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Review: Rebecca

Reading Jane Eyre at about this time last year brought my interest in Gothic literature back to the surface. I bought a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a classic Gothic tale from the 1930’s, but sadly I kept putting it off. This year I made sure to add Rebecca toward the top of my classics list for 2018 because I knew I would love it, and sure enough…

rebeccaAbout the book: Our unnamed narrator is living a bland but tolerable life as the paid companion of a snobby woman vacationing in Monte Carlo. Everything changes when the two women meet the infamous Mr. de Winter at their hotel just before the narrator’s employer falls ill. As she convalesces, the narrator forms a friendship with the odd but endearing Mr. de Winter; though he does not mention love, he does offer marriage when the sudden end of the vacation threatens to separate him from the young woman he’s been entertaining. Without knowing much about Mr. de Winter beyond popular rumor and the memory of a pretty postcard of his estate (called Manderley), the narrator agrees to the match and leaves Monte Carlo abruptly to become the new Mrs. de Winter. She learns quickly upon arriving at Manderley that there’s an intense but secretive history surrounding the fate of the first Mrs. de Winter, and the end of that marriage might also mean the doom of her own.

“Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind. Of course we have our moments of depression; but there are other moments too, when time, unmeasured by the clock, runs on into eternity and, catching his smile, I know we are together, we march in unison, no clash of thought or of opinion makes a barrier between us.”

There is some romance in this book, but I would not call Rebecca a romance novel. Despite its ties to Jane Eyre, I would not classify Rebecca in the same category as Bronte’s classic. Ultimately, I would say it’s a tragedy. It’s psychological and character-driven, mysterious and macabre. There are underlying messages about female power, especially in a marriage (particularly in a marriage of the 1930’s. Things have changed a bit, though I think the lessons still apply). Rebecca is a lot of things, but foremost it’s a masterpiece.

My favorite aspect of Rebecca is the way the late and present Mrs. de Winters are reflected against each other. On the surface, Rebecca and our narrator are opposite in every way, though under their differences there is an unmistakable similarity between them. Even as the narrator ruminates over her predecessor’s personality, noting all the things that were perfect about Rebecca that are not about the new Mrs. de Winter, she’s emulating Rebecca. She’s becoming her, in some ways. The two are at once so far apart, and yet they present like different sides of the same person.

“She’s the real Mrs. de Winter, not you. It’s you that’s the shadow and the ghost. It’s you that’s forgotten and not wanted and pushed aside.”

The characterization/perspective is wonderful. Mrs. de Winter is so full of daydreams and assumptions that the reader has a clear sense of Manderley and all of its characters, while remembering that these are only Mrs. de Winter’s ideas of them, rather than facts. These pictures she spins of the various characters and locations are as much a reflection of our narrator as of the characters themselves, which leaves plenty of room for surprise as secrets are revealed throughout the course of the book.

But perhaps the most interesting detail is that Mr. and Mrs. de Winter are presented as the “heroes” of the book, though we know from the very first chapter that neither of them are winners in this tale. The irony of Rebecca is that there is no escaping the horrors of the past without losing the potential of a pleasant future. The events of Mr. and Mrs. de Winter’s star-crossed marriage have been in motion since Mr. de Winter first married Rebecca, and there is little any of them can do to come out ahead. The marriage they salvage is a farce at best, an empty display. That future is laid out in the first chapters of the novel, before the narrator goes back to explain how the de Winters fell into that fate. It’s pieced together beautifully, and in the end it reads more as a commentary on marriage and female agency than love.

“As I sipped my cold tea I thought with a tired biter feeling of despair that I would be content to live in one corner of Manderley and Maxim in the other so long as the outside world should never know. If he had no more tenderness for me, never kissed me again, did not speak to me except on matters of necessity, I believed I could bear it if I were certain that nobody knew of this but our two selves. If we could bribe servants not to tell, play our part before relations, before Beatrice, and then when we were alone sit apart in our separate rooms, leading our separate lives.”

The edition that I read also includes an afterword by Sally Beauman, who wrote a sequel to Rebecca in 2000 (I think). I don’t think I’m interested in reading a sequel by anyone other than du Maurier at this point, but I did enjoy Beauman’s afterword. I agreed with a lot of her points, and even when I didn’t they were certainly thought-provoking and engaged the text in an interesting way. I would recommend reading that afterword if you like Rebecca.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book, from chapter 2 onward. I wasn’t sold on chapter one (I don’t like plot-less descriptions of scenery, no matter how beautiful, or conveniently true-to-life dreams; both of these techniques appear in chapter 1), but in the end I saw that it had its place in the narrative and I appreciated the whole book. It all fits together so perfectly. I’m planning to pick up Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel sometime in the not-too-distant future because I think it will deliver more of the elements I loved from Rebecca.

Further recommendations:

  • Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is worth the read for fans of Gothic literature. Though there is a heavier romantic plot line, the book also focuses on a doomed marriage and its secret aftermath, which unravel in a psychological and creepy sort of way.
  • If you read Gothic books for the atmosphere and horror, try Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, in which a spooky old mansion slowly drives the narrator down an irreversible path toward tragedy.
  • And if the psychology and the superbly written structure of Rebecca is what you’re interested in, try Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a close look at the life of a woman who is increasingly disturbed even as she her life seems to be steadily improving from outward appearances.

Do you have a favorite Gothic novel? This is exactly my brand of creepy literature, so I’m open to all suggestions!


The Literary Elephant


Review: Stillhouse Lake

In the midst of a Christmas food coma, I started my first Kindle Unlimited read. Everyone was getting lazy after the big holiday meal, so I wanted something thrilling to keep me awake. Enter Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake, the first book in her recent thriller series. Three months later, I’ve finally finished reading Stillhouse Lake

stillhouselakeAbout the book: Life is no picnic when you unwittingly marry a serial killer. Gina had two children and a whole life with Melvin Royal before a freak accident put a car through their garage wall and ousted his gory secret hobby. But even after the arrests and trials die down, no one seems to believe Gina is innocent. How could she not have known? How could she not have helped? She changes her name, and the names of her kids. She moves again and again, hiding their identities, installing expensive security systems, using temporary phones and concealing their locations even from her own mother. There are too many threats against Melvin Royal’s family for Gina to be open and honest about who she is. Protecting her kids comes first, always. But after years of running, they’ve finally found a place that feels like home, and Gina starts taking risks again, doing whatever it takes to stop running– even when the murders start again, right outside her door.

In this moment, in all moments now, I can’t afford to be seen as weak. Not for myself. I have two children in the house, and I’m responsible for their lives—lives that are never safe, never secure. I will do anything I must to defend them.”

Right off the bat, I have to say that part of the reason this book took me so long to read is that I wasn’t enjoying it. I made it all the way to 45% before it stopped feeling like a drag and finally held my interest. I had seen good reviews for this book and I DNF so rarely that I stuck it out through 130 pages that I felt I was mostly hate-reading. That’s a pretty extreme reaction for me, and now that I’m finished I have some mixed feelings about it.

First, I do think it is a fault of the novel that those first 130 pages are stuffed with mainly scene-setting background info. We get a lot of information and small events that are only minimally relevant to the overall story, details that show over and over again how hard it is for Gina/Gwen and her children to hide in plain sight without really furthering the plot. It felt like overkill, and I found it especially annoying because we hear Gina/Gwen saying over and over that she’s gotten paranoid about safety, that she checks and double checks and flees at the slightest provocation and doesn’t trust anyone, etc; but even as she’s thinking all those things, she’s making exceptions. Anyone who reads mysteries/thrillers is going to see those lapses as the catalyst. A careful reader will see right through the excuses and know that something weird is going on and despite all her claims to the contrary, Gina/Gwen is going to get caught in the middle of the chaos because she’s overlooking things that even she knows she shouldn’t be. It all feels so obvious.

And of course, eventually Gina/Gwen realizes her mistakes, about 150 pages after the careful reader does.

I hate myself for not questioning that.

I had good reasons, but those reasons seem useless now. They seem like illusions.

But I did have to give some credit to that 45% eventually, because there was another detail in those pages that I thought seemed so obvious, that I ended up being wrong about. I appreciated having to second guess myself when Melvin Royal came into the story. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say more about the part that surprised me and made me give Stillhouse Lake a little more respect. Once I made it to the second half of the book, I got along with it a lot better.

There are no good answers, but this time I’m not just going to be strong. I’m hitting back.

My favorite thing about this book was also my least favorite thing: the perspective. I think that first 45% went so slowly for me because Gina/Gwen is the first-person narrator throughout, and there are so few other characters in that first half of the book to give the reader an idea of what other people think of Gina/Gwen. Seeing how other characters act around the main character (or vice versa) is a big part of characterization, and in the first half of the book Gina/Gwen is so solitary and consumed with her own thoughts and worries that the reader is given a very biased picture of her until some new friends and enemies finally enter the story more meaningfully.

This was my favorite aspect because so much can be done with a narrator who’s so focused on herself, especially if she’s lying or wrong about something. Her thoughts are presented as truths, though they might not always be. A careful reader is going to be looking at the other characters around Gina/Gwen and taking cues from their behavior around her rather than trusting her completely right away. But in this case, the perspective was also my least favorite aspect because Gina/Gwen didn’t live up to her wild card potential. The reader isn’t given enough information and time with the other characters to see what Gina/Gwen is wrong about before she does. It’s no use trying to piece the mystery together before Gina/Gwen, because there’s just not enough to go on until she’s suddenly putting the missing links together right along with the reader.

For that reason, I would call this a slasher thriller rather than a psychological one. It’s not the sort of mind-games novel where the reader is given the clues up front and tries to make crafty connections, it’s just the run-for-your-life-through-the-woods sort of  thrill. The clues aren’t all in place until it’s too late. But the action scenes are great; this is some of the best running-for-your-life-through-the-woods drama that I’ve ever read. The characters are gritty and real. The threat feels constant and close. If those first 130 pages could have been condensed into about 50, I would have really loved this book, and I think readers with fewer thrillers behind them aren’t going to have as much of a problem with that slow beginning. There’s a lot to like about this book.

“He also knows that a gun can’t protect you unless you protect yourself mentally, emotionally, and logically. It’s the punctuation at the end, not the paragraph.

Side note: I don’t have much knowledge about the families of criminals. I had a hard time suspending my disbelief at first about the level of animosity against Gina/Gwen, and especially against her kids. I could see there being a few crazies out there interested in revenge or just a continuation of the gore Melvin Royal started, but I couldn’t believe that they were constantly being  targeted by basically everyone. Shouldn’t there be some balance, especially after she’s gone through a trial and been proven innocent? Shouldn’t there be some good samaritans out there as well as all the crazies? Surely someone must see the rest of the Royals as victims?

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I really couldn’t give a higher rating after disliking the first half of the book so much, though I really did like it once the plot picked up. I liked it enough that I’m planning to read the sequel, Killman Creek, which is the only other book in this series that’s already published. I really prefer reading physical books and I’m fairly new to e-reading because of that, but I had a pretty good experience with this one, other than it not being my favorite book.

Further recommendations:

  • If slasher thrillers are your jam, try Riley Sager’s Final Girls. This one’s a bit psychological as well, but the focus is on the knife-wielding and gory deaths. There are more great running-for-your-life-through-the-woods scenes here, and some of the same commentary on targeting victims that Stillhouse Lake dabbles with.

Have you read any good thrillers lately?


The Literary Elephant


Review: Rainbirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Literary Elephant

Review: 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: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Literary Elephant



TBR 3.2.18

In case you missed it, I’m trying this new thing in 2018 where I set a 5-book TBR every time I finish the last one, rather than setting a monthly TBR and letting my anxiety grow for four weeks because of the time constraint. This is only my second TBR of the year so far, but I have been reading borrowed books and other things in the midst of working on my first TBR, so I have read more than 5 books since I started, never fear. In fact, in the time since I set my last 5-book TBR, I read 16 books.

Things like library books, buddy reads, and new subscription box books are not items I’m including in my TBRs this year– instead I’m only listing the books that I have no other deadlines for. So these won’t necessarily be the next five books I read, but I will read all five of these before setting a new TBR.

I don’t anticipate this one taking as long to finish because I think I’ll have fewer conflicts now that the year is farther underway, but the timing of finishing books isn’t bothering me as much with this new system anyway; I’m more focused on what I’m reading and whether I’m enjoying it, than how long it’s taking me to read something or finish a TBR list. It’s only been a couple of months, but I’m really loving this new system.

I’m currently finishing up the 5th book from my last TBR, and plotting what to read next. Here are the titles I’m looking at:

  1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. It’s time that I read a true crime novel. The closest I’ve ever gotten to that genre is Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which I loved but was not focused entirely on the crime. I want to branch out more this year, delve deeper into reading pools I’ve only skimmed the surface of. I’ve heard this one’s a classic of its genre, so this is where I’ll start. I believe it follows a murder case from the 50’s or 60’s in the American midwest.
  2. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. Here is a new release from February that I’ve been really excited about. I have not yet read any of Kristin Hannah’s books, though I own The Nightingale, which has been gathering dust on my TBR shelf for a year. I’ve heard such great things about her writing, but I’m rarely in the mood for WWII fiction these days, and this new historical fiction book about solitude and abuse in the wilderness of Alaska sounds much more intriguing to me. And if I like it, hopefully I’ll get around to The Nightingale that much sooner.
  3. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I’ve had my eye on this classic Gothic horror novel since reading Bronte’s Jane Eyre at about this time last year. Somehow I haven’t gotten around to it yet, so I added it to my list of 12 classics to read in 2018. I did originally schedule my 12 classics month by month, but this is only the second book on the list and I was still reading my January classic in February so I’m a little off schedule. I’m still trying to figure out how to fit a few monthly goals in with this new TBR system, but I’m confident that I can catch up with my classics list. I’m eager to start this one, which features some sort of mystery about the male lead’s first wife, who is maybe haunting or hiding in his giant old house and terrifying his new wife? I’ve forgotten the exact synopsis, but it sounded creepy and psychological with a touch of romance.
  4. Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. This is a YA sci-fi book that drew my attention with its unique narrative formatting. I like unique formats, and the inside of this book looks like artwork. Artwork with a focus on words. I’ve seen great reviews for this story and the third (and final, I believe) book in the series is releasing next week. I want to be on board that train, but I have to start by seeing if I like the first book.All I remember about the story is that two characters with some sort of shared history are awake on a spaceship that’s headed for disaster.
  5. The Power by Naomi Alderman. I’m working on my BOTM backlog, which mostly consists of “extras” that I added to my monthly boxes in 2017, but there are some (like this one) that I just didn’t have time to get around to in the month that I chose them and it’s time that I do. This was my October selection and I’ve been so curious to read it but just… haven’t. And that’s what TBRs are for. This one’s a lit fic novel about a swapped gender dynamic– women wield (some sort of electrical?) power through their hands.

TBR 3.2.18

I’m excited for this list, and I really don’t think it will take me as long as the first one did. But, timing aside, I’m anticipating some quality reads in my future. It’s really fun trying to prioritize my giant Goodreads TBR into bite-sized 5-book lists, even if they do end up with all the fall color vibes at the wrong time of the year. :/

Have you read any of these books? What are you reading next?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Philosopher’s Flight

I was in the mood to read something unusual this month, and Tom Miller’s new release (also a February Book of the Month Club selection), The Philosopher’s Flight, absolutely fit the bill.

thephilosopher'sflightAbout the book: Robert Weekes is a male sigrlist in a world of female sigilrists. No one knows why, but women are the dominant power in Empirical Philosophy, a brand of science condemned by many as a sort of evil magic because its drawers of sigils can do cool things like fly. Robert grew up in the shadow of his war-hero sigilrist mother and three practicing sisters who told him he was good– for a boy. But now he’s 18 and wants to join the Rescue & Evacuation division of the Corps. It’s 1917 and he wants to join the war effort as the first male Corpswoman. To do so, he’ll have to prove himself a million times over, as a student at an all-girls college, as a hoverer who can pull his weight, as a medalist in the General’s Cup, and so much more. He makes new friends, finds new causes, falls in love– but is a happy life as a good siligrist “for a boy” enough to make him give up a dream he could lose everything chasing?

” ‘Everyone ought to have a dream, Mr. Weekes,’ Addams said. ‘But the time comes when you have to put childish things away and face the world as it is.’ “

This is one of a very few episodic stories that I’ve really enjoyed in the last few years. For some reason the narrative style of stringing together lots of small adventures rather than one major plot arc just hasn’t been jiving with my reading preferences in a long while, but every now and then I still stumble across one that’s addictively compelling. The Philosopher’s Flight was one of those.

“I’ve never killed a man. But I have separated many an enemy from a fresh supply of oxygen and allowed him to breathe himself to death.”

The book starts from a future perspective, and each chapter starts with an excerpt from relevant (fictional) political writings that relate to current plot points or emotions. These details give away some answers; for instance, the reader knows who will survive the year when the characters start appearing in writings from future years. But, as with many episodic tales, the excitement is in the journey rather than the destination.

Those excerpts, despite their revelatory nature, are a great touch in Miller’s world-building, as is the appendix at the back of the book with further info on certain sigils that come into play in the narrative. I always check the page count of a book before I start, which is how I noticed that appendix, but I’m glad I did; I liked reading those sigil sections as they became relevant to the story rather than all at once after finishing the book. There aren’t reminders to match the chapters of the story to the sigil info in the back, so I had to shuffle back and forth a bit, but those extra details really made the story feel more credible, more complete, even as bizarre as the world is. Though it takes place in historical US, so much of the history is different with the addition of Empirical Philosophy that it doesn’t feel much like the real world, and every detail helps.

This book is… wacky, to say the least. It’s a little magical, a little scientific, a little historic, dips into modern social issues, and tackles every angle with a mix of humor and thoughtfulness that leaves the reader chuckling without removing some more serious undertones. The reader never knows what to expect, and Miller is clearly having his fun with creative license.

“We were a couple of dull young people in love, besotted, barely conscious of the hubbub around us. But that’s just the sort of moment when the gods decide they ought to lay you low.”

But under all the zany details, this is a book that flips the gender dynamic (women are most powerful) and keeps the reader thinking about the ways gender bias still exists in our real world. As interesting as I found that angle throughout the story, I was constantly on the fence about its effectiveness. There are some great lines that made me think, “oh yeah, that’s something I’m so used to in today’s society that I’ve hardly even noticed that it’s a problem,” but there were other lines about Robert fighting for recognition as a man that disappointed me, like even in a world when women have the advantage, the man we’re supposed to be sympathizing with is pushing to get to the top. In the end, I do think this story is advocating for gender equality rather than giving anyone an edge, and I know that’s a narrow line to walk, but there were instances when I thought it skewed a little too far one way or the other. Some of the women seemed unreasonably cruel, and Robert faces prejudice for being a male sigilrist that feels at times more like a challenge for real women to dive into the unfair aspects of a male-dominant world and fight through them, rather than an acknowledgment that such prejudices do exist and that there should be effort made on all sides of the problem.

“Devastatingly handsome men such as myself had to be on guard against city women, who were known to be brazenly forward in their attempts to corrupt the flower of American youth.”

” ‘Well,’ Ma said. ‘Maybe he’ll find himself a rich wife out there and support me in my old age. At any rate, it sounds like a grand adventure.’ “

But as doubtful as I occasionally was about the way Miller tackled the gender gap, I never came across any statements that actually turned me away from the book, and coming so close to the edge as it does kept me constantly thinking about what’s okay to accept from other people and what’s not, which is a worthwhile result for any novel.

“It’s never mattered that I can’t do it. What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would definitely read a sequel, but I have no idea if there will ever be one. This was such a fun read, but not the sort of fun that’s insubstantial. This is the kind of book that makes me appreciate Book of the Month Club– I probably would not have heard about this book otherwise, I chose it on a whim, and it was a quality read. Weird, but in a good way. I can’t wait for next month’s selections.

Further recommendations:

  1. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians shares a lot of similarities to Miller’s new book; if you’re looking for a bizarre but engrossing novel about a magical branch of science with its own schools and applications, try Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. It takes place in the modern rather than historical world, and it’s full of plot twists and unexpected changes of direction for the reader who’s a fan of the unpredictable.

Do you prefer fantasy/sci-fi stories full of imaginative details, or more contemporary stories that relate to the real world? Some combination of both?


The Literary Elephant