Tag Archives: bookish

Tag: Spring Cleaning

I was nominated for this Spring Cleaning bookish tag by Hannah last month! I’ve fallen desperately behind this season between being busy and a bit of a reading/blogging slump, but I had a lot of fun putting this one together and it’s still spring in my corner of the world, so thanks for the tag, Hannah!

The Struggle of Getting Started: A Book or Series You Struggle to Begin Because of Its Size

11264999I’d have to say A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. I struggle with picking up every single one of the books in this series, even though I love the world and story and do delight in reading them once I get going. I believe the shortest of the series is the first book, A Game of Thrones, which stands at over 800 pages (at least in the copy that I own). I’m currently hesitating about picking up book 4, but I think I’ll get around to it in about a week or so.

Cleaning Out the Closet: A Book or Series You Want to Unhaul

6186357The Maze Runner series by James Dashner. After the harassment allegations against Dashner a couple of years ago I no longer want to support his writing in any way. I’ve been hesitating because The Death Cure (book 3, the final installment) would be the first book I’ve bought and then unhauled without reading, which doesn’t sit well with me either. Though I found the plot of this story interesting, the writing style has bothered me from the first chapter of the first book, so between that and Dashner’s recent reputation, I just don’t have any interest in picking it up in order to read it to send it away- a stalemate.

Opening the Window and Letting Fresh Air In: A Book that was Refreshing

40597810Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I’d heard a lot of hype, I’d seen some reviews criticizing the documentary-script-style formatting, and I wasn’t sure how interested I was in reading about a fictional 70’s rock band. But The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo had convinced me to set my expectations aside and give TJR a chance with any subject and style, and to no one’s surprise I adored almost everything about this book. By the time I finished, I found myself completely addicted to classic rock. The modern spin on this “historical” trend was perfection. Refreshing.

Washing Out the Sheets: A Scene that you Wish You Could Rewrite

39938177I really liked the plot and characters of Taylor Adams’s recent thriller, No Exit, but there was one disturbing scene that felt gratuitously cruel and ruined the suspension of disbelief for me once and for all. (It was the door hinge scene, for anyone curious who’s read the book. Not really a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t.) I’m not sure what I would have wanted to happen in place of this event, but I found it disturbing and unnecessary in a way that negatively impacted my opinion of the entire book.

Throwing Out Unnecessary Knick-Knacks: A Book in a Series You Didn’t Think Was Necessary

32283133Origin by Dan Brown. Honestly the art that I was encouraged to look up after encountering it in this novel is the only benefit I remember encountering as a result of reading this book. I loved the first three books in Brown’s Robert Langdon series when I was in high school and my first year of college. Inferno (book 4) was beginning to lose my interest, but I still found its concept intriguing (forced mass sterility as a method of worldwide population control) and was interested in Dante and his Divine Comedy at the time, so I didn’t mind. But Origin (book 5) felt completely unnecessary and frankly much less engaging than I’d found the rest of the series. So unnecessary that I’m not sure I would ever continue reading future books that might follow it someday.

Polishing Doorknobs: A Book That Had a Clean Finish

30849411I tend to prefer endings that leave something open for the reader to consider after closing the book, which is not exactly what I would call a “clean” ending. The first thing that comes to mind that might fit what I think is the spirit of this prompt is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This is a multi-generational story set in multiple locations, and though the ending was not the most impressive chapter of the book for me, I did appreciate how it tied all of the characters and their stories together without wrapping up all of the suffering in the book in an overly neat or dismissive way. Just the right amount of hope and grief.

Reaching to Dust the Fan: A Book That Tried Too Hard to Covey a Certain Message

37969723I think I’ll have to go with The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. Overall, I enjoyed this book and appreciate its themes, but after much consideration (probably due in part to the book’s inclusion on the Women’s Prize shortlist this year) I’m still not on board with the Achilles chapters. I think Barker makes a valuable point about ownership of stories and history by including him the way she does- allowing him to take over Briseis’s story- and perhaps disliking his character the way I did was the Point. But I wish she had found some other way to make this Point because the Achilles chapters continue to mildly irritate me, months later.

The Tiring Yet Satisfying Finish: A Series That was Tiring But Satisfying to Get Through

165035Last year I read Vilhelm Moberg’s (translated) Emigrants series, about a Swedish farming family relocating to the American Midwest in the mid 1800s. I found the writing a bit dry and progressed through the four books rather slowly, but ultimately look back on this series fondly. I had never before read anything remotely similar to my own family’s history, so it felt rewarding to learn about it through my favorite art medium- fiction, obviously. I’ve actually met some of my grandma’s Swedish relatives since finishing this series, and appreciated having a bit more context with Swedish history and culture prior to meeting them.

 

Since we’re just on the cusp of summer (at least we are where I’m at), I won’t obligate anyone to this decidedly spring tag. It’s definitely my own fault that I’m getting to this one so late, which is not a reflection of my enjoyment level over putting these answers together! So I’m not tagging anyone specifically, but please feel free to try it if it looks interesting to you, and link back to me so I can see your answers!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

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Wrap-Up 4.19

April was a pretty terrible month for me all around, though it did have a few good moments I don’t want to overlook. I had a great birthday, I got to see a friend that I haven’t in a while, and I did manage to finish reading the Women’s Prize longlist by the deadline I set for myself. But I also hit a major reading slump (that I’m still struggling to pull out of), I was hardly blogging, the Women’s Prize shortlist didn’t turn out the way I was hoping, and I’ve just been feeling pretty low. So I’m looking forward to a new month and a fresh start, but first let’s wrap April.

Books I finished reading:

  1. The Shielding of Mrs Forbes by Alan Bennett. 5 stars. A short story from the Faber Stories collection, my favorite of these little books so far. I love a good tale of irony, and this one has that in spades. This is the story of a man having an affair with a male lover, the secret at the heart of a family who are all keeping different sides of the same truth from each other.
  2. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones. 3 stars. I didn’t realize it when I picked it up, but this turned out to be a reread, possibly from my high school days. I appreciated the main character’s growth throughout the story, but I just wasn’t hooked by the boxing aspect, so a mixed bag. My mini-reviews for these first two Faber Stories can be found here.
  3. Early Riser by Jasper Fforde. 3 stars. I started this (Feb.) BOTM selection at the end of March, but it turned out to be a rather slow read with a lot of terminology and world-specific concepts that took me about a week to finish. This one’s set in a hibernating society upset by a case of viral dreams. It’s so rich and complex, but it wasn’t quite able to convince me that the narrator was ever in danger. Most interestingly, the narrator’s gender is left up to the reader.
  4. Ordinary People by Diana Evans. 3 stars. A Women’s Prize longlister about two struggling relationships (one a marriage, one not quite) between black couples with young children in London. This one also has a small supernatural element. I thought Evans’ prose was wonderful, but overall this one just didn’t excite me much. Certainly a worthwhile book, just a bit too quiet for my personal preference.
  5. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. 3 stars. This is a massive, semi-biographical (longlisted) novel about Truman Capote’s downfall, which I found highly entertaining for the first half and then I started to realize it wasn’t going to be doing anything more or different than it had been in the first 250 pages. I found all of the characters interesting (though rather unlikable), but I was just struggling to stay focused and invested through nearly 500 pages of more-of-the-same.
  6. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. 4 stars. This is another longlisted book that felt longer than it really was, and after Swan Song I really struggled with this one at first even as I admired Luiselli’s prowess. This story is about a family taking a road trip and recording sounds, pulling present and past US horrors into one cohesive narrative. It’s a very skilled work that nevertheless seemed a bit dull, until a narrative shift at the halfway point completely won me over.
  7. Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton. 3 stars. My final Women’s Prize longlist read, and I finished it just in time. This one was a mix of pros and cons for me, but ultimately a quick, engaging read that came as a relief after the heftier titles I’d just finished. This one’s a historical fiction about a freed slave woman recounting her life experiences to her dying son. That’s oversimplifying of course; I did find this a unique and worthwhile read that brings something new to Civil War-era lit.
  8. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah. 3 stars. Another from the Faber Stories collection. I’ll have another set of mini-reviews for these coming up soon. For now I’ll say that this one features a poverty-stricken temporary town in Zimbabwe, and in particular a woman with an untreated mental illness who becomes pregnant. I found it intriguing but ultimately felt that it was missing something.
  9. A Country Funeral by John McGahern. 3 stars. I wavered between 3 and 4 stars for this one, as it seemed very readable and engaging (and I like reading about death) but again, it just didn’t impress me as much as other Faber Stories have. This one depicts three brothers who travel together for their uncle’s funeral, an event that shapes each of their perspectives about their own lives.

wrap-up4.19

Nine books doesn’t sound like a bad total- I know plenty of people read less and that’s perfectly fine. It’s no numbers contest. But I do think it’s my lowest monthly tally so far this year, and four of these are single short stories, which I wouldn’t count as “books” except for the fact that Goodreads does and it’s easier to stay organized with my stats if I agree with Goodreads. I think I did pretty well about sticking to my top priorities for April though- four of these were Women’s Prize books (which enabled me to complete the longlist before the shortlist announcement), one was a BOTM book (when I fall behind on these they stack up fast), and the remaining four were own-unread books from my April TBR (even if they were only short stories).

Some Stats:

  • Average rating – 3.3, a bit low for me.
  • Best of month – Lost Children Archive or The Shielding of Mrs Forbes – the latter was much more fun but the former will have a more lasting impact.
  • Worst of month – I can’t choose. Objectively, maybe Swan Song? But I did quite enjoy the first half, so naming it feels rather disingenuous. Honestly none of these 3-star reads really stands out as anything that’ll particularly haunt me, they were all okay.
  • Books hauled 4, but only one that I haven’t already read. This was a major success after three months of buying too many books.
  • Owned books read for the first time – 5. For the first time all year, this means I eliminated more books from my own-unread TBR shelf than I added throughout the month! Yay!
  • Year total – 51. My Goodreads goal for the year is 100 books, so I’m well on track. I’m not considering increasing my goal at present, but knowing I’m ahead makes it easier to accept months like this when I feel like I’m not getting anywhere, and it also makes it easier to decide to read thick books that’ll take me longer to read, which I did in April and am planning also for May.
  • April TBR tally 6/10. I was really hoping to read my entire March book haul in April, but this slump really knocked me out of the running. I’ve already read one more of the remaining books (another Faber Story, so it wasn’t difficult) at the start of May. And since my May TBR officially consists of only one book, I think I might be looking ahead at my first TBR victory of the year (finally)…

Have you read any of these books, or are you planning to? Do you have any non-reading advice for escaping a slump/funk?

 

The Literary Elephant

May TBR

The usual spiel: my 2019 TBR goal is to read all of the new books I’ve acquired by the end of the following month, which means that my official May TBR is comprised of books I acquired in April.

But April was a bad month for me this year, even though it was my birthday month and therefore predisposed toward greatness; somehow I managed to acquire only one book that I haven’t already read. It was:

  1. Miracle Creek by Angie Kim, my BOTM choice for April. This is the only book that my TBR goal “requires” me to read in May. I believe this is a legal/courtroom mystery about a woman who may or may not have murdered her autistic son, but I know there’s a lot more to it than that. Miracle Submarines and such, which I’m intrigued to learn about. People have been raving about this one and I’m looking forward to picking it up this month.

I also picked up a few of my favorites from the Women’s Prize longlist that I’ve already read but thought I would like to reread if shortlisted. None of them ended up advancing (a damn SHAME) but I’ll probably reread them soon anyway, just maybe not in May. These titles are:

  1. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, a powerful novel unlike anything I’ve read before or since that deserved a WIN, not only a spot on the shortlist. This is the exclusion I’m most upset about. This is a book about a Nigerian person who struggles with identity; there are cultural African elements (ogbanje spirits), and a challenging look at gender and mental health. Don’t let the shortlist fool you, this is absolutely a book worth picking up.
  2. The Pisces by Melissa Broder. I was less certain about this one making the shortlist because it has been very polarizing, but I found it fresh and captivating, despite its more disturbing moments. It’s about a woman struggling with her thesis on Sappho, searching for love and stumbling across a merman. It’s absolutely weird, but I marked so many great quotes the first time around that I ended up losing right after I sent the book back to the library, so a reread has been a long time coming (and I’m not taking any chances on the quotes disappearing from my computer file again).
  3. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I read this one only two months ago, but it’s so short and impactful that I’m already ready for another go… and I hardly ever reread, which is saying something. I wavered on buying this one because it’s rather expensive for a novella, but I love the artistic touches in this edition so I went ahead and bought it. This one’s about a teenaged girl whose family is taking part in an Iron Age reenactment that goes too far. It’s so atmospheric and horrifying and brilliant that I can’t recommend it highly enough.

bookhaul4.19

And now I want to share a little about my reading/blogging plans for May, since this TBR isn’t giving much away. Right now, I have one library book checked out: Miriam Toews’ Women Talking; I have a couple more holds pending as well, but I’m not sure when they’ll come in. I want to catch up with some of my backlist BOTM titles, including Lot by Bryan WashingtonA Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, and When the Sky Fell on Splendor by Emily Henry. At some point either in May or June, I want to reread Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage in preparation for a Women’s Prize shortlist/winner post. But primarily, I want to catch up on Game of Thrones. I’m seriously missing out on one of the biggest stories in pop culture because I’m one of those weirdos who needs to read the book first and I’ve only read two books so I’ve only watched two seasons. (Please, everyone who is caught up with season six, remember that spoilers are cruel.) I want to read at least Storm of Swords (by George R. R. Martin) this month, and farther in the series if I can keep my momentum.

tbr5.19

Since I’ll likely be starting with Storm of Swords, which will probably take me around a week (or possibly longer) to read, and I haven’t decided yet whether to post a full review upon completion (I’m not sure whether anyone would be interested in reading more than a few spoiler-free sentences in my month recap), this will probably affect my posts for the near future. I have two tags to complete and another round of Faber Stories mini-reviews coming up, but depending on how much time I spend reading Game of Thrones (and watching the corresponding episodes) I might be taking a bit of a hiatus from regular posts this month. I still expect to be perusing my feed, and I have a new weekly series in mind that I’m looking forward to starting, so I’m not going totally MIA.

Stay tuned for my April wrap-up (including the completion rate for my April TBR) which is coming up tomorrow.

Have you read Miracle Creek or any of the other titles I might be reaching for this month? I’d love to know what you thought in the comments!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Remembered

Women’s Prize No. 16/16

I was ecstatic (and to be honest, a little surprised) that I managed to finish reading the Women’s Prize longlist mere hours before the shortlist reveal! You can find the rest of my thoughts in my longlist wrap-up, but I do want to give a fair look at Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered before completely switching my attention to the shortlist.

rememberedIn the novel, Spring goes to visit her son in the hospital as he lays dying from injuries sustained in a streetcar accident that he may or may not have caused. The accusations against him have more to do with his race than any factual evidence, but if Spring can’t change public opinion she can at least help Edward’s soul find its way to heaven (and his birth mother) by sharing the truth of his ancestry with him. With her dead sister by her side, Spring begins to tell the tale of slavery and freedom through several generations of family history, making sure it’s told the way she remembers it rather than the way it’s been publicly recorded and opined by the (white) masses.

“Either I’ll tell it my way or it won’t get told.”

I thought this was a good title to cap off my longlist experience, as it didn’t strike me as overly similar to anything else on the list (I’ve been noting a ton of thematic overlap this year) and it moves along at a decent pace. The plot moves smoothly and quickly from one scene to the next, focusing on each situation just long enough for the reader to engage with the characters and then moving along before the prose has a chance to dip into any exposition that’s too overt or sentimental- something I struggle with in Civil-War-era fiction.

At this point, I’ve read plenty about the evils of slavery in US history, which made a few sections of this book feel rather expected and already-done. But ultimately, no other title I’ve read on this topic has managed to convey the complex level of competition slavery forces between people who live and work together with quite the same finesse that Battle-Felton manages in Remembered. I was stunned by the heart-breaking way that Ella learns the other slaves aren’t necessarily on her side, even as they claim to be helping her. We’ve read about the wrongs that plantation owners and overseers have performed against the African Americans sold into their “care,” but have we heard about the wrongs one slave would perform against another? Especially the wrongs that come from a place of love? I found Mama Skins’s actions regarding the two teenaged girls she cares for to be the most nuanced and compelling part of this book.

I also particularly appreciated the juxtaposition of the news clippings alongside Spring’s firsthand account. I found this a very effective way of demonstrating the disparity between what might actually happen (or what people remember having actually happened, memory being an entirely different beast) and the way events are written and distributed for public consumption. I found this especially poignant immediately following Luiselli’s also-longlisted Lost Children Archive, which addresses the same topic.

“Freedom come alright. For most of us, it hasn’t come on horses or with golden trumpets. Wasn’t no angel going around saving all the slaves. Some owners turn people loose. Some slaves walk off. Far as I know, wasn’t nobody going round checking if people had set slaves free. And don’t seem like nobody’s making sure we stay free either.”

Unfortunately, other aspects of the story did not work quite so well for me. The ghost appearing to Spring might have made for an interesting spiritual/supernatural element, but instead she felt more like a device for Battle-Felton to convey information to Spring, information that might have been just as effectively left to deduction or assumption. Also, Edward’s position as a scapegoat for the streetcar accident seemed at first a deft move toward showing the ways Spring and her family are still hindered by unjust white whims long past the official date of emancipation Instead Edward’s impending death felt like a contrived reason for Spring to narrate the history that fills most of the novel. I suppose for me the things Remembered seemed like it most wanted to say didn’t always seem to match up with the way the story was being told.

Which, of course, is a stylistic issue, a matter of opinion that’ll vary widely between readers. In the end, I mean only to say that this book was full of ups and downs for me; I have no argument against Remembered, but it didn’t provoke the same level of excitement in me that other longlisted titles have. I think this may have been another sad case (see: Number One Chinese Restaurant) of a prize-nominated book that I might have found more enthusiasm for if I had read it independently of the Women’s Prize. On the other hand, I might never have heard of it without its inclusion on the longlist, and I am grateful to been introduced. I’m not sure where that conflict leaves me.

“When I get mad about them telling me all they think they know about my life, they call me angry. They say it like I ain’t got no cause at all to be upset, sad. Can’t hardly feel nothing without somebody telling me how I should feel instead.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a quick read for me, and I think a good title to herald the end of my time with the longlist. It was easy to get through but it also made me think, which I enjoy in a book. It just didn’t sway me strongly one way or the other, and those seem to be the very hardest books to review.

 

The Literary Elephant

Women’s Prize 2019: Longlist Wrap-Up & Shortlist Prediction

I didn’t post my initial reaction to this year’s Women’s Prize longlist or my plans to read it in its entirety, but I have been slowly working through it. I’ve now officially finished reading the longlist and am looking forward (with much excitement!) to Monday’s shortlist announcement. Without further ado…

The Longlist

When the Women’s Prize 2019 longlist was announced on March 4, I was shocked to discover that I had already read nine (!) of the sixteen titles. I read seven of them in 2018, up to a year prior to the announcement, and two in early 2019.

Having already read over half of the list, I decided to try finishing the longlist before the shortlist announcement. I didn’t declare this intent very loudly because I wasn’t entirely sure it would happen (the only other longlist I’ve read took me about six months to complete. I have a long-standing habit of jumping around genres and reading commitments).

Of the remaining seven, I was familiar with only two titles (Number One Chinese Restaurant and Lost Children Archive) at the time of the longlist announcement. But I was game for the rest.

At this point, I have read all sixteen books, but I have one left to review (Remembered). I wanted to prioritize this overview/prediction post as many hours as possible before the shortlist announcement.
remembered

I’ve arranged the photos above in the order that I read the longlist. Below, I’m listing each of the titles in order of my personal preference, from most to least favorite. Here’s how the longlist turned out for me (titles linked to my full reviews):

  1. Milkman by Anna Burns, 5 stars
  2. The Pisces by Melissa Broder, 5 stars
  3. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, 5 stars
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, 5 stars
  5. Normal People by Sally Rooney, 4 stars
  6. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, 5 stars
  7. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, 4 stars
  8. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, 4 stars
  9. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, 4 stars
  10. Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, 3 stars
  11. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, 3 stars
  12. Circe by Madeline Miller, 3 stars
  13. Ordinary People by Diana Evans, 3 stars
  14. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, 3 stars
  15. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, 2 stars
  16. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden, 2 stars

(Yes, there’s a 4-star in the midst of the 5-stars, that’s not a mistake. Normal People felt like a 5-star book based on the literary merit I saw in it and its ability to bring out all sorts of emotions during my read, but I rate based on enjoyability and it resonated with me so deeply at one point that it made me very uncomfortable, which I acknowledged with a 4-star rating. It still has a solid place among my favorites.)

There were more extreme highs and lows for me in this longlist than in the last longlist I read, the 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Unfortunately, most of my top favorites came from the nine titles I read before the longlist announcement, and most of my least favorites came from the titles I read most recently. I’m usually a save-the-best-for-last type, so I would not have chosen to read them in this order if I’d had more control over it. But overall, I do think this is a very strong list and almost everything felt worth my while. I don’t anticipate reading the entire longlist every year, and with that in mind I do feel at the end that this was a great year for me to read every title.

One of the most interesting aspects of this particular longlist is the way that so many of the titles felt linked to others from the list. I enjoyed piecing together so many ways in which these titles seemed to be speaking to each other. Someone more savvy with graphics might have been able to map this out better, but I’m simply going to list some of the similarities I encountered:

  • Circe and The Silence of the Girls and The Pisces: retelling Greek myth elements
  • The Silence of the Girls and Circe and Swan Song: giving voice to familiar women history has regarded unfairly (perhaps)
  • Ghost Wall and Lost Children Archive: (inadvertently?) leading one’s children astray
  • Freshwater and The Pisces: challenging gender norms, examining mental health
  • Milkman and Bottled Goods: exploring the consequences of rumor in a time of governmental conflict
  • Number One Chinese Restaurant and My Sister, the Serial Killer: exploring hurtful/helpful sibling relationships
  • Normal People and Ordinary People: elevating the everyday
  • Ordinary People and Swan Song and Remembered: questioning and pushing the bounds of hauntings/ghosts
  • Ordinary People and An American Marriage: depicting black relationships in the modern world
  • Praise Song for the Butterflies and Remembered and Lost Children Archive: raising awareness of historical (and recent) societal wrongs
  • Remembered and An American Marriage: depicting racial injustice

There are probably many connections I’ve missed here, as there seem to be SO MANY thematic similarities in this list and I waited too long to start jotting them down. It’s so interesting to consider how the conversations these books seem to encourage are both related to one another and also tangential to each other. But sadly, some of these pairings seem so closely tied that I find it unlikely that both titles would pass on to the shortlist. (For instance, does anyone expect to find TWO Greek retelling books advance?) It bothers me that these similarities might limit the shortlist, but even in my own predictions I’ve taken such considerations into account.

Also taken into account: the fact that some of these titles don’t need the publicity that a win would grant them. (For instance, Milkman and Normal People have already received quite a bit of buzz, largely due to their places on the Man Booker 2018 list, which Milkman went on to win.) Then there’s the fact that this longlist is nicely balanced as far as both topics covered and countries represented, which I’m sure the judges will want to reflect in the shortlist as well. And so my six favorites from the ranks above are not actually my predicted contenders for the shortlist.

The Shortlist

The books I hope (and might more realistically expect) to see advance are as follows:

  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
  • The Pisces by Melissa Broder
  • Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Some additional thoughts- I would not mind Milkman advancing to the shortlist, though I rather hope it doesn’t win for the mere fact that it is already a prize winner and there are other great contenders here. I would not mind seeing My Sister, the Serial Killer advance, though I think Ghost Wall is the stronger novella and I doubt more than one of the three novellas will advance. Based on popularity in other reviews, I would not be entirely surprised to see Swan Song, Circe, or Number One Chinese Restaurant advance, though personally I hope not to see that happen.

If shortlisted, I will probably reread: Ghost WallThe Pisces, and/or Freshwater in the lead-up to the winner announcement.

The Winner

And finally, I’m going to predict a winner. I’m actually going to predict two winners at this point, though between the shortlist and winner reveals I’ll limit myself to endorsing only one of the six possibilities. But as we’re still at sixteen contenders for the moment, I’ll say that:

  1. The title I most want to see win at this point is Freshwater
  2. But the title I think is actually most likely to win, based on its general reception and strong merit, is Lost Children Archive.

I could be completely wrong about all of these guesses. In fact, I probably am. I’ve never predicted a shortlist or prize winner before, so I feel rather unqualified though I am having a lot of fun pondering the choices!

Speaking of fun, I’ve been loving seeing so many differing opinions and reviews of these longlisted titles! Literary prizes are a great way to join in with a large group of readers who are all talking about the same books at the same time. And I’d love to talk about theories and preferences even more in the comments below, so if you’ve read any of these titles, please let me know what you thought, and what you hope will happen next!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

Review: Swan Song

Women’s Prize No. 14/16

Some might say it was a mistake to leave the longest title on the Women’s Prize list so close to the end, and those people would probably be right. Instead of getting the more daunting books out of the way early on and saving the best for last (as I usually prefer), I’ve been reading this longlist entirely in order of which titles are most readily available to me, a sensible but much less perfect system. Though I began Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song with ease and plenty of amusement, there were certainly days this past week when I wondered whether I was going to make it through the longlist- or even this particular title alone- after all. But I’m pleased to be able to say I’ve finally made it out on the other side, with only two titles left to go.

swansongIn the novel, literary wonder Truman Capote comes into fame after the success of his true crime novel, In Cold Blood. With his newfound wealth and influence, he befriends high-class socialites and other prestigious public officials. Briefly, he lives the good life of black tie parties, expensive lunches, Cartier watches, general renown, and oh so very much gossip. Things take a turn for the worse however, when he attempts to expose the secrets of his real friends in his magnum opus, a novel that drags the transgressions of high society members into the public spotlight in a way that seems more scandal than art. The six “swans” who felt most betrayed by Truman’s final (unfinished) work are given voice here as the author falls from grace.

“He thought it was art, Babe. What he did with In Cold Blood. Reportage as fiction.”

For about half the book, though not completely sold on the execution of what seemed to me quite an interesting premise, I was at least highly entertained. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, but I found them fascinating nevertheless. Greenberg-Jephcott uses an intriguing blend of narrative styles that I enjoyed, especially when the backstories of the swans are introduced. I’m also partial to the blending of fact and fiction; premise and personalities completely aside, I loved being able to find real photos of all the main characters. For these reasons, the first half of the book passed quickly and easily for me.

But about 250 pages through, those novelties were no longer enough to satisfy and I began to dwell so much more on criticisms- the first and foremost being that this book seems too long. It’s hard to say exactly what could have been cut, as ultimately I appreciated the stories and backstories of each of the swans (some more than others of course, but I can’t name a single one of the main six that I would specifically prefer to exclude), as well as most of the anecdotes from various points in Truman’s life. There were sections that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of name-dropping that I wouldn’t have missed if removed, but none of the actual content of the book felt out of place.

In the end, I think the element that made this story drag for me was the nonlinear chronology. The story jumps around in time, connecting “present” moments to glimpses farther into the past that are meant to add meaning or significance to what happens later. Though the years are noted in the chapter headers, the frequent switches left me feeling like I never knew exactly where I was in the story or where it was headed, if anywhere at all. Admittedly, the early promise of Truman’s demise gives the glamour an appealingly dark edge that a straight chronology would’ve lacked, but a more grounded format might’ve moved the story along with a stronger sense of purpose.

Speaking of purpose, let’s take a look at what this novel is trying to accomplish. At first glance, its a story of justice or perhaps revenge, with the plural narrative voice of the swans giving these outed women a chance at voicing their own side of events. Upon closer inspection, Greenberg-Jephcott goes to no pains to paint these women in any sort of positive light. I don’t need characters to be likable to find them compelling, but to feel invested in a story I have to be able to root for something. Instead, I found the women unapologetic (or unaware) of the selfishness and greed that Truman was so intent on exploiting. But on the other hand, the narrative never led me to feel that Truman was in the right for sharing what was told to him in confidence, either. I found him just as self-serving and misguided as his swans, which led me to wonder exactly what I was reading for if I didn’t particularly want either camp to “win.” This is a work of fiction, rather than an accurate history of events (though clearly a lot of research went into this book). If not for hard facts, and if not to stretch the “truth” into some more favorable or inspiring light than history provides, what’s the draw? After reading the entirety of Swan Song– all 467 pages of it- I still can’t give a solid answer.

“Because of who Truman was, that evening will always be perfect- nothing could hope to rival it. But because of who he became, it can never exist again. He has taken it with him, and for that, above all else, we can never fully pardon him. One cannot forgive the tainting of the sublime.”

Theoretically, I love the idea of this book. I love that the women’s lives aren’t softened to make Truman out to be a monster he wasn’t, and I love that Truman’s actions aren’t excused in a way that belittles the wronged women, no matter how much they may have deserved (or not) to have their secrets revealed. And yet for all its potential, Swan Song simply seems to lack an extreme or an excitement that secures it as a meaningful story rather than a gossip-riddled piece of once-and-done entertainment.

There’s a lot more I could say about this book- about the terrible words used to describe Truman, most often related to his short stature and homosexuality; about the odd juxtaposition of the narration referring to Truman throughout the book as “the boy,” even in his most adult moments; about the great potential of the plural narrative voice that I felt was ultimately not capitalized upon; etc. But the heart of the matter is that Swan Song felt to me like a book one reads for fun, and I just wasn’t having enough fun with it. It’s likely that readers with more knowledge of Capote’s work (I’ve only read In Cold Blood and watched the film for Breakfast at Tiffany’s so far) would take more from this reading experience than I did. I am more interested in reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s and even Answered Prayers at this point, so I can’t say Swan Song was an entirely ineffective read, and nor would I want to. With some revisions, I could have adored this book. As it is, I felt that it simply didn’t live up to its potential.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had high hopes for this one after starting in with such a high level of amusement, but I just couldn’t maintain that level of interest through all 450+ pages. It certainly makes for an interesting addition to the Women’s Prize longlist, though; there’s an almost-supernatural moment toward the end with Truman and the swans that reminded me of Ordinary People– yet another similarity tying the longlisted titles into one big web.

In no particular order (I’m hoping to finish the longlist in time to rank my favorites and predict the shortlist later on), here are the links to my reviews for the other longlisted titles I’ve read:

Freshwater, Milkman, My Sister the Serial Killer, Normal People, Circe, An American Marriage, Ordinary People, Praise Song for the Butterflies, The Silence of the Girls, Number One Chinese Restaurant, The Pisces, Ghost Wall, and Bottled Goods.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Early Riser

It’s happening. I’m falling behind with my Book of the Month books again. I’m not too upset about it (I’ll get to them eventually), but it does mean that I just finished reading one of my February selections, a very wintery book, in the warm spring weather of April. (Oops.) Fortunately, the Winter of Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser is such an otherworldly setting that it feels more like a fantasy world than a season.

earlyriserIn the novel, a young Charlie Worthing will work just about any job that’ll pay in Morphenox, the dreamless drug that eases almost every member of the human population (who can afford it, at least) through winter hibernation. A brave few serve as Winter Consuls, overseeing the sleeping masses through the three harshest months of the year. Charlie takes a chance on the Consul service (whose members get their sleep in the summer and stay awake through the inhospitable winter storms) and ends up in the worst sector of Wales without a proper mentor during a raging blizzard, right in the middle of the biggest mystery in Morphenox history: a mystery of viral dreams.

“The only evidence I had that this wasn’t real was that I knew it wasn’t. Nothing else.”

Early Riser is the first book I saw BOTM advertise with a warning, as a challenging read. I thought, “well, I’ve been around this reading game long enough, a challenging read doesn’t bother me,” and promptly forgot about the warning label. I remembered it as soon as I started in on the book, however; Early Riser is DENSE.

Though set in a sort of parallel world near modern day and with similar geography to our present reality, the history of Fforde’s world is not exactly the history we’re familiar with; the characters still play scrabble and view the Mona Lisa, but Morphenox has shaped society for decades and skewed connotations and perceptions. Every cultural reference comes into the novel with its own history or definition, there are a lot of new words and systems, some crucial to the story and some thrown in for world-building. Like the schtumperschreck, a gun so high-powered it can barely be lifted for use. Most of the names are imaginative like that, terms that require memorization rather than self-evident rewordings of existing objects and ideas. There are instances where the characters speak or think in ways that are meant to recap important details or plot points, but even so this is a book that requires a reader’s complete attention. There are also a lot of characters: some who aren’t who they say they are, some who are basically zombies, some who are actually two characters rolled into one. Part of the plot takes place in Charlie’s dreams. All in all, a warning label is not remiss.

” ‘We’re all something we’re not,’ he said. ‘Every one of us is stuck between the person we want to be and the person we can be.’ “

But if you are the sort of reader who likes to fully immerse in fiction, Early Riser is a wild ride. From the nightmare creatures who may be real, to tampered dreams, to corporate espionage, to gunfights in white-out blizzard conditions, I guarantee you’ll never know quite where this story is going next.

Perhaps the most intriguing element, however, is that Fforde leaves the gender of the main character up to the reader. “Charlie” is one of those names that could fit a male or female, and many would probably fill in that blank without noticing that this choice is made in the reader’s mind. Other characters are given gender pronouns, but not the main character. Charlie seemed more like a man to me, but I wonder whether this is simply due to the fact that I am a woman, and the lack of female-specific concerns made me feel that Charlie was not a woman. I waited through all 400 pages to see some indication one way or the other, but Fforde never provides concrete evidence. Which is a neat idea and it’s intriguing to peruse other reviews and see all the disparate ways readers have imagined this blank-slate character. On the other hand, if (like me) you notice early on that no gender is specified, you may have a hard time picturing Charlie. This was a small point of frustration for me throughout the story, though I do not begrudge Fforde’s attempt.

Also of interest is the formatting of the book, which includes footnotes (which I thought were fun but not strictly necessary) and excerpts from fictional historical texts at the start of each chapter (which I found very amusing and generally helpful in envisioning this world but also very distracting from the main plot). Both of these elements, though not entirely effective for me, do help immerse the reader in this wintery world and in Charlie’s mind.

“It’s the loneliness. In the Summer it simply makes you glum, but in the Winter it can be fatal. I’ve seen strong people collapse inside.”

The only real setback for me came from a lack of danger. The reader is told over and over that Charlie’s chances of survival are slim, but there’s no real worry of Charlie dying an untimely death. Unexpected saviors intervene, or Charlie is lucky, or someone sacrifices themselves for the sake of the mission- which requires Charlie staying alive, of course. In most books, the reader expects that the main character will live through most of the narration, so this shouldn’t have been a problem, but there’s a disconnect between the stakes claimed loudly in the narration and the actual likelihood of Fforde allowing Charlie to befall even a minor injury. This killed some of the tension and excitement for me, as I wasn’t particularly invested in the characters more likely to meet their demise.

“As long as I had value, I was safe.”

Initially, I picked this book up because I was interested in its viral dream aspect; earlier this year I loved Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, and was hoping for another weird sleep saga. Early Riser is certainly weird and does have some Inception vibes, but I found the Winter far more compelling than the dreams in this case. Don’t let my middling rating fool you- I’m sure I will remember parts of this story for a very long time, and the world stands out as one of the most thoroughly-imagined settings that I’ve ever read. I’m glad I picked this one up.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I had a good time reading this and loved the rich world and unpredictability of the plot, I also had a hard time reading very many pages of this book at a time. The lack of fear for Charlie and the constant need to parse new terms and concepts distanced me from the story, even though overall I would say I found the plot impressive. I wish I had made time for Early Riser back in the depths of winter, as much because of the book’s density and length as its setting.

 

The Literary Elephant