Tag Archives: literary fiction

Review: The Vegetarian

Despite (or maybe because of) the incredibly mixed reviews I’ve seen for Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, I decided to finally pick it up. It’s won (and been nominated for) several literary awards/prizes, so I thought at the very least, it would be educational– and choosing books that I can learn from is my biggest reading goal of 2018. Besides, it’s less than 200 pages long. Why wait, right?

About the book: Yeong-hye is a perfectly ordinary South Korean wife– until she decides to become a vegetarian. A strange dream leads her to purge meat from her life, a choice that ripples through her family in strange and varied ways. Yeong-hye’s husband and father see her choice as a disobedience and embarrassment; her sister considers it an illness, her brother-in-law thinks it oddly erotic, and other acquaintances find her new habits and their consequences disturbing, disgusting, or concerning. Yeong-hye continues to make whatever choices strike her as most natural– avoiding sex, baring her skin to the sun, allowing an artist to paint flowers all over her body– as her life begins to fall apart around her.

What I didn’t know when I started reading (and wish I did) is that this book is divided into three very different parts. Each section revolves around Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism, but all three feature a different perspective (though all through the same third person narration) and contain their own strong themes. The difference is so great between the three chapters that I felt almost that I was reading three separate pieces in a collection rather than one cohesive work. In the end, the fact that I couldn’t find enough to tie them together was my greatest disappointment with this otherwise extraordinary book.

The first part examines Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian through the eyes of her husband. Though Mr. Cheong is perhaps the least likable character in the entire story, this was my favorite section. Kang’s portrayal of Mr. Cheong reads as a powerful challenge to his position of male dominance over his wife. Mr. Cheong expects his wife to put her own desires behind the duties expected of a wife– ironing her husband’s clothes, cooking his meals, impressing his colleagues at work dinners. When she refuses to tolerate meat to make his life easier, Mr. Cheong is angry, confused, and just as intolerant as he claims she is. Though many of his thoughts about his vegetarian wife are infuriating and even despicable, they are also laughable because Kang so masterfully displays his hypocrisy.

“How on earth could she be so self-centered? I stared at her lowered eyes, her expression of cool self-possession. The very idea that there should be this other side to her, one where she selfishly did as she pleased, was astonishing. Who would have thought she could be so unreasonable?”

The first section also includes snippets of Yeong-hye’s surreal dreams, which were a highlight for me.

The second section was my least favorite; it follows Yeong-hye’s (unnamed) brother-in-law as he works on a new art project with Yeong-hye behind his wife’s back. This “art project” is highly sexual in nature and was inspired by a comment from Yeong-hye’s sister about the Mongolian mark that never faded from Yeong-hye’s buttock, a mark that inspires an unprecedented lust in him. The between-the-lines commentary in this section revolves around the blurred line between disgust for and attraction to Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism. Though I appreciated the nuance in perception of Yeong-hye, I disliked this section because it did very little to further the plot. The long pages about the brother-in-law’s lust were unsettling, though I think they succeeded in showing how even apparently positive reactions to Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism could in fact be manipulative and inappropriate. Overall, I felt that the points this chapter makes could have been made in fewer and less predictable pages, with less disturbing sexual fantasizing from the brother-in-law.

“It’s true, he thought. She really is ordinary. It’s me who’s the crazy one.”

The third section follows In-hye, Yeong-hye’s older sister, as she attempts to care for Yeong-hye after hospitalizing her. Though I loved In-hye’s character most of all, she also upturned a lot of my thoughts on the rest of the book. In-hye sees Yeong-hye’s choices as a sort of descent into mental illness, but as the section progresses In-hye also sees that descent as freeing, inspiring. What bothered me in this section is that In-hye’s eerie attraction to mental illness seems to separate from the vegetarianism: Yeong-hye’s choice to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle seems to be viewed only as a means to an end for In-hye, means that could be substituted by others. In this way, The Vegetarian seems to be neither advocating for or condoning vegetarianism (which I appreciate), but as it stepped back from the use of the vegetarian tool that so much of the book’s commentary relied on, I struggled to connect all of the themes into something cohesive.

Toward the end of the novel, as Yeong-hye’s mental state devolves and even In-hye’s sanity is called into question, the story moves toward a macabre conclusion. I love this kind of thing, where you can’t quite put your finger on what’s real and who you can trust, but it also pulled me away from the lessons I thought I had been learning in the rest of the book. It pulled back against what the previous sections had taught: keep an open mind about people who make different choices than you– but not too open, or you’ll both be lost. Ask questions about unfamiliar lifestyles rather than making assumptions– but the answers might not make any sense to you anyway. If you want to be in charge of your own life, you should also let others be in charge of theirs– but they might use their control in self-destructive ways.

Perhaps I missed something along the way. I found a lot of meaning in this book, but I was left wishing for some clue as to how to tie all of my impressions together. I wanted the three sections to interconnect more than I felt they ultimately did. How could anything have turned out better for the vegetarian? How did she want things to turn out? I’m afraid even Yeong-hye never understood what was happening to her.

“But she felt as though there were still an open would inside her body. Somehow, it seemed this wound had in fact grown bigger than her, that her whole body was being pulled into its pitch-black maw.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a phenomenal reading experience that made me stop and think every step of the way. Though I was left with questions, I think they’re the result of my own inability to draw the proper conclusions rather than the book’s inability to offer them. I think an eventual reread will give me a richer sense of The Vegetarian‘s meaning, and I look forward to trying that someday. I took off a star only because the sexual advances of the second section were unpleasantly disturbing; though that may have been the intention, I just didn’t enjoy reading it that way.

What’s your favorite controversial book?


The Literary Elephant


Review: Freshwater

For a very brief time, I was seeing a lot of love for Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, Freshwater, especially in my Instagram feed. The reviews and comments I saw for it grabbed my attention– split personalities, west African native, ogbanje (evil spirit) narrative, a book in a category all to itself. But then it basically disappeared, despite its great reviews. So I picked it up to see for myself what it was all about.

freshwaterAbout the book: Ada was born in Africa with the gates to the gods left open. From the first moment of her birth she was made to share her physical being with a host of “others.” These gods depend on Ada and the well-being of her body, but their motives are mixed– they want to survive, but they also have vowed to return to their brothersisters in the spirit realm. Their low regard for humans causes traumatic events in Ada’s young life, but they’re also the ones who pick up the pieces when Ada can’t stand what is happening to her and retreats deep into the recesses of her mind. A rape during her college years further fractures Ada’s mind and allows the other beings inside her to take control of her body. Ada gradually loses her sense of self, her ability to make decisions, and even her will to live as the battle surges within her.

“We would both materialize in her mind, the marble room, cool veined white walls and floors, and she would look away. It was understandable: I had arrived and I was so deep inside her, locked into her flesh, moving her muscles. Suddenly she had to share with something she couldn’t control. I understood, but at the same time, it wasn’t my problem.”

Freshwater is a book unlike any book I’ve read before. It delves into matters of madness and the mind like The Bell Jar, Rebecca, or The Haunting of Hill House, but it does so from multiple viewpoints– this story is narrated from the points of view of the various entities inside Ada. Her deterioration is inevitable from the beginning of the novel, but it’s still surprising and engrossing to watch it happen. I’ve never seen or read an example of multiple “people” inhabiting a body in which each of the “characters” is presented as real as their host human, and the realness of the others in Ada is what gives Freshwater its power, by showing how totally out of her control her mental state is. How the others resist Ada’s attempts to seek professional help, and how even Ada is reluctant to seek help because as destructive as her others can be they are also her constant companions, a defining part of who she is.

“The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside– maybe that’s the exact definition of madness, come to think of it.”

Freshwater reads a bit like magical realism. I think the book can be interpreted very differently (perhaps wrongly) if it is read as magical realism. It does make wide use of colorful metaphors and statements that seem like metaphors but are actually Ada’s unusual reality. But I think much of the exploration of the ogbanje personalities would be lost if one read Freshwater as magical realism rather than a beautifully written piece of literary fiction. Here’s an example of Emezi’s writing that straddles the line between real and magical:

“After all, was I not the the hunger in Ada? I was made out of desire, I tasted of it, I filled her up with it and choked her, lying over her like a killing cloud, soft and unstoppable, all the weight of a wet sky.”

It’s a matter of perspective. And I think that’s what I loved most about Freshwater. Though I do not know what it is like to live with multiple people/gods inside of my body, there is something familiar in Ada’s descriptions. Though the extremity of her situation may be foreign to many readers, this is a book that makes the different “sides” of a person’s personality feel seen. Aren’t there times when you look back at something you’ve done or experienced and you feel like you were a different person then? For most of us, it’s growth and change of a unified perspective, but there are certainly statements in Freshwater that I was surprised to relate to, and I think other readers will be, as well. There are times when the mind feels torn between decisions, between opinions, etc. and those familiar moments of duality (or even multiplicity) are what makes Freshwater accessible and compelling despite how unique and specific this story is. It’s a masterpiece.

I also want to mention how well the cultural aspects of the novel are woven into this tale. Freshwater begins in west Africa, where the reader is introduced to the concept of ogbanje, or an evil spirit born into a child that brings misfortune to its family. Though split personalities can occur in any culture, Ada’s ties to Africa and her own specific beliefs shape her particular case throughout the novel. I love books that can teach about cultures without turning the lesson into a lecture or sacrificing a unique and compelling plot in the meantime. Freshwater is a perfect blend.

“But she was– she has always been– a terrifyingly beautiful thing.”

Trigger warning: rape, suicide attempts

For more information on ogbanje and Emezi’s real-life experiences (similar to Ada’s in some ways), please check out this article written by Emezi. It completes the reading experience.

My reaction : 5 out of 5 stars. I had no idea what to expect from this book, but I know now that I’ve grown and learned from reading it, and Emezi’s gorgeous prose made that journey enjoyable despite its heavy subject matter. This is exactly the sort of novel I wanted to be reading in 2018– new and different, pushing the boundaries of familiar and accepted norms. I can’t wait to see what Emezi will publish next.

Have you read any books that have surprised you in a good way lately?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

I’m still waiting for my April Book of the Month box to arrive, but it’s taking so long that it’s throwing off my reading. Instead of spending this extra time reading more from my BOTM backlog, I’ve been checking out library copies of past BOTM selections that I don’t own. First Goodbye, Vitamin and now Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing, which was also a contender for BOTM’s 2017 book of the year.

sing,unburied,singAbout the book: Jojo, Kayla, and their mother, Leonie, live in Mississippi with Leonie’s parents. Leonie isn’t well-equipped for childcare, so Jojo takes care of his baby sister Kayla, and their grandparents make sure  both children are fed and housed and shown some kindness and attention. Leonie’s boyfriend, the father of her children, has been in jail for three years but he’s getting out now. Leonie plans to take her bad-news best friend (who also has a boyfriend in the same facility) and her reluctant children to retrieve him. Jojo doesn’t particularly like his father, Kayla has never met him, and their grandmother is very sick at home. They don’t want to make the trip. But Leonie gives them no choice, and there’s a bit of destiny involved. At the prison, they pick up an extra passenger– a ghost that only the children can see, a stuck soul with ties to their family.

“Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain’t changed none.”

I’ve read one of Ward’s works in the past: her memoir, Men We Reaped. I loved her writing style and the concepts she worked into that story, but in the end I felt like she had just scratched the surface, like she could reach the meat of the story but was trying too hard to make it elaborate and some of its potential was lost in the process. It was the sort of book that left me feeling like she maybe hadn’t quite gotten into the swing of things yet and I should check back in with a later publication. So I picked up her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing; a lot of people seem to love it and it was nominated for plenty of awards. But ultimately I had the same experience as with Men We Reaped: I loved the ideas behind the story and I’m so sure that something Ward writes will be a strong favorite for me, but Sing, Unburied, Sing wasn’t it.

“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”

The main plot of the book (this is premise, not spoiler territory) is Leonie (and crew)’s trip to the jail to retrieve her boyfriend. So much of the main story line takes place in the car, or on the stops they have to make during the journey. Although a few interesting things do happen during that trip, it’s the least exciting part of the book. It doesn’t give the reader much new information about the family, except for some of the backstory and ruminations that surface at that time which could have been written in other ways without that long trip.

The point of the journey, from a plotting perspective, is the encounter with Richie. Richie was a friend of Jojo’s grandfather, and is a ghost at the time of Jojo’s story. Richie’s is one of three first-person perspectives in the book (along with Jojo’s and Leonie’s), but the strongest parts of his story are the parts we see through other characters’ eyes. Richie’s backstory was the most impactful part of the book for me, but his perspective chapters also seemed the most bland and/or unbelievable. I like a supernatural twist, usually. My problem with Richie wasn’t that he was a ghost, but rather that he spent so much time trying to convey what it felt like to be a ghost though none of his description seemed new or surprising as far as ghost characters go.

The supernatural aspect was not a total wash for me, though. By the end of the book, when Jojo sees birds in a tree and is beginning to understand the lingering nature of wrongs done to African Americans, I felt all the sadness and creepiness and outrage that it seemed I was supposed to, though the otherworldly life/death/magic details near the end were stretching my suspension of disbelief to its limits. The image of the birds in the tree is strong enough on its own, in my opinion, and the points Jesmyn makes with it saved the story for me after the crossing-over chaos nearly ruined it.

Though parts of the book seemed boring or unnecessary, I was reminded right away in the first chapter why I was trying again with Ward, and why I’ll probably pick up another of her books in the future: her writing is visceral and beautiful, her insights sharp and her emotions radiant. Though very little actually happens to Jojo throughout this book, he’s extremely sympathetic and easily my favorite character. His grandparents are unique and fascinating, with a wealth of history to share. Even Leonie (and her boyfriend, though we don’t see as much of him) who we’re not meant to like, is humanized in a way that helped me understand her questionable motives even when I did not remotely agree with them. Ward has talent, especially with character.

“But I knew this was her cottage, and when it all came down to it, I’m Black and she’s White, and if someone heard us tussling and decided to call the cops, I’d be the one going to jail. Not her. Best friend and all.”

And the best part is the culture she captures so vividly. There is better representation in American literature with every passing year, but Ward’s voice still stands out. She shows the significance of familiar history in new and evocative ways.

But after convincing me that the past is important, I wish she had ended Sing, Unburied, Sing with an eye toward the future, to leave me with more to think about after closing the cover on this book. I’m afraid I’m going to forget everything but the image of the birds in the tree pretty quickly, though as long as that sticks with me I’ll know I have the most important piece.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The writing style in this book kept me engaged, even in the places where I doubted the story. I still feel that Ward has so much potential, but I think Men We Reaped has already stuck with me longer than Sing, Unburied, Sing ever will. I will probably try again with a future publication of Ward’s, assuming there will be one. I’m so sure that I’m going to love one of her books eventually, but it wasn’t this one. She has important things to say, and I can see why it’s been a popular choice, but I didn’t find as much here as I hoped for.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for another novel from a writer of color about the current impact of a long history of racism, try Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, which features a modern family torn by injustice and jail time minus the focus on ghosts and magic. This is a great choice for someone looking to read about social issues of race without the magical realism element.
  2. If, like me, you appreciate the messages that Sing, Unburied, Sing has to offer more than the way they’re offered, let me recommend Ward’s Men We Reaped. Although this book is a memoir, it reads as easily as fiction and its messages are emphasized by the truth behind them. This book focuses on recent deaths and despair as a result of past racism.


The Literary Elephant


Review: Rainbirds

It’s so weird that I’ve read my Book of the Month Club pick early. Somehow I got into the habit of saving it for the last few days of the month, but now March is only half over and I’m done reading my March book, but it’s still too early to start anticipating what the next selections will be. I have plenty to read in the meantime (including some backlogged BOTM books), but still. It’s weird. This month I chose Clarissa Goenawan’s Rainbirds.

rainbirdsAbout the book: Ren Ishida’s sister, Keiko, has died. Due to an estrangement with her parents, Ren is the one who goes to Akakawa to collect her belongings and make inquiries with the police. She was clearly murdered, and though there seem to be no leads, Ren decides to stay in town for awhile and uncover what truths he can by virtually stepping into his sister’s life. He takes her job and living accommodations on a temporary basis, makes friends and acquaintances, and jogs the route along which she was killed. He learns a lot about his sister’s life, but at such a pivotal moment in his own career and love life his time in Akakawa is sure to change Ren’s life too.

I chose this book because I’ve read so little fiction set in Japan and I wanted a glimpse of that culture. Also the cover is bright and beautiful and perfect for spring. But ultimately I chose it because I’ve been in the mood for some contemplative literary fiction lately and I’d heard that this book was supposed to explore the grief of a man who had just lost his sister. I did find that here, but it wasn’t at all what I expected.

“Remember this, Ren. Sadness alone can’t harm anyone. It’s what you do when you’re sad that can hurt you and those around you.”

My first surprise was that there’s an element in this book that’s a little… paranormal? Magical? Ren has dreams about real people who are not actually present in his life. The dreams are maybe trying to tell him something, but in the end I found them more tone-setting than revelatory. Some of the details of these dreams are not at all realistic, and they don’t always seem directly symbolic, either. But they do have their place in Ren’s journey to the truth.

I suppose I would say Rainbirds fits into the mystery genre more than any other.  Though most of the clues are stumbled upon or gifted to Ren, he does the work of piecing them together himself. This book is full of surprises and the reader spends much of the tale trying to piece together what happened right along with the characters. But that element felt more like a background intrigue in a deeper story of self-discovery. Ren is grieving, recovering, and growing in this book, and though he is focused on his sister, it is a focus centered around saying goodbye and moving on with his own life. He never intends to stay in Akakawa indefinitely.

“She would never call me again, so I didn’t want to hear the phone ring. I closed my eyes. What was I doing here, all by myself in this town?”

Unfortunately, so much of this story centers around emotion, and I just didn’t feel it. Ren’s narration is thought-provoking and completely readable– once I’d picked the book up I couldn’t put it down, and the chapters flew by– but his reactions are so mild that mine were, too. I expected outrage and devastation from Ren’s confrontations with the murder suspects and the new insights into Keiko’s life, but I found only tepid wariness and surprise. When he considers that he might be in love, his attention shifts to his “urges” rather than any hint of excitement or pain. He speaks bluntly on occasion, but the only indications that he is as affected inside as his outward speech suggests are simple things like a refusal to drink his coffee, or a desire to stand out in the rain. There can be power in a quiet book, but with this one I needed more fire. As much as I enjoyed this plot and these characters, I know I’ll forget them quickly because they lacked the spark that would give them importance in my character-driven book-loving heart.

“There are enough single people in Japan to form a colony. There’s no need to involve me.”

On a smaller note, I found it a little confusing and conflicting that Ren could to care so much about his sister but doesn’t want to keep any of her things. I save everything, but I know not everyone does and there’s nothing wrong with either option. Still, I was left a little cold at the burning of some of Keiko’s belongings, the selling of her most personalized possessions at a bad price just to be rid of them, the requesting that his friend dispose of the urn after the ashes are scattered because Ren’s got other plans. I guess I just wanted to understand his reasoning better than the phrase “I don’t need these things” allows.

“I loaded my belongings into the trunk of the car. ‘I don’t know how I ended up with more things.’ ‘That’s always the case,’ Honda said with a laugh. ‘As time goes by, you get more and more baggage. It’s why we do spring cleaning every year, isn’t it?’ “

I was also a little put off by some of the male characters’ attitudes toward women, incluing Ren’s. There are times he’s very respectful toward certain women, but other times not. He recalls early experiences with sex as “conquests,” he lies about his identity to pick up women with his friends, he’s relieved to be caught cheating on one particular occasion because he’d been wanting to break up with his girlfriend and just didn’t know how to do it. Luckily, these were mostly small details woven into the backstory rather than major plot points, but I just don’t enjoy reading about women being perceived that way.

Despite my hangups, Rainbirds was one of those books that stuck inside my head to the point where when I wasn’t reading, I was constantly thinking about what would happen next and how the pieces of the puzzle would fit together. So I spent a couple of days reading more than I planned, and sped through the whole book. It wasn’t just the mystery that kept me wondering, but the new relationships Ren was forming, and the revelations being unearthed from his childhood. I was hooked on the characters all around, even if I did know that interest would wane when I reached the end of the book.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had fun reading this book, which I think explains my rating. It wasn’t a bad experience, but I didn’t feel like it was the sort of book I should have fun with. I just didn’t connect with the grief and loss and love at the core of this story, though I did enjoy reading about Japanese culture and the characters’ unique backstories. I’m glad I read this one. But I know I’m going to be looking for something very different in next month’s BOTM selections.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Blind Assassin

I’ve gotten into the habit of reading one of Margaret Atwood’s books every year. This is my fourth year, and fourth Atwood novel. This winter I chose The Blind Assassin, a 500+ page story with dual plot lines. It’s also one of my backlogged BOTM books from 2017, so I’m also making progress on my personalized 2018 reading challenge.

theblindassassinAbout the book: One could say Iris and her sister, Laura, were doomed from birth. Their once-affluent family falls on hard times in the first world war, and the descent of their heritage in the aftermath of that war and the lead-up to the second war leaves them tied to unpleasant fates. Now Iris is an eighty year-old woman of limited means and ill-repute, and spends her days writing a secret account of the downward spiral of her life. She has seen the deaths of most of her family and friends by this time, and narrates with an interesting blend of cynicism and hope. Between chapters of Iris’s present and past are excerpts from the book published posthumously in Laura’s name: a tale called The Blind Assassin that a pair of lovers spins for each other across months of clandestine meetings. In the end, Iris’s story will explain Laura’s.

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course.”

The layout of this book took me some effort to wrap my head around, though it makes perfect sense eventually. The narration goes back and forth between sections of Iris’s previously untold story and the one Laura published. To complicate matters, Iris’s sections slip between her present life at eighty years of age, and her personal history; though it’s fairly easy to tell which parts are which, these switches are not labelled and happen simply between one paragraph and the next. This goes on for several chapters and then Laura’s book takes several chapters. Laura’s sections are further complicated by the clear indication that there is some hidden connection to Iris’s story, and by the fact that they are interspersed with newspaper clippings from a wide range of dates. The news articles match parts of Iris’s story, though not in chronological order. That was the hardest part for me: until everything came together in Iris’s story, I had to keep checking the dates of the news articles to keep everything straight and make my educated guesses about what was going on behind Laura’s story.

“She stubs out her cigarette in the brown glass ashtray, then settles herself against him, ear to his chest. She likes to hear his voice this way, as if it begins not in his throat but in his body, like a hum or a growl, or like a voice speaking from deep underground. Like the blood moving through her own heart: a word, a word, a word.”

The Blind Assassin is a book for the reader who sees between the lines. It’s full of subtleties and quiet hints. The big answers are revealed more plainly at the end of the book, but if you don’t solve the mysteries before the answers are announced, it might take a second read to fully appreciate the details and ties woven into the novel before the reveal. Atwood does a superb job of layering the story so that the meaning changes when you have all the clues put together.

Bless you. Be careful. Anyone intending to meddle with words needs such blessing, such warning.”

The chapters about the lovers were my outright favorite; I loved hearing the woes of the people from planet Zycron in their stolen moments together. The taste of a fantasy story within the “real” story fit aptly in the midst of a lovers’ tryst and kept the pace of the novel moving when Iris’s chapters were (necessarily) bogged down with backstory. But even the backstory was more entertaining for me than some of the minutiae of Iris’s eighty year-old life. I adored her thoughts and commentary from that perspective, but I found that I cared little about the house she lived in and the changing of the seasons and current state of the town. Other than some of those scene-setting details, I did enjoy Iris’s older voice; it was amusing to see her simultaneously accepting and rejecting the help she needed from her younger friends, for instance.

“After having imposed itself on us like the egomaniac it is, clamouring about its own needs, foisting upon us its own sordid and perilous desires, the body’s final trick is simply to absent itself. Just when you need it, just when you could use an arm or a leg, suddenly the body has other things to do. It falters, it buckles under you; it melts away as if made of snow, leaving nothing much. Two lumps of coal, an old hat, a grin made of pebbles. The bones dry sticks, easily broken.”

At heart, this book is a tragedy. A beautiful tragedy with a little room for hope, but not much. The good days are already behind the main characters, if indeed they would have called any of their days “good.” But so much of the story is lovely, as well. Atwood makes beautiful use of metaphor, imagery, and sensory details. Her writing is fierce and constantly surprising. It’s a sweet center to a sour candy. Also, as the lovers note, there would be no happiness without pain, and given the choice, who wouldn’t take pain for a chance at happiness?

“In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This isn’t my favorite Atwood book, but it’s a strong contender (as each one that isn’t my favorite tends to be. I have yet to read a book by Margaret Atwood that I find disagreeable). In the few days since I finished reading it this book has been stuck in my head in the best possible way. It’s woven together so well, and so patiently; that impresses me more long-term than a fast pace and a flashy plot. I’ll definitely be picking up another Atwood novel next year, and I’m already on the hunt for my next top choice. Any suggestions?

Further recommendations:

  • In many ways, The Blind Assassin feels like a Canadian version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Though the stories are certainly not duplicates, readers who appreciate the tragedy and love and fiction of one of these novels will likely enjoy the other. In Atonement, a young English girl accuses a man of something she misunderstands, and the consequences reach deep into several connected lives.
  • Of course I must also mention another great Atwood book; this time I’ll go with The Heart Goes Last, a(n occasionally X-rated) dystopian novel about a group of people who volunteer to spend half of each year in prison after the economy fails and ravages the nation. It’s a book about love and control and danger in apparent utopias.

Have you read any of Margaret Atwood’s books? (Including The Handmaid’s Tale…) What did you think?


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?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I’m on a quest to eliminate my BOTM backlist, and the first one on the agenda was my December selection, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It’s adult literary fiction, which was all I knew going in other than that Eleanor’s social skills are nonexistent at best, and abrasive at worst.

“Did men ever look in the mirror, I wondered, and find themselves wanting in deeply fundamental ways? When they opened a newspaper or watched a film, were they presented with nothing but exceptionally handsome young men, and did this make them feel intimidated, inferior, because they were not as young, not as handsome? Did they then read newspaper articles ridiculing those same handsome men if they gained weight or wore something unflattering?”

eleanoroliphantiscompletelyfineAbout the book: Eleanor has a crush. He’s a musician, and she’s seen him on stage once. They’ve never met. Nevertheless, she decides he’s absolutely the man of her dreams, he’ll fall madly in love with her when they meet, and he’s the key to turning her life around. And so she embarks on a self-remake journey and reconnaissance mission to learn about him before making her move. In the meantime, she’s thrust into a new social circle when she aids an elderly man who had a heart attack in the street; between her experiences with them and her weekly conversations with Mummy, she reveals a dark and tragic past that has made her adult life bleak and lonely. Her difficulty understanding other people’s perspectives has always made her seem so aloof and strange, but as the musician and the elderly man (along with a few other new acquaintances) begin to turn her life upside down, she learns that she’s not as remote and untouchable as she thought.

“Although it’s good to try new things and keep an open mind, it’s also extremely important to stay true to who you are. I read that in a magazine at the hairdressers.”

Eleanor’s dark past is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. The reader learns almost right away that there is more to Eleanor than meets the eye, and every subsequent clue is deeper and more curious. Her personality alone is enough to captivate the reader, but she also gives frequent hints about people in her past that turned bad (or were always bad without her quite understanding), the origin of her facial scars, and certain disastrous events which led to further hardships and her current life situation.

“Life is all about taking decisive action, darling. Whatever you want to do, do it– whatever you want to take, grab it. Whatever you want to bring to an end, END IT. And live with the consequences.”

I don’t know much about Asperger’s, but I’ve seen reviews claiming that Eleanor exhibits similar symptoms from the Autism spectrum. This is not a matter directly addressed in the novel, but from what little I do know, I do believe that this could be a contributing factor in Eleanor’s unusual personality. If this is indeed the case, I want to mention that the novel handles it pretty well. First, because it’s subtle. Eleanor has been mistreated, perhaps taken advantage of because a child with a neurological disorder can be particularly vulnerable, but the story is essentially about Eleanor, it’s not a moralizing reprimand to the masses about how to (and how not to) treat persons with Asperger’s; not that those books don’t have their place, but I find a subtle approach like this more endearing and effective. But most importantly, Eleanor Oliphant also offers readers examples of kind people who persist in helpful relationships with Eleanor not because of or despite any social difficulties she might display, but because she’s a person who needs friends like any other person needs friends. I know the world needs more diverse books– better representations of genders, races, disabilities– and this is the kind of novel I like to see fulfilling that demand: it’s informative but not preachy, enlightening but still fun. Eleanor is a fantastic character.

“Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Was it really that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear? Someone ought to write a book, or at least an explanatory pamphlet, and pass this information on.”

Sadly, the present-day part of the plot is fairly transparent. It takes very little observation of Eleanor’s social encounters to figure out exactly how her plans with the musician are going to end up (though I was actually a bit disappointed with how internalized that final confrontation was, I was expecting more… confrontation), and almost as little time studying Raymond’s personality to know how things will end up with him. Even Eleanor’s secrets from the past are not entirely surprising when they’re finally revealed, due to the constant hints throughout the narrative that guide the reader to the truth. A little more subtlety with these techniques would’ve made this a definite 5-star read for me, but I think it’s a testament to how well-written the rest of the novel is that I couldn’t put the book down despite predicting where it was headed.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer– a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved Eleanor. She may be a bit unusual in her willingness to say out loud the first thought that pops into her head, but she has some darn good points to make in some cases, and even when I could see the mistakes in her assumptions, they never failed to amuse me. Eleanor Oliphant was Honeyman’s debut novel, and you can bet that I’ll be anxiously awaiting any new works she’ll have coming out in the future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a darker classic about a young woman who becomes dangerously depressed when she goes out to find her place in the world. Unlike Eleanor, who’s tragedy lies in her past and can be pushed behind her, Esther’s catastrophes take place during the time frame of the novel, which she struggles to turn back around.
  2. A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backman is a lighter book with similar themes. Ove, an elderly Swede, has been grouchy and cantankerous (and downright unsocial) since the death of his wife– but when a new family moves in next door, he begins to see that he still has a few things worth living for. This book is as humorous as it is emotional, perfect for fans of Eleanor.

Have you read any books that surprised you lately?


The Literary Elephant