Tag Archives: contemporary

Review: Asking For It

I first saw this book on Rachel’s blog, and the things she had to say about it completely sold me. I had not heard of Louise O’Neill or her YA novel, Asking For It, but now that I’ve read this book I will never be the same.

askingforitAbout the book: Emma O’Donovan is beautiful. The most beautiful girl in Ballinatoom (small-town Ireland). Her looks allow her a certain amount of popularity and cruelty. She has many friends, although most of her socializing is for show and her own personal amusement. It turns out, despite what they say to her face, most of the people who know her don’t like Emma. So when she gets a little reckless at a party, being a little more daring than usual with drinks and drugs, she is raped and humiliated and no one seems to care. Pictures circulate on the internet. Everyone at school shuts Emma out. Her family is quick to punish, and the law is not on her side. The legal case will take years, and likely go nowhere. In the meantime, Emma’s life is destroyed as the boys blame her for the consequences they face. Everyone seems to think that Emma is the problem, for crying rape, when all along everyone knows she was asking for it.

“Skirts up to their backsides, and tops cut down to their belly buttons, and they’re all drinking too much and falling over in the streets, they’re practically asking to be attacked, and then when it happens, they start bawling crying over it. As your other man said, what do they expect?”

I have never been so close to DNFing a book. Sometimes I put a book down for ages, but never forever. If I think a book is bad, boring, or just not my taste, I soldier through. Asking For It had none of those problems. In the past I’ve been worried that I’m too callous/cynical because I can read anything without crying into my pillow at night.  But Asking For It, fiction though it is, hit me hard. Several times while reading I had to put the book down, and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to pick it back up again.

“Boys are always telling me I’m beautiful, their eyes roaming around my body hungrily, as if looking for a place to plant a flag.”

A lot of the rape stories I’ve read lately have focused on “small” incidents, with the intent of proving that every sexual assault is unacceptable. Asking For It is not one of those stories. What happens to Emma is not “small” in any way. It’s shocking and devastating to read about how uniformly her community turns against her in the aftermath– but the horrors of this book are so real and important. This is supposed to be uncomfortable. Asking For It is a novel that’s not afraid to face hard truths. Emma fails to grasp a lot of the messages that this book is imparting, but they’re clear nonetheless: no matter what Emma wore or how she behaved, what happened to her is not her fault. The consequences the boys face for what happened to her is not her fault. Trying to capitalize on her beauty in an environment that has shown her that her beauty is her entire worth is not her fault.

I also want to talk about the fact that this is a YA novel. Emma is 18, a year from graduating. There were times while I was reading that I thought, “Wow, I would not want a teenager to read this and hate the world as much as I do right now.” But in the end, I think it’s even more crucial for young readers to experience stories this dark, because these things do happen to teenagers, to girls (and sometimes boys) who are unprepared and don’t think it could ever happen to them. Rape culture is that bad.

“How is it that two eyes, a nose, and a mouth can be positioned in such varying ways that it makes one person beautiful and another person not? What if my eyes had been a fraction closer together? Or if my nose had been flatter? My lips thinner or my mouth too wide? How would my life have been different? Would that night have happened?”

Okay, I’m talking too much about what this book made me feel, and not enough about how well it is written.

Asking For It is divided into two parts, “Last Year” and “This Year.”  They are presented chronologically, and each fills about half of the novel. “Last year” starts before the rape, showing Emma with her family, friends, strangers, and acquaintances. The reader sees that she is mean, she is jealous, she is selfish. Reputation matters more to her than genuine regard, and every move she makes is calculated based on what her peers will think of it. It would be easy to hate Emma, but the novel also shows that she acts this way because she feels cornered. Ballinatoom has always put her beauty ahead of anything else, so she feels she must use it to her advantage, and that if she loses that advantage she will be left with nothing. It may be hard to like Emma at times, but she’s also got the sort of explosive personality that makes things happen and sucks the reader into the story immediately with the intensity of a ticking bomb. It’s impossible to look away.

“(I imagined Mam dying, what I would wear to the funeral, the glamour the tragedy would give me. I thought about how much easier my life would be if it were just me and Dad and Bryan.)”

The only detail I found issue with is the way Emma’s friends treat her immediately after seeing the pictures from the night of the disastrous party. They’re quick to exclude and blame her, and I just couldn’t understand how any girl (or person, for that matter) could look at pictures like that and think that what happened was voluntary. I didn’t understand how no one but a school counselor was concerned at all that Emma might not have wanted what happened. Clearly they dislike her enough to want to blame her, but I can’t imagine witnessing anything like what happens to Emma (as several of her peers do) and not thinking, “Oh my god, that girl needs help.”

” ‘You know I’m on your side, right? I was just asking if it was, like, rape rape.’ “

Side note: this has little bearing on the actual story, except as far as Irish law is concerned regarding rape charges, but I did love the Ireland setting. I didn’t realize before this novel, but my reading life has been sadly empty of Irish literature. I loved the sound of the names, the rhythm of the dialogue, the glimpse of culture. I will have to pick up more Irish lit in the future.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was emotional and incredibly difficult to read, but it does what it’s designed to do, and does it well. O’Neill has an undeniable command of language and a knack for unspoken meaning, and I will absolutely be reading more of her work. I’ll probably even buy my own copy of this book at some point– it was convenient to get it through the library this time, but I want to be able to revisit it and loan it out.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve read and loved Asking For It (or haven’t yet) and are looking for more lit about rape culture, you should pick up Not That Bad, a collection of essays edited by Roxane Gay. This is a compellingly readable assembly of nonfiction from 30 writers who’ve dealt first-hand with some aspect of rape culture. It is just as eye-opening and important as the concepts highlighted in Asking For It.
  • Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is another powerful YA novel about rape culture. Though this one’s dark and tragic as well (involving murder as well as rape), it’s a little more hopeful that things can change for the better.

Have you read a book that’s completely shaken you? A book that was difficult to read but you ended up glad to have experienced it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

When Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was first released, I pushed it aside pretty easily. I had never read any of Reid’s books, and I wasn’t particularly interested in reading a scandalous story about a fictional celeb. I’m not even very interested in real celebrities. But every review I’ve seen for this book has been glowing, and I was intrigued. So I picked it up.

thesevenhusbandsofevelynhugoAbout the book: Evelyn Hugo was a nobody in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York, with a dead mother and an abusive father and a body that men blamed her for. She needed to get out, and she did it by latching on to her mother’s dream of becoming an actress. She married a poor man who could offer her nothing more than a ride to Hollywood, and from there her legacy began. Evelyn clawed her way up the film fame ladder through the 1960’s-80s, facing prejudices against her race, her gender, and her sexual preferences. By 2015, she’s ready to finally share her story with the world: to expose the truth of her personality and her husbands, without the lies generated by the film industry and tabloids. But the person she chooses to tell her story, a small-time magazine writer named Monique, realizes she may have an unexpected and disturbing connection to superstar Evelyn Hugo.

“You’re an idealist and a romantic, and you have a beautiful soul. And I wish the world was ready to be the way you see it. I wish that the rest of the people on earth with us were capable of living up to your expectations. But they aren’t. The world is ugly, and no one wants to give anyone the benefit of the doubt about anything.”

Let me lead off by admitting that I completely understand the hype surrounding this book. Evelyn Hugo is fascinating in her extraordinariness, but despite her growing wealth and fame, she never loses the humanity that attracts readers to her unfortunate life in her story’s opening. She’s had a rough life, and no matter how high she climbs, the reader can always see and relate to her struggles. She deals with prejudice in the industry, opinionated masses, domestic abuse, forbidden love, powerful enemies, and so much more. She doesn’t see herself as a good person, but she doesn’t regret the choices she’s made. I’ve never read a celeb story (real or fabricated) this important. It’s timely in its advocacy for equality, and it’s entertaining from cover to cover.

“But that’s a luxury. You can do that whey you’re rich and famous. You can decide that wealth and renown are worthless when you have them. Back then, I still thought I had all the time I needed to do everything I wanted. That if I just played my cards right, I could have it all.”

Unfortunately, through no fault of the text itself, the fact that The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is labeled as LGBTQ+ does give some of the plot away. I was pretty clear on which of Evelyn’s loves would drive this story, despite the seven husbands.

Perhaps more to the fault of the text, I also guessed Monique’s connection to Evelyn’s story. Evelyn specifically requests Monique for her interview in the first pages of the book, then immediately throws that interview out the window to give Monique a different kind of exclusive narrative. That, combined with some overt foreshadowing, also made a personal connection between Evelyn and Monique pretty blatant; I spent the story looking for Monique’s tie-in, which eliminated the final surprise and some of the tension for me. I read the entire book with a pretty good idea of its ending, which made this a book about the journey.

Though the journey is great, it also felt a lot like a checklist of social issues for Evelyn to overcome. Novels that challenge current social issues are so important, but I was a little off-put by the way it seemed at times like Reid was simply trying to collect them all in Evelyn’s career. Certainly I understand that one person can face multiple social challenges in their lifetime, but the way they piled up one after the next prevented me from overlooking Evelyn’s fictionality while reading this story.

But even if Evelyn remained no more than a character on a page for me, I’m so grateful that she exists in today’s world of literature. We need minority characters who carve a place for themselves in careers that have excluded them for too long. We need to remember how women have been overlooked and manipulated and victimized by the patriarchy. We need to see how people have been hurt by fast judgments against non-hetero romantic relationships. These are the novels that open minds and encourage change. And the fact that Evelyn Hugo can do all this even with a sort of anti-heroine perspective is fascinating and wonderful– so many of us see our failures more prominently than our successes, and can take a lesson from someone undeniably imperfect so much more easily than an unattainable ideal. Evelyn wields a lot of power, even if she’s not real.

“Never let anyone make you feel ordinary.”

One last thought: on structure. I love how easily The Seven Husbands switches between Monique’s present and Evelyn’s past. Their sections are not labelled, but I was never confused about which character I was following or which timeline they were narrating, which is an incredible win for Reid’s writing.

The news articles sprinkled throughout the book did succeed in pulling me into Evelyn’s world, and I liked the short breaks from the novel proper. But many of the news articles are superfluous, regurgitating information. I wish more had been done with them. One article was slanderous and less expected, but Evelyn knew just what to do to save her name. Evelyn always knows what the media will say about her, and how to spin her life into a scandal that’ll boost her fame; I was somewhat disappointed that she never guessed wrong– Evelyn says “this is what they’ll say about me,” and then an article follows saying exactly that. This formula grew boring after a while, though the articles do add to the atmosphere of Evelyn’s renown.

“I pretend that I am not furious and confused and heartbroken and torn up and disappointed and shocked and uncomfortable. I pretend that I am simply captivated by Evelyn Hugo. Because, despite everything, I still am.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a tough book to rate. I did waver for several days between 4 and 5 stars because I did particularly enjoy reading this book and I do think it’s spreading some important messages in an interesting way. But in the end I just didn’t love it quite as much as I usually love a 5 star book, perhaps because I was able to predict certain aspects of it. I will be keeping my eye out for Reid’s future works, though. I’ll be interested to see where she goes from here.

Have you read any inspiring books dealing with social issues lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Great Alone

I’ve been wanting to read a Kristin Hannah book since The Nightingale‘s publication. I thought I should start there even though I’ve got some issues with WWII historical fiction. But I never got around to it. When her new novel, The Great Alone, released earlier this year, I discovered that I was much more interested in reading about Alaska, and I finally found the time to pick up my first Kristin Hannah novel.

thegreataloneAbout the book: When Leni’s dad, a POW from the Vietnam war, finally returns home, he’s not the same. She was too young when he left to remember much of their life before the war, but she knows he’s struggling in the aftermath. He drinks a lot, he can’t hold a job, he moves the family from place to place. And then a buddy from the army leaves him a cabin in Alaska. Unprepared for the wilderness, Leni and her parents set off in their VW bus to learn how to start a new life off the grid. It’s immediately obvious that they lack most of the necessary skills for living off the land in a dangerous environment, but they’re willing to try. When the long, dark Alaskan winter sets in, however, they realize they have a lot to learn about Alaska, about survival, and about each other. Leni’s dad turns violent, her mom turns secretive, and Leni is caught in the middle of her parents’ destructive relationship.

“They lived on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, on a peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you. There was no police station, no telephone service, no one to hear you scream.”

The Great Alone was more than a story for me– it was a mood. This is a perfect winter read, but even with summer settling in I was completely immersed in the cold, harsh world of this Alaskan wilderness. Even though I have so little in common with Leni and her family, reading about their lives sent me back through many of my own most powerful memories. It was a book that made me feel, in more than a transient way about fictional characters. Few stories have left me reflecting on my own life so deeply.

However, I watched V. E. Schwab’s recent Oxford speech on fantasy literature in the midst of reading The Great Alone. This book is not fantasy, it’s adult contemporary/historical fiction. But some of Schwab’s comments about reading and writing apply to all genres, and one thing in particular related to my experience with The Great Alone. Schwab talks about  seeing the writer’s hand while reading, seeing the constructive framework between an idea and its conveyance. Kristin Hannah is an author that shows her hand. Especially in the beginning of the novel, so many time and place details are stuffed into the story in ways that made me roll my eyes. Whole conversations and scenarios and opinions seemed constructed around the urge to mention 8-track tapes or bell bottoms or the fact that gas cost 55 cents. A few details– like Leni’s beloved polaroid camera, the family’s VW bus, Leni’s weird first-day-of-school outfit– feel like they have a place in the story. But many descriptions seem more like they came straight off a list of “iconic 70’s/80s objects for readers to recognize,” though they have absolutely no relation to the plot or even characterization. Friendships and enmities happen instantaneously, in just the right combination to cause further strife. Dreams have convenient real-life significance. Characters make dramatic use of their final breaths. The story is fantastic, but its seams are visible.

The narration style also seemed an odd choice to me. The narrator utses third-person perspective, but it narrows in so closely on Leni’s point of view that Cora and Ernt are often referred to as Mama and Dad, which made being inside Leni’s head and still seeing her described as “Leni” rather than “I” a little awkward at times.

“Leni knew how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.”

Another struggle for me in The Great Alone was Leni’s mom. My hatred of her had nothing to do with the fact that she chose to stay in an abusive relationship, that she might have goaded her husband into hurting her, that she kept coming back to him after he did. Those things I could understand. What I could NOT stand about Cora was the way that she tried to make Leni adhere to the same abusive life. It goes beyond making excuses for her husband. She is actively telling Leni to lie about what is happening at home, to be careful around Ernt, not to set him off. She makes Leni her confidant, and traps her in that existence where they are both afraid and stifled and victimized in their own ways. Cora puts herself and the relationship that she knows is dangerous ahead of her daughter. She wants them to be “two peas in a pod,” apparently by pulling Leni deeper into her trouble instead of following Leni’s advice to escape it. She says things like this:

” ‘Please, Leni, think about me instead of yourself.’ “

I loathed Ernt, of course, as much as I could through his PTSD, but it was Cora who really got under my skin. Ernt was the obvious threat, the danger Leni shouldn’t have had to worry about, but at least she could identify that problem. And in the meantime, Cora quietly poisons Leni by telling her she needs to love her dad despite what he does to his family. Maybe even because of it: “he just loves us too much.”

But everything Cora lacks, Leni makes up for. She is the strongest female character I’ve read all year. She loves the hardest, she stands up when she’s knocked down, she takes what life throws at her, and she survives. She doesn’t let the world make her bitter, though she has plenty of reason for pessimism and depression and hatred. When planted in Alaska, she becomes an Alaskan.

“If you’ve learned anything from your mother and what happened, it should be this: life– and the law– is hard on women. Sometimes doing the right thing is no help at all.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had a great time with this book. Kristin Hannah’s writing style isn’t my favorite, but once I got into the flow of things that was easier for me to overlook. And I think I’ll try to overlook it again, while I read The Nightingale. I do still have that one waiting on my shelf, and even though WWII historical fiction is not my cup of tea, I liked The Great Alone enough to give Kristin Hannah at least one more try.

Further recommendations:

  • If you love the Alaskan atmosphere of The Great Alone, and the way that it becomes a character of its own, you should check out Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. This book explores the secluded beauty of northern Minnesota, which is distinct in its own ways but does share some similarities to Alaskan climate. The main character is a girl much like Leni who begins babysitting for her only neighbors in the isolated woodland, and gets dragged into their tragedy before she is old enough to understand what is happening.

What’s your favorite historical fiction book or era to read about?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: I Stop Somewhere

I really love the way YA literature has expanded since I was a kid. People can hate on Twilight all they want, but I’m still so impressed with the way that the attention the Twilight saga generated for “right” and “wrong” in teen books opened up a whole new chapter for YA lit. Grown people read YA regularly now– that’s a trend I didn’t see much of before Twilight. And most importantly, readers of all ages speak up about what they wanted to see (or not) in YA lit– and writers listen. Now YA shelves are full of books with positive messages, minority representations, and acknowledgement of real-world issues. There’s still progress to be made, but watching the transformation so far has been incredible.

That’s why I keep coming back to YA, even as I outgrow it. I wish YA had looked like it does today back when it was the only thing I read. So I keep picking up books like T E Carter’s new YA novel, I Stop Somewhere. It’s a novel about rape culture in modern society. It narrates, it informs, and it reminds girls that they’re not alone and that they have something to fight for. And it does these things in an accessible way for young readers. That’s so cool.

istopsomewhereAbout the book: Ellie Frias was raped. She fell in love with the first boy who told her she was beautiful, and he took advantage of every inch of her: mind, body, and heart. And afterward, when he keeps doing the same things to other girls, Ellie can’t do anything about it. She spends months waiting for justice for what happened to her, watching her case move slowly forward while her community tears her reputation apart, along with the other girls brave enough to come forward.

I Stop Somewhere is utterly gutting. It delves deeply into two topics from one teenage girl’s perspective: rape, and death. These are covered with a bit of a heavy hand, though it doesn’t quite veer into overly sentimental territory. The chapters go back and forth between Ellie’s past with the events leading up to her rape, and her present while she’s officially a missing person and her attackers are still at large. It’s a powerful premise…

…but succinctness might have packed more of a punch. When I brought this book home from the library, I opened to the first page just to sample the writing, and I could not put it down for about 50 pages. Those early pages sucked me in and let me piece together what happened that separated Ellie’s past and present narratives, but then the arguments began circling each other, picking apart every nuance of every detail. There are times this book feels more like an essay on certain social injustices than a novel, but my issue lied more in the fact that its provocative prose answers so many of its own questions. So much of this story is commentary rather than plot, but I think more of a focus on the plot would’ve started some great commentary on its own. I tabbed a dozen lines in this book that expanded the way I thought about sexism and rape, but even so I was bored. The entire middle portion of the book crawls by as crumbs of information come out at a time, which may be fitting to the time frame of real investigations but did not help me invest in this book the way that I wanted to. So many of the messages in this book are strong and important and exciting to see talked about in a YA novel, but they lose momentum when the plot stagnates.

There are also moments, particularly in the middle portion of the book as the investigation proceeds, when connections are being made almost too easily for belief. With little or no evidence, girls’ stories are linked, assumptions are made about the criminals and their crimes, and the police make discoveries based on vague clues. No more than the bare bones of the legal processes are holding up the plausibility of this story– its heavy on the morality, and light on intriguing courtroom drama.

Let’s go back to the emphasis on social commentary: specifically involving rape and death. I wish I Stop Somewhere had focused on one of those extremes (preferably the rapes) more exclusively. The death discussion does relate to rape and it does create a narrative structure for this story, but a lot of the death exploration is no more than speculation. There’s a lot of coverage on the rules of death in this fictional world– where someone goes after death, what physical rules still constrain them, how they can move in and interact with the world at that time. And all of that feels so unnecessary to the bigger problem being addressed: the difficulty of prosecuting a rapist.

“They’ve been trying to get more girls to come forward. But I can’t imagine why anyone would. The system is set up to make you want to be quiet.”

Aside from the technical hang-ups, I found a lot to love about I Stop Somewhere. The size of Ellie’s high school is pretty close to the size of mine, so it was easy to plant this hypothetical into my own sphere of experience. Although my personal experiences have been nothing like Ellie’s, I found her easy to empathize with: she’s a completely ordinary teen with common teen worries about fitting in and becoming a woman that will probably resonate with a wide audience of readers from many backgrounds (and not exclusively female, though girls do seem to be the target audience).

“I don’t want to blame myself anymore. I only wanted to belong. I wanted so badly to be taken in– by someone, someplace. Anyone. Anyplace. I wanted it enough to screw up and lose myself, but I am still not to blame.”

And most importantly, I Stop Somewhere is a book that inspires change. It highlights a problem in modern society to draw attention to where the judicial system is failing. It acknowledges that for girls with situations like Ellie’s or the others mentioned in this book that it is hard to come forward and advocate for rebuilding the system– but also that every voice matters. Every girl’s story is important, and every small victory is a step toward securing the respect and justice that all girls deserve.

“Being a girl was all that landed me here. Having all the parts they wanted, but being nothing more than that.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. In a lot of ways, I Stop Somewhere felt like an updated The Lovely Bones. I loved The Lovely Bones in high school but it’s been years since I’ve had any reminders of it so I actually liked that. Although I Stop Somewhere is not my favorite YA book– not even my favorite YA book about rape– I think it’s great that books like this exist for young readers. It was an infuriating and validating reading experience, and I’m glad I read it, even though it made me cry.

Further recommendations:

  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I’m on the fence here, between recommending either this one or I Stop Somewhere more strongly. They are very similar in some ways. I would probably recommend I Stop Somewhere for teen readers, and The Lovely Bones for older readers who still dabble in YA.
  • The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis. This is my favorite YA novel about modern rape culture. There are a few harder-to-believe aspects that makes this one feel a little less realistic, but it’s no less fierce and important for that. If you’re only going to read one YA book about rape, this one would be a great choice.
  • The Girls by Emma Cline. This one has less to do with rape, but it features a similar sort of commentary on what it’s like to be a girl. It also focuses on death, by fictionalizing Charles Manson’s cult and their murderous crimes. This is an adult book, though the main character is a teen girl.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Here’s another great YA book for readers interested in fiction that deals with real social issues. This one has nothing to do with rape, but it does offer some great commentary about racism.

Have you read any good YA books with real-life applications lately? I would love some more suggestions!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Sometimes I have more luck with the Book of the Month selections I don’t choose than the ones I do; Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong is one of the selections that I decided against last year, though it caught my eye. My library had a new copy of it this month so I finally picked it up. And I loved it!

goodbye,vitaminAbout the book: Ruth goes home for Christmas for the first time in years, and to her surprise she’s asked to stay for the year to help with her father, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At first her dad seems like his old self and the only proof of the dementia comes to Ruth through stories from his colleagues and students at the local college. But as time passes, she sees the change for herself. She finds reason to worry about her mother as well, and her parents’ marriage. And through it all, she’s dealing with big changes in her own life– the loss of her fiance to another woman, regret for dropping out of college, a move, uncertainty about her career. She finds unexpected help along the way, and unexpected strength within herself.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? It is. There’s very little plot to this book, which is usually a turn-off for me. But it worked here.

Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated through journal entries. The style changes occasionally, but the voice remains the same. Interspersed are pages from a journal Ruth’s father kept for her when she was small– just a few lines here and there about what young Ruth did today. (Some of these entries are more overtly “cute” than the book needs, but many of them are just amusing.) The reader knows early on how this book will be structured: slightly rambling accounts of Ruth’s days, including all the events that may or may not seem significant later on. Some of it is fluff, certainly, but most of it is interesting. Ruth is interested in trivia so there are some weird factoids worked in, but even her commentary of daily minutiae is unique and entertaining. It’s sentimental without being overly sentimental.

“The fish are getting fatter. The fish, in fact, are obese. Today I see why: I watch Dad feed the fish, sit down, and minutes later, rise to feed them again.”

Running through it all is the Alzheimer’s. Even in the moments when Ruth’s father seems fine and remembers everything correctly and acts normally, memory remains a constant theme. Ruth learns about foods that help fight dementia, she compares what she remembers of the past to what her younger brother remembers, she writes about what is known medically about the Alzheimer’s disease, and she considers which parts of her life she would be glad to remember or wishes weren’t in her head at all.

“There is, presently, no single test or scan that can diagnose dementia with complete accuracy. It’s only after the person is dead that you can cut his or her brain open and look for tell-tale plaques and tangles. For now, it’s process of elimination. What we have are tests that rule out other possible causes of memory loss. In diagnosing Alzheimer’s, doctors can only tell you everything that it isn’t.”

I have to admit, even for a character who’s losing his mind I had a hard time believing Ruth’s father wouldn’t have seen right through the phony class she told him was real. And maybe I’m just too cynical but I had an equally hard time believing several university students would go through the time and effort of taking a fake class for no credit, as a kindness to an ailing professor. But that obvious plot device was the only complaint I had while reading the book, and I did nevertheless appreciate the additional characters it introduced to the story.

As is necessary in a book without much plot, the characters drive the story in Goodbye, Vitamin. It’s pretty clear which characters the reader is meant to like and which he/she isn’t, but each one is unique and brings something important to the table. Ruth and her family are the most ambiguous in terms of “good” and “bad,” as they should be, and each of the supporting characters filters the way we see the main ones. None of their stories are coincidental or easy, and I would not have minded reading another year’s worth of journal entries to see where they ended up next, though this story didn’t require more from them. I appreciated how Ruth’s experiences with each of the secondary characters all tied back to memory and the mind. It’s a focused ramble from the first page to the last.

“Memories are stored in collections of cells, and when we remember, we reassemble the cells like a puzzle.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s entirely possible that this book worked for me because Alzheimer’s runs in my family and I’m morbidly interested in malfunctions of memory and the mind. I usually don’t like plot-less books, but I was genuinely pleased to pick this one up, for the two sittings it lasted. I did take off one star for the lack of plot and surprise, but even so this one might make an appearance on my favorites list at the end of the year. It’s not the sort of book that everyone will love, but it was the right sort of book for me.

Are there any weirdly specific topics you like to read about even if they’re never wildly popular?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: An American Marriage

Oprah has made her book club selection for 2018, and it’s Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. That’s actually not the reason I picked it up, but it’s always a nice bonus when a book you’ve read / want to read gets some big recognition. And now that I’ve read An American Marriage, I understand exactly why it’s been getting so much attention.

anamericanmarriageAbout the book: Roy Hamilton Jr. is visiting his parents in Louisiana. He and his wife, Celestial, have traveled from their home in Atlanta. They sleep in a local hotel instead of Roy’s old bedroom because he has something to tell his wife that he doesn’t want to talk/fight about in his parents’ home. It goes about as well as he expected. What doesn’t go as expected is the rest of the night: another lady on their floor, who met Roy at the ice machine, is raped that night, and even though Roy and Celestial swear they’ve been together and alone all night, Roy is arrested. He’s convicted of the crime, and sentenced to twelve years in prison. While he and Celestial are dealing with this fresh strain on their young marriage, life changes for them both and the relationship warps, leaving Roy, Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre in increasingly awkward and painful positions until the situation explodes when the three find themselves together again.

About the layout: there are no white characters in this book. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and Andre. Some parts of the book consist entirely of letters that these characters write to each other in their time apart. Everything is written in the first person, so the reader can see into each character’s head and heart.

” ‘Six or twelve,’ he sometimes said when he was depressed, which wasn’t all the time but often enough that I recognized a blue mood when it was settling in. ‘That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve.’ “

This is a thought-provoking book. I knew a lot of the plot going in; the premise gives almost everything important away. I think it’s good to go about this book that way, because the plot progresses with abrupt spurts. I thought reading this book would give me a better idea of how this crazy love triangle of injustice started, but this novel focuses much more on consequences than reasons. I wish this book had been longer, to give a little more depth leading in to the conflicts of the story. I certainly would have followed these characters on a longer journey.

“If I say that my husband is in prison, that’s all anyone can focus on, not me or my dolls. Even when I explain that you’re innocent, all they remember is the fact that you’re incarcerated. Even when I tell the truth about you, the truth doesn’t get delivered. So what’s the point of bringing it up?”

But there were some things I didn’t like: Roy, to begin with. Mostly because of the way he thought about women and sex, which came up a lot. Andre’s sections had less sexual focus, but in all other ways it was hard to tell Andre and Roy’s sections apart. Especially when the two of them would appear in the same scene, I would have to check back to the chapter header to double check which perspective I was reading.

“Celestial suggested the word forgive, but I couldn’t give her that. I could ask for understanding. I could ask for temperance, but I wouldn’t ask him to forgive me. Celestial and I were not wrong. It was a complex situation, but we were not on our knees before him.”

Celestial also was difficult for me at times. I love her career and her dedication to her art. I thought everything about the dolls she makes in this book came across beautifully and I was so proud of her success at making a career with them. But when it comes to her love life… she seems so easily swayed. She’s always giving, but never seems to know what she wants for herself. She resorts to silence when she could help settle things by making her own choices and explaining her actions, even if her feelings are confused. As the lead female, and caught between two men, I expected more strength from her. Some of her thoughts on men/women/sex were also uncomfortable for me. Passages like this come up in her narration:

“A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Every one of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.”

I don’t outright disagree that sex isn’t always about love, but she’s using this as a defense. She doesn’t want to have sex, but she feels obligated to. That’s not consent. Even in her mind, that shouldn’t be consent.

But in the end, despite the problems I had with the pacing and the characters, I had so much respect for this story because it feels real. Every one of these characters felt like someone I could meet on the street. They’re not perfect and likable because real people aren’t perfect and likable. We all have flaws, and we’re no less entitled to justice for them, or to love or respect or anything else that all humans should be entitled to.

There’s incredible insight and portrayal of emotion in this book, and reading it is an eye-opening experience, but I think a little more time with some of the situations in this story would have gone a long way. I would have appreciated seeing Celestial fall in love rather than just hearing that she had. I would have appreciated seeing more of the letters between Roy and Celestial, and more of their visits in the prison; it’s clear in the early days of Roy’s imprisonment that the narration is skipping over some of their exchanges and I wish it didn’t. This book has so much to say. But I wish it would have said even more. I was ready to listen.

“Even if you go in innocent, you don’t come out that way.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was torn between 4 and 5 stars, because this book is so well-written and impactful, but in the end I did think it fell a little short for me. Nevertheless, it deserves the impact it will have (and is already having) on its readership– a further understanding and acknowledgment of real problems in this world, and a drive to fix them. The world needs more fiction like this: compelling stories of social issues that are too often overlooked. I know I’ll be looking for more.

Further recommendations:

  • I’ve read nothing like An American Marriage, except perhaps Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, 2017’s popular YA novel about police brutality against black citizens. This one reflects the Black Lives Matter movement, and I highly recommend it for all fiction readers (teen and up) interested in the current state of racism in America.
  • Jones’ readers might also enjoy Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a surprisingly modern and fictional take on the history of black slavery in America. Although the atmosphere of this novel takes the reader back to the 1800’s, so many of its messages are even more relevant today.

Which new releases have you been loving lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Back in high school, I read a wonderful book called Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin, about where we go when we die, before we’re born again. It was beautiful and whimsical, but for some reason it took me about eight years to pick up another of the author’s books. I’ve been feeling these conflicting desires lately to read old favorites, but also to read new and different things, which led me to The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, a newer Zevin novel.

thestoriedlifeofajfikryAbout the Book: A. J. Fikry has a lot to be upset about, and he is. The beloved wife who convinced him to leave school and open a bookshop with her in a hard-to-reach town died in a car accident one night after an author event, leaving A. J. to make do however he can on Alice Island, alone. He turns snobby and rude, and sometimes drunk. But his story doesn’t end with Nic’s death, and when he finally starts making room for some new people in his life and bookstore, a new chapter of his life begins.

The Storied Life is a bookish book, a tale about a bookseller who reads and talks about books and buys and sells books and lives and breathes books. There are title drops and references, discussions of genres and writing techniques and reader habits. These sorts of books are especially intriguing for the average book nerd, but I’ve got to admit this is probably one of the least fun bookish books I’ve read.

Part of the absence of “fun” in The Storied Life stems simply from the fact that a lot of sad things happen. There are thefts and losses and deaths, lies and missed opportunities. There are some great moments too, of course– weddings and babies and great books and wins. But for me, there were not enough of the good moments to outweigh the sad.

But the biggest reason I didn’t have much fun with this book was its predictability. As Fikry notes,

“He doesn’t believe in random acts. He is a reader, and what he believes in is narrative construction. If a gun appears in act one, that gun had better go off by act three.”

And so it does, metaphorically speaking. Of course Amelia the new sales rep from Knightly Press, the whimsical woman with a passion for books who is scared off in the first chapter, is going to become a giant part of Fikry’s life. Of course the baby left in his store is there to stay. Of course the stolen Tamerlane hasn’t vanished into thin air. A lot of the main plot points are easy to see coming in the regular narration; but then there are the short story commentaries Fikry adds to the book. It’s clear almost immediately that these are being written for someone in particular, and often the phrasing in these little summaries gives away a big detail that’s just about to appear in the greater story. Personally, I thought the book could have done without these passages entirely.

And in the end the point is… that books are a good way to connect with people? That love is the answer/reason for everything? The Storied Life is just that– a life that makes a good story, though in the end it’s just someone’s life, and he’s lived and learned his lessons and left what he could, just like anyone else. I didn’t close the book feeling like I gained anything from reading it other than a few momentary chuckles and threatening tears. There weren’t any new ideas for me to take away from it.

“Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.”

The pacing also felt a little off; this is a pretty short book– 250 pages, but the book is small with relatively few words per page– but it covers a lot of ground. Some big moments in Fikry’s life pass very quickly in the narration, while other moments are drawn out for haphazardly chosen characterization. The reader is given as much detail about some of the lesser characters’ lives as some of the more important ones, which gives the novel an odd balance.

“Why is any one book different from any other book? They are different, A. J. decides, because they are. We have to look inside many. We have to believe. We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and again.”

I also found this book a little discouraging, as an aspiring writer. There’s some talk about writers laboring fruitlessly over the next Great American Novel, there’s a writer who had to lie and cheat the system to get her book published because no one thought her idea would sell. Galleys are thrown around and ruined, taken for granted and overlooked. I know the publishing world is relatively small, that there are a lot more prospective writers out there than publishers prepared to take them, that not everyone who writes a book will go somewhere fantastic with it, but even knowing those things I was disappointed with the way this book seemed ready to shut out newcomers to the book market.

“It is the secret fear that we are unlovable that isolates us […] but it is only because we are isolated that we think we are unlovable. Someday, you do not know when, you will be driving down a road. And someday, you do not know when, he, or indeed she, will be there. You will be loved because for the first time in your life, you will truly not be alone. You will have chosen to not be alone.”

It’s not all bad, of course. I did like reading The Storied Life. There’s a great variety of characters: a mix of races, a mix of professions, a mix of ages, some poverty, some illness, a thrift shopper and a fake author and even a tabby cat. There are some great, optimistic messages about appreciating the good things in life and soldiering through the bad days. There are lines especially geared toward prolific readers, familiar scenarios and thoughts and difficulties that come with a lifetime of reading widely.

“Her mother likes to say that novels have ruined Amelia for real men. This observation insults Amelia because it implies that she only reads books with classically romantic heroes. She does not mind the occasional novel with a romantic hero but her reading tastes are far more varied than that. Furthermore, she adores Humbert Humbert as a character while accepting the fact that she wouldn’t really want him for a life partner, or a boyfriend, or even a casual acquaintance. She feels the same way about Holden Caulfield, and Misters Rochester and Darcy.”

The Storied Life is a very quotable book. It’s also the sort of book that’s best read primarily for amusement, in one or two sittings, and then moved on from.

“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I expected to like this more than I did, but I think I was approaching it the wrong way. I think I was expecting Elsewhere and instead I got The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry when I should have just reread Elsewhere. This was definitely not a bad or unenjoyable read, just not what I was looking for at this moment. I’ll probably try something else from Zevin at some point, or at least reread Elsewhere and see if I still love that one as much as I remember.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant