Tag Archives: literary fiction

Review: Real Life

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

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including a literary fiction novel that released earlier this year: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. It’s a stunning debut!

reallifeIn the novel, Wallace is a (Black) graduate student spending his summer doing lab work toward his biochemistry degree. Over the course of a weekend, he grapples with a major setback (probably sabotage) in the lab, while also sorting out his feelings about his dad’s recent death, and dealing with fraught, changing relationships among his (White) friend group. The magnitude of obstacles stacked against him and the deeply ingrained prejudices that affect even his closest friendships at the Midwestern school leave him wondering whether the education and career path he has chosen is worth the misery it is causing him.

“But to stay in graduate school, to stay where he is, means to accept the futility of his efforts to blend in seamlessly with those around him. It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life. Stay here and suffer, or exit and drown, he thinks.”

If you love literary fiction and are looking for the perfect book to read right now to support Black authors and also honor Pride month, look no further. This is it. It’s gay, it exposes all kinds of racism, and Taylor’s writing is incredible. To be honest I thought there were a few overwritten passages, but that’s really my only criticism for the entire book. I loved every page, was repeatedly stunned by the character dynamics and commentary Taylor was able to draw through them, and appreciated that the narrative voice was able both to teach me about an experience very different from my own and to reveal how I, as a white person, may be complicit in forcing this experience on someone else, whether I’ve been aware of it or not.

“There will always be good white people who love him and want the best for him but who are more afraid of other white people than of letting him down. It is easier for them to let it happen and to triage the wound later than to introduce an element of the unknown into the situation. No matter how good they are, no matter how loving, they will always be complicit, a danger, a wound waiting to happen… It’s the place in every white person’s heart where their racism lives and flourishes, not some vast open plain but a small crack, which is all it takes.”

One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it is simultaneously self-contained and expansive. The entire novel takes place over a single weekend, with most of the characters, conflicts, and themes laid out in the first chapter or two. From there, the same people go back and forth in the same places, over the same issues, and yet each new scene is a fresh moment of tension that spirals out from itself and grows toward confrontations that feel huge and breathless.

There are so many separate parts to this story, and yet they all circle the same problem: that letting a person of color through the door is not the only step required in ensuring they have the same opportunities as a white person. Wallace has a paid fellowship at the school, and yet he is constantly told he needs to “catch up.” He has a spot in a lab and a project to work on, but his labmates talk down to him and report him for things he hasn’t done. He has friends, but feels like they invite him out of obligation rather than a desire for his company. He’s having sex with the guy he has a crush on, but when Wallace reveals a trauma from his past, Miller reveals his guilt over hurting someone who didn’t deserve it, and is upset when Wallace won’t condole him. Wallace is stuck in cycles of being hurt, being unable to voice the problem without making things worse, and having to hold the hurt inside of himself as the only way to acknowledge when a wrong has been done and hold on to his humanity. So yes, technically he has the chance to get a biochemistry degree, but he feels like he must lose himself along the way- and what kind of opportunity is that? Not one that is equal to the opportunities his fellow students are experiencing, though many of them fail to spot the difference.

“Just because you say you’re sorry, or you say that someone doesn’t deserve something, does not erase the facts of what has or has not happened, or who has or has not acted. Wallace is tired.”

So much of this story is internal discord- Wallace does have agency and makes both good and bad choices, and the people around him do and say plenty that affects him, but Wallace isn’t trying to personally right an entirely wrong system. He’s trying to get by, as one does. The battles that he has with other people are typically one-on-one personal confrontations, mostly verbal. He’s wrestling with himself over how much unfairness he can take, and at what point the price of accepting it becomes too high. This shows both that the problem of racism is an ongoing issue, no matter what Wallace does or doesn’t do, and it shows some of the deep psychological affects that trying to live under racism can cause. It hurts seeing Wallace try to justify everyone’s shitty behavior, feeling like he “had it coming,” making excuses for others’ failures, or thinking he should have done something different to avoid being in the path of racism at all. There’s no avoiding it, of course. And Taylor doesn’t pull any punches in depicting just how toxic that can be.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I loved coming back to this book every time I picked it up and hated when I had to put it down. I suspect it’ll be appearing on my favorite reads of the year list. Really, I should’ve known I’d love this one, as Brandon Taylor was one of the contributors to Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture ed. by Roxane Gay, which made such an impact on me, so it should’ve been no surprise to find his writing so spot-on here as well. And I suspect the few overwritten wrinkles I saw will be hammered out of Taylor’s style as he goes; surely his next book will be even stronger. I can’t wait to read it.

 

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Literary Fiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share here what Literary Fiction means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is unique, in that you could hear a different definition for this genre from virtually every reader you ask. I’ve already tried voicing my thoughts on it at least once  (in the Literary Fiction Tag), but I’ll try again here for further clarity. To me, literary fiction (lit fic) is more about style than content- though many lit fic novels interrogate the human condition and/or state of the world, subject varies widely and in the end what I think classifies fiction as “literary” is form or structure that engages with the content. While genre fiction often aims to tell a story, literary fiction aims to tell a story in a particular way, in which the form is integral to what is being told and advances the purpose of the novel. It is fiction that pushes the bounds of how stories work on a technical level. Thus we can have literary [genre] fiction, as a novel can feature both the content that fits within a given genre and a style that marks it as literary. This is my interpretation.

None of this is to say that genre fiction is in any way inferior- one of my main peeves with lit fic categorization. “Literary” is often (mis)used as an elevating term, given to works that are considered “serious” or even just “good.” Preference should not be mistaken for quality. In my opinion, “good” fiction is work that achieves what it sets out to do, which can certainly be found in genre fiction and can also be found lacking in literary fiction. It’ll depend on the book, and who you ask; reading is always subjective. The main issue that I think leads to genre snobbery surrounding lit fic is that lit fic is seen as a more intellectual approach to writing and reading, where genre fiction is often more focused on emotional response (which is not to say that lit fic can’t be emotional or genre fic intellectual- I see it as a sliding scale with lit fic on one end and genre fic on the other, and where a book falls on this scale will again depend on the reader). Ultimately, it seems unfair to weigh the two against each other merit-wise when they have such entirely different methods and goals.

My other peeve with lit fic categorization is the use of “lit fic” as a catch-all genre for hard-to-classify fiction. If a book’s content does not fit obviously into one of the usual genres, this does not automatically make it literary fiction. A novel can be, in my experience, simply “fiction,” or “contemporary fiction,” or a mix of genre fictions if more than one apply. Yes, lit fic is hard to describe and define, but this does not mean that anything should go.

That said, I tend to label books with every genre that applies, rather than limiting each title to one genre. Because the point here is to share a wide variety within each genre and maybe convince readers to check out bookish elements they otherwise wouldn’t, my goal in this Spotlight series is to offer an expansive view, which in this case will include literary [genre] fiction; there are no other subgenres that I normally associate with lit fic.

 

My History with Literary Fiction

Though I would say lit fic is now one of (perhaps even at the very top of the list of) my current favorite genres, its appearance in my reading life is recent. While I was growing up, the school and public library in my hometown did not have much of what I would consider literary fiction, and I don’t think I had a real sense of the genre until I started studying English at college, over the internet, and in my own reading.

AtonementAnd so my earliest brushes with lit fic were few and far between; it’s possible that more of what I read as a teen might fit here but its literary merit went unnoticed by me at the time, and of course I no longer remember all of the books I read in those years well enough to reevaluate with more recent knowledge. The first books I can remember reading in high school that might be considered lit fic were The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Atonement by Ian McEwan.

From there, a lot of my studies and personal reading experience with lit fic took me to classics and modern classics, which I’ll talk more about in a minute.

Lit fic really exploded into my reading life with my foray into blogging in 2016. As my tastes changed and I discovered a lot of titles beyond what was available at my library, I picked up books like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Donna Tartt’s The Secret Historyas well as Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. The VegetarianThanks to the blogging community, my interest in literature prizes grew; though these prizes don’t cater exclusively to lit fic, there is generally plenty of it to be found among the nominees. I’ve become so invested in reading these books that I read the entire Booker Prize 2018 longlist and 2019 longlist, as well as the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 longlist and 2020 longlist.

 

Literary Fiction Classics

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young woman’s extreme struggle with mental health as she attempts to pursue a writing career.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley depicts a scientist’s experiment of restoring life to dead flesh; in a brilliant turn through the relationship between creator and created, the novel reveals that the monster is, perhaps, not the monster after all. (If you’ve already read and loved this one, don’t miss Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant modern homage, Frankissstein!)

Emma by Jane Austen uses irony to great effect as the titular character meddles in her friend’s life, trying to secure a marriage for her that just doesn’t suit. Deft characterization allows the reader to see these characters far better than they see themselves.

Sister CarrieSister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser follows a young woman at the turn of the 20th century, intent on chasing a bigger life. As her success increases, the wealthy man who latched onto her while she was most vulnerable finds himself falling from society instead.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee uses a child’s voice to portray the harsh effects of racism in historical southern US. Its sequel, Go Set a Watchman, switches to an adult perspective (aging the same narrator), revealing further complexities in the situation that the child failed to grasp.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier follows the relationship of a newly-married couple; the husband was a dowager, and his new wife worries she won’t live up to the standard her predecessor set- eventually to realize she doesn’t know the full truth of that first wife’s character.The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is perhaps the horror story of a haunted house, or perhaps the tragic story of a psychologically unstable woman staying in said house. Better yet, perhaps it’s both.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald utilizes a secondary narrator to tell the star-crossed love story of a wealthy but deluded man and the woman who escaped him.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is told through the villain’s perspective, allowing the reader to see how a full-grown man can rationalize a heinous act- in this case, sexually abusing a young girl- without sympathizing with him.

 

Modern Literary Fiction Staples and Recommendations

Experimental works have been my god tier lately. If this is you as well, you won’t want to miss Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise (a look at manipulation and abuse in teacher-student relationships, set in an art school), Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (a young woman’s tale of abuses large and small, mostly from within her family, and their devastating mental effect), Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (a reminder that stay-at-home moms who bake cinnamon rolls all day and worry about things they can’t change are important too), Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater (an exploration of identity where the self doesn’t conform to rules and terms set out by society), MilkmanAnna Burns’s Milkman (an examination of the power of rumor and community, set in the Troubles), and Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (an examination of the significance and reliability of memory).

But there are plenty of more straightforward gems as well! Some that I’ve enjoyed are John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky (a writer wins his fame by stealing the work of others), Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (a female prisoner reveals the flaws of the US justice/prison system), Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (a reclusive woman tries to convince her neighbors that vengeful wildlife are responsible for a string of local murders), Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure (a trio of girls on an isolated island learn that the dangers of society they’ve been taught to avoid have invaded their space anyway).

 

If you’re completely new to the genre and not sure where to start, I have some recommendations for entrance points to literary fiction based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below):

If you like history: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, Human Acts by Han Kang

SeveranceIf you like sci-fi/dystopian: Severance by Ling Ma, The Need by Helen Phillips, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

If you like magical realism: Lanny by Max Porter, Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

If you like short stories or vignettes: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

If you like social commentary: The Farm by Joanne Ramos, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

The PiscesIf you like Greek mythology elements: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, The Pisces by Melissa Broder

If you’re afraid lit fic is just too hard for you, never fear! There are YA options, like Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It; graphic novels like Margaret Atwood and Mary Renault’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina; novellas like Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall and Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream; and novels that are so borderline lit fic that not everyone’s convinced they count (they do!) like Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations With Friends. Other very accessible options include Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, John Lanchester’s The Wall, or Miriam Toews’s Women Talking.

 

Literary Fiction on my TBR:

Never Let Me GoI’ve mentioned a lot of titles already because I have so many favorites I can’t bear to exclude, but actually I think I could pull a much longer list of lit fic from my TBR. Since I’ve only been deep-diving into lit fic for the last few years, I feel like I have a lot of ground yet to cover here. Some of the books on my “can’t believe I haven’t read it yet” list are: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Idiot by Elif Batuman, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

 

Why Read Literary Fiction?

It’s good for the brain! These are books that make you think, and that leave you pondering after the turning of the final page. It is literature as an art form, questing for the bounds of what a story can do, and how. If you’re a curious person at heart, if you’re interested in learning and being challenged, if you’re tired of formulaic stories and want to be surprised, if you love seeing an artist stretch their skill, these are the books for you. They’re full of big ideas. They expand the mind. They open doors. They tell us about who we are and what sort of world we live in. And they’re infinitely unique.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for lit fic, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Actress

This is likely my last review from the Women’s Prize longlist before the shortlist announcement coming up on the 21st! I am still planning to post a wrap-up / shortlist prediction prior to the announcement, and I will review the Mantel trilogy (probably all in one go) as soon as I finish it, which likely won’t be before the 21st. I am currently reading (and really liking) Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but 15 books into this list I’m TIRED and Mantel’s books are all so LONG. Anne Enright’s Actress, on the other hand, is of considerably more manageable length!

actressIn the novel, Norah is approached by yet another writer who wants an interview about Norah’s mother; after this encounter, Norah decides it is finally time to write her own book about her famous/infamous mother. And so begins a recounting of the life story of Katherine O’Dell, English-Irish star of screen and stage, known in the end for her eventual madness and for shooting a man in the foot. Mixed with this tale is the story of Norah’s own life; as Katherine’s only child and her “miracle,” the two shared a close relationship, their tales forever intertwined.

“This was my marvellous mother, who told me that I was marvellous too.”

Here we have another little family saga for the 2020 Women’s Prize. With Norah as narrator, hers is the only perspective the reader is given directly, though in describing her mother’s history Norah also delivers to the reader the actress Katherine O’Dell and her parents, for a generational story spanning about the length of a century.

There is very little plot to Actress. Norah mentions her present life a few times: the interview about her mother, a trip to her Katherine’s birthplace, a few exchanges with Norah’s husband. None of it amounts to much. Between these moments, the family history is told unchronologically, lightly working its way toward an explanation for Katherine shooting someone and also toward a revelation about Norah’s father, but for the most part the timeline feels rather meandering and aimless. I found it a bit difficult to stay invested in the underlying story; though I enjoyed episodes from Katherine’s and Norah’s lives, I didn’t feel much cohesive forward motion in the overall narrative.

What held the book together for me instead was its dual sense of character study. Though Norah claims to be writing about her mother, I would argue that Actress is actually more about Norah. Her mother in the focal point because Katherine’s career and fame has irrevocably shaped Norah’s life, evident even after Katherine’s death in the fact that Norah’s books sell because they’re written by “the daughter of Katherine O’Dell.” The fact that the book is addressed to Norah’s husband, a frequent “you” in these pages, indicates that this account of the actress is perhaps a private project not intended to leave the family home. A personal reckoning, an opportunity for reflection and introspection. There are moments that left me wondering about the reliability of Norah’s memory of her mother, and of the way Norah’s biases may have skewed her understanding of what had happened in her mother’s life or what it meant; I took this as an intentional tactic meant to blur the line between where one woman’s story ends and another’s begins, but certainly part of the beauty of Actress’s characterization is that there’s plenty up for debate in the presentation as well as the content; opinions on the book’s point of view and intent are likely to vary.

“Despite her posing, as though for Life magazine, with her new white goods, the truth is that Katherine O’Dell was, at forty-five, finished. Professionally, sexually. In those days, when a woman hit thirty she went home and shut the door.”

Altogether it’s a very nuanced look at a mother-daughter relationship, at the hardships women face when they’re well-known, and when they’re not. Very little of the book is actually about acting and fame, but rather about the personalities of the two women behind their public masks. Both are complex individually, and likewise is their relationship. They love each other AND find each other challenging. Norah is “a miracle” to her mother, but her existence also serves as a reminder of things lost to Katherine O’Dell, or roads that can no longer be taken. Likewise, Norah’s identity has been, throughout her entire life, tied to her mother’s, flaws, crimes, madness, and all. They are two beautiful, remarkable people, revealed away from the stage and public eye to be every bit as ordinary and extraordinary as the rest of us.

“The dress was a costume, it made her look demented, I thought. So there you are. Did I already know she was crazy? Just the way all mothers are crazy to their daughters, all mothers are wrong.”

I was also hooked early on by the writing. Enright’s prose is clever, perhaps a bit too much so in the dialogue, but very well-formed otherwise. She’s got an incredible sense for when to turn an image or idea on its axis, drawing new meaning on the perpendicular instead of following beaten paths or resorting to tired phrases. My favorite line was perhaps this one:

“And the house around me is a puzzle of absences, room by room.”

Though none of the historical moments or bits of social commentary apparent in these characters’ experiences ever felt central enough to be hailed as the focus of the story, I did appreciate the glimpses into WWI and the Troubles, and the remarks about how women were generally treated by society in different eras. For example, I wouldn’t say this book is “about” the challenges Katherine faced as an actress, the expectation that she be always young and beautiful and less powerful than the men around her, though these details are inextricable from her career and indeed crucial to the story. The backdrop of the Troubles in northern Ireland as Katherine’s mental state begins to fluctuate is also crucial, though again there’s much more to the story. Enright manages to fold small so many huge events and weave them all in together, for the reader to unpack at will.

In the end this was quite a mixed experience for me. I enjoyed the book though not necessarily the story. After finishing it I was left mulling and marveling over individual pieces and how they fit together, which I appreciate, though the emotional impact was low for me. While I may not have loved every moment of the read, I do think this will be a book I’ll remember fondly.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the sort of book I expected to find on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, subtle and literary and packed with food for thought. I didn’t find it as immediately gripping as some of the other titles, but I still overall had a good time. I may be interested in trying more of Enright’s work in the future.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: How We Disappeared

The date for the Women’s Prize shortlist announcement seems to have moved up to the 21st of April! It’s a small change (from the 22nd, originally) but we really are honing in on the last few days now. I’ll have one more review coming up before then (in addition to this one); I’m also planning to read as much of the Mantel trilogy as I can before the announcement, but with one day less to read and review now I doubt you’ll be seeing my thoughts on it before my longlist wrap-up post, though hopefully soon after. In the meantime, here’s a look at another longlister that I have finished reading “on time,” Jing-Jing Lee’s excellent debut novel, How We Disappeared.

howwedisappearedIn the novel, Wang Di is an old woman in the year 2000; her husband has recently passed away, before the two of them managed to finish telling each other the stories of what life was like for them during WWII in Singapore. As Wang Di tries to track down more information about her husband’s past, she also remembers her own horrific experience as a teenage girl in the 1940s. Also in 2000, a boy named Kevin is shaken when his grandmother dies after mumbling a hard-to-hear but shocking secret. He also sets out to find out the truth of what happened to his family during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in WWII.

“The same thing happened to the other girls, their colour and skin and flesh withering away into pale shadows, until they were little more than a collection of cuts and bones and bruises, badly healed. This, I thought, this is how we’re going to disappear.”

This book is told in three alternating perspectives: Wang Di’s past and present, and Kevin’s present. It was impossible for me to resist comparing these characters with a couple of others from this year’s Women’s Prize longlist. First, Kevin acts as boy sleuth, much like Jai from Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. Though I loved Jai’s voice in that story, Kevin’s hunt for clues is more productive, making for a stronger mystery element with no lag in the middle. Second, the primary focus of How We Disappeared is on Wang Di’s past, in which she is forcibly removed from her family’s home and taken to be a comfort woman- essentially a sex slave for the Japanese soldiers occupying her home country. This part of the narrative is very similar to the content of Edna O’Brien’s Girl, which follows Maryam, a Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapped and abused by Boko Haram, a violent religious group. Though the girls’ experiences are similar, again it is Lee’s rendering that stands out as the more successful of the two. She manages a much more considerate and nuanced examination of how a girl in these circumstances might have felt. The thorough research that must have gone into Wang Di’s characterization is clear, without interfering with the story’s emotional effectiveness.

Before I get any farther, let me warn you that there is a lot of disturbing content in this book. A large portion of it takes place in an occupied country during a world war, complete with bombings, soldiers stealing from civilians as well as abusing and killing them at will, and starvation creeping ever nearer for those who escape military notice. There’s the kidnapping of the comfort women, holding them against their will, raping them, and otherwise treating them like invaluable property rather than human beings. There is also a rift between these comfort women and their people- though they’ve been given no choice about what has happened to them, loved ones and strangers alike blame them for shameful actions. The comfort women emerge physically and mentally ill, with little if any support. Even Kevin is being bullied by his peers, this behavior largely ignored or misinterpreted by the adults in his life. Both Kevin and Wang Di are grieving the recent death of a loved one. If you’re not in the market for a bleak book, don’t pick this one up.

” ‘You know what happens to girls who fall sick here? Or who get pregnant?’ She jerked her thumb towards the back of the house, where the rubbish bins were. Into the heap, she meant. Gone.”

Despite the rough content though, there are happy moments. The writing flows wonderfully, and adept characterization keeps each point of view compelling. Wang Di’s past chapters are the clear standout, but I enjoyed all three perspectives and thought every section added something important to the story. It does also help that Wang Di’s later life is presented early enough in the story to assure the reader that she does survive her stint as a comfort woman and forge a tolerable life afterward. The retrospective angle through which the book’s most horrific details are presented lends a sense of remembering the past but also of laying it to rest and moving forward. It’s a tragedy that doesn’t leave a lingering sense of despair.

In fact, I appreciated so much of the telling that my only real criticism is that the piece of story that connects Wang Di’s tale with Kevin’s is delivered all at once at the end of the book in an info dump of messages left behind by absent characters. This disrupts the established pattern and pace, though given the nature of Kevin’s and Wang Di’s investigations into the past it is hard to see how Lee might have navigated this differently. It also puts Kevin in the position of collecting and writing this tale, which is hard to believe for a boy of his age (ten years old), aspirations of journalism aside. Presumably some time would have passed before he was able to write it at this level, but no actual indication of that is given.

“Sometimes all you had to do to get someone to talk was to be silent.”

Even so, this is a topic I’ve not encountered in fiction previously, and I found Lee’s prose very convincing and evocative. I was emotionally invested in Wang Di’s life, hit hard by each new horror she encountered, and remained interested throughout the entire novel in both main characters and the inevitable intersection of their tales. There was not a moment of boredom or of doubt about Lee’s careful handling of this subject. I highly recommend this one, and look forward to seeing what Lee will write next.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was very nearly 5 stars for me, and I can safely say it’s the book I would be most disappointed not to see on the shortlist. I’ll talk more about my wishes and predictions soon, but this one, I think, is likely to advance: well-written and impactful. Soon we’ll know!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Girl

That’s right, another Women’s Prize longlister. (This is going to be a theme.) Next up for me was the last of the short titles: Edna O’Brien’s Girl; this was another book that I had low expectations for- and sadly, this time those expectations proved correct.

girlIn the novel, Maryam is a young schoolgirl abducted, along with many female classmates, by members of Boko Haram, a violent religious insurgency group active in Nigeria. They are taken to a base camp, where Maryam is abused, made to work, encouraged to convert, and provided with a lifetime of nightmare material. Eventually she learns that even escape cannot free her from Boko Haram, as she struggles to find her way back to a home that cannot understand what her life has become and seems to have its arms closed against her.

” ‘You are no longer in that forest,’ he says. / ‘You weren’t there,’ I say hastily, too hastily. / I am shackled to it. It lives inside me. It is what I dream at night, with a baffled Babby slung across my belly, imbibing my terrors.”

Enter this book with caution, if you are planning to pick it up- the details are horrifying, and basically every trigger warning imaginable applies. (You can ask in the comments below if you’re wondering about anything specific!) The beginning of the book is actually the most brutal, in terms of abuse; I expected most of the novel to examine Maryam’s life in the camp, but in actuality only about a quarter of the story takes place there: the opening quarter.

Later on, this becomes more a tale of surviving in the hostile Nigerian bush, and then reentering a community inclined to hate victims for what has happened to them.

And yet, despite how brutal all of this content sounds, I struggled to stay invested while reading this book. I found the writing confusing and distracting with its frequent unexplained tense shifts. The first-person narration comes across surprisingly flat. Even with little knowledge of Boko Haram, the plot follows what seemed to me like a very predictable arc. Worst of all, for reasons difficult to pinpoint, the whole book struck me as disturbingly emotionless. It is possible some portion of my disengagement here is attributable to the current state of the world and a general difficulty in focusing, but this has without a doubt been my worst reading experience all month.

In the interest of having something positive to say about Girl, I did find the final quarter of the book the most compelling. This is the portion of the novel that depicts Maryam trying to assimilate back into a society isn’t quite sure what to do with her, and I appreciated it because it gave the best glimpse of how psychologically challenging this entire experience must have been for these Nigerian girls. Perhaps if the novel had taken an earlier approach into touching on Maryam’s mental state rather than simply listing all of the horrendous things that happen to her, I might have found it more compelling as a whole. Emotion is, of course, a subjective component in any writing, so this is not to say that anyone who finds more of it in Girl than I did is any way incorrect- I can only speak for my own experience.

“I will never get out. I am here forever. I am asking God to please give me no more dreams. Make me blank. Empty me of all that was.”

There is some debate going around on whether O’Brien was the right person to tell this story. I have some complicated and incomplete thoughts on Own Voices narratives at this point so I was wary knowing O’Brien had no personal connection or stake in this subject but was still willing to give the book the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the day, I think Girl is well-intended if slightly misplaced, and my biggest issue with it was that I didn’t find the story particularly readable; In that light, I don’t necessarily want to urge readers away from this book for its authorship, but I do think it’s important to pay attention to perspectives in what you’re reading and only expect from them what they are able to give. If Boko Haram is a topic you are interested in learning about, you don’t need to avoid this book, but I would urge that you don’t let your education stop here.

“When they burst into our dormitory we did not know who they were, but very soon we did. We had heard of them and their brute ways, but until you know something you do not know it.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I don’t think the intent was ill-meant here, and I hope other readers are having better luck with the prose and storytelling of this book than I did. But unfortunately, I can’t think of any positives with this reading experience beyond the fact that at least it was a short book. I’ve read and enjoyed a short story by O’Brien previously so this won’t necessarily be my last brush with her work, but I must admit I’m not in a hurry to pick up her other novels after this experience. I hope this was the low point of the longlist for me, and that the rest of the titles will prove a bit more inspiring.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Fleishman is in Trouble

Next up from the Women’s Prize longlist, I chose a title I was somewhat dreading. There have been a lot of mixed reviews going around for Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel Fleishman is in Trouble, especially after its National Book Award shortlisting a few months ago and now it’s nomination for the Women’s Prize. I wasn’t sure this book was going to be a good fit for me, but I ended up really liking it!

fleishmanisintroubleIn the novel, Toby Fleishman wakes up one morning to a text from his (almost ex) wife, saying she dropped the kids off at 4am, a day early for Toby’s weekend with them. He complains, she tells him to deal with it, and then she disappears. She doesn’t answer his messages or calls, she doesn’t pick the kids up on Monday, she bails on their planned holiday, and none of her assistants or employees or clients or friends seem to have a clue where she is or what she’s doing. Toby fumes. But of course, there’s more to the story than he knows.

“He got some pleasure thinking of Rachel arriving to pick up the kids to find out they weren’t even here. He participated in an extended fantasy about moving to another city with the children and letting her figure it out.”

I might as well say right out that if you don’t enjoy reading about unlikable characters, this will not be the book for you. Aside from the kids, every single main character in this book (and most of the secondary characters as well) is deeply flawed and largely unsympathetic. There’s plenty of pending-divorce bitterness between Toby and his wife, but their loathsomeness goes beyond finding fault with each other. Most of the book follows Toby’s experience, so he’s the one we get to hate the most: for the way he objectifies the women on his dating app, for his failure to see his patients and team of fellows at the hospital as real people, for his assumptions about the other parents at his kids’ school, for the friends he keeps, for every one of his self-centered actions and impressions. There’s no one to root for here, though Brodesser-Akner does an excellent job of humanizing each of them instead of painting them as simple villainous caricatures.

There’s also very little plot, so if you’re looking for a fast pace and plenty of action, you’ll want to look elsewhere for that, too. Though this book takes place over the course of about a month, we mainly see Fleishman going about his day-to-day life, dealing with the same questions over and over again. ‘How are things progressing at the hospital today?’ ‘What do I need to do with the kids today?’ ‘How can I get laid today?’ etc. We know his wife is missing, but until we are given direct access to her whereabouts toward the end of the book, it’s just a looming question and not even a proper mystery. One of my greatest criticisms, actually, is that I think this book is longer than it needs to be to get its messages across.

But Fleishman is in Trouble does have two things going for it.

The first is the commentary. This is, essentially, a book about marriage and divorce. It’s also about societal expectations of men vs women, in their careers, in their love lives, in their approaches to parenthood. The Fleishmans are a wealthy couple, so we also see a lot of the elite New York scene, the private schools and nannies and tutors for the kids, the second (and third and fourth) fancy homes, the bosses who can get away with anything and the wives who insist that choosing which charities to donate to and which boards to sit on counts as “work.” Brodesser-Akner takes the rich lives so many seem to desire and aspire to and pokes them full of holes, in an absolutely glorious way. Yes, Fleishman is an asshole, but through his assholery we see how men are given certain allowances that women aren’t, and how even in unspoken thoughts there are expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable for men or women, and the toll that those expectations take.

“Whatever kind of woman you are, even when you’re a lot of kinds of women, you’re still always just a woman, which is to say you’re always a little bit less than a man.”

The second is the structure. Fleishman is in Trouble features, mainly, the Fleishmans’ crumbling marriage. And yet, though inner thoughts are attributed to both of them and the reader is given a very intimate look at both of their lives over the course of this month, neither of them is a narrator. Instead, the entire book is narrated by Toby’s college friend, Libby. The attention given to each comes in at about 80% Toby, 15% Toby’s wife, and 5% Libby; this distribution and the awkwardness of the first-person “I” inside that frame didn’t entirely work for me. I found Libby’s sudden intrusions into the story annoying and distracting until the pieces came together in the end- through most of the novel I found it hard to remember who she was and why she was relevant- but ultimately I do think this is Libby’s story rather than either of the Fleishmans’. I’ve gone over and over whether or not to explain my take on the perspective here, because it is something that’s revealed toward the end of the novel and really makes the book, in my opinion. And yet, in a lot of the reviews I’ve seen, this theory doesn’t come up often and so I’d like to put my thoughts out there for those who have read it and are curious.

To that effect, SKIP this paragraph if you’re worried about potential spoilers, because I am going to say a little more on Libby’s narration here: > In the end, I think that this book is Libby’s way of exploring whether she should or should not divorce her own husband. It seems counter-intuitive because Libby and her marriage take a back seat while the Fleishmans are the clear frontrunners, but hear me out. Libby is a stay-at-home mom who writes fiction in an attempt to keep working, to make something for herself, and to escape a perfectly adequate home life that she finds boring and stifling. She says, in the text, that she is writing a coming of age story about her youth, but that she is seemingly incapable of writing directly about herself. Toby is a part of her youth, a close friend that maybe could have been more if he wasn’t so short. She sees his crumbling marriage as an opportunity for herself, maybe to reignite an old flame, maybe just to follow his lead. She uses what she sees happening to him, and fills it with her own anxieties and disappointments and unhappy experiences from her marriage. It’s a thought experiment, on whether or not she should shake up her own life. This is my take.

End spoilers.

I think it’s a brilliant concept, if I’m at all correct. It didn’t fully come together for me in the actual execution, but I’m very impressed with the attempt.

“That was what I knew for sure, that this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman- to tell her story through a man; Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you.”

Something else I want to address is an experience I didn’t have with this novel, that many other readers seem to: that despite Toby’s loathsomeness, he is a sympathetic character in many readers’ eyes until his wife’s narrative suddenly upturns the situation that Toby has laid out, in which he paints himself as the victim in the divorce. Having read more reviews for this book (and more closely) before picking it up than I normally would, I knew going in not to take Toby’s word at face value. Because I knew that Toby was only one side of this argument and not necessarily the correct side, I was not surprised then to read about what had actually been happening with his wife, when her situation is revealed. I do not think I lost anything in the reading experience by refusing to sympathize with Toby early on- I think Brodesser-Akner’s writing and commentary carries the book even without that surprise, and I am not entirely convinced that this surprise is the book’s intent. (I would love to hear your thoughts on this if you’ve read the book!)

In the end, I can see why this has been (and continues to be) such a divisive book; it certainly won’t work for everyone, regardless of whether the reader closes the book with a sense of understanding its purpose or not. There are a lot of bold moves taken here, starting with how insufferable the characters are, but certainly not ending there. And yet… I enjoyed the read. I appreciated Brodesser-Akner’s writing, I had a lot of fun hating these characters, and the commentary did challenge my views of marriage, divorce, and societal expectations. If you’d rather read something with positivity and a straightforward structure, don’t pick this one up. But for the right reader… I think Fleishman is in Trouble can be a very impressive novel indeed.

“We fall in love and we decide to marry in this one incredible moment, and what if everything that happens after that is about trying to remember that moment? We watch ourselves and our spouses change, and the work is to constantly recall the reasons you did this in the first place. Why is that honorable, to live in service of a moment you have to constantly work so hard to remember?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had very low expectations for this one, and was so pleasantly surprised by the time I finished it. I would actually be happy to see this book shortlisted, and I will definitely be keeping an eye out for whatever Brodesser-Akner writes next. I am thrilled that this year’s Women’s Prize longlist finally convinced me to pick up this book, which I’d been on the fence about for a long time; it’s been one of my favorite longlist experiences so far!

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Disappearing Earth and The Snow Collectors

Two recent reads!

I don’t tend to pick up books just because they’re pretty, but a beautiful cover definitely draws me in to looking at the synopsis more closely. Such was the case with Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth; add on the National Book Award shortlisting and some  great reviews, and I was sold. I only wish I’d picked this one up sooner!

disappearingearthIn the novel, two young girls disappear from a Russian city on the Kamchatka peninsula. Opinions are divided on what has happened to them- one woman reports seeing a man with the two girls at their last known location, but when she can’t provide the police with any further details even they doubt her claim. In a series of chapters each following a different woman in a different month of the year following the girls’ disappearance, a web of connected story lines from all over the peninsula slowly come together to resolve the mystery of the missing children.

“It hurts too much to break your own heart out of stupidity, to leave a door unlocked or a child untended and return to discover that whatever you value most has disappeared. No. You want to be intentional about the destruction. Be a witness. You want to watch how your life will shatter.”

Disappearing Earth is a beautiful, brilliant book. The chapters read somewhat like individual short stories, though this is rather a novel of connected pieces. The frequent shifts of perspective may be jarring or disappointing for readers who prefer to follow a smaller cast more closely- though Phillips refers back to many previously mentioned characters, we don’t see much of them beyond the ends of their respective chapters. Fortunately, I found every new perspective as interesting as the last, and I thought that the emotion each chapter ended on segued nicely into the start of the next, a sense of quiet tension building steadily throughout the book across this set of self-contained arcs.

Though this is indeed a sort of mystery, it’s a slow-paced journey whose purpose is not the quick entertainment of a typical mystery/thriller (there’s no way of guessing the whodunnit before it is revealed, the criminal’s motives and actions go unexplored, and none of the characters other than the two missing girls seem to be in imminent danger) but instead a methodical unveiling of a culture- the challenges faced by the people living in this part of the world. Through these characters we see strong local prejudices, honored traditions that feel like trappings,  critiques of insufficient police response to crime, and more. There’s so much sadness and frustration in this book, but Phillips paints this place with a respectful hand, one that sees room for change and hope for its future.

This is sure to be a divisive book, in that the mystery at its core makes it impossible to describe the novel without attracting a crowd looking for something flashier while Disappearing Earth is in fact very subtle. Readers drawn in by the missing girls of the premise may not find what they are looking for here, whereas others (like me) will delight in the small moments where the chapters intersect and the larger picture of a community at odds with itself shines through.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This has been one of my favorite reading experiences of the year so far. I read it as slowly as I could in order to savor it, while also finding myself virtually unable to set the book down.

 

The Snow Collectors, by Tina May Hall, was a February release that caught my eye last month. I grabbed a copy as soon as I added the title to my TBR because I knew otherwise I’d be waiting until next winter. Ironically, for the first time that I can really remember, we’re having an unusually early spring where I live so I actually missed out on reading it surrounded by snow anyway! Perhaps I would have liked it more in that weather.

thesnowcollectorsIn the novel, Henna has recently moved to an unnamed town on the US east coast, where a brutal winter is in full swing. Her family is long missing, presumed dead, and Henna has left all of her attachments behind to start fresh in a new place. Unfortunately, this place might not be any better than the last- she discovers a dead woman in the woods behind her house, and thus begins her hunt to solve two mysteries: that of the woman’s death, and that of the scrap of paper clutched in her hand, pertaining to an Arctic expedition from the 1850’s.

“No one knew if we would get another winter. Minute by minute, the world we rode was transformed, bone to coral, feather to web, ice to stone, and back again.”

This story is a very interesting collection of elements- an atmospheric Eastern winter, in a future not too far off (references to the extinction of bees and deserts where the Midwest had been presenting as some of the only clues that the setting isn’t present day), with a strong focus on a specific historical moment- the missing Franklin expedition, part of the search for a northwest passage. Henna thinks of herself as a sort of gothic heroine in this mystery, at times following and at others defying tropes of that genre. There’s also a bit of a magical/sci-fi element, in that Henna is skilled at dowsing water (and perhaps ancient clues) using only her body as a tool. She spends her days writing encyclopedia entries about water, her neighbor/best friend is mute, the police chief is mysterious but also a flirt, the other newcomer to town is the owner of an extinction show, and her sister’s unlikely hero of a dog, Rembrandt, is never far from the action. Oh, and at the heart of the Franklin expedition’s disappearance is the question of whether or not cannibalism has occurred, which lends the novel a macabre air.

“I rested my head on my hand, flipping through the notes, trying to estimate how many days of hunger it took to break a person, trying to imagine the dead men, lying huddled on the ice where they had fallen, their living compatriots too weak to bury them, the temptation of so much wasted meat.”

This read was a mix of extreme ups and downs for me. On the one had, I adored the writing, found so many of the individual elements fascinating, and was constantly curious about what these bizarre characters would do next. On the other, I thought the culprit was obvious from the beginning, did not understand why Franklin’s family would’ve cared so much about the possible cannibalism long after people had forgotten that they were even connected to Franklin, and found the resolution entirely anticlimactic and unsatisfactory. Unfortunately I was also reading this book on the days surrounding the Women’s Prize longlist announcement, and my desire to be reading those books was so great at the time that anything else I was reading was bound to suffer for the fact that my interest was simply elsewhere. Ultimately, while I enjoyed a lot of The Snow Collector‘s pieces, it didn’t quite manage to hold my attention as a narrative, though I can’t blame that entirely on this book.

Even though this one didn’t quite live up to expectations for me, I still found it a very interesting read, and recommend it to those who like unusual, somewhat dark books.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. To be honest, I wavered between 3 and 4 here because this is a wonderful, weird little book with plenty of merit, though I didn’t end up enjoying it quite as much as I’d hoped to. I am glad I picked it up and am sure to remember it for a long time because I’ve read nothing else like it. I’d certainly like to try more of the author’s work.

Have you read or are you interested in either of these books?

The Literary Elephant

Review: Weather

One of the freshly longlisted Women’s Prize books happens to be a February release (in the US at least) that I picked up just a week before the announcement! Jenny Offill’s Weather is a very short read that I enjoyed, though not as much as I’d hoped.

weatherIn the novel, librarian Lizzie spends her days learning all sorts of things she never thought she’d need, and using her knowledge to save everyone that she can. This manifests in myriad ways, including taking care of her family at all costs, but also stubbornly using a private car service despite its inconveniences just in case she’s their last customer, as well as agreeing to answer mail for a friend’s doomsday podcast. The podcast’s focus on climate change and Lizzie’s savior complex lead to an obsession with prepper research and increasing tension in her family as her opinions on how best to take care of them undergo a drastic shift.

“My # 1 fear is the acceleration of days. No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.”

Offill’s writing drew me in immediately; it’s short, sharp, and intelligent, all in the best of ways. The paragraphs- comprised of only a few sentences each- are divided visually on the page with a line of white space after each, creating small, vignette-like blocks of text with prose that flits easily from one moment or subject to the next. There are so many intriguing lines, as well as a comfortable fluidity from point to point, that it’s simple to fall into the book’s momentum and suddenly find yourself halfway through the story. Even as someone who doesn’t often read 200 pages at a time, I found Weather a punchy one-sitting book.

It’s themes and commentary also appealed to me. I’ve not yet hit climate change novel fatigue (though I sense it’s on the horizon) so I appreciated this as the book’s central focus. I’m not particularly well-informed about preppers (people who actively stock survival gear and plan escape tactics to prepare for widespread emergency/disaster), which meant Lizzie’s research held my interest. Additionally, her everyday interactions with the modern world supply plenty of timely food for thought; these touch on everything from Uber’s popularity to our fixation on self care to the effects of poverty to the recent string of rape accusations against wealthy, high-powered men. It’s an eclectic mix, meant not to prove a point but to encourage readers to look more closely at commonplace issues and ideas gliding right beneath our noses. Offill has a tendency of dropping hints and leaving the reader to sort out what to do with them.

“The meditation class is no longer crowded. I find out a lot of people left recently because of something Margot said. Someone asked her what she thought about the waves of recent allegations in the press. She said that it caused her great sadness to think of these men’s dishonorable actions. But she dismissed the language of victims and perpetrators. When she was asked about punishment, she spoke instead of reincarnation. Everyone here has done everything to everyone else, she said.

Which explains why today it’s just me and three straight guys listening to her.”

And yet, though many of the book’s individual elements excited and engaged me, the underlying story seemed too scant to pull all of the threads together in a satisfactory way. Though we come to know the various members of Lizzie’s family- her husband, son, brother, mother- well enough, their stories lack an emotional urgency that might invest readers in their fates. Lizzie meets a journalist who wades firsthand into conflict and danger around the world for writing material, a man who understands Lizzie’s fear that humanity is on a brink, who may pose an unexpected threat to Lizzie’s marriage; and yet, when her husband and son take an extended trip out of state there is so little reaction to their sudden separation that it’s hard to worry about a more permanent divide. Likewise, when Lizzie’s brother starts a family of his own and then hits rock bottom, her focus is on keeping a roof over her brother’s head, not on the relationships he stands to lose. None of it feels sympathetic.

Which isn’t to say that Weather is an emotionless story. Despite a personal disconnect with Lizzie and the people in her life, her increasing worry about the state of the world and whether anything at all can be done about it provided palpable tension for me. If climate change and/or inevitable worldwide collapse are already on your mind, the rising level of anxiety throughout this book may produce a similar effect for you. This is not the title to pick up if you’re a reader who prefers a bit of optimism to soften a hard-hitting topic, as the book’s most effective trait is its ability to raise the reader’s level of concern in proportion with the world’s surface temperature.

What sets Weather apart from other climate change narratives (at least for me) is that it goes beyond trying to convince the reader that this phenomenon is indeed taking place and gives it a more interesting angle: if it is taking place, at the fault of humanity as a whole, what is the individual’s role going forward? Is there any productivity to be had in worrying about it, how does one person balance this problem with the more immediate demands of society, and how might she prepare for what comes next?

“My question for Will is: Does this feel like a country at peace or at war? I’m joking, sort of, but he answers seriously. / He says it feels the way it does just before it starts.”

In the end, though I loved the writing and the concept, Lizzie and her family narrative failed to interest me in Offill’s attempt at storytelling. There are many thematic and even a couple of stylistic similarities to Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport, a comparison which ultimately worked against me here because I was already biased toward Ducks (a problem that certainly won’t arise for all of Weather‘s readers, the difference in length falling clearly in Weather’s favor). This is in any case a well-written and worthwhile book, and while it didn’t manage to pull me in as much as I’d hoped, I’m glad to have read it and eager to see what others will make of its place on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’d be willing to read more of Offill’s work based on my experience with this book (my first dip into Offill’s writing), but I must say I’m not in a hurry. I don’t mind seeing this one on the longlist, but I do hope whichever title I manage to pick up next will excite me a bit more than this one did.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Women’s Prize 2020: Longlist Reaction

It’s been almost 24 hours since the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced, which means it’s time to share some thoughts and plans!

In case you missed it, here’s this year’s lineup:

Image result for women's prize longlist 2020

I’ve read two of the books so far: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, and Weather by Jenny Offill. I think they’re both worthy of the nomination.

I guessed five titles correctly in my prediction list, which isn’t bad for my first attempt at guessing! The titles I predicted correctly were: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.

The only title I hadn’t heard of from this list is Luan Goldie’s Nightingale Point; I had been hoping for two or three books that were new to me, but this one sounds appealing so I’m pleased with it!

Of the fourteen books I haven’t yet read, five were already on my TBR: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, Girl by Edna O’Brien, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. I was also already planning to read The Mirror and the Light, though technically only Wolf Hall, the first in Mantel’s trilogy, was actually on my TBR.

Notable snubs: I think there are quite a few actually, as there were so many great new titles coming out over the last year from authors who’ve been up for other prizes, been previous winners, shortlisters, even longlisters, and been the subject of much popular conversation among readers. That said, the biggest exclusions that I notice are Atwood’s The Testaments, which I’m actually happy not to see, though it won (jointly) the Booker Prize in 2019; as well as Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport and Choi’s Trust Exercise, two of the titles I’d read and loved in the last few months and was most hoping to see longlisted. My first thought on seeing the longlist was actually “Oh no, none of those are Ducks!” For the record, I highly recommend reading it anyway if you’re interested in picking up the best literary books by women published in the last year.

Other early thoughts: since I haven’t read many of the books and don’t like to know too much about them before diving in, I can’t speak to thematic or content patterns yet. I can say I’m a bit surprised to see so many commercial titles in the list, though perhaps I shouldn’t be? There are a number of titles here that I was interested in already but not planning to pick up in any hurry, because I wasn’t sure I’d like them or was in the mood for them at present. But overall, I’m not disappointed in this list! There’s nothing nominated that I feel strongly opposed to reading or seeing honored by the Women’s Prize. To be honest I probably wouldn’t have been reading any of these books this month if not for their placement here, but that also means I’ll be able to go in without many pre-formed biases or expectations. Even though most were on my radar already, they’re fresh content for the top of my TBR! There aren’t any that I’m absolutely dreading off the bat, though I am a bit wary about Fleishman is in Trouble, which is the only title here I think that I’ve seen several underwhelming reviews for. Otherwise I’m mainly just excited to have a fresh list of well-written books by women to dig into, and I think I’m in the right mental space to approach them all open-mindedly! It should be a good prize year!

My plans: I’m determined to read the full list. I’d love to finish it before the shortlist announcement (April 22), which I’m setting as my goal, but it’s certainly going to be a challenge. I’ve already placed library holds and bookshop orders for all of the titles I still need to read, so it’ll mainly be an issue of timing for me. I will be on vacation next week, which will mean a bit less reading for me in general, and also that the books I just ordered won’t be in my hands until I return, so I can’t start reading the list immediately. I do hope in the meantime to tackle my other TBR goals for this month before I can start the Women’s Prize list, so that once I’m ready to begin I can spend the latter half of this month and most of next month focusing solely on this list. If I don’t quite manage to complete the longlist before the shortlist announcement, I’ll continue anyway.

 

Some individual thoughts and plans by title:

41081373. sy475 Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

I’ve read and quite adored this book, though it wasn’t a perfect 5-star read for me. You can follow the link through the title to my review. I’d be happy to see this one shortlisted, even this early in the game.

What’s it about? – twelve British women (most of them black) reveal the struggles they’ve experienced as minorities often overlooked or frowned upon by society at large. It’s a celebration of largely unacknowledged histories and identities.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple LineDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

I’ve got a library hold on this title, though it’s currently checked out so I might not be reading it until April.

What’s it about? – Set in India, this mystery follows a group of friends searching for a missing classmate. What begins as amateur sleuthing turns more serious as other children disappear and rumors of djinns abound, speaking to real circumstances in India.

Excitement level: Looking forward to it!

Fleishman Is in TroubleFleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

A copy is already on its way to me. It’s the title I’m least looking forward to, so I’d like to “get it out of the way” within the month.

What’s it about? – A recently-divorced man settles into his new single life full of dates and one-night stands. Then his ex-wife goes missing.

Excitement level: Low. But I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised!

QueenieQueenie by Candice Carty-Williams

My copy will probably arrive while I’m gone next week. I was interested in this book before its nomination and I’d like to read it this month.

What’s it about? – A Jamaican British woman in her mid-twenties grapples for a place in London society, making questionable choices while trying to figure out where her life is headed.

Excitement level: Looking forward to it!

DominicanaDominicana by Angie Cruz

My copy will probably arrive while I’m gone next week. I’m expecting to read it in April.

What’s it about? – A teenaged Dominican girl agrees to a marriage and a move to New York. It’s a loveless match, but the US offers her attractive opportunities, including the possibility of helping her family immigrate.

Excitement level: Meh. I’m drawn to the premise and themes, but suspect the tone and style might not work for me, based on reviews I’ve seen.

ActressActress by Anne Enright

I’m third in line for this one at my library, and suspect I’ll get to it in early April.

What’s it about? – An Irish actress rises to and falls from fame, in the end committing a “bizarre” crime. Her daughter follows her career and stands by her side as long as she can, looking for happiness in her own passion projects.

Excitement level: Meh. I’m neither thrilled nor wary about this one, anything could happen here.

The Mirror & The Light The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

I’ve ordered the entire Cromwell trilogy (I’ve yet to read any of them) and am hoping to binge it all in time; just in case it’s not going to be possible, I’ll probably save this one for last, in mid-late April.

What’s it about? – The final years of historical figure Thomas Cromwell, beginning in 1536.

Excitement level: So excited! The size of these books is definitely a bit frightening in combination with the “deadline” for the end of this prize, but I do think I’ll love this trilogy!

Nightingale PointNightingale Point by Luan Goldie

My copy should be arriving mid/late March; I’m aiming to read it in April.

What’s it about? – Set in the 1990’s, something “extraordinary” changes everything in a single day for the residents of this micro community.

Excitement level: Looking forward to it! I’m confused but intrigued as to what this is actually about.

A Thousand ShipsA Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

My copy should be arriving mid/late March; I’m aiming to read it in April.

What’s it about? – The Trojan War retold entirely from female perspectives.

Excitement level: So excited! I just read previous WP winner Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which has put me right in the mood for more Greek mythology retellings!

How We DisappearedHow We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

My copy should be arriving mid/late March; I’m aiming to read it before the end of March.

What’s it about? – Set in historical Singapore, this is a dual narrative following a woman’s experience with the 1940s Japanese invasion and years later, a boy who hears an unexpected confession.

Excitement level: Meh. I was already interested in this title pre-longlist, but I’m afraid I’m not in the mood for WWII fiction at present. Hoping it’ll win me over anyway!

GirlGirl by Edna O’Brien

A copy is on its way to me; it’ll probably be one of the first longlist titles I read in March.

What’s it about? – Set in Nigeria, this is one woman’s tale of survival following the abduction and incarceration of women by Boko Haram.

Excitement level: Cautiosuly optimistic! This one was already on my TBR and I have high hopes. The suggestion that it’s a tale of faith and redemption makes me slightly wary though, I prefer hard-hitting fiction not to pull punches. But I don’t know yet which way this will go!

HamnetHamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

My copy probably won’t arrive until early April, so this will likely be one of the last longlisted books I read in mid/late April.

What’s it about? – Agnes and her husband (Shakespeare) lose a son in the 1590’s; what follows is a tale of grief and the writing of a play called Hamlet.

Excitement level: Looking forward to it!

WeatherWeather by Jenny Offill

I just read this last week! I have mixed thoughts, though I don’t mind it’s place on the longlist at all. Full review should be up later this week.

What’s it about? – A librarian spends her time trying to save everyone she knows, which becomes increasingly difficult as she begins answering mail for a friend’s podcast about climate change; as she worries that humanity is doomed, she’s left to wonder if there’s anything to be done at all, and whether the effort will be worth the time in the end.

Red at the BoneRed at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

A copy is on its way to me! The brevity is appealing, I’ll probably pick this one up as soon as I can.

What’s it about? – A generational family tale centered around a teen girl’s coming of age ceremony; an exploration of identity, parenthood, and long-lasting decisions people are forced to make, sometimes before they are ready.

Excitement level: Meh. I suspect this doesn’t have a lot of plot, and I’m not in the mood for parenthood stories at the moment. But I’ve heard great things and am hoping to be pleasantly surprised!

The Dutch HouseThe Dutch House by Ann Patchett

A copy is on its way to me! I’m aiming to read this one sometime in March.

What’s it about? – A pair of siblings must leave the house of their childhood to their stepmother, and return to the poverty that their parents crawled out of years before.

Excitement level: Looking forward to it! This will be my first Patchett novel, which is long overdue.

The Most Fun We Ever HadThe Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

A copy is on its way to me! I’m aiming to read this one before the end of March.

What’s it about? – A family saga featuring an abundantly happy marriage and the four drastically different daughters it produces. A long-buried secret shakes their perspective on love and their relationships with each other.

Excitement level: Cautiously optimistic. I can’t pinpoint what exactly calls to me about this novel, but I have a good feeling about it.

 

All in all, I’m predicting quite a few of these will fall in the 4-star range for me, though I am hoping for a few 5s! I’ve divided the 14 I have left to read into 7 to read in March and 7 for April (plus the rest of the Cromwell trilogy), which will be a slight push considering when I’ll be able to get started and the fact that the shortlist is announced before the end of April. But it seems possible! I’ll be catching up on end-of-February reviews this week and likely I’ll be absent most or all of next week; following that, you can expect plenty of Women’s Prize content from me!

Have you read any of the list already, or see anything you’re now more interested in picking up?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

 

Review: A Crime in the Neighborhood

The Women’s Prize for Fiction just announced yesterday that it’ll be promoting all past winners throughout 2020, culminating in a public vote for a “winner of the winners” in honor of the prize’s 25th year! (And if you’re curious about the history of the prize, definitely check out Rachel’s massively impressive FULL LIST of every title ever nominated!) I’m not confident about being able to read all of the past winners before the vote- there’s already so much I want to read this year. But earlier this month I did cross another past winner off of my list: Suzanne Berne’s A Crime in the Neighborhood…. one of my least favorite winners so far!

This is part of a group buddy read, so I’ll link the other reviews as they appear- here are Sarah’s thoughts!

acrimeintheneighborhoodIn the novel, adult Marsha looks back on the summer of 1972 (though some jacket copy erroneously touts that we’re looking at 1973). She was nine years old, living in a suburb of Washington D.C. Her parents were just splitting up, and a boy who lived nearby had been molested and killed in an empty lot behind the local shopping mall. Neighborhood residents could hardly believe it had happened on their safe little streets, and the possibility that the perpetrator might be one of the familiar faces living amongst them seemed absurd. But Marsha needed a project, so she took detailed notes of everything happening in the neighborhood that summer- until she believed she had found the murderer.

” ‘But I know he did it,’ I said, kicking the coffee table with my good foot.’ / ‘You don’t know,’ my mother said, folding her arms as she turned away and headed toward the staircase. ‘You only think you do.’ / ‘I do know.’ / ‘You only want to know. That’s all it is, Marsha,’ she said bitterly, turning back to me for a moment, her mouth a sharp line.”

A Crime in the Neighborhood wants so badly to be a mystery, though ultimately it fails to provide one. The reader may ask two questions based on the book’s premise- “Who killed Boyd?” is the first, and perhaps the one that mystery/thriller readers will be more interested in; unfortunately, it’s shunted aside early on as the focus shifts to Mr. Green, Marsha’s new neighbor, as her only suspect. In the end this is not actually the story of a mysterious murder, but an examination of Marsha’s nine year-old life and relationships, which limits how much of the murder case the reader is able to see. Despite the fact that Marsha is looking back on this event from many years later, we don’t see more of the murder investigation as a result of that distance- we only see Marsha realizing the extent of her own mistake. With the book framed this way, the second question of interest to the reader- “Did Mr. Green kill Boyd?” is answered early on, thanks to foreshadowing and a pervasive tone of regret in the narrative.

In place of a mystery, we’re left with a historical look at suburban America. Marsha’s is a “family neighborhood,” her parents’ divorce is a quiet scandal, gossip is rampant, and the children run free from block to block in the pre-cellphone era. Watergate is a hot topic.  Marsha is a nosy kid often left out by her older siblings; a broken foot this summer also holds her back, leaving her home alone with her notebook in order to record everyone’s comings and goings. Surely this aspect of the book is likely to attract some readers, though personally I wasn’t very interested. Somehow (despite not having been alive to witness it firsthand) I seem to have acquainted myself well enough with the white suburban 70s well enough already that I just didn’t take much from this experience.

Furthermore, I couldn’t seem to invest in any of these characters. Marsha’s dad is a weak and absent man, her mother held just far enough out of sight that she seems aloof and unreachable. The older siblings are, frankly, irrelevant. Marsha doesn’t have any meaningful friendships with other neighborhood kids, and no one liked Boyd while he was alive. Mr. Green is so shy and awkward that he almost seems to be sabotaging his own social life. Marsha herself is not particularly likable; she sees everything (or so she thinks) but does very little of import, and what she does accomplish doesn’t encourage much sympathy from the reader.

“Once I have lied, I’ve propelled myself into a story that has its own momentum. It’s not that I convince myself that I’m telling the truth, it’s that the truth becomes flexible. Or rather, the truth appears to me as utterly relative, which is a frightening thought but also inevitable if you examine any truth long enough, even reassuring in a cold way.”

I wonder if this story might have been more interesting from Marsha’s mother’s perspective. For me the most interesting part of this book was the implication that in her father’s sudden absence, Marsha dislikes Mr. Green primarily because her mother takes an interest in him. She misses her dad, and she doesn’t want to lose her parents’ attention. Whereas it takes Marsha years to understand the causes and consequences of her actions over this summer, her mother would likely have had a more immediate grasp of and emotional response to all of these events. For her, it may have come down to a difficult choice of deciding whether to side with her daughter or speak up for an innocent stranger, which could have supplied the novel with a lot more tension than Marsha’s belated contrition. I would’ve loved to see more of the mother’s personality and opinions here.

” ‘Ask for what you want,’ my mother has always prodded me. ‘Make your case. If you don’t get what you want, then at least it won’t be because nobody knew what you wanted.’ “

But despite my general dissatisfaction, I must say I did find this book very readable. Even though I wasn’t excited about the plot, I had no trouble picking the book up and committing to each of the chapters. The writing is rather plain and preoccupied with quotable morals, but I found it to be an easy read, which certainly cannot be said for all of the Women’s Prize winners. If accessibility is important to you, and you’re more interested in 70’s suburbia and the particular blindness of childhood, you might find A Crime in the Neighborhood a better fit!

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. This rating feels harsh, but I can’t help reading a prize-winning book with a more critical eye and higher expectations than I might otherwise. I didn’t hate this book and wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it, but I did unfortunately find it disappointing on pretty much every level. Better luck with the next winner, I hope!

 

The Literary Elephant