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Review: In the Tall Grass (short story and film)

Spooky October continues with more Stephen King for me! I saw a few weeks ago that In the Tall Grass (based on the short story by Stephen King and Joe Hill) was coming to Netflix in early October, and immediately made plans to read and watch. I didn’t get around to the story before the film arrived, but I had a lot of fun reading and watching on the same day. I’ll share some thoughts on both.

First, the short story. In the Tall Grass seems to be very readily available on ebook and audio, but it is also FREE online at Esquire, where the story was first published in 2012. It’s divided into two parts, but the end of the first part links to the second, so if you’re interested in checking out the story I’ll link the beginning portion here! (Feel free to ignore that Esquire’s purpose seems to be “fiction for men.”)

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In this short story, the narration alternates perspective between a pair of siblings: Becky and Cal. They’re not twins, but are very close. Becky is pregnant, and is on her way to San Diego to give her baby to another family for adoption. Cal is driving her cross country. They make an unplanned stop in Kansas next to a field of tall grass, where they happen to hear a boy calling for help. Assuming that he’s lost and too short to find the road, Cal and Becky decide to wade in and help.

What follows is at first suspenseful, as the siblings realize something isn’t right with the grass and against all odds they seem to be getting lost in it as well. Soon after, the story takes a horrifying turn as the secrets of the grass and their own fates are revealed. Needless to say, there’s a supernatural element involved.

“He looked at his watch and wasn’t surprised to see it had stopped even though it was a self-winder. The grass had stopped it. He felt sure of it.”

The story is quite good. I’ve yet to read anything full-length by Joe Hill (even though I’m sure I’m going to love his work), but I enjoyed this story more than the last five full-length novels I’ve read from Stephen King. It’s readable, sharp, and great at dropping creepy hints for the reader’s imagination to run with. If you like horror or suspense, or just a great short story, I highly recommend checking it out.

If you have any interest in reading the story, I really think the best time for it is prior to watching the Netflix film.

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In the film, we see at first a faithful adaptation of the written story. Some of the dialogue is word-for-word, the setting is exactly the same, any small variations in the setup are minor and seem mostly to cater to the visual aspect of the new format. But soon the film becomes a whole different beast. This comes down to two main differences:

  1. The film expands upon all of those subtle hints dropped in the story. This means both that some of the grass’s secrets are spoken aloud or clearly depicted for the reader, but it also means the addition of a new character who is only mentioned in the story. Though I thought the story was great for holding back from oversharing, I also thought the film was great for refusing to shy away from the details. I wouldn’t have wanted it the other way around. But I imagine the story would feel quite anticlimactic in its subtlety after seeing the film take everything a step further, which is the main reason I recommend reading first if you’re interested in both mediums.
  2. The cyclical nature of the grass “ritual” is a bit different in the film. In the story, I had the sense that the cycle was a very realistic one, with each victim of the grass paving the way for the next in a chronological line. In the film, a nonlinear timeline creates the cycle rather than hints of past or future victims. Timelines- actually, characters that skip around through time- are not always effective for me, but this layout paves the way for some great characterization tricks, and the brevity of the film keeps the jumping timeline from feeling tedious and ridiculous. A surprising win.

These are the two elements that allow a 60-page short story to become a 1 hr 40 min film- the film essentially turns the basic idea of the story into a long novella or short novel, and it does so without contradicting any part of the written story. They really make for a great set, if you enjoy adaptations and comparisons as much as I do.

Both formats are atmospheric, creepy, and engrossing. You might think from the premise that you know enough to resist being surprised, but there will still be surprises. There’s one pretty gross scene that appears in both formats, though I found the written version of it more gruesome. I spotted the detail of the synopsis that had the most potential to go awry, and knowing in advance helped me get through it, so at the risk of a very mild spoiler (just skip ahead to the next paragraph now if you absolutely don’t want to know) I’ll mention that it has to do with the pregnancy. If you don’t want to read anything weird on that subject, maybe steer clear of this one.

“The grass has things to tell you. You just need to learn to listen.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. For both formats. I didn’t find anything wrong with either, and actually the one gross scene didn’t bother me as much (in the story or film) as the rats in Stephen King’s 1922 (in that story or corresponding Netflix film). I just very rarely give a short story a 5-star rating because I tend to prefer more characterization and exploration than often seem to fit in a short story, and though I thought the film was perfect for October I don’t think it’s going on my all-time favorites list, which are the only movies I would say are 5-stars for me. But I had an excellent time with both formats, and the only nightmare I had after was an unrelated airplane dream.

So, all in all, if you’re looking for a little Stephen King or Joe Hill to pick up this spooky season and don’t want to dive into a doorstopper of a novel, In the Tall Grass is a great shorter option. I think it would also be a good introduction to either author if you’re interested in checking out their work but not sure where to start.

Have you read or watched this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Dark Age

CW: murder, graphic violence (including torture), rape (off the page), use of nuclear weapons, planetary destruction

Disclaimer: Instead of a regular review (since this is the fifth book in a series) I’m going to use the opportunity of having recently finished reading Pierce Brown’s Dark Age to talk about the Red Rising series in general, and why I am reading it. So, no spoilers, and maybe this’ll be interesting even if you haven’t read any of the books in the series.

darkageBrown’s Red Rising series includes: Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star, Iron Gold, and Dark Age.

There are a lot of different factors that can motivate me to pick up a book (of course), but one thing I’m always looking for in what I read is something unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. A dystopian/fantasy with a male hero and themes of fighting for racial/social equality hardly sounds unique, but the Red Rising series has always possessed a certain level of grit that (in my opinion) sets it apart from similar stories of its genre(s). Despite a fair amount of casual sexism and ableism, which I find increasingly annoying as my reading taste shifts more toward feminism and female authors in general, Brown is the only author I read who can write a passage like this:

“I moan something in fear. There’s a lurch. A sudden pressure in my chest. He pulls away, his hand holding something red as he mouths a word dead to my ears. 

‘Worthy.’

Then he takes a bite of my heart.”

…and still leave me with room for doubt over whether this character is actually dead. Set thousands of years in the future, most of our main characters are Gold superhumans for whom surgery can fix almost anything that evolution has not already. There is a caste system, so the lower folk (lowColors) usually can’t afford to be fixed, and are worked to the bone by their superiors, but having a powerful friend can help even them. It really puts what is humanly possible and what is not humanly possible into a whole different realm.

Furthermore, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything with such a wide scope. Red Rising begins on Mars, as overflow from Earth has long since required the populating of additional planets, but the plot is mainly confined to two limited locations (a Red mine, and the Institute). As the series progresses, the plot moves farther into space. By Dark Age, we’re following world leaders who govern billions of citizens and are conducting a war between “Rim” planets and “Core” planets (though in actuality there are more than two sides taking up arms in the fray); the action is taking place in so many different places- even on ships between the planets- that the plot is just huge. Dark Age clocks in at over 750 pages, and probably at least 25% of its language (I’m obviously guessing, but it’s A Lot) is lingo specific to this series. The perspectives we’re following grant us access to whole armies, governmental bodies, and rulers with the power to end or save millions of lives with a single command; but they also give us individual humans with distinct motivations and emotions to remind the reader that no matter how big a character might seem with all their power, everyone is small in the face of the universe. The focus is craftily balanced between the very broad and the very narrow.

“Some men can stare at their feet and pretend the world isn’t falling apart. I cannot.”

And of course, the plot is utterly unpredictable. This is always a boon for me, as I find myself more frequently disappointed by authors I’ve loved in the past as their style becomes familiar to me. This has not been the case with Brown. The betrayals are brutal, the deaths are either horrific and described in minute, gory detail, or so abrupt and easy as to be almost comical. It’s meant to entertain at an epic level, but also to resonate with our own sense of humanity and the modern world.

Speaking of the modern world, Brown engages more and more with current politics as this series progresses. Gone is the simple cry for equality, and in its place, we see a much more nuanced presentation of many world issues feeding into each other. One of the topics Brown tackles in Dark Age is climate change and planetary destruction. Of course, in his universe, artists/architects have molded the environments of uninhabitable planets not only to make them livable but to mimic Earth’s rotational speed and thus fit humanity’s preferred cycle of time. Which is a statement in itself. Following that, we see a major battle on one small planet in which a “natural” storm is produced by one army to gain advantage over the other. The person at the controls experiences a moment of crisis and considers that increasing the storm to wipe everyone from both sides off of the planet might be the best way to turn the tide of the war, and for humanity at large. In addition, nuclear bombs are dropped on the planet in the spirit of “if we can’t have it, no one can.” All of this seems designed to make the reader think about our attitude toward our own planet these days. Earth is not one of the main settings for Dark Age or the larger series, but I think the point is clear enough. And this is just one aspect of the larger story.

“The waves crash all around the roots of the building. Both were made by man. Perhaps at first in hope, to give our species a new home to live and to love. But in time, I don’t know when, their creation became a vanity of will, and in the shadow of that vanity, man grew lesser for having more. Lesser for mastering the keys of creation, because he mistook himself for god, and cared less for his people, and more that his works endured.”

“The worlds cannot afford a man who wrecks a planet simply to win a battle.”

Ultimately, Red Rising is a high-tech political space drama series with a Latin / ancient Rome obsession, reflecting on the future fate of humanity. It practically requires its own dictionary- none is provided. (There is a cast list, but it shows only the house each person belongs to, no refreshers on their politics or past deeds.) Everything about this series is dense and demanding. Red Rising, the first (and shortest) novel, is certainly simpler, but even in Golden Son (the second novel) we begin to see where Brown is heading, and he really runs with it. I appreciate the challenge.

This isn’t going to be a favorite series for everyone. It’s niche, and it’s hard work. I can’t even tell you whether loving Star Wars or other space sagas is a good indicator here, because I really don’t read/watch any other space stories at the moment (other than Saga, the only story I know of that seems remotely similar, though much more readable). And honestly, I’m not sure this overview is doing much in the way of persuasion, but it’s just not a series I would recommend to everyone. I could do the usual spiel of assuring you it gets better after the first book, but forcing yourself to continue if you’re not enjoying these books is unlikely to work in your favor. And you need a strong stomach to survive Red Rising. There are impalements, flayings, live dismemberments and such in this most recent volume alone, and Brown doesn’t spare any details.

Some specific (non-spoiler) impressions of Dark Age, for anyone who has read the book: I found it very slow to start, with a few great moments but mostly political catch-up; and yet Brown ramps up the action in the end. As in Iron Age, we’re seeing multiple perspectives to glimpse different facets of the war; if I had to pick one, I think Lysander’s chapters interested me the most consistently in this volume. I was surprised by the return of a character I thought was dead (I shouldn’t have assumed this person was dead). I couldn’t bring myself to worry about Darrow with one more book on the horizon. Virginia’s new adversary seemed ridiculous at first, but I’m intrigued to see where Brown goes with it. I’m very interested in the Ascomanni, though I thought Brown’s writing of this “fairy tale” element seemed the weakest part of the novel- it felt rather shoehorned in. I’m also loving the mystery of “Figment.” I was disappointed with the lack of Sevro scenes, though.

“All that will be measured, all that will last, is your mastery of yourself.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was probably my least favorite book of the series so far, but I think the fact that I failed to reread any of the others to refresh my memory before diving into Dark Age made the read more challenging and emotionally distant for me than any of the others have been. I’m really hoping to reread a couple of the earlier titles before Book 6 comes out, but I said that last time. And I’d love to do a full series read at some point when everything is published, but it would feel like such a huge undertaking that I don’t know when it might happen. But, as I’ve made it this far, I’m still on board to read the final book of the series! I’m just really hoping it’s the final book this time. If this series goes on any longer, it’s going to feel like drama for the sake of drama, and I’m going to lose respect.

Have you read any of the Red Rising series? What did you like or dislike about it?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Outsider

CW: murder (including child murder), pedophilia, sexual abuse of children (occurring off the page only).

Alongside other projects, I spent September buddy reading Stephen King’s The Outsider, one of King’s most recent releases which has recently been named the start of a new series of unknown length, the Holly Gibney series. I highly recommend reading the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) before picking this one up, if you’re at all interested in reading those books. For me The Outsider was a definite improvement after the concluding novels of the Bill Hodges trilogy, but still doesn’t rank among my King faves, sadly.

theoutsiderIn the novel, Terry Maitland, upstanding citizen, local teacher, and boys’ little league baseball coach, is accused of a heinous crime. An eleven year-old boy has been brutally violated and murdered, and witnesses plus DNA put Maitland at the scene of the crime. Except at the same time as this child was murdered, Maitland was attending an event in another town, where his presence is not only recorded on audio and video, but televised as well. Was Maitland framed? Does he have a long-lost twin? Has he somehow discovered how to be in two places at once? A few sleuths begin a deeper exploration, and find that the case just gets weirder the more they learn. There may be a supernatural force at work.

” ‘There is nothing to confess to, sir. I didn’t kill Frankie Peterson. I would never hurt a child. You have the wrong man.’

Samuels sighed and stood up. ‘Okay, you had your chance. Now… God help you.’ “

The first half of this book was gearing up to be a 5-star favorite Stephen King for me. It revolves around interesting but disturbing real-world issues: child murder, pedophilia, wrongful accusations/convictions, truth vs. public opinion. The supernatural element is actually scary. Admittedly it doesn’t paint women in the best light (Stephen King is not good at writing female characters in general, in my opinion), but there weren’t any really offensive sexist comments, or any other offensive content. The writing, as always, is readable and engrossing, making the pages fly by. It was the perfect pre-October read to put me in the mood for Halloween horrors.

I know plenty of Constant Readers dislike King’s endings (a phenomenon that gets a hilarious spotlight in the It: Chapter Two film, by the way), but I don’t usually have that problem. So I grew more and more disappointed as I realized the second half of this story was going to be a flop for me. Here’s what went wrong:

1 – Though I usually enjoy King’s tendency of referencing details from his previous novels, they’re usually small nods that anyone who hasn’t read his older work likely won’t even notice. In The Outsider, he abandons the subtle nod by including a main character from the Bill Hodges trilogy (I won’t say which, to avoid spoiling End of Watch for anyone who doesn’t already know), and specifically mentioning details from each of the three criminal cases covered in that trilogy. The crossover character even wins over an ally by recapping the results of that trilogy for him- there are mild spoilers in the text, and I imagine anyone who hasn’t read Bill Hodges will also be annoyed to find events they’re unfamiliar with playing such a key role in this supposedly standalone story. Even having read those books prior to The Outsider so that I understood the references, I found their weight in this completely separate plot somewhat bothersome.

2 – As the pieces of the mystery begin to come together, we start to see some small plot holes, especially as Maitland’s case begins to look a lot like other, similar cases. Relatedly, King falls into his old bad habit of allowing his characters to reach convenient conclusions. Somehow, in the midst of a plot that’s trying to prove there’s “no end to the universe” (meaning anything is possible), these sleuths are jumping to annoyingly correct assumptions. The mystery all but solves itself.

3 – It’s probably realistic for police, lawyers, investigators, etc. to close their minds against evidence of the supernatural, but the otherworldly element of this novel is very clear to the reader; thus the constant naysaying from the unbelievers gets old fast.

“A person did what a person could, whether it was setting up gravestones or trying to convince twenty-first century men and women that there were monsters in the world, and their greatest advantage was the unwillingness of rational people to believe.”

4 – The oh-so-very-promising monster that succeeded in creeping me out early on turns out to be sadly unimpressive in the flesh. For a creature that seems so powerful, violent, and unknowable (there are some frustrating “we may never know…” remarks about it that feel like cop-outs), the final showdown is surprisingly uneventful. Though I find it very possible that a supernatural monster would be unknowable to humans if one were indeed to intrude upon our reality, the way that the narration approaches the creature toward the end of the novel left me feeling that King just hadn’t taken the time to get to know his own creation very well.

The only other point worth mentioning is the unclear “purpose” of the story. Clearly The Outsider is primarily meant for entertainment, and to that regard the focus on “no end to the universe” does the trick; I think X-Files fans would like this one. But I’m a little concerned that one of the takeaways here might be that no matter how guilty a man might look he’s probably been framed by an elusive supernatural being. Not that King seems to be at all suggesting that something like this supernatural tale is occurring under our noses in the real world, but the case does start off so realistically, with such interesting commentary on guilt and public opinion, that I wonder if there might have been a more tasteful way of incorporating this supernatural element without casting doubt on the guilt of murderers and pedophiles?

“Reality is thin ice, but most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end.”

Despite these flaws, The Outsider was still a fun read for me, at the very least. A few of the scenes really were quite spooky to be reading alone at night, which is an effect I enjoy and don’t come across very often. Some of the story takes place in a condemned cave, which is appropriately atmospheric. There are a few major deaths to keep things interesting, and one of King’s favorite climax types: a blaze of guns and gore and damage. I also read the ending as slightly ambiguous, concerning the fate of the monster, which is really the best way to handle supernatural aspects, in my opinion. So, if you’re just looking for a spooky good time that you’re not planning to look at too closely, you could certainly do worse. It’s not a Stephen King masterpiece, but it is a unique story.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was so sad that ending didn’t hold up here. I’m still glad I finally got around to reading this one, and I’m definitely still on board for more Stephen King. Hopefully I’ll manage to fit The Institute into my schedule in a more timely manner! I’m planning on picking up Firestarter later this month, and The Institute sometime thereafter.

Do you have a least favorite Stephen King novel?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Ask Me About My Uterus

CW: child abuse, bulimia (affecting the narrator’s mother), medical mistreatment, chronic pain, sexism/misogyny

Earlier this year, I was talking to a friend who was very certain that she had endometriosis, who was having trouble getting her doctors to diagnose her condition and/or treat it effectively. Some of the details of her conversations with these doctors sounded absolutely unreal to me, and I became aware of this problem in the medical community: female patients with “female” complaints are treated dismissively. Even by female doctors. So when I heard about Abby Norman’s  Ask Me About My Uterus a few weeks ago, I ordered a copy immediately, wanting to better understand this insane phenomenon.

askmeaboutmyuterusIn the book, Norman opens her story on the day she first felt the pain that would come to define the rest of her life (so far). What begins as a few days of skipping class in hopes of recovering from her strange sickness leads to hospital visits, a surgery, a recommendation that she leave school altogether, and growing concerns as her diagnosis and treatment does little to combat her chronic pain. She takes the reader back through a childhood of abuse and perseverance, back further into a general history of female pain, and forward along the trajectory of her medical issues up to the date of publication.

I’ll warn you now, in case you haven’t surmised already: this is not a story that ends with a cure, with doctors being penalized for their failure to listen to women in pain, or with the resumption of Norman’s life and goals pre-symptoms. Ask Me About My Uterus contains its share of victories, but the problems it highlights are serious, numerous, and ongoing.

“If I, or any other woman whose gynecologic cancers or pathologies had gone undiagnosed, had just been sick in some other part of the body, in some other way, would it have been any different? Or would it not have mattered? Was the underlying preexisting condition being female? Does the congenital lack of a Y chromosome predispose a patient to worse outcomes regardless of what condition or disease they present with?”

If you’re thinking this book sounds too medical for your taste, never fear. Though Norman did work in a hospital for a time (and was able to access medical journals and see records that aided her personal research), this is not the writing of a doctor using impenetrable jargon to explore a niche condition. You come for an exploration of women’s pain, but you stay for a very readable memoir-style tale of one young woman’s eventful life. Norman begins to feel like a friend, whether any part of her experience is relatable to the reader or not.

“Of course, people lie to their doctors, too, but they usually lie to themselves first.”

Though Norman’s account is a very specific rendering of her own unique lifelong struggle with chronic pain (not limited to her endometriosis), perhaps the most shocking realization comes later in the book as we begin to see how very many women have been dealing with similar unresolved symptoms. There are plenty of infuriating moments when the reader sees how much of Norman’s unsatisfactory experience with the doctors who treat her (or refuse to) is a larger gender problem. Though endometriosis is not restricted to female bodies, the care that women receive for this condition is undeniably subpar. Furthermore, this indifferent attitude toward female pain extends well beyond endometriosis, and can be traced back hundreds of years. It’s hard to say whether Norman’s doctor paying more attention to her boyfriend’s concerns about his sex life than Norman’s reports of pain is more or less disturbing than accompanying historical factoids like this:

“It’s not uncommon to read old patient charts in which sexual relations- consensual or not- between patients and physicians were noted simply as a matter of fact, implying that such a relationship was not thought to violate ethical standards. It helped that, during the mid-nineteenth century, sedation was becoming increasingly popular as a first line of treatment for women for just about anything- particularly ether, which was highly addictive. Women who were in a semiconscious state were obviously particularly vulnerable to physicians who wanted to exploit them.”

I had only a few small obstacles between me and a 5-star read here, the first (due to no fault of the book) being that it simply wasn’t entirely what I had expected to be reading. From the title and subtitle (Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain), I expected this book to be… informational. Persuasive. And it is informational, but Norman’s personal life is the main focus. Her story is certainly persuasive and engaging, but it seems aimed at women experiencing a similar struggle with chronic pain who are looking for solidarity, and at the doctors that are being appealed to in hopes of initiating a change. I fit neither category. Though I did find it worthwhile to encounter a new-to-me perspective, the amount that I learned about the endometriosis struggle in general (especially after hearing about it from a close friend already) can be summed up in a few sentences; Norman’s life is a very interesting one that I appreciate having read about, but it left me wanting to know more about endometriosis than this book ultimately has to offer. And to an extent, I think that’s going to be an unavoidable reaction to any book currently available on the subject, as endometriosis is still a very nebulous disease with a lot of unanswered questions. I only wish I had known I was in for a mix of memoir and mystery when I picked this book up.

My other slight hangup had to do with the way Norman’s narrative skips through time. Though her chronology is clear enough that I followed the broad strokes just fine, there are some layers between her points that I found harder to place. For example, she mentions a specific job she had, or a person she lived with, or a period of time when she experienced a particular brand of pain, and uses each of those eras of her life to explore certain concepts or experiences. When it becomes confusing is when she references the same job/relationship/pain in a different context, leaving the reader wondering which events overlap and how they fit into the overall timeline. I think this confusion would’ve been completely resolved if Norman had used a linear chronology, but real life isn’t always structured in a convenient way for narration and skipping around allows her to keep the focus on women’s pain even in moments that aren’t strictly related to her endometriosis. There are also a few instances of past and present tense confusion within sentences and paragraphs, though generally what is meant is clear.

Aside from a bit of timeline confusion, Norman is a fantastic writer. She weaves real events, her own ruminations, and moments of humor and horror into her story, always circling back at the end of each chapter to drive every new element she’s introduced toward a common underlying purpose. We see bits of human history, her family history, and anecdotes from Norman’s friends alongside her own account, all centered around some aspect of female pain. She never looses a thread. Her perspective is one that every reader- nay, every person- should be aware of. I’m eager to spread the word.

“Even now, it’s been so many years since I’ve lived in a pain-free body that I don’t really remember what it feels like.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think anyone who has suffered from chronic pain or treated anyone for chronic pain is going to get a little more out of this book than I did, but I’m glad I picked it up nonetheless, and highly recommend it to anyone particularly interested in feminist and/or medical memoirs. Since the story is left open-ended, as Norman’s experience with chronic pain continues uncured, I would love to see a follow-up from her someday, and I sincerely hope the medical profession improves in the meantime. It was also very fascinating to be reading this so soon after The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments; I didn’t plan to focus so heavily on injustice relating to the female reproductive system this month, but they turned out to be excellent companion pieces. If you’ve also been reading Margaret Atwood lately… it might be time to pick up Norman’s book as well!

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Handmaid’s Tale Graphic Novel and Mary’s Monster

I read two graphic novels of sorts (one is very hard to categorize) last week, so here’s a two-for-the-price-of-one set of reviews!

 

thehandmaidstalegraphicnovelThe Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood, art and adaptation by Renee Nault – 4 stars

I picked up this adaptation of Atwood’s beloved modern classic as a quick refresher before diving into The Testaments (which I’ll hopefully be wrapping up and reviewing in a couple of days).

Initially, I realized that what I remembered most from the novel was the world of Gilead and all of its terrible rules of operation; I wasn’t quite as clear on the specific characters or events. The more I read, the more this pattern made sense, as the plot of this novel actually matters very little- it’s a vehicle Atwood (and here Nault) uses to explore the extremes of this political scenario. Our main character, Offred, isn’t special, she’s just the face chosen to show the reader the “norm” for the women of this society. Every other person that she interacts with- be they Handmaids, Marthas, Wives, Commanders, Guardians, Angels, Aunts, etc. are also singular faces representing a greater majority. They’re Gilead stereotypes. The power of the novel comes from the fact that for the reader, the revelation of every unjust detail of the  Handmaid’s existence is an event in itself. This is precisely why I wasn’t ready for a full reread of the actual novel yet- without its power to surprise with rampant sexism and very thorough slavery of women, The Handmaid’s Tale loses a substantial amount of its power.

With the graphic novel, excellent visual art made for a somewhat new experience with the familiar story. The colors used are bold and striking, with a tendency toward bright red, the style stark but not sparse. I thought Nault did a wonderful job of keeping each face unique and recognizable amidst a sea of matching uniforms. The art is understated but elegant.

The language also feels very true to Atwood’s original work; it’s been a little while since I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale so I can’t swear to Nault’s words being lifted directly from Atwood’s pages, but they gave me that impression. It’s a very faithful adaptation in content and spirit.

“Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.”

Well, faithful until the end. Throughout most of this read, it was a perfect 5 star experience; I couldn’t remember why I had only rated The Handmaid’s Tale at 4 stars and was fully prepared to love this graphic rendering even more than the original. But the last three pages take this narrative a step farther than the novel’s perfect, ambiguous ending, lending a hint of softness to what is otherwise a very bleak speculation of how far unchecked misogyny could go in the US. While I appreciate the framing concept behind those last three pages, and even marked a great quote from within them, they suggest a light at the end of the tunnel. This cautionary tale of what could (and does, in some places) happen to women in a world without feminism is buffered here by the closing indicator that no matter how bad things get, justice will win in the end. It seems to go against the entire purpose of the story, in my opinion. (Which is also part of the reason I’m struggling with The Testaments, but I’ll get more into that later.)

So, all in all, a fantastic rendering of a tale for the ages that I’d love to own a copy of someday, though I’d like to pretend the final scene it depicts doesn’t exist.

“As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it, but, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.”

 

marysmonsterMary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created FRANKENSTEIN by Lita Judge – 5 stars

I picked up this barely-categorizable work of art at Callum’s excellent recommendation, after adoring another ode to Shelley’s classic, Winterson’s Frankissstein. My love for Frankenstein grows exponentially the more I learn about Shelley’s real life, which of course is so intricately entwined with the themes of her novel.

“I am not just an unwed girl. / I can choose to forgive. / I can choose to live again, / broken but breathing, / half lover, half pain.”

Though I refer to this one as a graphic novel for ease of drawing on a familiar image, Mary’s Monster is actually a fictionalized account of Mary Shelley’s real life, told through non-rhyming poetry, and accompanied by gorgeous, haunting, black and white drawings. The color scheme reminds us that despite the first-person present-tense narration this story is grounded in the early 19th century. The art is pretty, with soft edges, but it conveys such a depth of pain and sorrow.

The book opens on Mary’s young childhood, and the tone and language put me in mind of YA lit (this impression was probably reinforced by the fact that it was shelved in the YA section at my library); I think this would be appropriate for a teen audience (perhaps English classes that require students to read Frankenstein might benefit from using this as an accompanying text), as long as readers are prepared for how dark a tale this is. As Mary grows up, her life becomes more tragic and complex, and all of her tragedies are caught up in her writing. Though I think I would have loved both Frankenstein and Mary’s Monster as a teen, I do however believe there’s a richer experience that comes from reading both as an adult.

So what is this story? It’s an account of Mary Shelley’s relationship with her eventual husband Percy (Bysshe Shelley) and with her own family, her struggle as a young mother and social outcast, the deaths she sees, and her resilience in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. Plus a lot of Frankenstein symbolism. Author Lita Judge has this to say of the of the book:

“The popular myth is that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was conceived spontaneously on a stormy night in answer to a dare to write a ghost story. That evening did occur, but countless events in Mary’s life before and after that evening played a much greater role in the horror novel’s creation. My story is an attempt to trace the many origins of her genius. It’s a testament to a resilient girl whose imagination, forged by isolation, persecution, and loss, created a new form of storytelling as a means of connecting with the very society that had socially exiled her.” 

I was slow to warm up to this one, but completely won over in the end. I am now in desperate need of a Frankenstein reread.

 

Ironically, it wasn’t until I suddenly remembered and promptly gave up on my goal to read more graphic novels this year that I picked both of these books up on impulse. I really should make a more serious attempt to follow through in 2020, because clearly the genre has a lot to offer. If you’re at all interested in The Handmaid’s Tale or Frankenstein, I can’t recommend these beautiful books highly enough.

Do you have any more graphic novel recommendations for me?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Turn of the Key

I’ve always had such fun with Ruth Ware’s thrillers (I think I’ve read all of them!) so of course I picked up her 2019 release, The Turn of the Key. I really liked this one, though I think I’m becoming a bit too familiar with Ware’s style… I saw through some of the mystery, though I still found it an engaging read!

theturnofthekeyIn the novel, Rowan answers a nannying ad that sounds like a perfect fit for her; in addition to great pay, she’d have a room in a private home in exchange for looking after 3 or 4 children (the eldest being away at school for part of the story) in a remote Scottish smart house while the parents are away for work. The catch is that between leaving her old job and moving from London for the new one, she has no time to familiarize herself with the house or the children before her new job begins. The smart system that runs the house seems to be acting up, and the children are fighting the presence of yet another new nanny- apparently the last few have been scared away by the house’s tragic history. Can Rowan brazen it out and find her footing in what could be a dream job, or will the house and the girls get the best of her?

“Maddie’s expression was very different, harder to read, but I thought I could tell what it was. Triumph. She had wanted me to get into trouble, and I had.”

In case you haven’t picked up on it by now, let me mention again that I love classic retellings. Ware’s The Turn of the Key is a loose retelling of Henry James’s eerie The Turn of the Screw, which I read and appreciated for its atmosphere and strangeness earlier this summer. The reader does not need to know anything at all about James’s original story to enjoy this thriller, which is more similar in setup than in plot, but I found the small connections quite amusing.

The Turn of the Key is formatted as a series of letters to a lawyer that the incarcerated nanny hopes will help her case; as the story opens, she has already been arrested for the death of one of the children. This structure, which assumes the lawyer already knows the basic facts of the sensationalized case (such as the nanny’s ulterior motive for applying to this particular job, and the identity of the dead child) allow our narrator to hint at but largely withhold key details from the reader and thus frame her tale as a mystery. Some of the nanny’s direct pleas to the lawyer and guesses at his reactions to the most controversial moments of her narrative felt overdone and pulled me out of the main story, but overall I found it an effective framing technique. There is some extra significance given to these letters at the end of the book that lends purpose to the structure. Once it gets going, the mystery flows well and it’s easy to retreat into Rowan’s experience with the children and the house until the letters become more essential to the story.

“It sounded… well… as if there was someone pacing in the room above my head. But that made no sense either. Because there was no room up there. There was not so much as a loft hatch.”

For readers new to Ware’s work, I think The Turn of the Key would be an excellent place to start. As usual, she gives us a remote location, a house that feels almost like a character in itself, a handful of side characters that are difficult to decide whether to trust, and a narrator with a secret up her sleeve. Intriguing  questions are introduced immediately. Some things seem “off” pretty early on- Rowan is a qualified nanny who does seem to care about children, but we know right away that she had another reason to apply for this particular job, and little details in the story she gives her new employers don’t quite add up. Then there’s the malfunctioning smart system in the house, which seems in perfect working order except that it seems to be following orders no one in the house is authorized to access in the control menu. But though some aspects may be a bit transparent, Ware still manages to hold the reader’s attention and offers a movingly human solution to the mystery of the unpredictable smart house. I was thrilled to discover this isn’t just another reiteration of technology going rouge with the belief that it knows better than the humans.

Though I did think the source of the novel’s suspense and ultimate solution seemed unique enough, this isn’t a ground-breaking thriller. I haven’t read any of the other titles from the recent nanny-thriller trend, but still found notable similarities to other recent thrillers I’ve read- the strain from lack of sleep, the too-good-to-be-true ad, the certainty that the culprit must be inside (or very near) the house, etc. It’s a fairly standard representative of its genre, though undeniably solid for its lack of flare.

My only real hold-up here is that I think I’m becoming too familiar with Ware’s style. I’ve read all five of her books now, with a bit less enthusiasm for each volume, though I think that trend comes down to my knowing Ware’s style well enough by now that she can’t quite shock me anymore, rather than a decline in Ware’s capability as a writer. I believe that if I had read her books in any other order, I would feel the same after finishing them as I do now- that the mysteries are becoming a bit too transparent to truly surprise me. And yet, even so, I always enjoy the creepy atmosphere Ware provides, the realistically flawed protagonists, the uneasiness over knowing that every strange occurrence is not a supernatural terror but the work of a malicious (or at least misguided) human hand. Though I saw through some of Ware’s slight-of-hand tactics here straightaway, I was nonetheless drawn in by the creepy noises and touchy technology, the difficult children, the dynamic between Rowan and the family/staff at Heatherbrae. I found this a quick, easy, and mostly satisfying read, despite its failure to stand out from the thriller crowd, and I would highly recommend it to the right reader.

“I did hate them- in that moment. But I saw myself, too. A prickly little girl, full of emotions too big for her small frame, emotions she could not understand or contain.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. There’s just something about Ware’s writing that keeps me coming back, and I did have a good time with this one just as all the others. I’ll probably pick up her next book, as well. But I’m also content to put the thriller genre aside for a little while- at least until I need something spooky to pick up in October.

What’s your favorite Ruth Ware novel?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Wall

I’m sure that with its recent exclusion from the Booker Prize shortlist interest in John Lanchester’s The Wall may already be decreasing, but I didn’t quite finish reading in time to review it beforehand, so here we are. In any case, this review is more likely to make you feel relieved you didn’t get to this one before the shortlist announcement rather than persuade you to pick it up- I don’t have many positive things to say.

thewallIn the novel, Joseph “Chewy” Kavanagh reports for duty on the Wall (or, the National Coastal Defense Structure); it’s a two-year post of rotating shifts for training, defending the country’s border, and resting the eyes- the glare of the sun off the water makes watching the Wall surprisingly difficult. As the result of a major environmental and climate Change, beaches no longer exist and countries have closed their borders to outsiders- in this case, by conscripting all new adults into active service on the Wall, where they are tasked with shooting any Others who approach. As conditions worsen elsewhere in the world, contact becomes more frequent, and more dangerous for everyone involved- for every Other who crosses the Wall, a Defender is “put to sea.”

“I wanted this time to be over, yet when I tried to think hard about what would be next, there was a blank.”

I should start by admitting that nothing about this novel struck me as overtly problematic. Though I didn’t enjoy the read, I didn’t find anything about it infuriating or alarming- it just didn’t deliver.

Right from the beginning of the novel, the first sentences about Lanchester’s Wall are very reminiscent of George R. R. Martin‘s descriptions of another popular Wall; not in style, but in imagery and sensory detail, as well as purpose (holding back the Others). Though it certainly helps to plant a visual in the reader’s mind, the author’s choice to piggyback off of existing content indicated a level of laziness and lack or originality that sadly persisted throughout the rest of the novel. (Is it possible Lanchester didn’t know about Westeros and the Night’s Watch? Perhaps, but wouldn’t an editor or early reader have made the connection?)

“It’s cold on the Wall. That’s the first thing everybody tells you, and the first thing you notice when you’re sent there, and it’s the thing you think about all the time you’re on it, and it’s the thing you remember when you’re not there anymore. It’s cold on the Wall.”

The repetition and sluggishness to make a point persist as well.

In the second chapter, we begin to see small poems about the Wall (and one about a Christmas tree, completely unrelated to the story at hand) that are offered only as further descriptors of life on the Wall and then are abruptly dropped from the novel; these are the book’s only claim to an interesting structure or experimental style.

“cold:::concrete:::wind:::sky:::water”

The rest is so straightforward that I wonder if it might fare better with a YA audience. If there’s one good thing I can say about The Wall, it’s that I flew through it because of the fast-paced and easy-to-read prose. The catch is that it’s so quick to digest because its parallels to current social and political issues are obvious, but the narration fails to take them a step further by making any new observations or giving a fresh perspective to the real-world events it riffs off of. To me, the setting and basic scenario felt like a well-built home that no one had moved into yet; it lacks life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot, because that’s really all The Wall has going for it, and despite this ranty review, I don’t mean to turn anyone away from reading this book or spoiling it for anyone who is interested- it is a perfectly adequate read. I’m not sure it’s an adequate Booker Prize nominee, but I don’t doubt that readers will be entertained or will be able to find worthwhile messages between the lines. The author does none of the heavy lifting in conveying worthwhile themes here, but a determined reader could make just about anything from the bare bones of this story that they wanted to. Personally, I found the foreshadowing made the events of the novel predictable and the morals overly simplistic, but this isn’t to disparage anyone who takes more from the reading experience than I have. It simply didn’t work for me.

“I’d been brought up not to think about the Others in terms of where they came from or who they were, to ignore all that- they were just Others. But maybe, now that I was one of them, they weren’t Others anymore? If I was an Other and they were Others perhaps none of us were Others but instead we were a new Us. It was confusing.”

In spite of all of my complaints thus far, I might still have chosen a higher rating if the ending wasn’t such a non-ending. Again, I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll say only that it seemed to me like a convenient and temporary fix that offered no real substance to the storyline. It has nothing to say about the Wall or the Others, no lesson seems to have been learned or advantage gained, none of the core conflicts are in any way likely to be resolved by the main characters’ concluding decisions. They seem as devoid of emotion and opinion as they had through the rest of the novel’s events, and their lack of investment in any sort of future plan makes the derailment of their lives a cold reading experience with incredibly low stakes. “Chewy” doesn’t use his new circumstances to reflect on what he’s been through or the state of  his world. And perhaps this is a statement in itself, though it proved ineffectual for me.

Unfortunately, this title was another low point of the Booker Prize longlist for me.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I’d seen some disappointing reviews before I got around to picking this one up, but I do enjoy a good sci-fi/dystopian tale now and then and hoped at least to be entertained. Instead, I found myself counting pages until the end, even thought the experience was not particularly difficult or time-consuming. This was just… not at all what I expected from a literary prize nominee.

Have you read this one, or anything else from John Lanchester? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant