presented with nuance and consideration- Nickel has a White campus as well as a Black one (segregated, of course) and cruelty reaches both halves. With this setup, and with Black narrators, Whitehead is able to demonstrate racism without presenting that the problem is “all White people are intentionally and meanly discriminatory toward all Black people.”

As such, I think this is a great piece of fiction to turn to as you’re learning about systemic racism, because The Nickel Boys shows that at work. It’s the “school” (no one is learning much here) and the wider system supporting its continuation that is the villain here, though plenty of individuals are also clearly in the wrong. An incredible balance is struck through which The Nickel Boys can pinpoint specific racists within its narrative without ever losing sight of the fact that the problem of racism goes far beyond the actions or attitudes of any particular individuals.

Because of this, Nickel Academy is (rightly) painted in a horrific light, and unfortunately this school is based on a real place that closed only a few years ago- Whitehead includes an afterword detailing his research and includes sources for the curious reader to follow up with.

“He was as far away from her as the others in her family who’d vanished and he was sitting right in front of her. On visiting day, he told her he was okay but sad, it was difficult but he was hanging in there, when all he wanted to say was, Look at what they did to me, look at what they did to me.”

Beyond the importance of acknowledging such institutions, which makes the book worth reading on its own, I also think Whitehead has really stepped up his writing in this most recent novel. I was impressed with his previous Pulitzer winner, The Underground Railroad, but The Nickel Boys felt like a level-up. I marked 25 quotes I wanted to save, which is about 20 more than my usual. Perhaps this one was always going to be a better fit for me than The Underground Railroad simply for the lack of a fabulist element- instead, The Nickel Boys is a fairly straightforward historical piece, with alternating sections between the boys’ past at the school and the present life of one who made it out- with an interesting twist on perspective toward the end that I loved equally on a narrative level and for its emotional impact. From the sentence level to the structural layout, Whitehead’s writing is just entirely faultless here, in my opinion. It’s accessible and intelligent, clear and convincing, emotionally and technically effective.

While I think it’s always the right time to pick up a book like this, now is a particularly apt time. There’s no mistaking the fact that this is a historical tale, and yet so much of the commentary within it about racism, about cruelty, about the silenced voices of the oppressed and abused, still feels applicable in modern times. It is appalling to read about Jim Crow laws from the 1960s and simultaneously be able to see in today’s news that the methods may have changed a bit but equality across races still cannot be seen in effect in 2020. Elwood is focused on the freedom marches of the 60s, on institutional injustice and systematic racism, and it’s hard (but necessary) to read about those things in today’s climate and see how little has changed. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and I highly recommend picking up a copy if you’re looking to read relevant fiction right now. If I haven’t convinced you yet, let the Pulitzer win speak for itself! It was well-deserved, even so soon after Whitehead’s previous recognition.

“If he wanted things to change, what else was there to do but stand up?”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I underestimated this one, and I shouldn’t have. This will not be my last Whitehead novel, and I won’t be waiting for his next Pulitzer to continue with his work this time! The hype was right with The Nickel Boys.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

I finally ticked the last book off my March TBR, with a little help from Gil @ Gil Reads Books, who kindly volunteered to buddy read it with me! (I’ve linked her review, be sure to check it out!) John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a nearly 600-page LGBTQ+ historical fiction novel that reads quickly for its size and has received a lot of love since its 2017 release. Though it didn’t quite live up to the massive hype for me, Gil and I were largely in agreement about this one, and I had a good time reading and discussing it despite a few disappointments.

theheart'sinvisiblefuriesIn the novel, Cyril Avery narrates 70 years of his life, beginning with his mother’s eventful pregnancy and ending with the ghost of a friend telling him the (fast-approaching) date of Cyril’s own death. In between, the reader is given an overview of the challenges faced by gay men in Ireland from the 1940’s onward. The prevalence of strict Catholocism and the illegality of homosexuality in Ireland through much of the 1900s made life very difficult for a lot of people who, like Cyril, were forced to hide their true identities, create elaborate cover-ups, and/or leave Ireland altogether in order to simply exist as themselves.

“It was a difficult time to be Irish, a difficult time to be twenty-one years of age and a difficult time to be a man who was attracted to other men. To be all three simultaneously required a level of subterfuge and guile that felt contradictory to my nature.”

I’ll start on a positive: I think Boyne does a great job of conveying how oppressively unfair the social, political, and Catholic response to homosexuality and AIDS was in Ireland (and beyond, to some extent) until very recently. Politicians outed as homosexual would lose their careers. Men who confessed to doctors their shame and unhappiness over their sexual preferences were given cruel and ineffective “treatments.” Children were convinced by authority figures from a young age that the roads to Hell are many and being a homosexual is one of the most certain paths. Being gay in this place, in this time, led to arrest, loss of respect and even recognition from friends and family, direct verbal and physical violence from utter strangers, and more. Cyril’s introductions to sexuality are secretive after-hours public encounters that leave him feeling guilty and far from love. The Heart’s Invisible Furies gave me a good sense of the difficulties faced on every side, and the political/religious atmosphere of the country in these years that led to such intolerant reactions.

” ‘What’s wrong with you people?’ he asked, looking at me as if I was clinically insane. ‘What’s wrong with Ireland? Are you all just fucking nuts over there, is that it? Don’t you want each other to be happy?’ / ‘No,’ I said, finding my country a difficult one to explain. ‘No, I dont think we do.’ “

Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of the book’s potential positives were undermined for me by the sheer absurdity of the narration. I think my mention above about Cyril narrating his mother’s pregnancy and communing with ghosts is a good indicator of how very whimsical Boyne’s narrative choices are here. Though on their own none of the plot details would seem quite so far-fetched, all together it makes for a particularly comedic journey. I can’t deny that it was fun to read and guess which outlandish plot twist was coming up next (I did not have “villain crushed by statue in the nick of time” on my bingo card, sadly), but I had so much difficulty suspending disbelief that I could barely take any of the plot seriously. There’s a ton of ground being covered here, and I hate to bash this book because I do think it’s a decent (fictionalized) source of information for those who haven’t lived the experience; but perhaps its greatest fault is that it tries to encompass too much of the gay Irish experience within one man, and thus loses what strength it could have had in characterization. This might have been a very different experience if I had been better able to emotionally invest in Cyril’s saga of suffering.

As it is, I’ve heard of many of the horrors this book contains prior to reading it (the clandestine exchanges in parks after dark, the loveless marriages, the medical treatments, the prejudice). Shocking reveals were never going to win me over the way heartfelt characterization might have, and I found that lacking. The children don’t sound like children, the seven year time gaps between every chapter feel forced and make new character introductions belated and awkward, and relationships between them are difficult to understand without being explicitly told. Character reunions and deaths feel manipulative, exacerbated by the fact that each person in this story is so one-note that they read more like caricatures with a single personality trait each than actual people. Even the dialogue is presented very literally, lest the reader miss the point:

” ‘I just know that if she goes to America she’ll end up being raped by a black man and having an abortion.’ / ‘Jesus Christ,’ I said, spitting out my tea. ‘For God’s sake, Anna, you can’t say things like that.’ / ‘Why not? It’s true.’ / ‘It’s not true at all. And you sound very small-minded saying it.’ / ‘I’m not racist if that’s what you’re implying. Remember, my husband is Jewish.’ “

And yet, despite all the complaints I’ve lodged, I can’t deny that most of the read was engaging and entertaining, even if not in the way I expected or hoped for. I had a better time than with my last Boyne novel- A Ladder to the Sky. All in all, a mixed experience, though the fact that I seem to be in the minority with my complaints means I’d still readily recommend this book to anyone looking for a humorous, dramatic account of an important social issue.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This would probably have been a lower rating if I hadn’t enjoyed laughing my way through the most unrealistic of the plot points, and dissecting them all with Gil. Without a buddy I think I would have been even more frustrated than I was. I suspect I’m just not the right reader for Boyne’s style, though there’s enough to appreciate in his work that I’m not counting out trying more of his work in the future. I just won’t be rushing to pick it up.

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Beach Read and The Gifts of Reading

Here are a couple of bookish books I’ve read recently! Emily Henry’s new romance novel Beach Read was my BOTM pick for April- it’s been a popular release this spring that helped pull me out of a reading slump! Also meant to help with the slump, I’ve been saving Robert Macfarlane’s charming little personal essay, The Gifts of Reading, for a moment I needed a pick-me-up; it’s a tiny little booklet of just 34 pages, but heartwarming and inspiring in spite of its size.

beachreadEmily Henry’s Beach Read is a romance novel in which a romance novelist (January) and a literary fiction writer (Gus) meet again a few years after their college writing class days. Suddenly the two are neighbors, and after being thrown together by the town’s bookshop owner they strike up a competitive friendship and challenge each other to swap genres for the summer. Meanwhile, both are dealing with trauma from their pasts, and use their writing and each other to work through what’s bothering them- which of course brings them even closer together.

“As different as I’d thought we were, it felt a little bit like Gus and I were two aliens who’d stumbled onto each other on Earth only to discover we shared a native language.”

Romance is the only genre in which the reader generally knows exactly how the book will end as soon as the characters are properly introduced- if not before. As someone who doesn’t typically enjoy predictability in any book, what makes a romance novel work for me is a convincing emotional journey- and this is where Beach Read excels. Considerably heavier than most of the romances I’ve read, the main characters in this novel are carrying some serious baggage; there is of course comedic relief and plenty of lighter moments, but even when things are good for January and Gus their hardships are never dismissed to make way for the steamy scenes, but rather become something for the two of them to work through together.

I actually don’t always like bookish books- author name dropping and stories within stories and references to people reading need to provide something to the book beyond cuteness to feel effective; lucky for me, Henry seems to get that, and doesn’t spend a lot of page time dwelling on what her characters are reading and writing. She uses these tactics only where they add something to the plot or characterization rather than letting the focus shift away from the emotional work her characters are putting into their writing and their relationship. Beach Read does include some commentary on romance being just as worthy a genre as literary fiction, though it feels more personal than philosophical because the antagonism is presented through characters who essentially embody their respective genres.

“I know how to tell a story, Gus, and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all of my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you’d get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, I’ve eliminated half the Earth’s population from my potential readers, and you know what? I don’t feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed.”

But there were a few details that made the overall effect less effective for me, despite my enthusiasm for the broader strokes.

First, neither of these characters ever asks for consent. This is something I always look for in romance novels, and even though both main characters seemed very self-aware, very considerate, and very attuned to the other’s body language, I can’t help feeling dissatisfied when in 350 pages of romance no consent is asked or given. Bonus points for proper condom usage, but that’s not quite enough to make up for it. Consent is sexy.

Second, and this is certainly subjective, the steamy scenes did not work for me at all. There was a lot of moving around and changing positions that I found overly elaborate and a bit hard to follow, but mainly those scenes just felt a lot less emotionally charged to me than earlier angst in the smaller touches. The language used to describe their more erotic encounters just did nothing for me, which isn’t to say they won’t work better for others.

Third, a lot of Beach Read‘s emotion is driven by miscommunication and lack of communication, which is a peeve of mine. This is an enemies-to-lovers romance, in which the characters are only enemies because they’re misconstruing and making assumptions. Additionally, the MC has some intense family drama going on- a distant mother, a dead father, his all-too-present lover nearby. (None of these are spoilers, they’re all introduced very early as part of the set-up.) While it’s reasonable to misunderstand what another person is doing and to avoid uncomfortable conversations, it frustrates me as a reader when an honest chat or two would essentially solve 300 pages of tension.

Ultimately, I loved the attempt and most of the details but just wasn’t quite swept away by the whole. I liked that Henry made the effort to do something different with this romance; everything about it is a little unexpected- a “beach read” set in flyover country, a romance featuring a lot of death (and a cult!), a romance novelist writing a literary circus tragedy, etc. It should have been the perfect formula to win me over, especially as it leans slightly literary. I like Henry’s writing, and have enjoyed her work in the past as well, but both books of hers that I’ve read now have left me feeling that one of her books might end up being a favorite for me, though this just isn’t it. Maybe my ideal Emily Henry book hasn’t been written yet. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Don’t be fooled- I had a great time with this one and it was perfect for my mood this month. I just don’t think it will be very memorable for me long-term, even though… it could have been.

 

thegiftsofreadingNext, I picked up Robert Macfarlane’s The Gifts of Reading, which was very thoughtfully gifted to me last year! This little nonfiction piece shares some of Macfarlane’s experiences with being gifted certain books throughout his life, and books he likes to give as gifts.

Macfarlane never quite comes out to say that we should gift books more often, but that is certainly the spirit of the piece. He effectively demonstrates that books given freely without expectation can have a profound, even life-altering effect on the reader. Most of the specific titles he mentions are books I haven’t read and don’t consider myself very interested in at this time, but I’m finding myself inspired to embrace book-gifting anew nonetheless, and perhaps to spend a little extra time with the books that others have given me over the years.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Honestly this was hard to rate, it’s so short and such a specific account of book gifting, but I did find it an enjoyable and encouraging read with an overall positive message. I have no idea who I would recommend this to- it is, perhaps, better to stumble across it without knowing too much, and simply let it take you where it will.

 

These two pieces have next to nothing in common, but both discuss books in a way that have restored some of the magic for me. I’ve been complaining about a reading slump for about a month (I swear I’ll stop now), but a little bookish reading turned out to be all I needed to kick it. What’s your favorite book about books?

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 9 (Plus Series Ranking!)

This has been a long time coming! If you’re new-ish here, you might not even know that I spent last year reading 29 of the 30 individually bound Faber Stories, a series of collectible short story editions published by Faber & Faber. There have been 30 volumes released between two batches- whether the series will be growing further in the future has not been announced, though I believe the intent was to celebrate their 90th year of publishing, which is now past.

When I reached the end of the first batch (which included 20 stories) I ranked them all here in order of favoritism; now that I’ve finished the rest I figured I might as well update that list! But first, I’ll go over the four stories I haven’t reviewed yet. Three I read back in December, intending to read the last in January… your guess is as good as mine as to why this took me until May!

 

Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver. 3 stars.

An old Cherokee woman who ran from Cherokee lands with a new husband just in time to avoid the US government’s forced relocation of Native American tribes is now a great-grandmother whose ancient culture lives on only in her heart and through the stories she impresses upon her granddaughter. Her oblivious American descendants take her to visit her birthplace, but the modern town they find in her tribe’s old place is no more than an inauthentic tourist trap.

This is a lovely and sad little piece about culture stolen from native peoples, and that culture living on as best it can through memories passed down to further generations. It is also a scathing critique of Americans’ irreverence for native history. That said, between the blurb on the jacket mentioning the disappointing trip to the Cherokee town, and the first two-page “chapter” providing the concept of culture living on as a seed inside living descendants, the reader has the entire formula of the story already within grasp just 5% into the read. I didn’t find much payoff in reading the rest, with the Point and the method of making it laid out so early, even though the writing is propulsive enough. Furthermore, I did have a fair grasp going in on the unfair and atrocious fates forced upon native tribes by US settlers, which made this story feel a bit predictable.  In any case, it’s a worthwhile point that Kingsolver is making, and she makes it well- it just wasn’t new to me at this point, which is no fault of hers.

Upon further inspection, this story was actually first published in 1989, so perhaps the trouble is simply that it’s a bit dated and would’ve had more punch for earlier readers.

” ‘I guess things have changed pretty much since you moved away, huh Great Mam?’ I asked. / She said, ‘I’ve never been here before.’ “

 

The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz. 2 stars.

In this volume, a Dominican-American man is going through a breakup; his girlfriend has discovered he’s been cheating on her (to an extreme extent), and dumped him. His best friend advises that the best way to get over the heartbreak is to find another woman- both struggle to find and maintain healthy relationships with women.

If there is anything positive to be found in this story, it eludes me. The MC and his friend have little respect for women, including those they supposedly love. When their misbehavior does lead to heartbreak (and complicated parenthood), they pity themselves without taking any responsibility for their mistakes or putting real effort into ditching bad habits. Yunior (the MC) does try exercise as a coping mechanism and distraction, but when it leads to injuries the story seems to be suggesting that there is no point in trying to resist cheating and objectifying women, it only leads to further punishment. I kept waiting for this to turn into a commentary on how awful this sort of behavior and mindset is for everyone involved, but right up to the final sentence it seems instead to be a wistful longing for being able to cheat in “monogamous” relationships without facing consequences. The men of the story seem to expect to sleep with whoever they want, when they want to, drop those women whenever it pleases them, and pop in to see any resultant children only when it suits them. I found the humor contemptible, felt no sympathy for these men, and gained nothing from this story.

hope I’m missing something. The only upside was that it was a quick read, at least.

 

Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce. 3 stars.

Only a story in the loosest sense, this little book is full of poetic vignettes about a man (clearly modeled after Joyce) in the midst of an affair with a student he teaches.

I think there’s going to be a very particular audience for this story, and I wasn’t it. There are a lot of references and similarities to other Joyce works, which I wouldn’t have noticed, not having read any others through- but nearly half of this volume is actually dedicated to pointing out and explaining these many ties. As a Joyce novice these didn’t have much meaning for me, though perhaps  someone better versed in Joycean lit would find them more appealing. The prose is beautiful, though very dense and somewhat impenetrable. Poetry connoisseurs might also have better luck.

Ultimately I thought this was lovely, though a terrible place to start with Joyce’s work as a relative beginner. If ever I were to become more knowledgeable and interested in Joyce’s life and work, I’d want to revisit this story to see if it would have more to offer me at that point.

 

Shanti by Vikram Chandra. 3 stars.

Set in India, this is a set of stories within a story within a story, set in the wake of WWII in 1945. The main characters are a man whose identical twin has died, a woman on a futile search for her missing fighter pilot husband, and a couple of their friends.

The jacket copy claims that this is “a spiraling tale of loss, and two wounded people becoming something new.” Without that hint of direction, I’m not sure I would have found the themes of this one out at all; there are so many layers to this tale and so many details given; it felt both elaborate and strangely empty. By which I mean, the biggest obstacle for me here was simply the fact that despite reports of how these people were dealing with their grief, I never felt a hint of emotion. And thus, no matter how each of the individual narratives might have worked for me, it never quite came together to a meaningful point or payoff. I believe the innermost level of narratives is meant to capture some of the characters’ unspoken emotions, but the fact that this is all told through a friend of this man and woman rather than either of them or even a neutral 3rd-person narrator puts the action too far distant to be properly effective.

All in all I found this a rather frustrating read, with moments of beauty overshadowed by my difficulty in sympathizing with the characters at the heart of the tale.

“They would go home, and even if nothing was finished, not ever, they would batten away the memories and find new beginnings.”

 

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Concluding thoughts:

Despite high hopes for at least two of these stories (Homeland and Shanti), this has turned out to be perhaps my most disappointing batch of Faber Stories yet. I don’t regret picking these up and rounding out my experience with this series of stories, but I had wished to end on a higher note. From this round, I’d say Homeland has probably been my favorite, and I’d read more from both Kingsolver and perhaps Joyce, based on these offerings.

 

To amp up the fun, my revised ranking of the Faber Stories, in order from most to least favorite! I’ve linked each title to its respective review set in case you’re interested in learning anything further about any of these in particular.

  1. Mostly Hero by Anna Burs – 5 stars
  2. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes by Alan Bennett – 5 stars
  3. The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan – 4 stars
  4. Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro – 4 stars
  5. Mrs. Fox by Sarah Hall – 4 stars
  6. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney – 4 stars
  7. Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera – 4 stars
  8. Paradise by Edna O’Brien – 4 stars
  9. Intruders by Adrian Tomine – 4 stars
  10. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman – 4 stars
  11. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor – 4 stars
  12. The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes – 4 stars
  13. Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin – 4 stars
  14. Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath – 3 stars
  15. The Victim by P. D. James – 3 stars
  16. Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss – 3 stars
  17. Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore – 3 stars
  18. Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett – 3 stars
  19. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah – 3 stars
  20. Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver – 3 stars
  21. My Son the Fanatic by Hanif Kureishi – 3 stars
  22. Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain – 3 stars
  23. Shanti by Vikram Chandra – 3 stars
  24. The Country Funeral by John McGahern – 3 stars
  25. A River in Egypt by David Means – 3 stars
  26. Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore – 3 stars
  27. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones – 3 stars
  28. Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma – 3 stars
  29. Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce – 3 stars
  30. The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz – 2 stars

 

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Set Reflection:

I would read more of these. I’ve absolutely enjoyed my time with this series overall; it’s nice to come to each story fresh- a new author, a new subject, pretty packaging. My average rating is 3.5, which is a bit low to get excited about but far from terrible. I still think this is a great way to sample authors’ work in bite-sized pieces; I’ve added several of these writers to my TBR as a result of reading this series (though shamefully I’m yet to pick those additional works up) and I just love the look of them. It’s been a good run. I probably wouldn’t recommend reading all of them unless you’re a die-hard completionist (welcome to the club!), but you can hardly go wrong picking up a few of these that appeal!

Who’s your favorite short story writer? (Feel free to mention someone who’s not included in this set!)

 

The Literary Elephant