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Reviews: The Only Plane in the Sky and The Beauty in Breaking

I couldn’t let November pass without mentioning some nonfiction! To that effect, here are a couple of reviews for recent(ish) nonfic reads that I’d highly recommend: Garrett M. Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, and Michele Harper’s The Beauty in Breaking, a medical memoir.

In The Only Plane in the Sky, Graff collects the voices of hundreds of Americans who survived, witnessed, or were in some way touched by the events of the World Trade Center towers falling on September 11, 2001. Each of these people speak about their experiences, typically in just a few words or a few sentences. The book covers New York City, the Pentagon, the Pennsylvanian crash sight, the pertinent planes, and key governmental locations. It’s largely chronological, though the chapters collect related topics to give precedence to narrative. Additional content includes brief logistical paragraphs written by Graff, as well as phone call and cockpit transcripts, speeches, and numerous photographs, some in grayscale and many in color.

“I also recall him saying, ‘Look, nobody’s coming. Nobody is coming for us. Any of the firemen or rescue people who are tasked at getting people out of the building- they are dead. If they were in the street, they are dead. If they were in the buildings, they are dead. Nobody is coming to get us. We have to get out on our own.'”

I was only seven on 9/11 and the adults in my life at that time chose mostly to hide what was going on from me and the other children around me, so I knew that people were shocked but I didn’t fully understand why for several years. Perhaps because of that late start to the topic, perhaps because from the rural Midwest New York felt to my small self as far away as Mars, my interest in 9/11 has always been more of a concern about human mortality in extreme situations than about fear over terrorism. And that, I think, was a great way to approach this book. There are some details about the political response and the gradual realization of al-Qaeda’s involvement, but at heart this is a book full of ordinary people who lived through a shocking day.

“As you’re running, you’re looking over your shoulder- you could feel some of the shrapnel flying by. I saw a cop in front of me fall. I figured he got hit with a piece of shrapnel. I reached down and picked him up by his gun belt, because he was going to get trampled. I said to him, ‘You all right? Where did you get hit?’ He said, ‘No, I dropped my pen.’ It goes to show you how people’s minds go- here he is running for his life and he bent down to pick up a pen that he dropped.”

There are harrowing details here, so certainly go into this one when you’re best equipped to encounter them. I had to take it very slow because I picked the book up at a time when I was dealing with another source of stress, but it was worth every minute. With the exception of some of the phone and plane transcripts, every speaker in this book is someone who survived, and the sheer number of them makes The Only Plane in the Sky more of a collective look at human resilience than any sort of close character study meant to play on the reader’s emotions. It’s grim, but there’s nothing manipulative about this book. Everything is compiled with such care and consideration; even the photos avoid sensationalism and gore.

Best of all, Graff manages to collect and convey a story both wide in scope and incredibly detailed. Every facet of the day seems to be covered here in some way; I can’t think of any aspect of 9/11 that I’ve ever heard discussed in real life that isn’t touched on by this book, and while it would’ve been unrealistic to fit every survivor into these pages it’s clear that each passage has been chosen specifically and thoughtfully. 9/11 experiences may be each unique unto themselves, but our responses to that day, as Graff and his collected speakers demonstrate, is much more universal. This is a book meant to connect everyone who watched the towers collapse, in person or on television, or heard about it afterward.

“We survive, we do our daily things, but you’re always a part of 9/11.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is a stunning and emotional read that both captures a historical moment and speaks to the human condition in a way that I think will appeal to a great many readers, perhaps even many who don’t think themselves particularly interested in 9/11 itself. To be honest I had a much stronger response to this book than I did while actually visiting the 9/11 memorial and museum earlier this year, and it’s the sort of book that I’ll easily be recommending and gifting this holiday season even to friends and family who aren’t regular readers. It’s just that good.

The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir

In The Beauty in Breaking, Dr. Michele Harper shares her experience as a Black emergency room physician trying to find the best way to help herself and others. Throughout her life and medical work, she sees a lot of people who are broken, including herself, but turns to reflection and meditation to make meaning of the cracks and infuse purpose into her life and career.

“True happiness only and always comes from within. In these and countless other ways, there is no gain without loss. Then- there it is! First in the descent and then in the emergence from this dark night of the soul lies true integration. True caring, indeed, true living, comes from being able to hold peace and love for oneself, and from sharing that unwavering, unconditional love, knowing that all life depends on this.”

In some ways, reading The Beauty in Breaking feels a lot like watching a season of Grey’s Anatomy. Harper mentions altering names and details to protect patient privacy, but within these bounds she presents cases to the reader, tows us along through administering their care, and uses each instance as a chance to examine some underlying social issue, be it reasoning through someone’s surprising behavior or criticizing a systemic flaw. Through these pages she examines America’s continuing struggle with racism, her own history with abuse, and the ways that the hospitals she works at both help and fail their employees and patients.

It’s a compelling read that touches on some important subjects- for instance, Harper uses her time at a VA hospital to comment on the unjust treatment of women and particularly women of color in America’s military, as well as the country’s failure to make veteran hospitals places of prestige that prioritize- above all else- healing those who’ve served. Another particularly impactful chapter involves a Black man brought in by white police officers who insist that he be subjected to medical tests that he does not consent to; Harper informs the officers that this is illegal, to which her white trainee responds by going behind Harper’s back to involve the hospital’s legal team instead of clarifying the matter with her, the senior staff member, directly.

” ‘Michele,’ he said. ‘You know every time I try to make a change at this institution, I just can’t. I’m always blocked. You didn’t get the position. I’m sorry to say it. You’re qualified. I just can’t ever seem to get a black person or woman promoted here. That’s why they always leave! I’m so sorry, Michele. They’ve decided that even though you were the only applicant, and a super-qualified one at that, they’re just going to leave the position open. I’m so sorry. I hope you’ll hang in here with me anyway.’ / His words hung sadly between us. He had spoken with the heavy heart of a longtime liberal white man who would shake my hand, smile, close the door behind me, and then sit back down in his comfortable, secure chair. His effort was complete. His part was done. I was the one left to live with the limitations of bigotry. I was the one left to get up and fight.”

It’s dramatic, but it’s also packed with meaningful commentary; the only downside is that the book didn’t quite come together for me as a whole. Each chapter is well-crafted and engaging, but the overarching theme is limited and somewhat hard to spot without being told by Harper what to look for. Individually, the chapters each carry their own messages, and feel like they could be read in any order, though they purport to chronicle a journey of learning and growth. Many of these chapters feel like jumping-off points for deeper commentary, though Harper chooses instead to move on to the next subject. We get only snippets of her life beyond the hospital; rather than spending time with secondary characters to understand her relationships with them, we are only told what has happened with them and how she feels about those events. Fair choices one and all, but together they leave the book feeling rather unfocused, some of its potential acuity lost in the attempt to cover too much all at once.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Ultimately, I think it’s clear that Harper’s training is in medicine, not writing- and that’s perfectly fine. She’s clearly got talent in both areas and is absolutely the doctor I’d want to meet in an emergency room, but I wasn’t quite sold on her authorship despite loving her intent and case-by-case delivery of patient encounters. The narrative delivery could’ve used some polishing, but I’d certainly still recommend this title to anyone interested in the topic because Harper’s experience is well worth acknowledging.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Love and Other Thought Experiments

Another Booker longlist title today, and very nearly the end of my 2020 Booker coverage. I’ve been saving Sophie Ward’s Love and Other Thought Experiments for close to last because it was one of the longlist titles that most intrigued me this year. While I did find it an intriguing read, unfortunately I won’t be calling this one a new favorite.

In the book, two women are knocked off balance when their plans to have a baby together become entangled with an ant incident; the same day they decide to go ahead with the pregnancy, Rachel wakes in the night in a panic, convinced an ant has crawled into her eye. Eliza, her partner, does not believe her, though she decides to lie for the sake of preserving their relationship.

What follows is a set of connected short stories from numerous perspectives related in some way to this incident; central characters going forward include the ant in question, an artificial intelligence computer, the couple’s grown child, and several other humans. Each story begins with a description of a philosophical thought experiment, which guides the chapter that follows.

“The ant was not just in Rachel’s head, it was in her own. And whoever else knows, she thought, the ant will be with them too. I only have to tell this story and the ant will always be in their head.”

First off, I have no idea what, exactly, to call this book. It might seem easy at first to say that it’s a collection of short stories, and yet there’s no satisfaction to be had in reading them out of order or in picking and choosing, because they are all connected and largely (though not entirely) chronological. Undeniably pieces of a whole. But divided into its separate parts as it is, it’s just as awkward to say this is a novel. Genre is even harder to pinpoint. A few of the stories are simple, contemporary character studies that outline the relationships between these key players and build the web of family and friendship that binds them all together. Other stories are magical or science fictional, and a couple are very philosophical- focused primarily on conveying a single experimental idea. These pieces all fit into a single over-arcing narrative, but they’re varied enough that one never knows what to expect next.

Most appreciable about this book is its inventiveness and unpredictability. Even with the summarized thought experiments giving hints at each turn for the direction in which the narrative is heading, I was completely taken by surprise several times by twists Ward implants into the tale. Every time I imagined that I was seeing the full shape of it, the story rippled further outward. Because the surprises were one of the biggest draws for me, I don’t want to say much more about the plot, but rest assured that the opening story about the ant, while indeed central, is fairly short and comprises only one small chapter of this larger interlinking creation.

The downside, in my opinion, is the utter lack of emotion. There is only one story in the whole bunch that incited any emotional impact for me at all, and it’s the second piece: a child swims out to sea to retrieve a drifting toy for a friend, and worries he won’t make it back to shore; in three mutually exclusive endings, we see him fight for survival. The sudden threat of death and the diverging endings had me entirely hooked. Later on there’s another story in which we approach a main character’s imminent death, but while appropriately disturbing, it does not quite land with the same blow to the reader’s feelings. None of the other stories comes anywhere close.

Ward’s prose strikes me as flat and cold, focused more on concepts- which she does deliver well. The book builds a network of affection connecting all of these characters, and then seems to assume that the existence of the network is enough to engage the reader’s emotions without doing any more work to actually endear the characters to the reader. It all felt very empty and mathematical to me, and while I appreciated the way it all fell into place from a tactical perspective, the fact that the plot does revolve around this circle of love makes the emotional distance a real detriment to overall enjoyment. I simply didn’t care what happened to any of the characters beyond the boy swimming out to sea, and even there the effect might have been more attributable to the simple presentation of an innocent child suddenly in grave danger rather than any particularly deft wording on Ward’s part.

There are a few LGBTQ+ characters included at the forefront of the cast, but they seem to exist naturally and without identity-based conflict in this world, thus failing to generate any social commentary; I think it’s very important for marginalized characters to be present in books this way, as people worth the page space without having to examine their lives for the reader’s benefit, but again it doesn’t exactly help one connect to or feel for these characters. Yet another way in which the book’s conceptualization at the macro level thrills far more successfully than the presentation at the micro level.

Ultimately, I think this is a book for a certain type of reader, probably someone who enjoys philosophy, and/or thought experiments specifically, as Ward’s work feels like one such exercise. I have learned this year that I am a reader who can love a book for a great format despite the content itself not quite winning me over (see: Trust Exercise and The Man Who Saw Everything), but even for me the ‘love’ portion of Love and Other Thought Experiments falling lax proved an insurmountable obstacle. I think the emotional distance is going to get in the way for a lot of readers who look for personal connections in what they read.

“She wondered if she could even be considered the same person now that every cell in her body had been replaced, more than once. It didn’t seem to matter so much when the effect was growth and health but now that shrinkage and damage were the order of events, it mattered a lot. Was it possible that her mind could escape the same process? Those connections had also been replaced, many times over. Her memories, too, were different, shaded by the events that had taken place since. If you were made of remembrance and your memories changed, did you, who remembered, change too?”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. In some ways this was better than I expected it to be, in other ways it did not live up to expectations- a mixed bag. But it was certainly a unique read, and I always appreciate that. I don’t mind that this one didn’t advance to the Booker shortlist, but I am glad that the longlist introduced it to me and I will remember some of the ideas woven into this book for a long time to come.

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Sisters and The Poet X

Next up in catch-up reviews are two titles I picked up in late September: Daisy Johnson’s spooky 2020 release: Sisters, and Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut for young adults, the award-winning contemporary The Poet X. These books have little in common aside from my reading them back to back; I suppose both main characters are sisters, both are teenage girls, and both narratives focus on careful use of language in one way or another. And I loved both books, which means this is also a nice break from all of my 3-star reviews of late!

In Sisters, we follow two girls and their mother moving to an old family property near the sea after an incident at the girls’ school in Oxford. September and July, less than a year apart in age, share a bond so incredibly close that even their mother, their only remaining parent, cannot find space for herself in their relationship. The two girls, both teens, have a history of playing dangerous games, and in the course of this story we see just how far out of control they’ve spun.

“It would have surprised neither of us to have found, slit open, that we shared organs, that one’s lungs breathed for the both, that a single heart beat a doubling, feverish pulse.”

With characters that are obviously keeping secrets and antagonizing each other from the start and the atmospheric old house they’re returning to after many years, there are some excellent gothic and horror elements to this book that make it a creepy read even before anything of note is happening. The family has known abuse in the past, and even the close and loyal bond between the two sisters is expanded upon to feel less like a relationship of mutual love (though there is some) and more like barely-contained manipulation and violence. The girls behave like twins, though they do not look alike, and the exploration of their connection and the family history before we learn what happened at the school does well to hold the reader’s interest.

“It was only when September was around that color returned and I could experience pain or smell the lunch cooking in the school kitchens. She tethered me. Not to the world but to her.”

The plot itself is rather scant, and slow to start. The reader knows right away that something has happened at school, that there’s another layer to the story that we’re not immediately privy to, and that somehow this will come to a head as tensions rise in the secluded house. Johnson drops small clues and a big red herring, all the while slowly expanding our awareness of this family so that it doesn’t quite feel like a waiting game though we are certainly expecting a big reveal. Is it the most original twist? Perhaps not, but it’s one I particularly like, and one I guessed incorrectly, which made it land particularly well for me when the truth did hit. Johnson’s writing is so admirably graceful and calculated, and there’s some appealing commentary here on sisterhood, revenge and guilt, abuse and independence, so that I think even a reader who guesses where the plot is headed would find something to appreciate. That said, it’s really best to go into Sisters knowing as little as possible, and so I’ll leave you here, with a simple recommendation to pick this one up if literary horror sounds like your style.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I was struggling somewhat with reading when I picked this one up, so what might have ordinarily been a 4-star read for me just felt utterly perfect at the time. I will definitely remember this one fondly and am eager to pick up whatever Johnson publishes next. I’ve already enjoyed both of her previous works, Fen (short stories), and Everything Under (a fabulist Greek retelling that earned Johnson the title of youngest author ever shortlisted for the Booker), so Johnson is quickly becoming a favorite for me!

In The Poet X, Xiomara is half of a set of Dominican American twins living in Harlem. She does her best to listen to her parents and stay out of trouble, but this is no easy task with a mother so strict. When she’s prodded into confirmation class, it seems no one will give her a straight answer about why it seems like God doesn’t pay attention to girls like her, and why men staring at her body is considered the fault of her “sinful” behavior. The one place she can be open and share all of her thoughts is in her journal, where she hones her poetry; but this talent too is seen as an unholy distraction.

Told in verse (though not the stuffy rhyming sort, so don’t run yet if you’re already thinking poetry isn’t your taste!), The Poet X is basically everything I want in a YA novel: there’s the adorable bloom of first love, emotional conflict as a teen grapples with how far to follow her parents and where to give her own self room to grow, and meaningful commentary: in this case touching on what it means to be Dominican in America.

Half of the conflict here revolves around religion; I imagine this could be a little challenging for some Christian readers to sit with, but ultimately I think it’s handled well and the questions it raises about how Christianity doesn’t always seem to accept certain people as they are, are probably worth thinking about even (especially) for staunch believers who might initially reject criticism. Xiomara’s questioning of God and religion are based in the unfair ways she is treated, and that does deserve an honest answer; she isn’t blindly denouncing her faith, just trying to figure out why the role she’s told to fill isn’t one that seems to fit.

“Just seems as I got older/ I began to really see / the way that church / treats a girl like me differently. / Sometimes it feels / all I’m worth is under my skirt / and not between my ears. / Sometimes I feel / that turning the other cheek / could get someone like my brother killed. / Sometimes I feel my life would be easier / if I didn’t feel like such a debt / to a God / that don’t really seem / to be out here checking for me.”

The other half of the novel’s conflict has to do with Xiomara’s personal relationships. She’s met this cute boy she likes, but she’s not allowed to date. Her brother is keeping a major secret, one her parents will have just as much trouble accepting as Xiomara’s prospective boyfriend. There’s a teacher Xiomara admires at school who runs a poetry club, but Xiomara doesn’t feel free to pursue it. Most of these problems stem from her mother’s unwillingness to bend her plans for her children, though Xiomara knows that her mother’s strictness came as a product of her Domincan upbringing and her own past unhappiness- she wants the best for her children, and after all she’s been through she doesn’t want them to let her down either. Motives on both sides are clear and organic, and all of the emotion feels very real and raw.

“I will never / let anyone / see my full heart / and destroy it.”

Xiomara is ordinary, and she’s brave. She’s strong, and she’s broken. She’s not perfect, but she’s doing her best, and isn’t that what makes for the best YA protagonists? This girl has something to say, and once she begins to speak it’s hard not to listen. The Poet X is a captivating and inspiring story that both wears you down and lifts you up; I learned about an experience different from my own, but I also found pieces to relate to, and I think with the book’s focus on words, language, and finding one’s voice, almost anyone who loves books (and probably some who don’t) will grow and find a place to belong in this book as well. It’s a quick, impactful, and intelligent read that’s easy to recommend to just about everyone.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I devoured this book. Parts of it hurt, parts of it made me smile, all of it was completely effective. I now understand the hype around Acevedo’s work, and I’ll surely be reading more of it.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Different Seasons

As I’m caught up on Booker posts for now, I’ll begin digging into my backlog of other pending reviews. Back in AUGUST (yikes) I finished a buddy read of Stephen King’s Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas originally published in 1982. Unusually for King, only the shortest story in this set has any sort of supernatural/fantastical element; the rest can be called horror or suspense. Let’s look at the pieces:

First up is “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” a compelling first-person narrative of a lucky prison break. King doesn’t often utilize the first-person point of view, but when he does it brings the story to unique life. I had the benefit of having watched the film adaptation previously, which portrays Morgan Freeman as the narrator; I recognized while reading several direct quotes that made it into the film, which made it impossible for me to read this without Freeman’s voice in my mind (and, thanks to a one-time viewing of Evan Almighty many years ago, I now always hear Freeman as the voice of God, which adds a further layer of entertainment). The plot, which involves a wrongly convicted prisoner working steadily toward a surprising escape for over a decade, is also fun.

However, as with quite a lot of King’s work, parts of the piece have aged poorly. There are several racial slurs, some very irreverent (and probably inaccurate) discussions of prison rape and homosexuality, and an uncomfortable denial about racism in prison: one character argues that in prison, every man is a [n* word]. Unfortunately this is not particularly surprising to find in King’s older work, but I think it’s important to note whenever it comes up, even (especially) if the rest of the story seems worth reading. Four stars.

“The oath of a convicted murderer may not be worth much, but believe this: I don’t lie.”

The real rant for me comes with the second story, “Apt Pupil.” I loathed every moment of this, so prepare for some vitriol. First there’s the fact that the subject matter is intentionally unpleasant in itself- a teen boy obsessed with the gruesome details of Nazi Germany discovers an elderly Nazi officer hiding with a false identity in his neighborhood. The boy blackmails the man into narrating grizzly war crime details, which drives both of them into a murderous craze. The story is littered with animal and human deaths, and does actually include some long-winded paragraphs detailing “the gushy bits” (King’s wording) of torture in WWII.

On top of all this, the story didn’t work for me on a technical level. Because I hated both main characters, I felt no sympathy for them as their mental states declined and their lives spun further out of control. It seems the reader is supposed to feel sorry for the Nazi who has learned regret and become a benign part of society before meeting this boy, as well as feeling sorry for the boy who is an ‘apt pupil,’ a golden child, in all ways but this one. Frankly the defense of this character felt like Brock Turner trying to get out of rape charges because of his grades and swimming talent, and was doing absolutely nothing but infuriating me further. The central concept here seems to be that murder and madness beget murder and madness, and yet I couldn’t entirely buy it because both the man and the boy already seemed evil before meeting each other. Another possibility that seems woven into King’s commentary is that human nature inevitably, no matter how immorally, finds the macabre and sadistic (like war crimes) fascinating on some level; that it’s a hardwired flaw of humanity to grossly abuse power whenever possible just because one can, because one is curious about how much he can get away with. But I also don’t buy this, and worry that King was trying to gently excuse Nazi behavior by calling it normal.

And so I spent this story wanting the characters to suffer and ultimately feeling that the whole exercise was pointless (perhaps in ’82 it might have seemed less farfetched to worry about Nazi war criminals hiding down the street). There are also racial slurs used in this story, some disturbing torturous antisemitic rape, more antisemitism outside of the weird rape, slut shaming, extensive spoilers for the plot of “The Monkey’s Paw,” and a whole list of other problematic incidents that I honestly am not even sure how to classify. Such as, a teacher convincing a student he flunked a class necessary for graduation, as a joke. The only success I’ll grant King with “Apt Pupil” is that I was, indeed, horrified. Though not, I think, in the way he intended. For the first time ever, I’m giving a story One star. It seems appropriate to have saved this milestone for this particular atrocity.

“But maybe there is something about what the Germans did that exercises a deadly fascination over us- something that opens the catacombs of the imagination. Maybe art of our dread and horror comes from a secret knowledge that under the right- or wrong- set of circumstances, we ourselves would be willing to build such places and staff them. Black serendipity. Maybe we know that under the right set of circumstances the things that live in the catacombs would be glad to crawl out.”

Third up is “The Body,” that well-known inspiration for the film “Stand By Me.” I saw the film years ago but never read the story- I didn’t remember many details so the timing was good for me. Even so, this was just… fine? It’s a coming of age story featuring a group of tween boys who hike about thirty miles along a set of train tracks to find the body of a boy their own age who went missing recently. There are some truly suspenseful scenes here, a close call with a train, a showdown with some older boys, a race to escape a vicious dog. The central character is also a storyteller himself, so there are a couple of additional stories-within-the-story; one about a pie eating contest is fairly entertaining (though CW for vomit) but the other story, told by the adult version of the same character, is a thinly veiled self-insert narrative that bemoans his adolesence, with some of the worst men-writing-women content I’ve ever encountered. I thought this addition to the story was entirely unnecessary, actually, and without it we wouldn’t need the retrospective angle to the narrative at all; I think I would’ve preferred the story sticking to the kids, especially since I didn’t find any worthwhile reflection imparted by the adult narrator. The sense of innocence ending during this journey is plain enough through the children’s experience.

My only other complaints here mainly involved romanticism of violence; clearly this is a different time than we’re living in today and it can at times be beneficial and enjoyable to acknowledge such differences, but the glorifying of the gun, of the smoking and drinking, of physical violence, and the irreverence for death, feel outdated and not worth missing. Even this though, I didn’t mind so much. It’s simply a glimpse into another time. But there are slurs (racial and otherwise) employed here, animal violence, racism, sexism, fat shaming, and ablism. Three stars.

“In those few seconds I was sure there was going to be bad trouble, the worst I’d ever known. Killing trouble, maybe. And all of it over who got dibs on a dead body.”

Finally, we come to “The Breathing Method.” This is the shortest piece in the book, and features an old man who describes his membership in an exclusive and very odd gentleman’s club, where every Christmas one of the men tells a supernatural story. There are a few details about the club itself that hint at magic, but the real paranormal element comes from this story-within-the-story, which our narrator is not telling but listening to (I found this perspective a strange choice): that of a woman on the cusp of motherhood who is given some unpopular advice about how to breathe through labor to deliver her child safely. My biggest issue with this story is simply that I don’t find it haunting as it is clearly meant to be, and nor do I quite understand why the men in the story find it haunting or even convincing. But my buddy reader really liked this one and overall I thought this was mostly a fine story.

Small quips included slurs, slut shaming, male doctors who think they understand pregnancy and labor better than women, and an argument that fathers who witness the labor of their children are unduly traumatized (while the mothers are portrayed as hysterical and unreasonable), among other sexist nonsense. I’m trying to give King the benefit of the doubt with some of the pregnancy commentary here- I know of course that a character’s opinions do not necessarily reflect the author’s, and this is told with a retrospective point of view back in 1982, so certainly things have changed. But the misogyny goes completely unchecked and unchallenged; the woman giving birth is essentially the horror in this tale, and I just didn’t have the patience for it. Three stars.

“Birth is wonderful, gentlemen, but I have never found it beautiful- not by any stretch of the imagination. I believe it is too brutal to be beautiful. A woman’s womb is like an engine. With conception, that engine is turned on. At first it barely idles…but as the creative cycle nears the climax of birth, that engine revs up and up and up. Its idling whisper becomes a steady running hum, and then a rumble, and finally a bellowing, frightening roar. Once that engine has been turned on, every mother-to-be understands that her life is in check. Either she will bring the baby forth and the engine will shut down again, or that engine will pound louder and harder and faster until it exlodes, killing her in blood and pain.”

Even though I liked three of these four stories on some level, Different Seasons was a very meh collection for me overall; the things I disliked, I disliked very strongly, which has left me with a pretty negative impression of the book as a whole. That said, I can see why stories like “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body” continue to captivate many readers and viewers (it’s been a while, but on a hunch I’ll say the movies probably are somewhat better); though King’s writing is far from perfect, there’s something about his storytelling ability and his penchant for finding shadows in seemingly sunny places that appeals against all odds. He’s got an easy willingness to examine humanity’s dark side, and while he may have taken the message too far in “Apt Pupil,” many of us do have an unshakeable interest in the grim and macabre, and find acceptance in King’s horror, which he calls in the afterword of this book “plain fiction for plain folks.” But writing should be done (or at least published) responsibly, and King has written some very questionable things. If you’re determined to read these stories, I’d suggest entering with caution.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I know Different Seasons is something of a King classic- two films, three of these stories published in individual bindings after the collection’s release, and a current Goodreads rating of 4.34- so I’m disappointed not to have enjoyed it more or found it particularly worth admiring. I had a much better time reading King’s Four Past Midnight earlier this year and would sooner recommend that volume to anyone looking for decent King novellas (though even these are not flawless). I’m not ready to give up on King yet, but I do hope I’ll have better luck next time!

If you’ve read or watched any of these stories, please let me know what worked or didn’t for you!

The Literary Elephant

Review: Burnt Sugar

Here we are, at the end of my 2020 Booker Prize shortlist journey! I’ll have some overall thoughts and a prediction for the winner coming up next week, and I’ll have at least one more longlist review to share in the meantime as well, but before we get to that here are my thoughts on Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar.

In the novel, Antara is an Indian artist, living in the city of Pune with her husband. Her adult life has been relatively stable and calm, following a chaotic youth in the care of her mother; things become hectic again as Antara’s mother begins to lose her memory, necessitating a reversal of roles- now Antara must care for the woman she has both loved and resented all her life. The two have an undeniable, unshakeable bond, and yet their proximity to each other stirs trouble in every aspect of their lives.

“There was a breakdown somewhere about what we were to one another, as though one of us were not holding up her part of the bargain, her side of the bridge. Maybe the problem is that we are standing on the same side, looking out into the emptiness. Maybe we were hungry for the same things, the sum of us only doubled that feeling. And maybe this is it, the hole in the heart of it, a deformity from which we can never recover.”

I was hesitant to pick up this book from the moment I first saw it longlisted for the Booker Prize: I’ve simply surpassed my quota for books that explore the complexities of mother/daughter relationships for the time being, and the bottom line here is that while the setting and details may have been new, none of the commentary on this central relationship was novel to me at this point. Luckily I did appreciate the Indian lens which provided a slightly new angle to the theme, preventing the read from feeling like a total loss (at no fault of Doshi’s, of course!).

I am not an own voices reviewer, but I can say that Doshi brought the Pune setting to life for me. I chose to Google some of the food and clothing mentioned to get the right visual, but the way these people interact and move through different parts of the city, and the way that matters like religion and divorce are discussed between characters seems to ground Antara’s story in Pune. The same tale would not work with such success if moved to any other place. The fact that Antara’s husband, while also from an Indian family, grew up in America, adds some extra commentary to culture as well. He and Antara disagree on things like how one should speak to the maid, neither option presented as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ just an unresolved difference of upbringing and opinion. In a similar vein, Antara’s mother enters a traditional marriage but finds it loveless and rebels by joining an ashram, where she remarries and lives very passionately with the local deity for years, against the will of her family, without regret. With this tactic Doshi is able to both present traditional Indian values but also to demonstrate that the old ways are no longer the only ways.

Another interesting facet to Burnt Sugar is its point of view. Unlike a lot of motherhood books, we are not given the mother’s perspective here, but the daughter’s. There is still an element of responsibility to this point of view as Antara must care for her mentally-deteriorating mother, but we are seeing primarily the character who feels owed in this relationship. There is an air of entitlement to Antara throughout the book, bitterness for moments and even whole years in which she felt her mother did not fill her role satisfactorily, and judgment that she feels is her right to bestow. Perhaps it is, but it is worth keeping in mind while reading, I think, that everything we learn about Antara’s mother we get secondhand, through this very biased source. There is at least one instance in the book where a secondary character tells Antara she is remembering something incorrectly, blaming her mother for something she did not do. It is clear that Antara’s blame is not all unfounded, but perhaps it is to the novel’s detriment that all we see of her mother is attributed to her by someone who feels slighted.

“I had the distinct feeling that she was pleased to tell me these things, to know that I would suffer as she had- and her consolation came from seeing that the hurt would continue and I would not be spared. / When I look back on those days, I wonder did she ever see me as a child she wanted to protect? Did she always see me as a competitor or, rather, an enemy? / Those teenage years were the closest I came to hating her. I often wished she had never been born, knowing this would wipe me out as well- I understood how deeply connected we were, and how her destruction would irrevocably lead to my own.”

All told, Doshi delivers a layered narrator, visceral bodily details (CW for vomit, and rape of a minor), an admirable conveyance of culture, and thoughtful prose. But despite these points in its favor, I wasn’t emotionally engaged, and I wasn’t always convinced the novel was going anywhere productive. The takeaway of the book being, perhaps, that mothers and daughters are destined both to love and to fail each other, which may or may not feel original depending on what else you’ve already read this year (the 2020 Women’s Prize also focused heavily on motherhood). Burnt Sugar is just as worthy a reflection of this theme as any of the other titles I’ve encountered, though it doesn’t particularly stand out to me now for anything beyond its setting and cultural insight, though I’m not sure an urge to learn about India is reason alone to pick up this book over any others set in the area. Readers who struggle with unlikeable characters might also do better looking elsewhere, as Anatara’s selfishness is apparent from the first sentence. I don’t envision this one winning the Booker, though it’s nice to see India represented on the shortlist with a book about complicated women.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Yet again, I didn’t particularly dislike any part of this read, aside from the mother/daughter commentary which is a result of my own recent reading and nothing to do with Doshi or Burnt Sugar. But I didn’t find much in these pages to convince me I was right to go out of my way picking it up, either. I find myself at the end with a slightly better understanding of India, and am otherwise underwhelmed.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Redhead by the Side of the Road

I finished reading the Booker shortlist last week, and will have my final shortlist review coming up in a day or two along with some overall thoughts and a winner prediction coming up before the announcement on the 19th. But before we get there, another recent Booker read I completed was Anne Tyler’s longlisted Redhead by the Side of the Road, which I want to cover today.

In the novel, Micah Mortimer begins his week like any other: a jog first thing in the morning, a shower, breakfast, the cleanup chore he’s designated for that day, and then taking calls and driving around Baltimore as Tech Hermit, a one-man show for fixing computers. But on this particular week, two things out of the ordinary happen: his woman friend (he feels to old to call her a girlfriend) informs him that she might lose her apartment, and a teenaged boy arrives on Micah’s doorstep to announce that Micah is his biological father. Micah responds to these crises as he responds to everything: benignly, in the interest of preserving his comfortable routine. But these problems won’t go away, and he realizes his orderly life will never be the same again.

These details, all mentioned in the jacket copy, are essentially the entire plot. The book is comprised of only 178 pages, and contains no real surprises. It is perhaps a sweet story of a kindly if unsocial man who’s not yet old, no longer young, and still not quite sure how to shape his life into what he wants it to be. If you’re a reader who enjoys very character-driven, feel-good stories, this one might be for you. I was expecting somewhat more of an expansion on that premise, and thus was disappointed to discover that the book does exactly what it claims to, and nothing further.

“He stared bleakly at the crumpled afghan and the clutter on the coffee table- the beer cans and the junk mail. Under the surface, he thought, maybe he was more like his family than he cared to admit. Maybe he was one skipped vacuuming day away from total chaos.”

It’s hard to argue that anything is actually wrong with this book. It tells the story it sets out to. The only element that gave me pause was the woman friend’s behavior; she expects Micah to react a certain way to the news of her potential eviction, but I found this expectation somewhat unfair and unlikely, as she’s been with Micah long enough to note that he’s very literal and terrible at picking up on social cues. It baffled me that she seemed suddenly unaware or unable to remember what sort of personality she was dealing with. But aside from this small hiccup, Tyler does deliver a very competent, very readable tale. She excels at drawing out ordinary details and making her fiction feel like a snapshot of regular life. I thought at times the dialogue felt a little canned, but there is enough of it for the book to build up a quick pace, and the prose flows without friction from start to finish. It’s competent. It’s optimistic. It’s heartwarming, I suppose. Charming. Those just aren’t adjectives I would apply to any of my favorite books, which should help explain my lukewarm reaction.

“Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.”

The theme, helped along by the title and Micah’s slightly myopic vision, seems to point toward the importance of perspective. At the book’s beginning, Micah can see only his own point of view. As he speaks with friends and family about things that are troubling him and hears other sides to stories he thought he knew through and through, he learns to reconsider how his behavior is perceived by those around him. That perspectives differ and we should consider how our actions look to others is, of course, an important lesson to learn in life, but is it one that’s going to be new to anyone at this point? I have my doubts.

To sum, while I’d agree that this is an easy-breezy one-sitting read with its heart in the right place, I found it far too simplistic and unremarkable to impress in any way. Frankly, I can’t even guess as to how this one ended up on the Booker list at all, other than perhaps people just need comfort reads in this year or our lord 2020. No shade to Anne Tyler fans, and maybe something else from her backlist would work better for me, but I’m at a loss here. Redhead reminded me strongly of Frederik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, minus the humor and emotional depth, which just doesn’t leave much beyond soft fluff.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. This was one of those occasions where I really had no idea how to rate the book after I finished. I flew through it and didn’t hate the experience at all, but was also totally unsatisfied in the end. I just couldn’t get any real purchase on it, good or bad. I prefer my stories somewhat darker and less straightforward, is all. I’m sure a more appropriate audience will get their hands on this one and have better luck, it does have a very commercial feel that I think will help bring it to the attention of readers who will enjoy it more.

The Literary Elephant

Review: The New Wilderness

I am nearing the end of my Busy Work Season (finally) and expect to be back here more regularly within a week or so. It’s been harder than usual to find time to stop in here, so I have quite a bit to catch up on! In the meantime I’m still slowly but steadily making my way through the Booker longlist, along with a few other reads; earlier this month I finished Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, which has also now been shortlisted.

In the novel, Bea and her daughter Agnes have fled the City as part of an experimental group meant to answer the question of whether humans can coexist peacefully with the raw nature of the earth’s last Wilderness State. They start as a group of twenty people with an assortment of “wilderness skills” and modern equipment, but soon dwindle to about half the number and learn to replace broken items with handmade pieces they can make from natural resources. Very little ever goes as expected, but it’s a life most of them come to love.

“Bea assumed there must be geese elsewhere, just not in the City. But now she didn’t know. And what of those other lands in heavy use? The cities of greenhouses, the rolling landfills, the sea of windmills, the Woodlots, the Server Farms. What of the lands that had long ago been abandoned? The Heat Belt, the Fallow Lands, the New Coast.”

It’s easy to call this book dystopian, but I think that description does it a disservice. There are little remarks here and there about this eerily plausible future that come with their own disturbing implications and increase the stakes of this tale, but the focus of the book is less of a map through social decline and more of a contained character study, an exploration of mother/daughter relationships, and an exploration of humanity’s animalistic side. I think those picking up The New Wilderness expecting the sort of inventive world building, political commentary, and rebellious plotting that typically comes with dystopian novels may be disappointed, though the perpetual struggle of man vs nature on offer here might appeal to another sort of audience.

Cook’s Wilderness is practically a character in itself. It is a fairly large place, perhaps moreso than the synopsis suggests (I, for one, was surprised by its size); the characters require several seasons to cross through different sections of it, and long journeys between “posts” can take years. Many of the details of mountains and hot springs, forests and salt flats are reminiscent of real natural places, though the variety and geography suggest that this Wilderness is in fact a mishmash rather than any identifiable landmass from our known world. I am not the sort of reader who particularly enjoys long passages of nature descriptions, though I can certainly admit that Cook knows how to paint a scene and plant the reader directly in her characters’ environment. The landscapes are always very clear, and no two places are the same. I mentioned above that I didn’t find the world building very inventive in this book, but I don’t mean that Cook is lazy about creating a believable space- rather that her Wilderness adheres mainly to the known rules of our natural universe while she gives little insight into the vast, overbearing City and its corresponding hubs, the futuristic setting that dystopian readers will likely be more curious about. Of course much of it is self-explanatory- we don’t need much elaboration on how capitalism cannibalizes our world in the name of progress and success, and so it seems Cook is content to drop clues and leave the reader to draw their own assumptions.

In addition to the Wilderness, we have Bea and Agnes. CW for miscarriage; the book opens on a gritty scene of Bea birthing a stillborn daughter alone, outdoors (and this is only the first of several miscarriages in the narrative- food is limited, the work of survival can be grueling, and full-term pregnancies are difficult to come by), which sets the tone for both the feral state of Wilderness life and Bea’s complicated relationship with motherhood. Agnes, Bea’s only living child, was sickly in the City but has grown strong in the Wilderness; Agnes has spent most of her childhood out in the open, and feels that the Wilderness is her natural home. Bea finds Agnes odd and somewhat predatory, though it seemed to me Agnes is simply very literal. She doesn’t understand the nuances of why people lie or hide things from each other, or what can be said without directly being said. Instead, she has an affinity for the physical world around her, which fits with her upbringing. It didn’t quite make sense to me that Bea would find Agnes’s mannerisms so unusual and mysterious, or even off-putting. Agnes is by no means unlikeable, which made some of the commentary around the difficult love between this mother and daughter feel somewhat forced to me. Then again, I’m not a mother myself, and have perhaps read too many books on this theme in 2020.

“And she loved Agnes fiercely, though motherhood felt like a heavy coat she was compelled to put on each day no matter the weather.”

A few times while reading I encountered a major perspective or plot shift that threw me off. We read from both Bea’s and Agnes’s perspectives, and certain big events happen to the group in the Wilderness that majorly alter their course and understanding of their position. Which is great in theory, but it seemed like every time this happened it forced me away from an aspect that I was interested in reading about in favor of focusing on something else entirely, and I would have to invest in the story all over again from a new angle. The whole narrative shifts about somewhat aimlessly until the obvious conflict that arises at the end of the book finally drives the story in the direction it has clearly always been aiming. Until the climax, the characters are more or less just existing, describing the natural wonders of their world and the petty conflicts that take place between members of the group. By the time the story begins, Bea and Agnes have already been in the Wilderness several years, and a way of life is well established; I wouldn’t even call this a survival book, as so much of the tension is internal or between characters- the 400+ page count leans instead toward biding time. Because of this, the story feels a bit too controlled and fragmented for the wild and natural thing that I think it wants to be.

” ‘I was never so scared in my life,’ he said, a catch in his breath. ‘But then, it was so incredible. The landscape was utterly changed.’ “

Largely, The New Wilderness reminds me of Richard Powers’s The Overstory. Both are a bit too long and, I would argue, more impactful in concept and implications than in execution as fictional stories. Even though I didn’t entirely enjoy either read, The Overstory still manages to sneak up and haunt my everyday life with regularity and has found its way into conversation with most of the regulars in my life. I’m hoping The New Wilderness will prove similarly long-lived in my thoughts, though I’m not entirely sure I found it surprising enough for it to linger that way. In any case, I think the ideal audience for both of these books will overlap significantly.

The New Wilderness is not my top choice for the Booker win this year, but I did find Cook’s writing intriguing and very easy to fall into, and I’ll be curious to see what she does next.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. I can see this book making a big impression on the right reader, but in the end that simply wasn’t me. Rather, I found it to be a book I could admire in some ways and truly enjoy in few. I hope other readers will have better luck.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Shuggie Bain

Another Booker Prize review! I happened to be working my way through Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain at the time the Booker shortlist was announced this month, and finished a week or so after. Even while taking it slow, I found Shuggie Bain immersive and emotional.

In the novel, Agnes Bain sinks deeper into alcoholism following her second marriage; Shuggie, the young product of this union, spends his childhood adoring a mother at odds with the world, and trying to save her from herself. Shuggie finds occasional help from the adults in his mother’s life, though very quickly it is apparent that his older half-siblings are going to look out for themselves first, and most of his mother’s “friends” are only looking to take advantage of her. It’s a rough childhood for Shuggie in many ways, though his love for his mother never wavers; through his affection Agnes’s addiction is revealed as a patient disease wearing her down over decades rather than the character flaw that everyone else around her seems to consider it.

“She was in the dangerous in-between place. Enough drink to feel combative but not enough to be unreasonable yet. A few mouthfuls more and she would become destructive, mean-mouthed, spiteful. He stared at her as if he were reading the weather coming down from the glen. He took hold of her and tried to shift her again, before the great rainclouds inside her burst.”

This book is Scottish through and through. Set is 80s-90s Glasgow and told in dialect, Shuggie Bain is a novel that feels inseparable from its time and location, though there’s certainly a universality and timelessness to alcoholism that becomes more pronounced throughout the book, especially as Shuggie meets others who understand his situation all too well. The dialect comes through mainly in the dialogue, where accented speech is spelled out phonetically; I found this easy enough to decipher, and otherwise there are only a few occasional words in the exposition that differ from what I would use in American English, but seem obvious enough in meaning from context. It’s possible other readers may find the writing more challenging, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in the premise on the basis of its style.

The title and general focus on Shuggie are interesting- in many ways this is Agnes’s story, though Stuart head hops just enough to give the reader a clear impression of all of the main characters and their particular perspectives. Everyone feels very real, their motives fully comprehensible and perhaps even frustratingly familiar. The obvious meaning in pointing the focus toward Shuggie in this tale is, I think, twofold: because we’re focused on a character who loves Agnes despite how difficult she makes things for him, sympathy is easy to come by even as the reader becomes acquainted with Agnes’s antagonism. Additionally, centering Shuggie helps convey how very large a challenge alcoholism can be, not only for the person who’s fallen victim to it but for everyone around them, even those they love and would most like to protect. Shuggie may be Agnes’s golden boy, but even he can’t compete with the draw of alcohol for her, whereas in Shuggie’s life, Agnes is a blazing sun that shapes him and his life experience almost entirely.

“He wondered how long it would be till she passed out, till he could have a rest.”

Less obvious but equally important, I think, is that Shuggie really is the lifeblood of this story. While Agnes may be a constant presence throughout these pages, it is nevertheless Shuggie who drives the novel forward. He is the young innocent with a future of great possibility stretching before him, if he can just survive all that is stacked against him. In addition to his mother’s addiction, he’s also got an absent, mean, and selfish father, siblings who leave him behind, a horde of bullies to contend with at school, and no true friends. He doesn’t seem to fit in with his peers at all, who taunt and torment him for being “poofy” even before he has any sense of his own sexuality. And yet, he is kind and caring and steadfast, willing to tolerate more than he should, and it’s impossible not to root for him. Despite the desperate, fraught situation, this is not a loveless tale. The love may be toxic and/or misguided, but it is very present nonetheless, lending the book an aura of tragedy rather than outright cruelty. Even characters who behave despicably don’t do so out of cold-hearted spite or evilness, but rather out of their own need to survive however they can, amid a lack of understanding for the magnitude of Agnes’s battle.

“It was hard at first to start moving again, to feel the music, to go to that other place in your head where you keep your confidence. It didn’t go together, the shuffling feet and the jangly limbs, but like a slow train it caught speed and soon he was flying again. He tried to tone down the big showy moves, the shaking hips and the big sweeping arms. But it was in him, and as it poured out, he found he was helpless to stop it.”

I’m not convinced we really need the full 430 pages that Shuggie Bain gives us, but there were no sections that I found myself wishing had been thrown out entirely, and no moment when I picked the story back up again that I wasn’t instantly hooked back into the flow of Shuggie’s and Agnes’s lives. Parts of it do feel repetitive, which would have been resolved easily by shrinking the page count, but I think ultimately the repetition speaks to the undifferentiated nature of Agnes’s (and thus Shuggie’s) days. It can feel a bit aimless, but I suspect that’s the point.

I can’t deny enjoying myself- if enjoying is the right word for a story this heartbreakingly sad. Very little good happens to Shuggie or his family in the pages of this book, so if you’re someone who needs a happy ending, I’ll warn you now to look elsewhere.

CW: alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide ideation/threats/attempts, child neglect, homophobia, rape, molestation, physical and verbal bullying, death of a loved one.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I knew what to expect, and it went on rather longer than I really needed it to, and yet I was fully drawn in and moved by the particularities regardless. Aside from the dialect, it’s a straightforward story told in a very straightforward way, and yet despite this I can understand its spot on the shortlist and I think anyone who appreciates a good sad book will likely find what they’re looking for here. I don’t think it’s my top choice for Booker winner this year, but it’s a worthwhile read for those who are interested in the premise and have a bit of time to dedicate to it.

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Gutshot and Death, Desire, and Other Destinations

The only two books I’ve finished reading so far this month are two surreal collections of very short stories. Both contain magical and/or speculative elements, both focus on human relationships, both are divided into very small individual pieces- flash fiction. And so, I thought it made sense to review them together, and I hoped this would be an easy entrance to resuming my reviews.

I read Gutshot by Amelia Gray as a buddy read with the lovely and astute Melanie, who has also recently posted a review that you shouldn’t miss!


For me, Gutshot was a fun read full of creative premises and surprising events. These stories typically begin with a concept that seems ordinary or at least straightforward, and then follows the trail down an imaginative path of bizarre what ifs. Gray often uses otherworldly elements as symbolism, as an exaggerated way of pointing something out about our familiar world or human habits/emotions in a new light. A man enters a mysterious labyrinth, hoping his peers will think him brave. A damaged gravestone reveals beauty in destruction and incites a frenzy. One story about marriage is titled ‘Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover,’ in which the reader is advised to literally eat her husband piece by piece for every move he makes, because inevitably he’ll go astray anyway and deserve such a fate. The stories are designed to make one rethink assumptions: a piece about swans, those lovely creatures who mate for life, actually reveals them to be rather disgusting. I’d be shocked to find anyone who can say that Gray’s writing is ever predictable or boring.

And yet while I found the stories engaging and pleasant to read, I found the implied meanings of them either far too obvious to excite me or too vague to unravel at all- and in both cases, the lack of a nuanced concept to ponder past the end of each story ultimately meant that very few of the pieces in this set were memorable for more than bare details and their ability to amuse me at the surface level.

There are two qualities that particularly appeal to me in short story collections- the first is a touch of the bizarre, which is what originally drew me to Gutshot. I love magical or speculative elements in fiction that push the boundaries of reality; for a short story to impress me it needs to be unique and punchy from start to finish, without a lot of backstory or elaborate world building to bog it down, and a bizarre twist is usually the best way to draw me in immediately and set the story apart. It’s also typically a fun way to examine the real world at an unexpected slant; fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative elements are great for commentary on society or human nature. Sometimes Gray achieves this, but other times the moments of unreality feel too silly and unexplored.

“Flesh is siphoned into a bowl and poured without discrimination into a freestanding grandfather clock that is set on fire and rolled into the street.”

The other quality I prefer (again just a personal choice), is that while the collection may have some broader theme or style that holds all of the stories together, each story should ideally also stand on its own. For the brevity of the short story to keep its appeal, it’s best to be able to dip in and out of the set, in my opinion, without feeling you’re missing something when you don’t read it all at once. But Gutshot doesn’t quite work in this way for me. The collection is divided into sections, and the closest I came to finding any depth of meaning from the book was to look at all of the stories in a section together and consider what they had in common. This of course necessitates reading at least one full section at once, which isn’t too challenging in a book of this size (just over 200 pages, each of the stories 10 pages or less) but just isn’t quite the reading experience I hope for with short pieces.

Across the five sections of this book, I found such concepts explored as: the danger in putting one individual above the good of the group, the violent and ugly side to love, the sorrowful and deadly nature of isolation, the consequences of loving something too much, and the possibility that nothing ever really ends, but all repeats again in its own cycle. The titular piece involves a man who has been shot in the gut; the shooter is remorseful and those sought for help are sympathetic, but none can provide sufficient care for the victim’s wound. Jesus Christ “helps” him in the end by telling him about people passing in a plane overhead. This is one of the stories that didn’t entirely make sense to me- is the focus on futility and despair? Is the message that kindness only goes so far? That the individual is small, and the world goes on? All a bit grim, and are we to determine from the title that one of these possibilities is central to the whole set? My confusion here is an accurate indicator of my struggle to find thematic depth throughout this entire read. I can make out some overlying arcs between the sections, but I am left frustratingly uncertain about what the reader is meant to take away from this experience.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m undetermined on whether I’ll try more of this author’s work- it sounds like she’s got a novel that might appeal to me more, and I do generally like unpredictable and puzzling fiction, but I didn’t quite get what I came for here despite my surface-level amusement with the stories.

Death, Desire, and Other Destinations

Next, I read Tara Isabel Zambrano’s debut short story collection, Death, Desire and Other Destinations, which released September 15. The stories in this set are incredibly short, most of them 2-4 pages in length; the longest is 9 pages, and it’s an outlier. Many of these stories also include some sort of otherworldly element, infusing the work with a dreamlike quality.

Unlike Gutshot, this collection manages to accomplish both of the things I enjoy in short story collections- it is packed with bizarre details that effectively further a point about the human experience, and each of the stories stand alone well, though the style and themes are consistent throughout the book, linking them all together.

The stories in this collection tend toward the sapphic, though there are a fair amount of exceptions. Zambrano doesn’t shy away from sexual descriptions in the relationships that unfold across these pages, which I liked in principle but occasionally found overbearing in practice. The characters are diverse or unspecified, which gives the set a very inclusive and limitless aura. As the title indicates, most of the stories focus on death and desire in some form; there are many losses and longings in these pages, including miscarriages, breakups, and various other endings and false starts. A woman who goes for a bikini wax would rather forget about her husband and enjoy the touch of the esthetician. A widow believes her husband, upon death, became one with their house. A poisonous courtesan who can kill with a kiss but not feel love becomes entangled with a girl even more deadly than she. One girl removes the heart from her chest in order to get to know it properly.

What I liked most about these stories is that each one digs into a particular emotion that is easy to comprehend and even relate to, never mind the fact that the characters include aliens, snakes, ghosts, and more. Zambrano writes about the nuances of the human heart, with an otherworldly slant (just the way I like). Her writing is full of unusual imagery, especially involving the body and weather/atmosphere, and I found her metaphors constantly thought-provoking even if sometimes challenging to decipher. Though these moments contain impossibilities, they always paint a clear and intriguing idea.

“The shining dust from the rubble streams in and mixes with your breath. Like a fish swimming to the surface for oxygen, you open your mouth wide, eat the day slowly.”

If I had to pick a genre I’d say these stories are speculative overall, though there’s a timelessness to them that makes appearances of modern devices and futuristic scenarios (like weddings on the moon being a common practice) feel shocking in the reminder that these narratives are grounded in real possibilities- in essence, if not in details. All of these stories are separate and complete in themselves, though none of them seem mutually exclusive, and small details (like a particular animal or object or personality) popping up casually later on gives the whole collection a beautiful sort of flow.

I think there will be a particular sort of reader best suited to this collection; so much of it is melancholy and possibly triggering (CW: miscarriage, death of a loved one, cheating, mild body horror), the writing is gorgeous but oblique, and the reader needs a certain willingness to accept things that don’t make literal sense. It’s dreamy and evocative, but also strange. I know this won’t be to every reader’s taste, but for the right reader I think there’s a lot to love in this collection and in Zambrano’s style. I know I enjoyed my time with it, and I hope others will too.

“Abandoned, I hold on to the shape her body has left behind in me, part home, part grave.”

If you’re curious to learn more about the author and her work, Melanie hosted an interview with the Zambrano a few weeks ago on her blog!

I received an eARC; it’s possible that quotes and details could be different in the final version of this book.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. So much about this collection was just perfectly tailored to my short story tastes, and I had a delightfully sad time reading it (I love sad books). Though there are too many stories for me to say I’ll remember them all individually, I can already tell that the broader topics and emotions will stick with me.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Midnight Sun

If you’re actively opposed to all things Twilight, feel free to skip this post; I’m going to be talking about Stephenie Meyer’s new Twilight Saga release here, the long-awaited Midnight Sun.

To start off, I’d like to point out that I was intending to read one chapter of this book per day over about a month (there are 29 chapters), and finish with a post titled ‘A Case Against Wish Fulfillment Books.’ This plan was derailed two weeks in when I finished reading the chapters that leaked a decade ago in the Midnight Sun manuscript; I ended up binging and quite enjoying the rest of the book. In place of that more critical post, I’m simply going to cover all of the discussion points I think other Midnight Sun readers will potentially be interested in; sorry to everyone who doesn’t fit in that category, but also… not sorry. My 2020 needed this diversion.

Midnight Sun is the same exact YA fantasy romance delivered in Twilight: a love story between a 109 year-old vampire in a 17 year-old’s body (Edward) and a human teenage girl (Bella), with a simple narrator POV swap. As with Twilight, the story starts with Bella’s first day at school in Forks and continues up to the couple’s evening at prom a couple of months later. The first twelve chapters are VERY similar to the corresponding chapters of the partial Midnight Sun manuscript circa 2008. If you’ve already got those firm in your mind (I suspect the audience for this book will largely overlap with the audience who read that leaked draft), you could skip right to chapter 13 if you felt so inclined.

I fully expected to enjoy this in a cringe-y, nostalgic, guilty pleasure sort of way, but am instead here to confirm that Midnight Sun is just as addictive as any of the Twilight novels ever have been, for better or for worse.

Having read both perspectives now, it seems shocking that one version of this romance could ever have existed without the other, that the two were not written simultaneously, so tidily do they complement each other. There are a few awkward moments in Midnight Sun where the established dialogue doesn’t quite match Edward’s newly revealed thought process and he has to wonder ‘why did I say that?’ or note that his behavior isn’t following his conscious intentions; the symbolism of the title and cover is also hit harder than necessary. But these clumsy maneuvers are few and far between, and on the whole I think Midnight Sun does an excellent job of connecting previously invisible dots; every time Edward speaks or gestures too fast for Bella to catch is now captured on paper. And these two spend so much time wondering what the other is thinking that having access to both of their thoughts suits the story. As far as I can tell the details track- I took a cursory look through the meadow scene from both books to compare, and found only minor differences between how actions are meant vs perceived, and which details are made note of or ignored by each character; these small differences are not mutually exclusive, and in fact I think they improve this project, exploring the idea that no two people experience the same thing in the exact same way.

I thought Twilight coming from Bella’s perspective was the perfect choice at the time- as the reader’s first foray into this world, of course it makes sense to introduce fantasy elements from the point of view of someone who is also newly discovering them. But in the same vein, Edward’s perspective is the right choice for a new Twilight novel today, when even those who haven’t read the books or watched the films likely have some knowledge of the story. Edward is all extremes, so the series might have died here if it had started this way originally, though he is by far the more interesting of the two, and the only character capable of breathing some life back into this overblown piece of pulp fiction. Seeing his point of view at this point allows Meyer to add depth to the now-familiar story that no other angle could provide. So much of this book is exactly the same and yet it also manages to be new and different, thanks to this one vital shift.

There’s no point in denying that this book is entirely gratuitous and unnecessary- yes, it’s a bit ironic to call any of these books necessary, but the rest of them do at least advance the scant plot; Midnight Sun adds virtually nothing new beyond Edward’s voice, and even this is not a surprise, as his position has been made clear from his dialogue in the rest of the series. This is, plain and simple, a wish fulfillment book for long-time Twilight fans, which is apparent even in the book’s dedication. I was prepared to hate it for not bringing anything new to a table that’s already stacked with a lot of issues, and indeed: the vast majority of the content here is comprised of the exact same plot, scenes, dialogue, and backstory that are already familiar from Twilight. The two books correlate practically chapter for chapter- about half even share the same titles. The two books are warped mirror images of each other. There are four extra chapters in Midnight Sun, and almost 200 more pages than Twilight contained, but that’s easily explained by Edward’s obsessive over-analyzing of every. thing.

“Not for the first time in my life, I wished that I could make my brain slow down. Force it to move at human speed, if only just for a day, an hour, so that I wouldn’t have time to obsess over and over again about the same solutionless problems.”

Some patience is clearly required, but I think those who are still interested after the twelve year hiatus from this series won’t mind that the final product comes with plenty of padding.

I do want to acknowledge before going further that the same flaws plaguing the earlier books of the Twilight Saga still exist here in Midnight Sun, though it’s clear Meyer is more aware of those criticisms by now. Unfortunately I think she spends more effort tying up little plot holes (admittedly a gratifying element) than addressing the more serious characterization problems, and some of those she acknowledges without cleaning up which actually makes them seem worse (Edward’s stalking and spying tendencies, for one, are fully acknowledged and dismissed). But to be fair I think it would be pretty hard to change the canon believably at this point, within the strict constraints imposed upon this novel. So, enter at your own risk- Edward is still a controlling, manipulative boyfriend no one should aspire to have, Bella is gilded a bit when seen through Edward’s eyes but still a single-minded idiot no one should aspire to be, the Quileutes are still presented unfairly as an antagonistic enemy, and the age gap in the romance is still uncomfortable (Edward thinks of the high schoolers as children). Additionally, Edward’s thought-reading reveals a lot of unpleasantness in the personalities of many formerly benign side characters, including Rosalie, most of Bella’s human friends, and even Bella’s mother.

On the plus side, there’s a lot more time spent on the uber-supportive Cullen family dynamic and on teasing out individual quirks for each of the vampires. Emmett shines as the best friend Edward ever could’ve asked for, Alice has some real prowess with the future visions (and I found her all-but-silent conversations with Edward incredibly amusing; Alice has always been my favorite Cullen), Jasper’s mood controlling makes sense and is put to fantastic use at last, and Carlisle and Esme’s kindness radiates off the page (though Esme is still the flattest of them all, sadly). There’s even a bit of silent observation from Edward’s side that endeavors to prove he loves Bella for more than the smell of her blood, which is a nice addition.

It’s still a romance, of course. But where Bella’s POV makes Twilight revolve entirely around the love story and the discovery of magic hiding in her ordinary world, Edward’s POV brings us less of a love story and more of a war with his own self-worth and self-control. The falling in love part happens early and easily, immediately apparent in the angst and (melo)drama if not in Edward’s conscious awareness. What drives this version of the story instead is his internal grappling; he loves her, but he wants to kill her. The thing he wants most is the thing he poses the most danger to. He can have momentary happiness, or he can endure intense momentary discomfort for long-term happiness. His long-term happiness on the other hand would require certain sacrifices from the object of his affections, and can he ask that of her? Her happiness is a double-edged sword that incites both pain and pleasure- which is stronger, and what will that mean for her future? For his?

Edward loathes himself for bringing someone he loves and believes innocent into his world of vampirism; he considers himself the monster, the nightmare, full stop. It’s a dark and anxious book, and the fraught self-hatred and denial is the main draw. It’s a book full of pain and suffering, much of it self-inflicted. The gloomy psychological battle won’t be for everyone of course, but if you’ve ever been Team Edward this is likely what you’ve been craving all along- Edward’s uncomfortable predicament has been clear through all of these books, though it’s never been this potent.

“As I stared at her, I began to feel almost agonized at the thought of saying even a temporary goodbye. She was so soft, so vulnerable. It seemed foolhardy to let her out of my sight, where anything could happen to her. And yet, the worst things that could happen to her would result from being with me.”

Because the reader already knows what is happening and how this world is built, and because Edward is the mythical creature rather than the painfully ordinary human, Midnight Sun is able to start in the thick of things even as it goes back to the very beginning, and it’s able to take the otherworldly aspects farther than Bella’s perspective allowed. Meyer knows the reader is already familiar with her brand of vampirism, and in any case by the time this story starts Edward has already been a vampire for close to a century, so he doesn’t get caught up in world-building minutiae the way Bella does.

There’s a bit more magical behind-the-scenes action going on here too, and a deeper dive into Edward’s backstory and his behavior unbeknownst to Bella. None of this changes canon content, and the extra details aren’t anything that couldn’t be guessed at based on remarks from the other books, but it’s still amusing to see in print. To be honest, I think being willing to laugh at these books has always been a prerequisite for enjoying them, and that’s no different here.

“For half a second I was distracted by the idea, the impossibility, of what it would be like to try to kiss Bella. My lips to her lips, cold stone to warm, yielding silk…

And then she dies.”

I mean, it’s so bad it comes all the way around the spectrum to good again. Like 90s horror flicks. I think this is why I can read Midnight Sun in 2020 and not something like The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes; the Twilight Saga all but begs not to be taken seriously, and thus is easier to pick back up even when reading tastes have changed.

Honestly I think the only thing here that will disappoint readers who’ve been more or less enjoying the series up to now is that as Midnight Sun nears its climax, as Bella breaks away from the Cullens to run toward her own demise, Edward is able to block out most of his worry about her safety when it should be at its most heady. Luckily the plot picks up with some grand theft auto and vampire magic to help redirect attention, but this doesn’t quite replace the glut of emotion I think most readers will expect in that scene. Ah, well. I suppose even vampires must have a breaking point.

In the end, I would argue that Midnight Sun is better than Twilight, although I think both objectively leave a lot to be desired, just as both have served their purpose and proved wildly entertaining in their own time and place. I don’t expect that Midnight Sun is going to win this series many new readers, however. Even though it is just another iteration of the first book, and would probably work as an entrance to the series, it doesn’t seem intended for that purpose. This is an expansion of known story, not an organic introduction to this world. Furthermore, I suspect this will be the end of the Edward-perspective books, which means anyone looking to jump into this saga is going to have to face Bella’s POV sooner rather than later if they plan to continue reading.

Enough of Edward’s thoughts and motivations are clear here that it’s easy to imagine how and why the rest of the series’ plot unfolds the way it does, and drawing out Edward’s perspective further would feel incredibly repetitive and even more superfluous than it does in Midnight Sun. He’s already (unknowingly) contemplating a lot of the issues that will come up for him in the future: how and why he might leave Bella, what that would feel like, how and why he might come back. Why a physical relationship between them would be dangerous. What he thinks about her potentially becoming a vampire vs staying human. His jealousy. His stance on letting her go or even encouraging a more normal life for her, separate from him. His anxiety when she’s out of sight. His fear of her inevitable death looming above everything else. It’s all here, and I think Meyer provides it with the understanding that it’s all the reader is getting. Midnight Sun adds an indulgent layer, but further books would probably become too cloying. Especially given that the second installment would just be a massive tome of severe depression, given the plot of New Moon.

And yet, despite the doom and gloom and obvious predictability, it is still fun. I suppose this is why wish fulfillment books exist.

“Run, Bella, run. Stay, Bella, stay.”

I enjoyed this read far more than I expected based on my present reading taste; I don’t regret picking it up, I’m excited to talk about it with anyone who’s read it or is planning to read it, and I could even envision doing a reread someday- I’d be curious to try Midnight Sun and Twilight side by side, scene by scene, eventually. But there’s only so much sparkly vampire romance I can take in one dose these days and I’ve hit my limit for now, so I’ll be taking a break.

Have you read or are you planning to read Midnight Sun? Hit me with all your Twilight Saga thoughts down below, I’m in some kind of teenage angst mood.

The Literary Elephant