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Wrap-Up 10.19

I’m not back to regular blogging yet (I’ve got about two more really busy weeks coming up, and hope to catch up with posts later this month), but I had this one mostly drafted in advance and wanted to get it up before it seemed irrelevant. I read mostly spooky/gothic/horror books in October, and it turned out to be probably my best reading month of the entire year so far in terms of enjoyment, which seems like a sign that I should read these genres more frequently year-round!

Here’s what I read in October:

  1. Dark Age by Pierce Brown. darkage4 stars. I actually read most of this in September, but finally finished it at the start of this month. It’s a 700+ page 5th book in a series that I enjoyed, but perhaps not as much as I expected to or as much as I’ve previously enjoyed other books in this series. In my review, I talk more broadly (no spoilers) about the Red Rising series as a whole, so feel free to check that out if you’re at all interested in the series, no matter how many of the books you’ve read (or not read) so far!
  2. In the Tall Grass by Stephen King and Joe Hill. 4 stars. I read this short, supernatural horror story just as the Netflix adaptation was being released, and thoroughly enjoyed both mediums. My review covers both!
  3. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedead4 stars. This is a translated literary fiction novel about a “crazy” old woman in a remote Polish village who loves animals more than people. Though the mystery wasn’t the most compelling aspect for me, I still found the story delightfully macabre and perfect for October, and the narrator’s voice is so compelling that I imagine it would be great to pick up at any time of the year.
  4. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore. aspellofwinter4 stars. Despite the title, this was another excellent October read (though of course it would be great in winter as well), with a wonderful gothic tone running through most of this incredibly tragic historical fiction tale. I’m a bit more cautious about recommending this one because there are some major trigger warnings that come with this title, but I did find it a worthy first Women’s Prize winner and really enjoyed the experience even though it was so sad!
  5. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann.ducks,newburyport 5 stars. This Booker shortlisted novel missed the win, but fully deserves more attention. It’s a thousand-page book mostly told in one single run-on sentence, but it’s been one of my favorite reads of the year without question. My review ran a bit long but I’m pleased with how it turned out (which doesn’t happen so very often), so if you’re at all curious about this literary novel on motherhood and violence in Trump’s America, please do check out my review for more info!
  6. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. wehavealwayslivedinthecastle5 stars. A classic horror story here, and another duo review with some thoughts on the recent film included alongside the novel as well. This was creepy and so bizarre, and exceptionally well-written; a perfect fit for my reading taste and one I highly recommend for anyone looking for some fairy-tale-esque psychological horror.
  7. Wilder Girls by Rory Power. 3 stars. This is a recent YA release set in a dystopian near-future, on a secluded island housing a girls’ school. There’s a cli-fi element to this one, as well as plenty of body horror, but the mystery aspect was what kept me most interested. (Quite a genre-bender, this one!) I had some issues with characterization and the way that Power explained things, but overall found this a quick, fun read. Full review pending.
  8. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. thesilentcompanions5 stars. Here we have a gothic, historical horror. By the time I picked this one up I had forgotten everything about its synopsis, which made it quite a delightful surprise. I adored Purcell’s writing from the start, found all of the characters/perspectives compelling (even when I didn’t necessarily like or agree with the character), and loved the balance of psychological/fantastical in the horror element. Full review pending.
  9. Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin. 4 stars. This was the first story I picked up from the new additions to the Faber Stories collection, and is actually a little volume of two short stories. Both deal with motherhood (though neither from the mother’s perspective, interestingly) and hauntings; they are simple and straightforward enough that they failed to really surprise me, but both are competent literary works that address an interesting point of view, and they pair nicely. Full review pending, to appear in my next batch of Faber Stories mini reviews.

wrapup10.19

I was hoping to get to a few more spooky titles, but Ducks took longer to read than planned and I couldn’t begrudge it for the extra time- it was so nice to give it my complete attention and just luxuriate in its brilliance rather than trying to finish on a schedule. That meant that I wasn’t finished with it before the winner(s) announcement for the Booker Prize (you can find my thoughts on that here), but I didn’t mind. And, since I enjoyed the spooks I did read so much this month (three 5-star reads! and almost everything else was a 4-star! I didn’t dislike anything!), I don’t mind having some horror stories left for other months. I’m still currently reading my Halloween book, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, the third book in the Hannibal Lecter series that I’ve been reading at the rate of one book per Halloween; additionally, I’m currently reading Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, a short nonfiction essay piece that works as a companion to Lost Children Archive. Reviews for both of these will be coming up as well. (If you’re wondering how I’m still finding time to read and not blog, the answer is that I have some down time at work without good internet access. Fitting in some reading has been a lifesaver in the midst of my current crazy work schedule!

 

Some stats:

Average rating – 4.2 (a 2019 record high!)

Best of month – Ducks, Newburyport

Worst of month – Wilder Girls, but even my “worst” was pretty enjoyable this month, and naming it here is more a result of not quite jiving with the writing style than thinking it’s a bad book at all.

Books hauled 14, I think; I’ve got my October haul / November TBR partially drafted as, so maybe that will be up later this week or early next? (I feel bad posting anything when I don’t also have time to interact with all of my blogger friends and their posts, so we’ll see.)

Owned books read for the first time – 6. Not as many as I hauled (again. This is seriously getting to be a problem), but it does mean that 2/3 of the books I read this month were owned-unread books, which is a good proportion. And I expect November will be similar, as I haven’t had time to visit the library, either.

October TBR tally 1/8. I had a couple more of those 8 in my October-hopefuls stack that I didn’t end up getting to at the end of the month, but I knew going in that I was planning to focus more on reading horror than on reading whatever was new to me this month, so I’m not surprised this result is low. (In case you’re curious, here’s the link to my Sept. haul / Oct TBR.)

Year total – 104. I have officially surpassed my Goodreads challenge of 100 books for 2019! It feels like a good time of year for that- my goal wasn’t too easy or too hard to reach, but if I feel like pushing myself I can still try to beat last year’s total of 118 books for the year.

 

I haven’t had a chance to peruse any other wrap-ups yet, so if you feel like sharing, let me know what your favorite book from October was! (Spooky or non, of course!)

The Literary Elephant

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (novel and film)

I’ve enjoyed both The Haunting of Hill House and The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson in the past, but neither could have prepared me for quite how much I loved Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Immediately after finishing, I turned on the 2019 film adaptation, currently available on Netflix (US).

wehavealwayslivedinthecastleIn the novel, 18 year-old “Merricat” lives in Blackwood manor with her older sister, Constance, and their ailing uncle. The rest of the family perished in an event that further ostracized the remaining Blackwoods from the nearby villagers. Merricat is the only one of the three who still ventures into town, and does so as infrequently as possible to avoid the blatant rudeness and derision of the village folk. Isolation suits Merricat well, but Constance is easily charmed by an estranged cousin who appears unexpectedly and she begins to believe that she’s been a coward to lock herself inside the manor and tolerate her family’s eccentricities. Conflict divides what’s left of the family, which incites further tragedy.

” ‘I’ve been hiding here,’ Constance said slowly, as though she were not at all sure of the correct order of the words.”

This is a psychological horror story set in 1960s Vermont. It’s creepy and bizarre from start to finish, and disturbingly human. Though the eeriness comes mainly from the gothic tone, the woodsy, secluded setting, and the violent mob-mentality of the villagers, it’s the characterization that makes this story so utterly convincing. Constance’s unceasing optimism, Uncle Julian’s fixation on the family’s demise, Cousin Charles’s selfishness and obsession with money, Merricat’s whimsy and dark determination. Even though Constance stood accused of murder, the family remains close, expressing no regret or sentimentality over the lost family members or suspicion over those deaths. It’s haunting, and yet each of them are so clear that it’s impossible to dismiss them as mad fictions. (Don’t we all just want our bullies to leave us alone?)

With the focus so heavy on characters, there’s not much plot at the foreground, and what little there is is presented as a mystery. When the story opens, we know only that these sisters and their uncle have been alone in Blackwood manor for six years, and that the villagers have hated them all this time. Gradually, what has happened to the family is revealed, the how and why of it saved for later or left to vague hints. There’s plenty to ponder, and anyone who’s not willing to do the mental work of piecing the puzzle together is likely to find We Have Always Lived in the Castle a confusing bore. But whatever you make of it (there is a bit of ambiguity, even once the main mystery is solved), the themes of otherness and conversely, of unquestioning love, stand out at the forefront of this story.

“The people of the village have always hated us.”

All in all, it’s a disturbing delight to read, perfect for Halloween, and I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates a good psychological puzzle. Bonus points: it’s a quick little read, weighing in at less than 150 pages.

Image result for we have always lived in the castleIn the film, we see a very faithful adaptation that doesn’t contradict the novel in any major way. Some of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book, many of the scenes are the same, there is no difference in cast or characterization.

There are only a few small changes worth noting at all, the main one being that the ending is wrapped up a bit more quickly and definitively in the film, and the book’s biggest “twist” is saved for this final scene, whereas the novel introduces it a bit earlier and then slowly spins to a halt. The other point I want to compare is that the how and why of the first family tragedy is hinted at a bit more directly in the film; this new evidence follows the same direction of the assumptions I made based on the novel’s hints, but there’s less left to the audience’s imagination in the film. If you’re just looking for a quick, spooky diversion and don’t want to do the mental work of sorting out who did what and why, skipping straight to the film would be a great choice.

But, though it’s generally easier to watch a film than read a book, and this one does excellent service to its original text, Jackson’s writing in the novel really is exquisite and compulsively readable. It’s really not to be missed, if you’re a fan of classic horror!

” ‘It used to be a lovely old house, I hear,’ said the woman sitting on our grass. ‘I’ve heard that it was quite a local landmark at one time.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. For both formats. I was hooked within the first paragraph of the novel- nay, the first sentence- and loved every bit of it. The film grabbed my attention instantly as well; I adored its colors and the quality of the light, which, as a words person, isn’t usually something I even notice, but I did here. I can see how readers/watchers who like plotty stories might not get along with this one, but both formats were just a perfect fit for me.

Have you read or watched We Have Always Lived in the Castle? Plan to?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Ducks, Newburyport

Lucy Ellman‘s 1,030-page novel, Ducks, Newburyport, was my 9th read from the Booker longlist, and my 3rd from the shortlist. Sadly, Ducks was not one of this year’s two Booker Prize winners, but I think it’s an incredible book fully worth the read anyway, so with any luck I’ll be able to convince you with this review, despite the length! (Fair warning: this review is long too.)

ducks,newburyportIn the novel, an unnamed woman baking pies and living with her family in Ohio shares her thoughts in a continuous mental outpouring that covers the events of her life over a couple of months. As most people are, she’s both unique and ordinary, set apart by a string of distinct circumstances but also incredibly relatable in many of her observations and opinions. Through this woman, we see what it’s like to be a mother of four, in a second marriage, working from home, worrying about the state of the world and its future, and most importantly, just trying to survive in 2019 America.

“…the fact that I think a lot of people think all I think about is pie, when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelizing and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiraling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else, twinge, bad back,”

The greatest obstacle, I think, in encouraging readers to pick up this masterpiece of a novel, is its size, combined with it’s run-on sentence structure, so I’m going to focus on addressing those aspects.

Ducks, Newburyport contains two alternating parts: one of them is indeed a single run-on sentence that begins on page 2 and does not contain any periods or paragraph breaks until page 988 (the end of the story in my copy- there’s some extra material at the back including a glossary of abbreviations, which is very useful!!). There is a 30-page stretch in the middle of the book where the narrator’s thoughts become verse-like, but even this segment is contained within the same single sentence without a change in voice or tone. Instead of full stops, there are commas aplenty, and the phrase “the fact that” marks the start of a new thought. (This phrase acts like the word “STOP” in old telegrams to mark the end of one sentence and beginning of the next, and once this structure becomes clear, the repeated words themselves fade into the background.) The sentence as a whole, and many of the individual phrases, do not necessarily make grammatical sense, but the style doesn’t leave the reader stumbling over meaning. The effect- that an entire life presents as one unending thought process- is worth it. In this all-encompassing sentence we see: statements, questions, statistics, quotations, lyrics, acronyms, names, individual words, numbers, and more. There are some lengthy movie spoilers in this running commentary (mainly for musicals and black-and-white classics that you’ve probably either already seen or aren’t going to). Additionally, the Little House on the Prairie series is as close as this woman has to a religious text, so you’ll fare well if you have some prior knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder, though it’s not essential to be an expert going in. All told, this main sentence is a wide mix of almost every subject and emotion imaginable.

The other component of this novel is a third-person omniscient narrative of a mountain lioness’s adventures and tribulations. These sections are properly punctuated, interrupting the Ohio housewife’s inner chatter every 50 pages or so and lasting no more than 2 pages each. The two storylines eventually overlap in content, and in the meantime often overlap thematically with observations on motherhood, animal nature, human impact upon the environment, etc. I wasn’t expecting to, but ended up loving these segments as much as the human element.

“Through her own extreme caution, she conveyed to the cubs that men are more dangerous than they look. They killed with ease, and didn’t even eat their prey. They plundered, lay waste, then abruptly retreated to their cars. They were not the true inhabitants of the forest, they were usurpers, dangerous visitors who roughly invaded the territory of others. They did not respect lions.”

Between the mountain lioness breaks and the use of “the fact that,” it’s easy to put this book down and pick it back up again without feeling too in-the-midst, though the continuous nature of the stream-of-consciousness narration flows beautifully from one thought to the next. Some thoughts seem to do little in the way of characterization or moving the plot, reading more like free-association lists, but many of these “random” sets of words offer interesting juxtapositions that are a sort of commentary in themselves, and still other groupings seem meaningless at first but are later explained. The narrator’s thoughts circle back to the things that are most important to her, and with time and repetition we gain further insight. For this reason, I think this would be an excellent book to reread, as words and phrases that are at first innocuous pick up significance along the way. It’s a book of many layers. Ellmann spent 7 years assembling this marvelous creation, and it shows.

So what is it about, you’re probably wondering by this point. There is a plot, but it’s best not to know the specifics before they are slowly revealed over the course of the novel. Essentially, it’s a story of motherhood and violence in Trump’s America. This is a mom working to make ends meet, in hopes of being able to afford to send her kids to college when the time comes. Baking has become a rote activity, so she she spends her days worrying about what she sees in the news and wondering whether her own family is safe. Among her thoughts are disturbing headlines and details of American crimes and tragedies, often involving shootings and deaths. Some of these can be hard to read, especially when strung together, and her anxiety honestly gave me a bit of anxiety as well, which leads me to believe this might be a difficult read for anyone who avoids  grisly stories in the news or is actively worrying about their own children’s safety already. There are some real gut-punches here.

“…the fact that I pretend to be coping, like all the other moms do too, but I think we all live in terror that some school shooter will line our kids up one day and make them beg for their lives,”

The political content is certainly timely and engaging, but most of these opinion bits stand independent of the plot and chronology; the parts of the book that gripped me the most were the pages that included specific events that provided an anchor to the narrator’s weaving thoughts. This book is  ingenious for the way that it plays the long game- with such a surplus of detail, the biggest hints of what’s to come hide in plain sight; it’s fascinating on the surface, but you have to wonder if it’s going anywhere. (Let me assure you that it is.) In scenes that play a shorter game, the narration is more immediately focused, with a common thread grounding our narrator’s thoughts. For instance, there’s a scene where the family is stranded at the local mall during a flash flood, and though the narrator’s thoughts continue to wander, the disaster at hand gives her train of thought something to come back to and allows the reader to feel that the story really is moving in some particular direction.

“…the fact that America’s not a safe place for a girl, the fact that nobody’s safe in America,”

And now, let’s look directly at the book’s length. At the end of the day, I think Ellmann wrote Ducks, Newburyport as a thousand-page book because the idea of a book this long primarily featuring one housewife’s thoughts in a single meandering sentence is a highly intriguing one. It catches attention. It says women’s thoughts and experiences are important, even if the woman in question is a stay-at-home mom who bakes pie and rehashes her regrets and frets about the world without acting upon those worries. It’s absolutely stunning, conceptually. In actuality, I think Ellmann could’ve covered the same topics and themes to near or equal effect in about half the length. My biggest hang-up with this book is that it just doesn’t feel necessary for it to be quite this long, though I don’t think it ever could have succeeded as a short book- it does cover a lot of worthwhile ground, and the way it circles around its topics and doubles back at them hundreds of pages later (don’t worry- Ellmann makes sure you’ll remember what you need to) is a big part of what makes this so impressive. So even though I don’t think all 1,030 pages are strictly crucial to the overall story and purpose, somehow they work. I was never bored while reading. I never wished for fewer pages. So little is happening at some points, and yet I loved reading it every time I picked it up. It frustrates me that readers will avoid this book because of its length, when it could easily have been shorter.

Though there’s certainly a bit of fluff (a whole page of creek names that didn’t do anything for me, for example), so many of the words and phrases at play are clearly chosen with care. Ellmann can string two words together (for example, “ducks, Newburyport,”) that hold no meaning for the reader the first three times they appear; hundreds of pages later, we find out why they’re significant to this narrator, and their emotional significance to her then colors each context in which they appear. As many of our thought-tracks likely do, this narrator’s inner chatter is built of its own syntax. But despite the impression of impeccable literary construction, this book read like the most authentic stream of consciousness I’ve ever encountered.

Relatedly, I was able to forgive many of the small complaints I had about this narrator’s quirks because they felt like such organic offshoots of her personality. I didn’t always like reading about this woman’s nonsensical dreams, her constant remembrances of “Mommy,” her embarrassment every time the word “cock” crossed her mind, or her frequent self-corrections; but each of these annoyances felt like the little things that start to bother you when you’re living with someone new, for instance. No one’s perfect, and when you live with someone you get to know their small undesirable traits. Inhabiting this woman’s mind for 988 pages felt like that- nothing worth moving out over, but we’re bound to have our differences. And because I was able to rationalize most of my (very few) dislikes about Ducks, Newburyport in this way, they actually turned out to be additional reasons I thought Ellmann’s writing was effective; she absolutely brings this woman and all of her concerns to life- flaws included.

“…the fact that, personally, I think we underestimate dangers, the fact that we have to maybe, because it’s not practical to think about them all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, it’s just that fear gets in the way when you got stuff to do, when you’re living on the edge,”

In the end, I think the patience required for the length poses the greatest challenge here. The prose is readable and engrossing, the arguments and themes stand fairly obvious, and our narrator really feels like an everywoman, at least in her general attitude. I think readers will know early on whether the style of this novel is going to work for them or not, and if it is, and you have a reasonable amount of stamina, enjoyability and sheer momentum are likely to outweigh the challenge of sticking with it, in my opinion. If you appreciate literary fiction and are interested in the current mental state of America, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

“…the fact that you’ll never know what sort of person you might have been if you’d read different stuff,”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had such a fantastic time reading this novel that it’s turned out to be one of my highlights of the year. Obviously I’ve nitpicked a few things, but they felt like small potatoes compared to my appreciation of the work as a whole. I think this would’ve made an excellent Booker winner, but I haven’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, and am holding out hope that I’ll find that one worthy of the win when I pick it up soon as well. I’m also curious to try more of Ellmann’s work in the future.

Are you considering reading Ducks?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: A Spell of Winter

CW: rape, incest, parental abandonment, animal (horse) injury, death of loved ones, abortion

My journey through the Women’s Prize winners list continued this month with Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, my first Dunmore read and the very first novel to win the Women’s Prize (back when it was called the Orange Prize). I buddy read this one with some amazing bloggers, and suggest you check out their reviews as well! Here are the links for: Callum, Rachel, Naty, Sarah (review pending) and Hannah (review pending – I’ll update these links as reviews appear)!

aspellofwinterIn the novel, Cathy narrates the story of her upbringing in a remote part of England on the cusp of WWI. Her family is falling apart as fast as the manor they live in, leaving Cathy and her brother Rob to parse rumors and secrets for the truth of their missing parents. Raised by an emotionally distant grandfather with particular ideas for their futures and by overly-involved house staff, Cathy and Rob form a close bond- perhaps too close- that causes further emotional fracturing as the two finally reach adulthood and gain a wider sense of the world than they had ever known in the manor. It’s a tragic tale of the lasting effects one person’s actions can have on another, and of coming of age in a rapidly changing world.

“My grandfather had turned my parents into shadows, and, as far as I knew, everybody had agreed to it.”

Despite the word “winter” in the title, this is an excellent book to reach for at the height of spooky season (it would also be great for winter, of course). Much of the book has a very Gothic feel- it’s not a high-tension mystery or supernatural fright fest, so don’t enter this one expecting Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson. Though so many of the details are eerie and unusual, its a fairly straightforward story of one girl’s quest for adulthood. That said, the element that I enjoyed the most was the atmospheric Gothic touch that turns nearly everything from Cathy’s childhood slightly sinister.

” ‘A pity there hasn’t been a death in the family,’ said Kate. ‘With your skin you’d look like a queen in black.’ “

There’s some truly devastating content here, and I had to put the book down a few times to let my emotions catch up with me- usually I’m an embarrassingly cold reader and not particularly affected by fictional details, so this response is a standout; I was completely captivated by these characters and their situation. Cathy’s grandfather comes from no one and nothing, and is focused on building a home and legacy for the future generations of his family. Cathy’s mother doesn’t feel she fits in this dream and runs away- alone. Her father is so distraught that he’s eventually admitted to a sanatorium as a mental patient. Her brother is the only one who really understands what her life has been like, and keeps her close. Her governess takes pity on pretty, almost-orphaned Cathy and loves her nearly to the point of obsession. Kate, the young woman who attends to both children and the house’s upkeep (among other household staff), is dedicated to her duties but longs for a life of her own in which she’s entitled to more than a leaking attic bedroom. No one means Cathy ill, and their own motives are generally good and reasonable, but the girl is deeply hurt by all of them. Dunmore presents the reader with a masterpiece of characterization full of human intrigue and desperation, and this is the area in which she succeeds without question.

“I wonder sometimes, if it’s the people themselves who keep you company, or the idea of the them. The idea you have of them.”

I found myself less enthusiastic about the ending of the novel. Though the entire book was a very quick and engrossing read for me, there’s a definite shift in the last third or so of the novel when the war finally comes into play that made the structure of the book start to fall apart for me. To some degree, this might be down to no more than a pacing issue, but it led to a lot of confusion on my part of what this book was aiming to do. Is it a war story? I’m still not sure, though I think not. It’s hard to relegate such an important world event that clearly impacted these characters immensely to a mere chapter in their lives, but I do wonder whether the backdrop of this particular time period actually adds anything to the story. It certainly adds more tragedy to Cathy’s life, and the time period explains certain habits / ways of life at the manor, but I would argue that it doesn’t change Cathy’s relationships with any of the main characters, which in my opinion is the central focus of this story. Thus, I couldn’t quite appreciate the tonal shift.

I also thought the book’s ending chapter somewhat anticlimactic; the final scenes depict the first time Cathy is able to make reasonably informed decisions in her own interest, and seeing convictions from her younger years overturned is a victory in itself, but I found the ease with which she makes those choices and the apparent lack of conflict in following them through rather bizarre. It also seemed surprisingly emotionless after the string of heart-wrenching tragedies leading up to it. It wasn’t, for me, a satisfactory conclusion, though I felt the book a worthwhile read regardless, and enjoyed engaging with its themes.

“Abandoning, betraying, powerful, she had filled our dreams as she would never have done if we’d had her living presence. They were confused dreams from which I woke with an ache of guilt. I hadn’t loved her enough. If I had loved her more, she would never have gone. I had saved half my bar of nougat for her but then I had eaten it.”

All told, I would say this is an excellent choice of literature if you’re looking for something dark and bleak that examines a childhood without parental guidance and affection, forbidden love, familial obligations, and a life of seclusion. Dunmore’s writing is both flowing and haunting, easy to read but also determined to crawl under the reader’s skin. The synopsis on the cover (and on Goodreads) offers little in the way of what to expect, and I can see where not knowing what you’re getting into here could lead to less than favorable experiences for some readers, though the right audience will find this a gorgeous (if grim) book. It’s a tricky title to recommend, so I won’t be pushing this one on anyone, but I do hope that those interested enough to pick up A Spell of Winter will find as much to appreciate in its pages as I did.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a very difficult book to describe, and a difficult story to explain my reaction to, so I’m not sure I’ve done it any justice. Dunmore is clearly a skilled writer (I look forward to reading more of her work, though I haven’t had a chance to thumb through her backlist yet and pick out a follow-up; feel free to recommend any of her titles!), and I think this was a deserving book to take the first Women’s Prize win. (I look forward to reading more past winners as well!). It’s hard to say I enjoyed the read when most of it was really very sad, but… I absolutely did.

 

The Literary Elephant

Booker Prize Winner(s) 2019

I’m going to save my thoughts on the 2019 Booker longlist as a whole until closer to the end of the year, because I know there are at least two more titles I’ll be reading for sure in the coming days/weeks, and some maybes as well. But in light of today’s utterly surprising winner announcement, I wanted to share some initial thoughts!

41081373. sy475 First off, in case you haven’t heard the news, congrats to 2019’s TWO Booker Prize winners: Bernardine Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other, and Margaret Atwood with The Testaments!

I didn’t post a winner prediction, as I’ve only read two and a half of the shortlisted titles so far and didn’t feel I could pass any sort of fair judgment on titles I haven’t read yet. (All reading and judging is of course subjective anyway, which is important to keep in mind especially around the time of book prize announcements) But, from what I’d read, and what I’d heard from other readers, I was HOPING for Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport to win, and EXPECTING that Girl, Woman, Other might actually take the title. So, I’m thrilled that Evaristo did indeed take the win! She’s the first black woman in the history of the Booker Prize ever to win, which is a fantastic development for 2019 and absolutely worth celebrating. Additionally, the content of her book sounds fantastic, but I’ll save descriptions for the end.

Now, let’s talk about Atwood’s joint win.

42975172For anyone who saw my review of The Testaments, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m rather disappointed about this title taking half of the prize winnings. Though Atwood is one of my favorite writers and I don’t in any way begrudge The Testaments its wide popularity, I just don’t think this book is prize winning material. I don’t want to spend this post bashing a winner, so please follow the link at the end of this post to my review for more specific thoughts if you’re curious.

Historically, this is the third time the prize has been divided between two winners, and Atwood is the fourth author to receive the prize twice. I don’t mind an author receiving a literary prize twice. It goes a little ways toward proving that the judges really do consider each book individually rather than taking logistics/statistics too heavily into account. But I don’t like the idea of this prize being divided at all. Joint winners feels like a cop-out. This seems like one of those “you had one job!” situations where the judges just… didn’t do their job. And of course, my frustration at the situation isn’t helping my opinion of the book I didn’t want to win in the first place. If any author deserved to win twice, I would be the first to say it’s Atwood. And yet, The Testaments is my least favorite Atwood novel (so far), and frankly, it’s just not as good from a literary standpoint as The Handmaid’s Tale. No, literariness isn’t everything, but for a LITERARY PRIZE, I do expect that to carry some weight. For The Testaments to win where The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t does not sit well with me, and it leaves me wondering whether this prize in 2019 is in some way meant to reflect the judges’ appreciation for BOTH of the books in this duology- an “I’m sorry the better book didn’t win, let us make it up to you by giving this less accomplished sequel an accolade instead.” Just a theory.

If I sound harsh, it’s mainly due to my frustration at the lack of a definitive winner, and furthermore that the first black woman to win the Booker has to share the prize. These are my biggest hangups. The fact that I didn’t think The Testaments merited a win at all is a lesser concern- I know that opinions vary, mine isn’t any more valid than anyone else’s, and again, reading is subjective, so.

45735014Moving on to the greatest slight, let’s talk aout Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. Though there are plenty of readers who simply aren’t on board with this 1,020 page stream-of-consciousness story that’s told mainly in one looong sentence, the crowd that gets it really gets it, and this is the title I saw the most votes for among my own social media feeds. Personal opinions on the content aside (I’m currently reading this one and don’t have any final thoughts to share yet), it’s undeniably impressive in structure and style, and certainly the most unique book on the list. (Yes, I feel confident in making that assertion after reading only half the book and not having read three of the other shortlisted titles.) I thought this one had a great shot at winning, and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing this one again when the 2020 Women’s Prize nominees are announced. I’ll have a full review coming soon, but I want to voice another theory in the meantime:

I wonder if Ducks simply seemed a bit too similar to 2018’s Booker winner, Milkman, to succeed here this year. Both are structurally inventive and challenging reads, in stream-of-consciousness style, with political commentary, from a female perspective, written by a white woman. They’re totally different, of course, but similarities can certainly be drawn. I actually think Ducks is going to fare best with the Milkman-loving crowd. I suspect this might have played a role in its missing a 2019 win.

Additionally, I think the joint win seems especially harsh for all four of the shortlisted writers who didn’t win this year. To have your shot at winning increase from 1/6 to 1/3, and STILL not be chosen, would be tough. To know that the judges had such a hard time making a choice that they DIDN’T in the end make the choice, and yet were confident enough to exclude those other four writers, must have been unimaginably difficult. Of course, Everyone on the shortlist (and even the longlist) is likely just happy to have been nominated at all and knows not to expect a win, but to be passed up in such a wishy-washy situation just sounds unusually painful.

And so, I highly recommend picking up more than just the winning books, if you have the chance! I’ll share full recommendations from the longlist in another month or two, but for now, a quick recap of my progress and general overview:

I’VE READ:

  • An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. 35003282This is an Odyssey retelling about a Nigerian man, a poultry farmer, who just wants his lover’s family to accept him. While trying to prove himself, he is taken advantage of in tragic ways. Moral and social themes are explored.
  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. The sequel to Atwood’s wildly popular Handmaid’s Tale, this one’s a dystopian thriller set in Gilead. Three new perspectives each have their own feminist insight to impart, and the book offers a hopeful and powerful response to unjust government.

CURRENTLY READING:

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. Here we have a deep dive into the perspective of an Ohio housewife: the everywoman in Trump’s America. As the unnamed narrator bakes pies and takes care of four children, she’s also extremely preoccupied by the current state of the world.

WILL READ:

  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This is a novel comprised of twelve connected short stories that examine the lives of black women in Brexit Britain.

MIGHT READ:

  • Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. 44599127This is a Don Quixote retelling with fantasy elements set in modern America. This is a love story and a wild romp of political commentary.
  • 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. Here we take a trip through a dying woman’s brain in the moments immediately following her death, followed by the trials of the friends who fight to give her a decent burial afterward.

46777584I’ve linked the two titles I’ve read to my reviews, and the rest to Goodreads. I’ll post a personal ranking of the longlisted titles and more conclusive thoughts on the shortlist once I’ve finished reading the titles I’m interested in checking out. I’ll continue to post reviews as I read, as well. And if any of these titles catch your interest, please give them a further look! Though the Booker Prize aims to single out the best novel(s) published each year, don’t forget that there are plenty of other great new books that are also worth reading as well! Though I’m very much looking forward to Girl, Woman, Other myself, literary prizes are above all a call to celebrate READING, and that’s one cause I’m sure we can all unite over!

But if you have specific thoughts about this year’s Booker Prize, whether you agree or disagree with my stance, I’d love to chat in the comments. 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) caught my attention the first time I saw it’s title. Nominated for both the Man Booker International prize and the National Book Award prize for translated fiction earlier this year, it’s certainly been getting some buzz. In addition, Tokarczuk was just announced the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. If those accolades aren’t enough, let me tell you a bit about this incredible book.

driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedeadIn the novel, an old woman living in a secluded Polish village looks after the houses of the folk who spend their winters elsewhere. She’s one of three who remain in the cold months- until one day, one of her neighbors comes knocking with a request for her to help him deal with the third man, who’s dead. She has occasion to do a bit of snooping in his house at that time, and will later tell anyone who’ll listen (and some who won’t) that animals have killed him in revenge (he was a known poacher). Most call her crazy and move on, but when more of the villagers turn up dead as the year wears on, it becomes obvious that something suspicious is going on. In the midst of this unresolved murder spree, Mrs. Duszejko continues to complain loudly about local treatment of animals, fighting against even legal hunting practices.

“Sorrow, I felt great sorrow, an endless sense of mourning for every dead Animal. One period of grief is followed by another, so I am in constant mourning.”

Though this book opens with a striking chapter that depicts neighbors dealing with their own dead in a desolate winter world, what first captured my attention about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was not the action but rather the singular voice of the story’s narrator. I don’t often enjoy books about animals, or books that ask readers to pity animals; I have enough natural empathy for living creatures, and don’t feel that my caring more about them will make any difference in the world, so I tend to find them repetitive, needlessly sad, and ultimately ineffective (for me personally- I respect that they are more successful with other readers). But Mrs. Duszejko gave me a human connection to this story that managed to keep me invested even though I didn’t always agree with her or feel interested in her arguments. Her perspective makes perfect sense for her character, though there are occasional moments when even the reader must question her sanity (just another brilliant move by Tokarczuk). Her viewpoint may seem a bit extreme, but there is something suspicious going on, and the way that her neighbors react to her claims can be as telling as the rumors floating through the village.

“Try to keep your theory to yourself. It’s highly improbable and it could do you harm.”

“Don’t get so upset about things. Don’t take the whole world on your shoulders. It’ll all be fine.”

Plot-wise, this book falls into the mystery genre, though it’s not really about the strange deaths of the local men- at least, not for Mrs. Duszejko. For her, the main contention of the book is whether or not anything will be done about the crimes against animals that she’s been diligently reporting. For that reason, it might be more appropriate to call this novel a character study. And that, for me, was the main flaw of the book- it’s structured as a puzzle in which our main character seems to have little interest throughout most of the novel. Of course the pieces come together for her (and everyone else) in the end, but my only real complaint here was that I didn’t feel like there was any driving force to propel me through the book. Convincing humanity to stop hunting/eating/taking advantage of animals seems like an obvious lost cause from the start, and that is the conflict Mrs. Duszejko is concerned with. Even though I enjoyed her odd life and opinions, I would put this book down at the end of the day, and feel no urge to pick it up again the next. It took me twice as long to read as it should have (judging by page count), even though I liked reading it. And I think at the end of the day, that comes down to a disconnect with the mystery element.

Otherwise, my only issue was that toward the end of the story the “villain” has to monologue an explanation of how they’ve gotten away with the crimes to that point. Most of the clues are scattered beautifully throughout the book so that they aren’t immediately obvious but easy to recall when they become important later. A few hints would have sufficed for the reader to piece the mystery together without being told quite so blatantly, but the solution is clever.

Also clever: seemingly random capitalization. I have a theory about this: Mrs. Duszejko capitalizes the things (in her first-person narration) that she has great respect for- things that play a powerful role in the way she lives her life. This list includes mainly naturally-occurring things, like Murk, Night, Animals… It also includes proper names of people and places, but enough common nouns are affected to lend the story a whimsical feel, though its topics are anything but.

” ‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude toward Animals. If people behave brutally toward Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ “

It’s hard to say much more without giving the best parts away, so I’ll say only that it’s a weird, wonderful little book sure to challenge the way readers think about the intricate bond between humanity and the natural environment. Mystery aside, it’s a powerful and timely look at the way we are using and abusing the earth we live on. Despite the narrator’s firm opinion on the modern treatment of animals, the book does not force the reader to take Mrs. Duszejko’s side, and leaves plenty of room for discourse. It’s a book that’s sure to stay with me in the same way that The Overstory now comes to mind every time I look at a tree. Tokarczuk brings Poland to vibrant life with this atmospheric little village, and her characterization of Mrs. Duszejko (and her potential madness) is worth reading even if, like me, you’re not initially sold on the animal rights themes. Even though the mystery was the weakest part of the story for me, there’s plenty of surprise in store for the reader, and plenty of commentary to love. Highly recommend.

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meaning for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I thought this was such an accomplished novel, and I’m very much looking forward to checking out Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International winning novel from 2018, titled Flights. She’s clearly a skilled writer. I’m so disappointed Drive Your Plow didn’t make the shortlist for the National Book Award last week, and now very curious about the titles that surpassed it there. Clearly I need more translations in my reading life!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: In the Tall Grass (short story and film)

Spooky October continues with more Stephen King for me! I saw a few weeks ago that In the Tall Grass (based on the short story by Stephen King and Joe Hill) was coming to Netflix in early October, and immediately made plans to read and watch. I didn’t get around to the story before the film arrived, but I had a lot of fun reading and watching on the same day. I’ll share some thoughts on both.

First, the short story. In the Tall Grass seems to be very readily available on ebook and audio, but it is also FREE online at Esquire, where the story was first published in 2012. It’s divided into two parts, but the end of the first part links to the second, so if you’re interested in checking out the story I’ll link the beginning portion here! (Feel free to ignore that Esquire’s purpose seems to be “fiction for men.”)

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In this short story, the narration alternates perspective between a pair of siblings: Becky and Cal. They’re not twins, but are very close. Becky is pregnant, and is on her way to San Diego to give her baby to another family for adoption. Cal is driving her cross country. They make an unplanned stop in Kansas next to a field of tall grass, where they happen to hear a boy calling for help. Assuming that he’s lost and too short to find the road, Cal and Becky decide to wade in and help.

What follows is at first suspenseful, as the siblings realize something isn’t right with the grass and against all odds they seem to be getting lost in it as well. Soon after, the story takes a horrifying turn as the secrets of the grass and their own fates are revealed. Needless to say, there’s a supernatural element involved.

“He looked at his watch and wasn’t surprised to see it had stopped even though it was a self-winder. The grass had stopped it. He felt sure of it.”

The story is quite good. I’ve yet to read anything full-length by Joe Hill (even though I’m sure I’m going to love his work), but I enjoyed this story more than the last five full-length novels I’ve read from Stephen King. It’s readable, sharp, and great at dropping creepy hints for the reader’s imagination to run with. If you like horror or suspense, or just a great short story, I highly recommend checking it out.

If you have any interest in reading the story, I really think the best time for it is prior to watching the Netflix film.

Image result for in the tall grass

In the film, we see at first a faithful adaptation of the written story. Some of the dialogue is word-for-word, the setting is exactly the same, any small variations in the setup are minor and seem mostly to cater to the visual aspect of the new format. But soon the film becomes a whole different beast. This comes down to two main differences:

  1. The film expands upon all of those subtle hints dropped in the story. This means both that some of the grass’s secrets are spoken aloud or clearly depicted for the reader, but it also means the addition of a new character who is only mentioned in the story. Though I thought the story was great for holding back from oversharing, I also thought the film was great for refusing to shy away from the details. I wouldn’t have wanted it the other way around. But I imagine the story would feel quite anticlimactic in its subtlety after seeing the film take everything a step further, which is the main reason I recommend reading first if you’re interested in both mediums.
  2. The cyclical nature of the grass “ritual” is a bit different in the film. In the story, I had the sense that the cycle was a very realistic one, with each victim of the grass paving the way for the next in a chronological line. In the film, a nonlinear timeline creates the cycle rather than hints of past or future victims. Timelines- actually, characters that skip around through time- are not always effective for me, but this layout paves the way for some great characterization tricks, and the brevity of the film keeps the jumping timeline from feeling tedious and ridiculous. A surprising win.

These are the two elements that allow a 60-page short story to become a 1 hr 40 min film- the film essentially turns the basic idea of the story into a long novella or short novel, and it does so without contradicting any part of the written story. They really make for a great set, if you enjoy adaptations and comparisons as much as I do.

Both formats are atmospheric, creepy, and engrossing. You might think from the premise that you know enough to resist being surprised, but there will still be surprises. There’s one pretty gross scene that appears in both formats, though I found the written version of it more gruesome. I spotted the detail of the synopsis that had the most potential to go awry, and knowing in advance helped me get through it, so at the risk of a very mild spoiler (just skip ahead to the next paragraph now if you absolutely don’t want to know) I’ll mention that it has to do with the pregnancy. If you don’t want to read anything weird on that subject, maybe steer clear of this one.

“The grass has things to tell you. You just need to learn to listen.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. For both formats. I didn’t find anything wrong with either, and actually the one gross scene didn’t bother me as much (in the story or film) as the rats in Stephen King’s 1922 (in that story or corresponding Netflix film). I just very rarely give a short story a 5-star rating because I tend to prefer more characterization and exploration than often seem to fit in a short story, and though I thought the film was perfect for October I don’t think it’s going on my all-time favorites list, which are the only movies I would say are 5-stars for me. But I had an excellent time with both formats, and the only nightmare I had after was an unrelated airplane dream.

So, all in all, if you’re looking for a little Stephen King or Joe Hill to pick up this spooky season and don’t want to dive into a doorstopper of a novel, In the Tall Grass is a great shorter option. I think it would also be a good introduction to either author if you’re interested in checking out their work but not sure where to start.

Have you read or watched this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant