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a lit-el forecast

5.8.21

What a week! We wrapped up crop planting on the farm yesterday, and it was a hectic last few days. Honestly I think the only reason I managed to post this week was thanks to having a couple of solid drafts saved in advance. In The 365 updates are a couple more planting photos, including the tractor and planter in action, and the seed tender I’ve been ferrying around. That’s been my main role this planting season- I take the seed tender, attached to a pickup, to the farm supply place to get it filled up with seed (which is what’s happening in the photo) then I drive it out to whichever field is being planted, to go into the planter. And repeat. The main challenge for me with this is that I often have to back it into the field approaches, which is… not fun. But at least it’s in good working order! In contrast…

The last photo of this batch is the interior of another pickup we use (sparingly) for farm errands (I had to drive it at night this week, hence the bad lighting), and this one’s interesting because it’s older than me. (The dust buildup is actually not that old, it’s just the product of driving on gravel roads with the windows down.) You may be able to spot the little wrench in the bottom left of the dash that now controls the wipers, and at the top of the photo, the missing rearview mirror. (Its glue gave out suddenly. It’s temporary.) The air conditioner hasn’t worked in ages, which is mostly fine if you drive with the windows all the way open in summer, but this is the reason the passenger window got stuck all the way down in the door last year. That just got fixed this spring, so over the winter there was much appreciation for the heater that seems to run hotter every year- it could probably heat hell. I’m sure it’s fine. The fuel gauge is stuck on F until it suddenly flatlines on E, so we always keep a couple spare gallons in the backup tank. The high beams are controlled with a peg on the floor. I’m pretty sure there are no airbags, but the thing is like a tank. This is the vehicle I learned turn signals in, helping my dad make a light repair when I was small enough my feet didn’t reach the floor.

Cat of the Week is Fuji, an eight month-old black and white kitten who’s been uber friendly since day one. The story here is that Fuji had/has a sister who looks similar and is also uber friendly, who seems to be living four miles down the road now with a neighbor who mysteriously denied knowledge when asked. I suspect they just loved her too much to return her, which makes perfect sense. If I didn’t have so many cats I might be bothered, but I know they’re good cat caretakers we’ve gifted farm cats to in the past, and Fuji seems perfectly content with her other feline friends here so I’m choosing to be amused. Bonus appearance: Matchy being stealthy in a box!

My week in film:

  • Outlander ssn 4 [2018-2019] – I actually only watched the last two episodes this week; I’ve been slowly working my way through this season for about a month. As someone who was once a big Outlander fan (I binged all of the books about five years ago and got in on the first season of this TV adaptation) I have to admit this season was awful. It’s been trending downhill for a while, but this one was all-around cringe and horror. It’s set in colonial America, shortly before the revolution. So of course, Native Americans are being driven out of their lands, slavery is running rampant, and misogyny is everywhere. This season sits in a really uncomfortable position of striving for ~historical accuracy~ while also prominently featuring a more modern character (this is a time travel narrative) who tries to live by the morals of her own era but doesn’t believe she can make significant changes in a time period that is, for her, history. There’s a lot of racism here, including some truly bad choices made by the MCs we’re supposed to sympathize with. Slurs are used throughout this season, particularly against Native Americans. And this is all before we’ve even mentioned the terrible handing of a rape plot that goes from bad to worse when it’s used as a sort of plot twist, featuring a major misunderstanding in which people are blamed for things they couldn’t have known and then are dramatically forgiven for misunderstanding while the violence at the heart of the mess is never challenged. I’ve already been gifted season 5 (hence suffering through all of 4), and I am still curious about a few of the time traveling aspects of this series, but most of the published material is also set during these early years of the United States so I may have to abandon ship.

My week in books:

  • Consent by Annabel Lyon – 4 stars. This was a fun, almost literary-thriller type read that I initially thought would be a 5 for me, but as I’ve sat with it and started drafting my review I’ve bumped it down to 4. I had a few personal dislikes that I’ll cover soon in a review, but on the whole this book did a lot that I liked, with imperfect but vibrant characters who lead the reader through some interesting conversations around various forms of consent, utilizing sharp prose and including a number of twists that keep the plot interesting even though I’d call this more of a character or theme study.
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller – ongoing. I’ve got an eARC courtesy of Netgalley for this next Women’s Prize read, and though reading digitally tends to go a little slower for me I am enjoying this. It’s very atmospheric, which is something I particularly enjoy, and I appreciate the topics of poverty and dependence that this is digging into, though I’m not sure that’s going to be quite enough for me in the end. It’s just lacking a bit of spark. But I’ve still got about half left to go, so nothing’s certain yet!

My week in posts:

Plans for the upcoming week include sharing my review of Consent, and possibly Unsettled Ground. I’ll definitely finish that book soon, but I’ve got another of Fuller’s titles on my shelf from BOTM (and catching up with BOTM is one of my top 2021 goals) that I’m tempted to read for some sort of joint review (which would mean taking a few extra days before I’m ready to review). But whether I want to delay other reading projects to dive right into another of Fuller’s books will probably depend on how I’m feeling about the rest of Unsettled Ground. Stay tuned to find out whether it’ll be a single or double review. After Fuller, I’ll be reading Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters.

On the subject of upcoming plans, I want to share here my TBR for the rest of May, which I’ve assembled largely in honor of Asian American Pacific Islander heritage month. There’s also a whole Asian readathon going on throughout May that I encourage you to check out here if you’re interested in readathons and/or expanding your Asain and AAPI reading; even if you don’t want to join, Cindy’s put together a page on Storygraph with tons of Asian reading recommendations, by genre, country, and a few other great categories as well, if you need any reading inspiration! Personally I am not reading regularly enough at the moment (and am determined to complete my 2021 Women’s Prize journey before starting anything new) to commit to a community activity with specific prompts and a deadline (though I’m sure you’re welcome to commit to as much or as little as you can handle!). But I do want to make sure I’m supporting AAPI writers with my reading and reviews, so even if I don’t quite get to all of these within the month they will stay on my 2021 TBR to help hold me accountable:

  1. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue – starting off this list with the one title that’s not Asian or Asian-American reading; in honor of the Women’s Prize shortlist a couple of weeks ago, the Women’s Prize Squad (Callum, Hannah, Marija, Naty, Rachel, Sarah, and I) put together a little shortlist of our own based on 2021 WP eligibility rules. Last year we assembled a whole longlist, but agreed on a shortlist for 2021 in which each of us added any 1 book we would’ve liked to see shortlisted, drawn from the entire pool of 2021 eligible books whether they were officially longlisted or not. It’s a bit of fun for trading favorite books or most anticipated reads with each other, and I’m very excited about this list so I will be reading each of the titles and doing a round up at the end as I did last time. 2021’s Women’s Prize Squad titles include: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Luster by Raven Leilani, The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan, and The Pull of the Stars. This one’s an Irish-set historical fiction following a nurse during the Spanish Flu outbreak as she works on a ward of quarantined expectant mothers. Everyone seems to love this, and I’ve had great experiences with Donoghue books in the past, so I have high hopes.
  2. If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha – Also from our Women’s Prize Squad list and doubling as an AAPI read, I’ve just gotten this one in from the library. The blurb calls this story: “A riveting debut novel set in contemporary Seoul, Korea, about four young women making their way in a world defined by impossibly high standards of beauty, secret room salons catering to wealthy men, strict social hierarchies, and K-pop fan mania.” I am hoping for some great characterization and a nuanced dive into the strengths and pitfalls of modern Korean culture.
  3. Imposter Syndrome by Kathy Wang – Because I live in the US it’s important to me to focus some of my Asian reading on Asian American authors and characters, and this sounds like a fun one. It follows a white woman who’s worked up the ranks of a Silicon Valley startup, thanks in part to the Russians she spies for; our other main character is a Chinese-American woman farther down the company hierarchy who discovers the espionage. It sounds techy and mysterious, and brimming with potential for social commentary.
  4. Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa – this is a Palestinian-based story I’ve heard such great things about, thought we might see on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, and anyway have been wanting to read for months. It follows a woman born to refugee parents, who is made a refugee herself when the US invades Iraq. It’s not until she lands in Israeli-controlled Palestine that she is able to make a home for herself. This sounds like an incredible exploration of identity, and conflict in the Middle East.
  5. Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt – I wanted to up my intake of translated lit this year, which has somewhat fallen by the wayside in recent months as I’ve struggled to read much of anything in any sort of timely manner. But here’s a short Japanese novel depicting new motherhood in the face of failed marriage, said to include some deep underlying tension juxtaposed with incredibly beautiful descriptions of light. Shoutout to Ellen’s book recommendations tag post for reminding me that I need to read this one!

And just for fun, here are a few further Asian and AAPI recommendations for anyone in need, all of which have been favorites and/or very memorable reads for me:

Have you read any of these books, or have a top-notch Asian- or AAPI-authored title you want to share? Let me know in the comments below!

The Literary Elephant

looking for a book?

The Recommendations Book Tag

I’ve been tagged by Naty and Eline, more than enough motivation to jump on board after enjoying Ally’s (original!) post for this tag! If you haven’t checked out their wonderful recommendations yet be sure to do so, they’ve highlighted some fantastic titles and this tag is a great way to find new books or perhaps re-prioritize what’s already on your TBR. 😉 I haven’t done any tags or recommendation posts in a while so I’m going to use this chance to round up some recent faves from within the last few months of my reading that I need to talk about more!

Rules:

  • Tag Ally @ Ally Writes Things so she can see your recommendations!
  • Give at least one recommendation for each of the prompts below
  • If you don’t have a recommendation, talk about a book you want to read
  • Tag some friends!

And now for the books!

A Book About Friendship

Outlawed

Outlawed by Anna North. This isn’t necessarily a book *about* friendship, but it does prominently feature a great group of friends, many of whom are LGBTQ+ characters and all of whom are ostracized from their reimagined 1800s Western society. It’s a fun romp that’s a bit over the top, but if a band of feminist & LGBTQ+ outlaws dressing as cowboys and running heists in the name of creating a sanctuary for the oppressed sounds at all your type, you may want to give this one a try!

A Translated Book

Hurricane Season

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the original Spanish by Sophie Hughes. Set in an impoverished Mexican village brimming with local tensions and long-lived superstitions, this little literary novel packs a big punch as it unravels, character by character, the truth of the Witch’s death. A string of flawed and unreliable narrators demonstrate the ripple effects of trauma and suspicion; though this is a book focused on darkness, brutality, and things gone wrong, it never loses sight of its characters’ humanity.

A Diverse Romance

One to Watch

One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London. Okay, the MC here is a straight white woman and if you caught my review a couple of months ago you may recall I hesitate to even call this book a romance, but hear me out. This story follows a plus-size influencer who agrees to star as the lead on a Bachelorette-style reality dating show. Though personally I’d categorize reality dating TV as something akin to a sport, there is some romance involved, and altogether I’d say the cast is fairly diverse, from skin color to age, sexuality, and body type, and one of the prominent bachelors is even a great single dad to a non-binary kid. It’s a quick read with a fun multi-media sort of format and plenty of sweet scenes, while also directly tackling representation issues in mainstream television.

A Fast-Paced Book

Interior Chinatown

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. From the outside this may look like an ordinary novel, but inside it is formatted like a screenplay and it reads like a dream. The style befits the main character’s tendency to view his Asian-American life as though it is a movie in which he is perpetually cast as Generic Asian Man behind white and Black stars. He longs to be upgraded to the role of Kung Fu Man, but over the course of the novel gradually realizes that even this goal is a limited box reflective of ingrained Asian racism in America. It was nearly a one-sitting read for me, loads of fun and also incredibly thought-provoking.

A Nonfiction Other Than a Memoir

Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America's Cheap Goods

Made in China by Amelia Pang. Speaking of China, I just read this absolutely heart-wrenching investigative journalism book about the state of forced labor in modern China, and though I have to caution you about the extremely dark content I cannot recommend reading up on this topic highly enough, especially for first-world consumers whose purchasing habits help drive the system. Lives are literally counting on buyers making smart, conscientious purchases and holding brands accountable for their sourcing of goods. I can’t deny this is a bleak read, but it’s also an important, life-changing one.

An Underrated Memoir

Notes on a Silencing

Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford. Despite its excellent cover and some great early hype, I’ve seen very few readers in my feed picking up this book, and I hope that will change. This is one of the strongest #MeToo books I’ve ever read, ranking right up there with Chanel Miller’s Know My Name; it follows Crawford through her boarding school days, during which she was raped by two upperclassmen boys, and the long years afterward when her school refused to take her claim seriously, made her a target among her peers, and took deliberate steps to stifle her legal case. Crawford also engages with the language we tend to use or avoid around trauma in a particularly interesting and useful way.

A Book With Fewer Than 10,000 Ratings on Goodreads

The Butchers' Blessing

The Butchers’ Blessing by Ruth Gilligan. This mysterious, Irish-set historical fiction novel chronicles the last year that the Butchers travel the countryside practicing their trade, a fateful time for Irish cattle as a bout of BSE (mad cow disease) heightens tensions to a near-panic. It’s a book full of such thoughtfully-drawn characters and of such thematic depth, a sad but beautiful exploration of the conflict between folkloric/traditional beliefs and the pressure to move as a nation into the modern world. It’s actually got less than 1,000 ratings on GR, which is woeful for such a brilliant work.

A Book With An LGBTQ+ Protagonist

Girl Made of Stars

Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake. YA titles appear pretty rarely on my blog these days, but there are some real gems in the category even for adult readers who prefer heavier themes, and this is one of them. It features a bisexual MC who must confront a trauma from her past in order to move forward with her non-binary girlfriend, all while caught in the middle of a scandal that hits very close to home- her twin brother has been accused of rape by his girlfriend, and while our protagonist loves her brother she also trusts her friend not to lie about him in this way. It’s a sticky situation that examines trauma and victim blaming with care and nuance, appropriate for readers YA and up.

A Book By A Trans or Non-binary Author

The Death of Vivek Oji

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. Emezi seems to be a popular answer for this prompt already, but they’re a favorite author of mine that I can’t refrain from mentioning here and I’ve not seen this book specifically listed yet, so I’ll add it to the ring. Vivek Oji is a heartfelt look at sexual discovery and prejudice in Nigeria, focusing on the devastating death of a character whose true identity was known only to a few close friends. This is a sad, beautiful character study with plenty of commercial appeal.

A Book With More Than 500 Pages

Legendborn (Legendborn, #1)

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. Another great YA recommendation, and a fantasy one at that! This one just makes the cut at 501 pages (according to Goodreads; I don’t have a physical copy on hand at the moment to check accuracy but I’m glad- this book’s worth the mention!). Following a Black teen through her first months on a North Carolinian college campus, this modern continuation of King Arthur lore dips into an intricate world with some fun magic, all while exploring deep grief and challenging racism throughout the college’s history- especially within (but not limited to) the secret society that keeps Arthur’s legend alive.

A Short Story Collection

Lot: Stories

Lot by Bryan Washington. I don’t read a lot of story collections, but this one was a standout. Each piece in this set takes place in Houston, particularly focusing on marginalized characters and communities. They’re immensely sharp and compulsively readable, and (if I remember the ratio correctly) every other story is a linked piece following a recurring protagonist through various stages of his young gay life. As a whole the collection is a wonderful microcosm both specific to its setting and indicative much more broadly of modern life in the margins.

A Book You Want Everyone to Read

Real Life

Real Life by Brandon Taylor. I’m putting this out there even though its style (reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s) will likely make it a bit of a hit-or-miss read for many; it was such a hit for me though- my favorite read of 2020!- that I’m still hoping for more readers to pick it up. This gutting little character study of a gay Black man’s struggle with racism (even among his friend group) in grad school takes place over one fraught weekend as our protagonist considers dropping out of his program just to escape it. It’s a quiet read, but it’s got teeth, and I just cannot recommend it highly enough.

Tagging some more people whose recommendations I’d love to see: Eleanor, Ellen, Karissa, Laura, Lou, Melanie, Stargazer, Stephen, and anyone else who wants to join! Please link or let me know if you try this tag so I can check out your answers!

The Literary Elephant

if you can’t stand to read about human rights violations today, scroll away now

Review: Made in China: A Prisoner, An SOS letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang

It pains me a little to warn readers off before getting properly into this review when I think it addresses one of the most important ongoing issues in the world today, and there are millions of people facing this issue in real time without the luxury of turning away out of discomfort, but… to help others we must first take care of ourselves, and reading morally difficult content may be counterproductive for some. In that vein, CWs include: confinement, forced institutionalization, genocide, gore, Islamophobia, racism, rape, slavery, suicidal thoughts, torture, and human trafficking. I’m going to talk about a few specifics in this review so again, turn away now if you’re not equipped for that today. But if you can, especially if you are a first-world consumer (don’t be fooled by the mention of America in the title; though written with an American audience in mind, this is a larger problem), I would highly urge picking up this book and/or educating yourself on the topic of ongoing forced labor.

Book Cover

Made in China is a new nonfiction book that opens with a US woman opening a package of party decorations and finding an SOS note sealed inside, written by the ailing Chinese man forced to produce the product. From here the book covers many related topics, including why it is so hard for the average American to make significant waves about this problem, how and why China came to be in the position to perpetuate forced labor of its own citizens, and the fate of the man who wrote this particular note. The book alternates between Chinese history, the horrifying extent of the current problem, and the moving plight of Sun Yi, one man caught in the maw of a dangerous system.

“Inspired by Soviet gulags, China’s first labor camps opened in the 1930s. China’s laogai system remains the largest forced-labor system in operation today. It includes a vast network of prisons, camps, and various extralegal detention centers. […] In these camps, millions of emaciated people must work fifteen to twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Many also undergo political indoctrination and torture.”

Made in China is a bleak book all around; I was initially dismayed at being given a detailed description of one torture experienced by Sun Yi straight away in the first chapter, but ultimately I think including something graphic so early on is a smart move on Pang’s part because it sets the tone for the darkness of the content to follow. Another smart move: sharing so much of Sun’s story with the reader. Made in China often threatens to bog us down in statistics, history, and politics, but Sun’s story spread across the book ensures that the reader never loses the human connection: the individual faces behind the numbers and facts. And Sun does see some victories- he’s got family and friends, and at one point a lawyer, to help him survive, people who support his decision even when he could walk free and clear of it all and chooses instead to expose as much of the truth as possible to help the others stuck inside. It can be hard to read about what Sun endures, but he is the beating heart of this book.

“He had been there so long he sometimes forgot he was alive.”

In addition to Sun as a subject, we’re also given some background on Chinese government, as a means of understanding why economic stability is tantamount to the current regime and how forced-labor and reeducation-through-labor camps double as a means of stifling potential rebellions. The chapters on Chinese political history, particularly relating to the persecution of Falun Gong (a type of religious/meditative/lifestyle practice) members, are among the densest of the book; one of the only downfalls to this reading experience for me was the feeling that each of these chapters could have been expanded into its own book without ever dipping into superfluity. There’s a lot of relevant information to cover, and Pang seems to do as well as anyone possibly could, condensing it into a readable length and sensible organization. Made in China can be a rough start for those like me who are woefully uneducated on Chinese life and history, but I do think this is a great overview that’s worth the patience required to sort through the denser pieces. The history is not enough to make one sympathetic to the regime’s choice of resorting to forced labor, but it does help the reader understand how China came to this point, and perhaps sympathize with those who know about and choose not to rebel against this system.

“Wolves would rather forage by themselves in the lonely wilderness, risking starvation and death than be well-fed in a cage. But humans are not the same.”

With that knowledge and Sun’s story to carry us through, Pang next delves into the breadth of the modern problem. Forced labor itself and all that entails sounds grim enough, but the surveillance methods for pinpointing ‘suspicious’ persons before any crime is committed, coupled with the fact that Chinese criminal courts convict in 99.9% of cases (for those allowed a trial at all in the first place), offers new frightening implications. Lest we brush that off, Pang presents an all but inarguable case suggesting that detainees are used not only for labor but also for organ harvesting, as the primary source for the entire nation’s billion-dollar transplant industry. And if that somehow doesn’t sound bad enough, wait until you get to the part where the people who are chosen as detainees and potential organ ‘donors’ are often those who practice any religion or philosophy beyond government-sanctioned ideologies. There is one entire corner of China populated primarily by Uyghurs, an ethnic minority Turkic people who have, historically, been practicing Muslims, and this is the area in which the forced labor situation reaches peak awfulness of genocide proportions:

“Once inside reeducation camps, the Turkic detainees attend daily indoctrination classes on official state ideology. They must prove they can reject Islam, forget their native tongue, and learn fluent Mandarin. There are reports of camps sterilizing Turkic women, while Turkic children are stolen from their parents and given to ‘orphanages’ that raise them as Chinese. In 2020, the Jamestown Foundation released a report analyzing Chinese government documents such as ‘family planning’ records. It found that between 2015 and 2018, forced sterilizations and abortions decreased the birth rate in two of the largest Uyghur prefectures by 84 percent. But this drop was not steep enough for China. The local government of one Uyghur region set a family planning goal of lowering the birth rate to nearly zero in 2020. Through forced sterilization and policies that strongly encourage interracial Han Chinese and Turkic marriages, the Chinese Communist Party is proceeding to wipe out an entire ethnicity.”

Pang has clearly done her research. Every statement of fact is sourced, with 40+ pages of notes in the back of the book linking each assertion to its roots, chapter by chapter. When she can’t claim something as a fact, she’s honest about the speculation, showing her path from fact to implication in a way that is nonetheless convincing for the lack of concrete proof. Considering that every survivor of these camps and every foreign investigator who questions or gets too close speaks out only at great personal risk, it is easy to see why some particulars may go unknown until an end to this problem has been reached. Even Pang closes her author’s note at the end of the book with a harrowing “thank you to my family in China, who knew nothing about this book; I’m so sorry if this will make your lives difficult.”

But Perhaps the scariest reveal of all for me here was just how hard it can be to do anything at all to help ease this situation from America, or even to refrain from supporting the practice monetarily. Where we put our money as consumers matters, but as a consumer it can be all but impossible to know for sure which products or brands to avoid due to forced labor sourcing. Even the company selling the the product may not know that their supplier is outsourcing for labor, because this is a layered issue where the truth can be hidden at multiple points. There are whole Chinese companies dedicated to fabricating factory records to outsmart audits, and the audits themselves may not be able to dig deep enough to discover illegal labor use in the time allotted.

“And so the million-dollar question is: Are any brands truly sustainable at the moment? Even companies that market themselves around ‘transparency’ and ‘sustainability’ often reveal little information about whether their audits can actually detect unauthorized subcontracting. I have yet to come across any companies that divulge how often they made sudden production changes, or how fast a turnaround they expect from factories. And without transparency about these sourcing practices, for all we know, even the most well-intentioned companies could be inadvertently sourcing from laogai factories.”

In my opinion, it’s going to be up to individual brands to risk higher profits by going out of their way to make sure that forced labor makes up no part of their production process. But that’s… the easiest possible way this all could end, in my view, and in a capitalist world it’s hard to imagine brands being that selfless by choice. Unfortunately it’s not hard to imagine several ways in which this could get worse before it gets better. There’s even some information in here about how our brains work while shopping in a way that motivates us to center the monetary cost over the human cost. And if that can be overcome, one also must confront the potential humanitarian disaster that could result from boycotting legal Chinese-produced goods along with the illegal forced labor stuff; while forced labor goods may make up a shockingly huge portion of the market, the majority of Chinese-based goods are probably not made this way, and over a billion innocent people depend on the stability of China’s economy just as much as its corrupt regime does. It’s bleak.

Pang doesn’t want to leave the reader entirely without hope though, and offers some questions in the final chapter of her book that we as consumers can ask of the companies we buy from in order to double check their production practices and help hold them accountable, but of course no one is obligated to answer these questions and the law around forced labor goods is slippery and full of loopholes. What we can all do, though, is be smart about our purchasing practices, and get into the habit of centering the human cost of the product over the monetary cost; so in case you don’t pick up this book for whatever reason, I’ll leave these purchasing prompts from Pang with you now:

  1. Do I already own something that serves the same purpose?
  2. Is this item so much better that I would be willing to donate three things in its place?
  3. If it were more expensive, would I still try to figure out a way to afford it? Or am I feeling an urge to buy this only because it’s extremely cheap?
  4. If the product I’m considering is an updated version of one that I already own, is my current one working just fine?
  5. Am I sure I will wear or use this product a lot? Or will this likely end up sitting in storage after one use?

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. And a good time to remind you that I rate based on personal reading experience, not on the importance of the content or objective merit of the book (which personally I don’t believe any person can do fairly). The experience was somewhat lessened for me by the extra effort it took to parse the densest chapters and keep up with shifting timelines, but I did by the end feel that I understood everything that had been covered and felt this an entirely worthwhile (and life-changing, tbh) read. I can’t emphasize enough how difficult of a read this is, but I also can’t recommend the read enough to anyone and everyone willing to brave the content. I cannot even fathom how this isn’t a hotter topic worldwide- let’s make it one.

(If you need any more incentive, May is AAPI reading month. I believe this book qualifies.)

The Literary Elephant

talking about things on the internet

Review: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Women’s Prize progress: 7/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, an unnamed woman of viral tweet fame reflects on life as a minor internet celebrity- the highs and lows of being plugged in to social media sites all the time. This rumination is interrupted, however, when a real life family issue claims our protagonist’s attention. As she learns about the genetic disorder Proteus Syndrome and spends more time logged off to lend support, she realizes that there are some important aspects of human experience that are not encapsulated in the digital archive- at least, not inside the circle of popular trends she’s familiar with- and she’s forced to reevaluate the time she spends online.

“What did we have a right to expect from this life? What were the terms of the contract? What had the politician promised us? The realtor, walking us through being’s beautiful house? Could we sue? We would sue! Could we blow it all open? We would blow it all open! Could we…could we post about it?”

No One is Talking About This is a short novel constructed with brief, fragmented paragraphs. They’re not all of individual tweet-length, and as far as I remember Twitter is never mentioned by name, but the comparison in style is obvious and suits the content. This is a book full of direct references to social media trends and usage habits; to some extent, it’s appeal is going to be proportional to the amount of time the reader spends online. Personally, I am not Online in the way that this protagonist is, so there were some references that I sensed probably had a deeper relevance that was going over my head, though I still understood and enjoyed most of the read- being online 24/7 is not necessarily a prerequisite here. To be honest, the reason I don’t spend more time on Twitter and other social media sites is because I know I have a hard time breaking out of the urge to keep scrolling indefinitely and it becomes a huge time suck; even from that perspective, there’s a lot to relate to in this book, as our protagonist knows perfectly well how ridiculous it all can be. Nevertheless, there’s that irresistible drive to feel more connected to the people of our time.

“When she set the portal down, the Thread tugged her back toward it. She could not help following it. This might be the one that connected everything, that would knit her to an indestructible coherence.”

But while I found a lot of individual statements about the internet spot-on, this wasn’t a novel that worked for me as a whole. No matter how directly some of the one-liners spoke to me, I never felt engaged in the underlying plot. Part of the reasoning for that may lie in the fact that our protagonist isn’t a very active agent throughout this story; she’s commenting on what has become for her a routine, daily existence, and next on something that is happening to a family member, something that she is witnessing but has no control over. It’s all observational. Another downfall is that this is a book in two parts: one about excessive internet (“portal”) engagement, one about Proteus Syndrome, and the connection between the two feels tenuous at best. Both are happening to the same person, essentially, and at that someone who is struggling to contain both experiences in her mind at the same time even while she is living them.

Furthermore, I felt the central message here- that being online is useless in the face of Proteus Syndrome- to be simplistic and somewhat unhelpful. To claim that no one is talking about Proteus is… probably not true. That it’s not a mainstream topic probably is true, but as an extremely rare disorder currently without a cure, I’m not convinced that more people worrying about it out loud on the internet (or elsewhere) would be particularly productive in the first place (which is not to say that no one should talk about it). Furthermore, though viral posts can indeed be shockingly arbitrary, the implication that there is no value to social media while “real things” are happening in the tangible world also feels like an unconsidered, extreme viewpoint. For this particular protagonist, yes, being online all the time and endeavoring to find fame through shitposts like “can dogs be twins” probably is unhealthy, but this is not necessarily the default experience. In fact, I would argue relatively few of us, even those who are Incredibly Online, are unhealthily ignoring real world problems in favor of crafting infamous tweets in the name of digital fame.

“‘I can do something for her,’ she tried to explain to her husband, when he asked why she kept flying back to Ohio on those rickety $98 flights that had recently been exposed as dangerous by Nightline. ‘A minute means something to her, more than it means to us. We don’t know how long she has- I can give them to her, I can give her my minutes.’ Then, almost angrily, ‘What was I doing with them before?'”

But aside from the fact that No One is Talking About This speaks about a very specific experience in a way that seems- perhaps a bit awkwardly- meant for the masses to find relatable, it is arguably an important story. Maybe more people should be talking about Proteus Syndrome, and about the myriad effects (both negative and positive) of modern social media use. Reading this book as an example of reality vs. internet conflict rather than the example allows room for some interesting consideration regarding modern life. If the reason you’re online is to feel yourself a part of the moment, why not read a new book that’s trending thanks to its Women’s Prize nomination and which focuses very intently on the state of our (digital) world at present? Though I felt I should’ve had more of an emotional reaction to the sad content here than I actually did, this read certainly sparked some thought for me about how I use my time online and how I balance internet and tangible-world time; it may do the same for you.

CW: death of a child

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This book certainly had its ups and downs for me, and it’s so current that if you’re going to read it I’d suggest doing it asap (already a few of the references feel dated), but it’s a book I’m glad I took a chance on. I related, I learned, I reconsidered. Though I don’t think this is presented well enough to be a literary masterpiece, it’s one of the most experimental and “of our time” books I’ve encountered so far on the Women’s Prize longlist, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it advance to the shortlist, and while I’m not especially rooting for that outcome I suppose I wouldn’t mind it.

The Literary Elephant

flashback to the ’50s

Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Women’s Prize progress: 6/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In the novel, Jean typically writes women’s columns for a small newspaper in the London suburbs, but she eagerly takes up a feature project when Gretchen Tilbury writes in claiming her daughter is the result of a virgin birth. Jean takes testimony from the women who were around Gretchen at the time of conception and is surprised to discover that her story holds. Jean enjoys the investigation, but befriending Gretchen’s apparently perfect family is what brings her the most joy and provides a much-needed break from Jean’s normal routine of caring for her elderly- and somewhat difficult- mother.

“‘Do you think it’s possible to hold two contradictory views at the same time?’ / ‘Perfectly. Religious folk do it all the time.’ / ‘So let’s say I think Mrs Tilbury is telling the truth, but I still don’t believe in virgin birth, and I see it as my job to close that gap.'”

Small Pleasures is a book full of potential, and though for me it fell far short of capitalizing on any of it, I can see why readers are loving it. (Or, loving it except for the ending, which I’ll come back to.) Set in 1957, this story follows an unmarried woman nearing 40 who adheres strictly to her duties even while she longs for the more social life she might have had if not for her largely housebound, anxious mother, who relies on Jean’s caretaking. It’s a perspective- especially in this sexist era- often overlooked or stereotyped as pitiable, which makes Jean all the more attractive as a protagonist. And she can be a convincing heroine; Chambers shares Jean’s thoughts and emotions with the reader, making her an easy character to sympathize with.

The plot is also layered and conducive of thought; I suspect this story would make for a great book club discussion. In addition to the virgin birth investigation with its foray into 50s medicine, Small Pleasures is also prominently a domestic drama. In an age when appearances and manners are everything, Gretchen (she of the virgin birth) seems to be the perfect wife, mother, and friend, offering Jean a glimpse into the life she wishes she’d been able to forge for herself. While Howard may not be the most attractive man, he’s impeccably kind and gentle, always does right by his family, and seems to Jean the best husband any woman could ask for. And Margaret, their ten year old daughter, is a sweet, funny girl who wins Jean’s heart immediately. As Jean gains faith in Gretchen’s tale, falls for Howard, and dotes on Margaret, it’s hard to mind the switch from mystery to a quiet exploration of love and longing. It’s all very atmospheric and engaging, a quick, easy read to submerse oneself in if this kind of story appeals.

But though it all seemed off to a promising start, my experience went quickly downhill. I might have fared better with the positives here if I’d warmed to Jean more from the beginning, but Chambers seems to take era authenticity seriously enough that instead of pushing boundaries Jean feels like a true product of her generation, the book’s narration offering no retrospective modern reflection. Small Pleasures feels like it could have been written in 1957, which is a testament to Chambers’ skill with language and setting, though it belies all of the progress women have made in the last six decades. Jean has completely internalized the sexism of her day, letting her boss call her ‘old gal,’ bemoaning (privately) her single, childless state and the burden of caring for her mother. Take this example, for instance, when Jean is visiting her mother during a brief hospitalization; between mentioning that her mother seems to be doing worse that day and clarifying that she means her mother’s mental state seems unstable, she makes this disappointed observation about the hospital staff’s beauty standards:

“When she arrived for evening visiting hours after a long day at work, she found her mother slightly worse. Someone had brushed her hair back off her face, destroying what was left of the curl, and giving her a severe and somewhat masculine appearance, which would have horrified her if she had been able to see it. Looking around, Jean noticed with dismay that the other patients had been treated to a similar grooming regime and now looked like members of the same androgynous tribe.”

Dismay! Over the patients looking androgynous! While they all- including her mother- are suffering from physical and mental ailments! Jean fits the 50s stereotype exactly. She’s just as concerned with keeping up appearances and idealizing that picture-perfect housewife life as every other “proper” 50s woman, even though her circumstances haven’t allowed her to achieve the necessary first step of marriage. Of course it makes sense that someone living in this time period would prescribe to the norms of the time, but in failing to challenge any of these outdated norms through Jean or even indirectly through the 3rd person narration, Small Pleasures comes across more like a misplaced homage than a story worthy of the 21st century.

On top of finding the historical perspective unimaginative, I also had a hard time condoning many of Jean’s personal choices. The trickiness of her budding relationship with Howard aside, there are two particular instances in which I think the narration should have suggested some criticism alongside Jean’s actions. One involves her poor response to the revelation of another woman’s trauma, and the other involves herjudgmental advice to a lesbian woman looking to leave her heterosexual marriage in order to reunite with her lover. In the latter instance Jean shows no consideration for the other women’s feelings and her stance seems to imply her belief that a heterosexual marriage is the only adequate environment in which to raise a child. Jean (and Chambers) does not treat the lesbians well in this story, which might have been used to some advantage had any sort of point been made through the women’s suffering, but instead only Jean’s disapproval comes through in the narration, to no good effect.

Granted, I already disliked Jean by the time these controversial scenes arose, and the situations are more nuanced (I’m trying to keep this review spoiler-free)- Jean means to do well by the person she sees as most vulnerable in both of these cases. Painting herself as the martyr when she really is only tangential to a greater problem here doesn’t come across well either, though. For Jean’s dislike of the lesbian relationship to run unchecked while she also upholds the picture-perfect heterosexual marriage as the ultimate goal seems like a sadly missed opportunity for Chambers to comment on how hard it must have been to live as anything other than heterosexual in this time period, or to acknowledge that marriage to a man is not the be-all and end-all for every woman. As I mentioned above, there is so much potential for reflection and commentary in this book, and yet, in my opinion at least, Chambers has chosen to smile and wave as all of those moments pass unacknowledged right underneath Jean’s nose.

However, many readers seem less perturbed about Jean’s behavior than I have been, and a few fumbled handlings and missed opportunities that seem mostly well-intentioned if a bit tone-deaf are hardly reason to advise avoiding this book like the plague. It is a decent read, if Jean manages not to alienate you. But there’s one more issue with this book that’s been generating some discussion: that ending.

Like many others, I disliked the abrupt left turn in the book’s conclusion. While it turns us toward an interesting topic/event, it just isn’t presented in a way that allows it to mesh with the rest of the book. Though this last big event is actually revealed somewhat sneakily earlier on, the book ends with an ominous, open-ended chapter and then requires an afterword longer than the coverage of this event in the novel to explain what has happened and why Chambers has included it. Even this explanation is not enough to convince me that this ending belongs here; it feels grafted onto a completely unrelated story, and without some stronger sense of unity between the two major parts at play, they only detract from each other, leaving the reader to wonder what the intended takeaway is. Should we be left ruminating on the virgin birth mystery that we’ve spent 300+ pages with, or is this other event that got hardly a mention but railroaded over the rest of the plot actually the larger focus? Furthermore, this ending leaves almost all of the main characters’ fates hanging unsatisfactorily. For these reasons, even while I like the idea of this ending, I wish it had been presented differently or omitted.

“She wondered how many years- if ever- it would be before the monster of awakened longing was subdued and she could return to placid acceptance of a limited life. The journey into love was so effortless and graceful; the journey out such a long and laboured climb.”

CW: rape (off page), infidelity, death (implied), abortion leading to medical complications

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There are some cozy mystery vibes here and a solid attempt at a unique and compelling heroine, so I can see why others are having better experiences with this book, but it was all around Not For Me. Personally I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to pick this one up if you’re picking and choosing from the shortlist, and it’s the only longlisted Women’s Prize book I’ve read so far this year that I actively don’t want to see make the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

a modern love triangle

Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Women’s Prize progress: 5/16 (though not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, Ava has moved from Dublin to Hong Kong post-university, and is teaching English as a foreign language to local children while she tries to sort out what to do with her life. At a bar she meets Julian, a British investment banker, who likes keeping her around even though he insists she is not his girlfriend. They use each other, and Ava continues living in his apartment while he takes a months-long work trip to London. In his absence, she meets someone else, a Chinese lawyer named Edith, a woman who wants a real relationship and is kind to Ava. But Ava is living in Julian’s apartment and part of her feels the toxic relationship she has with him is what she deserves. Of course, he won’t be away forever, so she won’t be able to hide them from each other for long.

“I told myself: This is why you’re single. This is how you can be having sex with two people, tell neither about the other, be living with one of them, and still be single.”

While Exciting Times focuses on two (very different) romances, it is much more of a literary character study than a romance novel. Ava’s relationships with Julian and Edith represent two sides of herself at a moment when her life is at a crossroads. Her TEFL job is temporary, and she’s landed in Hong Kong not because she has any personal connection to it but rather out of a strong desire to leave Dublin, where she’d felt the need to hide her bisexuality. And despite how easy it may sound to choose the loving relationship over the toxic one, part of Dolan’s brilliance here is showcasing how complex it can be for someone to choose something that might ultimately be good for them- Ava enjoys the detached banter she and Julian have perfected to an art form, feels like she understands him, and, for all his rich male flaws, Julian is easier to talk to her mother about, whereas she’s wary of how her Irish Catholic family would react to being told about her girlfriend.

The book is divided into three sections. The first follows Ava’s developing relationship with Julian, showing the reader how they met, why they seem to tolerate and loathe each other simultaneously, and how Ava comes to be living full time in the guest room of his apartment. The next section takes place while Julian is away on business, focusing on Ava’s budding romance with Edith from those awkward early days of obsessing over the meaning of every little thing she does to how Ava balances this new relationship with her already-established tie to Julian, and how even a good thing can make one feel boxed in and afraid. Finally, in the last section, the inevitable conflict sparked by Julian’s return arises and Ava must face up to the mess she’s made of juggling them both, and decide which path forward she should take.

“At least Julian was honest. He’d never experienced anything but permission, I hated him for it, but all the same I was glad he knew he had it. Most men with permission never realized.”

“Edith was calm about things she couldn’t change. Her firm was full or horrible men and she had to be nice to them. You did in every job, and at least hers paid well.”

Though each section has its own merits, Exciting Times‘s greatest fault may be that it tries to present each portion of the book as though it bears equal weight. While each of the three sections is necessary to advancing Ava’s predicament, the segments looking at Ava’s individual relationships with Julian and Edith feel introductory, and introductory chapters have no business taking up two thirds of a book. The final segment of the novel that brings the three main characters all into the same space at last and pits Edith and Julian against each other is by far the most interesting, though it’s slightly shorter than either of the two earlier segments. The friction between Ava and Julian helps move the first part of the book along, though I didn’t need as many pages as were provided to get the gist of their dynamic, and Ava’s comparatively healthy relationship with Edith in the middle of the book, the longest segment, is so devoid of conflict and surprise that it borders on downright boring. The only tension in this portion of the book is the looming awareness that Ava is lying to both Julian and Edith about what’s going on and will have to face the consequences in the near future- I spent most of these pages just waiting for the expected drama of the final piece.

But despite finding the novel unbalanced, it was overall a fantastic read. Though Ava’s life is nothing like mine, though she can be contrary and cold, I found Ava’s narration surprisingly relatable. Don’t we all feel the urge to self-sabotage sometimes, and get in our own way? I found it easy to sympathize with Ava for getting into a relationship with someone she knew was bad for her, and just as easily understood the craze of finding someone who excites you, stalking their social media (but being careful not to like anything, especially not anything old) and then pretending indifference in front of them so as not to give yourself away. And it’s not only the romances that felt fitting here: Ava is a modern young-twenties woman concerned with feminism, the pitfalls of capitalism, the worsening climate crisis, etc.; she toggles between presenting these views outwardly as part of her identity and realizing inwardly that actually she might be bad at acting out her ideals. And she’s got that familiar 21st century internet-era malaise:

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

Throughout the book, the reader also takes a pleasant dive into Ava’s TEFL classes, which prompt her to consider the differences between the English she learned growing up in Ireland, “proper” British English, and the the students’ Hong Kong English, small grammar tics she’s supposed to correct lest they give these children away as non-native speakers. There are English language sounds that she can’t make with her Irish accent and formal grammar rules she’s required to teach that go against what she’s learned as a native speaker. It’s an exploration of language that digs into class, privilege, and communicability in a way I found immensely appealing. Though Ava’s teaching work is more or less routine and has little bearing on the more prominent love triangle plot, the commentary around her language usage does provide further insight into Ava’s societal views and how she relates to (or doesn’t) the people and cultures around her.

And perhaps best of all, this entangled romance is probably the most convincing case for polyamory I’ve ever read, though ultimately it won’t work here. The three main characters make an odd trio and it’s not an entirely healthy relationship for anyone while Ava is seeing both Julian and Edith, but these two relationships fulfill different needs for her such that it’s hard not to imagine a world where she might manage to balance them both. I absolutely loved the excitement and tension of seeing the three of them trying to function together (brief though that portion of the novel is), and found myself frustrated when Ava is eventually forced to make a choice due to logistics and the preferences of her partners.

But this is more of a story about our messy, modern way of connecting to others than about right and wrong, so even when I disliked these characters or their actions I found them believable and had great fun following along.

CW: toxic relationship

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had been wanting to read this book for months and was glad the Women’s Prize nomination gave me that extra nudge to finally pick it up. Though it wasn’t always a smooth read, I thought it encapsulated a bit of the messy drama of exploring one’s social identity, and explored character dynamics in a memorable way. I’d be happy to see this one advance to the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

long live disaster women

Review: Luster by Raven Leilani

Women’s Prize longlist progress: 4/16 (I am not planning to read all 16 longlisted titles this year but am not sure yet how many I will read.)

Book Cover

In this novel, Edie is a young artist working for a publishing company that won’t put her in the art department. In return, Edie refuses to be the Black hire who works twice as hard and sucks up to her colleagues as though to apologize that she isn’t as white as the rest of them. But anyone could do her job, and Eidie knows it’s only a matter of time before the new Black girl, who is willing to play by white rules, gets her spot. And who can Edie turn to when the going gets rough? The guy she’s seeing is an older white man in an open marriage, and while even Edie knows this is a bad idea she can’t resist. Luckily his wife is willing to hold out a helping hand- such as it is- in Edie’s hour of need, in exchange for Edie’s guidance with the white couple’s Black daughter.

” ‘You noticed our daughter. When you came to the house,’ she finally says, and in this moment it becomes clear to me that despite this evening-long conspiracy, she is moving toward her most natural conclusion, which is to engage me not as a person who has just watched her dissect a man but as a person who is black, and who is, because of that, available for her support.”

I’ve been struggling with this review, because I did not enjoy the read nearly as much as I expected even though on paper Luster is pretty much perfect for my reading taste. It’s one of those messy/disaster woman books in which a young millennial seems to be deliberately tanking her life; in this case, Edie is sleeping around with everyone at the office who catches her eye, putting no effort into staying ahead of the new hire who’s clearly working her way up the office hierarchy. And then there’s Eric, the white guy whose biggest attraction seems to be that he’s significantly older than Edie. She knows he won’t be leaving his wife, and his relationship with Edie is selfish and unhealthy, but maybe Edie is looking to be used. On top of all this are the rejections of her art, the rent increase she can’t afford, the end of her health insurance coverage, a series of increasingly ill-fitting job interviews, and lingering grief over the death of her mother. Edie is down on her luck, a bit lost on her journey of self-discovery, and all she wants is to make bad decisions like the rest of us and scrape by until she stumbles upon something better. Why shouldn’t she have that?

I never tire of this sort of book, and the fact that Leilani is offering a captivating Black protagonist amid a predominantly white category of literature is appealing in itself. Many disaster women books by nature engage in a feminist commentary that challenges the societal expectations regularly placed upon women and the harsh consequences of failing to live up to that model standard; Leilani takes this commentary a step farther by reminding the reader of how much higher that bar of expectation is for women of color, and how any period of complacency- even one justifiably fueled by grief and job frustration- can tear everything she’s built down in a moment and leave her with barely a foothold for finding a next step. It’s a timely and important theme, and for me at least, always a pleasure seeing women be women, in all their flawed complexity.

In addition, Leilani is simply an incredible writer. Her prose is perceptive and bold, making skillful and relatable connections between the tangible, modern world and Edie’s emotions. Even though my circumstances are nothing like any of these characters’, I marked so many lines that reflected a true feeling I’d had and never known how to articulate, which is exactly the sort of sharp, intellectual narration that impresses me most.

“It’s not that I want exactly this, to have a husband or home security system that, for the length of our marriage, never goes off. It’s that there are gray, anonymous hours like this. Hours when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void.”

And yet, for all of these positives, Luster focuses so heavily on its main character and themes that I found the overall story to be missing a necessary hook. Surprisingly for a book just over 200 pages, I set Luster down so many times and always had to talk myself into picking it back up. I think the reasons for this are twofold:

First, there’s so little plot to this novel. Such is the case with many character studies, and in Edie’s case in particular I think it’s fair to say that the whole point of the book is the derailment of Edie’s life. She doesn’t know what to do next or how to go about it, so of course her narration wanders uncertainly from one encounter to the next, just waiting for something to happen to give her a sense of direction again. She spends the entire novel trying to rediscover who she is as a person and as an artist. It makes sense , and yet the meandering story line can make for a challenging investment.

“I wake up in the morning and think for a moment that I am someone happier and then I remember where I am.”

Another disappointment for me was Edie’s relationship with Rebecca, Eric’s wife, and this disappointment stems largely from having read too many reviews before picking up this book myself, I think. I knew based on others’ reactions not to expect much from Eric- and indeed, he’s more interesting for the role he plays in Edie’s life than as a character in his own right. He really is just another white guy who doesn’t have much going for him beyond the privilege he’s lived with for so long. In contrast, may reviewers seem to have liked the relationships that develop between Edie and Eric’s wife and daughter. The daughter is a pre-teen, and her relationship with Edie is a bit rocky as the two are thrown together with little more than skin color as a commonality. Even as they eventually grow closer, this is clearly an adult/minor relationship in which Edie cannot voice her woes, and thus I was looking to Rebecca as someone I hoped would be a little closer to a friend for her, a peer.

Many other readers have called Edie and Rebecca’s relationship a friendship, but unfortunately I never saw it as such. Instead, even while they occasionally do nice things for each other, I saw them more as rivals circling each other out of curiosity and a need for validation. It is always an unbalanced relationship in which Rebecca has the upper hand and does not hesitate to exercise the power of that position. Even offering Edie a place to stay at a time when Edie is considering the legality of sleeping in her rental storage unit seems to be a way for Rebecca to show Edie what she, Edie, doesn’t have with Eric, and what Rebecca does. Their actions around each other feel like a performance- even scenes when the two seem to be comfortably spending time alone together feel like a demonstration of tolerance, just two people proving their humanity to each other in resistance of the natural rivalry they feel. It strikes me as no healthier than Eric’s affair with Edie. And while it may seem unfair to criticize Luster for failing to present something it never promised to, something that I only latched on to from others’ (equally valid) impressions, I think one positive relationship in this story might have been enough to draw me back into the plotless wallowing. If not Rebecca, then someone else. I needed something to hold on to while Edie was stumbling around, waist-deep in injustice and negativity. Unfortunately, Luster didn’t deliver that.

“If I’m honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence.”

Nevertheless, with its examinations of race, grief, artistry, capitalism, and modern relationships, this is absolutely a worthwhile addition to the disaster women category (long may it reign) and to the Women’s Prize longlist this year. It’s a strong debut that’s leaving me eager to pick up whatever Leilani will write next.

CWs: racism, police brutality, miscarriage, death of pet (mentioned with the implication that someone has harmed it, but this is not detailed explicitly), physical abuse, grief (relating to death of a parent)

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t particularly expect to see Luster on the WP shortlist in a couple of weeks, but I’m glad to have read it and to see so many others doing the same. Leilani is certainly an author to watch.

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast

4.10.21

Hello! It’s been a weird two weeks; I ended up taking a break from reading and blogging that I hadn’t really been intending but nevertheless found very helpful. For those waiting on an update, sorry for the delay and thanks for being patient with me; my family members are all doing pretty well and I am feeling much better. I am being kinder to myself though about letting things take the amount of time I need for them rather than trying to push through to keep to a schedule, so my presence here may still be somewhat sporadic for the next few weeks as I (hopefully) continue to improve.

But on the plus side, after struggling for a few weeks with my second bout of Covid in March and into April, I think this turn of events has actually helped clear out some of the lingering symptoms I’ve been unable to shake for the last year. I am feeling physically better this week than I have felt since pre-pandemic days, have gotten back into reading and writing, and have been taking long walks and appreciating my health. The good thing about having felt slightly under the weather for a long time is that on my best days now I feel absolutely gleeful about just feeling “normal;” I don’t think I’ll ever again take for granted just waking up and feeling like myself. Even though my fatigue and brain fog have been mild compared to most accounts of them that I’ve seen, I just haven’t felt fully present since I had Covid last spring, and getting a more complete recovery this time is pretty exciting in the wake of all that. Also exciting- this past week my state finally made me eligible for the vaccine! I called the first day the call center was open, and even though it took seven tries to get through I did in the end get an appointment for both doses, the first of which will be coming up this week. Yay! Unfortunately my family seems to have taken their recent illness as further reason not to get vaccinated, but I’m trying to make peace with the fact that there’s only so much I can do.

Since I missed last week’s update in order to rest and recharge and care for my family, I have two weeks of photos to share today from The 365. I’m so grateful that the weather is finally nice enough to be spending time outdoors, so most of these photos are from walks I’ve taken since my last post. Sorry they’re so gray, but even though it has been warmer out my walks seem have doubled as a game of chicken with perpetual rain clouds. Luckily, I only got wet once, and it was a drizzle rather than a soak.

In addition, two weeks means two Cats of the Week. First up is Shrill (first cat photo, closed eyes) who is two years old and aptly named for his voice, his one fault. Otherwise, he’s such a dainty snuggly boi and will sample every available lap to find the best sleeping spot. It is an honor to be chosen. Next (second cat photo, eyes open) is Robin, ten months old and named after Batman’s Robin because he’s such a little sidekick. Whatever you’re doing, he’ll be right there to “help.” (This is sounding uncharitable toward the original character, but cat Robin definitely has a knack for getting his nose in the way.)

In my absence last week I also missed sharing my March reading stats, so I’ll add a few here. I’m sure no one will be surprised to hear that March was a low point for me reading-wise. According to Storygraph, I read nearly 2,000 pages, but actually I keep my own record of pages read day to day and my bullet journal shows closer to 1,200 pages for March. The difference, I think, is A Court of Silver Flames, which I read the bulk of at the end of February but finished in early March, so Storygraph counted those 700+ pages toward March even though I didn’t. Interesting to note, I think, but I’m sure by the end of the year those month-to-month fluctuations should even out. Now that I’m doing weekly reading updates instead of monthly wrap-ups, I no longer feel like I have to finish whatever I’m reading on the last day of the month and start a new book on the 1st to keep things neat, but I do always start as fresh as possible on Jan 1st.

And honestly, maybe I would’ve read more throughout March if, while ill, I hadn’t been trudging through such *checks notes* dark, mysterious, challenging, and emotional reads. Lol.

It was necessary to make one particular adjustment to my reading in March, though: no nonfiction. I started one but just didn’t have the brain power to keep it up.

Unfortunately, my ratings took a hit last month, as well. While I only actively disliked one of the books I read, I had no 5-star reads and struggled with a couple of books that definitely suffered for how unusually long it took me to finish them. And while I would say a 3-star rating is still good, it’s not… inspiring. It’s not a rating I tend to aim for, and thus always feels slightly disappointing even if I would still recommend those books to the right reader, so seeing 2 and 3s make up more than half of my reading shows a lack of excitement for me, even if most of my reading wasn’t particularly “bad.”

Here’s what I finished reading in March:

  • A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas – 2 stars.
  • The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, translated by Diane Oatley – 3 stars.
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – 4 stars.
  • The Butchers’ Blessing by Ruth Gilligan – 4 stars. (review pending)
  • Luster by Raven Leilani – 3 stars. (review pending)

April has also been off to a slow start for reading but I am picking up speed and gaining optimism. I’m behind on my reading goal for the year, but not too concerned about it at this point. I’m more frustrated that the shortlist date for the Women’s Prize is fast approaching (April 28th) and I’m lagging behind in reading and reviews for that, but it is what it is.

Here’s how my April reading has been going so far:

  • Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan – 4 stars. I really liked this Women’s Prize longlister. Dolan’s prose is incredible, the messy MC shockingly relatable, and the complex three-way relationship tense and fun. Full thoughts coming soon (hopefully), but I’ll say for now that the book is divided into three sections, one of which worked much better for me than the others, my only real complaint here.
  • Made in China by Amelia Pang – ongoing. I’m mentioning this nonfiction read about forced labor in China related to US’s imported goods just to keep it on the record, even though I’ve hardly touched it in the last two weeks. I am looking forward to getting back to this soon.
  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – ongoing. Another Women’s Prize longlist read, though I’m less enthusiastic about this one. I’m about halfway through and so far it’s just… fine? I’m discovering that stories set in the 50s just do not really work for me. It was a bad time for women. The plot is slow-going in this one but in its favor it’s undeniably easy to read, which is what I needed this week.

As for posts, I haven’t shared a review in weeks and can’t guarantee exactly when they’ll start cropping up again. I have been working on my Luster review and have notes started for my other pending reviews because I forget things too quickly not to jot down some immediate starting points. Hopefully I’ll get something finished this week and fall back into the groove of it. I am also very behind in blog hopping, and I feel bad posting new stuff without looking at anyone else’s so that’s a priority as I catch back up here.

That’s all for me for now, I think. Drop your current Women’s Prize thoughts below if you’ve been reading any of the longlisted titles- I am eager to jump back in and see where everyone’s at!

The Literary Elephant

into the labyrinth

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Women’s Prize Longlist 2021 Progress: 3/16

Piranesi

In this novel, a man called Piranesi (though this is not his name) lives in a labyrinthine House that consists entirely of elaborate classical Halls that are filled with Statues and washed by the Sea. For Piranesi, this is the entire World. He keeps an extensive Journal, recording both scientific observations and any notable occurrences or day to day thoughts. Through these entries, we learn about his movements through the Halls and his immense Knowledge of them, as well as the Events that begin to unravel his understanding of this World and his place in it.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

This is a difficult book to talk about, because despite everything I’d like to say, the less you know going in the better. And yet, how do you know if you want to go in unless you have some idea of what the book’s about?

There is a fantasy/sci-fi aspect to Piranesi, which probably narrows the field of readership a bit, but I’d argue that the otherworldly details are more of an intriguing background that won’t necessarily make or break the experience, while the deeper theme of coping with trauma and the driving forces of logic and mystery will more likely be the determining factors for reader appreciation.

At it’s core, Piranesi is a puzzle of a novel; it is a book for those who love inventive (though still very accessible!) structuring and clues. A great fan of mysteries and puzzles myself, I wholeheartedly loved the slow unveiling of subtle hints. Everything we learn about this World opens a door to further questions, many of which are answered through Piranesi’s observations and exchanges with the Other in ways that Piranesi himself does not seem to grasp. The Other is the only other living Person that Piranesi typically interacts with in the House. For a time, the Other and various features of the House itself are the only things Piranesi comes into contact with to provide context of what he is like outside of his own Head.

Because we are learning about our MC through his Journal, it is a very internal story in some ways; luckily Piranesi shares dialogue, movements, and entire thought processes- he places great weight on data, logic, and records. But the reader can learn as much about Piranesi’s circumstances by looking beneath the surface of the stated to note what is and isn’t important to him in these recordings: aided by his tendency to capitalize every significant noun, and his avoidance of certain seemingly obvious questions (if Piranesi meets with the Other twice a week in one specific Room, knows the Other doesn’t venture further into the House, and never sees him in the central Rooms outside of that appointed meeting hour, where does the Other go?).

The downside to this narrative approach is that it is immediately clear that Piranesi’s World is not our world; there is an imbalance of knowledge between character and reader. Thus, certain revelations about Piranesi’s past and present circumstances come as monumental shocks to him when the curious reader has already been able to guess the truth, somewhat lessening the impact of big reveals after all the careful clue-dropping has worked it’s magic. However, the gradual realization that Piranesi’s ignorance is in large part a coping mechanism makes it easy to forgive the novel for occasionally making clear the same point twice. Piranesi’s thoughts, actions, and narrative style are so directly linked and speak so well toward the ways in which a person might react to trauma that it’s hard to ignore the brilliance at work here even when things feel a little too spelled out.

But I’m brushing up against spoiler territory and don’t want to get too close, so let’s turn away from the mystery now and look toward the fantasy/sci-fi element: Piranesi’s World. I want to call it fantasy, because that’s generally what you do with an entire world that is an unending House throughout which Tides and Statues are abundant. It’s an extraordinary place. Beautiful, but also brutal, in a potentially deadly way that makes one respect it all the more. Some of the Halls are derelict, some Tides violent, and classical architecture is not much protection against the elements of the Seasons.

“There is a thing that I know but always forget: Winter is hard. The cold goes on and on and it is only with difficulty and effort that a person keeps himself warm. Every year, as Winter approaches, I congratulate myself on having a plentiful supply of dry seaweed to use as fuel, but as the days, weeks and months stretch out I become less certain that I have sufficient. I wear as many of the clothes as I can cram onto my body. Every Friday I take stock of my fuel and I calculate how much I can permit Myself each day in order to make it last until Spring.”

But this World and… how it works, for want of a better phrase… functions scientifically and logically within the novel, so calling it sci-fi or speculative is just as valid a choice. Classification is up to the reader, really. Whatever you want to call it, this World is lovingly rendered and evocative in such a way that it makes Piranesi a delight to read even when the themes turn dark or the mystery feels too obvious. If you’re looking for escapism, what better than a labyrinth built right on the sea?

If it hasn’t been clear, the only thing that would have improved this read for me further would’ve been a bit more surprise in watching the mystery unfold, but timing with solving the mystery will probably vary reader to reader and in any case there is enough else here to appreciate in depth and detail to make this novel worth recommending. I suspect it will be a polarizing read, but I hope more readers will take a chance on it. I think this is the sort of fantasy/sci-fi that could appeal to readers who don’t normally reach for those genres, because the science isn’t too technical and this world does not involve any supernatural creatures or spells. It’s ambiguous enough that the otherworldly element could be explained away by an alternative explanation, if one really doesn’t like magic as an answer. The mystery is layered and intelligent, but the gaps in Piranesi’s knowledge make it a fair choice even for readers who won’t want to do the heavy lifting of sifting through his clues before Piranesi understands what has happened. You can engage as much or as little as you like- the House has something to offer for all.

CWs: kidnapping, imprisonment, gaslighting, gun violence, death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. A very strong 4- I loved reading this. Unfortunately it’s too early to say whether I would predict or want this book to advance to the Women’s Prize shortlist, but barring the possibility that there might end up being 6 other longlisters I’m even more attached to, I can safely say I wouldn’t be disappointed to see this one stay in the running!

The Literary Elephant

life without bees

…would be bleak, if Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees (translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley) is any indication!

In this novel, an English man in 1852 throws himself into inventing a revolutionary hive for beekeepers, hoping his work will bring fame and fortune to the family he’s struggling to provide for. On another timeline, an American man in 2007 tends to the bee farm that’s been in his family for generations, though his wife would prefer to sell and their son would rather pursue journalism than take up the mantle. Finally, a Chinese woman in 2098 works long hours pollinating fruit trees by hand; she and her husband barely make enough money to keep themselves and their small son fed in a world devastated by food shortages, in the wake of mass bee extinction.

The three threads are linked, on one side a bit more directly than the other; the narration weaves back and forth between each of the main timelines, drawing parallels between the three parents who are all in their own way trying to guide their children into a life of stability. However, the adults all seem to be afflicted by the same parental blindness, believing that what’s best for their sons is to keep them close behind on the paths the parents themselves have forged, using the lessons learned from past mistakes and lost opportunities to show the children how to succeed where others- perhaps even themselves- have failed. Of course, the children have their own dreams and ideas about what’s best for them and nothing goes quite as planned.

“It was as if I’d created a bond between my own childhood and his, between us and the world, between the world and the universe.”

This is actually the part of the novel that worked the least well for me; as someone who has only ever been the child in the “parent knows best” tug of war, I was not especially inclined to feel sympathetic toward the parent narrators trying to reshape their sons’ futures, good as their intentions may have been. The trajectories of these relationships feel drawn out and obvious. I would much rather have seen these three characters more clearly as individuals, with the focus primarily on their bee-related passion projects, than so preoccupied with their familial relationships. Of course parents are often preoccupied with trying to care for their children, but that can be true without also redirecting the entire novel (though perhaps parents who can relate to worrying about their children in this way may find the family focus a more appealing aspect altogether than I did). Giving the reader more than one generation to invest in along each timeline does help bridge the gaps between the centuries covered here, but I think The History of Bees would have stood firm (perhaps even firmer) without losing focus on the relationship between humans and bees over time to a very repetitive sort of family drama replaying itself over and over again.

What interested me most here was, by far, the bees. This is a fiction book, not a source of scientific authority, but there are some fascinating asides detailing how bee colonies function, some of the labor involved in beekeeping, general bee habits, and population changes across a span of decades. I did not know, for instance, but have looked up on my own to confirm, that bee farmers rent their bees to fruit farmers for pollination purpose; apparently apiarists really do pack their hives up on trucks and tour them around to make a little money aiding fruit production. I was also unaware of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which seemingly healthy colonies suddenly abandon their homes and disappear in large numbers, for unknown reasons. I loved seeing how a beekeeper might feel about these parts of the job, how they could affect the work both logistically and emotionally.

“In 1988 the number of hives had been halved. Bee death had afflicted many places, in Sichuan as early as in the 1980s. But only when it struck in the US- and as dramatically as it did precisely in 2006 and 2007, farmers with several thousand hives suffered mass disappearances in the course of a few weeks- only then did The Collapse receive a name. Perhaps because it happened in the US, nothing was really important at that time until it happened in the US: mass death in China didn’t merit a worldwide diagnosis. That’s how it was back then.”

The economic Collapse that occurs in this novel in conjunction with the dying out of the bees is futuristic and built upon speculation, but Lunde’s proposed science provides intriguing food for thought and feels plausible enough. This part of the book, the explanation of Lunde’s dystopia and the weaving together of the three narrative threads, was another strong suit for me. Unfortunately this comes very late in the novel; despite the shortness of the chapters and frequent switches between characters to keep the plot from stagnating at any point, I found the majority of the read to be dull and dry, my time with the book mainly spent waiting for those impending connections as the characters walked slowly into fates that are all too obvious, sometimes even to the characters themselves:

“Perhaps I had known it all along, but couldn’t bear to take it in, because it was too big, too important.”

Ultimately, I do appreciate how all of the pieces of this plot fit together, as well as the environmental themes I’m left with. It’s simply much more pleasing to consider this novel in concept after the fact than it was to read through, and I’m not sure that I have any good ideas about what might have improved it for me. Perhaps if the whole thing had been presented as a heavily bee-detailed dystopian with more expansion on the futuristic timeline given up front, and the historical portions left as more of a footnote? The characters from the past do have their place here, but those old family squabbles carry very little of the book’s weight.

A final nagging complaint: either Lunde or Oatley seems to have had a penchant for placing commas between full sentences, where periods, dashes, semicolons, or just about any other stylistic choice would have made a better fit. I take no issue with the prose itself, but the comma usage gave the whole narrative an awkward flow I could never quite get past.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I finally read this one, even if I didn’t find it quite as scintillating as I’d hoped. And I’m leaving this experience more interested in learning about bees and how necessary they are to human life than I was when I began, so I’ll chalk this up as a win. Further bee-related recommendations (of any genre) are welcome!

The Literary Elephant