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if you can’t stand to read about human rights violations today, scroll away now

Review: Made in China: A Prisoner, An SOS letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang

It pains me a little to warn readers off before getting properly into this review when I think it addresses one of the most important ongoing issues in the world today, and there are millions of people facing this issue in real time without the luxury of turning away out of discomfort, but… to help others we must first take care of ourselves, and reading morally difficult content may be counterproductive for some. In that vein, CWs include: confinement, forced institutionalization, genocide, gore, Islamophobia, racism, rape, slavery, suicidal thoughts, torture, and human trafficking. I’m going to talk about a few specifics in this review so again, turn away now if you’re not equipped for that today. But if you can, especially if you are a first-world consumer (don’t be fooled by the mention of America in the title; though written with an American audience in mind, this is a larger problem), I would highly urge picking up this book and/or educating yourself on the topic of ongoing forced labor.

Book Cover

Made in China is a new nonfiction book that opens with a US woman opening a package of party decorations and finding an SOS note sealed inside, written by the ailing Chinese man forced to produce the product. From here the book covers many related topics, including why it is so hard for the average American to make significant waves about this problem, how and why China came to be in the position to perpetuate forced labor of its own citizens, and the fate of the man who wrote this particular note. The book alternates between Chinese history, the horrifying extent of the current problem, and the moving plight of Sun Yi, one man caught in the maw of a dangerous system.

“Inspired by Soviet gulags, China’s first labor camps opened in the 1930s. China’s laogai system remains the largest forced-labor system in operation today. It includes a vast network of prisons, camps, and various extralegal detention centers. […] In these camps, millions of emaciated people must work fifteen to twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Many also undergo political indoctrination and torture.”

Made in China is a bleak book all around; I was initially dismayed at being given a detailed description of one torture experienced by Sun Yi straight away in the first chapter, but ultimately I think including something graphic so early on is a smart move on Pang’s part because it sets the tone for the darkness of the content to follow. Another smart move: sharing so much of Sun’s story with the reader. Made in China often threatens to bog us down in statistics, history, and politics, but Sun’s story spread across the book ensures that the reader never loses the human connection: the individual faces behind the numbers and facts. And Sun does see some victories- he’s got family and friends, and at one point a lawyer, to help him survive, people who support his decision even when he could walk free and clear of it all and chooses instead to expose as much of the truth as possible to help the others stuck inside. It can be hard to read about what Sun endures, but he is the beating heart of this book.

“He had been there so long he sometimes forgot he was alive.”

In addition to Sun as a subject, we’re also given some background on Chinese government, as a means of understanding why economic stability is tantamount to the current regime and how forced-labor and reeducation-through-labor camps double as a means of stifling potential rebellions. The chapters on Chinese political history, particularly relating to the persecution of Falun Gong (a type of religious/meditative/lifestyle practice) members, are among the densest of the book; one of the only downfalls to this reading experience for me was the feeling that each of these chapters could have been expanded into its own book without ever dipping into superfluity. There’s a lot of relevant information to cover, and Pang seems to do as well as anyone possibly could, condensing it into a readable length and sensible organization. Made in China can be a rough start for those like me who are woefully uneducated on Chinese life and history, but I do think this is a great overview that’s worth the patience required to sort through the denser pieces. The history is not enough to make one sympathetic to the regime’s choice of resorting to forced labor, but it does help the reader understand how China came to this point, and perhaps sympathize with those who know about and choose not to rebel against this system.

“Wolves would rather forage by themselves in the lonely wilderness, risking starvation and death than be well-fed in a cage. But humans are not the same.”

With that knowledge and Sun’s story to carry us through, Pang next delves into the breadth of the modern problem. Forced labor itself and all that entails sounds grim enough, but the surveillance methods for pinpointing ‘suspicious’ persons before any crime is committed, coupled with the fact that Chinese criminal courts convict in 99.9% of cases (for those allowed a trial at all in the first place), offers new frightening implications. Lest we brush that off, Pang presents an all but inarguable case suggesting that detainees are used not only for labor but also for organ harvesting, as the primary source for the entire nation’s billion-dollar transplant industry. And if that somehow doesn’t sound bad enough, wait until you get to the part where the people who are chosen as detainees and potential organ ‘donors’ are often those who practice any religion or philosophy beyond government-sanctioned ideologies. There is one entire corner of China populated primarily by Uyghurs, an ethnic minority Turkic people who have, historically, been practicing Muslims, and this is the area in which the forced labor situation reaches peak awfulness of genocide proportions:

“Once inside reeducation camps, the Turkic detainees attend daily indoctrination classes on official state ideology. They must prove they can reject Islam, forget their native tongue, and learn fluent Mandarin. There are reports of camps sterilizing Turkic women, while Turkic children are stolen from their parents and given to ‘orphanages’ that raise them as Chinese. In 2020, the Jamestown Foundation released a report analyzing Chinese government documents such as ‘family planning’ records. It found that between 2015 and 2018, forced sterilizations and abortions decreased the birth rate in two of the largest Uyghur prefectures by 84 percent. But this drop was not steep enough for China. The local government of one Uyghur region set a family planning goal of lowering the birth rate to nearly zero in 2020. Through forced sterilization and policies that strongly encourage interracial Han Chinese and Turkic marriages, the Chinese Communist Party is proceeding to wipe out an entire ethnicity.”

Pang has clearly done her research. Every statement of fact is sourced, with 40+ pages of notes in the back of the book linking each assertion to its roots, chapter by chapter. When she can’t claim something as a fact, she’s honest about the speculation, showing her path from fact to implication in a way that is nonetheless convincing for the lack of concrete proof. Considering that every survivor of these camps and every foreign investigator who questions or gets too close speaks out only at great personal risk, it is easy to see why some particulars may go unknown until an end to this problem has been reached. Even Pang closes her author’s note at the end of the book with a harrowing “thank you to my family in China, who knew nothing about this book; I’m so sorry if this will make your lives difficult.”

But Perhaps the scariest reveal of all for me here was just how hard it can be to do anything at all to help ease this situation from America, or even to refrain from supporting the practice monetarily. Where we put our money as consumers matters, but as a consumer it can be all but impossible to know for sure which products or brands to avoid due to forced labor sourcing. Even the company selling the the product may not know that their supplier is outsourcing for labor, because this is a layered issue where the truth can be hidden at multiple points. There are whole Chinese companies dedicated to fabricating factory records to outsmart audits, and the audits themselves may not be able to dig deep enough to discover illegal labor use in the time allotted.

“And so the million-dollar question is: Are any brands truly sustainable at the moment? Even companies that market themselves around ‘transparency’ and ‘sustainability’ often reveal little information about whether their audits can actually detect unauthorized subcontracting. I have yet to come across any companies that divulge how often they made sudden production changes, or how fast a turnaround they expect from factories. And without transparency about these sourcing practices, for all we know, even the most well-intentioned companies could be inadvertently sourcing from laogai factories.”

In my opinion, it’s going to be up to individual brands to risk higher profits by going out of their way to make sure that forced labor makes up no part of their production process. But that’s… the easiest possible way this all could end, in my view, and in a capitalist world it’s hard to imagine brands being that selfless by choice. Unfortunately it’s not hard to imagine several ways in which this could get worse before it gets better. There’s even some information in here about how our brains work while shopping in a way that motivates us to center the monetary cost over the human cost. And if that can be overcome, one also must confront the potential humanitarian disaster that could result from boycotting legal Chinese-produced goods along with the illegal forced labor stuff; while forced labor goods may make up a shockingly huge portion of the market, the majority of Chinese-based goods are probably not made this way, and over a billion innocent people depend on the stability of China’s economy just as much as its corrupt regime does. It’s bleak.

Pang doesn’t want to leave the reader entirely without hope though, and offers some questions in the final chapter of her book that we as consumers can ask of the companies we buy from in order to double check their production practices and help hold them accountable, but of course no one is obligated to answer these questions and the law around forced labor goods is slippery and full of loopholes. What we can all do, though, is be smart about our purchasing practices, and get into the habit of centering the human cost of the product over the monetary cost; so in case you don’t pick up this book for whatever reason, I’ll leave these purchasing prompts from Pang with you now:

  1. Do I already own something that serves the same purpose?
  2. Is this item so much better that I would be willing to donate three things in its place?
  3. If it were more expensive, would I still try to figure out a way to afford it? Or am I feeling an urge to buy this only because it’s extremely cheap?
  4. If the product I’m considering is an updated version of one that I already own, is my current one working just fine?
  5. Am I sure I will wear or use this product a lot? Or will this likely end up sitting in storage after one use?

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. And a good time to remind you that I rate based on personal reading experience, not on the importance of the content or objective merit of the book (which personally I don’t believe any person can do fairly). The experience was somewhat lessened for me by the extra effort it took to parse the densest chapters and keep up with shifting timelines, but I did by the end feel that I understood everything that had been covered and felt this an entirely worthwhile (and life-changing, tbh) read. I can’t emphasize enough how difficult of a read this is, but I also can’t recommend the read enough to anyone and everyone willing to brave the content. I cannot even fathom how this isn’t a hotter topic worldwide- let’s make it one.

(If you need any more incentive, May is AAPI reading month. I believe this book qualifies.)

The Literary Elephant

flashback to the ’50s

Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Women’s Prize progress: 6/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In the novel, Jean typically writes women’s columns for a small newspaper in the London suburbs, but she eagerly takes up a feature project when Gretchen Tilbury writes in claiming her daughter is the result of a virgin birth. Jean takes testimony from the women who were around Gretchen at the time of conception and is surprised to discover that her story holds. Jean enjoys the investigation, but befriending Gretchen’s apparently perfect family is what brings her the most joy and provides a much-needed break from Jean’s normal routine of caring for her elderly- and somewhat difficult- mother.

“‘Do you think it’s possible to hold two contradictory views at the same time?’ / ‘Perfectly. Religious folk do it all the time.’ / ‘So let’s say I think Mrs Tilbury is telling the truth, but I still don’t believe in virgin birth, and I see it as my job to close that gap.'”

Small Pleasures is a book full of potential, and though for me it fell far short of capitalizing on any of it, I can see why readers are loving it. (Or, loving it except for the ending, which I’ll come back to.) Set in 1957, this story follows an unmarried woman nearing 40 who adheres strictly to her duties even while she longs for the more social life she might have had if not for her largely housebound, anxious mother, who relies on Jean’s caretaking. It’s a perspective- especially in this sexist era- often overlooked or stereotyped as pitiable, which makes Jean all the more attractive as a protagonist. And she can be a convincing heroine; Chambers shares Jean’s thoughts and emotions with the reader, making her an easy character to sympathize with.

The plot is also layered and conducive of thought; I suspect this story would make for a great book club discussion. In addition to the virgin birth investigation with its foray into 50s medicine, Small Pleasures is also prominently a domestic drama. In an age when appearances and manners are everything, Gretchen (she of the virgin birth) seems to be the perfect wife, mother, and friend, offering Jean a glimpse into the life she wishes she’d been able to forge for herself. While Howard may not be the most attractive man, he’s impeccably kind and gentle, always does right by his family, and seems to Jean the best husband any woman could ask for. And Margaret, their ten year old daughter, is a sweet, funny girl who wins Jean’s heart immediately. As Jean gains faith in Gretchen’s tale, falls for Howard, and dotes on Margaret, it’s hard to mind the switch from mystery to a quiet exploration of love and longing. It’s all very atmospheric and engaging, a quick, easy read to submerse oneself in if this kind of story appeals.

But though it all seemed off to a promising start, my experience went quickly downhill. I might have fared better with the positives here if I’d warmed to Jean more from the beginning, but Chambers seems to take era authenticity seriously enough that instead of pushing boundaries Jean feels like a true product of her generation, the book’s narration offering no retrospective modern reflection. Small Pleasures feels like it could have been written in 1957, which is a testament to Chambers’ skill with language and setting, though it belies all of the progress women have made in the last six decades. Jean has completely internalized the sexism of her day, letting her boss call her ‘old gal,’ bemoaning (privately) her single, childless state and the burden of caring for her mother. Take this example, for instance, when Jean is visiting her mother during a brief hospitalization; between mentioning that her mother seems to be doing worse that day and clarifying that she means her mother’s mental state seems unstable, she makes this disappointed observation about the hospital staff’s beauty standards:

“When she arrived for evening visiting hours after a long day at work, she found her mother slightly worse. Someone had brushed her hair back off her face, destroying what was left of the curl, and giving her a severe and somewhat masculine appearance, which would have horrified her if she had been able to see it. Looking around, Jean noticed with dismay that the other patients had been treated to a similar grooming regime and now looked like members of the same androgynous tribe.”

Dismay! Over the patients looking androgynous! While they all- including her mother- are suffering from physical and mental ailments! Jean fits the 50s stereotype exactly. She’s just as concerned with keeping up appearances and idealizing that picture-perfect housewife life as every other “proper” 50s woman, even though her circumstances haven’t allowed her to achieve the necessary first step of marriage. Of course it makes sense that someone living in this time period would prescribe to the norms of the time, but in failing to challenge any of these outdated norms through Jean or even indirectly through the 3rd person narration, Small Pleasures comes across more like a misplaced homage than a story worthy of the 21st century.

On top of finding the historical perspective unimaginative, I also had a hard time condoning many of Jean’s personal choices. The trickiness of her budding relationship with Howard aside, there are two particular instances in which I think the narration should have suggested some criticism alongside Jean’s actions. One involves her poor response to the revelation of another woman’s trauma, and the other involves herjudgmental advice to a lesbian woman looking to leave her heterosexual marriage in order to reunite with her lover. In the latter instance Jean shows no consideration for the other women’s feelings and her stance seems to imply her belief that a heterosexual marriage is the only adequate environment in which to raise a child. Jean (and Chambers) does not treat the lesbians well in this story, which might have been used to some advantage had any sort of point been made through the women’s suffering, but instead only Jean’s disapproval comes through in the narration, to no good effect.

Granted, I already disliked Jean by the time these controversial scenes arose, and the situations are more nuanced (I’m trying to keep this review spoiler-free)- Jean means to do well by the person she sees as most vulnerable in both of these cases. Painting herself as the martyr when she really is only tangential to a greater problem here doesn’t come across well either, though. For Jean’s dislike of the lesbian relationship to run unchecked while she also upholds the picture-perfect heterosexual marriage as the ultimate goal seems like a sadly missed opportunity for Chambers to comment on how hard it must have been to live as anything other than heterosexual in this time period, or to acknowledge that marriage to a man is not the be-all and end-all for every woman. As I mentioned above, there is so much potential for reflection and commentary in this book, and yet, in my opinion at least, Chambers has chosen to smile and wave as all of those moments pass unacknowledged right underneath Jean’s nose.

However, many readers seem less perturbed about Jean’s behavior than I have been, and a few fumbled handlings and missed opportunities that seem mostly well-intentioned if a bit tone-deaf are hardly reason to advise avoiding this book like the plague. It is a decent read, if Jean manages not to alienate you. But there’s one more issue with this book that’s been generating some discussion: that ending.

Like many others, I disliked the abrupt left turn in the book’s conclusion. While it turns us toward an interesting topic/event, it just isn’t presented in a way that allows it to mesh with the rest of the book. Though this last big event is actually revealed somewhat sneakily earlier on, the book ends with an ominous, open-ended chapter and then requires an afterword longer than the coverage of this event in the novel to explain what has happened and why Chambers has included it. Even this explanation is not enough to convince me that this ending belongs here; it feels grafted onto a completely unrelated story, and without some stronger sense of unity between the two major parts at play, they only detract from each other, leaving the reader to wonder what the intended takeaway is. Should we be left ruminating on the virgin birth mystery that we’ve spent 300+ pages with, or is this other event that got hardly a mention but railroaded over the rest of the plot actually the larger focus? Furthermore, this ending leaves almost all of the main characters’ fates hanging unsatisfactorily. For these reasons, even while I like the idea of this ending, I wish it had been presented differently or omitted.

“She wondered how many years- if ever- it would be before the monster of awakened longing was subdued and she could return to placid acceptance of a limited life. The journey into love was so effortless and graceful; the journey out such a long and laboured climb.”

CW: rape (off page), infidelity, death (implied), abortion leading to medical complications

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There are some cozy mystery vibes here and a solid attempt at a unique and compelling heroine, so I can see why others are having better experiences with this book, but it was all around Not For Me. Personally I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to pick this one up if you’re picking and choosing from the shortlist, and it’s the only longlisted Women’s Prize book I’ve read so far this year that I actively don’t want to see make the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

a modern love triangle

Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Women’s Prize progress: 5/16 (though not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, Ava has moved from Dublin to Hong Kong post-university, and is teaching English as a foreign language to local children while she tries to sort out what to do with her life. At a bar she meets Julian, a British investment banker, who likes keeping her around even though he insists she is not his girlfriend. They use each other, and Ava continues living in his apartment while he takes a months-long work trip to London. In his absence, she meets someone else, a Chinese lawyer named Edith, a woman who wants a real relationship and is kind to Ava. But Ava is living in Julian’s apartment and part of her feels the toxic relationship she has with him is what she deserves. Of course, he won’t be away forever, so she won’t be able to hide them from each other for long.

“I told myself: This is why you’re single. This is how you can be having sex with two people, tell neither about the other, be living with one of them, and still be single.”

While Exciting Times focuses on two (very different) romances, it is much more of a literary character study than a romance novel. Ava’s relationships with Julian and Edith represent two sides of herself at a moment when her life is at a crossroads. Her TEFL job is temporary, and she’s landed in Hong Kong not because she has any personal connection to it but rather out of a strong desire to leave Dublin, where she’d felt the need to hide her bisexuality. And despite how easy it may sound to choose the loving relationship over the toxic one, part of Dolan’s brilliance here is showcasing how complex it can be for someone to choose something that might ultimately be good for them- Ava enjoys the detached banter she and Julian have perfected to an art form, feels like she understands him, and, for all his rich male flaws, Julian is easier to talk to her mother about, whereas she’s wary of how her Irish Catholic family would react to being told about her girlfriend.

The book is divided into three sections. The first follows Ava’s developing relationship with Julian, showing the reader how they met, why they seem to tolerate and loathe each other simultaneously, and how Ava comes to be living full time in the guest room of his apartment. The next section takes place while Julian is away on business, focusing on Ava’s budding romance with Edith from those awkward early days of obsessing over the meaning of every little thing she does to how Ava balances this new relationship with her already-established tie to Julian, and how even a good thing can make one feel boxed in and afraid. Finally, in the last section, the inevitable conflict sparked by Julian’s return arises and Ava must face up to the mess she’s made of juggling them both, and decide which path forward she should take.

“At least Julian was honest. He’d never experienced anything but permission, I hated him for it, but all the same I was glad he knew he had it. Most men with permission never realized.”

“Edith was calm about things she couldn’t change. Her firm was full or horrible men and she had to be nice to them. You did in every job, and at least hers paid well.”

Though each section has its own merits, Exciting Times‘s greatest fault may be that it tries to present each portion of the book as though it bears equal weight. While each of the three sections is necessary to advancing Ava’s predicament, the segments looking at Ava’s individual relationships with Julian and Edith feel introductory, and introductory chapters have no business taking up two thirds of a book. The final segment of the novel that brings the three main characters all into the same space at last and pits Edith and Julian against each other is by far the most interesting, though it’s slightly shorter than either of the two earlier segments. The friction between Ava and Julian helps move the first part of the book along, though I didn’t need as many pages as were provided to get the gist of their dynamic, and Ava’s comparatively healthy relationship with Edith in the middle of the book, the longest segment, is so devoid of conflict and surprise that it borders on downright boring. The only tension in this portion of the book is the looming awareness that Ava is lying to both Julian and Edith about what’s going on and will have to face the consequences in the near future- I spent most of these pages just waiting for the expected drama of the final piece.

But despite finding the novel unbalanced, it was overall a fantastic read. Though Ava’s life is nothing like mine, though she can be contrary and cold, I found Ava’s narration surprisingly relatable. Don’t we all feel the urge to self-sabotage sometimes, and get in our own way? I found it easy to sympathize with Ava for getting into a relationship with someone she knew was bad for her, and just as easily understood the craze of finding someone who excites you, stalking their social media (but being careful not to like anything, especially not anything old) and then pretending indifference in front of them so as not to give yourself away. And it’s not only the romances that felt fitting here: Ava is a modern young-twenties woman concerned with feminism, the pitfalls of capitalism, the worsening climate crisis, etc.; she toggles between presenting these views outwardly as part of her identity and realizing inwardly that actually she might be bad at acting out her ideals. And she’s got that familiar 21st century internet-era malaise:

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

Throughout the book, the reader also takes a pleasant dive into Ava’s TEFL classes, which prompt her to consider the differences between the English she learned growing up in Ireland, “proper” British English, and the the students’ Hong Kong English, small grammar tics she’s supposed to correct lest they give these children away as non-native speakers. There are English language sounds that she can’t make with her Irish accent and formal grammar rules she’s required to teach that go against what she’s learned as a native speaker. It’s an exploration of language that digs into class, privilege, and communicability in a way I found immensely appealing. Though Ava’s teaching work is more or less routine and has little bearing on the more prominent love triangle plot, the commentary around her language usage does provide further insight into Ava’s societal views and how she relates to (or doesn’t) the people and cultures around her.

And perhaps best of all, this entangled romance is probably the most convincing case for polyamory I’ve ever read, though ultimately it won’t work here. The three main characters make an odd trio and it’s not an entirely healthy relationship for anyone while Ava is seeing both Julian and Edith, but these two relationships fulfill different needs for her such that it’s hard not to imagine a world where she might manage to balance them both. I absolutely loved the excitement and tension of seeing the three of them trying to function together (brief though that portion of the novel is), and found myself frustrated when Ava is eventually forced to make a choice due to logistics and the preferences of her partners.

But this is more of a story about our messy, modern way of connecting to others than about right and wrong, so even when I disliked these characters or their actions I found them believable and had great fun following along.

CW: toxic relationship

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had been wanting to read this book for months and was glad the Women’s Prize nomination gave me that extra nudge to finally pick it up. Though it wasn’t always a smooth read, I thought it encapsulated a bit of the messy drama of exploring one’s social identity, and explored character dynamics in a memorable way. I’d be happy to see this one advance to the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

long live disaster women

Review: Luster by Raven Leilani

Women’s Prize longlist progress: 4/16 (I am not planning to read all 16 longlisted titles this year but am not sure yet how many I will read.)

Book Cover

In this novel, Edie is a young artist working for a publishing company that won’t put her in the art department. In return, Edie refuses to be the Black hire who works twice as hard and sucks up to her colleagues as though to apologize that she isn’t as white as the rest of them. But anyone could do her job, and Eidie knows it’s only a matter of time before the new Black girl, who is willing to play by white rules, gets her spot. And who can Edie turn to when the going gets rough? The guy she’s seeing is an older white man in an open marriage, and while even Edie knows this is a bad idea she can’t resist. Luckily his wife is willing to hold out a helping hand- such as it is- in Edie’s hour of need, in exchange for Edie’s guidance with the white couple’s Black daughter.

” ‘You noticed our daughter. When you came to the house,’ she finally says, and in this moment it becomes clear to me that despite this evening-long conspiracy, she is moving toward her most natural conclusion, which is to engage me not as a person who has just watched her dissect a man but as a person who is black, and who is, because of that, available for her support.”

I’ve been struggling with this review, because I did not enjoy the read nearly as much as I expected even though on paper Luster is pretty much perfect for my reading taste. It’s one of those messy/disaster woman books in which a young millennial seems to be deliberately tanking her life; in this case, Edie is sleeping around with everyone at the office who catches her eye, putting no effort into staying ahead of the new hire who’s clearly working her way up the office hierarchy. And then there’s Eric, the white guy whose biggest attraction seems to be that he’s significantly older than Edie. She knows he won’t be leaving his wife, and his relationship with Edie is selfish and unhealthy, but maybe Edie is looking to be used. On top of all this are the rejections of her art, the rent increase she can’t afford, the end of her health insurance coverage, a series of increasingly ill-fitting job interviews, and lingering grief over the death of her mother. Edie is down on her luck, a bit lost on her journey of self-discovery, and all she wants is to make bad decisions like the rest of us and scrape by until she stumbles upon something better. Why shouldn’t she have that?

I never tire of this sort of book, and the fact that Leilani is offering a captivating Black protagonist amid a predominantly white category of literature is appealing in itself. Many disaster women books by nature engage in a feminist commentary that challenges the societal expectations regularly placed upon women and the harsh consequences of failing to live up to that model standard; Leilani takes this commentary a step farther by reminding the reader of how much higher that bar of expectation is for women of color, and how any period of complacency- even one justifiably fueled by grief and job frustration- can tear everything she’s built down in a moment and leave her with barely a foothold for finding a next step. It’s a timely and important theme, and for me at least, always a pleasure seeing women be women, in all their flawed complexity.

In addition, Leilani is simply an incredible writer. Her prose is perceptive and bold, making skillful and relatable connections between the tangible, modern world and Edie’s emotions. Even though my circumstances are nothing like any of these characters’, I marked so many lines that reflected a true feeling I’d had and never known how to articulate, which is exactly the sort of sharp, intellectual narration that impresses me most.

“It’s not that I want exactly this, to have a husband or home security system that, for the length of our marriage, never goes off. It’s that there are gray, anonymous hours like this. Hours when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void.”

And yet, for all of these positives, Luster focuses so heavily on its main character and themes that I found the overall story to be missing a necessary hook. Surprisingly for a book just over 200 pages, I set Luster down so many times and always had to talk myself into picking it back up. I think the reasons for this are twofold:

First, there’s so little plot to this novel. Such is the case with many character studies, and in Edie’s case in particular I think it’s fair to say that the whole point of the book is the derailment of Edie’s life. She doesn’t know what to do next or how to go about it, so of course her narration wanders uncertainly from one encounter to the next, just waiting for something to happen to give her a sense of direction again. She spends the entire novel trying to rediscover who she is as a person and as an artist. It makes sense , and yet the meandering story line can make for a challenging investment.

“I wake up in the morning and think for a moment that I am someone happier and then I remember where I am.”

Another disappointment for me was Edie’s relationship with Rebecca, Eric’s wife, and this disappointment stems largely from having read too many reviews before picking up this book myself, I think. I knew based on others’ reactions not to expect much from Eric- and indeed, he’s more interesting for the role he plays in Edie’s life than as a character in his own right. He really is just another white guy who doesn’t have much going for him beyond the privilege he’s lived with for so long. In contrast, may reviewers seem to have liked the relationships that develop between Edie and Eric’s wife and daughter. The daughter is a pre-teen, and her relationship with Edie is a bit rocky as the two are thrown together with little more than skin color as a commonality. Even as they eventually grow closer, this is clearly an adult/minor relationship in which Edie cannot voice her woes, and thus I was looking to Rebecca as someone I hoped would be a little closer to a friend for her, a peer.

Many other readers have called Edie and Rebecca’s relationship a friendship, but unfortunately I never saw it as such. Instead, even while they occasionally do nice things for each other, I saw them more as rivals circling each other out of curiosity and a need for validation. It is always an unbalanced relationship in which Rebecca has the upper hand and does not hesitate to exercise the power of that position. Even offering Edie a place to stay at a time when Edie is considering the legality of sleeping in her rental storage unit seems to be a way for Rebecca to show Edie what she, Edie, doesn’t have with Eric, and what Rebecca does. Their actions around each other feel like a performance- even scenes when the two seem to be comfortably spending time alone together feel like a demonstration of tolerance, just two people proving their humanity to each other in resistance of the natural rivalry they feel. It strikes me as no healthier than Eric’s affair with Edie. And while it may seem unfair to criticize Luster for failing to present something it never promised to, something that I only latched on to from others’ (equally valid) impressions, I think one positive relationship in this story might have been enough to draw me back into the plotless wallowing. If not Rebecca, then someone else. I needed something to hold on to while Edie was stumbling around, waist-deep in injustice and negativity. Unfortunately, Luster didn’t deliver that.

“If I’m honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence.”

Nevertheless, with its examinations of race, grief, artistry, capitalism, and modern relationships, this is absolutely a worthwhile addition to the disaster women category (long may it reign) and to the Women’s Prize longlist this year. It’s a strong debut that’s leaving me eager to pick up whatever Leilani will write next.

CWs: racism, police brutality, miscarriage, death of pet (mentioned with the implication that someone has harmed it, but this is not detailed explicitly), physical abuse, grief (relating to death of a parent)

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t particularly expect to see Luster on the WP shortlist in a couple of weeks, but I’m glad to have read it and to see so many others doing the same. Leilani is certainly an author to watch.

The Literary Elephant

into the labyrinth

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Women’s Prize Longlist 2021 Progress: 3/16

Piranesi

In this novel, a man called Piranesi (though this is not his name) lives in a labyrinthine House that consists entirely of elaborate classical Halls that are filled with Statues and washed by the Sea. For Piranesi, this is the entire World. He keeps an extensive Journal, recording both scientific observations and any notable occurrences or day to day thoughts. Through these entries, we learn about his movements through the Halls and his immense Knowledge of them, as well as the Events that begin to unravel his understanding of this World and his place in it.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

This is a difficult book to talk about, because despite everything I’d like to say, the less you know going in the better. And yet, how do you know if you want to go in unless you have some idea of what the book’s about?

There is a fantasy/sci-fi aspect to Piranesi, which probably narrows the field of readership a bit, but I’d argue that the otherworldly details are more of an intriguing background that won’t necessarily make or break the experience, while the deeper theme of coping with trauma and the driving forces of logic and mystery will more likely be the determining factors for reader appreciation.

At it’s core, Piranesi is a puzzle of a novel; it is a book for those who love inventive (though still very accessible!) structuring and clues. A great fan of mysteries and puzzles myself, I wholeheartedly loved the slow unveiling of subtle hints. Everything we learn about this World opens a door to further questions, many of which are answered through Piranesi’s observations and exchanges with the Other in ways that Piranesi himself does not seem to grasp. The Other is the only other living Person that Piranesi typically interacts with in the House. For a time, the Other and various features of the House itself are the only things Piranesi comes into contact with to provide context of what he is like outside of his own Head.

Because we are learning about our MC through his Journal, it is a very internal story in some ways; luckily Piranesi shares dialogue, movements, and entire thought processes- he places great weight on data, logic, and records. But the reader can learn as much about Piranesi’s circumstances by looking beneath the surface of the stated to note what is and isn’t important to him in these recordings: aided by his tendency to capitalize every significant noun, and his avoidance of certain seemingly obvious questions (if Piranesi meets with the Other twice a week in one specific Room, knows the Other doesn’t venture further into the House, and never sees him in the central Rooms outside of that appointed meeting hour, where does the Other go?).

The downside to this narrative approach is that it is immediately clear that Piranesi’s World is not our world; there is an imbalance of knowledge between character and reader. Thus, certain revelations about Piranesi’s past and present circumstances come as monumental shocks to him when the curious reader has already been able to guess the truth, somewhat lessening the impact of big reveals after all the careful clue-dropping has worked it’s magic. However, the gradual realization that Piranesi’s ignorance is in large part a coping mechanism makes it easy to forgive the novel for occasionally making clear the same point twice. Piranesi’s thoughts, actions, and narrative style are so directly linked and speak so well toward the ways in which a person might react to trauma that it’s hard to ignore the brilliance at work here even when things feel a little too spelled out.

But I’m brushing up against spoiler territory and don’t want to get too close, so let’s turn away from the mystery now and look toward the fantasy/sci-fi element: Piranesi’s World. I want to call it fantasy, because that’s generally what you do with an entire world that is an unending House throughout which Tides and Statues are abundant. It’s an extraordinary place. Beautiful, but also brutal, in a potentially deadly way that makes one respect it all the more. Some of the Halls are derelict, some Tides violent, and classical architecture is not much protection against the elements of the Seasons.

“There is a thing that I know but always forget: Winter is hard. The cold goes on and on and it is only with difficulty and effort that a person keeps himself warm. Every year, as Winter approaches, I congratulate myself on having a plentiful supply of dry seaweed to use as fuel, but as the days, weeks and months stretch out I become less certain that I have sufficient. I wear as many of the clothes as I can cram onto my body. Every Friday I take stock of my fuel and I calculate how much I can permit Myself each day in order to make it last until Spring.”

But this World and… how it works, for want of a better phrase… functions scientifically and logically within the novel, so calling it sci-fi or speculative is just as valid a choice. Classification is up to the reader, really. Whatever you want to call it, this World is lovingly rendered and evocative in such a way that it makes Piranesi a delight to read even when the themes turn dark or the mystery feels too obvious. If you’re looking for escapism, what better than a labyrinth built right on the sea?

If it hasn’t been clear, the only thing that would have improved this read for me further would’ve been a bit more surprise in watching the mystery unfold, but timing with solving the mystery will probably vary reader to reader and in any case there is enough else here to appreciate in depth and detail to make this novel worth recommending. I suspect it will be a polarizing read, but I hope more readers will take a chance on it. I think this is the sort of fantasy/sci-fi that could appeal to readers who don’t normally reach for those genres, because the science isn’t too technical and this world does not involve any supernatural creatures or spells. It’s ambiguous enough that the otherworldly element could be explained away by an alternative explanation, if one really doesn’t like magic as an answer. The mystery is layered and intelligent, but the gaps in Piranesi’s knowledge make it a fair choice even for readers who won’t want to do the heavy lifting of sifting through his clues before Piranesi understands what has happened. You can engage as much or as little as you like- the House has something to offer for all.

CWs: kidnapping, imprisonment, gaslighting, gun violence, death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. A very strong 4- I loved reading this. Unfortunately it’s too early to say whether I would predict or want this book to advance to the Women’s Prize shortlist, but barring the possibility that there might end up being 6 other longlisters I’m even more attached to, I can safely say I wouldn’t be disappointed to see this one stay in the running!

The Literary Elephant

life without bees

…would be bleak, if Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees (translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley) is any indication!

In this novel, an English man in 1852 throws himself into inventing a revolutionary hive for beekeepers, hoping his work will bring fame and fortune to the family he’s struggling to provide for. On another timeline, an American man in 2007 tends to the bee farm that’s been in his family for generations, though his wife would prefer to sell and their son would rather pursue journalism than take up the mantle. Finally, a Chinese woman in 2098 works long hours pollinating fruit trees by hand; she and her husband barely make enough money to keep themselves and their small son fed in a world devastated by food shortages, in the wake of mass bee extinction.

The three threads are linked, on one side a bit more directly than the other; the narration weaves back and forth between each of the main timelines, drawing parallels between the three parents who are all in their own way trying to guide their children into a life of stability. However, the adults all seem to be afflicted by the same parental blindness, believing that what’s best for their sons is to keep them close behind on the paths the parents themselves have forged, using the lessons learned from past mistakes and lost opportunities to show the children how to succeed where others- perhaps even themselves- have failed. Of course, the children have their own dreams and ideas about what’s best for them and nothing goes quite as planned.

“It was as if I’d created a bond between my own childhood and his, between us and the world, between the world and the universe.”

This is actually the part of the novel that worked the least well for me; as someone who has only ever been the child in the “parent knows best” tug of war, I was not especially inclined to feel sympathetic toward the parent narrators trying to reshape their sons’ futures, good as their intentions may have been. The trajectories of these relationships feel drawn out and obvious. I would much rather have seen these three characters more clearly as individuals, with the focus primarily on their bee-related passion projects, than so preoccupied with their familial relationships. Of course parents are often preoccupied with trying to care for their children, but that can be true without also redirecting the entire novel (though perhaps parents who can relate to worrying about their children in this way may find the family focus a more appealing aspect altogether than I did). Giving the reader more than one generation to invest in along each timeline does help bridge the gaps between the centuries covered here, but I think The History of Bees would have stood firm (perhaps even firmer) without losing focus on the relationship between humans and bees over time to a very repetitive sort of family drama replaying itself over and over again.

What interested me most here was, by far, the bees. This is a fiction book, not a source of scientific authority, but there are some fascinating asides detailing how bee colonies function, some of the labor involved in beekeeping, general bee habits, and population changes across a span of decades. I did not know, for instance, but have looked up on my own to confirm, that bee farmers rent their bees to fruit farmers for pollination purpose; apparently apiarists really do pack their hives up on trucks and tour them around to make a little money aiding fruit production. I was also unaware of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which seemingly healthy colonies suddenly abandon their homes and disappear in large numbers, for unknown reasons. I loved seeing how a beekeeper might feel about these parts of the job, how they could affect the work both logistically and emotionally.

“In 1988 the number of hives had been halved. Bee death had afflicted many places, in Sichuan as early as in the 1980s. But only when it struck in the US- and as dramatically as it did precisely in 2006 and 2007, farmers with several thousand hives suffered mass disappearances in the course of a few weeks- only then did The Collapse receive a name. Perhaps because it happened in the US, nothing was really important at that time until it happened in the US: mass death in China didn’t merit a worldwide diagnosis. That’s how it was back then.”

The economic Collapse that occurs in this novel in conjunction with the dying out of the bees is futuristic and built upon speculation, but Lunde’s proposed science provides intriguing food for thought and feels plausible enough. This part of the book, the explanation of Lunde’s dystopia and the weaving together of the three narrative threads, was another strong suit for me. Unfortunately this comes very late in the novel; despite the shortness of the chapters and frequent switches between characters to keep the plot from stagnating at any point, I found the majority of the read to be dull and dry, my time with the book mainly spent waiting for those impending connections as the characters walked slowly into fates that are all too obvious, sometimes even to the characters themselves:

“Perhaps I had known it all along, but couldn’t bear to take it in, because it was too big, too important.”

Ultimately, I do appreciate how all of the pieces of this plot fit together, as well as the environmental themes I’m left with. It’s simply much more pleasing to consider this novel in concept after the fact than it was to read through, and I’m not sure that I have any good ideas about what might have improved it for me. Perhaps if the whole thing had been presented as a heavily bee-detailed dystopian with more expansion on the futuristic timeline given up front, and the historical portions left as more of a footnote? The characters from the past do have their place here, but those old family squabbles carry very little of the book’s weight.

A final nagging complaint: either Lunde or Oatley seems to have had a penchant for placing commas between full sentences, where periods, dashes, semicolons, or just about any other stylistic choice would have made a better fit. I take no issue with the prose itself, but the comma usage gave the whole narrative an awkward flow I could never quite get past.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I finally read this one, even if I didn’t find it quite as scintillating as I’d hoped. And I’m leaving this experience more interested in learning about bees and how necessary they are to human life than I was when I began, so I’ll chalk this up as a win. Further bee-related recommendations (of any genre) are welcome!

The Literary Elephant

it’s always a good time to read Black History

I wanted to post this review earlier, as a recommendation for Black History Month reading, but since we’re nearing the end of the month I’ll share a reminder instead that Black History is well worth reading year-round; Robert Jones, Jr.’s new historical fiction novel The Prophets was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and let me assure you that you can believe the hype with this one!

The Prophets

In the novel, Samuel and Isaiah share a close bond after finding each other in childhood and growing into their shared job tending the animals in Empty’s barn (circa 1830’s). Empty is what the Black folk call the Deep South plantation where they live and labor- Empty because it is a heartless place. When one enslaved man decides to ask the master for a favor, he turns to Christianity as a means of convincing the white man of his worthiness and sincerity. The master prides himself on his religion, and through the power of his new disciple’s sermons most of the enslaved are swayed to the side of the Christian gospel, where they begin to see Samuel and Isaiah’s love as a grievous sin, paving the way for further animosity.

“Empty was another thing. It was the deepest. It was the lowest. It was the down and below. It was the bluest depth. It was the grave and the tomb. But briefly, ever so briefly, you could still come up for air. Despite the blood and the screams and the smothering hot, here, too, was where Essie sometimes sang in the field and made the picking less monstrous, if not less grueling.”

The Prophets is a beautiful, nuanced book that addresses many injustices faced by enslaved persons in antebellum US, taking its narrative a step farther than other popular fiction on this topic by centering LGBTQ+ experiences. At the center is, of course, the relationship between the two gay main characters, but they are not the only characters defying heteronormativity in one way or another. Though quite a few of the atrocities doled out to Black people on plantations in this time period are details I’ve come across before, they are used here not as individual shocks but rather as incremental weights steadily increasing the burden of homophobia on the shoulders of our main characters and their allies.

I found the prose style artistic enough to be a little challenging in places- the story itself is easy enough to follow, but Jones’ structure and wording bears enough poetic weight that what you get out of the writing will probably be proportional to the effort you put into parsing it. If you’re here for the plot alone, you’ll be just fine, but the brilliance of Jones’ prose is that it holds up to much closer scrutiny as well. Likely some of the cultural meaning went over my head, but as a white reader and reviewer I didn’t necessarily feel that all The Prophets has to offer was meant for me, which is fair. I’d call The Prophets light literary fiction with a high level of commercial appeal.

“Everyone got a turn, at some point, to be on top or on bottom. It didn’t matter how good you were or how evil you were. All that mattered was that you were alive and, therefore, unsafe. Subject to His will in the here and, likely, the hereafter. And His will was as brutal as it was arbitrary.”

Another key feature here is the examination of religion. The Prophets is structured similarly to the Christian bible, the chapters in roughly chronological order but each exploring a different perspective or facet related in some way to a greater narrative tapestry. Many of the chapter titles directly echo bible chapter titles, playing on and often critiquing how white folk have used various biblical stories and themes for their own benefit, by reframing it all to centralize Black history and culture.

The entire novel is a commentary on religious bigotry and the toxicity of patriarchy, but the best part is that it’s delivered in a measured way that condemns the bigotry without falling into the simplistic maneuver of bashing Christianity as a whole; it also condemns white supremacy, duly calling out those who cause harm, without falling into the simplistic maneuver of labeling all white people as inherently villainous. The white characters are the villains here, of course, and Jones doesn’t go easy on them. But he lays out their actions and motivations in such a way that the reader can see how white supremacy ultimately fails everyone, even those it serves to uplift- a message that retains its value today and proves the continued relevance of the book’s themes and topics in contrast to many modern Americans’ belief that US slavery and all its accoutrements is a thing of the past.

“There was no such thing as monsters. Every travesty that had ever been committed had been committed by plain people and every person had it in them, that fetching, bejeweled thing just beneath the breast that could be removed at will and smashed over another’s head before it was returned to its beating place.”

It’s an ambitious book and there were occasional moments when I wondered whether The Prophets might be taking on a little too much; the cast of characters is large and the list of grievances endured by those enslaved runs the constant risk of feeling like a checklist of horrors, but Jones manages to link every moving piece of this story successfully, using its broad scope to show how very widely and negatively the effects of homophobia and religious bigotry can spread throughout an entire community, reaffirming that the side of acceptance and allyship is worth standing on even for cis-het folks who might want to think themselves safe in the choice of holding on to homophobia or even neutrality.

The only area where The Prophets was a little less successful for me was in its episodic nature, and this is more a reflection of the type of reader I am than any fault with the book. Much like the bible, each chapter of The Prophets is separate enough that it could probably stand alone fairly well, and possibly the pieces could even be read out of order without losing the overall affect. Jones times introductions to character histories brilliantly, but he also gives those characters secondary roles in chapters that highlight other perspectives so that the details are layered together in such a way that it’s impossible to pick up on everything at once- it’s a book that would make for a rich reread, I’m sure. But because the book is something of a patchworked piece, I did find it easy to put the book down at any point and harder to get back into the flow of the story when picking it up again.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can absolutely see why this book has been making waves, and I hope it’ll continue to do so. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it faring well with the book prizes this season. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for future work from this author.

The Literary Elephant

are reality dating shows romantic?

Review: One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London

One to Watch

In this novel, Bea is a popular plus-size fashion blogger who goes viral for a posted complaint about all of the female stars on reality dating show Main Squeeze being model-thin; for a show whose purpose is to uphold the prospect of fairytale love for the ‘average’ American, shouldn’t the cast be more… representative of actual Americans? Bea would like to know.

She’s been unlucky in love herself, but when the season of Main Squeeze that she criticized flatlines and the producers decide to try a new tactic by hiring Bea as the next star, it’s not exactly love she signs on for. So much of reality dating tv is staged, she knows, and the engagements from each season’s final episode tend to last the contractual six weeks before the couple cuts ties. But going on the show would boost Bea’s fashion business and help show women who look like Bea that they can have fairytale love, too. With twenty-five eligible men vying for her hand though, will Bea be able to keep love out of the arrangement?

“…a lot of people find the existence of a fat woman something to get worked up about.”

CWs: body shaming, fatphobia, sexism, infidelity

I’m afraid this review is going to come off as a rant by the end, but I did appreciate a lot of things about this book and enjoyed the read, so I want to start off with some positives.

The body positivity and critiques of fatphobia first and foremost are incredible here, as one might expect from the premise. Bea is the main narrator throughout the book and is presented as a full, complex human being who calls out those who wrong her and deals with trolls on the internet and occasionally makes a bad call, as do we all. She’s humanized through and through, and while her experience as a plus-size woman colors every part of her life, Stayman-London avoids the mistake of letting Bea’s fatness make up her entire characterization.

“If the other kids just didn’t pay her any mind, that meant they weren’t being cruel, either. But being ignored is its own kind of hurtful.”

There’s some great diversity among the rest of the cast, as well. Main Squeeze has just changed hands from a lazy old white guy producer to a young woman on the rise and eager to move the show in a more inclusive direction. Bea’s bachelors include a Black man, a Frenchman, a single dad with a gender-nonconforming child, an asexual and aromantic man, a fat man, and more. Bea’s best friend is a lesbian. The best part is that all of these characters are given great scenes in which they get to just be a person- they’re not stereotyped, but their actions and advancement on the show make some great statements as well. I don’t want to say more and spoil any of the twists of Bea’s Main Squeeze episodes, but let me assure you that there are so many positive messages in One to Watch, both directly in the prose and also in the structure of the plot. (Watch out for those internet trolls though, they do spew some absolute venom along Stayman-London’s road to incredible commentary.)

And it’s not only the inclusivity. One to Watch is FUN. Woven in with the narration are bits of multimedia related to Bea and Main Squeeze– texts, group chats, think pieces, blog posts, tabloid articles, contracts, emails, tweets, interviews, and more. Though the book did get off to a bit of a slow start for me, once Bea is on Main Squeeze even the chapters are laid out as episodes of the show, complete with bits of script and film direction. All of this formatting keeps the story feeling fresh , fast-paced, and realistic, and most of all, it brings the Main Squeeze fandom to life.

I actually do not watch The Bachelor or any of its spinoffs- I am not a part of that fandom, which One to Watch is clearly mirroring. But it is so easy to get sucked in right along with the fans in the book: hashing over who’s been cut from the show, guessing who’ll stick around for the next episode, wanting to comment over every shocking comment and gesture. The drama is all there, and allows for a high level of reader engagement. It had all the appeal for me that murder mystery whodunnits usually do, only without bringing death into the equation. This would be a fantastic book to read along with a group or buddy, to weigh in every chapter or two and talk over what’s happened and predict what will happen next. It’s juicy in a way that’s exciting to share.

But it didn’t sell me on reality dating TV. And here is where I run out of praise, even though I did know going in to expect a Bachelorette-type story- One to Watch is upfront and correct about the sort of book it is, so my complaints do not lie with the novel, exactly. I saw a few reviews from readers who aren’t Bachelor franchise fans but loved this book, and I decided to take a chance and hope Bea would be doing some dismantling. Bea does dismantle stereotypes, but aside from wanting to make Main Squeeze more inclusive she accepts the show as is, questionable ethics and all, and that’s essentially where my issues lie. I do understand that the people on these shows sign contracts and know what they’re agreeing to and do actively agree to participate, and that in this case those characters are also entirely fictional, all of which is good. But humiliating someone on live TV as a “plot twist” to boost ratings? Keeping “villain” suitors around for intrigue? Filming personal conversations for public consumption. Having to take all these random suitors you hardly know into your family’s home for someone else’s entertainment. Broadcasting genuine heartbreak for the sake of the fans. It just feels gross to me, so the TV part of this book was never going to be the right fit.

“This is reality television, not a symposium on ethics and moral philosophy.”

Not only do I dislike the general premise and practice, but a story using this format is also necessarily going to rely on some of my least favorite tropes- there’s the instalove factor (the show takes place over several weeks, but there are so many people involved that a lot of decisions are made based on first impressions), the fake dating (these people have signed contracts and are getting paid to act as love interests; even if they are actually looking for love there are mixed motivations here, especially in Bea’s case, as she goes through several episodes and dates without her heart in it at all), and dating as a competition (Bea has to judge these men against each other and they are competing- the drive to “win” perhaps does not always coincide perfectly with the goal of finding real love). If these tropes are more your jam than mine, that’s totally fine, of course! Personally I’m into romance novels more for the angst, for relationships (of any sort: friends, enemies, coworkers, etc) that slow-burn develop into something more, and for characters pretending they’re not in love when they secretly are. I like my love stories a bit more on the emotionally torturous side, apparently. The fairytale/fantasy/money-is-no-object stuff just isn’t what I’m generally looking for, and again, I did read the synopsis of this book and decide to chance it, so any disappointment over finding what I expected not to like in these pages is on me.

But weighing my likes and dislikes here, I’m realizing that I did enjoy One to Watch, I just didn’t find it romantic. I wanted to know who Bea would choose in the end because I wanted to be right about my guess, not because I felt chemistry between any of these characters. A comment from one of the fans in the book about one contestant potentially winning an engagement “by default” when love gets messy toward the end of Bea’s season left me wondering whether fans of reality dating shows (and/or this book) are in it for the romance, or the game? What makes a romance a romance- are dates enough to put a book in the romance genre, even if they’re paid, even if they’re fake? I don’t mean to push anyone’s trope-loving buttons here, I’m genuinely curious to hear about what draws you (or doesn’t) to reality dating, whether you find reality dating truly romantic, and what you look for in romance media.

Because with this book, even though a few of the guys are very decent, I was surprised to find that the only one warming my heart was Bea.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’d definitely recommend this book if the premise appeals; it delivers exactly what it says it will, and does it well. I found it inspiring and encouraging even if not exactly romantic, and I’ve already loaned out my copy to someone who barely reads because I think this is an easy book to love and a fun one to talk about. The only downsides for me were ones I foresaw from the start, so I’ll absolutely be keeping an eye out for any further work from Stayman-London, especially if it steers away from reality dating!

The Literary Elephant

institutional silencing

Reviews: We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper and Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford

I’m grateful to have received an eARC of Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close via Netgalley and Grand Central Publishing in exchange for an honest review! (Because the ARC archived before I finished reading I also picked up a final copy from my library to complete the read, so my review comes from a mix of both the early and published editions; I have checked the final copy for accuracy of all quotations included below.)

In the wake of the #metoo movement, there’s been a definite trend in literature toward exposing long-running abuses, often but not limited to powerful white men taking advantage of women they are meant to be helping in some way, and ensuring their silence with gaslighting and/or direct threats. At this point, most of us know these abuses of power have been taking place across all sorts of institutions that are meant to protect and nurture women (and others), but it is still shocking to stumble upon cases that reveal how deep these issues run, and how deeply they still impact the world today.

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence

So I thought I knew what I was getting into when I picked up Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close; it’s a true crime / investigative journalism / memoir account of the infamous murder of a young woman at Harvard in 1969, an account of which has been kept alive by archeology students on campus for decades. But We Keep the Dead Close is so much more than the piecing together of a long-unsolved tragedy- it is a thorough look at pervasive sexism, gatekeeping and patriarchal self-preservation in a prestigious university (and specifically, its archeology department). This is the story of how one young woman’s terrible fate was left to rumor and speculation, which achieved something quite different than justice.

“The very things that made me love Harvard- its seductiveness, its limitlessness- also made it a very convincing villain. Harvard felt omnipotent.”

CWs: sexism, rape, murder, gatekeeping

We Keep the Dead Close opens on two timelines: one in which Jane Britton fails to attend an important exam in 1969 and is subsequently found dead in her apartment, and one near present-day as another Harvard student, Becky Cooper, hears a version of the unsolved mystery that’s been passed down from student to student for years. What fuels the story’s longevity and sparks Cooper’s interest is the fact that the man implicated in the story was not only never arrested but actually still working at the school. Before long, Cooper begins a deep dive into Jane’s life and death, the shoddy police investigation, and Harvard’s insular archeology department.

Of course a cast of suspects, many involved with Harvard archeology, begin to appear, each as convincing a criminal as the last- at least for a chapter or two. Cooper’s skill in painting a plausible picture of guilt without dehumanizing anyone or falling into the trap of sensationalism is remarkable. Instead of attempting to capitalize on shady characters for plot twists, Cooper uses each possible culprit as a jumping-off point for a closer examination of Britton’s story; she examines not only the suspects but those who believe in the suspects’ guilt, and how each version of the narrative serves its audience. In this way, Cooper manages not only to assemble a mystery but to highlight its deeper cultural context.

“…Jane’s story, one about a girl disappeared by her adviser, was still so alive in the community because it was an exaggerated, horror-movie version of a narrative that was all too common.”

I predict some readers who pick up We Keep the Dead Close as a juicy crime drama might be disappointed. Even though Britton’s story has all the shocking and surprising elements of a compelling mystery, it is much longer than the surprisingly simple answer to her death really requires and its pacing is slowed by supplemental Harvard history, the gritty details of archeological digs, and the effects of rampant sexism (with nods to racism and intersectionality as well) across the board. It’s all incredibly well done and every aspect compels, but someone expecting a fast-paced whodunnit may find their expectations misaligned with what Cooper has to offer. Where this book excels is not so much in unveiling scandalous details (though it has those) but in examining the machinations of the story itself. Here we discover how Britton’s fate has become a sort of mythology- taken on a life of its own as a way for Harvard students to warn each other about professors who seem to operate above the rules, the department’s tendency to protect itself (and the privileged white men at its helm) at any cost, and the stubborn tradition of patriarchy woven into Harvard’s very marrow. The murder mystery is only a vehicle Cooper uses (with utmost humanity, not even sparing her own research efforts from criticism) to examine greater flaws in elite academia.

“I had been reassuring myself that I was doing the right thing by telling Jane’s story, but I, too, had been propagating the things we preferred to believe. I was wrong- we were wrong.”

Photographs and visuals (nothing gory) add an extra dose of reality to the tale and help the reader keep track of the main players, while statistics and anecdotes drive the book’s feminist points home. Archeological digs lend the story an air of adventure, and Cooper’s style of unearthing facts and using them to build a story about the past feels particularly apt in relation to Britton’s area of study. I wouldn’t change a thing, and recommend this book highly.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. While I can see some readers potentially finding the many layers to this mystery a bit superfluous to what they were looking for, the depth of information and exploration really worked to tip We Keep the Dead Close toward top-tier reading for me.

Inspired by the exceptional experience I had with Cooper’s book, I decided to keep following the thread and picked up Lacy Crawford’s Notes on a Silencing.

Notes on a Silencing

In this memoir, Crawford recounts her experiences at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, including a sexual assault against her and the boarding school’s shocking efforts not only to cover it up but to place Crawford in the path of further harm. In this account she details the assault and the messy aftermath, but also gives fantastic coverage of boarding school life for those of us who aren’t in the know, and takes the time to interrogate the language surrounding sexual assault- all in all, it’s revelatory, informative, and so sharply written that the CWs (rape [of a minor], sexual assault [of a minor], sexism, gaslighting, silencing, gatekeeping) are really the only potential deterrents.

“If the first violation of the boys who assaulted me was the way they made me feel erased, it was exactly this injury that the school repeated, and magnified, when it created its own story of the assault. This time the erasure was committed by men whose power over me was socially conferred rather than physically wielded, by men who- some of them- had never even been in a room with me. They still never have.”

This is another case full of shocking facts and astonishing twists, and yet once again we see a slower pace that’s driven not by the crimes but in this case by Crawford’s day-to-day life. She spends three years at St. Paul’s, and uses much of that timeline as a way to show the reader an insider view of the elite boarding experience, warts and all. The narration skips around somewhat (though each chapter is labeled with the year and Crawford’s status at school to ground the reader in time), with the event of her assault acting as a lens through which she reflects upon everything. The assault, which took place on campus at the hands of two older students (legal adults), occurred in 1990, and despite Crawford’s own statements about working hard to forget that night, the intervening years and the insight they’ve given to her show clearly in every passage.

“The story of what happened would have attached to me, the high school sophomore out of bed in the small hours. Even there- do I write the story of what happened or the story of what he did? Trying again: the story of what he did would have attached to me, the high school sophomore out of bed in the small hours, like a cursed baton he’d passed to me on the stairs while my parents and his wife and his children and my brother slept.”

Of course, as for many women, Crawford’s experience with sexual assault and harassment was not a one-time event, and thanks to her school, it was not something she saw legal justice for. It’s a devastating story, and one of the most heartbreaking parts of it for me was seeing her parents seem to lose interest once they learned Crawford had been sexually active outside of the assault case. Looking at her story, there are so many places like this where the unsympathetic listener could (and did, given some of the bullying she faced) make excuses for what happened to her, but Crawford sees these traps and deftly sidesteps to leave the blame where it rightfully lies, and it’s a damn shame to see her parents failing to jump that hurdle. Though she doesn’t speak against them outright in this book, it’s a complicated relationship that wasn’t always helpful for Crawford, and can be difficult to read about. There are some happy moments within these pages, but I think it’s worth being aware of how bleak the book can be as well; the unflinching honesty may have been the hardest part of the read for me, but it is also what impressed me most. Few memoirs (at least, in my limited experience) achieve this level of self-sacrifice and -awareness. It’s truly a powerful book.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I thought aside from the age of the protagonist this book might feel a little redundant, having just read all about Harvard and having picked up #metoo material in the past, but Crawford’s storytelling and skill with language drew me right in and truly set this account apart.

Both of these are books that I think will appeal more to female readers in general, although I would also say that books like these should be required reading for every parent who sends their child to a prestigious school- high school or college- and most of the students as well. I’ve complained a lot in my adult years about my small town public school education, and I’ve been embarrassed about not even applying to ivy leagues, but now… I wonder how these institutions can survive with this sort of information readily available to the public. And I know a sizeable portion of those who attend such schools are the rich and privileged who will benefit from this sort of patriarchal harm and thus may not mind so much that these schools have such a legacy. But I hope going forward that enough people will care about making sure educational spaces- especially where children are involved- are safe for students, so that we will start seeing positive changes. It is evidently a widespread problem. Chessy Prout, coauthor of I Have the Right To, also writes about her experience with sexual assault at St. Paul’s, which occurred in 2014. That’s only seven years ago guys, and her assault wasn’t an isolated event but part of a larger game.

Fiction has taken up the theme as well, showing further readers just how easy and often adults employed by a prestigious school can get away with preying on their students: we have examples such as Elizabeth Russell’s stunning My Dark Vanessa, which takes place at a New England boarding school and beyond, providing a nuanced commentary on survivor response to trauma; Susan Choi’s brilliant Trust Exercise, a high school exploration of teen misperception and trauma that follows survivors into adulthood, and even Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, a Yale-centered fantasy novel which doesn’t focus primarily on sexual assault but does comment on the exclusionary gatekeeping of the prestigious institution (which Bardugo attended herself)- honoring its wealthy and privileged few while treating outsiders essentially as disposable. Even Brandon Taylor’s Real Life speaks to institutional silencing in its own way, highlighting the ways racism can bar students of color from receiving a fair education even while their white peers, mentors, and advisors deny that any such obstacle exists, or at least their own roles in it.

If it’s #metoo stories you’re interested in moreso than the warped educational institutions of America, you shouldn’t miss Chanel Miller’s incredible memoir, Know My Name, in which her own attempted assault on Standford’s campus leads to a legal battle that seems to favor her attacker from the start. Additionally, though I haven’t read these yet, there are She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow, both surrounding the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, a prominent American film producer and now convicted sex offender. Speaking of film, #metoo story seekers may also be interested in documentaries like Netflix’s Athlete A, in which USA Olympic gymnasts speak out against national team doctor Larry Nassar who abused young girls and women under the guise of medical treatment for decades.

Clearly, this is a problem that affects so many in so many different settings; the magnitude of it is staggering, and the silencing on top of the assaults makes it all the more horrendous.

“‘…your piece is one of hundreds of pieces. This goes back to the nineteen-forties. I don’t even see the end of this investigation.'” -Notes on a Silencing

But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. We seem to be entering an era where it is no longer difficult to find stories of women speaking out against abuses perpetrated by men in positions of power, and as hard as it can be to think about how deeply affecting these situations can be for all survivors, and how very many of those there are, it is also glorious to witness this page being turned. To see the fear falling away, to seeing predators start to be held accountable, to see the previously unacknowledged truths of our society brought to light. It’s an honor to hear these stories, to bear witness, and to be an ear for voices that have been kept quiet for far too long. And that is why I keep reading and recommending books about sexual assault and abuse of power, no matter how painful they may be. Awareness is the first step. Change, I hope, will be the second.

If you have further recommendations for me and other readers interested in this topic, please feel free to list them below.

The Literary Elephant

femicide through the ages

Review: The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

In the novel, a woman in the present day is set to the task of preparing for sale her late grandmother’s Scottish house. It’s an old place near the coast, and just a few miles out the little island of Bass Rock overlooks the goings-on of the mainland. It was there in the background as another woman, post-WWII, struggled through a difficult marriage. It was there too when a young woman over two centuries earlier was accused of witchcraft and fled. In the years between, more women, and more violence.

“Men do these things and then they tick on with their lives as though it’s all part and parcel.”

The Bass Rock is a literary fiction book with a gothic tone and an air of mystery. Ghosts and gaslighting help blur the lines of reality, making the already-serious subject of femicide even more tense as the reader constantly wonders what will happen to these women next, even when the threat of death seems less immediately present. It’s laid out in three perspectives, with additional small character vignettes woven in, all tied loosely to the Scottish seaside setting- though it is no secret that the dangers women have faced at the hands of men are not confined to the specific location spotlighted here. Nor is the danger confined only to the women- Wyld makes clear here that under the net of abuse the victims are many; CWs for child abuse, suggested molestation (doesn’t happen on page), and arson, as well as gaslighting, sexual assault, rape, and murder.

The permanence of the rock as the women come and go makes the violence through the years feel relentless, a force akin to the battering waves of the ocean; the methods may change with time, but the core problem, the disregard for women’s bodies and lives stands as firm as the Bass Rock. The rock’s meaning varies for different characters, but none of them are firmly attached to it in any way- it’s simply there, silent and watchful, and that tenuous connection is so much more realistic and appealing to me than any other multi-perspective narrative device I can think of where separate threads end up braiding neatly together. Instead, the story alternates between these three perspectives linked mainly by theme and small personal shifts that echo across time.

“You know how sometimes you can smell it on a man, sometimes you just know- if he got you alone, if he had a rock… you know that thing when you feel it? Like your blood knows it. I try and take note, because it’s all I have in my power, to witness it and store it away.”

It’s subtly done but the three pieces do belong together, and I found each of the narratives interesting, almost equally so. The post-war woman seems to get the most page time and the extra attention given to the development of her character and relationships shows. Her piece of the story is, I think, the most surprising and original of all the women; the witchcraft thread is fairly predictable, though the danger felt most palpable to me in that era and had no trouble holding my attention; the modern woman is an older millennial, mostly single and adrift, whose interior thoughts I found intriguing though her characterization again feels somewhat typical among the glut of difficult millennial women stories readily available in the last few years. But while none of these women alone might have convinced me to pick up The Bass Rock, the themes connecting them and the fascinating details Wyld works into their lives are effective enough that I was never sad to leave one perspective and re-enter another. The only low point for me in characterization came in the form of a secondary character, a bold, non-conforming modern-day sex worker who acts as a sort of guide on female violence to our present-day protagonist, which I simply found a bit too transparent and lazy. Otherwise I managed to stay fully engaged and interested in each protagonist and the minutiae of her life.

It’s a dark and beautiful book about what’s done to women, but also about how women can find strength within themselves and amongst each other, find ways to cope and to overcome and maybe eventually to turn the tide. I am shocked that this missed the Women’s Prize list last year- it may not be a perfect read, but it is certainly thought-provoking and masterful, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes quiet plots and/or gothic literature, with feminist themes.

“Know what people mean by unfuckable? They mean disposable. They mean incineratable.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’d forgotten the synopsis by the time I picked up this book (which is my preferred reading method tbh), so it was off to a slow start for me as I tried to figure out what was going on and where this was all heading. But even in those chapters of mild confusion, I found the prose exciting and the women’s stories very readable, and once I understood what Wyld was doing with this novel I had a hard time putting it down at all. It’s a story that’ll haunt me, in a good way, and this is an author I’ll certainly want to read more from.

The Literary Elephant