Tag Archives: BOTM

Review: Lot (+ We Need to Talk About BOTM)

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including this remarkable short story collection you may have missed last year! Today I’m talking about Bryan Washington’s Lot.

lotIn this story collection, each piece is a snapshot of a time and place in modern Houston. Many of the stories follow one young man through his teens and early adulthood as he struggles to find his way through family and relationship strife, a changing (gentrifying) neighborhood, and prejudice against his identity as a biracial (Black and Latino) gay man. In some cases, all of these opposing forces combine. Other stories woven in between are not directly related to the main character’s life, but showcase others facing similar challenges within the same community.

This is a fantastic book to read this month, both for LGBTQ+ Pride and in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. I would, however, recommend it mainly to an adult audience, and perhaps not to anyone searching for basic education about racism or LGBTQ+ issues, just because the points that Lot has to make are largely revealed between the lines rather than explicitly stated and explained. (One example that has stuck with me is when a “whiteboy” gives our MC a new name because he can’t pronounce his real one- the MC does not react or share with the reader why this is Bad, so it’s up to the reader to pick up on this one-sentence insult.) It’s a book that’s not especially geared toward the white gaze. However, if you’re looking for subtler commentary on life in minority groups in America, you may appreciate with Lot has to offer.

“Money issues aside, leaving the neighborhood meant leaving the shop. Which meant leaving Ma. Leaving her broke and alone. […] Ma’s daughter had left her. Her son had left her. Her husband had left her. So I couldn’t leave her.”

This is a collection about characters, but it’s also a deep dive into a place- Houston. The stories are very grounded in that setting, but in many ways the city feels like it could be any place in America, and I really would be surprised if there aren’t similar undervalued communities in every metropolitan area. That is part of Lot’s magic- it manages to be very specific while also hinting at a much larger scope.

In a similar way, it shows particular experiences of non-white queer life, and while these characters are presented as unique and are given plenty of specific detail, they also indicate some generalities that seem more universal- the incidents of prejudice, the struggle to stay out of poverty and receive appropriate aid, the lack of fair treatment and opportunities driving down-on-their-luck and overlooked people into questionable professions like drug sales. Washington zooms in individuals and elaborates on their life stories, but if the reader takes a step back from single trees and examines the collection as a whole they’ll see an entire forest laid out, full of people caught in the systematic oppression we’ve been hearing so much about lately. It’s a stunning balance.

“Some days are just bad, he said. Some people live their whole lives and not a single good thing happens to them. / I told him those were just the rules. He should follow them unless he had something new to say.”

Though these are all separate stories and most would stand alone well, it’s best to read them all together as parts of a whole. About half of them follow the same family via the same narrator and are presented in chronological order. The last story references characters and plot points from previous, seemingly unrelated, stories. A couple of the pieces particularly impressed me from the set (the very last story, “Elgin,” was my favorite!), but on the whole I found each story immersive and interesting, with something to add to the overall narrative. There wasn’t a single story I disliked. The only point of dissatisfaction I had with the set was based on personal taste- these are slice-of-life stories, where I tend to prefer short stories that are a little… punchier? I love short stories full of drama and emotion. Instead, Lot is a slow-burn that chips at the reader’s heart a piece at a time and works to build a larger story than any one piece encompasses on its own, which is an effect I adore in character-driven novels but find harder to navigate in short story collections, where the reader must “start over” again and again with each new piece. To be fair, I think Lot would’ve suffered as a novel and its strength lies in its interlocking structure, it just requires a different sort of patience than I was expecting.

At the sentence level, the writing style here reminded me of Junot Diaz’s, in terms of pacing and flow. As for content, Washington gives the sort of cultural glimpse I’d hoped to find in Diaz’s writing and instead found lacking (in the one story of his that I read). I’ve never been to Jamaica, Guatemala, Mexico (or any other country outside of the US, unfortunately) but I loved the way Washington brought little pieces of their culture into the story through food, language, and behavior. Lot’s narration feels insightful, effortless, and easy to get caught up in. Washington’s is a fresh voice with plenty to say, and he says it well.

“People think about things all the time, he said. All people fucking do is think. But really, he said, you do things or you don’t.”

(DO sign petitions! Donate! Speak up against racism! The time for thinking without acting has passed.)

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. In my effort to amplify Black stories by reading and reviewing more of them, I just want to throw a reminder in here that I rate on the scale Goodreads suggests, based on my own enjoyment of the novel, not on the merit of the book nor in any reflection of the author’s ability or person. They might not all be 5-star favorites for me, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth checking out! I think Lot‘s a great book and I’m glad I read it. I wouldn’t be averse to reading further from Washington in the future- and he does have a new release coming soon!

 

 

Before I sign off here, I want to say a little about what’s going on with Book of the Month Club, since I got Lot through their service. I’ve been a BOTM member since 2017, and I think the basic idea they’re operating on is a good one- offering a selection of hardcover new release books every month that members get to choose from, for only $10-$15.

But the current issue is that while protests were going on worldwide at the start of June, BOTM was promoting their June line-up, and conspicuously silent about the business’s stance on Black Lives Matter / current events. Finally, over the weekend, they posted on Instagram (their main social media outlet) an image featuring two non-fiction books by Black authors available through their site. On this post (which I’m not linking because the original text has been changed since), they received a lot of backlash in the comments for the fact that those two books were never main monthly selections for BOTM but farther down the site only as add-ons. A small gathering of six books on “antiracist learning” has been the only acknowledgment on the site of the recent protests. Further criticism included the fact that BOTM has included only 3 (out of 30) main selections this year by Black authors. Their selections are predominantly white, with an average of only one book (out of five) per month from an author who is not Caucasian. The majority of their judges, bookbassadors, and affiliates are also white. These facts, combined with the fact that the post came only after a fraught week of protests while BOTM promoted their own content, and the fact that their post of recommended reading offered no commitment from the company to work against racism in any way, drew a lot of ire.

In the midst of these complaints, at least one (Black) bookstagrammer announced publicly that her dissenting comments on the post had been deleted, and her account had been blocked from engaging with BOTM. Much of the Bookstagram/BOTM community is now calling for BOTM to issue an apology to this commentor, whose reasonable concerns were erased. Silencing a Black woman questioning the company’s committment to diversity and its current stance on BLM is… extremely low behavior on BOTM’s part, to put it mildly. I’m hoping there was some sort of accident or malfunction, that this happened only to one person, and that BOTM will share why it happened and commit to not doing anything like it in the future.

The reason I’m staying with BOTM for now despite their iffy (at best) response to current concerns of racism, is because after this debacle they released a stronger statement: it’s a general apology, a list of specific ways they’re planning to help fight racism with their platform and assets, and a confirmation that they stand with Black Lives Matter. The tone of their post and the comments seem to me genuinely apologetic and sincerely intent on doing better in the future. I’m glad they’ve been called out for questionable behavior and practices, and I’m not entirely satisfied with the way they’ve handled this yet, but I do think BOTM is in a great position to affect a positive change in the reading community (they have a HUGE influence in the US, even as they lose followers over this) and if they follow through with the list of goals they’ve posted it sounds like they’ll become a company I’ll be happier supporting. I’d love to see this major subscription service bringing diverse books to shelves across America (they’re only open to US readers at present) and supporting lesser-known authors who could benefit from the attention. While it is important to call out and challenge incidents of racism and put your money where it can best help those in need, I think it is also worth giving people/businesses a chance to learn and improve, and to support those willing to make that effort. I think it’s also important that when these companies send out their surveys to assess customer satisfaction someone is still there to advocate for positive change.

I’m sharing all of this here because I’ve pictured one of their books above, and don’t want you to imagine that I’m blindly ignoring what’s going on or in support of silencing Black voices in any way. I sincerely hope BOTM will become a better (more diverse and inclusive) service going forward, and if not, I will certainly be ending my membership.

That’s where I stand on that.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

I finally ticked the last book off my March TBR, with a little help from Gil @ Gil Reads Books, who kindly volunteered to buddy read it with me! (I’ve linked her review, be sure to check it out!) John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a nearly 600-page LGBTQ+ historical fiction novel that reads quickly for its size and has received a lot of love since its 2017 release. Though it didn’t quite live up to the massive hype for me, Gil and I were largely in agreement about this one, and I had a good time reading and discussing it despite a few disappointments.

theheart'sinvisiblefuriesIn the novel, Cyril Avery narrates 70 years of his life, beginning with his mother’s eventful pregnancy and ending with the ghost of a friend telling him the (fast-approaching) date of Cyril’s own death. In between, the reader is given an overview of the challenges faced by gay men in Ireland from the 1940’s onward. The prevalence of strict Catholocism and the illegality of homosexuality in Ireland through much of the 1900s made life very difficult for a lot of people who, like Cyril, were forced to hide their true identities, create elaborate cover-ups, and/or leave Ireland altogether in order to simply exist as themselves.

“It was a difficult time to be Irish, a difficult time to be twenty-one years of age and a difficult time to be a man who was attracted to other men. To be all three simultaneously required a level of subterfuge and guile that felt contradictory to my nature.”

I’ll start on a positive: I think Boyne does a great job of conveying how oppressively unfair the social, political, and Catholic response to homosexuality and AIDS was in Ireland (and beyond, to some extent) until very recently. Politicians outed as homosexual would lose their careers. Men who confessed to doctors their shame and unhappiness over their sexual preferences were given cruel and ineffective “treatments.” Children were convinced by authority figures from a young age that the roads to Hell are many and being a homosexual is one of the most certain paths. Being gay in this place, in this time, led to arrest, loss of respect and even recognition from friends and family, direct verbal and physical violence from utter strangers, and more. Cyril’s introductions to sexuality are secretive after-hours public encounters that leave him feeling guilty and far from love. The Heart’s Invisible Furies gave me a good sense of the difficulties faced on every side, and the political/religious atmosphere of the country in these years that led to such intolerant reactions.

” ‘What’s wrong with you people?’ he asked, looking at me as if I was clinically insane. ‘What’s wrong with Ireland? Are you all just fucking nuts over there, is that it? Don’t you want each other to be happy?’ / ‘No,’ I said, finding my country a difficult one to explain. ‘No, I dont think we do.’ “

Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of the book’s potential positives were undermined for me by the sheer absurdity of the narration. I think my mention above about Cyril narrating his mother’s pregnancy and communing with ghosts is a good indicator of how very whimsical Boyne’s narrative choices are here. Though on their own none of the plot details would seem quite so far-fetched, all together it makes for a particularly comedic journey. I can’t deny that it was fun to read and guess which outlandish plot twist was coming up next (I did not have “villain crushed by statue in the nick of time” on my bingo card, sadly), but I had so much difficulty suspending disbelief that I could barely take any of the plot seriously. There’s a ton of ground being covered here, and I hate to bash this book because I do think it’s a decent (fictionalized) source of information for those who haven’t lived the experience; but perhaps its greatest fault is that it tries to encompass too much of the gay Irish experience within one man, and thus loses what strength it could have had in characterization. This might have been a very different experience if I had been better able to emotionally invest in Cyril’s saga of suffering.

As it is, I’ve heard of many of the horrors this book contains prior to reading it (the clandestine exchanges in parks after dark, the loveless marriages, the medical treatments, the prejudice). Shocking reveals were never going to win me over the way heartfelt characterization might have, and I found that lacking. The children don’t sound like children, the seven year time gaps between every chapter feel forced and make new character introductions belated and awkward, and relationships between them are difficult to understand without being explicitly told. Character reunions and deaths feel manipulative, exacerbated by the fact that each person in this story is so one-note that they read more like caricatures with a single personality trait each than actual people. Even the dialogue is presented very literally, lest the reader miss the point:

” ‘I just know that if she goes to America she’ll end up being raped by a black man and having an abortion.’ / ‘Jesus Christ,’ I said, spitting out my tea. ‘For God’s sake, Anna, you can’t say things like that.’ / ‘Why not? It’s true.’ / ‘It’s not true at all. And you sound very small-minded saying it.’ / ‘I’m not racist if that’s what you’re implying. Remember, my husband is Jewish.’ “

And yet, despite all the complaints I’ve lodged, I can’t deny that most of the read was engaging and entertaining, even if not in the way I expected or hoped for. I had a better time than with my last Boyne novel- A Ladder to the Sky. All in all, a mixed experience, though the fact that I seem to be in the minority with my complaints means I’d still readily recommend this book to anyone looking for a humorous, dramatic account of an important social issue.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This would probably have been a lower rating if I hadn’t enjoyed laughing my way through the most unrealistic of the plot points, and dissecting them all with Gil. Without a buddy I think I would have been even more frustrated than I was. I suspect I’m just not the right reader for Boyne’s style, though there’s enough to appreciate in his work that I’m not counting out trying more of his work in the future. I just won’t be rushing to pick it up.

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Beach Read and The Gifts of Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Memory Police and Topics of Conversation

Another round of “short” reviews, featuring two of my recent reads!

I picked up my first Yoko Ogawa novel this month, The Memory Police (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). After seeing it nominated for the National Book Award last year and loving the synopsis, it seemed like a good place to start with her work- and even though I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as expected, I’ll certainly be reading further!

thememorypoliceIn the novel, an author lives on an island where things have a tendency to “disappear.” Islanders wake in the morning with a sort of hole in their memories, ponder until they realize which object used to fill that space in their hearts and minds, then destroy all physical traces of the thing that has “disappeared.” The Memory Police hunt down forgotten items, and  remove those people with perfect memories who resist the disappearances. The novelist becomes concerned when she realizes her editor is resisting, but she can’t hide everything that’s important to her; as she sadly complies with devastating disappearances, the editor tries to trick her memory into holding on to the things that are essential to her.

“Nothing comes back now when I see a photograph. No memories, no response. They’re nothing more than pieces of paper. A new hole has opened in my heart, and there’s no way to fill it up again. That’s how it is when something disappears…”

Structurally, this one reminded me of Blind Assassin, in which the novelist’s current manuscript appears occasionally between chapters of her own life. There are certain similarities between the two plots, with the novelist’s emotions and fears coming out plainly in her written story.

It’s an evocative, atmospheric tale full of secrecy and fear, an all-too-powerful government, a public that quietly acquiesces (following the path of least resistance) and a few rebels who fight back. The Memory Police is a novel that asks how much of our lives should be decided for us, and how much should be left to our own control. It’s a question that goes beyond what we are expected do, to what we are expected to feel. The magical element- the disappearances are not a choice- keeps the story from feeling like a direct parallel to any particular place or body of government, and yet it is otherworldly enough that many aspects of it feel widely applicable, linked easily to any place. It’s a story that frightens and demands further thought.

But I had a few hangups. I found the disappearances rather arbitrary and confusing through most of the book- some things, for instance, aren’t entirely gone: the ferry is “disappeared,” and yet it is still docked, its operator still lives on board, and he remembers the days when he happily ferried people across the water. The disappearances seem to be more of an emotional response, and thus are somewhat difficult to understand and to define; I prefer magic with clearer limits. I was also left with many questions about how things started disappearing at all, and why, and how the disappearances affected some people and not others, and who the memory police even are- designated islanders? Volunteers? Outsiders? Where are they taking the people who still have their memories? How do they know when someone or something is being hidden? Why do they care? Etc. These seemed to me like basic world-building and title-explaining questions, and instead of answering any of them, Ogawa asks the reader to trust and follow along blindly. In a way, this is exactly what the islanders must do- most of them don’t question anything and have no qualms about complying, and so the reading experience is a bit like the novelist’s life in that regard. And yet I couldn’t help feeling that opportunities were missed when the novel failed to delve more deeply into the particulars of its world and constraints.

“I had only to surrender to each new disappearance to find myself carried along quite naturally to the place I needed to be.”

Ultimately, though I enjoyed the writing, the plot, and many of the ideas driving this story, I was left wishing for more. More from this novel, but also more of Ogawa’s work. This book does seem to be a better fit for many other readers, so don’t let me dissuade you if you’re interested in the premise.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad to have finally read one of Ogawa’s translated works, and I’m certain it won’t be my last. I’m aiming to read more translations throughout the year in 2020, and even though this one didn’t excite me quite as much as I’d hoped, it was an encouraging start.

Additionally, I flew through my January BOTM selection- Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is a slim literary fiction volume just over 200 pages. It was also a mixed experience.

topicsofconversationIn the novel, a woman recalls various encounters and conversations she’s had over the course of about twenty years. Most of these conversations take place privately between women, though not all. In a series of vignette-like chapters, we follow the narrator from place to place as she carries the burdens of each confession throughout her life.

This is a novel that shows how quietly but relentlessly gender-specific abuse can affect women. When I say abuse, I mean that there’s a woman who is stabbed in one of these stories (though not on the page), and at least one who is raped (also not on the page), but much of it is more subtle. It’s seen in the women who admit they liked being told what to do, or who tell themselves that an affair with a professor was mutual and fair, or who feel guilty staying in a relationship with a nice guy. Women tell each other privately about the men who’ve hurt them, and the part that cuts to the heart the most is that the book is not a rage-fest but a quiet sharing of shame, acceptance of blame in many cases, and at times even a manipulation tactic. Our narrator, whether she knows it or not, is internalizing these horrid little stories and it’s obvious that they are shaping her idea of what is normal and acceptable, even desirable.

“I was pretty sure I knew where this story was going, not only because the man in the story had been identified as a sexual predator but also because it was late and it was only women and we were all a little drunk and under those conditions there is only one place a story about a boy and a girl ever goes.”

Though I loved the intent I saw behind these conversations, the persistant toxicity of a male-dominant power imbalance, the execution simply did not work for me. The writing style is a bit experimental, sometimes using quotation marks and sometimes not, flowing freely from dialogue to thought to exposition and back again in a single sentence. It’s not impossible to follow, but I couldn’t pinpoint any reason for using this sort of erratic style, and ultimately it did nothing for me. It’s also not entirely clear whether these conversations are all being told in retrospect- there are comments about future events woven into the narration, though the stories seem to offer very little of the reflection or that should come with twenty years of contemplation. Furthermore, it’s not entirely clear whether the narrator is reliable or not. There are moments when she’s all but bragging about her bad experiences, or inventing bits of her stories as she goes, or telling them for the sole purpose of making her listener react in a certain way. Of course these are all realistic ways in which women react to their experiences, but if our narrator here can admit to being untruthful and using her conversations to invoke a certain impression in her audience, how can we trust anything that she’s saying? And what is the point of the book if we can’t? With the possibility that the narrator is lying about ALL of her experiences, is there anything to learn from them?

“I am often thinking of the better story because the actual story is so often boring.”

I marked so many thought-provoking lines and passages from this book, and each chapter did eventually manage to  capture my interest. But ultimately, the pieces just didn’t add up as a whole. Each “conversation” is more or less a monologue from one character or another (mixed with the narrator’s commentary), and feels complete in itself, making the transitions rough and the stories disjointed. The common denominator, the narrator, remains too elusive to provide a sense of purpose. Though I really liked the themes I drew from this book, I did not particularly enjoy/appreciate the read, and am left wondering whether this one was worth my time at all.

“And yes I know no one keeps blogs anymore.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I hope BOTM will keep offering experimental lit fic selections this year, even though this one did not quite live up to expectations.

Please let me know if you’ve read either of these books, I’d love to hear some different opinions!

 

The Literary Elephant

Book of the Month 2019

2019 was my third year subscribed to Book of the Month Club (BOTM), and it was a year that saw a lot of change.

The company still operates the same way- every month they showcase five books with a surprise reveal of the selections at the beginning of the month, and readers can use a credit (about $15 if you pay per month, a little less if you buy 6 or 12 credits at once) to choose any of the 5 hardcover BOTM editions. Usually they’re brand new or upcoming releases. After choosing your book from the five, you can add up to two add-ons for $10 each (or use a credit, but then you’re paying more than you need to), from any of the selections they’ve ever carried that aren’t sold out. It’s a good value (free shipping every time!), a fun process (the reveal is always exciting!), and a quality service (they’re so careful about packing the books safely for mailing!). The only downside is that they’re available in the US only right now.

But even though the process and price is the same, BOTM no longer feels like the same subscription I signed up for in 2017.

In some ways the changes are good- they have a new member rewards program that selection from the five book of the year nominees. They’ve also branched out into more genres than ever before, with a wide selection of add-ons in addition to the monthly top five, and as they’re in the process of launching a YA box there are quite a few YA selections currently available too. It seems like they’ve really grown their membership this year, and are pleasing a lot of readers.

But when I signed up, I was using my subscription to find literary fiction gems that I hadn’t heard of before each monthly reveal. In 2019, they’ve gone much more commercial with their selections. Every month includes at least one thriller, at least one contemporary, often a historical fiction, and at least one really big name author. There’s nothing wrong with popular/commercial fiction, and I do still read a fair amount of it, but that’s not what I wanted from BOTM. It’s still a good service, just not the one I signed up for. For the first time in three years of subscription, I skipped boxes this year.

And yet, even though BOTM seems to be moving away from the sort of titles I’m looking for, I have still picked up quite a few this year that have caught my interest.

2019 BOTM selections I’ve read:

2019readbotm

Older selections I own that I read in 2019:

2019 selections I read without purchasing through BOTM:

2019 BOTM selections I haven’t read yet:

  • A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum.
  • Lot by Bryan Washington.
  • When the Sky Fell on Splendor by Emily Henry.
  • The Buried by Peter Hessler.
  • City of Omens by Dan Werb.
  • Three Women by Lisa Taddeo.
  • The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
  • The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan.
  • American Predator by Maureen Callahan.
  • Long Bright River by Liz Moore.
  • Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston.

Older BOTM selections I own but STILL haven’t read yet:

  • The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton.
  • The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil.
  • Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich.
  • Artemis by Andy Weir.
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.
  • Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
  • One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul.
  • All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood.
  • Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller.

I haven’t set any specific BOTM goals for myself for 2020 but it would be really nice to shrink that list of unread titles. I’m going to try harder to stick to only getting one book per month in 2020 as well, that tends to be where I run into hoarding problems.

So, my 2020 stats:

I read 12 books that featured as BOTM selections this year.

I purchased 16 BOTM selections in 2019.

I read 5/16 of the 2019 selections I now own.

All told, a worse track record than last year: in 2018 I read 14/19 of my selections from that year, and 4 older selections. But I did mostly stick to my one BOTM goal for 2019: to avoid the thrillers!

My main problems with commercialized BOTM, based on my 2019 stats, is that I’m finding a lot of 3-star reads, and I’m reading more of the selections through my library than I am through my subscription. With their more popular selections, I often already know about those titles outside of BOTM; I’m less likely to purchase books I already have a library hold for or have already decided I don’t want to read immediately anyway. (Though clearly I’m not getting to all of the books that I do want to read immediately anyway.)

But, enough griping. A little more bookish fun!

One of the best features of BOTM is that they allow readers to vote on a book of the year. The 2019 winner is: Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six! I really liked this book and would definitely recommend to readers who enjoy historical fiction, social issues, 70s rock bands, and/or large, complicated friend groups. I hear it’s also great on audio, since it’s formatted as a set of interviews.

The other finalists were: Recursion by Blake Crouch (I’ve read and mostly enjoyed it, though it was too similar to Crouch’s previous release for my taste), The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (I’ve been spoiled for this thriller and thus no longer have an interest in reading it), This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger (I’m not interested in reading this one at present), and A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum (I own it and definitely still want to read).

While I am partial to Daisy Jones, the one book I would recommend to basically everyone from my 2019 BOTM experience is Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek! I only rated this one 3 stars because guessing the mystery early ruined the tension for me, but I think it’s nevertheless an excellent book about immigration, parenting children with special needs, and difficult family relationships. It’s framed as a courtroom drama, but the focus is more heavily on the characters than the investigation. It’s highly readable and full of great themes.

2019botm

So, that’s been my third year with BOTM. If it sounds like a subscription you’re interested in, feel free to use my referral code, which you can use to sign up and get your first book for just $5.

Are you a BOTM member, or have you read any of the books I’ve listed? Let me know what your favorite 2019 selection has been, or what you’re still looking forward to!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Recursion

CW: suicide, death (including death of a child), gun violence, nuclear attack, Alzheimer’s diesease

Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter may very well have been one of the books that “broke” the thriller genre for me. I read it in early 2017, only a few months before every thriller I picked up started to seriously disappoint me (with the major exception being Riley Sager’s Final Girls). It was my first sci-fi thriller, and such an all-around fun experience that there was no way I could miss Crouch’s 2019 release, another sci-fi thriller, titled Recursion.

recursionIn the novel, Barry is investigating a suicide in which the victim (prior to jumping) claims to have been affected by False Memory Syndrome- a new “disease” slowly sweeping the world that leaves those affected with two sets of memories, one “real” and one “false.” His investigation soon becomes much more hands-on than he intended. Meanwhile, Helena has been forced to switch her life’s focus from saving memories for those with Alzheimer’s to erasing all traces of her invented technology from the world; she learns the hard way that manipulating memories- even with the best of intentions- can only go horribly awry.

” ‘What’s more precious than our memories?’ he asks. ‘They define us and form our identities.’ “

Much in the spirit of Dark Matter (comparisons are inevitable), Recursion is also a story of what-ifs, in which some of the main characters are able to re-live parts of their lives as though they’d made different choices. Both titles examine some of the moral and emotional consequences of altering reality, as well as dissecting the science (in a novice-friendly way) that might lead to these possibilities. And of course, both are fast-paced adventures full of unique threats and psychological twists and turns.

Recursion opens on Barry’s first brush with False Memory Syndrome, which provides a perfect introduction to a concept that is, at first, as mysterious to the protagonist as the reader. When the time is right, the story doubles back to Helena’s research efforts, switching to a new protagonist with more knowledge on memory and the pertinent technology to guide the reader through a phase of discovery. Of course the two plotlines eventually merge, as Helena and Barry meet and unite against a common enemy- someone who wants to use Helena’s invention to change the world in the name of progress, no matter the consequences.

“Memory is … the filter between us and reality. You think you’re tasting this wine, hearing the words I’m saying, in the present, but there’s no such thing. The neural impulses from your taste buds and your ears get transmitted to your brain, which processes them and dumps them into working memory- so by the time you know you’re experiencing something, it’s already in the past. Already a memory…We think we’re perceiving the world directly and immediately, but everything we experience is this carefully edited, tape-delayed reconstruction.”

If the science sounds intimidating or you think sci-fi just isn’t the genre for you, rest assured that it’s largely a conceptual backdrop to a fairly accessible thriller plot. Crouch throws in a few sentences that must be based in fact- statements about neurons firing in the brain, memory storage, and déjà vu- but the rest is one big thought experiment mainly featuring the fictional logistics of time travel via memory. As long as you understand the gist (the heroes and villains are obvious enough), it’s really not strictly necessary to pay close attention to all of the specifics. In fact, even the scientists in Recursion require plenty of trial and error with the equipment in order to understand what it’s capable of. There’s no need to worry about getting bogged down in details.

It’s a smart, exciting ride that balances right on the edge between realistic and fantastic, with just enough realistic detail to ground the reader while allowing the imagination plenty of room to run free.

“Time is an illusion, a construct made out of human memory. There’s no such thing as the past, the present, or the future. It’s all happening now.”

But there are a few ways in which the layering of timelines frustrated me. Note: these are fairly small issues that come down to stylistic preference.

First is the repetition. There are moments, days, and even years that some characters experience repeatedly; in a few instances, a particular event is written out numerous times, back to back, highlighting variations. This tactic does lend credence to the matter of false/dead memories causing insanity, depression, and/or suicidal thoughts, but I nevertheless found it annoying to know I was reading scenes that were ultimately not leading anywhere productive.

Second, once it becomes clear that characters who possess the proper knowledge and equipment can revisit key moments limitlessly, the stakes are lowered. It is infinitely harder to worry about heroes dying or villains causing irreparable damage when one only has to make provisions for re-entering the moment if things turn sour, and try another path.

Third is the way that these relationships are skewed by the lack of chronology. There are several occasions in which a character must introduce him- or herself to someone they already know well, which allows for alliances to be formed with proof of knowing someone else’s secrets rather than a gradual rapport built from circumstance and personality. As a consequence, I can recall many of the events of this book, but I would struggle to tell you what kind of person any of the main characters are beyond basic motives- doing what is right, saving the world, making a name for oneself with a life-changing invention. Unfortunately, I did find it harder to invest in characters that I wasn’t able to fully understand, and books in which the characters feel like afterthoughts to the plot (even a stellar plot) never have quite the same strength that character-driven narratives do for me.

This is starting to look like a list of complaints rather than a recommendation to read a book that I had an excellent time with, but that is only because I can’t help comparing my Recursion reading experience to that of Dark Matter, which I enjoyed slightly more- possibly only because I happened to read it first. In the end, both are great books that I can’t see disappointing many readers, including those who are wary of the sci-fi aspect. My only gripe here is that when I have read a book that I loved (Dark Matter), I don’t hope for the author to write a very similar book that will give me a repeat experience (Recursion); I hope for something that raises the bar. Though I think Recursion is an excellent book on par with Dark Matter, it  wasn’t quite the step up into new territory that I was most hoping for.

“We have made it far too easy to destroy ourselves.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been an extremely difficult book to review, because 1) everything is a plot twist so it’s hard to talk about without spoilers, and 2) I struggled to find the right balance between explaining why I both had a great time reading it and yet also didn’t. I believe this is a personal quirk, that for something to impress me enough for a 5-star rating it has to be great but also hold an element of surprise; sometimes greatness itself can be a surprise, but with a follow-up title I definitely need something new to supercede the greatness that I was already expecting based on the first book. (Does this make sense to anyone other than me?) In any case, I’m still on board to read more of Crouch’s work- I’m hoping to pick up Pines this October, and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for future publications as well.

Have you read any of Blake Crouch’s novels? What’s been your favorite so far?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Killer Across the Table

Two of my current reading goals are 1) to read more nonfiction, and 2) to catch up on the BOTM titles still waiting unread on my shelf. Picking up The Killer Across the Table by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker this month contributed toward both.

thekilleracrossthetableIn the book, former FBI agent / criminal profiler John Douglas looks back on his conversations with convicted serial killers in an attempt to explain why they do what they do.

“Because let’s be honest: the fascination with ‘true crime’ is actually fascination with what writers and philosophers call the human condition. We all want to know and understand the basis of human behavior and motivation, why we do the things we do. And with crime, we are seeing the human condition writ large and at the extremes…”

Right out of the gate, Douglas and Olshaker make clear that this book was written with the intent of showing readers what the human mind is capable of, for the purpose of understanding what causes violent crime and perhaps recognizing the signs to prevent history repeating itself. The book is divided into four sections, each of which examines a different “type” of serial killer, though Douglas flips between cases frequently and with ease wherever they fit his arguments.

In the first section, a would-be serial killer finds himself behind bars after only one crime; his victim’s death ultimately results in the national adoption of Joan’s Law. The second section examines a killer who chooses victims disturbingly close to home. The third, a hospital orderly the likes of whom you’ll never want to meet. And the fourth, a killer whose crimes do not seem to follow any pattern. The first two are the strongest, in my opinion, but my attention and interest never wavered. The Killer Across the Table is a great introduction to true crime, and offers such a wealth of psychological insight that readers already familiar with the genre will probably find something new here, as well. 

If, like me, you’re fairly new to true crime and aren’t sure about your interest level in serial killers, let me assure you that this volume is beginner-friendly. Though it does not read like a novel, it does touch on a wide variety of cases and motivations that will probably help you decide whether you want to read about anything or anyone specific in more depth. My only previous experience with true crime lit was In Cold Blood, so I did appreciate this broader overview. I’ve also watched a couple of recent true crime Netflix films, which is how I came to be reading The Killer Across the Table– I saw Netflix’s Mindhunter, a new adaptation of another book by these authors that uses the same style of approach to accomplish the same purpose, and became intersested enough to pick up this quasi-related work; the two make for great companion pieces. 

John Douglas, the first listed author, is the agent who pioneered this method of criminal profiling that’s become so familiar from detective shows and novels in the last couple of decades. He’s the basis for Jack Crawford, the senior FBI agent from The Silence of the Lambs. There’s no doubt in these 300-some pages that he’s an intelligent person, and good at what he does. And yet, it’s still worth bearing in mind that there’s some subjectivity involved with presuming to know what goes on in another person’s mind. Douglas’s arguments are easy to follow and always backed up with evidence, but this is still a fairly new branch of criminology and Douglas’s word seems to be as close to proof as we can get within this volume.

But this is where it gets a bit controversial. My favorite part of the Mindhunter adaptation (so far) comes toward the end of the first season- agent Ford, the character based on Douglas, seems to become a bit mentally unstable as he spends more time interviewing and deciphering notorious killers. The lengths he goes to in the interviews become more extreme, he lies to cover up an action he knows others will see as morally wrong, he makes serious decisions in both his relationships and career based on deductions from behavior rather than listening to others. Perhaps I read more into it than the writers of the show intended, but in any case this questionable impression of Ford/Douglas’s character was fresh in my mind when I started The Killer Across the Table. For this reason, I was perhaps a bit paranoid in my reading. After cold descriptions of gruesome crimes, Douglas does occasionally admit that the details of the crime were difficult for him to stomach and he feels only disgust for the people who would do such things. But for me, these quick, infrequent statements were not able to penetrate the sense of absolute detachment and indifference in the writing. The grammar is perfect, the words chosen carefully, and behind them… I felt no emotion.

Of course Douglas (and Olshaker, who never seems to be the “I” in the writing here though he must undoubtedly be present behind it) has no need to prove his emotions to me or any other reader. This is a book about what makes serial killers tick, not Douglas’s personal life. But I can’t deny that this sense of detachment in the writing affected my reading experience. The deaths of the victims are described in as tasteful a way as possible, but even in concept these acts are abhorrent; I expected to find an emotional connection, as I did with In Cold Blood. I might have managed to shrug this absence off in the end, if not for this passage:

“Perhaps the most-discussed exchange in the first season of the Netflix Mindhunter series occurs in episode 9 […]. In an effort to get past Speck’s contempt and get him engaged, Holden [Douglas’s character] rhetorically asks him what gave him the right to ‘take eight ripe cunts out of the world.’

It was actually pretty much like that in real life. We were in a conference room in the prison with Speck and a corrections department counselor and Speck was consciously ignoring us. I turned to the counselor and said, ‘You know what he did, your guy? He killed eight pussies. And some of those pussies looked pretty good. He took eight good pieces of ass away from the rest of us. You think that’s fair?’ “

This is exactly the scene in the Mindhunter film series that I began to strongly question the inherent goodness of agent Ford’s character and his motivations behind the criminal interviews. Seeing the same action repeated here, with an attempt at explanation but still no remorse, did nothing to shake my discomfort, though I know that Ford is a character, played by an actor, in what is probably a more fictionalized account. In the interest of keeping things fair, I’ll also point out that Douglas is only acting in the way he believes to be the best, most objective way to extract important information from criminals who don’t entirely want to play along:

“My role is to get these guys to talk, to find out what is, and was, going on inside their minds. Confrontation and moral indignation do not achieve that. In the end, talking to killers is about playing the long game, with every move a deliberate one- outrage, anger, these emotions are ever present in the background, but they work against you only if they come to the surface.”

He admits only one instance when emotion came to the surface for him during an interview.

I am so very curious about what Douglas would have chosen to do with his life if he hadn’t found such a perfect fit as a pioneer of criminal profiling for the FBI. His understanding of the human mind- in all its complex variations- is uncanny.

“We had proved we could think like the worst of’em.”

But whatever your eventual opinion of Douglas’s morals, there’s plenty of reason to read this book if you have any interest in the workings of the human brain. Douglas is undoubtedly an expert in his field, and he does an excellent job of shedding light on the dark side of humanity without glorifying these killers.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think this is a good moment to mention again that I choose my star ratings based on personal enjoyment. Fortunately, my level of enjoyment is often pretty equal to the amount of merit I find in a book, but this is not always the case. By rating nonfiction, I am using the same scale of enjoyment as with fiction, by expressing a completely subjective summary of my experience; I am in no way attempting to pass judgment on the writer’s life or person. While I did find The Killer Across the Table a worthwhile read, it also taught me that I do tire of reading about serial killers. Though I’m still looking forward to the eventual release of Mindhunter‘s second season, I am not at this time planning to read any of Douglas and Olshaker’s other books, or any other serial killer books for the foreseeable future. I’m fairly new to nonfiction, and serial killers are only one small niche of a much wider interest for me, so I’m looking forward to seeing what else is out there and moving away from this topic for now. That said, if serial killer nonfiction is your niche or a budding interest, I do recommend checking out this author duo!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Early Riser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As long as I had value, I was safe.”

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

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

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Night Tiger

My favorite Book of the Month selections are almost always the ones that take me by surprise. In that spirit, I’m trying to choose 2019 selections that seem a little outside of my norm. In January, that meant Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger, a Malaysian historical fiction with magical realism elements.

thenighttigerIn the novel, a dying doctor charges his young houseboy with finding the finger he had amputated many years ago and returning it to his body by burying it in his grave. Meanwhile, a young woman pulled from her education has begun working in a dance hall to help pay off her mother’s debt, and finds a preserved finger. Both characters want to return the item to its rightful place, but the boy does not know where it is and the girl does not know where it needs to go. According to superstition, they have only 49 days to reunite the finger with the body before the doctor’s soul is barred from moving beyond the living world to the one beyond.

“Why did he have the finger? It was like a curse, one of those dark tales when you try to discard something but it always returns to you.”

The story shifts between the houseboy’s life with his new master (who is also a doctor with a connection to the finger) and the girl’s adventures at the dance hall and beyond. To add to the intrigue, both Chinese characters are named after one of the five Confucian virtues; both have a sibling with another Confucian virtue name, but the fifth person remains a mystery to them both. Choo’s beautiful writing makes clear that words and names are important to Chinese- not only literal definitions, but homophones as well. This sort of thoroughness for detail brings the setting- both time (1930’s) and place (colonial Malaysia) to life.

Interestingly, my favorite magical realism elements always seem to involve tigers. From Julio Cortazar’s short story “Bestiary” to Fiona McFarlane’s novel The Night Guest, something about a wild jungle cat roaming where it shouldn’t always seems to work for me. The weretiger superstition in The Night Tiger was no exception. Choo leaves it to the reader to decide whether the tiger lurking around Batu Gajah is the old doctor’s restless spirit, interspersing this recent drama with revelatory flashbacks that reveal either dangerous magic or insanity in the old doctor’s final months.

What didn’t work for me quite as well were the “dreams” that take our main characters to a mysterious train station between worlds, and the boy’s “cat sense” that starts as a connection to his twin but becomes something more. This sort of magic feels like no more than a convenient way for characters to learn things that they haven’t been able to discover without extra help from the author. Even the connection these five characters share through their names felt a bit weak, especially in light of the fact that they do not act as their virtues dictate that they should. Magic is not as effective when used as a crutch.

The other aspect that I didn’t like was the “forbidden romance.” There were times these characters’ affection and anxiety for each other felt wonderfully sweet and angsty (respectively), but it did seem overall like a romance for the sake of including a romance, when one wasn’t particularly needed. I was never quite convinced as to why or how this couple had fallen in love other than the obvious proximity over time. But then again, I could never picture Ji Lin’s mother gambling enough to rack up a high debt, either, so maybe my dislike of the romance was part of a greater problem I had with understanding Choo’s characters. Ji Lin’s modern level of confidence also threw me off a few times, as well as those around her.

” ‘You really are blunt,’ he said. ‘Don’t you know how to act like a girl?’ “

I’m all for strong women, but moments like these were the only times I had to double-check the time period in an otherwise very immersive book.

Fortunately, these issues didn’t begin to nag at me until near the end of the novel. Through most of the book, I was completely hooked on this unique mystery and the historical/cultural insight wrapped within. I found Choo’s writing engaging from the first page through the last; its villains managed to surprise me, its depth kept me guessing, and the tiger in the background of the story kept the action moving and the tension high. Though not without its flaws, I do think this book is worth the read for anyone piqued by its premise.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a solid 4 for me until near the end of the novel, but rating aside I did have a lot of fun reading it. I would absolutely be interested in checking out another book from this author; I see Choo has one previously published novel, which I’m tentatively adding to my TBR though I might be more interested in future publications than The Ghost Bride. In any case, I’m pleased with my first BOTM selection for 2019, and eager to see how my other recent selections will turn out. Fingers crossed.

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Far Field

I kept up with almost all of my Book of the Month selections last year, and it felt good. But I did fall behind in December while I tried to catch up with some other reading priorities, so I made an effort this month to pick up both of my December BOTM picks. I read Severance earlier in January and now I’ve also finished Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, which was a longer conquest.

thefarfieldAbout the book: Shalini’s outspoken mother died while she was in college. After finishing school, Shalini returns to Bangalore to live with her father, where she spends an aimless few years in an unfulfilling job of his choosing and has few meaningful interactions. When he pushes her to try harder, Shalini decides to take a trip to Kashmir, where a friend from her mother’s past had lived. She’s not sure which village she’s looking for, and she hasn’t seen the man in eleven years, but those factors aren’t enough to stop her- and neither is the precarious political state of the area.

I would primarily recommend this novel to readers looking for cultural fiction depicting recent/present India. There are so many descriptions of Indian life, both from a city perspective (Bangalore) and more rural (Kishtwar, and a smaller unnamed village built directly into the mountainside). Shalini stays with families that can barely afford to house her, a far cry from her life in Bangalore where her father’s money is always there should she need it. The reader sees Shalini approach the Himalayas for the first time, and note the different languages spoken in different parts of India. She learns to milk a cow. She eats with and sleeps near and walks among people whose lives she never understood.

At the heart of her journey, however, is the political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir. All she has known from Bangalore are the news reports released to the public, which turn out to be only a shadow of the truths she discovers when she visits in person.

“But how can I explain to you what it was like, the time of the militancy? It was a very strange time, and one I hope I never have to live through again. It made people turn into the opposite of what they were, made them do all kinds of things they would never have otherwise done.”

In my last review, featuring the fantasy novel The City of Brass, I mentioned disappointment over my failure to learn anything about the book’s Middle Eastern setting through the customs and behavior of Chakraborty’s characters. I’m so glad I picked up The Far Field immediately after, because in the interest of reading around the world this book is a win. Vijay immerses the reader in this vibrant and unbalanced India, bringing the good and evil that Shalini finds in Kashmir (and beyond) to vivid life.

The ultimate strength of this novel lies in its depiction of ruinous ignorance- ignorance and assumptions made from it- but also how helpless misconceptions can make a person. There is utter devastation in Shalini’s recognition of how small she is, and how very powerful the adversary. Vijay handles this aspect beautifully.

But unfortunately, this book didn’t offer much beyond that brilliant cultural insight for me. Shalini is such a passive character, which may be understandable in the wake of her mother’s sudden death, but it makes for a slow and rather shiftless narrative. Shalini holds her emotions so close that it’s difficult to ascertain whether she cares about any of the characters she meets in her travels. She is kind to them and appreciative of the help they offer her, but expresses little to no attachment toward them even in her private thoughts. She follows where her companions lead, more or less. Even the idea to search for her mother’s friend is barely creditable to Shalini, and when the time comes she almost doesn’t go after all. Shalini narrates all of these events from some future point at which she has calmed, but this is used to offer an unnecessary air of mystery and a preview of Shalini’s sadness rather than worthwhile reflection. The story lacks a driving force.

“Without action, there is only waiting for death.”

Though Shalini’s journey seems an attempt to disprove these words from her father, they resonated with me throughout the reading experience. I hope that other readers will find Shalini’s emotions more reachable than I did, and that such a connection to her character would mean greater payoff.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad that I learned about northern India’s political unrest, but since I struggled so much to engage with the other aspects of the novel, it ultimately just felt much too long for its purpose. Vijay’s prose is easy to digest and her descriptions evocative, but I my motivation to keep reading flagged early on and didn’t come back until the final chapters. January is usually my ideal time to read longer, edifying fiction, but my disconnect with these characters- especially Shalini- was alienating.

Further recommendations:

  • For more reading around the world (with more gripping characters), try Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a family saga full of tragedy set in Afghanistan.
  • Or Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, an Irish-set story about a miraculous girl who seems to have lost the need to eat.
  • Or Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, a dark mystery about a child’s death and an exploration of Communist Russia.

Do you have a favorite culture to read about in fiction?

 

The Literary Elephant