Tag Archives: Books

the generational impact of trauma

Review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Women’s Prize progress: 8/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, the worlds of wealthy tourists and impoverished locals collide in historical Paradise, a beach-side Barbadian village. When a robbery goes wrong on the night that Lala’s daughter is born, it sets in motion a string of devastating events. …Or does it? As the story unfolds, rippling out from Lala’s perspective to touch on all of those ensnared in the fallout, the reader learns just how deeply ingrained the roots of this problem lie, how easily perpetuated by the wealth gap between the summering tourists and struggling locals, and we begin to understand that Lala’s pain is not new, but rather a fresh iteration of tragedy and misogygny inherited by generation after generation in Paradise, nearly impossible to escape.

“She did not understand that for the women of her lineage, a marriage meant a murder in one form or the other.”

Right off the top, I have to warn you this is a bleak book. Personally, I don’t mind reading bleak fiction, and coming on the tail as this one did for me of an extremely bleak nonfiction read, I had a very positive experience here, though I understand others may want to skip this one for its difficult themes and content. I’ve rounded up some CWs at the bottom of this review, and am mentioning that list now in case anyone wants to check before reading further.

What makes this book so dark and haunting is the relentlessness of the trauma, the Point of the book being (in my view, as you may have surmised from the title of this review) being that in a place with such imbalances of justice and privilege, pain begets pain; that misogyny, abuse, and injustice are a breeding ground for more of the same, internalized by perpetrators and victims alike, to be passed down from one generation to the next to such a point that even a newborn doesn’t seem to stand a chance. Almost every chapter reveals some deeper layer of despair in this story as the narration flits between linked characters, exploring past ghosts that persist as present motivators. Though this book covers a specific incident, in a specific family, it speaks to a much larger societal problem in which trauma is the norm, she who can’t take it with dignity is further punished and ostracized, and there are very few viable avenues for recourse or even exit.

“And she leaves Lala in the cold quiet room on her back with her legs still splayed and no feeling at all at the intersection of her thighs and it is nothing like the bliss on the posters in the clinic or on the TV ads or the faces of the wealthy tourist women who walk with their newborns on Baxter’s Beach. Instead, she realizes that she has now brought another person into the dark, that birth is an injury and having a baby has scarred her and when the nurse asks her if she wants to go with her to see her baby in the ICU she shakes her head No...”

While the painting of this unhappy picture is the book’s strength, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House also meets its primary downfall in this dogged focus on trauma through the ages; the narrative becomes so focused on what seems an exhaustive list of tragedies that the characters have little personality beyond their particular pains. Some characters want to leave Paradise, some want to rise above, some want to come back to experience it with better fortunes, but these longings are all tied to what has happened to the local characters here, reactions rather than innate ideals. They don’t have dreams or quirks that make them unique- they could all be anyone, dropped into the events that happen to them. Only their situations set them apart.

For example, it’s eerie to see that Lala could read exactly like her grandmother does, with only a number of years separating their fates; sure one earns her keep making dresses and the other braiding hair, but neither skill is mined for character depth and both cater in the same way to the tourists- this similarity makes the generational span of the family’s trauma abundantly clear, but it also, regrettably, comes across as though all of these characters exist not to represent people but to be vehicles of pain, suffering, and violence, first and foremost. If I could’ve changed one thing about this book, it actually wouldn’t be any of the tragedy in these pages, brutal though that can be; I would wish rather that the reader be allowed to know these characters a little better as individuals.

But even with this flaw in view, I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is still fully worth the read. I was immediately gripped by the writing; for such a tragic tale, Jones delivers a compelling narrative with plenty of momentum, the writing smart and artfully circular, spiralling around its points in a way that builds up dread and anticipation before honing in for the kill. Every twist feels both surprising and inevitable- the perfect combination I’m always looking for in fiction. I also found the use of multiple POVs engaging and well-utilized; Jones allows us to see most of her characters at first from a distance, through someone else’s eyes; she piques our curiosity with circumspection and only then allows us a close glimpse into each new perspective, which expands upon or challenges what we’ve learned from other characters in a way that makes each new piece vital in its own right. The shifting narration gives the book a fluid, communal feel, though Lala is always at the center. Other characters include Lala’s grandmother, mother, husband, friend, the police officer who questions her, and the woman involved in the botched robbery. All of these perspectives add their own flavor to what is clearly a larger societal issue, though they also all feed into that single common thread- Lala.

“Mira Whalen closes her eyes. Just yesterday she had ventured outside, just a little walk on the beach, and had seen the neighbor’s dog die, had seen a woman too terrified to report an assault she had suffered. Mira Whalen did not think she could muster the energy to go outside again. Mira Whalen didn’t think she could muster the energy for anything.”

It’s a heartwrenching tale that offers little hope, though the fact that the main thrust of the story is set in 1984 with occasional flashbacks to even earlier years does seem to suggest that living conditions on Barbados beaches may have somewhat improved up to present day. Despite the time jumps and character switches I never had a hard time following along and personally I didn’t find the trauma too difficult to read. The robbery gone awry and segueing as it does into a difficult birthing scene sets up the book’s tone well, so that additional revelations feel somewhat expected, not intended to shock the reader at every turn. And the writing, the writing. Jones’s prose has such flow and rhythm, and the mechanics of her paragraphs continually impressed me. There’s a bit of dialect in the dialogue that’s easy enough to parse. For those willing to take the leap with the content, there really is so much to appreciate here. This is a book that will stick with me, I think.

CWs: murder, rape (including rape of minors), difficult birth, death of a child (infant), incest, physical (domestic) abuse, gun violence, death of a pet (dog), animal cruelty (cats), infidelity, misogyny

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was halfway through this read when I assembled my Women’s Prize shortlist predictions, and that was enough to (correctly) include it on my list; I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is fully deserving of its place on this year’s shortlist and well worth the read, for the right audience.

The Literary Elephant

looking for a book?

The Recommendations Book Tag

I’ve been tagged by Naty and Eline, more than enough motivation to jump on board after enjoying Ally’s (original!) post for this tag! If you haven’t checked out their wonderful recommendations yet be sure to do so, they’ve highlighted some fantastic titles and this tag is a great way to find new books or perhaps re-prioritize what’s already on your TBR. 😉 I haven’t done any tags or recommendation posts in a while so I’m going to use this chance to round up some recent faves from within the last few months of my reading that I need to talk about more!


  • Tag Ally @ Ally Writes Things so she can see your recommendations!
  • Give at least one recommendation for each of the prompts below
  • If you don’t have a recommendation, talk about a book you want to read
  • Tag some friends!

And now for the books!

A Book About Friendship


Outlawed by Anna North. This isn’t necessarily a book *about* friendship, but it does prominently feature a great group of friends, many of whom are LGBTQ+ characters and all of whom are ostracized from their reimagined 1800s Western society. It’s a fun romp that’s a bit over the top, but if a band of feminist & LGBTQ+ outlaws dressing as cowboys and running heists in the name of creating a sanctuary for the oppressed sounds at all your type, you may want to give this one a try!

A Translated Book

Hurricane Season

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the original Spanish by Sophie Hughes. Set in an impoverished Mexican village brimming with local tensions and long-lived superstitions, this little literary novel packs a big punch as it unravels, character by character, the truth of the Witch’s death. A string of flawed and unreliable narrators demonstrate the ripple effects of trauma and suspicion; though this is a book focused on darkness, brutality, and things gone wrong, it never loses sight of its characters’ humanity.

A Diverse Romance

One to Watch

One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London. Okay, the MC here is a straight white woman and if you caught my review a couple of months ago you may recall I hesitate to even call this book a romance, but hear me out. This story follows a plus-size influencer who agrees to star as the lead on a Bachelorette-style reality dating show. Though personally I’d categorize reality dating TV as something akin to a sport, there is some romance involved, and altogether I’d say the cast is fairly diverse, from skin color to age, sexuality, and body type, and one of the prominent bachelors is even a great single dad to a non-binary kid. It’s a quick read with a fun multi-media sort of format and plenty of sweet scenes, while also directly tackling representation issues in mainstream television.

A Fast-Paced Book

Interior Chinatown

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. From the outside this may look like an ordinary novel, but inside it is formatted like a screenplay and it reads like a dream. The style befits the main character’s tendency to view his Asian-American life as though it is a movie in which he is perpetually cast as Generic Asian Man behind white and Black stars. He longs to be upgraded to the role of Kung Fu Man, but over the course of the novel gradually realizes that even this goal is a limited box reflective of ingrained Asian racism in America. It was nearly a one-sitting read for me, loads of fun and also incredibly thought-provoking.

A Nonfiction Other Than a Memoir

Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America's Cheap Goods

Made in China by Amelia Pang. Speaking of China, I just read this absolutely heart-wrenching investigative journalism book about the state of forced labor in modern China, and though I have to caution you about the extremely dark content I cannot recommend reading up on this topic highly enough, especially for first-world consumers whose purchasing habits help drive the system. Lives are literally counting on buyers making smart, conscientious purchases and holding brands accountable for their sourcing of goods. I can’t deny this is a bleak read, but it’s also an important, life-changing one.

An Underrated Memoir

Notes on a Silencing

Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford. Despite its excellent cover and some great early hype, I’ve seen very few readers in my feed picking up this book, and I hope that will change. This is one of the strongest #MeToo books I’ve ever read, ranking right up there with Chanel Miller’s Know My Name; it follows Crawford through her boarding school days, during which she was raped by two upperclassmen boys, and the long years afterward when her school refused to take her claim seriously, made her a target among her peers, and took deliberate steps to stifle her legal case. Crawford also engages with the language we tend to use or avoid around trauma in a particularly interesting and useful way.

A Book With Fewer Than 10,000 Ratings on Goodreads

The Butchers' Blessing

The Butchers’ Blessing by Ruth Gilligan. This mysterious, Irish-set historical fiction novel chronicles the last year that the Butchers travel the countryside practicing their trade, a fateful time for Irish cattle as a bout of BSE (mad cow disease) heightens tensions to a near-panic. It’s a book full of such thoughtfully-drawn characters and of such thematic depth, a sad but beautiful exploration of the conflict between folkloric/traditional beliefs and the pressure to move as a nation into the modern world. It’s actually got less than 1,000 ratings on GR, which is woeful for such a brilliant work.

A Book With An LGBTQ+ Protagonist

Girl Made of Stars

Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake. YA titles appear pretty rarely on my blog these days, but there are some real gems in the category even for adult readers who prefer heavier themes, and this is one of them. It features a bisexual MC who must confront a trauma from her past in order to move forward with her non-binary girlfriend, all while caught in the middle of a scandal that hits very close to home- her twin brother has been accused of rape by his girlfriend, and while our protagonist loves her brother she also trusts her friend not to lie about him in this way. It’s a sticky situation that examines trauma and victim blaming with care and nuance, appropriate for readers YA and up.

A Book By A Trans or Non-binary Author

The Death of Vivek Oji

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. Emezi seems to be a popular answer for this prompt already, but they’re a favorite author of mine that I can’t refrain from mentioning here and I’ve not seen this book specifically listed yet, so I’ll add it to the ring. Vivek Oji is a heartfelt look at sexual discovery and prejudice in Nigeria, focusing on the devastating death of a character whose true identity was known only to a few close friends. This is a sad, beautiful character study with plenty of commercial appeal.

A Book With More Than 500 Pages

Legendborn (Legendborn, #1)

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. Another great YA recommendation, and a fantasy one at that! This one just makes the cut at 501 pages (according to Goodreads; I don’t have a physical copy on hand at the moment to check accuracy but I’m glad- this book’s worth the mention!). Following a Black teen through her first months on a North Carolinian college campus, this modern continuation of King Arthur lore dips into an intricate world with some fun magic, all while exploring deep grief and challenging racism throughout the college’s history- especially within (but not limited to) the secret society that keeps Arthur’s legend alive.

A Short Story Collection

Lot: Stories

Lot by Bryan Washington. I don’t read a lot of story collections, but this one was a standout. Each piece in this set takes place in Houston, particularly focusing on marginalized characters and communities. They’re immensely sharp and compulsively readable, and (if I remember the ratio correctly) every other story is a linked piece following a recurring protagonist through various stages of his young gay life. As a whole the collection is a wonderful microcosm both specific to its setting and indicative much more broadly of modern life in the margins.

A Book You Want Everyone to Read

Real Life

Real Life by Brandon Taylor. I’m putting this out there even though its style (reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s) will likely make it a bit of a hit-or-miss read for many; it was such a hit for me though- my favorite read of 2020!- that I’m still hoping for more readers to pick it up. This gutting little character study of a gay Black man’s struggle with racism (even among his friend group) in grad school takes place over one fraught weekend as our protagonist considers dropping out of his program just to escape it. It’s a quiet read, but it’s got teeth, and I just cannot recommend it highly enough.

Tagging some more people whose recommendations I’d love to see: Eleanor, Ellen, Karissa, Laura, Lou, Melanie, Stargazer, Stephen, and anyone else who wants to join! Please link or let me know if you try this tag so I can check out your answers!

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast


I have a lot to cover here, so this might run a little long. Feel free to skip around for whichever pieces of the post catch your interest. I generally try to bold the subject of each paragraph/section of these weekly updates so that it’s easier for you to pick and choose what you want to read- hopefully it helps!

It’s been a busy week, and either I’ve overexerted or am still adjusting to the vaccine or not quite as healthy post-covid as I thought because I’ve had a flare up with a lot of headaches and fatigue again. I’m lining up yet another appointment to make sure it’s nothing new going on, but other than needing to rest my brain a lot I don’t feel like I’m dying or anything, which truly feels like something to be grateful for these days, so I’m coping all right.

Even though it’s been a bit of a struggle (and my reading has definitely suffered for it but I’ve made my peace with that), there’s been a lot else going on, too. Planting season is in full swing on the farm- all of the corn is in the ground now so we’re onto soybeans. There’s a picture in this week’s 365 updates of the planter being refilled, with my dad making a little bonus appearance.

Also in The 365 is a puzzle I’ve been working on for a while and finally finished this week. It’s a cool concept- the specialized ‘birthday edition’ New York Times puzzle, depicting the NYT front page on the day I was born. I love the idea but unfortunately I got some pretty disappointing content on my front page. The articles include: US effing up in Iraq and fatally attacking own helicopters, mismanagement of a railroad line that left thousands stranded in bad weather, tobacco companies testifying in Congress that cigarettes aren’t addictive, a hospital settling on insurance fraud and patient abuse charges, and a Navy top admiral granted full pension in a 20 to 2 vote after a sexual harassment scandal (only one woman was on the panel). This last one was actually pretty grim to read in 2021; apparently something happened in 1991, when naval aviators sexually assaulted “scores of women” and then the investigation was bungled thanks to this admiral; this article goes on to say that “it was not clear” why the one man against giving full pension voted no. (Like, it couldn’t possibly be that he didn’t want to reward a man for allowing a lot of women to be violated without recourse for justice, right?) There’s also not a single woman in the bylines at all. One piece about the Vatican approving altar girls might seem like a victory, but then the article goes on to note that while the Vatican officially accepts them, many churches still oppose allowing girls this role and ultimately each bishop gets to make the choice for his own diocese. We are also reassured that women are still banned from priesthood. So. It was a thoughtful gift and fun to assemble at least, if not to read. I hope others who try this ‘birthday edition’ puzzle have better luck.

Cat of the Week is actually not my cat anymore; Fran(cis) was born on the farm, and is a brother to Heath (who featured in last week’s update) and Fuzzbutt (who featured several weeks ago), but I gifted him to an irl friend in need a few years ago (he’s 4 and a 1/2 now). They’re a perfect fit and I’m so glad they have each other. I don’t get to see them in person often so when I made contact this week I had to get a picture!

I had a bit of a TV binge while my brain was mush this week; I downloaded all 8 of the Shadow and Bone episodes from Netflix so I could even watch while I was waiting in the fields away from wifi, lol. I’ve actually watched the whole season twice already and can definitely foresee revisiting it again. And thus…

My week in film:

  • Shadow and Bone ssn 1 [2021] – I just loved this. It’s a great watch. It’s not flawless, but it is possibly the best YA fantasy adaptation I’ve ever seen. The acting. The filmography. The plotting! Combining Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy with her Six of Crows duology was the absolute best idea; I liked the Grisha books but loved the SoC duology so I initially wanted to watch this mainly for the crows, but I ended up enjoying every single minute. I was a little disappointed we don’t get to see more of Kaz as an individual yet (he’s my fave character), but Inej and Jesper are absolutely fantastic and so many hints are dropped for deeper characterization and plotting to come that I’m already so excited for season 2! Yes, Alina is still naive and annoying and self-centered, but I do not have a problem with unlikable characters and I find her believable enough that it works for me. She fits the story. And…I’m team Malina, apparently against the grain. To be clear, Malina has nothing on Kanej for me, but I’ve always liked Mal and I think the show does him more justice than the novels. I also (please do not cancel me) like his actor better than the Darkling’s. Sorry, Ben Barnes stans. Barnes is a great actor! And the Darkling is such a fascinating character! I’ve been going around saying “make me your villain” all week! But I have no desire to see Darklina as endgame. Anyway, the first watch was a fun binge and the second time through cemented this adaptation as a real favorite for me. Milo and the crows and Malina (in that order) gave me life this week. I need more. If you do too, you should check out Hadeer’s review, which is more coherent and detailed than my ramblings here and hits the nail on the head about the show’s racism.

My week in books:

  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – 4 stars. I thought I’d finish this like, last Sunday, but Ive barely been able to read at all and just managed to wrap it up before the end of the month. It’s a tragic historical fiction tale set in Barbados, very focused on generational trauma and class divides on an island populated by impoverished locals and wealthy tourists, with a huge wage gap between the two groups. I’ll have a review coming very soon, but the tl;dr is that while the characterization could’ve used a little work, the writing is sharp and compellingly readable. I think it’s an apt fit for this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist.
  • Consent by Annabel Lyon – ongoing. I’ve barely made a dent, but I already love the way Lyon writes about sisters and I have a feeling I’m going to love the character dynamics and prose going forward.

My week in posts:

Another thing you might have noticed happening this week was the announcement of the Women’s Prize shortlist! In case you missed it, the six books on the shortlist are (with links to my reviews where applicable): The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones, and No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. That’s 3 titles from my wishlist, and a shocking 5 of 6 from my prediction list! The title I guessed wrong was Ali Smith’s Summer, which I haven’t read yet, though I did include the title I missed, Unsettled Ground, as my runner-up guess, so I came very close! This was especially surprising and exciting for me after also guessing 5 of 6 shortlist titles correct last year– apparently I’m on a lucky streak! (Watch me tout this record as proof of my abilities next year only to get every guess wrong, haha.)

In any case, I’m actually pretty pleased with this year’s shortlist. Unsettled Ground is the only title that made the cut that doesn’t necessarily feel like shortlist material to me, though that’s based on reviews as I haven’t read the book yet myself, so that assessment may change. I didn’t especially like No One is Talking About This but I didn’t hate it either and I think it makes a decent, topical addition to the group. I’m thrilled for Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi and even more eager now to get to The Vanishing Half. I’m disappointed Detransition, Baby (by Torrey Peters) didn’t make the cut as it sounds excellent, though I’m still planning to read and review it regardless. Exciting Times was a longlist favorite for me, and I would perhaps have rather seen it advance than Unsettled Ground, but that may be down to personal taste. Exciting Times didn’t quite make my prediction list either so while I stand by my high rating I can’t say I’m surprised by the snub. I’ll likely have more to say once I’ve completed my shortlist (and longlist) reading, so I’m aiming to continue through the list in May and share a wrap-up post to conclude the whole experience when the time comes.

Speaking of wrap-ups, April ended this week, which means it’s time to do a quick round-up of my April reading. It was another low month for me, unfortunately. My April stats from Storygraph (you can follow me there @ literaryelephant):

I read 5 books in April, 3 literary fiction and 1 historical fiction all from the Women’s Prize longlist, as well as 1 unrelated nonfiction book. Storygraph is still showing about 100 pages more in my page count than I’ve marked in my bujo page tracker, and I do count the afterword and acknowledgement pages and whatnot if I read them, which I usually do, and I check that I’m logging the correct edition every time, so I’m not sure how Storygraph is coming up with so many more pages than I am. It will be interesting to compare the difference at the end of the year.

The books I’ve completed this month (linked to reviews where applicable) are:

No 5 star reads this month, although Made in China came close.

I completed only 1 book from my April 5-book TBR, though I don’t feel I was off track, exactly. I read three library books this month, which don’t always make it into my TBRs if they aren’t in my possession at the start of the month though I still need to prioritize them, and even though I didn’t stick to my 5-book TBR exactly, it was filled for April with Women’s Prize books and I was definitely reading along that theme so it wasn’t exactly that I lost focus. I still intend to catch up with my outstanding TBR books as soon as I can.

Speaking of catching up…

Because I’ve read only about half as much as usual the last two months, I am now considerably behind on my reading goal for 2021. I’m not too worried, because I’m still hoping my brain health will even out in the not-too-distant future and give me a chance to binge some great reads. Ideally, over the summer. Of course, the number of books anyone reads isn’t isn’t really important for its own sake, though I’m very competitive with myself and would be frustrated to miss my reading target for the first time since I started setting a yearly goal. It’s only May though so it’s too early to get stressed about it, and I won’t beat myself up about failing a target I’m just not capable of hitting at the moment. All we can do is the best we can do.

Looking ahead…

For the upcoming week, I should have at least two posts coming up, and this week I say so with more certainty. I very nearly finished a book tag I wanted to post yesterday, but then was called away to help deal with a flat tire before I could answer the last prompt; expect to see it on Monday. I’ll also have my review of How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House coming up very soon, because I borrowed a library copy and generally prefer to write my reviews before sending back my library books, which helps keep me prompt with those. Whether I manage to post more than that will likely depend on how much reading and writing my brain is up to the challenge of completing. I’ve given up trying to guess what will happen, it’s proven impossible. I’ll do what I can.

As for reading, I’ll ideally be finishing Consent and continuing on with my Women’s Prize reads– I’ve got Unsettled Ground, The Vanishing Half, and Detransition, Baby left, and I’ve not yet decided what order I’ll be reading them in so this week’s reading could include any of the above.

I’ve also not entirely decided on my May TBR, because while I am prioritizing my final Women’s Prize reads those have featured in previous 5-book TBRs (or in the case of Unsettled Ground I just don’t have a way of photographing the eARC into my usual TBR photo setup and am petty enough to omit it for that reason) so I won’t be including those books in this month’s list, and won’t start reading this month’s list until I’ve completed those reads anyway.

Furthermore, May is AAPI heritage month so I want to prioritize some books by AAPI authors in my TBR; I’ve chosen my two May BOTM titles to fit this goal, but of course they haven’t arrived yet, and I’ve got another AAPI-authored title on hold at the library that also isn’t in yet. So while I do have some titles in mind, and a few others on hand if these new ones don’t show up in a timely fashion, my list isn’t finalized yet; I’ll aim to sort this out before my next weekly update (this one’s gotten quite long anyway) and share my May TBR then.

Are you reading or posting about any books from Asian American authors for May? If you’ve read any recently or have an exciting title on your TBR, I’d love more recommendations!

The Literary Elephant

if you can’t stand to read about human rights violations today, scroll away now

Review: Made in China: A Prisoner, An SOS letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang

It pains me a little to warn readers off before getting properly into this review when I think it addresses one of the most important ongoing issues in the world today, and there are millions of people facing this issue in real time without the luxury of turning away out of discomfort, but… to help others we must first take care of ourselves, and reading morally difficult content may be counterproductive for some. In that vein, CWs include: confinement, forced institutionalization, genocide, gore, Islamophobia, racism, rape, slavery, suicidal thoughts, torture, and human trafficking. I’m going to talk about a few specifics in this review so again, turn away now if you’re not equipped for that today. But if you can, especially if you are a first-world consumer (don’t be fooled by the mention of America in the title; though written with an American audience in mind, this is a larger problem), I would highly urge picking up this book and/or educating yourself on the topic of ongoing forced labor.

Book Cover

Made in China is a new nonfiction book that opens with a US woman opening a package of party decorations and finding an SOS note sealed inside, written by the ailing Chinese man forced to produce the product. From here the book covers many related topics, including why it is so hard for the average American to make significant waves about this problem, how and why China came to be in the position to perpetuate forced labor of its own citizens, and the fate of the man who wrote this particular note. The book alternates between Chinese history, the horrifying extent of the current problem, and the moving plight of Sun Yi, one man caught in the maw of a dangerous system.

“Inspired by Soviet gulags, China’s first labor camps opened in the 1930s. China’s laogai system remains the largest forced-labor system in operation today. It includes a vast network of prisons, camps, and various extralegal detention centers. […] In these camps, millions of emaciated people must work fifteen to twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Many also undergo political indoctrination and torture.”

Made in China is a bleak book all around; I was initially dismayed at being given a detailed description of one torture experienced by Sun Yi straight away in the first chapter, but ultimately I think including something graphic so early on is a smart move on Pang’s part because it sets the tone for the darkness of the content to follow. Another smart move: sharing so much of Sun’s story with the reader. Made in China often threatens to bog us down in statistics, history, and politics, but Sun’s story spread across the book ensures that the reader never loses the human connection: the individual faces behind the numbers and facts. And Sun does see some victories- he’s got family and friends, and at one point a lawyer, to help him survive, people who support his decision even when he could walk free and clear of it all and chooses instead to expose as much of the truth as possible to help the others stuck inside. It can be hard to read about what Sun endures, but he is the beating heart of this book.

“He had been there so long he sometimes forgot he was alive.”

In addition to Sun as a subject, we’re also given some background on Chinese government, as a means of understanding why economic stability is tantamount to the current regime and how forced-labor and reeducation-through-labor camps double as a means of stifling potential rebellions. The chapters on Chinese political history, particularly relating to the persecution of Falun Gong (a type of religious/meditative/lifestyle practice) members, are among the densest of the book; one of the only downfalls to this reading experience for me was the feeling that each of these chapters could have been expanded into its own book without ever dipping into superfluity. There’s a lot of relevant information to cover, and Pang seems to do as well as anyone possibly could, condensing it into a readable length and sensible organization. Made in China can be a rough start for those like me who are woefully uneducated on Chinese life and history, but I do think this is a great overview that’s worth the patience required to sort through the denser pieces. The history is not enough to make one sympathetic to the regime’s choice of resorting to forced labor, but it does help the reader understand how China came to this point, and perhaps sympathize with those who know about and choose not to rebel against this system.

“Wolves would rather forage by themselves in the lonely wilderness, risking starvation and death than be well-fed in a cage. But humans are not the same.”

With that knowledge and Sun’s story to carry us through, Pang next delves into the breadth of the modern problem. Forced labor itself and all that entails sounds grim enough, but the surveillance methods for pinpointing ‘suspicious’ persons before any crime is committed, coupled with the fact that Chinese criminal courts convict in 99.9% of cases (for those allowed a trial at all in the first place), offers new frightening implications. Lest we brush that off, Pang presents an all but inarguable case suggesting that detainees are used not only for labor but also for organ harvesting, as the primary source for the entire nation’s billion-dollar transplant industry. And if that somehow doesn’t sound bad enough, wait until you get to the part where the people who are chosen as detainees and potential organ ‘donors’ are often those who practice any religion or philosophy beyond government-sanctioned ideologies. There is one entire corner of China populated primarily by Uyghurs, an ethnic minority Turkic people who have, historically, been practicing Muslims, and this is the area in which the forced labor situation reaches peak awfulness of genocide proportions:

“Once inside reeducation camps, the Turkic detainees attend daily indoctrination classes on official state ideology. They must prove they can reject Islam, forget their native tongue, and learn fluent Mandarin. There are reports of camps sterilizing Turkic women, while Turkic children are stolen from their parents and given to ‘orphanages’ that raise them as Chinese. In 2020, the Jamestown Foundation released a report analyzing Chinese government documents such as ‘family planning’ records. It found that between 2015 and 2018, forced sterilizations and abortions decreased the birth rate in two of the largest Uyghur prefectures by 84 percent. But this drop was not steep enough for China. The local government of one Uyghur region set a family planning goal of lowering the birth rate to nearly zero in 2020. Through forced sterilization and policies that strongly encourage interracial Han Chinese and Turkic marriages, the Chinese Communist Party is proceeding to wipe out an entire ethnicity.”

Pang has clearly done her research. Every statement of fact is sourced, with 40+ pages of notes in the back of the book linking each assertion to its roots, chapter by chapter. When she can’t claim something as a fact, she’s honest about the speculation, showing her path from fact to implication in a way that is nonetheless convincing for the lack of concrete proof. Considering that every survivor of these camps and every foreign investigator who questions or gets too close speaks out only at great personal risk, it is easy to see why some particulars may go unknown until an end to this problem has been reached. Even Pang closes her author’s note at the end of the book with a harrowing “thank you to my family in China, who knew nothing about this book; I’m so sorry if this will make your lives difficult.”

But Perhaps the scariest reveal of all for me here was just how hard it can be to do anything at all to help ease this situation from America, or even to refrain from supporting the practice monetarily. Where we put our money as consumers matters, but as a consumer it can be all but impossible to know for sure which products or brands to avoid due to forced labor sourcing. Even the company selling the the product may not know that their supplier is outsourcing for labor, because this is a layered issue where the truth can be hidden at multiple points. There are whole Chinese companies dedicated to fabricating factory records to outsmart audits, and the audits themselves may not be able to dig deep enough to discover illegal labor use in the time allotted.

“And so the million-dollar question is: Are any brands truly sustainable at the moment? Even companies that market themselves around ‘transparency’ and ‘sustainability’ often reveal little information about whether their audits can actually detect unauthorized subcontracting. I have yet to come across any companies that divulge how often they made sudden production changes, or how fast a turnaround they expect from factories. And without transparency about these sourcing practices, for all we know, even the most well-intentioned companies could be inadvertently sourcing from laogai factories.”

In my opinion, it’s going to be up to individual brands to risk higher profits by going out of their way to make sure that forced labor makes up no part of their production process. But that’s… the easiest possible way this all could end, in my view, and in a capitalist world it’s hard to imagine brands being that selfless by choice. Unfortunately it’s not hard to imagine several ways in which this could get worse before it gets better. There’s even some information in here about how our brains work while shopping in a way that motivates us to center the monetary cost over the human cost. And if that can be overcome, one also must confront the potential humanitarian disaster that could result from boycotting legal Chinese-produced goods along with the illegal forced labor stuff; while forced labor goods may make up a shockingly huge portion of the market, the majority of Chinese-based goods are probably not made this way, and over a billion innocent people depend on the stability of China’s economy just as much as its corrupt regime does. It’s bleak.

Pang doesn’t want to leave the reader entirely without hope though, and offers some questions in the final chapter of her book that we as consumers can ask of the companies we buy from in order to double check their production practices and help hold them accountable, but of course no one is obligated to answer these questions and the law around forced labor goods is slippery and full of loopholes. What we can all do, though, is be smart about our purchasing practices, and get into the habit of centering the human cost of the product over the monetary cost; so in case you don’t pick up this book for whatever reason, I’ll leave these purchasing prompts from Pang with you now:

  1. Do I already own something that serves the same purpose?
  2. Is this item so much better that I would be willing to donate three things in its place?
  3. If it were more expensive, would I still try to figure out a way to afford it? Or am I feeling an urge to buy this only because it’s extremely cheap?
  4. If the product I’m considering is an updated version of one that I already own, is my current one working just fine?
  5. Am I sure I will wear or use this product a lot? Or will this likely end up sitting in storage after one use?

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. And a good time to remind you that I rate based on personal reading experience, not on the importance of the content or objective merit of the book (which personally I don’t believe any person can do fairly). The experience was somewhat lessened for me by the extra effort it took to parse the densest chapters and keep up with shifting timelines, but I did by the end feel that I understood everything that had been covered and felt this an entirely worthwhile (and life-changing, tbh) read. I can’t emphasize enough how difficult of a read this is, but I also can’t recommend the read enough to anyone and everyone willing to brave the content. I cannot even fathom how this isn’t a hotter topic worldwide- let’s make it one.

(If you need any more incentive, May is AAPI reading month. I believe this book qualifies.)

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast


I skipped mentioning a Cat of the Week in my last update because the only cat that featured was Matchy, curled up in a sleepy ball, and it didn’t seem like the best way to introduce her. This week I got a rare lap cuddle with her so she’s making another appearance (legs for dayyyys)! I’ve already talked about how she was named for her matching eye marks (this photo is a bit deceptive, her markings are symmetrical) while her brother Patchy (they’re both 2 1/2) was named for his asymmetrical eye patch marking. At some point I’ll try to get them side by side so that the names will make sense, but Matchy isn’t big on human contact so she’s a bit difficult to grab photos of! Hence needing this documented proof that a lap nap occurred.

And below Matchy is Heath, who has been stripey and cute for 4 1/2 years already; he comes from our era of candy bar cat names. Heath’s funny story is that a couple of years ago he disappeared from the farm- he’s a big tom who thinks he’s the king here and when the weather’s nice he has a tendency to wander and expand his territory, so it’s not unusual for him to go missing for a day or two and I wasn’t worried at first. But he was gone for THREE MONTHS, and then we logged into the local humane society’s website for unrelated reasons and found Heath on their front page! Our local humane society is 20 miles from the farm, and we’ve never figured out how or why he ended up there. Furthermore, it turned out he was only with the humane society for one month, which leaves plenty of his time unaccounted for. He got updated shots and good care while he was gone, seemed totally chill about it all and no worse for wear. But of course instead of roaming free in the great outdoors he was living in a cage while he was with the humane society and they called him Corey, so it’s become a running joke here that we had to break him out of prison under a false name! Fortunately this seems to have curbed his craving for adventure.

In other news, my reading this week has been incredibly bleak:

  • Made in China by Amelia Pang – 4 stars. The only reason this nonfiction wasn’t a 5-star read for me comes down to the fact that it has to cover so much information in such a condensed space, which makes it a bit confusing to follow at times; but a full history of modern Chinese politics and forced labor is beyond the scope of a single work and it’s not Pang’s fault that this is a major issue with so little mainstream coverage, which made it a very difficult book to rate at all. As always though, I rate based on my personal experience with a book, not as a reflection of the book’s merit or importance of the topic. This is an incredibly depressing revelation of human rights violations ongoing today and I’m going to have a ton to say about this in an upcoming review. It’s a very dark and difficult read, perhaps even the most dark and difficult book I’ve ever read, but it should 100% be mandatory for everyone- and especially first world consumers- to know about what is going on with forced labor right now.
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – ongoing. I’m nearly finished with this one! And it’s also pretty bleak. If not for library due dates coming up, I would not have read these two books back to back. The upside to this one is that it’s fiction. The downside is that it deals with themes of generational misogyny and trauma, to the extent that there’s not much more to these characters than their pain, but aside from this small hiccup in characterization it’s an incredibly well-written and compelling story, and (thankfully) more literary than I’d expected.

Related to reading, I managed to catch up on three review posts this week! Those included:

All three are titles longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize. I am not planning to read all 16 books from the longlist this season, but I’ve got a handful left on my TBR and intend to round up and rank all of the longlisters I’ve read as soon as I finish. I’m expecting to pick up 12 or 13 of the longlisted books in total, though my plans could change slightly once the shortlist is announced- which is happening this upcoming week on the 28th! I definitely won’t be finished with my journey through the longlist before then, and thanks to my health issues this March and April I haven’t been able to be as much a part of the Women’s Prize reading community as I have been in the past. I’ve missed a lot of prize-related content, sadly. Between that and not having finished my longlist reading, I won’t be sharing a separate shortlist prediction post this year, and so I’ll share my few shortlist thoughts here!

From what I’ve read so far, I’d most like to see Transcendent Kingdom, Piranesi, and Exciting Times advance. These have been my 4 and 5 star reads so far. My 3 star reads, Burnt Sugar, Luster, and No One is Talking About This, I wouldn’t *mind* seeing on the shortlist, though I’m not rooting for them. I expect How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House will fall somewhere in the 3-5 star range for me, as well. The only lower rating I’ve had thus far, Small Pleasures with 2 stars, I definitely don’t want to see advance.

There are also a few longlisted books that I have yet to read but have high hopes for, which make up a portion of my shortlist wishlist:

  1. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  2. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  3. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  4. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  5. Consent by Annabel Lyon
  6. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

But my actual shortlist prediction (and there’s no way I’m going to top last year’s record 5/6 correct guesses) is as follows:

  1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  2. Summer by Ali Smith
  3. No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  4. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  5. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  6. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

I definitely feel a bit out of the loop as far as general public opinion on many of this year’s titles and what the judges might be going for as to overall tone and topics. I just haven’t read enough books or reviews or reactions to have a solid grasp of the whole, but it’s fun to take a stab at it nonetheless. It is perhaps optimistic to hope for half the shortlist to be comprised of writers of color when the longlist didn’t skew that way, but I think these are some really strong books that deserve the recognition. I also wonder if one of those England-set white-authored domestic mystery novels might make the cut since there were three of them on the longlist, but (in my limited view) none of them seem like a good shortlist fit. If I had to pick a runner-up, I suppose it would be Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground by default from those mystery novels, since I didn’t like Small Pleasures and don’t want to support Amanda Craig, who supports she who must not be named. I do still intend to read (and hopefully enjoy) Unsettled Ground, and I know many readers love Fuller’s writing, though personally I’ve not yet dipped into her work.

However it turns out, there’s a good chance I’ll be reading the shortlist and posting a winner prediction between the shortlist and winner announcement dates! There are only three books from the shortlist that I don’t really want to read- Craig’s The Golden Rule, reasoning stated above, and just because they don’t sound like my type of book at all, French’s Because of You and MacMahon’s Nothing But Blue Sky, though a shortlisting could persuade me on one of those, possibly. I’m also uncertain about my plans regarding Smith’s Summer. I do hope to read and enjoy the entire Seasons Quartet, of which Summer is the fourth and final book, but as I haven’t even started the series yet I can’t say for sure whether I’m actually interested in reading them all or whether that would happen before July 7 (the winner announcement date). I’d like to read at least the first book in the series before then to get a better idea of the set.

And now that I’ve been rambling on about the Women’s Prize long enough that I should probably have just made these remarks into their own post, I’m going to move on to my plans for the upcoming week.

I’m hoping to get at least three more posts shared, ideally my reviews of How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House (prior to the shortlist announcement if possible) and Made in China (because I just really need to talk about this book), as well as a book tag I’ve got pending. Next week’s forecast will probably include a brief round-up of my April reading, since next Saturday is the first of May (how?!). I’ll likely share my May TBR in next week’s update as well; I would’ve liked to include it here, but this post is long enough already and my reading has been erratic enough that my future plans aren’t finalized through May yet.

Even this next week looks a bit hazy- I’m planning to continue my Women’s Prize reading, but that’s all I can say for sure. I suppose top contenders for my next reads are: Annabel Lyon’s Consent, Torry Peters’s Detransition, Baby, and my eARC of Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground. (Please weigh in with recommendations!) Either way, I’m planning to continue my Women’s Prize reads until they’re finished, so these will all be coming up and I want to review as promptly as possible as I work through the rest of the list.

Anyone else getting excited to see what will be on the Women’s Prize shortlist? Which title do you most want to see advance?

The Literary Elephant

talking about things on the internet

Review: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Women’s Prize progress: 7/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, an unnamed woman of viral tweet fame reflects on life as a minor internet celebrity- the highs and lows of being plugged in to social media sites all the time. This rumination is interrupted, however, when a real life family issue claims our protagonist’s attention. As she learns about the genetic disorder Proteus Syndrome and spends more time logged off to lend support, she realizes that there are some important aspects of human experience that are not encapsulated in the digital archive- at least, not inside the circle of popular trends she’s familiar with- and she’s forced to reevaluate the time she spends online.

“What did we have a right to expect from this life? What were the terms of the contract? What had the politician promised us? The realtor, walking us through being’s beautiful house? Could we sue? We would sue! Could we blow it all open? We would blow it all open! Could we…could we post about it?”

No One is Talking About This is a short novel constructed with brief, fragmented paragraphs. They’re not all of individual tweet-length, and as far as I remember Twitter is never mentioned by name, but the comparison in style is obvious and suits the content. This is a book full of direct references to social media trends and usage habits; to some extent, it’s appeal is going to be proportional to the amount of time the reader spends online. Personally, I am not Online in the way that this protagonist is, so there were some references that I sensed probably had a deeper relevance that was going over my head, though I still understood and enjoyed most of the read- being online 24/7 is not necessarily a prerequisite here. To be honest, the reason I don’t spend more time on Twitter and other social media sites is because I know I have a hard time breaking out of the urge to keep scrolling indefinitely and it becomes a huge time suck; even from that perspective, there’s a lot to relate to in this book, as our protagonist knows perfectly well how ridiculous it all can be. Nevertheless, there’s that irresistible drive to feel more connected to the people of our time.

“When she set the portal down, the Thread tugged her back toward it. She could not help following it. This might be the one that connected everything, that would knit her to an indestructible coherence.”

But while I found a lot of individual statements about the internet spot-on, this wasn’t a novel that worked for me as a whole. No matter how directly some of the one-liners spoke to me, I never felt engaged in the underlying plot. Part of the reasoning for that may lie in the fact that our protagonist isn’t a very active agent throughout this story; she’s commenting on what has become for her a routine, daily existence, and next on something that is happening to a family member, something that she is witnessing but has no control over. It’s all observational. Another downfall is that this is a book in two parts: one about excessive internet (“portal”) engagement, one about Proteus Syndrome, and the connection between the two feels tenuous at best. Both are happening to the same person, essentially, and at that someone who is struggling to contain both experiences in her mind at the same time even while she is living them.

Furthermore, I felt the central message here- that being online is useless in the face of Proteus Syndrome- to be simplistic and somewhat unhelpful. To claim that no one is talking about Proteus is… probably not true. That it’s not a mainstream topic probably is true, but as an extremely rare disorder currently without a cure, I’m not convinced that more people worrying about it out loud on the internet (or elsewhere) would be particularly productive in the first place (which is not to say that no one should talk about it). Furthermore, though viral posts can indeed be shockingly arbitrary, the implication that there is no value to social media while “real things” are happening in the tangible world also feels like an unconsidered, extreme viewpoint. For this particular protagonist, yes, being online all the time and endeavoring to find fame through shitposts like “can dogs be twins” probably is unhealthy, but this is not necessarily the default experience. In fact, I would argue relatively few of us, even those who are Incredibly Online, are unhealthily ignoring real world problems in favor of crafting infamous tweets in the name of digital fame.

“‘I can do something for her,’ she tried to explain to her husband, when he asked why she kept flying back to Ohio on those rickety $98 flights that had recently been exposed as dangerous by Nightline. ‘A minute means something to her, more than it means to us. We don’t know how long she has- I can give them to her, I can give her my minutes.’ Then, almost angrily, ‘What was I doing with them before?'”

But aside from the fact that No One is Talking About This speaks about a very specific experience in a way that seems- perhaps a bit awkwardly- meant for the masses to find relatable, it is arguably an important story. Maybe more people should be talking about Proteus Syndrome, and about the myriad effects (both negative and positive) of modern social media use. Reading this book as an example of reality vs. internet conflict rather than the example allows room for some interesting consideration regarding modern life. If the reason you’re online is to feel yourself a part of the moment, why not read a new book that’s trending thanks to its Women’s Prize nomination and which focuses very intently on the state of our (digital) world at present? Though I felt I should’ve had more of an emotional reaction to the sad content here than I actually did, this read certainly sparked some thought for me about how I use my time online and how I balance internet and tangible-world time; it may do the same for you.

CW: death of a child

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This book certainly had its ups and downs for me, and it’s so current that if you’re going to read it I’d suggest doing it asap (already a few of the references feel dated), but it’s a book I’m glad I took a chance on. I related, I learned, I reconsidered. Though I don’t think this is presented well enough to be a literary masterpiece, it’s one of the most experimental and “of our time” books I’ve encountered so far on the Women’s Prize longlist, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it advance to the shortlist, and while I’m not especially rooting for that outcome I suppose I wouldn’t mind it.

The Literary Elephant

flashback to the ’50s

Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Women’s Prize progress: 6/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In the novel, Jean typically writes women’s columns for a small newspaper in the London suburbs, but she eagerly takes up a feature project when Gretchen Tilbury writes in claiming her daughter is the result of a virgin birth. Jean takes testimony from the women who were around Gretchen at the time of conception and is surprised to discover that her story holds. Jean enjoys the investigation, but befriending Gretchen’s apparently perfect family is what brings her the most joy and provides a much-needed break from Jean’s normal routine of caring for her elderly- and somewhat difficult- mother.

“‘Do you think it’s possible to hold two contradictory views at the same time?’ / ‘Perfectly. Religious folk do it all the time.’ / ‘So let’s say I think Mrs Tilbury is telling the truth, but I still don’t believe in virgin birth, and I see it as my job to close that gap.'”

Small Pleasures is a book full of potential, and though for me it fell far short of capitalizing on any of it, I can see why readers are loving it. (Or, loving it except for the ending, which I’ll come back to.) Set in 1957, this story follows an unmarried woman nearing 40 who adheres strictly to her duties even while she longs for the more social life she might have had if not for her largely housebound, anxious mother, who relies on Jean’s caretaking. It’s a perspective- especially in this sexist era- often overlooked or stereotyped as pitiable, which makes Jean all the more attractive as a protagonist. And she can be a convincing heroine; Chambers shares Jean’s thoughts and emotions with the reader, making her an easy character to sympathize with.

The plot is also layered and conducive of thought; I suspect this story would make for a great book club discussion. In addition to the virgin birth investigation with its foray into 50s medicine, Small Pleasures is also prominently a domestic drama. In an age when appearances and manners are everything, Gretchen (she of the virgin birth) seems to be the perfect wife, mother, and friend, offering Jean a glimpse into the life she wishes she’d been able to forge for herself. While Howard may not be the most attractive man, he’s impeccably kind and gentle, always does right by his family, and seems to Jean the best husband any woman could ask for. And Margaret, their ten year old daughter, is a sweet, funny girl who wins Jean’s heart immediately. As Jean gains faith in Gretchen’s tale, falls for Howard, and dotes on Margaret, it’s hard to mind the switch from mystery to a quiet exploration of love and longing. It’s all very atmospheric and engaging, a quick, easy read to submerse oneself in if this kind of story appeals.

But though it all seemed off to a promising start, my experience went quickly downhill. I might have fared better with the positives here if I’d warmed to Jean more from the beginning, but Chambers seems to take era authenticity seriously enough that instead of pushing boundaries Jean feels like a true product of her generation, the book’s narration offering no retrospective modern reflection. Small Pleasures feels like it could have been written in 1957, which is a testament to Chambers’ skill with language and setting, though it belies all of the progress women have made in the last six decades. Jean has completely internalized the sexism of her day, letting her boss call her ‘old gal,’ bemoaning (privately) her single, childless state and the burden of caring for her mother. Take this example, for instance, when Jean is visiting her mother during a brief hospitalization; between mentioning that her mother seems to be doing worse that day and clarifying that she means her mother’s mental state seems unstable, she makes this disappointed observation about the hospital staff’s beauty standards:

“When she arrived for evening visiting hours after a long day at work, she found her mother slightly worse. Someone had brushed her hair back off her face, destroying what was left of the curl, and giving her a severe and somewhat masculine appearance, which would have horrified her if she had been able to see it. Looking around, Jean noticed with dismay that the other patients had been treated to a similar grooming regime and now looked like members of the same androgynous tribe.”

Dismay! Over the patients looking androgynous! While they all- including her mother- are suffering from physical and mental ailments! Jean fits the 50s stereotype exactly. She’s just as concerned with keeping up appearances and idealizing that picture-perfect housewife life as every other “proper” 50s woman, even though her circumstances haven’t allowed her to achieve the necessary first step of marriage. Of course it makes sense that someone living in this time period would prescribe to the norms of the time, but in failing to challenge any of these outdated norms through Jean or even indirectly through the 3rd person narration, Small Pleasures comes across more like a misplaced homage than a story worthy of the 21st century.

On top of finding the historical perspective unimaginative, I also had a hard time condoning many of Jean’s personal choices. The trickiness of her budding relationship with Howard aside, there are two particular instances in which I think the narration should have suggested some criticism alongside Jean’s actions. One involves her poor response to the revelation of another woman’s trauma, and the other involves herjudgmental advice to a lesbian woman looking to leave her heterosexual marriage in order to reunite with her lover. In the latter instance Jean shows no consideration for the other women’s feelings and her stance seems to imply her belief that a heterosexual marriage is the only adequate environment in which to raise a child. Jean (and Chambers) does not treat the lesbians well in this story, which might have been used to some advantage had any sort of point been made through the women’s suffering, but instead only Jean’s disapproval comes through in the narration, to no good effect.

Granted, I already disliked Jean by the time these controversial scenes arose, and the situations are more nuanced (I’m trying to keep this review spoiler-free)- Jean means to do well by the person she sees as most vulnerable in both of these cases. Painting herself as the martyr when she really is only tangential to a greater problem here doesn’t come across well either, though. For Jean’s dislike of the lesbian relationship to run unchecked while she also upholds the picture-perfect heterosexual marriage as the ultimate goal seems like a sadly missed opportunity for Chambers to comment on how hard it must have been to live as anything other than heterosexual in this time period, or to acknowledge that marriage to a man is not the be-all and end-all for every woman. As I mentioned above, there is so much potential for reflection and commentary in this book, and yet, in my opinion at least, Chambers has chosen to smile and wave as all of those moments pass unacknowledged right underneath Jean’s nose.

However, many readers seem less perturbed about Jean’s behavior than I have been, and a few fumbled handlings and missed opportunities that seem mostly well-intentioned if a bit tone-deaf are hardly reason to advise avoiding this book like the plague. It is a decent read, if Jean manages not to alienate you. But there’s one more issue with this book that’s been generating some discussion: that ending.

Like many others, I disliked the abrupt left turn in the book’s conclusion. While it turns us toward an interesting topic/event, it just isn’t presented in a way that allows it to mesh with the rest of the book. Though this last big event is actually revealed somewhat sneakily earlier on, the book ends with an ominous, open-ended chapter and then requires an afterword longer than the coverage of this event in the novel to explain what has happened and why Chambers has included it. Even this explanation is not enough to convince me that this ending belongs here; it feels grafted onto a completely unrelated story, and without some stronger sense of unity between the two major parts at play, they only detract from each other, leaving the reader to wonder what the intended takeaway is. Should we be left ruminating on the virgin birth mystery that we’ve spent 300+ pages with, or is this other event that got hardly a mention but railroaded over the rest of the plot actually the larger focus? Furthermore, this ending leaves almost all of the main characters’ fates hanging unsatisfactorily. For these reasons, even while I like the idea of this ending, I wish it had been presented differently or omitted.

“She wondered how many years- if ever- it would be before the monster of awakened longing was subdued and she could return to placid acceptance of a limited life. The journey into love was so effortless and graceful; the journey out such a long and laboured climb.”

CW: rape (off page), infidelity, death (implied), abortion leading to medical complications

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There are some cozy mystery vibes here and a solid attempt at a unique and compelling heroine, so I can see why others are having better experiences with this book, but it was all around Not For Me. Personally I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to pick this one up if you’re picking and choosing from the shortlist, and it’s the only longlisted Women’s Prize book I’ve read so far this year that I actively don’t want to see make the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

a modern love triangle

Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Women’s Prize progress: 5/16 (though not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, Ava has moved from Dublin to Hong Kong post-university, and is teaching English as a foreign language to local children while she tries to sort out what to do with her life. At a bar she meets Julian, a British investment banker, who likes keeping her around even though he insists she is not his girlfriend. They use each other, and Ava continues living in his apartment while he takes a months-long work trip to London. In his absence, she meets someone else, a Chinese lawyer named Edith, a woman who wants a real relationship and is kind to Ava. But Ava is living in Julian’s apartment and part of her feels the toxic relationship she has with him is what she deserves. Of course, he won’t be away forever, so she won’t be able to hide them from each other for long.

“I told myself: This is why you’re single. This is how you can be having sex with two people, tell neither about the other, be living with one of them, and still be single.”

While Exciting Times focuses on two (very different) romances, it is much more of a literary character study than a romance novel. Ava’s relationships with Julian and Edith represent two sides of herself at a moment when her life is at a crossroads. Her TEFL job is temporary, and she’s landed in Hong Kong not because she has any personal connection to it but rather out of a strong desire to leave Dublin, where she’d felt the need to hide her bisexuality. And despite how easy it may sound to choose the loving relationship over the toxic one, part of Dolan’s brilliance here is showcasing how complex it can be for someone to choose something that might ultimately be good for them- Ava enjoys the detached banter she and Julian have perfected to an art form, feels like she understands him, and, for all his rich male flaws, Julian is easier to talk to her mother about, whereas she’s wary of how her Irish Catholic family would react to being told about her girlfriend.

The book is divided into three sections. The first follows Ava’s developing relationship with Julian, showing the reader how they met, why they seem to tolerate and loathe each other simultaneously, and how Ava comes to be living full time in the guest room of his apartment. The next section takes place while Julian is away on business, focusing on Ava’s budding romance with Edith from those awkward early days of obsessing over the meaning of every little thing she does to how Ava balances this new relationship with her already-established tie to Julian, and how even a good thing can make one feel boxed in and afraid. Finally, in the last section, the inevitable conflict sparked by Julian’s return arises and Ava must face up to the mess she’s made of juggling them both, and decide which path forward she should take.

“At least Julian was honest. He’d never experienced anything but permission, I hated him for it, but all the same I was glad he knew he had it. Most men with permission never realized.”

“Edith was calm about things she couldn’t change. Her firm was full or horrible men and she had to be nice to them. You did in every job, and at least hers paid well.”

Though each section has its own merits, Exciting Times‘s greatest fault may be that it tries to present each portion of the book as though it bears equal weight. While each of the three sections is necessary to advancing Ava’s predicament, the segments looking at Ava’s individual relationships with Julian and Edith feel introductory, and introductory chapters have no business taking up two thirds of a book. The final segment of the novel that brings the three main characters all into the same space at last and pits Edith and Julian against each other is by far the most interesting, though it’s slightly shorter than either of the two earlier segments. The friction between Ava and Julian helps move the first part of the book along, though I didn’t need as many pages as were provided to get the gist of their dynamic, and Ava’s comparatively healthy relationship with Edith in the middle of the book, the longest segment, is so devoid of conflict and surprise that it borders on downright boring. The only tension in this portion of the book is the looming awareness that Ava is lying to both Julian and Edith about what’s going on and will have to face the consequences in the near future- I spent most of these pages just waiting for the expected drama of the final piece.

But despite finding the novel unbalanced, it was overall a fantastic read. Though Ava’s life is nothing like mine, though she can be contrary and cold, I found Ava’s narration surprisingly relatable. Don’t we all feel the urge to self-sabotage sometimes, and get in our own way? I found it easy to sympathize with Ava for getting into a relationship with someone she knew was bad for her, and just as easily understood the craze of finding someone who excites you, stalking their social media (but being careful not to like anything, especially not anything old) and then pretending indifference in front of them so as not to give yourself away. And it’s not only the romances that felt fitting here: Ava is a modern young-twenties woman concerned with feminism, the pitfalls of capitalism, the worsening climate crisis, etc.; she toggles between presenting these views outwardly as part of her identity and realizing inwardly that actually she might be bad at acting out her ideals. And she’s got that familiar 21st century internet-era malaise:

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

Throughout the book, the reader also takes a pleasant dive into Ava’s TEFL classes, which prompt her to consider the differences between the English she learned growing up in Ireland, “proper” British English, and the the students’ Hong Kong English, small grammar tics she’s supposed to correct lest they give these children away as non-native speakers. There are English language sounds that she can’t make with her Irish accent and formal grammar rules she’s required to teach that go against what she’s learned as a native speaker. It’s an exploration of language that digs into class, privilege, and communicability in a way I found immensely appealing. Though Ava’s teaching work is more or less routine and has little bearing on the more prominent love triangle plot, the commentary around her language usage does provide further insight into Ava’s societal views and how she relates to (or doesn’t) the people and cultures around her.

And perhaps best of all, this entangled romance is probably the most convincing case for polyamory I’ve ever read, though ultimately it won’t work here. The three main characters make an odd trio and it’s not an entirely healthy relationship for anyone while Ava is seeing both Julian and Edith, but these two relationships fulfill different needs for her such that it’s hard not to imagine a world where she might manage to balance them both. I absolutely loved the excitement and tension of seeing the three of them trying to function together (brief though that portion of the novel is), and found myself frustrated when Ava is eventually forced to make a choice due to logistics and the preferences of her partners.

But this is more of a story about our messy, modern way of connecting to others than about right and wrong, so even when I disliked these characters or their actions I found them believable and had great fun following along.

CW: toxic relationship

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had been wanting to read this book for months and was glad the Women’s Prize nomination gave me that extra nudge to finally pick it up. Though it wasn’t always a smooth read, I thought it encapsulated a bit of the messy drama of exploring one’s social identity, and explored character dynamics in a memorable way. I’d be happy to see this one advance to the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast


It’s been a busy week on the farm. Spring planting is underway in the fields, even though we seem to be in another cold snap (which means fewer walks, sadly) and even have a chance of snow coming up again next week. I also got my first vaccine dose (Moderna) this week, just in time for my birthday! It was a low-key celebration, but my sudden eligibility for the Covid vaccine truly felt like a gift. (Catch me cheesing with my vaccination card in The 365!) I have been fatigued ever since I got the shot, but I’m not entirely sure whether it’s a symptom of the vaccine or just another relapse of my lingering Covid symptoms, which have been coming and going like this for a full year now. I remain hopeful that being fully vaccinated will help relieve my long-lasting symptoms once and for all, and am feeling better on the whole than I did in March, but for now I guess health is still a work in progress.

On the plus side, I’ve gotten enough brain functionality back following my second bout of Covid last month to make a happy, near-full return to reading and blogging. This past week I’ve caught up on an entire month’s worth of posts I’d been neglecting in my WordPress reader (I did not realize it had gotten that bad!), and while I am still reading slightly below my “usual” daily page count for novels, I’ve worked back up to a steady pace that suits me well at the moment. Most of my photos for The 365 this week showcase my resurfaced zest for reading, including the three books I’ve been reading this week and a small book haul: I had a birthday credit through BOTM to spend (and let myself max out my box), and then ordered Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed on the side because I just really wanted it.

I’ve now surpassed 100 photos in The 365, which seems like a good time to reflect a bit on how it’s going. The project has changed a bit from what I originally envisioned, mainly, in that it has become a sort of “slice of life” photo-a-day project moreso than a way to pinpoint and record joy in my daily life. At some point I just had to admit that I am not joyful 365 days of the year, even when making an effort to find something joyful. A joyful photo project was a good idea, but was never going to work for me in 2021. Furthermore, I do not have the energy every day to think up a unique, beautiful photo toward some nice aesthetic (I seem to have abandoned Instagram altogether for now), and being stuck around home 99% of the time means I’ve resorted to a repetitiveness in my photos that I originally tried to resist. To be honest I’m getting a little bored with The 365 and am not sure another 200+ days of photos is going to push this in a new and interesting direction, but dammit I’ve come this far! I’m hoping that being vaccinated, getting my health back soon (hopefully), and seeing some warmer summer weather on the horizon will help liven things up, but at this point the jury’s out on whether The 365 will survive all the way up to 365.

This week’s reading:

  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – 2 stars. This Women’s Prize longlister started out on shaky ground for me and ultimately disappointed at almost every turn instead of capitalizing on its wealth of potential, unfortunately. Nevertheless it was an easy read when I needed one, and after a couple of weeks of struggling with reading at all it was surprisingly fun to engage properly, even if only to curate my list of complaints.
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood – 3 stars. Bit of a mixed bag. There are some fantastic one-liners for our time in here and some insight into a genetic disorder I’d never come across before (Proteus Syndrome), which I appreciated reading about. And yet the story felt so disjointed that it didn’t suit my personal reading taste especially well. I can this being an incredible book for the right reader, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for me.
  • Made in China by Amelia Pang – ongoing. This is a nonfiction book about labor camps in China and how they are fueled by cheap consumerism world-wide. It’s taken me a few tries to get well and started with this one because it’s very info-heavy (difficult with Covid-brain) and starts right out in the first chapter with a bit of torture, which I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to sit with in recent weeks. Now that I’m accustomed to the bleakness and reading regularly again, I’m getting properly into this one at last and I can already tell (about 50 pages in) that this is going to be one hell of an impactful read.

I also managed to post something for once! I wanted to prioritize blog hopping since I was so behind, but I did catch up in time to finish an Actual Review for the first time in a solid month. In case you missed it, I shared some thoughts on:

  • Luster by Raven Leilani, a Women’s Prize read

I have big plans looking forward, but I have to admit up front here that how much I accomplish next week regarding books is going to depend on how busy my family is with planting corn and what my energy level will look like in whatever free time I have outside of that. Assuming we’re delayed with snow and that my recent fatigue is vaccine-related and will therefore wear off soon (big assumptions, but let’s go with it) I am aiming to finish Made in China this week and pick up Cherie Jones’s How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House as my next Women’s Prize read this week.

I also have three completed Women’s Prize reads with notes started for reviews, and if possible I’d love to catch up on all of those. If it turns out to be a golden week maybe I’ll even put together some answers for the book tag I’ve got queued up. If this doesn’t all end up happening in the next seven days, I do still expect to power through this list before the end of April, so my thoughts on Exciting Times, Small Pleasures, and No One is Talking About This will be coming soon.

It hardly makes sense to me that I’m 7 books into the Women’s Prize longlist right now when I feel like I’ve hardly even looked at a book since the list was announced, but I’ll take it! I’m not sure I’ve read enough to do a full shortlist prediction, but I am getting curious, so please drop below any longlist titles you expect to make the cut!

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast


Hello! It’s been a weird two weeks; I ended up taking a break from reading and blogging that I hadn’t really been intending but nevertheless found very helpful. For those waiting on an update, sorry for the delay and thanks for being patient with me; my family members are all doing pretty well and I am feeling much better. I am being kinder to myself though about letting things take the amount of time I need for them rather than trying to push through to keep to a schedule, so my presence here may still be somewhat sporadic for the next few weeks as I (hopefully) continue to improve.

But on the plus side, after struggling for a few weeks with my second bout of Covid in March and into April, I think this turn of events has actually helped clear out some of the lingering symptoms I’ve been unable to shake for the last year. I am feeling physically better this week than I have felt since pre-pandemic days, have gotten back into reading and writing, and have been taking long walks and appreciating my health. The good thing about having felt slightly under the weather for a long time is that on my best days now I feel absolutely gleeful about just feeling “normal;” I don’t think I’ll ever again take for granted just waking up and feeling like myself. Even though my fatigue and brain fog have been mild compared to most accounts of them that I’ve seen, I just haven’t felt fully present since I had Covid last spring, and getting a more complete recovery this time is pretty exciting in the wake of all that. Also exciting- this past week my state finally made me eligible for the vaccine! I called the first day the call center was open, and even though it took seven tries to get through I did in the end get an appointment for both doses, the first of which will be coming up this week. Yay! Unfortunately my family seems to have taken their recent illness as further reason not to get vaccinated, but I’m trying to make peace with the fact that there’s only so much I can do.

Since I missed last week’s update in order to rest and recharge and care for my family, I have two weeks of photos to share today from The 365. I’m so grateful that the weather is finally nice enough to be spending time outdoors, so most of these photos are from walks I’ve taken since my last post. Sorry they’re so gray, but even though it has been warmer out my walks seem have doubled as a game of chicken with perpetual rain clouds. Luckily, I only got wet once, and it was a drizzle rather than a soak.

In addition, two weeks means two Cats of the Week. First up is Shrill (first cat photo, closed eyes) who is two years old and aptly named for his voice, his one fault. Otherwise, he’s such a dainty snuggly boi and will sample every available lap to find the best sleeping spot. It is an honor to be chosen. Next (second cat photo, eyes open) is Robin, ten months old and named after Batman’s Robin because he’s such a little sidekick. Whatever you’re doing, he’ll be right there to “help.” (This is sounding uncharitable toward the original character, but cat Robin definitely has a knack for getting his nose in the way.)

In my absence last week I also missed sharing my March reading stats, so I’ll add a few here. I’m sure no one will be surprised to hear that March was a low point for me reading-wise. According to Storygraph, I read nearly 2,000 pages, but actually I keep my own record of pages read day to day and my bullet journal shows closer to 1,200 pages for March. The difference, I think, is A Court of Silver Flames, which I read the bulk of at the end of February but finished in early March, so Storygraph counted those 700+ pages toward March even though I didn’t. Interesting to note, I think, but I’m sure by the end of the year those month-to-month fluctuations should even out. Now that I’m doing weekly reading updates instead of monthly wrap-ups, I no longer feel like I have to finish whatever I’m reading on the last day of the month and start a new book on the 1st to keep things neat, but I do always start as fresh as possible on Jan 1st.

And honestly, maybe I would’ve read more throughout March if, while ill, I hadn’t been trudging through such *checks notes* dark, mysterious, challenging, and emotional reads. Lol.

It was necessary to make one particular adjustment to my reading in March, though: no nonfiction. I started one but just didn’t have the brain power to keep it up.

Unfortunately, my ratings took a hit last month, as well. While I only actively disliked one of the books I read, I had no 5-star reads and struggled with a couple of books that definitely suffered for how unusually long it took me to finish them. And while I would say a 3-star rating is still good, it’s not… inspiring. It’s not a rating I tend to aim for, and thus always feels slightly disappointing even if I would still recommend those books to the right reader, so seeing 2 and 3s make up more than half of my reading shows a lack of excitement for me, even if most of my reading wasn’t particularly “bad.”

Here’s what I finished reading in March:

  • A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas – 2 stars.
  • The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, translated by Diane Oatley – 3 stars.
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – 4 stars.
  • The Butchers’ Blessing by Ruth Gilligan – 4 stars. (review pending)
  • Luster by Raven Leilani – 3 stars. (review pending)

April has also been off to a slow start for reading but I am picking up speed and gaining optimism. I’m behind on my reading goal for the year, but not too concerned about it at this point. I’m more frustrated that the shortlist date for the Women’s Prize is fast approaching (April 28th) and I’m lagging behind in reading and reviews for that, but it is what it is.

Here’s how my April reading has been going so far:

  • Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan – 4 stars. I really liked this Women’s Prize longlister. Dolan’s prose is incredible, the messy MC shockingly relatable, and the complex three-way relationship tense and fun. Full thoughts coming soon (hopefully), but I’ll say for now that the book is divided into three sections, one of which worked much better for me than the others, my only real complaint here.
  • Made in China by Amelia Pang – ongoing. I’m mentioning this nonfiction read about forced labor in China related to US’s imported goods just to keep it on the record, even though I’ve hardly touched it in the last two weeks. I am looking forward to getting back to this soon.
  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – ongoing. Another Women’s Prize longlist read, though I’m less enthusiastic about this one. I’m about halfway through and so far it’s just… fine? I’m discovering that stories set in the 50s just do not really work for me. It was a bad time for women. The plot is slow-going in this one but in its favor it’s undeniably easy to read, which is what I needed this week.

As for posts, I haven’t shared a review in weeks and can’t guarantee exactly when they’ll start cropping up again. I have been working on my Luster review and have notes started for my other pending reviews because I forget things too quickly not to jot down some immediate starting points. Hopefully I’ll get something finished this week and fall back into the groove of it. I am also very behind in blog hopping, and I feel bad posting new stuff without looking at anyone else’s so that’s a priority as I catch back up here.

That’s all for me for now, I think. Drop your current Women’s Prize thoughts below if you’ve been reading any of the longlisted titles- I am eager to jump back in and see where everyone’s at!

The Literary Elephant