Tag Archives: literary fiction

Review: Trust Exercise

CW: abuse of mentorship roles, molestation, statutory rape

For my first read of the year, I chose the 2019 National Book Award winner, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise. Though it didn’t go at all the way I was expecting, it really impressed me by the end!

trustexerciseIn the novel, a group of teens attends an exclusive performing arts school in Texas, in the 1980’s. Two of them, a girl and a boy, skirt around each other in an angst-filled battle of wills in which they both want a relationship but express themselves in different ways, ultimately getting their wires crossed. The whole school, of course, is privy to the dramas of their unrequited love. In the midst of this emotional turmoil, the cool theater teacher, the one who was on Broadway, the one all the kids want to be friends with, makes a game of their stubborn pride. For good measure, a few British theater students with two infamous teachers of their own are thrown into the mix, and so proceeds a chaotic tale of inappropriate relationships built around inappropriate art. Years later, the students- now adults- settle into their lives, still fixated the mess of their high school experience.

The book is divided into three parts, each labelled simply, “Trust Exercise.” They’re very different pieces and each, in their own way, requires some trust from the reader.

The first section, which takes up about half of the novel, is set in the 80’s art school. We mainly follow the teen girl, but the perspective is 3rd person and reveals a bit of each of the main characters. The one thing that I thought I knew about this book going in- that it features a pervy teacher breaking up a teen relationship and possibly molesting the girl- isn’t really what I found here, which really threw me off. Instead, it’s a plotless slog about two teens who desperately want to be together and can’t seem to make it happen. The teacher does seem questionable, but he spends little time alone with the girl, and most of that she spends crying in front of him as he asks invasive questions. On top of that, he’s gay, meaning that any apparent manipulations seem like a mental game rather than anything sexual.

” ‘You wanted me to go after her and make her feel better, and tell her we were still best friends. And I did, even though I was lying. And now I have to keep lying because she thinks that we’re best friends again.’ / ‘What makes you think that’s what I wanted?’ / ‘Because you told me to go after her!’ / ‘Yes, but that’s all I told you to do. I didn’t tell you to make her feel better. I didn’t tell you to lie, and say the two of you were still friends.’ “

But there’s clearly plenty of unacceptable behavior taking place and it’s intellectually interesting, seeing all the ways in which these students don’t understand they’re being manipulated or taken advantage of. The people they see as mentors treat them not as children to respect as such, but as inexperienced adults who can sort through the fallout of their uninformed decisions in their own time. It should be a fascinating power study, but it’s diluted by the focus on the failed teen romance and ultimately, the whole section seems to go nowhere anyway, ending rather arbitrarily with nothing resolved or concluded. Add to this the fact that I didn’t care about any of the characters at this point and had no interest in the theater aspect, and you can begin to understand why wasn’t enjoying myself.

Then comes the second section. Here, years later, we follow a woman who previously seemed like a minor character as she turns the entire narrative on its head. We find out that she’s been reading a novel written by one of her old classmates, that the first part of Trust Exercise is actually the first part of this novel, and then we find out that many of the events and details from this fiction-within-fiction are clues or coverups hiding the truth of what really happened. Our narrator in this section speaks in the first person, but also speaks about herself in the 3rd person, going by the fake name given to her by the novelist classmate. This tactic gives us a bit of duality, showing two sides of a much more interesting character who shines a light on what’s already been read and paints it over in an entirely different color.

The meta elements here and the addition of some darker plot twists really turned things around for me. The use of 1st and 3rd person from the same character as well as the introduction of a play brings the acting aspect together. It truly becomes a story not of power imbalance alone but of sexual abuse, of long-term trauma, and of the men in high places who for so many years have gotten away with too much.

” ‘We were never children,’ he said.”

The third section, the shortest of all, gives the reader an interaction between two  characters, both clearly recognizable despite the fact that one has not been named up to this point, and the other bears a new name. There’s not much new information to be found here, and nothing that happens between them is particularly surprising, and yet it is a necessary ending that ties the rest of the story together. The perfect garnish that puts the right tone on the book’s content and makes its purpose apparent.

My time with this book was a roller coaster experience, from a slow, seemingly straightforward, uninteresting start, to an utterly engaging and emotionally taxing middle, to the smooth leveling off of the end. This should probably have rounded off to a 4-star book for me. It took me three days to get through the first half and I didn’t like it. The framework of the story felt unbalanced. Choi has a tendency of overwriting in places, belaboring the point and drawing out an idea into a page-long paragraph when a single sentence would have sufficed. One character’s excellent memory means we occasionally get full dictionary definitions (this is not an exaggeration) for individual words, including commentary on how each possible interpretation of the word applies. It’s easy to see how readers who find the writing more grating, or who aren’t as enraptured as I was with the shift in the second part of the book, might have a more disappointing experience.

And yet, despite its flaws, I was completely caught up in the ride. I loved the book’s examination of power and abuse, and how far it pursued these themes. I loved the artistry involved in the narrative style and structure. I loved the misdirection that left me doubting what should have been obvious. I loved how quickly and completely Choi was able to change my mind about what I had read. She took my sky-high expectations and dropped them low, then lifted them right back up again. I’m actually looking forward to rereading that boring first section with my fresh knowledge. For this, I’m marking Trust Exercise as a 5-star read. It’s a brutal little book that isn’t as it first appears and requires a bit of mental reconstruction to piece together. I didn’t love every moment of the experience, but when I closed the book and set it aside, the story remained stuck in my head and I’ve been carrying it around with me for days.

“Your life outside school isn’t any of his goddamn business. You know that, don’t you?”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I chose this book from my 2019 books I missed list, and I’m so glad I finally picked it up. It took a while to convince me, but it got there in the end. Despite the rocky start, this one is setting a high bar for my 2020 reading!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

CW: rape (off page), child molestation

I had such good intentions of wrapping up with the 2019 Booker longlist before the end of the year, but it’s not quite going to happen. Whoever had The Man Who Saw Everything checked out from my library kept it long past the due date, so I’ll save that read and my final Booker thoughts for 2020. But in the meantime, I did manage to finish Elif Shafak’s shortlisted 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, my 11th longlist read. Fortunately, I liked the story better than the (US) cover design!

10minutes38secondsinthisstrangeworldIn the novel, Tequila Leila finds herself dead in an Instanbul dumpster one fine morning. Her body is already decaying and she’s definitely dead, but for 10 minutes and 38 seconds her brain continues to function on the last dregs of oxygen left in her system. In those final moments of thought, she recalls her troubled childhood, her found family of eclectic friends in Istanbul, and the string of events on the night of her death. Later, when her body has been found and her fate reported in local news, her friends come together at the morgue in hopes of giving her a proper burial- something her family won’t do after she ran away from home and an arranged marriage, landing instead (not by choice) in a career of prostitution.

“She had heard all kinds of stories about brides who, on their wedding nights, had turned out not to be virgins- how their husbands marched them to hospitals for intimate examinations, their footsteps echoing emptily behind them across dark streets, neighbours peering out from behind lace curtains; how they were delivered back to their fathers’ houses, where they were punished in whatever way their families saw fit; how they could never fully become part of society again, humiliated and disgraced, a hollow cast to their youthful features…”

This book is divided into three parts. The first and longest is filled with alternating sections of Leila’s memories with family and friends, and of their personal histories. These chapters take up about 2/3 of the book. The second part focuses on present rather than past, told from the perspectives of each of Leila’s friends; it takes up most of the remaining page count. The final section, which describes Leila’s spirit leaving her body, needs only a few pages.

As many readers seem to, I vastly preferred the first section to either of the others. I was worried in the first pages that I wasn’t going to gel with the writing style (it tends toward overly extravagant prose, especially in those first pages), but once I fell into the rhythm after the opening scene I grew to appreciate Shafak’s skill with language and storytelling. Each of her characters is unique and fully imagined, thanks to the sidebar pieces about how they each came to live in Istanbul, and the descriptions of their respective relationships with Leila. There’s some wonderful LGBTQ+ rep among the cast, who are all outcasts of one sort or another. Shafak uses each character’s experience to paint a general picture of Turkish life, pinpointing on the marginalized outskirts of Turkish society. Through these men and women, we see how the country’s politics and customs have made life (and even death) unusually hard and unfair, for some more than others.

” ‘It’s like breaking horses,’ said one of the women. ‘That’s what they are doing to us. Once our spirits are broken, they know we won’t go anywhere.’ “

I picked up this book immediately after reading Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, the latter of which is set in the Balkans. It was such a challenge for me while reading Obreht’s book to gain a clear picture of the political atmosphere there, the historical and cultural details feeling vague and hard for me to pin down in context within the novel. Interestingly, Shafak actually cleared up a lot of my lingering confusion from Obreht’s book; with northwest Turkey (including Istanbul) being very near the Balkans, some traditions and cultural details- especially relating to death- overlapped. In this way, Shafak managed to to resolve a lot of the lingering confusion from my previous read, as well as to provide an incredibly detailed picture of everyday life in Turkey; she captures the feel and tone of her setting in a way that no other book I’ve read in months has managed to accomplish. If you’re looking for fiction that depicts this part of the world in all its gritty detail, look no further.

“The Istanbul Leila had known was not the Istanbul that the Ministry of Tourism would have wanted foreigners to see.”

I also complained recently about how the separate plots in the vignettes of Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other didn’t entirely work for me as part of a larger whole, but somehow Shafak’s similar structure in the first portion of 10 Minutes seemed significantly more effective. The reader is told rather than shown how Leila’s thoughts are deteriorating as her final ten minutes pass, and there’s not much overarching plot in this portion of the novel- each chapter shows another piece of Leila’s life, though her life is firmly in the past and we see very little of what happens to her from her own perspective after she’s placed in the dumpster. And yet there’s a constant sense that the narration is building up to something (Leila’s death), bringing it closer with every turn of the story, which gives the book plenty of momentum before we even come close to Leila’s final moments.

Unfortunately, the plottier second part of the book actually looses some of the earlier magic. The focus shifts away from Leila’s consciousness and toward her physical body, as her friends try to give her a proper burial. Though the Cemetery of the Companionless is a dismal, fascinating place to read about and Leila’s friends embark on an (illegal) adventure in their effort to do right by her, I found this part of the book far less gripping. The focus narrows from a broad view of Istanbul’s social issues to the treatment of its dead- especially its unclaimed and/or disrespected dead. Though an interesting topic indeed, it feels much more drawn-out and transparent in intent than Leila’s flashbacks. To me, Leila’s friends are more interesting for the glimpses they provide into greater Turkish strife than they are as actual characters- seeing them cry and drink over their friend’s death simply does not evoke as great an emotional response as seeing them worn down by harsh laws and prejudices.

“In just a few months’ time, with no marker or stone, the woman’s grave would fully blend in with its surroundings. In less than a decade, no one would be able to locate her whereabouts. She would become yet another number in the Cemetery of the Companionless, yet another pitiable soul whose life echoes the opening of every Anatolian tale: Once there was, once there wasn’t…”

The final section, though it provides some beautiful imagery and essentially ties the other two parts of the book together, adds little of import to the story and feels more like a pretty afterthought to tie loose ends than an impactful conclusion.

If the entire book had been written as in the first section, especially with a bit more stylistic liberty to express Leila’s deteriorating mental state, this would easily have been a 5-star read for me. Fortunately the last two sections are small enough that even though they detracted from the earlier experience for me, I finished with them before I could forget how captivated I had been with the first part of the novel. Though the story is not without its flaws, there are some great lines throughout this book, important themes of equality and justice, and a cultural education for those (like me) who aren’t very familiar with Turkey. It’s a brave exploration of the ways in which people have been overlooked and shunted aside in a society that isn’t willing to bend, and an attempt to honor those  fated to be forgotten.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. The mixed reviews and unfortunate US cover almost convinced me to skip this one, but I am glad I picked it up in the end. It wasn’t my favorite title from the shortlist, but I one I appreciated nevertheless. I might pick up more of Shafak’s work at some point, and I’ll be wrapping up with the 2019 Booker longlist soon.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Girl, Woman, Other

I’ve finally read the second winner of the 2019 Booker Prize: Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman Other! (Second only in that I happened to read them in this order.) Fortunately, this one went much better for me than Atwood’s The Testaments did.

girl, woman, otherIn the novel, twelve lives overlap in Britain. Most of these are women, most are black, all are unique. At the after party of a ground-breaking play’s opening night in London, through quiet conversations and seemingly ordinary encounters, twelve stories quietly intersect. Between the introduction to the play and gathering afterward, the reader follows each character through a vignette-like study of their history and experiences; we follow these people through history and around the world, ultimately seeing them come together around the central play. Rather than simplifying these perspectives by collecting them together, Evaristo shows how one scene can be filled with many perspectives, each as vital as the next.

“Megan was part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, and part English

which felt weird when you broke it down like that because essentially she was just a complete human being…”

I want to start off here by saying that I found Girl, Woman, Other a worthy Booker winner, since that was the context in which I read it. If you read only one Booker winner this year, I highly recommend choosing this one, though of course Atwood’s novel certainly has its audience as well. I haven’t read the entire shortlist yet (4 and 1/2 out of 6), so it’s perhaps unfair to pick favorites at this point, but the clear standout for me is still Ducks, Newburyport. It’s inventive and captivating in a way nothing else on the shortlist comes close to in my opinion, which (sadly) includes Girl, Woman, Other. That said, I don’t begrudge Girl, Woman, Other its win. For one thing, I can understand that readers who only pick up the Booker winner(s) because of their win are more likely to actually read Evaristo’s novel whereas they might give a 1k-pager like Ellmann’s a pass for its sheer (and not totally necessary) size. Girl, Woman, Other uses an interesting format, covers timely topics, and is undeniably readable. It strives to challenge outdated and uninformed views, to give voice to minorities, and to promote equality- all important things to put in readers’ hands.

“maybe that was the point, a completely gender-free world, or was that a naïve utopian dream?”

What I liked:

  • Girl, Woman, Other is compulsively readable in its twelve bite-sized pieces. Averaging around 30 pages each, every chapter is its own adventure, each focusing on a different character. There are some obvious connections between them throughout the book, particularly within the sets of 3 that the chapters are sorted into, but each section is distinct and more or less complete in itself (though this is definitely a novel, not a set of connected short stories- reading any of them as a standalone would not have the proper effect).
  • The writing style uses spacing to connect and divide ideas rather than abiding by proper punctuation rules. There are no periods, capitalization is restricted to proper nouns, and yet it’s still clear where the sentences are. Evaristo uses commas and indentations to mark breaths/breaks and changes of subject in a way that feels simultaneously comfortable and artistic, and lends the story its own rhythm.
  • The representation is phenomenal. By featuring so many women, so many black characters, such a range of genders and sexualities, Evaristo really highlights a side (or many sides) of Britain that gets overlooked and/or dismissed. She gives the spotlight to people who are told (or shown) that they don’t belong in Britain or are treated as outsiders, demonstrating that these, too, are undoubtedly a part of Britain’s lifeblood and just as worthy of being heard.

“…it’s crazy that people are so stupid to think over one and a half billion Muslims all think and act the same way, a Muslim man carries out a mass shooting or blows people up and he’s called a terrorist, a white man does the exact same thing and he’s called a madman…”

What I didn’t like:

  • Because Girl, Woman, Other features so very many diverse characters, there are a few times when it feels like the narration is just checking minority boxes. For instance, we get full details on all of Yazz’s (diverse) college friends, even though they’re only really there to prove how “woke” Yazz is. Later on, as Morgan realizes they’re gender free, they makes a friend who gives them the rundown on the LGBTQ+ community; this friend explains all the options for gender identities, explaining what’s wrong with the “gender binary” view and what is or isn’t appropriate to say, in an obvious attempt at educating the reader. Moments like these just felt like Evaristo was maybe trying to tackle too many issues in one go for each of them to feel natural and convincing in the overarching story.
  • With the focus on all these various personalities, the plot takes a backseat. Though Amma’s play loosely ties everyone together, it doesn’t include much in the way of tension or climax or anything I would normally associate with “plot.” Instead, each of the chapters flashes back and makes its own plot out of every character’s life. In about 30 pages, we essentially follow each main character (all narrated in the third person and referred to by name, which helps avoid confusion) through their entire life story. This can become repetitive despite the characters’ disparate experiences because essentially it means we’re getting twelve similar trajectories in which each character faces repression or exclusion from a predominately white society, and then this character comes of age, overcomes adversity, finds a way to live another day. None of these threads are quite “resolved,” since the social issues at hand are mostly still ongoing, but they do follow a pattern nonetheless. Additionally, because these vignettes are often presented as retrospective, we generally know some key information beforehand about where the character will end up, which decreases the tension. Though I loved the connections between the characters, those moments alone didn’t provide the book with much momentum.

But, despite this not being my favorite story, I enjoyed the read and I love what this book is doing- giving voice to a lot of people who haven’t had a fair audience. It’s an important read and an accessible winner that (in my opinion) offers more substance than it’s co-winner, The Testaments. I think with the caveat of wanting you to know going in that’s it’s not the most plotty and is blatantly trying to expand your worldview sometimes at the cost of the entertainment factor, this is one of those books that I really would recommend to basically everyone. I would not recommend Ducks, Newburyport that widely, so in the end, I’m happy with this win!

“she watches the stream of people crossing the bridge this morning, most of whom are more engaged with their phones, taking selfies, tourist pics, posting, texting, than actually taking in the views either side of the bridge

people have to share everything they do these days, from meals, to nights out, to selfies of themselves half naked in a mirror

the border between public and private are dissolving”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not in a rush to read more from Evaristo, though I wouldn’t count it out at this point. I’ll be interested to see what she publishes next, for sure. In any case, I’m very glad to have read this one and I can see myself recommending it often and eventually rereading. Not at all a waste of my time, though waiting for it to win the Booker perhaps put a bit more pressure on it for me than if I had read it earlier.

(I’ll probably post some sort of final 2019 Booker Prize overview either this month or next when I get through the last two titles I’m planning to read (for now). At that point I will have read 12/13 of the longlisted books, and I’d like to talk final thoughts on each of the books and on the shortlist and prize results before I cap off my 2019 Booker experience.)

Are there any 2019 Booker nominees you’re still planning to read before next year’s prize?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Ducks, Newburyport

Lucy Ellman‘s 1,030-page novel, Ducks, Newburyport, was my 9th read from the Booker longlist, and my 3rd from the shortlist. Sadly, Ducks was not one of this year’s two Booker Prize winners, but I think it’s an incredible book fully worth the read anyway, so with any luck I’ll be able to convince you with this review, despite the length! (Fair warning: this review is long too.)

ducks,newburyportIn the novel, an unnamed woman baking pies and living with her family in Ohio shares her thoughts in a continuous mental outpouring that covers the events of her life over a couple of months. As most people are, she’s both unique and ordinary, set apart by a string of distinct circumstances but also incredibly relatable in many of her observations and opinions. Through this woman, we see what it’s like to be a mother of four, in a second marriage, working from home, worrying about the state of the world and its future, and most importantly, just trying to survive in 2019 America.

“…the fact that I think a lot of people think all I think about is pie, when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelizing and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiraling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else, twinge, bad back,”

The greatest obstacle, I think, in encouraging readers to pick up this masterpiece of a novel, is its size, combined with it’s run-on sentence structure, so I’m going to focus on addressing those aspects.

Ducks, Newburyport contains two alternating parts: one of them is indeed a single run-on sentence that begins on page 2 and does not contain any periods or paragraph breaks until page 988 (the end of the story in my copy- there’s some extra material at the back including a glossary of abbreviations, which is very useful!!). There is a 30-page stretch in the middle of the book where the narrator’s thoughts become verse-like, but even this segment is contained within the same single sentence without a change in voice or tone. Instead of full stops, there are commas aplenty, and the phrase “the fact that” marks the start of a new thought. (This phrase acts like the word “STOP” in old telegrams to mark the end of one sentence and beginning of the next, and once this structure becomes clear, the repeated words themselves fade into the background.) The sentence as a whole, and many of the individual phrases, do not necessarily make grammatical sense, but the style doesn’t leave the reader stumbling over meaning. The effect- that an entire life presents as one unending thought process- is worth it. In this all-encompassing sentence we see: statements, questions, statistics, quotations, lyrics, acronyms, names, individual words, numbers, and more. There are some lengthy movie spoilers in this running commentary (mainly for musicals and black-and-white classics that you’ve probably either already seen or aren’t going to). Additionally, the Little House on the Prairie series is as close as this woman has to a religious text, so you’ll fare well if you have some prior knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder, though it’s not essential to be an expert going in. All told, this main sentence is a wide mix of almost every subject and emotion imaginable.

The other component of this novel is a third-person omniscient narrative of a mountain lioness’s adventures and tribulations. These sections are properly punctuated, interrupting the Ohio housewife’s inner chatter every 50 pages or so and lasting no more than 2 pages each. The two storylines eventually overlap in content, and in the meantime often overlap thematically with observations on motherhood, animal nature, human impact upon the environment, etc. I wasn’t expecting to, but ended up loving these segments as much as the human element.

“Through her own extreme caution, she conveyed to the cubs that men are more dangerous than they look. They killed with ease, and didn’t even eat their prey. They plundered, lay waste, then abruptly retreated to their cars. They were not the true inhabitants of the forest, they were usurpers, dangerous visitors who roughly invaded the territory of others. They did not respect lions.”

Between the mountain lioness breaks and the use of “the fact that,” it’s easy to put this book down and pick it back up again without feeling too in-the-midst, though the continuous nature of the stream-of-consciousness narration flows beautifully from one thought to the next. Some thoughts seem to do little in the way of characterization or moving the plot, reading more like free-association lists, but many of these “random” sets of words offer interesting juxtapositions that are a sort of commentary in themselves, and still other groupings seem meaningless at first but are later explained. The narrator’s thoughts circle back to the things that are most important to her, and with time and repetition we gain further insight. For this reason, I think this would be an excellent book to reread, as words and phrases that are at first innocuous pick up significance along the way. It’s a book of many layers. Ellmann spent 7 years assembling this marvelous creation, and it shows.

So what is it about, you’re probably wondering by this point. There is a plot, but it’s best not to know the specifics before they are slowly revealed over the course of the novel. Essentially, it’s a story of motherhood and violence in Trump’s America. This is a mom working to make ends meet, in hopes of being able to afford to send her kids to college when the time comes. Baking has become a rote activity, so she she spends her days worrying about what she sees in the news and wondering whether her own family is safe. Among her thoughts are disturbing headlines and details of American crimes and tragedies, often involving shootings and deaths. Some of these can be hard to read, especially when strung together, and her anxiety honestly gave me a bit of anxiety as well, which leads me to believe this might be a difficult read for anyone who avoids  grisly stories in the news or is actively worrying about their own children’s safety already. There are some real gut-punches here.

“…the fact that I pretend to be coping, like all the other moms do too, but I think we all live in terror that some school shooter will line our kids up one day and make them beg for their lives,”

The political content is certainly timely and engaging, but most of these opinion bits stand independent of the plot and chronology; the parts of the book that gripped me the most were the pages that included specific events that provided an anchor to the narrator’s weaving thoughts. This book is  ingenious for the way that it plays the long game- with such a surplus of detail, the biggest hints of what’s to come hide in plain sight; it’s fascinating on the surface, but you have to wonder if it’s going anywhere. (Let me assure you that it is.) In scenes that play a shorter game, the narration is more immediately focused, with a common thread grounding our narrator’s thoughts. For instance, there’s a scene where the family is stranded at the local mall during a flash flood, and though the narrator’s thoughts continue to wander, the disaster at hand gives her train of thought something to come back to and allows the reader to feel that the story really is moving in some particular direction.

“…the fact that America’s not a safe place for a girl, the fact that nobody’s safe in America,”

And now, let’s look directly at the book’s length. At the end of the day, I think Ellmann wrote Ducks, Newburyport as a thousand-page book because the idea of a book this long primarily featuring one housewife’s thoughts in a single meandering sentence is a highly intriguing one. It catches attention. It says women’s thoughts and experiences are important, even if the woman in question is a stay-at-home mom who bakes pie and rehashes her regrets and frets about the world without acting upon those worries. It’s absolutely stunning, conceptually. In actuality, I think Ellmann could’ve covered the same topics and themes to near or equal effect in about half the length. My biggest hang-up with this book is that it just doesn’t feel necessary for it to be quite this long, though I don’t think it ever could have succeeded as a short book- it does cover a lot of worthwhile ground, and the way it circles around its topics and doubles back at them hundreds of pages later (don’t worry- Ellmann makes sure you’ll remember what you need to) is a big part of what makes this so impressive. So even though I don’t think all 1,030 pages are strictly crucial to the overall story and purpose, somehow they work. I was never bored while reading. I never wished for fewer pages. So little is happening at some points, and yet I loved reading it every time I picked it up. It frustrates me that readers will avoid this book because of its length, when it could easily have been shorter.

Though there’s certainly a bit of fluff (a whole page of creek names that didn’t do anything for me, for example), so many of the words and phrases at play are clearly chosen with care. Ellmann can string two words together (for example, “ducks, Newburyport,”) that hold no meaning for the reader the first three times they appear; hundreds of pages later, we find out why they’re significant to this narrator, and their emotional significance to her then colors each context in which they appear. As many of our thought-tracks likely do, this narrator’s inner chatter is built of its own syntax. But despite the impression of impeccable literary construction, this book read like the most authentic stream of consciousness I’ve ever encountered.

Relatedly, I was able to forgive many of the small complaints I had about this narrator’s quirks because they felt like such organic offshoots of her personality. I didn’t always like reading about this woman’s nonsensical dreams, her constant remembrances of “Mommy,” her embarrassment every time the word “cock” crossed her mind, or her frequent self-corrections; but each of these annoyances felt like the little things that start to bother you when you’re living with someone new, for instance. No one’s perfect, and when you live with someone you get to know their small undesirable traits. Inhabiting this woman’s mind for 988 pages felt like that- nothing worth moving out over, but we’re bound to have our differences. And because I was able to rationalize most of my (very few) dislikes about Ducks, Newburyport in this way, they actually turned out to be additional reasons I thought Ellmann’s writing was effective; she absolutely brings this woman and all of her concerns to life- flaws included.

“…the fact that, personally, I think we underestimate dangers, the fact that we have to maybe, because it’s not practical to think about them all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, it’s just that fear gets in the way when you got stuff to do, when you’re living on the edge,”

In the end, I think the patience required for the length poses the greatest challenge here. The prose is readable and engrossing, the arguments and themes stand fairly obvious, and our narrator really feels like an everywoman, at least in her general attitude. I think readers will know early on whether the style of this novel is going to work for them or not, and if it is, and you have a reasonable amount of stamina, enjoyability and sheer momentum are likely to outweigh the challenge of sticking with it, in my opinion. If you appreciate literary fiction and are interested in the current mental state of America, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

“…the fact that you’ll never know what sort of person you might have been if you’d read different stuff,”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had such a fantastic time reading this novel that it’s turned out to be one of my highlights of the year. Obviously I’ve nitpicked a few things, but they felt like small potatoes compared to my appreciation of the work as a whole. I think this would’ve made an excellent Booker winner, but I haven’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, and am holding out hope that I’ll find that one worthy of the win when I pick it up soon as well. I’m also curious to try more of Ellmann’s work in the future.

Are you considering reading Ducks?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: A Spell of Winter

CW: rape, incest, parental abandonment, animal (horse) injury, death of loved ones, abortion

My journey through the Women’s Prize winners list continued this month with Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, my first Dunmore read and the very first novel to win the Women’s Prize (back when it was called the Orange Prize). I buddy read this one with some amazing bloggers, and suggest you check out their reviews as well! Here are the links for: Callum, Rachel, Naty, Sarah (review pending) and Hannah (review pending – I’ll update these links as reviews appear)!

aspellofwinterIn the novel, Cathy narrates the story of her upbringing in a remote part of England on the cusp of WWI. Her family is falling apart as fast as the manor they live in, leaving Cathy and her brother Rob to parse rumors and secrets for the truth of their missing parents. Raised by an emotionally distant grandfather with particular ideas for their futures and by overly-involved house staff, Cathy and Rob form a close bond- perhaps too close- that causes further emotional fracturing as the two finally reach adulthood and gain a wider sense of the world than they had ever known in the manor. It’s a tragic tale of the lasting effects one person’s actions can have on another, and of coming of age in a rapidly changing world.

“My grandfather had turned my parents into shadows, and, as far as I knew, everybody had agreed to it.”

Despite the word “winter” in the title, this is an excellent book to reach for at the height of spooky season (it would also be great for winter, of course). Much of the book has a very Gothic feel- it’s not a high-tension mystery or supernatural fright fest, so don’t enter this one expecting Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson. Though so many of the details are eerie and unusual, its a fairly straightforward story of one girl’s quest for adulthood. That said, the element that I enjoyed the most was the atmospheric Gothic touch that turns nearly everything from Cathy’s childhood slightly sinister.

” ‘A pity there hasn’t been a death in the family,’ said Kate. ‘With your skin you’d look like a queen in black.’ “

There’s some truly devastating content here, and I had to put the book down a few times to let my emotions catch up with me- usually I’m an embarrassingly cold reader and not particularly affected by fictional details, so this response is a standout; I was completely captivated by these characters and their situation. Cathy’s grandfather comes from no one and nothing, and is focused on building a home and legacy for the future generations of his family. Cathy’s mother doesn’t feel she fits in this dream and runs away- alone. Her father is so distraught that he’s eventually admitted to a sanatorium as a mental patient. Her brother is the only one who really understands what her life has been like, and keeps her close. Her governess takes pity on pretty, almost-orphaned Cathy and loves her nearly to the point of obsession. Kate, the young woman who attends to both children and the house’s upkeep (among other household staff), is dedicated to her duties but longs for a life of her own in which she’s entitled to more than a leaking attic bedroom. No one means Cathy ill, and their own motives are generally good and reasonable, but the girl is deeply hurt by all of them. Dunmore presents the reader with a masterpiece of characterization full of human intrigue and desperation, and this is the area in which she succeeds without question.

“I wonder sometimes, if it’s the people themselves who keep you company, or the idea of the them. The idea you have of them.”

I found myself less enthusiastic about the ending of the novel. Though the entire book was a very quick and engrossing read for me, there’s a definite shift in the last third or so of the novel when the war finally comes into play that made the structure of the book start to fall apart for me. To some degree, this might be down to no more than a pacing issue, but it led to a lot of confusion on my part of what this book was aiming to do. Is it a war story? I’m still not sure, though I think not. It’s hard to relegate such an important world event that clearly impacted these characters immensely to a mere chapter in their lives, but I do wonder whether the backdrop of this particular time period actually adds anything to the story. It certainly adds more tragedy to Cathy’s life, and the time period explains certain habits / ways of life at the manor, but I would argue that it doesn’t change Cathy’s relationships with any of the main characters, which in my opinion is the central focus of this story. Thus, I couldn’t quite appreciate the tonal shift.

I also thought the book’s ending chapter somewhat anticlimactic; the final scenes depict the first time Cathy is able to make reasonably informed decisions in her own interest, and seeing convictions from her younger years overturned is a victory in itself, but I found the ease with which she makes those choices and the apparent lack of conflict in following them through rather bizarre. It also seemed surprisingly emotionless after the string of heart-wrenching tragedies leading up to it. It wasn’t, for me, a satisfactory conclusion, though I felt the book a worthwhile read regardless, and enjoyed engaging with its themes.

“Abandoning, betraying, powerful, she had filled our dreams as she would never have done if we’d had her living presence. They were confused dreams from which I woke with an ache of guilt. I hadn’t loved her enough. If I had loved her more, she would never have gone. I had saved half my bar of nougat for her but then I had eaten it.”

All told, I would say this is an excellent choice of literature if you’re looking for something dark and bleak that examines a childhood without parental guidance and affection, forbidden love, familial obligations, and a life of seclusion. Dunmore’s writing is both flowing and haunting, easy to read but also determined to crawl under the reader’s skin. The synopsis on the cover (and on Goodreads) offers little in the way of what to expect, and I can see where not knowing what you’re getting into here could lead to less than favorable experiences for some readers, though the right audience will find this a gorgeous (if grim) book. It’s a tricky title to recommend, so I won’t be pushing this one on anyone, but I do hope that those interested enough to pick up A Spell of Winter will find as much to appreciate in its pages as I did.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a very difficult book to describe, and a difficult story to explain my reaction to, so I’m not sure I’ve done it any justice. Dunmore is clearly a skilled writer (I look forward to reading more of her work, though I haven’t had a chance to thumb through her backlist yet and pick out a follow-up; feel free to recommend any of her titles!), and I think this was a deserving book to take the first Women’s Prize win. (I look forward to reading more past winners as well!). It’s hard to say I enjoyed the read when most of it was really very sad, but… I absolutely did.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Testaments

At long last, after years of thinking of The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand-alone novel, after months of anticipation for its sudden sequel, after days of reading delays and blogging delays (oops), it’s time to talk about Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I won’t spoil anything from either book, but I’m going to assume that if you’re here, you’ve probably read The Handmaid’s Tale or at least have some idea of what it’s about.

I read this out of my own interest in Atwood’s writing and her portrayal of Gilead, but it was also No. 8/13 on the Booker Prize longlist for me, and 2/6 on the shortlist.

thetestamentsIn the novel, fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia secretly pens an account of the horrifying trials she faced during the birth of Gilead, the questionable choices she made from her position of leadership in the aftermath, and her own solution to the problem of female oppression in the former United States. Interwoven with her narrative are the testimonies of two girls experiencing major life changes at that same time- one who grew up in Gilead under the Aunts’ teachings, and one raised in Canada amidst protests and outrage for conditions across the border. These threads, of course, weave together with time.

“Gilead is a slippery place: accidents happen frequently. Someone has already written my funeral eulogy, it goes without saying. I shiver: whose feet are walking on my grave?”

It’s finally happened: I’ve actually disliked a Margaret Atwood book. But before I get into the negatives, I’d like to say that I do think The Handmaid’s Tale is well worth the read even for those who choose to opt out of picking up this sequel, and also that I think this is a book that will work better for many readers than it did for me. Should you read The Testaments? Picture it this way:

The end of The Handmaid’s Tale is a door slammed shut. The narrative ends at a crucial moment that is either very good or very bad for the main character, but before telling us which, Atwood locks that door and walks away, with the truth standing on one side and the reader stuck firmly on the other, left to decide for themselves where the story goes next. Surprisingly, The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel gives the reader a foothold, propping that door open just enough to offer certain implications, certain glimpses, into What Happens Next. There’s a big nod in The Testaments to the graphic novel’s final sequence. But ultimately, The Testaments throws that closed door wide open. Whether you’ll appreciate this sequel largely depends on whether you’re a reader who enjoyed imagining your own final solution when that door slammed, or whether you’re a reader with a lot of burning questions, pounding your fists on the door and wanting nothing left to uncertainty. It’s a choice each reader will have to make for themselves, rather than a flat verdict.

Because while The Testaments follows three new perspectives, we do find out here what happened to Offred.  Not every step of the rest of her life, but the general outline. This is going to satisfy a lot of curious readers, and alienate others.

Another divisive element is the fact that The Testaments is very much a book of its time. Where The Handmaid’s Tale is meant to horrify and frighten, its sequel is meant to empower and uplift. It’s not a book full of sunshine and happiness, but it tends toward female hope and perseverance in a way that its predecessor doesn’t. If this sounds like a tonal shift that interests you, odds are you’ll probably enjoy this more than I did.

But while I think opinions on whether this is a “good” sequel are going to vary wildly person to person, I think an argument can certainly be made that The Testaments is not Atwood’s best book. There are undeniably moments of brilliance in the writing, and Aunt Lydia is such a complex and intriguing character. I actually kept picturing her as Margaret Atwood while reading, though I think that has more to do with the fact that Aunt Lydia was the only character here who felt like she could have been a real person to me than any actual personality similarities (I do not know Atwood personally, obviously). For me, the pros ended there.

The cons were numerous. First, though there were some great lines, more often it felt like Atwood had lost all faith in her readers being able to pull meaning from her writing. Details are spelled out at an excruciating level:

“We joined a herd of other women: I describe it as a herd because we were being herded.”

“They were supposed to teach us how to act as mistresses of high-ranking households. I say “act” in a dual sense: we were to be actresses on the stages of our future houses.”

This lack of subtlety is not limited to the writing style itself; where The Handmaid’s Tale allows small plot details to speak for much larger problems in Gilead, The Testaments foreshadows it’s action-packed plot to such an extent that absolutely every major event and revelation actually feels anticlimactic. Additionally, the plot itself is such a standard dystopian arc that even without hints it would likely feel utterly predictable for anyone familiar with the genre, and everything comes so conveniently, impossibly easy to our heroines that I found it failed to even entertain at a basic level. Daisy and Agnes, the two younger perspectives, seem completely contrived and practically lifeless in the way that they react (or fail to react) to deaths, difficult tasks, and having their lives upturned. The format of the novel requires these women to look back on their experiences from some future point, but there’s no real attempt made at reflection, leaving even the structure feeling arbitrary and unrealized. Where is the crafting expertise Atwood utilized in The Blind Assassin? Where is the wacky, compelling plotting from The Heart Goes Last? Where is the care with which she created a new story from a beloved classic as in Hag-Seed? None of those skills seem to have carried over into The Testaments.

But you can take those opinions with a grain of salt, as many readers do seem to be loving this return to Gilead, or at least finding it wildly entertaining. Something that bothers me more than plot or characters, (something that I began to address in my review of The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel based on its ending, which was built upon in The Testaments), is the way that this change of direction from The Handmaid’s Tale even seems to subvert the original message of that book. The Handmaid’s Tale is cautionary- it’s meant to alarm readers into considering what might happen if we grow too complacent (this is aside from the fact that the details of The Handmaid’s Tale come from real problems women have already faced or are facing elsewhere in the world, but that’s another matter); The Testaments, with all its hope, says, “there’s no need to worry, even if things go wrong everything will turn out all right in the end.” It’s a comforting theme, maybe an inspiring one in some circumstances, but it seems to speak directly against the “let’s not let this happen in the first place” spirit of that first novel. Gone is the outrage that these circumstances might affect even one woman- in fact, outrage isn’t much of a factor in this novel at all. The optimism of its final chapter may even suggest that we might benefit from our world going so awry, because it would give us the opportunity to rebuild a country that seems already cracked and broken. Politically, it’s a perfect fit for 2019, and probably has something better to say about the ultimate fate of female oppression than The Handmaid’s Tale, but for me the message here just wasn’t as strong and didn’t quite ring true as a answer to the brilliant novel that precedes it.

Though this worked as neither a sequel nor a story in its own right for me, I’m not entirely mystified by the fact that it is having more success among other readers. Atwood is a big name in the publishing world for a reason, and The Testaments is not entirely devoid of merit. It is never my intent when I write a negative review to scare off interested readers, and I didn’t find this to be in any way an offensive book- just a book that completely failed to live up to its potential. I hope that it won’t win the Booker Prize next month… but I also hope that if you’re picking this one up, you have more fun with it than I did. Every book deserves to find its audience.

“Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to think that I would’ve been against any possible sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, despite my appreciation for its ambiguous ending, but this really wasn’t it for me. I’m not surprised at its commercial success so far, but I am a bit surprised it’s doing so well with the Booker judges. If by some chance this book wins, I will believe to the end of my days that it passed on the strength of the original novel that should have been worthy of a Booker win, rather than on its own substance. But I suppose I should close before I get any more petty. I’m glad I gave this one a chance, but sad that it didn’t live up to expectations. Maybe next time, Atwood.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Booker Prize Shortlist 2019

The Booker Prize shortlist was announced earlier today, so this seems like a good time to check in with my progress and plans for the rest of the Prize this year.

As soon as I saw the 2019 longlist I knew I probably wouldn’t be reading all thirteen books this year, so I’ve been taking it easy. That said, I do have a lot of fun chatting with the book community about the nominated books, and eventually I want to read the entire Booker longlist “on time,” i.e. before the shortlist announcement, so it seemed like good practice to read at least a few of this year’s nominees.

At this point, I’ve now read:

  1. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – a fun spoof of a slasher thriller with an excellent sister dynamic and a strong undercurrent of feminist commentary. It’s short and readable but also offers some substance to sink the teeth into. Not an all-time favorite for me, but even so, 5 stars.
  2. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – a dense book that perhaps takes itself too seriously at times, but ultimately offers a unique road trip story and a fresh perspective on the current border crisis in the southern US. I didn’t love every moment of my experience with this one, but it left a strong impression. 4 stars.
  3. Lanny by Max Porter – a dream-like story full of magic and experimental writing. The various parts of this book are very distinct from each other, and some of them seem stronger than others. Nevertheless, an interesting concept and an engaging read. 4 stars.
  4. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – a brief look into the troubled lives of two Irish criminals. I found the prose evocative and exquisite, though the story itself didn’t quite live up to the strength of the premise. 3 stars.
  5. An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma – an intriguing concept of injustice in Nigeria that was for me completely muddied by poor characterization and an ineffectual attempt at connecting the story to Homer’s The Odyssey. Though I thought Obioma had an excellent idea with this one, the execution fell completely flat for me. 2 stars.
  6. Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson – a superb exploration and continuation of themes from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This book lays an extremely readable fictionalization of Mary’s life alongside a modern retelling that speculates on the future of AI and includes a strong non-binary character. I loved every single page. 5 stars.
  7. The Wall by John Lanchester (full review forthcoming) – a quick dystopian read that pits natives against “Others” in a world that has survived a disastrous climate change. Though an intriguing concept, I found the plot and themes predictable and unexciting. Though not a problematic book, a sadly underwhelming one. 2 stars.

bookerprize2019

I chose these seven books to read (well, five, as I’d read two of them prior to the longlist announcement) primarily because they were the only titles readily available to me. I had to purchase two of them from Book Depository (so few of the longlisted books were published in the US at the time of the longlist announcement!) but I bought only the two I was most interested in at the time and only because they came at fairly low prices. I found the others through my library.

Since I had only read half the list and not found many titles I was invested in seeing advance, I posted a half-hearted shortlist wishlist to my Instagram feed rather than a thoughtful prediction post on my blog. I guessed three titles correctly.

In case you haven’t already seen the results, this year’s shortlist includes:

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
  • 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
  • Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
  • An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Image result for booker prize shortlist

While I am thrilled to see four women on this list, I am not particularly excited by the group as a whole. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the longlist in the first place, so I haven’t been feeling entirely invested in the result of this year’s Booker Prize. At a glance, I’ve only read one of the shortlisted books so far, and I strongly disliked it. I’m disappointed that neither Frankissstein nor Lost Children Archive advanced- both of which I thought had a good chance and would have deserved a spot on the shortlist. I would gladly have swapped the Obioma for either. Otherwise, it’s difficult to say I have any strong opinions when I haven’t read the rest of the list yet!

I’m not sure I’ll be reading the entire shortlist, though. Here’s where I stand on the longlisted titles I haven’t read yet (titles linked to Goodreads, as I can’t give any sort of synopsis on these):

  1. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – This is the only longlisted title I haven’t read yet that hasn’t been shortlisted. The reviews I’ve seen for it have been mainly mediocre, and my interest in the synopsis wasn’t high to begin with (thought I still think I could be persuaded by the right review). It’s not out in the US until October 15. If my library gets a copy and it ends up being the only longlisted book I haven’t read, I might pick this up… someday. Definitely not before the winner announcement, which is scheduled for October 14.
  2. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – The title I’m currently most excited about. I’ve heard some great things that make this 8-sentence 1000-page behemoth sound right up my alley. I’ve been waiting impatiently for the US release date of September 10. I’m planning to read it as soon as I get a copy this month.
  3. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – I’m certain about reading this one prior to the winner announcement as well; I’d pre-ordered (release date September 10) before seeing it longlisted, based on my general appreciation of Atwood’s writing and my enjoyment of The Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago. I’m definitely curious about this book.
  4. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – My interest in this title has grown in light of several positive reviews from other longlist readers, so I’m confident that I will read this one eventually. I’m not committing to reading it prior to the winner announcement because it is not released in the US until December 3, but anything could happen with this one.
  5. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak – My curiosity for this book is growing as well, though I’ve seen enough mixed opinions that I don’t think I’m confident enough to buy a copy. If I pick it up, I’ll wait until it’s US release date of December 3, when (if) my library gets a copy.
  6. Quichotte by Salman Rushdie – I’m torn on this one. I love literary retellings (Frankissstein = case in point) and am interested in sampling this major author I haven’t read yet; but I haven’t read Don Quixote, and I want to read that original classic first. I think I will read both works eventually, but I already have a few long books on the docket for September and October (starting with Ducks!) which means I probably won’t have time to read both Don Quixote and Quichotte before the winner announcement. But this title is available at my library, and if it turns out that I’m reading the rest of the shortlist before the end of the year, I might make more of an efort to fit this in as well.

Clearly my plans are still not set in stone. What I know for sure is that I will read Ducks and Testaments before the winner announcement, which will mean I’ll have read at least half of the shortlist by that time, and 9 titles from the longlist. I’ll post a reaction to the winner and a progress update in October.

If you’ve read any of the titles I haven’t picked up yet, please share your thoughts and convince me one way or the other!

Are you reading (or have already read) anything from the shortlist this year?

 

The Literary Elephant