Tag Archives: Books

Review: Night Film

I haven’t picked up any horror/mystery novels for a while, but summer nights are perfect for dark reads and it’s good to try new things, so I picked up Marisha Pessl’s Night Film in early June. (Yes, I know it’s July now and no, that was not a typo.) I’ve been struggling through this 600-page behemoth for over a month now, and last night I finally reached the end.

nightfilmAbout the book: Scott McGrath, disgraced journalist, is out for a run late one night when he has a strange encounter with a woman in a red coat. Soon after, Ashley Cordova is found dead. Ashley is the daughter of an eccentric horror film producer whose work is so controversial and terrifying that it exists only in illegal copies and secret underground showings– and the daughter may prove as enigmatic as Cordova himself. Police have ruled the death a suicide, but McGrath knows there’s more to the story and reopens the Cordova investigation that ruined his career years before. Two of his early leads, Hopper and Nora, attach themselves to McGrath’s investigation for better or worse; but the deeper they dig, the more it seems that nothing has been coincidental (including Ashley’s red coat), and everything is tied to an elaborate story part real and part fiction, a story that’s as compelling and creepy as one of Cordova’s films.

Freak the ferocious out— there were quite a few pages on the site devoted to Cordova’s supposed life philosophy, which meant, in a nutshell, that to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind. This was, in Cordovite speak, to slaughter the lamb, get rid of your meek, fearful self, thereby freeing yourself from the restrictions imposed on you by friends, family, society at large.”

The best part of this story is its atmosphere. Pessl writes with an eye toward the visual, coaxing the reader toward seeing this story like a film of the mind. The level of detail is rich and eerie, the metaphors evocative, the action scenes heart-pounding. The prologue draws the reader in completely, and the final chapters send the reader to new depths and heights.

“Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, you realize you’re standing on another trapdoor.”

But this is a 600 page novel. I think it would’ve been a stronger story closer to 300. Pessl does an excellent job of following every plot thread to its conclusion, but this story does not need nearly as many threads as it provides. Some of these arcs are barely attached to the main web of the plot, and some branch off entirely. For example, there’s quite a bit of information given about McGrath’s ex-wife and their daughter, who he sees only occasionally. These characters are absolutely irrelevant to the mystery, as are the ex-wife’s new husband, the daughter’s nannies, and everyone mentioned in between.

So much of this story felt contrived, as well. Everyone McGrath wants to interview is willing to share everything they know about Ashley or Cordova himself– two of his leads are so interested in McGrath’s investigation that they become active participants in it, and this professional investigator is perfectly content, even grateful (by the end of the book he calls them his family) to let them tag along, though they cause as many problems as they solve. Most of the side characters are flat, including the policewoman who helps McGrath behind the scenes for no apparent reason, and the professor/uberfan who, no matter how much he hates McGrath, will step out of his classes and invite McGrath into his home to share Cordova information with him. McGrath is the only person who gains from his relationships with any of these people; why are they so willing to give him whatever he needs?

“Dottie never forgot that night. She said later she felt as if she were an hors d’oeuvre he’d taken one bite of, then put back on the tray.”

There are so many details that some are left floating rather awkwardly. For starters, McGrath talks about his habit of running around the reservoir at 2 AM in the prologue, but does not exercise again in the entire 600 pages that follow, and is rarely awake at that time of night. When he ruminates on the wreck of his career, he mentions that money has gotten tight, but then proceeds to throw “bonuses” at his assistants, bribes to whichever sources need incentive, props and tools to aid his investigation, etc. He spares no expense, though he doesn’t seem to have any income at all for the duration of this novel. And then there’s the black magic expert he calls to help with “the grimmest situation”– when his immediate concern turns out all right, he seems not to remember the grimness of the underlying problems beneath it. The narration is very near-sighted.

But let’s look at the horror aspects of the book. In some ways, Night Film feels like a mishmash of every horror story that’s been done before: there are headless dolls, hedge mazes, witchcraft, corrupt doctors/therapists, deserted mansions, underground tunnels, misty islands, bloody clothing, anonymous phone calls, black hooded cloaks, mythical creature symbols, and about every other basic spooky detail you’ve ever seen before. It’s impressive that Pessl manages to pull all this together into one narrative, but in my opinion the best parts of Night Film are psychological. The scenes when it’s hard to tell fiction from reality, when McGrath feels like he’s in a Cordova film, when someone isn’t who they seem, when unexpected motives come to light or the truth seems closer to home than is comfortable. Parts of this book made my skin crawl, and that’s what kept me reading. I also loved the ambiguity of the ending.

“The truth about what happens to us in this world keeps changing. Always. It never stops. Sometimes not even after death.”

Another pro: this book has some cool multi-media aspects. Within the novel, there are articles, notes, photographs, etc. that fans of Illuminae and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will appreciate. And further, there’s a Night Film Decoder app that allows the reader access to additional content on screen, including videos, journal entries, etc. I didn’t look at all of the app’s content, but what I did see was interesting and I would recommend checking it out while reading if you’re enjoying the novel.

Another con: though this seems to be an adult novel, it reads like YA. McGrath is a grown man, but Nora and Hopper (and Ashley) are in their early twenties, and Sam is 6, or thereabouts. The vocabulary of the novel isn’t too advanced, every mystery is overly-explained, and Pessl uses Italics more aggressively than I’ve seen any writer use them– on every page, practically in every paragraph, she shows the reader exactly where to look. There’s no subtlety (which is not to say that the mystery itself is predictable).

“The space around Cordova distorts… the speed of light slackens, information gets scrambled, rational minds grow illogical, hysterical.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There were some things I really liked about this book, but they were outweighed by the things I really didn’t like. I appreciated that it was a novel that woke strong opinions, and Pessl is certainly a competent storyteller– but this book was not for me. In my younger years I might have loved this, which is part of the reason I couldn’t bring myself to DNF even though I was slogging through so slowly, but present me still can’t decide whether it was really worth the read in the end or not. I probably won’t be reading any more from this author.

Do you like reading mysteries in summer, year-round, or only in October?


The Literary Elephant


Novel Progress 7.18

In my last writing update, I talked about how much I was struggling to finish Chapter 6 (of 9) of my manuscript. Fortunately, writing that post and admitting how hard of a time I was having helped: I did finish Chapter 6 shortly after that. Unfortunately, I thought I could also finish Chapter 7 before this month’s update, but it just didn’t happen.

For each chapter, I have a 10k word goal. When I opened chapter 7 this time around, I was already at 10k words. But those were thousands of words I had written before spending the last 6 months honing chapters 1-6, so changes needed to be made. The main plot arcs will stand, but there are a lot of details I have to go back to check and brush up, and at this point my characters are stronger than when I originally wrote the events of this chapter so I have to make sure that they’re still themselves in chapter 7. I also added some transitional events to the beginning of the chapter to bridge the gap between 6 and 7. So I have been working, just not enough.

Part of the problem is just that I’ve been busier than I expected (again), but also that while I love writing and revising and editing, I always end up feeling stuck in whichever part of the cycle I’m in.  (Does this happen to anyone else?) I thought that making the first chronological trek through my manuscript with a patchy partial draft already in place would be easier than starting at the beginning from scratch– with pieces of the book already done, I’m not always doing the same thing every time I get to a new chapter. Some chapters require more writing, but others are heavier on revision, and chapter 7 has been mostly editing. It’s nice, in a way, not to be stuck writing all 90k words in one go, and then doing all the revising and editing  at once in additional drafts; this way, I’ll have a nearly complete draft by the time I’m finished with my first full draft. I’ve always operated that way, no matter what I’m writing. But I’ve never written anything this long that had to be a coherent, finished product by the time I reached the end; as I’m approaching that finish line, there are more pieces of the story to juggle, and I’m feeling more constricted. I miss the early days of this project when I let myself work on whichever part of the story I wanted to work on, in any order.

I’ve been really tempted lately to pause these chapters that I’ve been feeling bogged down with lately, to go through my list of small tweaks that I need to make in the early chapters. I’m a pantser with my writing, so when I started at the beginning of this draft I’d intentionally left the end open and I wasn’t entirely sure where the story would end up. Now that I have a clearer idea, I know there are little details I need to introduce earlier on, and I have a better idea of how to characterize my MCs from the beginning, in a way that’s more relevant to the overall plot. I feel like I could be more productive working on those aspects that are on my mind right now than pushing through chapter 7, where I’m just trying to make everything add up. Chapter 7 feels like the part of a jigsaw puzzle when all that’s left is the sky, all the pieces are same shade of blue, and some of them fit in multiple slots. But there’s only one solution to connect all of the pieces, and it takes a lot of trial and error and patience. I want a break from the sky pieces.

But that’s dangerous thinking. Letting myself “quit” chapter 7, no matter how temporarily, is how I kept getting off track in the first place, when I was working unchronologically. Instead of making forward progress, I would just keep editing the same “finished” sections over and over, and even though I am glad that everything I’ve “finished” at this point is as polished as it is, I’ve been working on this so long that I really need a complete draft before I go crazy and abandon the whole project. I will never quit writing… but I could see myself quitting this particular project in a moment of weakness. I don’t want that to happen. I am really happy with what I’ve got so far and where this project is going, and I want to get to the end and have a finished draft to show for the last 2 years of work I’ve put into it, but…. But. I don’t know.

I’ve been rambling through these updates lately. I think I’m just getting more stressed out. I’m juggling multiple perspectives in this narrative and as the main event is looming on the horizon, I’m also trying to weave all these characters together properly. I knew it was an ambitious project, and I’m immensely critical of my own work. I wanted to write something fun that would also challenge me, so even though ultimately I love this manuscript, I’m giving it 200% effort and it’s exhausting. This close to the end, there aren’t little surprises for me in the text anymore, it’s all going the only way it can possibly go because there’s so little left to happen. I know where it’s going now, and without the sense of mystery that I started out with, I’m less driven to transfer it onto paper.

And I suppose, as I’m nearning the end, I’m also getting distracted with the next steps. For months I’ve been so focused on just finishing this project, but I’m in the final third of the manuscript now, and even that final third is half-written and just needs brushing up. Within a couple of months, I’ll be writing query letters to potential agents. And that’s the part I’m most worried about in the entire publishing process. That’s the stage of the process that most makes me worry whether I will ever be published at all, whether anyone will ever read my work (I don’t think self-publishing is the route for me). It’s hard pushing that fear aside long enough to even reach that stage, but I’m trying.

So Chapter 7 is where I’m at. I’ve got over 11,700 words in the chapter right now, and I’m trying to edit it down a little bit. I’m not sure if there will end up being a scene or two I need to add towards the end, but even so I’m pretty confident I can get that number closer to 10k. It’s mostly editing left to do, cutting out what’s not necessary, rewording the sentences I can’t stand anymore, checking details. It really shouldn’t take more than a few days of hard work to get through it, if I just make myself keep going.

Looking ahead: I wanted to be finished with this whole first draft by the 29th of July, when I’m leaving for a little vacation. It seemed like the perfect time to put the whole thing out of my mind for a week and come back to it with fresh perspective to make all those small tweaks I’ve been making note of in the last couple of months. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. If I work really hard, I might be able to finish chapter 8 by that time, but we’ll see. I think I’ve already got about 5k words stored in chapter 8. If I can keep myself going, it might be possible to get through 7 and 8, and spend that week of vacation just gathering all my thoughts for chapter 9. I won’t be actively writing during that week, but I’ll probably still have the project in mind, especially if I’m not through to the end of the draft by that time. Hopefully I’ll come back to it more confident and excited than I have been this month, and ready to wrap it all up. I will be looking for an agent within the year. That’s scary, but also really exciting. The balance of those emotions varies day to day.

I know I’m all over the place right now, and I have no idea what my next update will look like. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep moving forward and making progress.

A little inspo for any other struggling writers out there:

“Once I thought that writing this book would be impossible. It was a skyscraper, massive and complete and unbearably far off. It taunted me from the horizon. But do we ever look at such buildings and assume they sprung up overnight? No. We’ve seen the traffic congestion that attends them. The skeleton of beams and girders. The swarm of builders and the rattle of cranes… Everything grand is made from a series of ugly little moments. Everything worthwhile by hours of self-doubt and days of drudgery. All the works by people you and I admire sit atop a foundation of failures. So whatever your project, whatever your struggle, whatever your dream, keep toiling, because the world needs your skyscraper.” -Pierce Brown (Morning Star)

What’s the hardest part of writing for you? Is there any part of the process that scares you?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing (published in 2016) has been on my TBR for a while, but a recent recommendation from a friend encouraged me to finally pick it up. And wow, do I regret not picking this one up sooner.

homegoingAbout the book: One African family morphs into two in the aftermath of a destructive fire. Two women and the descending generations of their families run parallel to each other as both branches continue to grow–unaware of each other– in the midst of the African slave trade. Some characters spend their entire lives in Africa, others in America– some see both. All are affected by the slave trade, even those who are never claimed as slaves or are born after its abolishment. Homegoing is an exploration of culture on a grand scale, weaving a large story whose ends won’t meet again for about 250 years.

“This was how they lived there, in the bush: eat or be eaten. Capture or be captured. Marry for protection. […] He would not be weak. He was in the business of slavery, and sacrifices had to be made.”

About the structure: each chapter is a vignette of a different character’s life; the two families alternate for narrative prominence, but each chapter is entirely different. Long plot arc lines are visible between the stories, but each chapter is essentially complete in itself, though each character’s story leans on the shoulders of the others. Homegoing is masterfully constructed, and the family tree provided at the start of the novel is an effective tool for navigating it if you can’t read the entire novel at once.

“Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”

Though many of the facets of African slavery that this book explores are already familiar– the British colonizers instigating tribal wars to turn Africans against each other, the inhumane conditions of the American cotton plantations, the fact that the legal abolition of slavery did not end unjust laws and racist treatment of African Americans, etc.– the focus of the book is not on any of these details individually. It’s about the accumulation of every tragedy and horror, and they way these hardships link Gyasi’s characters.

“…what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, that he, and everyone else, existed in it– not apart from it, but inside of it.”

About the characters: each chapter’s main character (and each important side character) is utterly unique. There are so many perspectives woven into this story, and though I did have favorites, there was not a single character’s chapter that I disliked. I was sadder to see some chapters end than others, but I found Gyasi’s writing so compelling that each new chapter drew my attention as fully as the last.

About Gyasi’s writing: she pinpoints injustice, racism, and unchecked power without a moralizing or sentimental eye toward the consequences. Homegoing is a sort of history, not a blind accusation. Blame falls where it should, but never on the reader, no matter their color. Each character has their own particular flaws and desires, losses and successes. There is no general line drawn between “these people” who are right and “these people” who are wrong; even the villains of these stories are unique individuals with their own motives, and their faults are laid on them individually (or as a group based on their time and social station) rather than the entire white race through eternity. Gyasi does not sensationalize or sentimentalize any detail of this story, and the objective voice that shines through as a result is Homegoing‘s greatest strength.

“When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book from the very first chapter. I am anxiously awaiting whatever Gyasi will publish next, and I will definitely be buying my own copy of this book when I return the borrowed copy to my friend. I don’t need to wait another 5 months to know this book will be on my favorites list this year.

Further recommendations:

  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This is a book that covers some modern social issues of gender and perspective, filtered through a specific aspect of African culture– the ogbanje, evil spirits born into a troubled child, creating a fractured self. If, like me, you finish Homegoing wanting more African literature in your life, this is a great choice that challenges Western perspectives.
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This one features a magical realism twist, and addresses African slavery in America as it has never been done before. If you like Homegoing (or not) and want a fresh perspective on the African slave trade, don’t miss this book.

I haven’t read a lot of African literature, and I feel like I need some more. Any suggestions for me?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Circe

I went through a mythology obsession in college, a strong enough one that I almost minored in Classics without intending to. I’ve had an interest in the Greek and Roman gods as far back as I can remember. So when Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles was published, I added it to my TBR– but sadly I never got around to reading it. When Miller’s Circe was published earlier this year, I was determined not to let the same thing happen twice. I bought a beautiful edition (let’s be honest, every Circe edition is gorgeous), and this month I read the story.

circeAbout the book: Circe, the eldest daughter of a god (Helios, the sun god) and a nymph (Perse), is trapped between the mortal and immortal worlds of ancient Greece. Though she has the parentage and longevity of a goddess, she has the voice of a mortal, and is much more interested in the human world than the gods’. She learns early that she has little power against the gods and their ways, and that to exist in their realm is to be their plaything. So when Circe is exiled to Aiaia, her banishment is– at least partially– a blessing. On the island of Aiaia, she learns to hone her witching skills and take charge of her own life. She won’t be leaving the same way she came– under someone else’s orders.

“Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure. No matter what I did, how long I lived, at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished.”

Ultimately, Circe is a modern expansion of a relatively small chapter in Greek mythology. While Miller does a great job matching up the details so that everything seems technically correct, Circe just doesn’t quite feel like it belongs in the canon. There were certainly times while reading that Circe gave me the impression of fanfiction– an excuse for Miller to play with pre-existing characters. Some references (or entire recaps) of known stories about the gods gave this book an air of tourism through traditional Greek mytholgy.

As far as familiar names go, there are plenty in Circe. I was afraid that my knowledge of the gods had gone a bit rusty in recent years and that references would go over my head. I am not at all an expert– but I did feel that I knew more than Miller assumed her readers would. Many of the side characters that make appearances in Circe’s tale are explained in plenty of detail, even on the occasions where the character’s role in the story seems so slight that it’s hardly necessary. The betrayals, the spurns, the banishments– Circe is so mild-mannered and quiet, so willing to accept whatever fate she is given, that the little secrets she gets away with and the punishments she endures tend to fall flat. Much of the tension of the story revolves around Circe’s introspection, but even when she notices how unjust the gods’ rulings are she does nothing but think about it. So little actually happens that every side arc where Circe’s story brushes with one of the greats seems contrived just to include that great god or goddess. I did find some of Miller’s characters particularly intriguing– Telemachus, Deadalus, Pasiphae, even Glaucos– but for every character I enjoyed, there was another that felt largely irrelevant to Circe’s main plot arc, no matter how often she thought about them afterward– like Prometheus or even Hermes.

“All those years I had spent with them were like a stone tossed in a pool. Already, the ripples were gone.”

Let’s go back to the fact that Circe seems mild-mannered. From my college electives, I remembered only that Circe was a sorceress with the ability to turn men into pigs. We do see that scene in Miller’s Circe, and it does have its place within Miller’s narrative, but to me that felt like the only piece of the story in which Circe was a strong, independent being following her own instincts. I expected to see more of that Circe in this book, but instead I found a woman unhappy with her lot, simply letting things happen and suffering through an uncomfortable eternity before she’s ready to act. Even when she does use agency, her choices follow the path of least resistance. The way she attained the poisonous spear-tip is particularly anti-climactic because it seems she is finally going to fight, but in the end no fight is required. So many of Circe’s choices seem to go this way. So many of her battles are invisible tests of will. So little seems at stake. Where is the strong, dangerous witch?

“I had felt untouchable, filled with teeth and power. I scarcely remembered what that was like.”

I can see why this book is so widely loved: the writing is easy to read and engrossing, the story emotional and beautiful in places (especially at the end), and the references to canon Greek mythology are plentiful and well-explained for the reader who’s maybe heard of Pasiphae and Athena but doesn’t quite recall their stories and personalities. It’s Greek Mythology for the layperson, perhaps. That’s not to say knowledgable fans will necessarily be put off by this story, but Circe seems particularly aimed at readers who want Classics: 2.0– the readers who will delight in the fact that Circe has none of the long chapters completely filled with names that can be found in Homer’s stories.

“Let him be a hero. You are something else.”

This review has been largely negative, and the fact that Circe fits a style of episodic tales that I just haven’t been jiving with lately probably contributed to my low impression of it. As did the huge amount of hype that preceded my reading. But none of this is to say that I hated Circe in any way. Though there were disappointments, it was fun to see some of my favorite Greek mythology characters again, and I appreciated Miller’s command of language. The ending made me want to dive back in all over agin.

circe2My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I did like this book, but that enjoyment took some effort. The gods are still as fascinating as ever, but Circe lacks the sense of history that other mythological tales have provided for me. It’s gorgeous, but… a little empty? I’m still interested in picking up Miller’s The Song of Achilles, and hoping that volume will be a better fit for me.

Have you read either of Miller’s books? What did you think?


The Literary Elephant

2018 Reading Challenge: Update 2

Halfway through the year means time for another challenge check-in. I don’t think I’ve been paying enough attention to crossing things off this list, so as I’m starting this off I have no idea where I currently stand. Let’s find out.

Strikethrough font means I’ve completed the task, (parentheses) means I’ve designated a book for the slot but haven’t finished reading it yet.

Here is the first set of challenges: individual books.

  1. A book you didn’t get around to in 2017 = Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare
  2. A book with a blue cover = Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover
  3. A Stephen King book = (The Outsider)
  4. An illustrated Harry Potter book = (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling)
  5. A book you’ve loved in the past = Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
  6. A book at least 1000 pages long = It by Stephen King
  7. The last book in a series = (Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff)
  8. A book recommended by a friend = (Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi- currently reading)
  9. A prize-winning book = Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  10. A non-fiction book = Night by Elie Weisel
  11. A book picked up on a whim from the library = Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard T. Chizmar
  12. A book at the bottom of your to-read list = (Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen)
  13. A book with a strong female lead = The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
  14. A book from the staff recommendations display at a bookstore = (Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan)
  15. A book in which a beloved character dies
  16. A Shakespeare play = (King Lear by Shakespeare)
  17. A book that takes place in space = (The Martian by Andy Weir)
  18. A book by a new-to-you author = The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
  19. A new book by an author you already love = Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
  20. A book of short stories
  21. A memoir = The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  22. A true-crime book = In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  23. A book with a five-word title = (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor)
  24. A book set in another country = The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  25. A book of poetry = (Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur)

And for the second set: the big categories. Books that count for this part of the challenge can also be counted for a category in the set above or below.

  1. Twelve classics
    1. Emma by Jane Austen
    2. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
    3. (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide by Robert Louis Stevenson)
    4. (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)
    5. (The Odyssey by Homer)
    6. (The Waves by Virginia Woolf)
    7. (The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
    8. (The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas)
    9. (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle)
    10. (Dracula by Bram Stoker)
    11. (Mansfield Park by Jane Austen)
    12. (King Lear by Shakespeare)
  2. Twelve books within a month of their publication dates
    1. Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
    2. As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner
    3. The Philospher’s Flight by Tom Miller
    4. Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan
    5. Red Rising Sons of Ares by Pierce Brown, Rik Hoskin, and Eli Powell
    6. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
    7. Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall
    8. Still Lives by Maria Hummel
    9. The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware
    10. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
    11. (The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager)
    12. (Dark Age by Pierce Brown)
  3. The rest of the A Song of Ice and Fire Series
    1. (A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin- currently reading)
    2. (A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin)
    3. (A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin)
  4. All of my unread Book of the Month Club books
    1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
    2. (Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich)
    3. (Artemis by Andy Weir)
    4. The Power by Naomi Alderman
    5. (Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King)
    6. (Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng)
    7. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
    8. (Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane)
    9. (One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul)
    10. (All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood)
    11. (Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller)
    12. As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner
    13. (The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne)
    14. The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller
    15. Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan
    16. The Oracle Year by Charles Soule
    17. Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall
    18. (The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya)
    19. Still Lives by Maria Hummel
    20. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
  5. Nine books by Victoria/V. E. Schwab
    1. (The Archived)
    2. (The Unbound)
    3. (This Savage Song)
    4. (This Dark Duet)
    5. (Vicious)
    6. (Vengeful)
    7. (A Darker Shade of Magic)
    8. (A Gathering of Shadows)
    9. (A Conjuring of Light)

Final set: some specific titles I definitely want to read in 2018. These can also count in the sets above.

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  3. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
  4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  5. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  6. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  7. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
  8. The Martian by Andy Weir
  9. Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
  10. Obsidio by Jay Kristoff and Amy Kaufman

Finis. So here’s where I stand:

  • I’ve read 38 books that count for this challenge.
  • I would need to read at least 92 books to fill every slot in this challenge.
  • That’s about 41% completion at this point.
  • I’ve read 61 books so far this year, which means
  • I’ve read 23 books that don’t count for this challenge.
  • I need to read at least 54 more books to fill every slot left.

I can work with that. Looking at these numbers, it would technically be possible to complete this challenge still by the end of the year. But I know I’m going to be reading more books that don’t count here.

And honestly, I’m okay with the fact that I might not read all of these books within the year. I chose the books I did to push myself to pick up unread titles from my shelves, and I have been. But I’ve also been focusing on reading quality over quantity this year, which means reading books that inspire me and teach me about the world instead of just reading a ton of titles that are easy to cross off a list. Overall, I’ve been really happy with the change in my reading this year as far as quality goes. I’ve been taking chances on trying new things, and I’ve been finding some phenomenal titles that I didn’t necessarily know to look for when I first constructed this challenge. I dont want to change the way my reading has been going this year just to finish this challenge, because in the end enjoying what I’m reading and learning from what I’m reading is more important to me than crossing titles off a list.

With that in mind, there are some categories here I’m sure I’ll finish before the end of the year, and some I probably won’t. The first set, with 25 individual books, should be fairly easy. Even if I don’t stick to the titles I’ve been plannnig, I’ve been having fun matching what I’m reading to the categories of that set, and I’m over halfway through that bunch.

The second set, the groups of books, I’m not so sure about. I’m way behind on classics, but I’ve been reading a lot of modern classics from the Penguin Modern collection; at some point I’ll decide how many of those short volumes equal one classic, and I think I’ll end up close to my 12-book goal.

I’ll definitely read more than 12 books within a month of publication; I’m not going to stop reading new publications when I reach that goal.

I don’t mind extending my Song of Ice and Fire read into next year, as long as I make some progress this year.

I would really like to catch up on my BOTM selections; that list is going to keep growing as I acquire more of their books throughout the year, but I think at some point (maybe this fall) I want to do a BOTM marathon to try to finish off that list.

And then we have Victoria Schwab. 9 of her books now seems a bit excessive, when really I just wanted to push myself to get started on reading them. I read one Schwab short story last year and I think I’m really going to like her books, but as long as I try a couple I really don’t mind not reading all of the Schwab books I’m interested in within 2018.

And finally, the last set, the specific books. I really wanted to be able to cross these ten off my TBR this year, but I just keep not reaching for them. My priorities have changed in the last 6 months, and I have no idea if I’ll be able to get to all of these or not. Some of them are more tempting than others at this point.

But whether I can complete the challenge or not, I think it’s accomplishing what it was meant to: I’m reading unread books from my shelves, and I’m reaching for books I think I’ll really enjoy instead of books that I can finish quickly. I’ll update again in three months, and your guess is as good as mine as to where I’ll stand at that point. But so far, I’m having a great reading year, and I’m not going to let any lists bog me down.

Are you working through a reading challenge this year? How’s it going? Have your interests changed throughout the year?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Why I Am Not Going to Buy A Computer

This is the last of my Penguin Modern reads for a while– I’ve reached the end of my second batch and the third hasn’t arrived yet. But for now, here’s a review Wendell Berry’s nonfiction, titled Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer.

img_2172About the book: In a short (5-page) essay fittingly titled “Why I Am Not Going to Buy A Computer,” Berry explains why he chooses to write by hand in an increasingly technological era. 5 response letters are printed following this essay, to which Berry in turn responds briefly. This is followed by the second essay of the book, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” in which Berry argues again, at greater length, why he stands by his original decision not to buy a computer despite the responses he has received opposing his stance.

“But a computer, I am told, offers a kind of help you can’t get from other humans; a computer will help you to write faster, easier, and more… Do I, then, want to write faster, easier, and more? No. My standards are not speed, ease, and quantity. I have already left behind too much evidence that, writing with a pencil, I have written too fast, too easily, and too much. I would like to be a better writer, and for that I need help from other humans, not a machine.” 

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this particular volume is that the entire book, though made up of separate pieces written at different times, revolves around the same topic. Most of the other Penguin Moderns I’ve read that contain multiple works have felt rather arbitrarily grouped with nothing more in common than a loose similarity in tone or theme. But Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer examines all sides of the same argument, remaining consistent from the first page to the last.

On the other hand, my least favorite aspect is Berry’s skill (or lack thereof) at arguing a point. At times he will say “there is no evidence to support this person’s claim” and then on the next page will say “I know there is no evidence to support my claim but this is how I feel and that is argument enough,” and so on. (That’s a paraphrase.) And underneath his flimsy attacks and counterattacks, I found Berry’s writing (at least on this matter) rather petulant. Berry argues like one of those people on social media sites that leave wordy, antagonistic comments just slightly off point and then continue to engage with every other commenter on the post.

“I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil.”

Though Why I Am Not Going to Buy A Computer is the most recent volume I’ve read from the Penguin Modern collection (written in 1987-89), it already feels a bit outdated. Some of Berry’s points are no longer applicable– for example, it is no longer true that to write in the woods, you must carry a pen and paper along– computers are more portable than they were in the late 80’s. They can do a lot more for the user than they once could. I found myself wondering throughout the book what Berry would say about buying a computer today.

But that is not to say that these essays are now irrelevant. Though his arguments may have stemmed from a different time and place, they do make the reader question his/her own motives in using a computer. In seeing that use as an active chocie rather than a mere habit. Berry asks the reader to consider the environmental effects of producing and consuming technology, as well as the effects on family, the workplace, the home, etc. Is technology doing more for you than you are for it?

“My wish is simply to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.”

I did wish that Berry had fleshed out his first essay more thoroughly to begin with, as the first essay did feel rather bare-bones and I think much of the negativity in response might have been avoided if Berry had taken more time to support and explain his reasons the first time around. But since that didn’t happen, I did enjoy seeing how the original essay evolved over time, how Berry came back to it and reacted to the response letters it received.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This book made me think, though I did not particularly like Berry’s writing style, disagreed with some of his points, and felt that other points no longer applied to the current situation. I’m glad I read this one, but it didn’t overly impress me. I have ordered 6 more Penguin Moderns and I will be reading them in upcoming months, but after reading 4 only mediocre volumes from the collection in June, I’m ready for a little break.

Have you read this book? What did you think?


The Literary Elephant

Wrap-up 6.18

I have had a phenomenal reading month in June, which is great because I’ve been struggling with everything else. With the year half-over now (whaaaaat?!?), it’s time to start thinking about what I still want to get done in 2018 so I’m not scrambling in December. (That will probably happen anyway though.) After the halfway point of the year I really end up feeling like I’m slowly but surely running out of time, so I’ve been kind of stressed lately and frustrated when things go slow (like my writing). But despite feeling like I’m falling behind, I did pretty well this month.

Personal trends:

  • I subscribed to Penguin Random House’s Season of Stories this month, which sends pieces of short stories through your email 4 days a week. So I read one short story in 4 snippets throughout the week (or all at once on Friday) and I’ve been enjoying it a lot! The first story I read was “Adela’s House” by Mariana Enriquez, which has been my favorite so far. I’ve also read “Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson and “Bad Behavior” by Alexia Arthurs. I love short stories but I hardly ever make time to read them because I feel like I have to read the whole collection at once and the whole collection is never as great as the one or two best pieces in it. But SoS has been incredibly manageable and fun.

Book-to-film Adaptations:

  • NONE. Again. I’ve been so busy writing and reading and enjoying summer that I haven’t been watching anything.

Finished Books (titles linked to my reviews):

  1. The Oracle Year by Charles Soule. 3 stars. This was a fun read that kept me entertained even if it didn’t add much to the sci-fi genre. There were a few disappointing factors toward the end that took this book from a 4-star read to 3, unfortunately, but it was an enjoyable fast-paced summer read nonetheless. It’s been slow work decreasing my BOTM backlog, but reading this one (and my June selection, farther down this post) did shrink that list by one.
  2. Not That Bad ed. by Roxane Gay. 5 stars. This essay collection about rape culture came out of nowhere (for me, at least). I loved every essay, every theme, every page. I highly, highly recommend for anyone interested in modern social issues. It’s nonfiction, but that just makes it stronger. Possibly the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read, which is great considering how many different writers contributed (31)– every single one is appreciable.
  3. Food by Gertrude Stein. 2 stars. Plotless books don’t feel very worthy of my time, though this one was amusing in its absurdity, at the very least. I can now say I’ve read the highest (Letter From Birmingham Jail) and lowest (Food) rated Penguin Moderns, so that’s neat. I’m still in love with this collection, but I wouldn’t recommend this volume unless you like abstraction and/or poetry. And food, though that wasn’t a strong enough factor for me.
  4. The Vegetarian by Han Kang. 4 stars. Despite the fact that I think this book is impeccably written, I didn’t entirely enjoy my experience with it. Usually the lit nerd in me can love a book that’s well-written even if other aspects fail, but one section of this book made me so uncomfortable that I couldn’t overlook it. I did appreciate how much this book made me think about social perceptions and individual choice. Also it’s got a sort of Kafka-esque creepiness to it that I loved.
  5. The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. 3 stars. Speaking of creepiness… Ruth Ware’s books are so atmospheric. This one took me straight into the world of du Maurier’s Rebecca, which was the highlight of the novel for me. The plot was completely transparent, and more disturbing in conception than in narration; I guessed every twist before it happened. There were some good aspects, but this was y least-favorite Ware novel.
  6. The Vigilante by John Steinbeck. 3 stars. This book was disturbing and unpleasant for the most part, but I do love Steinbeck’s style. I love how he makes a point without ever stating it outright– it’s just so clear through his characters’ thoughts and actions what the moral is, and that, in my opinion, is great writing. Though this one didn’t quite live up to my expectations, it was a quick read and not off-putting enough to turn me away from the author or collection.
  7. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang. 3 stars. Despite the mediocre rating, I had a lot of fun with this book. It’s a great light-but-impactful romance, perfect for summer reading. It fit my mood exactly. It just had a few flaws I couldn’t help criticizing, but hey, nothing’s perfect. In the end, I really liked the autistic representation here, though some of the details of the romance and the structure of the plot fell a little flat.
  8. The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. thehatinggame4 stars. I’ve been reading a million books at once again, and it was only by accident that I finished these 2 romances back to back. This one was a quick, straight-forward romance that’s a tad unrealistic but perfectly readable. I hardly ever read “funny” books but I did laugh aloud a couple of times with this one– it fit my sense of humor pretty well, which I wasn’t expecting. But as usual in romance, there’s a certain amount of predictability that’s somewhat disappointing.
  9. When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy. whenihityou5 stars. I was expecting good things from this book, but nothing could’ve prepared me for how much I ended up appreciating it. The power, the structure, the poetry… Kandasmy pulls it all off so well.  If anything, this book made me so much more excited to pick up the Women’s Prize winner for 2018, because if this one didn’t take the gold the winner must be spectacular.
  10. Lance by Vladimir Nabokov. 2 stars.lanceBeautiful writing, not much substance. I was more disappointed in this one than Food because I expected more story here, but in the pros column there were some pleasantly unsettling moments and a bit more meaning to the madness. The prose was very purple, which isn’t my preferred style, but this is clearly well-written. Overall, the Penguin Moderns have not especially impressed me in June, but I’m still interested in the series and hoping to find better selections in my next batch.
  11. Asking For It by Louise O’Neill. askingforit5 stars. Apparently I’ve been reading  a lot about rape this month, which was unexpected. But it’s an important topic, and this book takes it a step further by introducing an unlikable character as the victim. This was a gut-wrenching reading experience, but I’m impressed by what it accomplishes and so glad I picked it up. Also this was my third 5-star read this month, which is unusual for me, especially with new-to-me authors.
  12. Why I am not going to buy a computer by Wendell Berry. img_2172 3 stars. This is the most recently-written material I’ve come across in the Penguin Modern series so far, and it’s also surprisingly the text that felt the most out-dated. But nevertheless, it was a though-provoking read that made me consider some of my own choices, and cultural norms I’ve taken for granted. Best PM of the month, hands down, don’t let the rating fool you. Full review coming soon.

Some Statistics:

  • Best this month = Not That Bad. It was a tough choice this month, but this one was the most addictive and eye-opening at the same time.
  • Worst this month = Food. Another surprisingly tough choice; there were definitely some disappointments in June, though some of them had more to do with my expectations than overall merit.
  • Average rating = 3.5, a pretty average number. Maybe even a little low. There were a lot of extreme highs and lows for me this month.
  • Books Hauled = 5. I failed my goal of 3 new books or less, but I actually read every new book I bought this month, which is the first time in probably years that I’ve managed that.
  • Owned Books Read for the First Time = 10. I shrunk my TBR by 5 books this month, yay! I’m still too ashamed to admit how many unread books I own, but I’m happy to have made some small progress.
  • Total Books Read in 2018 = 61. My goal for the year was 90, so I’m definitely ahead of schedule.

Overall: I read 12 books this month! That’s my highest number so far this year. I realize 4 of them are Penguin Moderns, which are only about 60 pages long each. But they affect the way I think about literature so deeply that I can’t not count them. In any case, I’m pretty proud of my reading this month– I read some great titles, I learned even from the books I didn’t like as much, and I finished a lot more than I intended to. I wish every month looked like this one.

Did you read any of these books in June? (Or in the past?) What did you think?


The Literary Elephant