Tag Archives: literary fiction

Review: Rainbirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Literary Elephant


Review: The Blind Assassin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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


The Literary Elephant

Review: An American Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

Which new releases have you been loving lately?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

Have you read any books that surprised you lately?


The Literary Elephant


Review: Some Luck

One of the categories in my 2017 reading challenge was “a book that takes place in your hometown.” But I live in small-town Iowa and there are no books written about my hometown. I don’t give up easily though, so I widened the category to “a book that takes place in your home state,” which led me to Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the first book in a trilogy of Iowan history that follows one fictional family over a span of 100 years. And honestly, I could not have found a better book for this part of the challenge even if something had been written about my hometown.

someluckAbout the book: Walter Langdon just put a down payment on a new farm. In the year 1920, he’s back from serving in the war, he’s recently married, and he’s moving off of his dad’s farm to try his luck on his own. Walter and Rosanna’s first son has just been born, and the grand adventure of their life begins– even though both of them grew up on farms before they were married, the farm work combined with parenthood seems like the biggest job in the world– and maybe also the most rewarding. They will go on to have five more children as the years progress, and the reader will follow each one of their lives through a history of Iowan culture until a calamitous event in 1953 affects them all– and sets the tone for Some Luck‘s sequel.

First of all, I know Some Luck is not going to be the book for everyone. There’s going to be a very small audience that appreciates it, which is a shame, but I understand it. It’s about Iowa. It’s about farming. It’s about family. There’s not much plot, though some events carry over for months or even years through the narration. The book is divided into chapters by year– I assume in the entire trilogy there will be one hundred chapters, as the saga covers 100 years. Book one covered 33 years, from 1920-1953. It’s further divided into unlabelled sections within each chapter for different perspectives and events that happen within that year. And it all adds up to: a sort of Little House on the Prairie from later in history, geared toward adults.

“Of course, his father laughed. He could afford to laugh– he owned his farm free and clear. And more than that, his father always laughed at farming and what a joke it was on the farmer.”

It sounds pretty unimpressive so far, right? At first, I too was unimpressed. The book opens on a new family settling into their new farm, and several of the earliest sections in the book are “narrated” by the new baby. I’m talking surprisingly intelligent babble about waving spoons and rolling over and teething. But this first baby is going to be important to the story, and after only a couple of years, he does become a pretty interesting narrator. I was addicted about five years in.

“On a farm, you knew that you could die from anything, or you could survive anything.”

I should be able to explain what’s so great about Some Luck after reading all 400 pages of it, but it’s hard to put into words exactly where the magic comes from. The characters are generally quiet people, with simple, hard-working lives. There are births and deaths and marriages. But each character has their own personality– they are unique in the way that their family members see them and in the way that they see themselves. It’s incredible to see the difference between those two points of view. And it’s incredible to see such ordinary lives in such an ordinary way; the characters are not particular heroes or villains, there are no fantasy elements, the story is not especially driven by romance or revenge or learning, though all of those things happen and more. It’s just a story about some fictional people in a mostly real setting (the Langdons’ hometown is fictional, though many real Iowan towns make an appearance) that reminds its readers that we’re all human, and we’ve all got our own story to tell. Even if you think your story isn’t much, it exists, and it’s yours, and even if the people who will understand it are few and far between, they’re out there. That’s the magic of Some Luck. It’s quiet, but it’s not trite.

It’s like the stories that your grandparents tell, if your grandparents are farmers. It’s a whole way of life, and like all cultures, it comes with its own particular hardships and rewards. You can die in a freak storm, or you can fall down a well and then go about your day as if nothing unusual has happened at all.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I will definitely be continuing with this trilogy. I know that Smiley also has published a Pulitzer Prize winner, which I might also check out eventually, but my first priority is The Last Hundred Years trilogy. And I think reading it as a trilogy will bring out the best aspect of the story: the gradual change.  Even in one volume, thirty-three years, every chapter has felt like a continuation of what came before, and most of it is unremarkable, just the regular progression of seasons and life on a farm. And yet over the course of those thirty chapters, everything changes. I’m excited to see how things will look as the timeline approaches the current year.

Further recommendations:

  1. Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s well-known children’s series, the Little House series. They take place through Laura’s childhood and describe aspects of her life, everyday life and big events, that took place as her family tried to make a home for themselves on largely unsettled prairie land as the United State expanded west. They are technically fiction novels, and most of them read like children’s books, but I still find them fascinating as an adult. It’s U.S. history, or a very particular sub-genre of it like Some Luck, more about past culture than major politics or wars or the sort of things that history books tend to focus on.
  2. Again, fiction, but again, if you’re looking for those snapshots of past culture, I’m going to recommend Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. There’s some time travel, some supernatural stuff going on, there’s a giant romance through the series, but it also shows glimpses of cultures. It starts in 1940’s Scotland, and from there goes to 1740’s Scotland, but there’s also 1960’s America, 1740’s France, 1760-70’s America, 1760’s Jamaica, etc. The romance was a guilty pleasure for me, but seeing all these different places and ways of life was really what sold me on seeing it through.
  3. If you’re looking for a nonfiction snapshot of a past cultural and historical moment, try Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. This one reads like fiction, but it follows the assembly of the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800s. There’s a real-life murderer in there, the beginnings of electricity in America, the invention of the Ferris wheel. There’s architecture, fraud, giant sums of money. But also it’s just a really fascinating glimpse into the way people– seemingly ordinary people– lived in that time period. People that history doesn’t remember much. It’s great.

What’s next: I am ALMOST DONE with my 2017 reading challenge. Barring some unexpected disaster, I should have no trouble fitting in the last two books I need this year. The next on that list is Homer’s The Iliad, the famous classic about Achilles and the Trojan War, and other well-known characters from Greek mythology. I’ve read some of this book before, but never finished. I’m starting over today.


The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: The Lover

It’s crunch time for my 2017 reading challenge, so I’m trying to pick up as many books as I can to complete the challenge in the next two(ish) months. My latest challenge book has been Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, a book I started for school and never finished.

theloverAbout the book: A fifteen year-old French girl from a poor and hateful family meets a wealthy Chinese man on a ferry crossing the Mekong River in the early 1940’s. He claims to have fallen immediately in love with her, and she is in want of his money; so begins a year-and-a-half-long affair. The girl is narrating this time from a future point in her life, and mixed up in the telling of her first confusing love is the fate of her family and personal aspects of her transition to adulthood.

About the format: The girl becomes a writer after her affair, and is narrating her own story. She does so disjointedly, in block paragraphs separated by white space. Each paragraph is its own little story, sometimes reflecting on one character and jumping to another, often jumping in time, occasionally switching perspective between what it was like for the fifteen year-old girl in her present and what she thinks about herself and her lover when she looks back at that time.

This is not a book for the lazy reader– it is emotional and character-driven, with little plot and a lot of beautiful reflections on love and life, poverty and death and girlhood. There are gems here, for readers willing to mine for them. Great lines are not difficult to find, but putting the story together that connects the paragraphs, finding the common threads and noting juxtapositions between the paragraphs is more of an effort.

“The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line.”

One of my favorite things about this book is the way the tone of things change as the novel progresses. We see at first a poor but close family, but as the narrator’s “disgrace” grows as a result of her transparent affair, we learn that her mother is irresponsible and depressed, her elder brother cruel and selfish, the younger brother admired but insubstantial, and soon gone. At first we see the narrator accepting love as a means for money, but before she will even admit to herself that she can’t keep her fifteen year-old heart separate from the affair the reader sees that there’s more to her relationship with the Chinese man, as well.

“Very early in my life it was too late.”

My other favorite aspect of this book is that the beauty lies not in the plot or surprises of the novel, but in the telling of it. The narration is blunt and makes no effort to hide truths about what has happened to her, what will happen to her, and what she feels about it all. The beauty comes in the way she connects the affair to the ruin of her face, the loss of immortality, the severing of ties among her family that will begin soon after she leaves the lover. We see her learning and growing from the very first page, and the way Duras manages to convey both an understanding of the growth and a willingness to let the reader create his/her own morals from the hard lessons is magnificently done. Unlike Nabokov’s Lolita, the emphasis of The Lover is not on the morality of an affair between a young girl and an older man, but on its effect, both immediate and eventual. It’s sympathetic in its emotion.

“It’s while it’s being lived that life is immortal.”

“I’ve never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Although I was absolutely drawn in by the rich and insightful prose, and marked many lines and perspectives that I’ll certainly revisit, the lack of plot made this a slower read for me. Generally plotless books seem to me to have little point; I would not say that The Lover has no point (it has many), but it was easier for me to read in snippets than altogether at once, despite its brevity. At barely over 100 pages, I didn’t need much actual reading time to finish this one, but I did need breaks to digest it between sittings. I wish my class in school had read the entire novel and discussed it more, because even though I absolutely enjoyed reading this book I feel that I could still learn more from it.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading two books, one a reading challenge book (Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, a book I’m rereading from my childhood) and one not (Karin Slaughter’s The Good Daughter, a library book). The former is YA contemporary, a mild romance that deals more with grief and self-acceptance than love, and the latter is a mystery-thriller about a traumatized family learning the truth of an attack that left someone dead, when another attack occurs nearly thirty years later.

What are you reading as the year winds down?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Eligible

The idea of a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice caught my attention before I had even read Jane Austen’s famous classic. Now that I’ve read both the original work and the modern translation (Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible) back to back, I’m even more enthused. Generally I love a good retelling, but the fairy tale trend is starting to bore me a little. Here, though, is a fresh rendering of social engagements, prickly personalities, family misfortune, and– of course– romance.

eligibleAbout the book: Liz Bennet is one of five daughters in a notable Cincinatti family that is quickly falling into crippling debt. The Bennet parents are eager to marry their daughters off to help both generations financially, but of course, nothing seems to be going as planned. The eldest, Jane, is more interested in being a mother than a wife, and is taking steps to start the next phase of her life without marriage. Liz, the second eldest, has the most stable job and income, but her boyfriend is already married to someone else. Mary isn’t interested in marriage at all. Kitty is single, but has her eyes set on someone her parents disapprove of, and Lydia seems to have found the perfect match, until an unexpected secret about her boyfriend comes to light. The sisters are reunited for the summer in Cincinnati following their father’s heart attack, but the drama of their love lives is only beginning. At a 4th of July barbecue, the Bennet girls meet the Bingleys and their friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Some of their first interactions are favorable, others decidedly not. Everything is going to change over the course of the summer, and marriage will inevitably find some of the Bennet sisters, but their relationships may look nothing like the sensible matches their parents expected for them.

“He looked, Liz thought, like a model in a local department store newspaper insert: handsome, yes, but moody in a rather preposterous and unnecessary way.”

First, I’d like to note that you can read Eligible without reading Pride and Prejudice, and find just as much enjoyment in it. You’ll even get a good sense of the classic’s plot, because Eligible is loyal to the original in many respects, despite the change in time. But I would say that if reading Pride and Prejudice (or even watching a film of it) just before picking up Eligible is a move you’re considering, you’ll probably find the most enjoyment of this retelling with Austen’s original work fresh in mind. I also believe that readers who did not like Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may like Eligible more. I recommend giving it a chance.

Next, let’s look at the narration. Pride and Prejudice uses a third person narration that focuses primarily on Elizabeth’s thoughts and experiences, but does venture to note some details about the other characters’ lives that Elizabeth would not have been privy to. In Eligible, however, the narration focuses solely on Liz, except for one chapter about Jane’s life at the beginning of the novel, and a chapter of Mary’s life at the end. Eligible‘s chapters are very short, which makes it easy to keep turning pages. Both of these structural components are good choices for the novel– Liz’s thoughts pull readers in, and the short chapters are convenient for stopping and starting (or finding excuses to read just one more).

Pride and Prejudice has its humorous moments, but I laughed out loud probably half a dozen times in the first fifty pages of this novel– unusual for me. I thought knowing the characters’ personalities fairly well from the classic would take some of the entertainment out of discovering their ridiculousness in Eligible, but that was not the case. There is something even more amusing about (albeit fictional) people from the early 1800s being planted in a modern setting and let loose– though technically Eligible‘s characters are new, they are certainly based on the old and their absurdity remains intact.

” ‘He’s a lawyer in Atlanta, and he’s very active in his church,’ Mrs. Bennet said. ‘If that’s not the description of a man looking for a wife, I don’t know what is.’ “

Even more important than the humor though, is the fact that Eligible tackles some tough topics familiar in the current day and age, and Sittenfeld handles them well. There are LGBTQ+ characters and nonwhite characters. There are difficult, prejudiced characters, who are encouraged to change their minds. Liz responds to everything life (or her family) throws at her with an open mind and a willingness to help those who need it.

A little more comparing/contrasting: Liz has so much more dialogue in this book (especially with a certain tall dark and handsome man) than in P&P, which was one of the things I loved most about this updated version. Her climactic dialogue near the end of the story is filled with less apology than in P&P as well, which I was happy to see. Apologies are a good thing in healthy relationships, but here we see characters ready to move on without rehashing every offense they’d ever uttered. A plus. Alternately, while I thought Darcy’s overheard remark at the beginning of Eligible was worse than his saying in P&P that the girls in town were only tolerable, I did like him in this novel a lot earlier on. In contrast, I thought Liz was more obviously blind to the possibility that she was making mistakes in Eligible. She seems more brash in Eligible, more impulsive and outspoken about her opinions where I saw cautious reserve in P&P despite her strong opinions. Kathy de Bourgh makes a much better character in Eligible, though her character and her role in the plot is perhaps the most changed from her place in P&P. The change is apt. And Eligible‘s main strength comes from the biggest change of all– the centralization of focus on family. Each of Liz’s sisters is crucial to the tale Eligible has to tell, complete with their own morals and wonderfully distinct from each other. It’s a great dynamic, and it only improves as the book progresses.

“Time seemed, as it always does in adulthood after a particular stretch has concluded, no matter how ponderous or unpleasant the stretch was to endure, to have passed quickly indeed.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book. It still had the air of a classic, but was easily readable (not that Pride and Prejudice is difficult to read, but classics generally take a bit more time to parse the difference in language usage). I want to look into reading more from the Austen Project series, which features modern retellings of each of Austen’s works (though I don’t believe they’re all published yet).

Further recommendations:

  1. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an obvious choice for readers who’ve enjoyed Eligible (or plan to) and haven’t yet gotten around to the original classic. Even if you’re not a classic fan normally, let me highly recommend this one to anyone who appreciates a funny romance.
  2. White Fur by Jardine Libaire has a sort of crossed plot between Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice. This one’s definitely an adult story (the romance is a bit explicit in places), but it has the same sort of hate-love at the beginning, and a problematic affection between a wealthy heir and a poor independent, neither of whose families support their relationship.

What’s next: I’m just finishing up Cate Holohan’s Lies She Told, a new release thriller (and a September Book of the Month selection) about a mystery writer whose life turns into a similar mystery. As the lines start to blur between her fictional novel and her real circumstances, everything falls apart and nothing is certain.

What’s your favorite retelling?


The Literary Elephant