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Review: Dolores Claiborne

One of my friends has gotten into a Stephen King fascination, and apparently it was infectious. I’ve been reading and mostly enjoying King’s novels since I was thirteen (Pet Sematary was the first), so it didn’t take much to get me on board with reading more of his work. Suddenly I find myself on a journey through King’s entire oeuvre (because if you’re going to read 90% of his books why not just read them all, I guess). Next up on the list for me was 300-page Dolores Claiborne, written in the early 90’s.

doloresclaiborneAbout the book: Dolores Claiborne has lived all her life on the Maine island of Little Tall, where she married a no-good husband after discovering her accidental pregnancy. Years later, with her children grown and gone, she’s being questioned by Little Tall police about the suspicious death of the rich woman Dolores worked for as housekeeper; and in professing her innocence, feels she must admit to the murder she did commit to prove her innocence in the one she didn’t.

“Lookin into her eyes was like lookin at the windows of a house where the people have left without rememberin to pull down the shades.”

Though the horror level of this novel is pretty mild, it does have its unsettling moments. Of course it does, with its main character a murderer, another going senile, one just plain evil, and several unfortunate children thrown into the mix. But this is primarily a psychological study of Dolores’s eventful life, and the creepy-crawlies remain mostly hypothetical.

“She’d keep lookin past me into the corner, and every so often she’d catch her breath n whimper. Or she’d flap her hand at the dark under the bed and then kinda snatch it back, like she expected somethin under there to try n bite it. Once or twice even I thought I saw somethin movin under there, and I had to clamp my mouth shut to keep from screamin myself. All I saw was just the movin shadow of her own hand, accourse, I know that, but it shows what a state she got me in, don’t it?”

If you’ve been reading the quotes I’ve inserted so far, you’ve probably noticed that the narration uses dialect. The entire novel is written as Dolores would have spoken it, and this tactic puts the reader straight into Dolores’s mind and life.

I found the dialect itself far more useful (and tolerable) than the half-conversations where Dolores addresses one of her interrogators directly; only Dolores’s part of these conversations is shown, which necessitates some awkward rephrasing of the others’ questions and reiterating of their responses that pulled me out of the story a bit every time. I didn’t need to be reminded so often or so thoroughly that Dolores was dictating this story to someone. A one- or two-sentence explanation at the very start and maybe very end of the book would have been plenty, but Dolores is interrupted and interrupts herself rather excessively throughout the short novel.

One thing that I’m especially watching for in King’s writing this year is his treatment of female characters. After encountering a few worrying instances in his books last year (Elevation, The Tommyknockers) I’ve been interested to see how that might have changed or cropped up differently throughout his writing career. To my great relief, Dolores Claiborne was definitely a step back in the right direction.

“You’ve turned into a decent man. Don’t let it go to your head, though; you grew up the same as any other man, with some woman to warsh your clothes and wipe your nose and turn you around when you got y’self pointed in the wrong direction.”

But there are twenty pages dedicated to spiteful bowel movements, so there’s no forgetting that this is a man writing women, rather absurdly at times.

Once we’re past that hurdle though, there’s no denying that Dolores and her anecdotes are just as captivating as King’s characters tend to be.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a pretty quick read as far as Stephen King books go, and quite enjoyable. I didn’t know before I started that this book is loosely tied to King’s Gerald’s Game, which I’m much more interested in reading now but feel that I shouldn’t yet because I’m trying to dedicate myself to my 2019 TBR system. It’s the first disappointment I’ve had with my January TBR though, so I’m going to stick it out. I do have a couple of other Stephen Kings I can choose from in January, so I’ll try Full Dark, No Stars before the month is over, which is a collection of short stories/novellas. I’ve read very few short stories from King, and am looking forward to checking them out.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re new to Stephen King and would rather lean toward the psychological than the full-blown sci-fi crazies, you should also try The Shining, Misery, or The Long Walk (written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman).
  • If you like character studies of women murderers that are amusing but also horrifying, try Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, a recent release about a woman in Lagos, Nigeria who helps her sister cover up the deaths of her boyfriends.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Dumplin’

I watched the new Netlifx film Dumplin’ last month when I desperately needed a movie day, even though I had not yet read Julie Murphy’s novel and almost always prefer to read the book first. I was only going to watch the trailer, but then I couldn’t resist. After watching (and adoring) the film, I knew I needed to step the book up on my TBR, so I found a copy through my library and picked it up last week when I wanted something light to read.

dumplinAbout the book: Willowdean’s mom is a former pageant queen, but she’s never encouraged her only daughter to apply. At her size, people don’t exactly think of Willowdean as pageant material. But when she finds an unsubmitted application from her plus-size aunt’s teen years after Lucy’s death, Willowdean decides it’s time to make a statement- to her mom, to the mean kids at school, in honor of Lucy, and for herself. But how can she focus on the pageant when there’s a cute boy she might have a chance with, an epic battle of wills between Willowdean and her best friend, and her mom trying to turn Lucy’s bedroom into a craft room, devoid of beloved Dolly Parton memorabilia? And what about the other misfits who’ve signed up for the competition with Willowdean as their inspiration? One way or another, there’s going to be a big showdown.

“I think you gotta be who you want to be until you feel like you are whoever it is you’re trying to become. Sometimes half of doing something is pretending that you can.”

This is probably the only book I’ve read in years that I can say is completely cute without also being relegated to “guilty pleasure” territory for lack of substance. Dumplin’ the (YA contemporary) novel is just as wonderful as Dumplin’ the film, with a whole lot more drama packed in. It’s not YA fluff though- this is a book that makes a loud statement for any girl with body image doubts. I do appreciate that the movie is a bit more streamlined and less boy-focused, but I was relieved to find that there was so much more in the book that I didn’t even know to expect from the movie. The two formats make a great duo.

One main aspect that’s consistent across both mediums is Willowdean’s impression of herself. She is so set on refusing judgment from other people, and generally in front of any audience she stands up strong, knowing better than to let anyone else tell her what she’s worth. But she does judge herself. And she judges the people that she thinks are the most like her. In most books, I would’ve found this hypocrisy annoying, but it’s intentional here, and to great effect. Willowdean is a teen who learns throughout the course of the story that like most of us, she is her own harshest critic. She doesn’t want anything or anyone to hold her back on account of her size, which includes swallowing her own self-doubt.

“The way she says it. It’s not mean. Or rude. It’s true.”

On the flip side, Willowdean also needs to accept that she won’t be getting special treatment because of her mom’s place on the judges’ panel of the pageant. Refraining from holding herself back also means that she needs to put as much effort into her pageant events (and relationships) as the other girls do. If she wants to compete for any reason- whether it be in the name of revolution or in earnest for this year’s crown- she has to see the contenders as her equals, not her enemies. She has to play the game, just like everyone else.

“I don’t even want to win, but I think there’s this survival instinct inside all of us that clicks on when we see other people failing. It makes me feel gross and incredibly human.”

But this isn’t a book solely for plus-size readers. Dumplin’ is about friendship and grief, self-acceptance and acceptance of others no matter what their differences are. It’s about first love and family, coping with bullies, surviving high school. It’s about Dolly Parton and Southern traditions. It’s about being who you are, no matter what.

“You don’t always have to win a pageant to wear a crown.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ll definitely be reading Murphy’s recent sequel, Puddin’, though I’m always a bit less enthused about sequels that focus on different characters than the original. I think Murphy will pull it off, though. It’ll probably be one of those books that will pleasantly surprise me when I get around to picking it up. I’m also more interested in checking out Murphy’s other publications. And I’ll certainly be rewatching  Dumplin’. Again.

Further recommendations:

  • For more reading on what it’s like to be big in a world that values smallness, check out Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger. This book is more for adults, but I think younger readers could benefit as well as long as they know to expect some mature and difficult topics. Gay talks about using food to build her body like a fortress in the wake of rape, but she also talks about more everyday challenges like chairs with arms, stares at restaurants and gyms, and buying professional clothing in appropriate sizes.

Have you read or watched Dumplin’? Which format did you prefer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: In Our Mad and Furious City

I was hoping to finish the Man Booker longlist in November, but I had a seriously tough time getting a copy of Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City. I could tell you the whole story of paying for copies I never received and discovering that none of the libraries in my local loan system would carry a copy when the US version released, but I’ll leave it at the fact that I did finally get a copy and managed to fit it in just before the new year. If it wasn’t a title I was particularly looking forward to reading and the only Booker nominee I had left, I probably would’ve given up out of sheer frustration. But I’m glad I didn’t!

inourmadandfuriouscityAbout the book: London is a place full of anger and tragedy for the five main characters of this novel. Three teenaged boys try to hold on to their summer freedom in the aftermath of a murder that brings riots and protests sweeping through the city. Two parents recall the gruesome paths that led their families to the Stones Estate. All five live very different lives, though the chaos in the city streets will link them all in the end.

This book’s chapters are subdivided into character sections. Each story is told differently, though the present situation in London runs clearly through the novel in chronological order. Some characters use flashbacks to convey important events. But the most notable difference in these sections is the use of dialect and slang that varies in heaviness by character. I found Nelson’s chapters the most unusual, in terms of wording and grammar, but most of the characters use colloquial phrases that are clear mainly through context. Though at some points I had to slow down my reading to parse exactly what was being said, I did feel that the variations in narration were a nice literary touch that helped distinguish each character and recalled the different backgrounds that had molded these people into the Londoners they’ve become. The characters are wonderfully diverse.

“How would it have felt to come from the same story? To have been molded out of one thing and not out of many? There was nothing more foreign to us than that. Nothing more boring and pale to imagine.”

Each of these characters take a stand in some way for themselves and/or their beliefs in the novel. Ardan pursues his passion for rap music, Caroline turns to independence when her family resorts to abhorrent behavior, Nelson advocates for minority rights and safety, Yusuf sides with the members of his religion when their mosque is challenged, and Selvon hones his body to fight his way free of the city that tries to hurt him and hold him back. Though each of these journeys is specific to each character’s motivations and history, their efforts tie their stories into one narrative that shows how suffering and victory affect more than the individual, especially in a place where the people live so close together. There’s a ripple affect.

In the end, my favorite aspect of the book was the underlying negative view of London. I’ve never been, and often in literature London seems to be displayed as this wonderfully messy and historic city that outsiders should envy; I very much appreciate seeing the other side of that coin. I found this dark glimpse much more compelling than any city idyll.

“So here it all is, this London. A place that you can love, make rhymes out of pyres and a romance of the colors, talk gladly of the changes and the flux and the rise and the fall without feeling its storm rain on your skin and its bone-scarring winds, a city that won’t love you back unless you become insoluble to the fury, the madness of bound and unbound peoples and the immovables of the place. The joy. The light lies in the armored few, those willing to run, run on and run forever just to prove it possible. The only ones that can save us in the end are the heroes.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think after all the trouble I went through to get my hands on this book, I may have been expecting more from this story than I had a right to. My patience was thin by the time I picked it up. Even so, I’m not sure why this book didn’t advance to the shortlist, as it’s quite excellent. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more work from Gunaratne.

My reaction to the 2018 Man Booker longlist: what an adventure! This was my first year reading the entire longlist, and I’m sure it won’t happen every year going forward. I loved the look of the list when it was first announced, and added so many of the titles to my TBR that it made sense to push myself to pick up each one. I didn’t love them all equally, but even the books that disappointed me were engaging to read and I don’t regret the time I spent with them. The shortlist did not contain the six books I thought best from the longlist, but I am thrilled with Anna Burns’s Milkman taking the win! For more thoughts on each title, here are the rest of my longlist reviews, ranked in order of personal favoritism:

MilkmanEverything UnderThe Water CureNormal PeopleFrom a Low and Quiet Sea,  (In Our Mad and Furious City,)  The Mars RoomThe Long TakeThe OverstorySabrinaWarlightWashington BlackSnap.

What was your favorite Man Booker title for 2018 (even if you didn’t read them all)?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Tommyknockers

I managed to read seven Stephen King books last year, including a single bind-up of four novellas- which arguably could bump the total number up to ten if you want to consider how long even a “short” novel can be for King. Four of my 2018 Stephen King books were buddy reads (those really help with powering through the long titles), including one of my final reads of 2018, a 976-page novel titled The Tommyknockers.

thetommyknockersAbout the book: Bobbi Anderson walks across her wooded property in the fictional town of Haven, Maine one evening–  as she done many evenings before- and stumbles across a small piece of silver sticking up from the ground. Curious, she digs a bit with her hands, wondering whether she’s found an old can, a steel lockbox, a car? But it’s like nothing she’s ever seen before, massive and otherworldly. She comes back to the same spot the next day with digging equipment, and then excavation equipment as the scope of the thing keeps growing. The problem: the metal seems to be releasing some sort of toxic chemical compound into the air that gradually encompasses the entire town, infecting the townspeople and preventing outsiders from entering Haven to discover what’s going on. Bobbi’s find seems to have a mind of its own, and it’s taking over.

“There’s a whole town going loony just down the road and no one has got the slightest idea it’s happening.”

Stephen King has written in a wide variety of genres, but this one fits firmly under the category of sci-fi. It’s not one of his best-known titles, and I certainly wouldn’t call this one a must-read for King beginners, but fans won’t want to miss this adventure. Especially if you’ve ever enjoyed The X-Files.

“It was a marvelous, improbable artifact shining in the hazy sunlight of this Sunday morning… but it was also a haunted house where demons might still walk between the walls and in hollow places.”

The reason this one doesn’t rank among King’s classics (in my opinion) is that the writing is not quite up to King’s impressive par. His characterization is spot-on as ever, but the cast is excessively large, especially considering that all of the people in Haven are undergoing more or less the same change. The plot is engaging, unpredictable, and intense, but a bit slow-paced in the middle. The social commentary is interesting and not entirely outdated (this novel was written in the 80’s), mostly relating to potential problems with nuclear energy. There is no mistaking King’s usual style, though on a sentence-by-sentence level it doesn’t seem quite as polished as others of his works.

Though I wouldn’t say The Tommyknockers is one of King’s most frightening works, it does maintain a near-constant aura of creepiness. So many of the details are just unsettling enough to keep the reader on board even when the plot verges toward the incredibly bizarre. The tommyknockers are named from a well-known children’s rhyme- one that I recognized from my own childhood (with slightly different wording), despite the fact that I hadn’t even been born at the time this book was written. The story isn’t relatable and all, and it’s hard to walk away from the mysteries of the green light, the locked shed, the magic-trick that turns into a real missing child case, and more.

One of the reasons I would recommend this title to King veterans is the intertextual content. In The Tommyknockers there are some fun references throughout the story relating both to Stephen King himself:

“She wrote good western stories that you could really sink your teeth into, not all full of make-believe monsters and a bunch of dirty words, like the ones that fellow who lived up in Bangor wrote. Goddam good westerns, people said. Especially for a girl.”

(though admittedly marred by that unnecessary final sentence…)

and to King’s previous works, including The Shining:

“So what was she supposed to do? Grab Bobbi’s ax and make like Jack Nicholson in The Shining? He could see it. Smash, crash, bash: Heeeeeere’s GARDENER!

and It:

“Tommy had begun to hallucinate; as he drove up Wentworth Street, he thought he saw a clown grinning up at him from an open sewer manhole– a clown with shiny silver dollars for eyes and a clenched white glove filled with balloons.”

There are several more.

But let’s go back to that “especially for a girl” mention. One of the biggest drawbacks to this novel is that its language and concepts are very much rooted in their time. In the case of technology and lifestyle, these references make for an entertaining flashback. In regards to treatment of women, the old-fashioned sentiments are much less pleasant.

There’s very little in the book that’s truly offensive, the “especially for a girl” statement being the most overt. But there are so many small examples throughout The Tommyknockers of women who are denied their own glory. Though Bobbi discovers the buried object on her property, she needs to be “saved” from self-destruction in the excavation by enlisting male help. In a project involving a large hologram in which a woman is in charge of providing a perfect image for the projection, the task is not complete until she’s enthusiastically lost her virginity to the man watching over her shoulder. The highest police authority in Haven is a woman, but she’s quickly removed from leadership when the townspeople begin changing. Women are not hated within the novel, but nor are they given the same importance and attention as the male characters. Small details add up in a novel of this size.

Interestingly, I found the general disregard for women much less annoying than the over-the-top support of them in King’s more recent work (Sleeping Beauties, Elevation). I know that fiction does not necessarily reflect any viewpoints of the writer, but I think there’s an interesting arc to be located in the social commentary throughout King’s oevre, and it’s fascinating to follow. But I have a lot of reading left to do before I feel comfortable making statements about trends in King’s entire body of work.

At the very least, it’s infinitely interesting to read.

“One of life’s great truths is this: when one is about to be struck by a speeding six-hundred-pound Coke machine, one need worry about nothing else.”

 

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though this was not my favorite King novel, it ranks right up there for weirdness and I do love weird. I’m absolutely looking forward to reading more from King, though I’ll also be more likely to watch the women in his fiction, going forward.

Further recommendations:

  • Stephen King’s Under the Dome is a fascinating character study that takes place in another Maine town that finds itself inexplicably trapped inside an invisible dome. There are some similar sci-fi elements between this one and The Tommyknockers, though the stories themselves are very different. But if you liked one, you’ll probably like the other.
  • If you’re looking for something considerably shorter, (and not Stephen King), Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly is a recent sci-fi thriller that’s superbly unsettling and otherworldly. Its main characters find themselves trapped in an ancient cavern in the Grand Canyon, and quickly discover that they’re not as alone as they thought.

What’s your favorite sci-fi book? YA or adult. I love what I’ve seen of the genre but haven’t read much beyond Stephen King, so I could use some recommendations!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: Fangirl

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was a last year’s Christmas gift that I wanted to read before this year’s Christmas. I cut it a bit close by picking it up in the week before Christmas, but I did finish in time! I even wrote most of this review before Christmas– I’ve just been bad about keeping up with blogging lately. But I’m getting back on track now.

fangirlAbout the book: Cath and her identical twin sister, Wren, have been the best of friends all their lives. When their mother walked out of their childhoods, they stuck together and built their lives with their eccentric and creative father. But when it’s time to pack up for college, Wren decides not to room with Cath, to encourage both girls to make new friends. The only friends Cath wants though are fictional– so she dedicates her first semester to completing her Simon Snow fanfiction alone. Her unsocial tendencies only get Cath so far, however, and she can’t help being caught up in some real-life experiences.

Despite my decreasing interest in fluffy YA, there’s a lot about this book that I thought would still appeal to me in my adult years. Cath is so nervous about college and unsocial without quite being rude, which fits my own experience a lot better than the excitement for change and adulthood that most people (real and fictional) seem to express. Furthermore, though I hadn’t taken to the internet with any of my own writing by the time I started college, I was writing my own fiction and had a hard time balancing what I wrote for fun with the classics and more serious works studied in proper English classes. In some ways, I related to Cath’s perspective completely, and was immediately invested in finding out how the year would end for her.

A younger me might have really loved this book. If I had read it immediately upon its release, it might have stood a better chance as something more meaningful to me than a cute break from my real adult life. But I didn’t read it at 18 in my first semester of college when YA was still one of my favorite categories to read, and at 24 I found it a bit too Quirky. (Cath’s actual name is Cather, which is supposed to fit with Wren as two halves of the single name Catherine. No one will ever be able to convince me that Cather does not sound completely ridiculous as a first name and much too reminiscent of “catheter.”)

Fangirl is also a bit too aware of its own awkwardness.

“Levi guffawed. (You don’t get many opportunities to use that word, Cath thought, but this is one of them.)

This first quote is easier to excuse because the qualification seems to come from a writing standpoint that fits Cath’s character. It makes sense that she would think like a writer, though it does give her writing a more amateurish feel to see her process this way. Admittedly, she is fresh out of high school. “Amateur” does not mean “no room for growth;” everyone has to start somewhere.

But here’s another one that just seems dumb:

“Levi’s face clouded over. Not grimly, she thought– thoughtfully. In thoughtful clouds.”

I mean, if you need that much clarification, maybe what you’re trying to say just doesn’t make sense?

I am always interested in reading about writing though, and some of the content Rowell includes about writing for college feels spot-on:

“She wasn’t going to stop typing until she had a first draft. Even if that meant typing things like, I don’t know what the fuck I’m typing right now, blah, blah, blah.

Everyone who’s ever written a paper for college should know that desperate moment well.

As you can see, Rowell’s writing and some of the details didn’t entirely work for me in this book, but I did try to overlook small qualms and just enjoy the overall story. For the most part, Fangirl is readable and it does make some good points about making room for relationships and hobbies/passions in college. I would not recommend this book as any sort of how-to-survive manual for upcoming freshmen, but I do think young readers would benefit from seeing a college story like this that promotes loyalty to oneself above the need to try new things. The new experiences will happen anyway– there’s no reason to change who you are in the search for them. The end resolution is a bit sparse, in my opinion, but this is a solid story with original characters. Bonus points for Levi’s ranch background– farmers/agriculture workers are hardly ever presented in a flattering light but I thought Rowell nailed the rural lifestyle with Levi.

On another note, I was surprised to find myself completely uninterested in the Simon and Baz excerpts from Cath’s fanfiction, even though I thought I would like that aspect of the book. I usually like fantasy and from everything I’ve heard, Carry On (the Rainbow Rowell novel modeled after Cath’s fanfiction in Fangirl) sounds promising. Maybe it’s just that we get such small snippets, some as Gemma T. Leslie’s canon Simon Snow fiction and some as Cath’s fanfiction, that it can be hard to keep the versions of the characters straight and even harder to get invested in each short scene. I still intend to read Carry On eventually, so I hope my reaction to those parts in Fangirl is not indicative of how that experience will go.

But I do love that the villain is called the Insidious Humdrum.

“That was the beauty in stacking up words– they got cheaper, the more you had of them. It would feel good to cut this when she’d worked her way to something better.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not a perfect book, but I was in the mood for something young and light and this hit the spot. I didn’t quite like it more than Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, but it did work better for me than Attachments or Landline did.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve not yet read it, Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is (I think, anyway) the best of her fiction novels. Though it is a high school romance, it focuses primarily on social issues for different minority students and it is an all-around beautiful YA book.

What’s your favorite Rainbow Rowell novel? Or, if you haven’t read Rowell, your favorite contemporary YA?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Book Haul 12.18

So Christmas hit me pretty hard this year. Mostly in good ways, but I’ve been so exhausted the last few days and off of my usual routine. But I’m finally coming around and getting excited for the year’s wrap up and the start of 2019. This post ties in to both, as it shows the books I’ve acquired throughout the last month, which are also the books I’ll be reading in the first month of the new year. I set a 2019 goal for myself to read the new books I pick up within the next month, so this is basically my January TBR. There will be some exceptions, some of these I know I won’t read in January and also I’ll have some library holds coming up that I’ll prioritize. But let’s get to the book haul! Since there are so many (and I don’t remember a lot of the synopses) I’m not going to say much about them. I’m sure you have better things to do today. Without further ado, my final book haul of 2018!

What’s new:

  1. The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty. This is an adult fantasy I’ve had my eye on for awhile, and finally found a cheap copy. This book and the next 13 came from a Black Friday haul from Book Outlet; everything was insanely cheap (which is why this list is so long).
  2. The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. I probably won’t read this historical/magical novel in January because I still need to read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street first.
  3. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon. I heard great things about this lit fic all through 2018 but I didn’t end up reading it yet. I’m really looking forward to it.
  4. Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren. I was in a romance novel mood in Nov./Dec. and wanted to give this author duo a try. I read a different one of their books (Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating) in early Dec. through the library that didn’t impress me, but I’m hoping I’ll enjoy this one more.
  5. Love and Friendship and Other Youthful Writings by Jane Austen. I’ve been making a slow tour through Austen’s novels, and I want to read this bonus book of Austen material when I finish with the novels. (I have Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility left.) I probably won’t be reading all three of those in January.
  6. Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh. I’ve been so intrigued to read this author and I want to get back into some short story collections in 2019 after my failed attempt at that this fall.
  7. Autumn by Ali Smith. I’ve been interested in checking out Smith’s seasonal quartet for a few months now and I’m looking forward to giving this first book in the series a go.
  8. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve not read any Ishiguro yet and I feel like that needs to be remedied. There are several Ishiguro titles I want to pick up, but this was the one on sale so I’ll start here.
  9. The Mothers by Brit Bennett. I’ve heard good things about this one, and it was cheap. One of my friends is also going to be reading it soon, so it will be nice to chat about it.
  10. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. Purcell’s The Corset caught my attention in 2018, but I’ve decided to start with this earlier publication which sounds even more appealing to me.
  11. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. I’ve seen the movie but never read the book, and I hear they’re pretty different. I’d love to compare them for myself, and there are several short works in this copy that will fit well into my short story reading efforts.
  12. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I’ve never read any H. G. Wells, and due to my interest both in classics and sci-fi it seemed like a good time to change that.
  13. Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood. I’ve read this one! I love Atwood’s writing, and this modern take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest made me appreciate the original in a way I never did while reading the play. I wanted my own copy to reread and lend, I won’t be reading this in January.
  14. The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Another I’ve already read- I loved this adult fantasy trilogy when I read it in 2017 and I do eventually want to won all three books, but I don’t like paying a lot for something I’ve already read, so I got the one that was cheap and I’ll get the others later. I won’t be rereading this one in January.
  15. A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi. I actually picked this up as a potential Christmas gift for a friend who likes YA more than I do, but she got her own copy before Christmas so this one’s mine. I don’t mind, I’ve heard good things.
  16. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. Apparently I’m on a mission to read all of King’s publications. It’s going to be a slow trek over a span of years, but I’m starting to pick up more of his titles. This is a short story collection. I won’t read all of my new Stephen King books in January, but I would like to read this one as well as one of the novels.
  17. The Shining by Stephen King. I’ve actually read this one already but wanted my own copy. I also own the sequel, Doctor Sleep, which I haven’t read yet; I want to reread The Shining before I get to the sequel. No guarantees this will be a project for January.
  18. Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King. This sounds like one of King’s more psychological novels, which intrigues me a lot.
  19. In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne. Don’t even get me started on this one. It’s the final title I needed to wrap up my Man Booker longlist experience and I had a frustratingly difficult time getting a copy. This is not the edition I originally ordered, and it took way too long to arrive, but I did want to read it before the end of the year so I had to just go with what I could get in the end. I’m currently reading this one and do plan to finish before 2019. (Since it was on my nightstand instead of in my TBR box, I forgot to include it in the haul thumbnail. I have the yellow US paperback right now.)
  20. The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King. This is one of King’s fantasy novels, and one thing about King’s writing that’s intriguing me lately is how varied his writing. There’s something distinctly King-y about all of his work, but he has written in a wide range of genres and I want to check them all out. This one seemed like an easier place to start than his Dark Tower series.
  21. Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand. I picked up this creepy YA fantasy on a Christmas sale, and am absolutely looking forward to picking it up ASAP.
  22. Fen by Daisy Johnson. I read Johnson’s Everything Under from the Man Booker longlist (and shortlist) this year and loved it enough that I wanted to read Johnson’s other publication. This is her short story collection.
  23. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. This one is invisible in my haul thumbnail (but it is there!) because I got a very tiny edition of the single short story. My mom’s been recommending this one to me for ages, and I do want to read more of Jackson’s work so I suggested she could give me a copy for Christmas. She found this binding of the single story, somehow. I do eventually want to read the entire The Lottery and Other Stories collection, but I guess I’ll start with this one. It should be an easy title to cross off my January TBR, as the story is only 16 pages long.
  24. Severance by Ling Ma. This was my December BOTM selection, and I am ashamed to say it is the only BOTM main selection that I haven’t finished within the year. I’ve gotten a couple of extras that are still waiting on my shelf and I haven’t entirely caught up with last year’s extras, but I did so well reading my main selection every month of 2018. Until now. It’s my own fault, for taking time off of reading and blogging to sleep and regroup these last few days. I am definitely looking forward to picking this apocalyptic satire up in January.
  25. The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay. This was a December BOTM extra for me, which I knew I wouldn’t have time for in Dec. I am hoping to find time for this cultural lit fic also in January. It sounds like a good winter read.

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I think that’s everything new. I think. I have a couple of backup Christmas gifts that I am holding on to for a final Christmas celebration with a bookish friend, and if she doesn’t already have the first-choice books I picked out for her then the backups will be mine. If she does, then I’ll keep the ones she has. I’ve learned this is the only way surprise book gifts work with her, especially when we do our gift exchange after Christmas. So I’ll have two of those backups as well as final Christmas books by the 31st, but I’ll add those to my January haul because this one is already looking a bit unmanageable and I’m ready to post.

My 2019 goal to read my new books within the following month is intended to stop the increasing of my owned-unread TBR every month. I want to read what I’m buying when I buy it, so the unread books I’ve hauled here are going to be top priority. I did buy 3 books I’ve already read, plus I’m reading a 4th, but 21 books is still more than my recent monthly averages. I have no idea which books will be left on this list at the end of the month, but I’m aiming to read the majority. Only future me can say how that will go. Stay tuned for my January wrap-up to find out!

Which books found their way to your shelves this December? Have you read any of these?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Conversations with Friends

I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People in my trek through the Man Booker longlist this year and was floored by how readable and relatable I found Rooney’s prose. One novel was simply not enough, so I borrowed a copy of Conversations with Friends through my library immediately. It took a bit longer to read than I would have liked because I’m trying to wrap up so many different things this month, but I finally finished and was just as impressed with Rooney’s debut.

conversationswithfriendsAbout the book: Frances is an Irish college student without a plan for her future. She writes poetry that she performs with her ex, Bobbi, and the two remain close. But when Melissa writes an article about Frances and Bobbi’s work, the two students form tenuous friendships with the older couple, Melissa and her actor husband, Nick. As Frances’s relationship with Bobbi fluctuates and their circumstances undergo gradual changes, Frances pursues Nick in an exciting but disastrous way while Bobbi cozies up to Melissa. Through many conversations and events, the four form an odd bond that will see them through affairs, fights, and illnesses– for better, and for worse.

“All I could decide was whether or not to have sex with Nick; I couldn’t decide how to feel about it, or what it meant. And although I could decide to fight with him, and what we would fight about, I couldn’t decide what he would say, or how much it would hurt me. Curled up in bed with my arms folded I thought bitterly: he has all the power and I have none. This wasn’t exactly true, but that night it was clear to me for the first time how badly I’d underestimated my vulnerability.”

As with Rooney’s Normal People, it’s hard to describe the plot of Conversations with Friends. The story takes a journey through several months of France’s life, depicted in a series of seemingly mundane scenes and dialogues that reveal the main characters in a more objective way than they would ever be able to describe themselves. (Though Frances would certainly take a shot at it if asked.)

The beauty of Rooney’s stories, in my opinion, is that each character is equally understandable. In this novel, Frances is our narrator throughout the tale, but there are certainly times when the other characters behave or speak in a way that she doesn’t expect that are much more identifiable to the reader. Though I often sympathized with Frances, Bobbi was actually my favorite character in the book. Each character operates with their own motivations and personalities, and despite Frances’s occasional misinterpretations, her acquaintances are just as accessible to the reader as she is. A reader’s opinion of Conversations with Friends can probably be determined by how well he/she can stand Frances’s narration, but even those who ultimately find her unlikable can find much to appreciate in Rooney’s commentary on relationships and one’s perception of the self.

“You think you’re the kind of person who can deal with something and then it happens and you realize you can’t.”

That last quote was a snippet of Bobbi’s dialogue. The flow of the novel is improved by the lack of quotations around spoken words, and Rooney is careful enough never to confuse the reader about who is speaking or when, even without the additional visual cues. This lends the story a sort of informality that allows the reader to feel as though he/she could be any one of these characters, and that the rest could be his/her close friends.

I can see why some readers might be put off by Rooney’s way of detailing what can seem like trivialities (who’s drinking what, how many times Frances checks her appearance in the mirror, the seating arrangements at every table), but these details are revelatory of the characters’ states of mind and their relation to one another. Furthermore, I think many readers will see bits of themselves in Frances’s actions and impressions. She is alternatingly egotistic and self-deprecating, always the center of her own world, but she’s also just another twenty-one year-old girl who wants to be seen as impressive and worthwhile, and is easily crushed by perceived rejections. She’s shockingly human. I found her absolutely compelling, even when I disagreed with her choices.

“Things matter to me more than they do to normal people, I thought. I need to relax and let things go. I should experiment with drugs. These thoughts were not unusual for me.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Perhaps due to the fact that I read it first, I think I was more impressed with Normal People from a literary standpoint, though that one was less pleasant for me emotionally. Conversations with Friends was an easier read, which both won me over and didn’t. Though Rooney’s style and characterization are similar in both books, these are distinct works, and I can’t wait to see what Rooney writes next. I already know I’m on board.

Further recommendations:

  • Sally Rooney’s Normal People, obviously. Though there seems to be some disagreement among Rooney fans over which of her novels is the favorite of the two, I think anyone who enjoys Rooney’s prose will find merit in both books. If you liked Conversations with Friends, you should definitely check out Normal People, which features a boy and girl who meet in childhood and spend many years wrapped in the sphere of the other’s life afterward.
  • Emma by Jane Austen. This is a classic novel for readers who love knowing more about the characters than the characters do themselves. If you love Rooney’s deftness with conveying personality through dialogue and others’ impressions, you’d probably enjoy this literary masterpiece about a young woman who decides to “better” her friend by planting her in a new social circle. The disparities between what is spoken and what is meant are entertainingly obvious.

What’s a book that inspired you to check out more work by the same author?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant