Tag Archives: bookish

Reviews: Beach Read and The Gifts of Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Vagina Bible

Nonfiction reviews have been rare sightings on my blog lately, but hopefully they will become a more regular presence now that I’ve concluded my four-month commitment with this book!

thevaginabibleDr. Jen Gunter’s The Vagina Bible is a medical textbook for the layperson, its focus apparent in the title. This is an incredible resource that I wish every person with a vagina would have access to, but I want to be careful about how I’m recommending it because it’s not the typical sort of narrative arc that I praise here.

The Vagina Bible is a bit like a first aid kit, in that you shouldn’t expect to use everything at once, you shouldn’t expect “having fun” to be your primary aim or response while looking through it, and yet when/if you need it, it’s invaluable to have on hand.

“I want every woman to have the power that comes with knowing how her body works and how to look for help when her body may not be working as she hoped it would. I want all women to know when there is bias and medical subterfuge, when there are lies, and when the patriarchy is just invested in keeping them frightened about their own normal (and I might add, glorious) bodily functions.”

The book is divided into chapters grouped by when you might be looking for certain information. Some of the chapters can be read at any time, and are great for general and everyday use- points on hygiene, menstrual products, contraception choices, Kegel exercises, and more. There’s plenty of myth debunking- Is white underwear better for your health? (No.) Can you prevent urinary tract infections by peeing after sex? (No.) Do you really need to worry about toxic shock syndrome? (Probably not.) Gunter also includes a section in which she reveals which products she keeps in her own medicine cabinet, and what she’d throw away immediately if she looked into yours. These are the bits that I think most people will take the most immediate interest in.

There are also more specialized sections that some people will never need, and others will only need at certain times- information on surgeries and hormone treatments for trans men and women, on the causes and effects of menopause, on what happens to the vagina during and following a pregnancy. There are whole chapters devoted to specific sexually transmitted infections and vaginal/vulvar conditions. Some of this content will likely never be applicable to you, and though some of it may be applicable throughout your lifetime it won’t all apply at once. For this reason, I don’t recommend picking up The Vagina Bible with the intent to read cover to cover, unless you’re really curious about the vagina from a medical standpoint.

But even if you don’t have that level of curiosity, I still think this is an important volume to keep on your shelf and flip through as needed. Gunter will tell you what you should expect in a visit to your local gynecologist, how to talk to her about what’s bothering you, and what you can do to advocate for your health and make sure any concerns you have are being asked and addressed. She goes over which issues can be handled over the phone, which require an exam and/or test (some of which can be done at home!), and what the next steps should entail if your provider is handling the matter appropriately- or when to look for a new provider! There’s advice on medication options (including OTC products) and general routines, information on how much you can do to take care of yourself before and when any issues arise, and statistics that make many of the infections and conditions covered feel a lot less shameful if they do happen to enter your life. It’s all handled very professionally- Gunter reserves her judgment for the patriarchy and validates your every possible feeling and reaction to whatever condition your vagina may be in.

“If you are going to have sex, you are almost certainly going to be exposed to HPV. This doesn’t make you dirty or bad or promiscuous, it just makes you human.”

“Almost everyone has one or more herpesviruses in their body.”

“In supposedly monogamous heterosexual relationships, approximately 23 percent of men and 19 percent of women admit to sexual infidelity. Whether a chlamydia infection was acquired recently, months ago, or years ago is not possible to know. How you interpret that data in the context of the infidelity statistics is up to you.”

Clearly a lot of work went into this book- Gunter mentions trying different products or practices in the name of research, and she’s looked up countless studies in order to provide the best, most accurate advice. She’s honest when she doesn’t have a firm answer and clear when she’s giving an opinion or anecdotal evidence in the absence of accepted fact (medicine doesn’t have an answer to every question, unfortunately). She’s easy to follow and uses both official and accessible terminology to provide readers with the full truth, in an understandable way. There are images and diagrams where necessary. The chapters, all laid out by subject with corresponding page numbers at the front of the book, are further subdivided with bold headers between points to guide readers directly toward specific questions they might have. When content from one chapter relates closely to matter discussed in another, Gunter tells the reader which chapter to check for more information. (This is one of the reasons Melanie’s review of the audiobook ends with the advice of picking up a physical copy instead! You’ll want to be able to go back and forth easily between different sections of the book.)

But while there’s a ton of useful and very accessible information here, I can’t pretend it’s the only medical advice you’ll ever need, even in women’s health. It is worth noting that this is a book covering vaginal and vulvar topics- it doesn’t talk much about uterine health at all, including pregnancy. If those are the subjects you’re interested in learning about, you’ll have to look elsewhere. And if you don’t have a vagina and don’t expect ever to have one, unfortunately I think you’ll find very little of personal interest here, unless you have a medical interest. There’s some information on contraceptives and STIs that may be useful even to those without a vagina, and certainly men could benefit from learning what advice not to give the women in their intimate lives, but as those aren’t this source’s primary intent I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for those purposes, as they’re not explored fully here.

Personally, I did read The Vagina Bible cover to cover, over the course of four months, and I’m glad I did even though it’s not the method I would advocate for using with this book. I took something interesting and new-to-me out of almost every chapter, and even the ones that didn’t apply to me right now made me feel better about understanding the range of what’s “normal,” and where I can look for more information when/if I need it. This is definitely a resource I’ll be returning to over the years of my life, though I doubt I’ll ever need all of the content. It’s an empowering and informative read that was a lot more helpful than the one week my tenth grade health class spent on sex ed. I’m in good health at the moment, but even so there are pieces of advice on habits and products that I’m going to put to good use thanks to Gunter and this book. If you had a better education than I did or have a reliable source you can go to for firsthand advice, maybe you don’t need this book. But if you get an itch or a pain etc. and want to know what it is and whether you should make an appointment, The Vagina Bible is the place to turn.

“You can’t be an empowered patient and get the health outcomes you want with inaccurate information and half-truths. You also can’t be empowered when you are getting correct information but the person or source informing you is making you feel bad or is not listening to your concerns.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I rate based on enjoyability; satisfying my curiosity and increasing my knowledge on a relevant topic is something I enjoy, though it’s certainly no well-crafted fictional narrative. Based on content alone, this would be a 5-star read. I’m thrilled it exists and hope it will be a comforting guide for a lot of people who are misinformed or unsure about vaginal health. I can’t recommend it highly enough to that audience. (And if I haven’t convinced you yet, be sure to check out Ren’s incredible review, which convinced me!)

 

The Literary Elephant

TBR 5.20

Every month for 2020, I’m setting a TBR with five of the books I expect to read (and love!) throughout the month. I won’t mention extras even though I may expect to pick up other things, and at the end of the month, finished or not, each of the five are barred from future 2020 TBR appearances. This is how I’ll give some structure to my reading schedule without overcommitting!

I’ve gone 3 for 5 the last two months, though I’ve since caught up on one of my March books. Even though this hasn’t been a perfect success every month, I still enjoy having a little concrete list to choose from and help keep me focused on various reading goals. Hopefully this month I’ll be able to complete my list again!

The lineup for May:

  1. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. Since the Women’s Prize longlist announcement, I’ve fallen behind on some of my reading plans for the year, so I’m making a return to my 20 in ’20 list with this fantasy that’s been on my shelf unread for at least 5 years. All I know going in is that there’s a group of captives/rescues studying in a magical library under a man they call Father who might actually be God. I’m aiming to make Fantasy the subject of my genre spotlight post this month, so this should help put me in the mindset!
  2. Bunny by Mona Awad. This is a title from the list of books I should have read in 2019, and one of the titles on our blogger-edition Women’s Prize! I’m one of the last to start reading our alternate books, thanks to Wolf Hall and this slump I’ve been in for two weeks now, but this sounds like the perfect sort of story to get me back up to pace. It’s a New England-set horror about a cult-ish MFA program and seems to be best categorized as “weird af.” I can’t wait.
  3. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I’ve decided to space out my Cromwell trilogy reading as a result of Wolf Hall taking me so long- I know my current slump is a product of a lot of factors not including disliking the trilogy, but spending so much time on Wolf Hall is becoming frustrating despite generally enjoying the detailed and immersive experience. I’ll need this TBR nudge to keep me moving through Cromwell’s fictionalized misadventures, though I don’t expect to struggle so much with the last two books.
  4. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Another fantasy to prep for my spotlight post, another book from our alternate WP longlist, and now a title to cross off my BOTM list as well. I’ve loved Bardugo’s writing and stories in the past and have been very curious about this one- Sarah’s recent review made this look even more promising! It’s about secret societies on the Yale campus, which sounds excellent.
  5. Beach Read by Emily Henry. A BOTM title for me, a new release I’ve been looking forward to, and just something lighter and quicker to get me back into reading. I think I’ll pick this up very soon, especially after seeing several promising reviews for it: Naty’s and Karissa’s posts on it have been in my feed lately! This is a romance novel featuring two writers who disagree on books- or maybe their opinions aren’t so opposite after all.

tbr5.20

I’ve been taking it easy so far this month, and am hoping that the switch away from the Women’s Prize and back into fun reading will be just what I need to start tackling new reading projects and old ones that have been on hold, without feeling the self-imposed pressure of a full reading schedule. I’ll hold off on mentioning other specific titles I hope to get to this month to keep from being disappointed when inevitably something I’ve named publicly doesn’t pan out, but I DO want to mention that I’m participating in Melanie’s Flannery O’Connor short story read-along! It’s not in my official TBR because I’m not sure that I’ll manage to keep up with every story every day, but it’s very casual and should lead to some fun discussions. So if like me you’ve had a copy of this collection gathering dust for a while and want to check it off your list once and for all, this is a great chance to join in, and there’s still plenty of time to get started!

 

And even though I’m so behind on new releases I wanted to check out this year, here’s the list of May publications I’ll be keeping an eye out for!

  • Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride. Literary fiction about a woman who stays in many hotel rooms, recounting past experiences and pondering what it would mean to go home. Out May 5th
  • Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin. Science fiction featuring stuffed animals that double as surveillance devices; willing participants can choose to be followed or to follow someone else’s life. Out May 5th
  • Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas. Gothic mystery in which students at an exclusive boarding school receive a free education with promising futures in exchange for completely leaving behind the outside world for three years. For more info, Laura just posted a positive review that upped my excitement! Out My 12th
  • Grown Ups by Emma Jane Unsworth. Contemporary fiction about a thirty-something millennial woman still struggling to figure out life as an adult amid a breakup… or perhaps a breakdown. Out May 12th
  • Beach Read by Emily Henry. Adult romance between a romance and lit fic writer sharing a summer-long challenge. Already mentioned above- I got an early copy thanks to BOTM, but I’m still stoked for the official release and seeing everyone’s reviews! Out May 19th
  • All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad. Contemporary fiction with an lgbtq+ focus in which a young woman’s dead mother leaves behind letters to men her family doesn’t know, revealing a hidden life separate from her marriage. Out May 26th

 

Any titles you’ve read or recognize from your own TBR lists? Let me know in the comments!

 

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 4.20

April is usually such a highlight for me- it’s my birthday month!- but this year it was bookended with reading slumps, brought unwelcome post-season snow, and was filled with mostly underwhelming Women’s Prize content. I’m looking forward to moving on as quickly as possible.

My TBR goal for April looked like this:

tbr4.20

In the end I finished three and a half  out of the five. The three books I did read were all 4-star ratings for me, and I am enjoying Wolf Hall, which is the one I’m halfway through. In fairness, I’ve read over 350 pages of it, which feels like it should count for something– it is very long. I’m still planning to read The Glass Hotel very soon. And I finished one of the books from my March TBR that I fell behind on that month. So even though I didn’t finish everything as quickly as I’d hoped, I’m not disappointed with where I’m at.

Here’s what I read this month:

  1. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – 4 stars. Under other circumstances, this child-narrated mystery of disappearances in an Indian slum might have been a 3-star read for me; the mystery element was a little disappointing. But the narrative voice and themes blended well, and this did turn out to be among the highlights of the Women’s Prize for me this year.
  2. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie – 2 stars. Though the premise was very strong with this one- examining the effects of large-scale disaster on a poor community- this book neglected to follow through on any of the deeper commentary it hinted at.
  3. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – 3 stars. This retelling of the Trojan War through female perspectives is a solid read with some great characters, but unfortunately failed to break free of the original narrative and didn’t bring anything new to the table for me.
  4. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – 4 stars. My favorite read from the Women’s Prize longlist, in terms of enjoyability! Though perhaps not the most impressive on a technical level, I was nevertheless caught up by the prose and characters in this reimagining of a chapter in Shakespeare’s family life.
  5. Queenie by Candince Carty-Wiliams – 3 stars. A young Jamaican-British woman in London hits rock bottom as her love life spirals out of control, dragging everything else down with it. I thought this was a great story, but so surface-level that I’ve barely thought about it at all since turning the last page.
  6. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – 4 stars. A stellar WWII fiction set in Singapore. The delivery of information is a bit clunky, especially at the end, but I appreciated each of the perspectives and thought the story was done beautifully, with nuance, and didn’t pull any punches. A real win for the Women’s Prize longlist this year, and a shame it didn’t advance.
  7. Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars. This story of a famous (fictional) British-Irish actress and her daughter didn’t have quite as much emotional effect for me as I’d hoped, and yet I loved Enright’s skill with language and the complex dynamics she created between the two main characters.
  8. The Vagina Bible by Dr. Jen Gunter – 4 stars. I’ve been reading this in bits and pieces since January; it is essentially a nonfiction medical reference work rather than something meant to be read cover to cover for fun, so I needed to take my time with it though I am glad to have seen all of the information at least once. This is an absolutely incredible resource. Review coming soon.

When I finished the Women’s Prize longlist (except for the Mantel trilogy) and the shortlist was announced, it was like hitting a reading wall for me. It wasn’t that I suddenly didn’t want to read, but that I could only manage a few pages at a time. My attention would wander. I would get tired. I would get distracted. I’m battling some sort of mild but persistent head cold which has really wiped me out. It’s been a weird time. I am happy to put this hot mess behind me and start fresh, and hopefully my immune system will do the same. I know it could be so much worse so I’ve been trying to just take a step back instead of complaining. Here’s to hoping May will be better for everyone.

wrapup4.20

(The book turned backward in the photo is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel; as I’ve read over half I’m giving it an honorary mention.)

Some Stats:

Average rating – 3.5  This is the same as last month, but somehow it feels worse when there are no five stars in the bunch.

Best of month – I’m calling a tie between Hamnet, my most enjoyable read of the month, and The Vagina Bible, the book whose very existence excited me most.

Owned books read for the first time – 7 out of 8. That’s great! I had one library book to finish up at the beginning of the month, but otherwise I’ve been reading off of my own shelves, and expect it’ll be the same for May. I’m not sure when my library will reopen, but my due dates are now pushed back to June so it doesn’t look promising. I think this is the first time I haven’t been to a library all month in over five years. Now if only I could hold off on buying more books in order to make an actual dent in my TBR stack in the meantime… 6 of the books I read this month were only bought in March!

Year total – 36. Goodreads says I’m three books ahead of schedule for my goal of 100 books this year. Considering the fact that I’ve barely been reading the past two weeks, I’m just relieved I haven’t fallen behind yet.

Even though there’s been plenty to complain about through April, it wasn’t all bad! The Women’s Prize longlist was largely underwhelming this year, but I still had a lot of fun reviewing the books and chatting about them with all of you! Be sure to check out my

if you missed them! Also in response to the Women’s Prize this year, don’t miss the announcement for the alternate longlist I’m participating in:

And last but not least, my Spotlight Series post of the month featured literary fiction for April, and it’s crammed full of recommendations! Be sure to check it out and weigh in if you’re interested!

I’ll have my May TBR coming up next, and hopefully will be getting back into the swing of reading and reviewing soon. If things go as planned, I should have plenty of content coming up this month and hopefully a handful of 5-star reads to review among my posts! I am determined to have a better month. Tell me about a book you’re excited to read in May!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Spotlight on: Literary Fiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share here what Literary Fiction means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is unique, in that you could hear a different definition for this genre from virtually every reader you ask. I’ve already tried voicing my thoughts on it at least once  (in the Literary Fiction Tag), but I’ll try again here for further clarity. To me, literary fiction (lit fic) is more about style than content- though many lit fic novels interrogate the human condition and/or state of the world, subject varies widely and in the end what I think classifies fiction as “literary” is form or structure that engages with the content. While genre fiction often aims to tell a story, literary fiction aims to tell a story in a particular way, in which the form is integral to what is being told and advances the purpose of the novel. It is fiction that pushes the bounds of how stories work on a technical level. Thus we can have literary [genre] fiction, as a novel can feature both the content that fits within a given genre and a style that marks it as literary. This is my interpretation.

None of this is to say that genre fiction is in any way inferior- one of my main peeves with lit fic categorization. “Literary” is often (mis)used as an elevating term, given to works that are considered “serious” or even just “good.” Preference should not be mistaken for quality. In my opinion, “good” fiction is work that achieves what it sets out to do, which can certainly be found in genre fiction and can also be found lacking in literary fiction. It’ll depend on the book, and who you ask; reading is always subjective. The main issue that I think leads to genre snobbery surrounding lit fic is that lit fic is seen as a more intellectual approach to writing and reading, where genre fiction is often more focused on emotional response (which is not to say that lit fic can’t be emotional or genre fic intellectual- I see it as a sliding scale with lit fic on one end and genre fic on the other, and where a book falls on this scale will again depend on the reader). Ultimately, it seems unfair to weigh the two against each other merit-wise when they have such entirely different methods and goals.

My other peeve with lit fic categorization is the use of “lit fic” as a catch-all genre for hard-to-classify fiction. If a book’s content does not fit obviously into one of the usual genres, this does not automatically make it literary fiction. A novel can be, in my experience, simply “fiction,” or “contemporary fiction,” or a mix of genre fictions if more than one apply. Yes, lit fic is hard to describe and define, but this does not mean that anything should go.

That said, I tend to label books with every genre that applies, rather than limiting each title to one genre. Because the point here is to share a wide variety within each genre and maybe convince readers to check out bookish elements they otherwise wouldn’t, my goal in this Spotlight series is to offer an expansive view, which in this case will include literary [genre] fiction; there are no other subgenres that I normally associate with lit fic.

 

My History with Literary Fiction

Though I would say lit fic is now one of (perhaps even at the very top of the list of) my current favorite genres, its appearance in my reading life is recent. While I was growing up, the school and public library in my hometown did not have much of what I would consider literary fiction, and I don’t think I had a real sense of the genre until I started studying English at college, over the internet, and in my own reading.

AtonementAnd so my earliest brushes with lit fic were few and far between; it’s possible that more of what I read as a teen might fit here but its literary merit went unnoticed by me at the time, and of course I no longer remember all of the books I read in those years well enough to reevaluate with more recent knowledge. The first books I can remember reading in high school that might be considered lit fic were The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Atonement by Ian McEwan.

From there, a lot of my studies and personal reading experience with lit fic took me to classics and modern classics, which I’ll talk more about in a minute.

Lit fic really exploded into my reading life with my foray into blogging in 2016. As my tastes changed and I discovered a lot of titles beyond what was available at my library, I picked up books like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Donna Tartt’s The Secret Historyas well as Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. The VegetarianThanks to the blogging community, my interest in literature prizes grew; though these prizes don’t cater exclusively to lit fic, there is generally plenty of it to be found among the nominees. I’ve become so invested in reading these books that I read the entire Booker Prize 2018 longlist and 2019 longlist, as well as the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 longlist and 2020 longlist.

 

Literary Fiction Classics

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young woman’s extreme struggle with mental health as she attempts to pursue a writing career.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley depicts a scientist’s experiment of restoring life to dead flesh; in a brilliant turn through the relationship between creator and created, the novel reveals that the monster is, perhaps, not the monster after all. (If you’ve already read and loved this one, don’t miss Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant modern homage, Frankissstein!)

Emma by Jane Austen uses irony to great effect as the titular character meddles in her friend’s life, trying to secure a marriage for her that just doesn’t suit. Deft characterization allows the reader to see these characters far better than they see themselves.

Sister CarrieSister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser follows a young woman at the turn of the 20th century, intent on chasing a bigger life. As her success increases, the wealthy man who latched onto her while she was most vulnerable finds himself falling from society instead.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee uses a child’s voice to portray the harsh effects of racism in historical southern US. Its sequel, Go Set a Watchman, switches to an adult perspective (aging the same narrator), revealing further complexities in the situation that the child failed to grasp.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier follows the relationship of a newly-married couple; the husband was a dowager, and his new wife worries she won’t live up to the standard her predecessor set- eventually to realize she doesn’t know the full truth of that first wife’s character.The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is perhaps the horror story of a haunted house, or perhaps the tragic story of a psychologically unstable woman staying in said house. Better yet, perhaps it’s both.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald utilizes a secondary narrator to tell the star-crossed love story of a wealthy but deluded man and the woman who escaped him.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is told through the villain’s perspective, allowing the reader to see how a full-grown man can rationalize a heinous act- in this case, sexually abusing a young girl- without sympathizing with him.

 

Modern Literary Fiction Staples and Recommendations

Experimental works have been my god tier lately. If this is you as well, you won’t want to miss Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise (a look at manipulation and abuse in teacher-student relationships, set in an art school), Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (a young woman’s tale of abuses large and small, mostly from within her family, and their devastating mental effect), Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (a reminder that stay-at-home moms who bake cinnamon rolls all day and worry about things they can’t change are important too), Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater (an exploration of identity where the self doesn’t conform to rules and terms set out by society), MilkmanAnna Burns’s Milkman (an examination of the power of rumor and community, set in the Troubles), and Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (an examination of the significance and reliability of memory).

But there are plenty of more straightforward gems as well! Some that I’ve enjoyed are John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky (a writer wins his fame by stealing the work of others), Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (a female prisoner reveals the flaws of the US justice/prison system), Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (a reclusive woman tries to convince her neighbors that vengeful wildlife are responsible for a string of local murders), Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure (a trio of girls on an isolated island learn that the dangers of society they’ve been taught to avoid have invaded their space anyway).

 

If you’re completely new to the genre and not sure where to start, I have some recommendations for entrance points to literary fiction based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below):

If you like history: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, Human Acts by Han Kang

SeveranceIf you like sci-fi/dystopian: Severance by Ling Ma, The Need by Helen Phillips, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

If you like magical realism: Lanny by Max Porter, Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

If you like short stories or vignettes: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

If you like social commentary: The Farm by Joanne Ramos, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

The PiscesIf you like Greek mythology elements: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, The Pisces by Melissa Broder

If you’re afraid lit fic is just too hard for you, never fear! There are YA options, like Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It; graphic novels like Margaret Atwood and Mary Renault’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina; novellas like Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall and Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream; and novels that are so borderline lit fic that not everyone’s convinced they count (they do!) like Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations With Friends. Other very accessible options include Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, John Lanchester’s The Wall, or Miriam Toews’s Women Talking.

 

Literary Fiction on my TBR:

Never Let Me GoI’ve mentioned a lot of titles already because I have so many favorites I can’t bear to exclude, but actually I think I could pull a much longer list of lit fic from my TBR. Since I’ve only been deep-diving into lit fic for the last few years, I feel like I have a lot of ground yet to cover here. Some of the books on my “can’t believe I haven’t read it yet” list are: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Idiot by Elif Batuman, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

 

Why Read Literary Fiction?

It’s good for the brain! These are books that make you think, and that leave you pondering after the turning of the final page. It is literature as an art form, questing for the bounds of what a story can do, and how. If you’re a curious person at heart, if you’re interested in learning and being challenged, if you’re tired of formulaic stories and want to be surprised, if you love seeing an artist stretch their skill, these are the books for you. They’re full of big ideas. They expand the mind. They open doors. They tell us about who we are and what sort of world we live in. And they’re infinitely unique.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for lit fic, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Women’s Prize 2020: Shortlist Reaction

The results are in! In case you missed the announcement, this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist contains the following six books:

Congratulations to each of the shortlisted authors!

wp2020shortlist

(Again, I’m missing a copy of Weather, thus the backward-facing stand-in.)

My shortlist reviews (so far) are linked in the titles above. For more of my thoughts on this year’s prize titles, be sure to check out my Women’s Prize 2020 longlist wrap-up, which contains the links to all of my longlist reviews and my impression of the set as a whole. Also included are some shortlist predictions, in which I guessed five of these six titles correctly! That is certainly a record for me, and made for a fun reveal. But let’s talk about the list.

First, what isn’t there? A few of my longlist top choices didn’t make the cut, including Actress, which I was never convinced would stand a chance at the shortlist with this set of judges, who seem to prefer accessibility over literary merit. I thought Fleishman is in Trouble might have stood a slightly better chance, as it is a juicier family drama (which these judges seem to favor, if the longlist is anything to go by), and aside from its bold structure it isn’t a particularly literary read, though it is quite smart. But I wasn’t confident enough to place this one on my predictions list either. I’m more surprised not to see Djinn Patrol, which was lower on my favorites list but a great blend of heavier topics with a lighter narrative tone that I thought would appeal to these judges. It’s also a debut novel from an Indian author amidst quite a few well-established US and UK writers. Similarly, How We Disappeared is a debut from a Singaporean author, and also deftly handles some tough themes- I’m heartbroken this one didn’t advance. I didn’t include it on my prediction list mostly as a way to brace myself for this bad scenario of it not advancing, which sadly is what happened.

Also of note, I think, are the absences of The Dutch House and Red at the Bone, neither of which I particularly wanted to advance but both were highly favored among readers.

As for disappointments that did make the cut, the biggest one for me is Dominicana, which hasn’t sat well with me over time (bumped down to 2 stars), mainly for its lackluster presentation of a questionable romance masquerading as an immigration tale. But it does adhere to a particular motherhood story arc that I saw repeated throughout the longlist, which must have particularly appealed to this year’s judges, and on the heels of the American Dirt debacle earlier this year it does at least make a positive political statement about the need to support immigration stories written by immigrants (or their descendants, in this case). I was also underwhelmed by Weather, though aside from it not resonating with me personally I really have nothing against its presence on the shortlist. Most surprising is the appearance of A Thousand Ships, which I did include in my prediction list as a last-minute wild card but regretted almost immediately because it felt like throwing away a vote; after both longlisted Greek retellings (in the wake of which A Thousand Ships accomplishes very little that’s new) featured on last year’s shortlist, it’s a shock to see such a similar sort of story being honored again so immediately. But while I wasn’t quite at the right place in my reading life to love A Thousand Ships, I do think it’s a perfectly fine novel whose main fault is simply having such a tough act (Miller and Barker) to follow.

But there are some reasons to celebrate as well! With two WP shortlistings and two Booker Prize wins under her belt for the previous books in the same trilogy, it is exciting to see Mantel advance with The Mirror and the Light. It would be a great accomplishment to see her win either the WP or the Booker this year with the trilogy’s final book, and I’d very much like her to have that success. I’m also currently reading this trilogy, so its place on the shortlist is also personally motivating and lets me feel my reading is still “relevant” even though I didn’t quite finish this final longlister before the shortlist announcement. But I’m equally thrilled for Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other on the shortlist! After the fiasco of her dual win of the Booker Prize last year with Atwood, it would really be a rewarding accomplishment to see her win this one outright. Helped, of course, by the fact that her experimental novel (mostly) about queer black women in London is an absolutely excellent book. Then there’s O’Farrell with Hamnet, which was my favorite reading experience from this year’s longlist despite not being the most technically well-done. O’Farrell is perhaps a bit less obvious a choice for the winner (though still very deserving!) than Mantel or Evaristo this year, which is appealing in itself.

And some of my least favorites are now left behind as well, another relief. I’m most pleased not to see Girl on the shortlist, which I thought was messy both in content and authorship. I’m also glad not to see Nightingale Point advance, which many longlist readers (especially UK-based) seem to be loving, though I strongly disliked mainly for failing to deliver on its stellar premise. While I had some fun reading The Most Fun We Ever Had, I also thought it had nothing to offer beyond entertainment, which is really not what I look for in a literary prize so am happy to see this one missing from the shortlist as well.

I think the only longlisted book I haven’t mentioned yet is Queenie, so might as well! This was probably the most middle-of-the-road book for me on the longlist, and I was fairly indifferent to its possible shortlisting. It’s a book that I love to see getting commercial attention and was happy to discover on this year’s longlist, but it also left me nothing to think about after closing the cover, which isn’t a trait I would look for in “the best” fiction of the year. I suspect it might have been a bit too thematically similar to the more obvious shortlist choice of Girl, Woman, Other, which probably hurt its chance of advancing this year even if it is a great read.

wp2020longlist(minusone)

So, my initial overall impression of the shortlist: It could have been worse! It also could have been better, but it would have been hard to pull a really exciting shortlist out of a longlist that felt so underwhelming to begin with, and I think the three I’m happiest to see on the shortlist also have the best chance of winning, so it’s hard to feel too bitter.

Do I recommend reading the shortlist? Sure! While I don’t think this is the most exciting set of six books, there’s only one that I thought was actually subpar, and some readers seem to be having a better time with it than I did. If you’re a long-time prize fan looking for a literary challenge though, this one might not be for you. But there’s no shame in picking up only what appeals either, even if that isn’t the set of books that made it to the shortlist. I recommend at least glancing through the longlist because this is a great way to find books by women that lots of people are reading and talking about! My top recommendations from the longlist would probably vary by reader, but I would most widely recommend Girl Woman Other, How We Disappeared, Hamnet, and Queenie.

Where I stand: The only shortlister I haven’t read yet is The Mirror and the Light, which is the third book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. I am currently reading Wolf Hall, the first book in said trilogy. I’ll plan to review all three books together in one go, probably at the end of April or beginning of May. The winner will not be announced until September 9, so there’s plenty of time to finish up (and I do intend to take it a bit easier both with reading and blogging than I have been the last few weeks)! I’ll probably start gathering my concluding thoughts as soon as I finish the Mantel, while my thoughts are fresh, but I’ll wait to post them with an informed winner prediction until closer to the final announcement date, by which time a refresher will probably be helpful.

But never fear! I’m obsessed with Women’s Prize content these days, so more WP-related posts will still be forthcoming. I’ll be posting about an unaffiliated alternate longlist created from this year’s Women’s Prize eligible books, assembled by a great group of bloggers who’ve closely followed this prize. Whether you’re looking for just a few further recommendations or a whole new reading challenge, stay tuned! 🙂 I’ll also be reading as many previous WP winners as I can over the next five months, reviewing as I go, because September is also the closing of the WP “winner of the winners” public vote! The poll is open now if you’re already prepared to cast your vote; if you’re waiting, I’m planning to post at least a partial wrap-up including some thoughts on all of the past winners I’ve managed to read, complete with a ranked list of my favorites.

In the meantime… let me know what you think of this year’s shortlist! Do you have an early guess for 2020’s winner?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: A Thousand Ships

You guessed it: another Women’s Prize longlist review. Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships is the last book that I finished reading, so this is me caught up on reviews! And I did mostly like this one!

athousandshipsIn the novel, Greek muse Calliope brings the voices of women together to retell the story of the Trojan War from exclusively female perspectives. This includes everything from the origins of the war (the gods’ decisions to meddle with the order of things on earth, a squabble over a golden apple, and Helen leaving her husband to sail to Troy), to the aftermath (the fates of the conquered Trojans, husband warriors returning to their wives in Greece, and much-awaited vengeance), as well as everything in between.

“When the war was ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else. And victory had made the Greeks no kinder.”

The book is divided into 40-some chapters, each told from the perspective of a different woman connected to the Trojan War in some way. These vignettes are not presented in chronological order, but rather flow between related characters, plot points, or themes. I actually found this quite effective; it’s easy enough to keep track of the overall timeline at least in broad strokes- before, during, and after the war, and this structuring method also keeps the focus on the characters rather than the already-familiar plot. Most of the characters are given only one chapter each, just enough space to explain their roles. The language is also reminiscent of what can be found in the epic poetry already associated with these myths- it reads a bit like a translation from original Greek, which lends a sense of atmosphere and history.

Though I did enjoy the read from start to finish, I had a few specific hang-ups. The largest is that while A Thousand Ships aims to be a Trojan War story focused on women, I did ultimately find it to be the same male-focused tale, simply told from different mouths. In the book’s list of key characters, nearly as many men feature as do women. Though the women’s deaths and sufferings are highlighted, most of their tales still revolve around the famous men. These women tell of their husbands, their sons, their owners (in the case that they’ve been captured as slaves), etc. It would of course be unrealistic to expect that none of these women’s stories would include men at all, but I did wish the women would have been given a bit more space to stand firm on their own.

The clearest example of the male focus can be seen in Penelope, who recounts all of Odysseus’s trials on his ten year journey home (through letters addressed to him, nonetheless!); her exasperation and annoyance with him for leaving her alone so long is the only sense in which her own voice shines through what is essentially her husband’s story, though she is given more chapters than any other character.

“Who but you [Odysseus] would assume that the gods had nothing better to do than assist you with whatever impossible scheme you had embroiled yourself in? And who but you would be right?”

There’s also Helen, who is uniformly hated by the rest of the book’s women, which perhaps isn’t out of the question given her role in their suffering, but should have been explored more fully so as not to come across as victim- or slut-shaming. I actually thought her dialogue in response to the accusations against her was very interesting and went some way toward pointing out the complexities of her character and situation, but it is sparse and more coverage was needed. Helen is not given a perspective chapter.

In the end I think Haynes’s biggest mistake was not using these women’s perspectives to add anything new to the Trojan War narrative. I think a little creative license with events and motives (perhaps even to pad the story if not to change canon material) might have saved the book from continuing to place men at the center of this tale. As it is, A Thousand Ships may be a fair alternative to reading Homer, but anyone with working knowledge of Greek mythology is unlikely to find anything truly revelatory in these pages. It’s a wonderfully woven recap that relative newcomers to Greek mythology (and veterans who just never tire of hearing the same tales over and over) may appreciate, but as someone who’s read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Silence of the Girls, Circe, and The Song of Achilles all in the last two or three years, I found Haynes’s take a readable and adept account that brings absolutely nothing novel to an old story. Calliope (the muse) certainly tries to steer this narrative in a new direction, but being spoon fed the book’s feminist intents through a clear author mouthpiece does not have the same effect that more powerful female narratives would have provided.

“She isn’t a footnote, she’s a person. And she- all the Trojan women- should be memorialized as much as any other person. Their Greek counterparts too. War is not a sport, to be decided in a quick bout on a strip of contested land. It is a web which stretches out to the furthest parts of the world, drawing everyone into itself.”

Where A Thousand Ships shines, in my opinion is it’s ability to demonstrate the far reaches of a devastating event such as war. Haynes is able to convey that the effects of a conflict like this spread far wider than the number of dead and injured, altering entire communities, including the victors. She acknowledges on the page some of the female horrors of ancient Greece that Homer doesn’t- the way women are appropriated as slaves and even as wives, against their will, the psychological affects of seeing their families and community members killed, their almost complete lack of agency. It is also a story that reminds the reader that there is more to every story than the winner’s tale of triumph.

“In any war, the victors may be destroyed as completely as the vanquished. They still have their lives, but they have given up everything else in order to keep them. They sacrifice what they do not realize they have until they have lost it. And so the man who can win the war can only rarely survive the peace.”

For the right reader this will be a fantastic experience. It’s not a story that requires prior knowledge, though part of the pleasure for me was recognizing familiar faces. If this book had been published before Miller’s and Barker’s recent retellings, if I had read it when I was first learning Greek mythology, I could have loved this book. It’s a perfectly fine narrative that could have stood a few changes but ultimately does nothing wrong. I just came to it at the wrong time in my reading life, and I suspect that most who’ve read the two Greek retellings on last year’s Women’s Prize longlist will end up feeling the same.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars.  I have absolutely nothing against Haynes or this book, but hope not to see it shortlisted. I’m not in a hurry to search out more of this author’s work, but I wouldn’t consider it out of the question based on this experience.

 

The Literary Elephant