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Review: The Pisces

I could not let summer escape completely without jumping on the literary mermaid trend. I added several mermaid books to my TBR this year, but the first one I picked up features a merman. Melissa Broder’s The Pisces is a 2018 release about a woman who falls completely in love with a merman, and wow, is it weird. In a good way.

thepiscesAbout the book: Lucy, 38, has been working on her thesis about the spaces in Sappho’s poetry for 7 years. Her funding is going to be pulled if she doesn’t have a satisfactory draft to share with her advisory committee by the end of the summer. And to top it off, her boyfriend just traded her in for a younger woman. Things get pretty dark before Lucy’s sister convinces her to dog-sit at her fancy house on a Californian beach. In California, between group therapy meetings for the love obsessed, Lucy rediscovers the world outside of her long-standing and dissatisfying relationship– by sampling other relationships, including one with a mysterious merman who just might be the perfect match for Lucy.

“I knew that what I wanted was something that couldn’t exist. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t something I wanted.”

I can see why a lot of people might dislike this book. Lucy herself is unlikable, the narration is intimate and graphic (bordering on merman erotica), there’s some neglect and mistreatment of the dog, and the premise is just downright strange (as is the case with much of the magical realism genre, in my opinion). But I found some redeeming qualities.

“I’d always imagined that there was a subjective reality. But there was nothing subjective about this. I was objectively selfish and cruel.”

First, is the narrative voice. Despite her flaws, some of Lucy’s thoughts are surprisingly relatable. They simultaneously make a farce of modern relationships and serve as a guide through them. There’s a point at which adult language and content in a book can become excessive and overbearing, but in my experience it’s also such a relief to read a book with language that doesn’t shy away from expletives and bodily functions– when literature skirts around them there’s almost a sense that that content is undesirable, abnormal. The Pisces talks about farts, and dog breath, and waxing, and menstrual blood. There were a few times while reading this book that I thought the details were almost too much, but I appreciated Lucy’s bare honesty.

There’s also an admirable level of honesty in Lucy’s relationship with Theo (the merman) in this book. Sure, sometimes she lies and she’s quick to admit it to the reader, but one reason her relationship with Theo seems to work so well is because they are so willing to speak whatever’s on their minds. About death, sex, poetry, love, etc. They can admit when they’re scared. Some truths are omitted, but what they do share is refreshingly straight-forward.

“Was it ever real: the way we felt about another person? Or was it always a projection of something we needed or wanted regardless of them?”

Next, I loved the way that Lucy’s other relationships– though some of them are clearly bad and going nowhere– offset the cues Broder points to for healthy relationships. What goes wrong with these other men (and with the female friendships Lucy is forming in California as well) is held up as an example of what doesn’t work, and why. Lucy is flawed, yes, but she admits her flaws and sometimes even embraces them. Which doesn’t mean that thinks she’s always right, only that she’s always Lucy. Maybe she doesn’t know what she wants or how to get it, but she’s learning which questions to ask and she’s always listening for answers. With Theo, she learns a sort of gender-defying love in which sometimes he seems (to her) more like a woman and is “strong in his softness,” and sometimes when she detects his vulnerability and comforts him she seems (to herself) more like a man. Much like the two fish that comprise Pisces, Lucy claims that she and Theo are two parts of one being, that they are the same. This complete acceptance is balanced by the more rigidly gender-typical encounters Lucy has with other men who only want to sleep with her. Between the lines lies a beautiful exploration and defiance of gender norms.

“You never think, in your fantasies, that the object of the fantasy can be hurt. I had known that he was sensitive. But I hadn’t trusted that it was real, or at least, that it was as real as my own sensitivity. I didn’t believe that he could actually feel betrayed. Was it because he was a man and I was a woman? I thought that only I could feel that kind of shame, need, and rejection. I thought that only a woman could feel that. It all seemed crazy now. I was crazy when I was the one begging for someone to stay and I was crazy when I was the one leaving.”

And, of course, there are the Greek elements and parallels. Mermaids, mermen, sirens, etc. all come with certain stereotypes from Greek mythology, and while The Pisces does not strictly adhere to what one might expect from merfolk, there are darkly captivating parallels in Lucy and Theo’s story that harks back to the old myths in a way that Greek fans will enjoy. There’s also ample mention of Sappho and her work, with strong echoes in Lucy’s own work and experiences. The Pisces is modern through and through, but it shows plenty of respect for its Greek roots.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I must admit I wavered on this rating. There were a few things I disliked about the book (especially the pet neglect),  but I don’t think I’ll be able to stop thinking about this one for a while and it was certainly an engrossing read. This is one of the easiest 5-star reviews I’ve written lately, which I think speaks to how incredibly interesting I found this book. I’ll be keeping an eye out for any future novels from Broder, and you can bet that I’ll be picking up more of these new books about merfolk.

Further recommendations:

  • The narrator of The Pisces strongly reminded me of the narrator of Emma Cline’s The Girls, not necessarily in style but in content, despite the vast difference in premise between these two novels. The Girls is a fictionalized account of the Manson cult in 1960’s California, but just as Lucy explores love and desire (and the trauma that accompanies them), so too does Evie brush with love and violence, searching for herself within the narrative of her life.

Have you read any (great or terrible) sea creature novels this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I’ve got a 9/11 book to talk about today. I like to keep an ebook going in the background so that I can read when I don’t have a physical book (which is rare but it happens) and because there are different things available to me in that format. But as a background book, Jonathan Safran Foer’s YA historical/contemporary fiction novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close took me months to finish and I only recently pushed myself to give it more focus as the anniversary of the 2001 attack approached.

extremelyloudandincrediblycloseAbout the book: Oskar, a nine year-old with big dreams and a lot of determination, is left grief-stricken and adrift when his father dies in the attack on the World Trade Towers in New York on the 11th of September. Among the few things he has left with which to remember his father is a mysterious key in an envelope labelled, “Black.” Oskar sets out to find the lock that fits his key, even if it will take him years of inquiries just to cover the most promising leads within the city. Meanwhile, Thomas grieves for a chance he lost, a chance he had never been able to take while weighed down with his own grief. As he recounts his history and tries to figure out what’s left for him, his connection to Oskar and to Oskar’s grief becomes apparent.

“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all of the lives I’m not living.”

I want to start by acknowledging that I would probably have had a better experience and more to say about this book if I had read a physical copy (my preferred reading method) in a reasonable time frame; as it was, I liked the story a lot but it’s a difficult novel to be stopping and starting in small chunks and that using method absolutely shaped my experience of the book.

“…the distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss, I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is narrated with stream-of-consciousness; though there are a few main perspectives it follows, all are presented with the same style and voice despite the differences in their stories. There are very few “chapters,” paragraphs and even sentences go on and on, and there are pictures dispersed throughout that correspond to the characters’ stories. I’d be curious to pick up a physical copy and see what it’s like on the page, because on screen it seemed a bit chaotic and it was consistently hard to find a good place to pause reading. I think this would be an excellent book to binge-read, and I regret that I didn’t take that route.

But back to the story. This is a book about 9/11, but also it’s not about 9/11. It’s about Oskar’s attempts to cope after the attack, but it’s also about other, older grief that Oskar doesn’t even know he is a part of. It’s about his journey for the lock that corresponds to his father’s mysterious key. Oskar’s and Thomas’s stories are the central focus of the novel, and they are both characters left behind after the attack. There is no perspective for Oskar’s father, who dies in the attack. Though he remains on the outskirts of the narration, Oskar’s father is the link that connects all of the rest of the characters, all of whom have stories that are part of a larger whole.

Oskar shows some signs of being on the Autism spectrum, though this is never discussed in the text of the book. Personally, I like the theory that he is. There are times when the events of this book and some of the characters’ interactions felt a little unbelievable, or at least implausible, and I think some of this is smoothed by the possibility of Oskar’s autism– though I don’t think as many people in real life would respond as kindly and patiently to Oskar as they do in this novel. Also, Oskar is unusually intelligent and philosophical for a nine year-old.

“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.”

And on the topic of grief, this is a book that leaves the reader grieving right along with the characters. It isn’t the sort of sad that hits you all at once and makes you cry (at least it wasn’t for me, but then again I didn’t read the book all at once either); there is some  hope as well, but there are a lot of painful little details that pile up. It’s a lot of little cuts, not one fatal stab. For Oskar, and for Thomas, the world is abrasive. Thomas is so devastated that he has not spoken in decades. There is definitely some morbidity to the commentary throughout the book, but it comes from a place of deep loss and is so utterly human. I couldn’t resist.

“That secret was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not always a fan of stream-of-consciousness narration and there were a few places in this book where it started to wear on me. It’s also not an ideal style to be reading in small pieces over a long period of time. And I really do think the physical copy would be the way to go with this title because the format is so interesting. But despite those downsides, I loved reading this book. I want to pick up another Jonathan Safran Foer book (possibly Here I Am) to see whether I’ll like his work as well in another story and format, or if this one was a perfect storm.

Further recommendations:

  • If you like reading about characters who may or may not be on the spectrum, try Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Though this book features a grown woman rather than a young child, Eleanor is also dealing with a separation from a parent and is an incredibly endearing (sometimes sad and sometimes funny) character with a wonderful story to share.

Are there any novels about 9/11 or other specific events in US history that you love?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Mars Room

Man Booker longlist title #5 for me was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room. I’m still optimistic about making it through the longlist, but I know it will take me some time. I haven’t loved all of the titles I’ve read so far, but it has been overall an enjoyable reading experience. The Mars Room was no exception.

themarsroomAbout the book: Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences for a crime she committed in Los Angeles. As the book opens, she is being moved to the women’s correctional facility in Stanville, where she’ll work toward her goal of locating her young son and making sure he’s being cared for. Gordon Hauser, the continuing education teacher at Stanville, is Romy’s best hope of making contact with someone on the outside who knows anything about her son, so she begins cultivating a friendship with Hauser to win him over. Unbeknownst to Romy, Hauser is interested in her for his own reasons, but he’s already faced consequences for involvement with an imprisoned woman. Romy is running out of options.

“The images were all the same: sour light and custodial formatting offset by the wild eyes and mussed hair of people yanked from life, arrested, numbered, ingested, and exposed.”

Like most systems, the US prison system has its flaws. Mass incarceration has to balance a certain uniformity of punishment without losing sight of the fact that every case is different and every prisoner is human. Romy’s story (and those she learns along the way) show the ways in which the system fails. There are a lot of little disturbing details that showcase how the importance of paperwork and procedures can mean inadequate care or attention on an individual basis– possibly even for a child on the outside who’s being denied a connection with his mother. The book also challenges the argument that “if she wanted to ___ she shouldn’t have gotten herself locked in prison.” Some of the lessons are familiar from the Netflix TV series Orange is the New Black, but these characters are new and distinct, with hardships of their own. The Mars Room manages to be eye-opening even for readers who think they know something about injustice in the prison system.

“A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book.”

With the focus on a female facility, there is also an emphasis on woman-specific experiences. There’s a woman who comes to Stanville pregnant and has her baby in the facility. There’s a character in the prison who identifies as male, and a character coming into the prison who was male and has convinced the state to recognize her as a woman.  Several of the women are imprisoned for crimes against abusive men in their lives. Romy made a living off of lap dancing. She’s a mother. Some of this is offset by the chapters in Doc’s perspective, an imprisoned man in another facility (though he knows someone in Stanville Women’s) who gives readers  some man-specific experiences. I would argue that Doc’s perspective is not necessary to this story, that enough of the differences come across clearly through Romy’s narration alone, but Doc is there as a counterbalance nonetheless.

“If I was a dude I’d be like I am right now. ‘Cept not locked up.”

The Mars Room is narrated mainly from the perspective of Romy Hall, but also from the perspectives of a few people whose stories overlap with hers in some way. While in theory it is interesting to see Romy’s story in juxtaposition with a male prisoner’s, with her teacher’s, with her victim’s, I think there should have been a line drawn between what’s interesting and what’s necessary. “Interesting” is best saved for a Further Recommendations list in the back of the book, in my opinion. For example, there are chapters filled with samples of Hauser’s reading material during the timeline of this novel’s events, and those seem in no way necessary to the story. If Ted Kaczynski has any relation at all to Romy, please, someone explain it to me. By far the strongest chapters are Romy’s, and I think the book could have been stronger as a whole if some of those extra perspective chapters had been condensed or even removed. The only exception being Kurt’s chapter, which shows Romy’s life and choices from a new side that gives the entire story a wider scope and overturns some of the reader’s assumptions.

“They make you form your life around one thing, the thing you did, and you have to grow yourself from what cannot be undone: they want you to make something from nothing. They make you hate them and yourself. They make it seem that they are the world, and you’ve betrayed it, them, but the world is so much bigger.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I really find women’s prison stories engrossing, between this book and Orange is the New Black and Sleeping Beauties I’ve been consuming a lot of them lately .I hope I’m never in a position to learn about women’s prisons firsthand, but I think it’s invaluable to learn about real-world situations and gain awareness of the things that happen to real people, even if my preferred method of learning requires filtering art and lies from grains of truth. Next up on the Man Booker list for me is probably The Water Cure but possibly Sabrina, whichever comes through for me first.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re okay with sci-fi/dystopian genres and want another women’s prison narrative, check out Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beautiesa novel set in an Appalachian women’s prison in the midst of a worldwide sleeping phenomenon. Women fall asleep, form a sort of cocoon, and wake up somewhere else without going anywhere at all.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is also a good choice for readers interested in incarceration as a social issue. This novel features a black man wrongfully convicted and the consequences his imprisonment has on his reputation and relationships with family and friends on the outside.
  • If you’re interested in the Man Booker longlist this year, all of the titles look pretty great. Here are my reviews for the other titles I’ve read so far, in order of my personal preference, starting with the best: Everything Under, From a Low and Quiet Sea, Warlight, and Snap.

Have you read The Mars Room or another novel about women’s prisons? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: You Think It, I’ll Say It

Last year I read and loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, an irresistibly funny modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This fall, I want to get back into some short story reading, so I thought I’d pick up Sittenfeld’s more serious new collection of short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It. The two have been vastly different reading experiences.

youthinkiti'llsayitAbout the book: A collection of “regular” people in seemingly ordinary circumstances learn that there is always more to people than what one might assume. From new moms in infant classes to college freshman to successful lawyers, the characters of this book form relationships or impressions of the people that they think they know best– and eventually come to realize that what they’ve known about their acquaintances has been no more than a product of their own imaginations.

Usually when I’m reading a story collection or anthology I take notes on each piece individually to review in a few sentences. I did start reading with that method, but by the fourth story or so I realized that all of these pieces are variations of the same theme. All of my notes for the individual stories started looking the same, because the stories all felt the like different angles of the same view.

I appreciate the morals this collection has to offer:  mainly that making assumptions about other people (even if you feel bad about it, even if you keep your thoughts to yourself) is a bad and potentially harmful habit. It’s something we should all be more careful of. But it’s also a lesson the reader can learn in one or two stories, rather than the ten of this book that all seem to grind out the same message. Once you figure out Sittenfeld’s formula, these stories become predictable and it’s hard to take anything new from subsequent stories. So instead of talking about them each individually, I’ll say that my favorites were “Bad Latch” and “Do-Over,” my least favorite was “Volunteers are Shining Stars,” and I would probably recommend reading a few of the titles– whichever ones catch your eye, they all have about equal merit– rather than all of them, and especially rather than reading all of them in one go.

One of the supposed highlights of You Think It, I’ll Say It is that it subverts stereotypes. It challenges all sorts of assumptions that the reader is likely familiar with. Unfortunately, all of the assumptions it seemed to be challenging were old-news to me, and some felt particularly forced.

” ‘Bobby was in the wrong too,’ I said. ‘But Ashley shouldn’t have poached another girl’s boyfriend.’ “

There’s also one in which a couple is revealed to be in a same-sex relationship where the withholding of the partner’s gender feels unnecessarily dramatic; Sittenfeld is perhaps trying to catch the reader in an assumption, but making such a big deal out of how acceptable the relationship is takes away any sort of normalization the story might have been striving for. And then there is again the issue of repetition– by the time you’ve reached the secret-gender story (chronologically), you know every assumption is wrong, and can predict exactly where the story’s headed and which details are trying (and failing) to mislead you along the way.

Also, and this would probably go unnoticed by most readers, it really bugs me when people from Iowa are stereotyped as bumpkins. Sure, Iowa has a lot of corn and it’s not a hot vacation spot, but it is not the most desolate place full of idiots. This is just ridiculous:

“I’d been at Dartmouth long enough to recognize the name of a fancy boarding school, even if I was from Des Moines.”

“What boy would want my dowdy Iowan virginity?”

The closest we get to an excuse for these comments is being told that the Iowan girl thinking them suffers from a lack of self-confidence.

In the end, I thought this collection’s biggest fault was simply a lack of subtlety.

“Is there some subtext to this comment? He isn’t sure.”

Me, either. I disliked most of the characters, partially because they seemed dumb not to realize how far astray their assumptions were leading them when the reader can see it so clearly. Individually, there wasn’t anything specifically wrong with any of these stories, and I think any one of them would stand better on its own than the group did as a whole, but none of them managed to surprise or impress me, either. It just seemed a bit… aimless. Like this story ending, which didn’t seem to know if it was supposed to be an ending at all.

“They’re both quiet, and, weirdly, this is where the conversation ends, or maybe, given that it’s past eleven and Casey’s alarm is set for six-fifteen or possibly for six, it isn’t weird at all.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I actually rated most of the stories 3 stars on an individual basis, but as I got more bored and frustrated with that mediocrity toward the end I bumped my overall rating down, based on enjoyment level. I was vastly underwhelmed, though it’s hard to say there was anything truly wrong with this book. It’s just a collection for readers who don’t mind repetition, which I am not. I’m not sure if I’ll try any more of Sittenfeld’s work, or just hold on to my happy memories of Eligible. 

Do you have any favorite short story collections?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Everything Under

Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under is the fourth book I’ve read from the Man Booker 2018 longlist, and so far it’s my favorite. I was initially drawn in by the gorgeous cover, and when I read the synopsis of this magical realism tale I couldn’t resist picking it up.

everythingunderAbout the book: Gretel spent the first thirteen years of her life in a boat on a river with her mother. The two of them speak their own language, comprised of a mix of ordinary English and made-up words specific to their unique experience. But the winter she’s thirteen, Gretel and her mother are running from something, and by the time she’s sixteen, Gretel is struggling to navigate the world on her own with a vocabulary that no one recognizes. Later still, Gretel’s half-hearted attempts to find her mother by calling hospitals, police stations, and morgues turns up a clue– and once she’s started looking, there’s no going back. It takes reuniting with her mother for Gretel to finally understand what she and her mother have been running from all along.

“This world was never good enough for you. You always thought there was more; you spent your whole life waiting for something more to come along.”

Everything Under utilizes a format that many mysteries have used before: a mix of alternating past and present chapters. Though here, they’re divided not by vague or bland perfunctory terms of time, but by the identifying locations of each part of the story: ‘The River’ for Gretel’s childhood on the boat, ‘The Hunt’ for Gretel’s search for her mother, and ‘The Cottage’ for Gretel’s life at home after finding her mother. This is only one small example of how precise and engaging the language of Everything Under remains throughout the story. Gretel is a lexicographer who updates dictionary entries, and the focus on individual words, word origins, word variations, etc. is exactly the sort of detailing that fans of bookish books will enjoy. This is a book not just for story lovers, but language lovers.

As long as we’re on the topic of format, I want to also mention that Everything Under is a retelling of a few old classic stories. The most obvious, perhaps, being Hansel and Gretel’s tale of lost parents and breadcrumbs, which is beautifully alluded to here. But there’s also a connection to a certain Greek myth that I won’t mention because I’ve seen a few reviews that consider knowing the Greek myth ahead of time a spoiler. I’m not sure I would agree, especially considering the fact that if you figure it out at any point before the final reveal (and there’s a good chance of that if you’re at all familiar with this myth) you’ll still know exactly where the story’s heading. I knew the myth going in, and really enjoyed being able to spot the similarities for a more thorough compare/contrast. But I’ll leave that decision up to you.

“It was a pattern laid out behind you like a reversed breadcrumb trail you could have followed– if you’d had the impulse– to prove that you were no one to be depended on.”

There’s also a bit of magical realism in Everything Under that can be a decisive factor in the reader’s enjoyment of this story. For much of the book, there’s continual reference to something that could be a metaphor, and I do think the story would have been effective if it had taken that route. But knowing ahead of time that this book has been categorized as magical realism, I was ready to take that metaphor more literally even before the end of the story when there’s no longer any avoiding the reality of this element.

I don’t always like magical realism, because it tends to feel like an excuse for neglecting to lay out rules in one’s fictional world when it’s not done impeccably well. But I did love the magical aspect in Everything Under, even if the story might have been just as strong without it. The reason I especially liked it is that I think the magical aspect gives the book an unpredictable twist for readers who do know which stories are being retold and unearth this story’s secrets long before Gretel’s mother admits them. This monster could have been a metaphor… but seeing this horrible truth turned into a tangible terror was a very efficient way of waking the story up and giving these characters something new to face that their older counterparts had not encountered. I can see how this element won’t work for everyone, especially since it does seem like an unnecessary and dramatic addition to what is already a beautiful story. But making the fiction in Gretel’s and her mother’s lives more real for them also made the story more compelling for me. I’m infinitely curious about the blurry line between fact and fiction, and Gretel and her mother walk that line like a tightrope.

“I thought again, as I walked, about how everything ran alongside everything else; about how– if I tried hard enough– I could shout back, and my younger self would look up from the bank and hear me.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I cannot think of a single thing I did not love about this book. I will read anything Daisy Johnson writes, starting with her only previous publication, a collection of short stories called Fen, and I hope she writes a whole lot more. I can’t wait to see what other gems are on the Man Booker 2018 longlist– next up, The Mars Room.

Further Recommendations:

  • The only other adult magical realism novel that I love is Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest. This is a short novel set in Australia and focuses on an elderly woman who accepts help from a stranger who offers to help with the running and upkeep of her household. Matters are complicated by the tiger that this woman believes she can sense hiding in the house.
  • My other favorite from the 2018 longlist is Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, a seemingly disjointed small novel about three men’s tragic lives, and the event that sees them all brought together. This is another compelling little story with beautiful prose and timely morals.

Are there any magical realism titles you’ve particularly enjoyed?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Home Fire

I’m still slowly making my way through the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction nominees that I was most interested in this year, and of course that list of titles included the winner, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. After a disappointing thriller spree and before my Man Booker nominee choices arrived, I decided it was finally time to pick up Home Fire.

homefireAbout the book: Two British Muslim families based in London struggle to fit their beliefs into a world that doesn’t want to accept them as-is. Isma Pasha, the eldest daughter of a known jihadi fighter, is all too familiar with being judged and accused based on her race and religion. Karamat Lone, recently appointed Home Secretary, tries to limit such injustices by encouraging British Muslims to change their ways in order to make their religion fit popular opinion. Isma’s and Lone’s families overlap throughout the novel, sometimes on the same side but most often in opposition. Islamophobia shapes their lives, but so do the choices and betrayals that occur within the Muslim community, and within their own families.

“He rested his head on his knees. He didn’t know how to break out of these currents of history, how to shake free of the demons he had attached to his own heels.”

I knew going in that Home Fire was a retelling of Sophocles’s ancient Greek play, Antigone; I have read the play (twice), but it’s been a long time and I wasn’t sure how many of the plot points I remembered clearly. Fortunately, as I read Home Fire, the parallels became obvious and by the time I reached the end of the book I remembered a lot more about Antigone than I had going in. I’m mentioning this because I think prior knowledge of Antigone will play a roll in your reading of Home Fire, though I can only speak to my own experience. I would say prior knowledge of Antigone is strongly recommended, though not strictly required, for reading this novel.

Aside from the fact that it’s a great classic retelling, this novel was also a learning experience for me. There’s not much of a Muslim community in rural Iowa, where I’ve spent most of my life, so while Islam and Islamophobia are certainly concepts I’ve been aware of, I’ve never found much connection to them before reading this novel. I feel like I can see a part of the world now that I was blind to before, which is a big part of why I read in the first place. I’ll certainly be reaching for more books with Muslim main characters in the future.

What I love most about this particular story is the way these characters fit together. Though each character alone is a bit one-dimensional, they all have a roll to play in the greater story, and together they’re powerful. Shamsie gives each main character their own perspective chapters, usually two chapters in a row before the focus shifts to another character. At first I found this disappointing- I liked Isma’s opening chapters but felt like they had only just scratched the surface of her character; I wanted more. But as I encountered each subsequent character and watched their narratives flow from one to another like a baton passed between racers, I came to appreciate this format, which fits the story well. Even the characters I didn’t like kept me turning pages.

“Laughing, he said, ‘Cancer or Islam- which is the greater affliction?’ “

In the end I had only two small complaints. The first, that Aneeka’s dedication to her twin felt incongruous at times. In the time before Isma leaves for America, her twin siblings begin drifting apart, and while Parvaiz’s sense of betrayal at that separation felt visceral and justifiable, Aneeka’s attitude toward it seemed too aloof and uncaring to convince me she felt as strong a bond with her twin as she claimed to. Her later actions do show devotion, but somehow the relationship never quite convinced me of its closeness. It felt like someone who is not a twin trying to describe what it is like to be a twin, but I’m not a twin myself and I can’t pretend to know Shamsie’s life so I don’t have any authority on that subject. It only gave me pause because Anneka and Parvais’s relationship is so central to the plot, and needed to be strong.

My other complaint, which reversed completely and became a boon for me by the end of the novel, was the level of betrayal in this book. There are a lot of betrayals, small and large, against family members, community members, country members, etc. Every main character in this book betrays someone close to them, and there were times when reading the betrayals was very difficult and upsetting. At one point, I considered stopping my read of Home Fire because reading the betrayals felt like its own brand of torture. But I persevered, and in the end I appreciated how strongly the characters’ actions affected me because it proved my emotional investment in the story- a strong plus for Home Fire. There’s undeniable beauty in the heart-wrenching details.

“Grief was the step-sibling they’d grown up with, unwanted and inevitable. Grief the amniotic fluid of their lives. Grief she could look in the eye while her twin stared over its shoulder and told her of the world that lay beyond. Grief changed its shape to fit your contours- enveloping you as a second skin you eventually learnt to slip into and resume your life. Grief was the deal God struck with the Angel of Death, who wanted an unpassable river to separate the living from the dead; grief the bridge that would allow the dead to flit among the living, their footsteps overhead, their laughter around the corner, their posture in the bodies of strangers you would follow down the street willing them never to turn around. Grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I can see why this book won the Women’s Prize this year, and I’ll definitely be reading more of the titles that caught my eye from the longlist. There’ve definitely been some gems among the nominees I’ve read so far. I’m also interested in reading further from Shamsie’s published novels, though I’m not sure yet which one I’ll start with. (Please leave me suggestions if you’ve read other Shamsie books that you’ve loved.)

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like Greek retellings and haven’t yet picked up Madeline Miller’s Circe, I recommend that you give that novel a try. Circe is more of a fantasy/mythological story, and to me its modern touch was undeniable, but it’s certainly a beautiful story with plenty of recognizable Greek references to enjoy.
  2. If you like prize-nominated books about hardships faced by minority groups, you should pick up Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a multi-generational narrative about African slavery in both Africa and America. This one’s another incredibly moving (though unsentimental) story of identity.
  3. If you want to pick up another 2018 Women’s Prize nominee and don’t know which one to reach for next, try Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, a powerful feminist story about an Indian marriage that devolves into abuse and manipulation.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Sleeping Beauties

I have just finished with a three-week buddy read of Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties, a 700-page dystopian novel that this father and son duo published last fall.  I chose it as an extra through Book of the Month Club a while back, and it’s so nice to have the longest book from my backlog now crossed of that list.

sleepingbeautiesAbout the book: Women around the world are falling asleep, as usual. What’s unusual is that once they’re unconscious, a cocoon forms around them, and the women do not wake up. The men, however, do continue to sleep and wake as usual. While they search for a cure and try to protect their female loves and family members, disagreements mount, power is lost and won, the number of deaths climbs, and chaos is the new ruling order. On the surface, the small Appalachain town of Dooling seems much the same– but the Dooling women’s prison houses Evie Black, a strange creature who appeared out of nowhere at the same time as the Aurora sleeping sickness, and may be the key to the mystery.

“Practically half the world was asleep, and the rest of it was running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”

Format-wise, Sleeping Beauties is much like Stephen King’s other works: chapters within chapters, multiple perspectives, informal and intelligent prose, bizarre but believable characters– and, of course, it’s a bit long-winded. This is a 700-page book that is still laying out premise two-thirds of the way through the novel. Sleeping Beauties goes straight from premise to intense climax to brief conclusion; it’s not a bad structure for this story, but it does mean over 500 pages of women falling asleep and men trying to figure out what to do about it before the main conflict even begins.

” ‘I need to see Lila-‘ So I can say goodbye, Clint thought. It occurred to him suddenly. The potential finality. How much longer could she stay awake? Not much. On the phone she had sounded– far off, like she was part of the way to another world already. Once she nodded off, there was no reason to believe she could be brought back.”

That’s not to say that the lead-up to the big showdown is boring. Every single character– and there are a lot of significant characters in this book: enough to fill a 4-page cast list– is uniquely interesting. Personally, I enjoyed the characters at the women’s prison most of all, but there’s quite a variety. Despite the variation in personalities and backstories, one constant is the undercurrent of feminist commentary. These messages are definitely more heavy-handed than I usually find Stephen King’s writing to be, which makes me wonder whether that’s down to Owen’s influence. I have not yet read any other books by Owen King, but Sleeping Beauties certainly leaves me curious about his writing style when working solo. Even if the feminism was a bit too in-your-face for my taste (one of the male characters is so misogynistic he’s basically a caricature), it is definitely a theme I approve of.

“Of course, everyone’s clothes seemed to be wrinkled now. How many men knew how to iron? Or fold, for that matter?”

One downside to the giant list of main characters and the quickly shifting perspectives is that it can be hard to connect with any of them individually. Even the most compelling chapters end after only a few pages, and then that character might not appear again for another hundred pages. But there’s also an upside to this tactic: the reader never gets to the point of dreading any particular character’s chapters. There was not a single character in this book whose name at the beginning of the chapter disappointed me– I didn’t have a single “oh no, not this guy again” moment in the entire book. Every character is fascinating. Even the fox. Yep, you read that right: one of the significant characters (included on the character list and everything) is “a common fox, between 4 and 6 years of age.”

But let’s talk a bit about the conclusion that follows. No spoilers, of course, but Stephen King’s endings are notoriously divisive, and this ending was the biggest drawback to Sleeping Beauties for me. Some aspects I loved: Evie’s unpredictability, the changes wrought in the aftermath, the reactions to deaths. But I did find the unanimous vote a little too unlikely, and some of the answers about the Aurora sickness a little too evasive– of the “maybe we’ll never know exactly what happened” type– or missing entirely. (Why Dooling? Why now? Why were the two men from the meth trailer killed? Why is Evie always naked?) I loved Part 3, the final 20 pages or so of the book, for its tragedies and triumphs. I loved that this isn’t necessary a happy-ending book, though things go as well as they can. It could’ve been a little better with a little more explanation about the supernatural aspects, but the battle was great. Plenty of firepower, death on both sides, and so much tension. I am a true believer in literary grit. And, of course, it’s always interesting to see how the balance/imbalance between the genders will play out.

“That was one way in which the sexes had never been equal; they were not equally dangerous.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This book really turned around for the better for me in the final third, and even though a few unanswered (or too easily answered) questions about the basic premise and the book’s supernatural element kept me from giving it the full 5 stars, the slow bit at the beginning no longer bothered me by the end. Sleeping Beauties is not my new favorite Stephen King book, but the co-write was an interesting comparison to other King titles I’ve read, and I’m glad I finally got around to picking it up.

About my buddy read: This was only my second-ever buddy read; the first also featured a Stephen King book: It. I love Stephen King’s writing, but it’s definitely easier getting through some of his larger titles with someone to hold me accountable. I probably would have finished Sleeping Beauties faster on my own, but I wouldn’t have been reading other books on the side, and reading all 700 pages at once would’ve felt like more of a chore. Instead, my friend and I read about 230 pages per week, whenever it fit into our schedules, and at the end of the week we’d have a nice spoilery chat. That’s the best part of a buddy read, in my opinion: being able to talk about the book with someone who’s in exactly the same place and knows the same amount of information. That said, this wasn’t the best book to buddy read because there really wasn’t much going on in the first 2/3 of the book beyond characterization and premise-laying. We made some predictions, and spent a lot of the chat time wandering off to other topics. It wasn’t until the final chat that we really had plenty to say about what worked or didn’t. But even so, it was enjoyable enough that I still have positive opinions of both buddy reading and Stephen King.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you liked Sleeping Beauties, you should also check out Stephen King’s Under the Dome. It’s long, but if you’ve made it through Sleeping Beauties you already know you can handle a long book, right? Under the Dome is about another small town facing extenuating circumstances: a dome has suddenly surrounds the town limits. No one (and nothing) can get in or out. The infrastructure devolves much in the same way as it does in Dooling, so if you like the lawless power play in Sleeping Beauties, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in the situation under the dome.

What’s the longest book you’ve read? Did you like it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant