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Review: Hannibal

Two years ago, I picked up The Silence of the Lambs as my Halloween read, knowing it was a horror classic with a readily available film adaptation, but without realizing that it was actually the second book in a series. I had such a good time with it that last year I followed up by choosing Red Dragon as my Halloween read (the first book in the set), and this year I picked up the third, Hannibal (all three by Thomas Harris). Sadly, with Hannibal I found my first real disappointment of the series, and what a disappointment it was.

hannibalIn the novel, seven years after Hannibal Lecter’s escape from custody, special agent Starling struggles to find her place in the FBI. It’s very much a man’s world, and she’s made enemies high up the chain of command who take pains to knock her back every time she tries to take a step forward. When a tip comes in that Lecter has fled Italy after causing some murderous havoc there, Starling is the one who chases the lead- from a dark basement storage room where no one expects she’ll find anything. Meanwhile, someone else is chasing Lecter as well; one of his earliest victims (who barely survived, aided by a lot of modern technology) is out for revenge. Verger has a lot of money, and was left in such poor physical state that he spends what’s left of his existence just thinking- about how to get Lecter away from the law and into his own hands. Can Starling bring Lecter back into official custody? Will Verger take her down to get to Lecter? Will Lecter escape them both? The answers are here, and they’re disturbing.

“That didn’t mean he wouldn’t kill me any second if he got the chance- one quality in a person doesn’t rule out any other quality. They can exist side by side, good and terrible.”

There seems to be one book every year in my busy work season that seems nearly impossible to finish and puts me in a big reading slump. Last year it was The Bachman Books, a set of four stories which I very much enjoyed, all but one. I was afraid the challenge this year might turn out to be Ducks, Newburyport, but fortunately that was such an excellent read that I didn’t have any trouble getting through its thousand pages. Instead, it was Hannibal I got stuck on.

There are so many things to dislike here. The book starts promisingly enough, with a very film-able shoot-out scene that turns out to be as much about bureau and media politics as about the adrenaline rush. Starling isn’t the same woman she was in The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s been seven years- some character development is to be expected, and there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding her place in the bureau and the future of her career. Soon after, the narration takes us to Italy, where Lecter is enjoying all the fine things in life, and a blacklisted cop there discovers his identity. We are also introduced to the story’s villain, Verger, who likes to make children cry and throw his money around to shape the world into what he wants it to be. But for all these intriguing starts, it doesn’t take long for the book to drag.

Problem number one: the plot trajectory becomes clear early on, and then stagnates while we wait for it to play out. Verger is making arrangements to torture and kill Lecter, and he’s got some powerful helpers, in addition to an endless supply of cash. The FBI (other than Starling) does not have any interest in Lecter. Or at least, no confidence in catching him, and thus they’re eager to look the other way. Starling is the wild card, but even so, any reasonably intelligent reader knows Lecter and Verger will have some sort of confrontation (why else even include Verger in this book?). And so, from the time the major players are introduced, to the time they all meet, hundreds of pages are spent on very little plot movement. There’s no forward momentum.

Problem two: What fills the pages instead is a whole lot of attention paid to Lecter’s superior “taste.” I suppose with the title of the book being what it is, we can expect that this novel is an exploration of Hannibal Lecter’s character, though the extent of it took me completely by surprise. We get lessons on the cars he insists on driving, the food he insists on eating (and cooking), the music he insists on listening to, the silverware he insists on using, the clothes he insists on wearing, etc. Brands and descriptions are numerous. I can’t speak for everyone of course, but I’ve learned the hard way (ahem, Discovery of Witches) that I will simply never care about any character’s list of favorite wines. For me, the surplus of these details quickly crossed the line past productive characterization into what seemed like Harris showing off his expertise on “good culture,” complete with travel details.

Problem three: Relatedly, almost everything about Lecter in this novel felt like Harris simply reveling in his most famous character being in the limelight. Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs certainly contain gruesome details (major trigger warnings in all three books for murder, torture, body horror, cannibalism, etc.), but those scenes featured infrequently, when they served the plot. In Hannibal, most (if not all) of the gory details felt gratuitous. This entire book honestly felt like a celebration of Hannibal the Cannibal, the most perfect murderer. He’s not presented as a villain here. He’s lauded. And it comes across as ridiculous.

“His ego, like his intelligence quota, and the degree of his rationality, is not measurable by conventional means.”

Problem four: The ending. Despite being published in the 1980’s and 90’s, most of the content in these three books hasn’t age too badly. Starling is a pretty great female lead in The Silence of the Lambs, and there’s not much in the way of insensitive commentary that wouldn’t fly today. But this ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but Harris completely ruins Starling’s character. Worse, he does it in a way that taints who she’s been and what her motivations have been since the first time she met Lecter, early in The Silence of the Lambs. In paving the way for Lecter to have a glorious ending, Harris pulls down everything else that was good about this series. His female lead. Excellent detective work. Morality. Ugh.

Problem five: There’s no one to root for anyway. After such disappointment in the ending, I had to go back and ask: what would I rather have happened? And I couldn’t answer it. Though Lecter is a fascinating character, he’s a nonetheless a villain. Verger mixes the tears of children he’s personally antagonized into his cocktails, and Starling, the obvious choice for a heroine, seems a shadow of her former self (especially as we approach the end- if you know you know). There isn’t anyone in this book that I wanted to “win,” or even felt good about. I don’t need to like the characters to like the book, but disliking all of the characters when that doesn’t seem intentional is the worst.

I usually try to soften my negative reviews by ending on some sort of positive note, or at least recommending it to an audience that I think will get on with it better. The best I can say here is that for the first third (or possibly even half), I didn’t hate this story yet, and there are a couple of scenes that I will remember mostly fondly (Krendler’s fate, for one). Also I suppose if you’re in this series for the gore (or for expensive wine recommendations), you might enjoy Hannibal. I think that’s as close as I can get to positivity here, I’m sorry. I sincerely hope that anyone who has already read or is planning to read this one has a better time with it than I did.

“We assign a moment to decision, to dignify the process as a timely result of rational and conscious thought. But decisions are made of kneaded feelings; they are more often a lump than a sum.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I’m on the fence about reading book four, the final book in this series: Hannibal Rising. I believe it’s a prequel about Lecter’s early life and career (both as a doctor and as a cannibalistic murderer). The completionist in me wants to cross it off my list after getting this far in the series. But my lack of enjoyment with this book, and the reasons for it (mainly Lecter’s characterization) leave me thinking that I can’t possibly appreciate that book any more than I did this one. So, it might be time to move on to a new Halloween reading tradition.

What’s the worst book you’ve read lately?

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 7

My Faber Stories journey continues! In case you missed it, I’ve been reading through the 2019 collection of Faber Stories- individually bound short stories from a wide range of celebrated authors- since early this year. Originally a set of 20 stories (though always meant to expand, I think), there have been 10 more recent additions to the collection. I’ll link my reviews for the first 20 stories here: ( Mini-reviews part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6). Below are the first three I read from the new batch; I’m aiming to wrap up the rest of the new volumes in two more sets of mini-reviews before the end of the year. For now:

Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin. 4 stars.

This volume contains two short pieces by Fremlin, originally published in 1968 and ’70. Both are stories of hauntings, and both highlight a fraught mother-daughter relationship. The first features a teen girl home alone, ruminating about the house and her parents, when a mysterious girl her own age stops by and seems to understand everything. The second piece is the longer of the two, and focuses on a woman who, after the death of her sister, has spent years acting as a mother figure to her niece. Now that the niece is engaged and preparing a house of her own, her aunt has a terrible sense of doom hanging over the girl, and recounts her own past as she tries to piece together the reason for her increasing worry that her niece is in danger.

Both of the stories contain a twist at the end that answers the main “mystery” of their story, though neither are framed as a mystery, and neither has much of a plot. Where they excel is in their discourse on difficult parent-child relationships. The first story touches on the disparity in viewpoints: the child thinking she has some special insight into her parents’ personalities, the parents harboring a layered past to which she’s not privy. Building on this idea, the second piece shows the aunt’s backstory in the midst of her present fright, which contains enough depth to entirely explain the current situation. In this story, the protagonist’s history with her niece’s parents proves to have affected her entire relationship with the girl, though until this recent incident neither of them knew it.

In the end, though the broad strokes seemed fairly obvious, I enjoyed the depth revealed in each relationship, perhaps even more so in the final implications that each ending is actually a beginning of a new phase of life for these characters. The first story seemed the most predictable to me, and didn’t delve deep enough to really impress me, so that was a 3-star; the second piece I found much more intriguing, and landed on a 4-star rating. Overall I went with 4 for the volume because the themes and details did make these two pieces a very apt pairing.

Intruders by Adrian Tomine. 4 stars.

I had no idea until I picked this one up that it’s actually the first graphic short story to appear in the Faber Stories set (originally published in 2015). Each page includes a bit of text, with an image beneath, comic-square style.

The story here centers around a soldier back at “home” between tours of duty; though he’s staying elsewhere, day after day he comes back to look at the old apartment where he once lived with his wife. Someone else now lives in the apartment, and the soldier, after learning this new tenant’s schedule, begins to let himself into the place with his old key. Things eventually go wrong (of course).

Though the surface details of the plot are certainly intriguing here, making this a quick read aided by expressive art that furthers the story, what really drew me to this one is the subtle between-the-lines commentary on this soldier’s state of mind. It’s clear that his time in service has altered his behavior and perspective, which likely led to the split with his wife. In that respect, I think this is an excellent piece depicting some of the hardships soldiers can face, even after returning home. I was a little disappointed that Tomine shied away from greater conflict with the ending, but I appreciated the psychological insight nevertheless.

Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore. 3 stars.

Translated from Charles Perrault’s original French dating back to the 1600s, poet Moore here shares three early fairy tales. (“Early” here meaning that Perrault was the inventor of the fairy tale genre.) The pieces included in this volume are “Puss in Boots,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Cinderella.” Though these are all familiar stories now, the original versions vary a bit from their modern counterparts, meaning there are still a few surprises for the curious reader.

Unlike the two volumes above, the plots are the selling point here. The conflict is introduced early on, a magical element comes into play, and the hook is invariably, “how will this good hero/heroine get out of this mess?” From the introduction and Moore’s background in award-winning poetry, it’s clear that much attention has been paid to wording, and these stories are indeed very readable.

They’re also very dated. My biggest qualm here is simply that these tales are absolutely a product of their time, and were not modernized in translation. Princesses are supposed to be beautiful and charming and otherwise helpless while the king gives them away to whichever suitor he pleases, or a prince sweeps in to rescue them; the mother-in-law who doesn’t like her son’s wife is literally presented as an ogre; a man with hardly any property to his name impresses the king with gifts of small game, and easily gets away with lying about his title and land ownership. Some casual misogyny and pre-internet lawlessness are to be expected from this time period of course, but even so I wish we could celebrate this genre and these stories without perpetuating some of those less desirable elements that haven’t aged as well.

Even so, I found “Puss in Boots” clever and amusing, “Sleeping Beauty” captivatingly dark, and “Cinderella” simply a very pleasant read- she’s such an amiable character in this version that it’s impossible not to root for her happy ending. My only complaint about plot is that “Sleeping Beauty” really felt like two separate stories: one about the princess pricking her finger on a spindle and falling asleep, and one about the princess become a secret bride in a dangerous family. Both interesting, though the second half doesn’t quite flow logically and smoothly from the first. All three stories are engrossing and amusing, though unless you want to ruminate on helpless women and tricksters becoming rulers, there’s not any sort of moral to be drawn or thought path to continue down after closing the cover.

“A prince, young and in love, is always brave, and this one, true to tradition, went boldly to the forecourt of the castle. There, what he saw would have frozen the blood of the bravest. In the fearsome silence, everything everywhere had the look of death…”

faberstories7

In conclusion, these were entertaining reads I’m glad I picked up, though none of them is compelling me to pick up further works by these authors. These all helped keep me going when I hit a bit of a reading slump in October/November though, so I’m grateful for that, but hoping for even better luck as I continue through this collection!

Have you read any of these, or have your eye on any of the other Faber Stories?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

2019 Almost-Favorites

Last year I started a new bookish Thanksgiving tradition: looking back at some of the books that aren’t quite going to make my favorites list for the year and exploring why I’m still thankful to have read them! (Here’s the link to my 2018 almost-favorites if you’re curious.)

Since I’ve not had the best reading year, putting this list together has been a great reminder that there have nevertheless been some gems in my 2019 reading! I’ll post about my actual top favorites next month, but these are books that I really liked, that I can’t let go without mentioning again! It’s not an exhaustive list of all the books I’ve enjoyed this year, not even when combined with my favorites list. I’ve narrowed it down to a reasonable length: 10 books. I’ve even made an attempt to rank them! (Titles are linked to my reviews if you’re looking for more info.)

thesilentcompanions10. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. This is a historical gothic/horror novel with a unique supernatural element. It stands out for its atmosphere and tension, its hint of modern feminism as a lens through which challenges in historic women’s lives are examined, and it’s pacey plot. What held me back from favorite status here is that the plot was really the main focus (evil paintings taking over a secluded house!), and plots don’t tend to stick in my memory very well. I’ll remember I loved reading this one, but the specifics (except for those evil paintings, of course) will fade away pretty quickly, I’m afraid.

mysistertheserialkiller9. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Longlisted for the Women’s Prize and the Booker, this little book captured a lot of attention this year. It’s a quick-paced mystery about a woman murdering her boyfriends and the sister who helps clean up after her. The deaths and details are intriguing, but what stood out to me most were the strong women and their close bond. I had so much fun reading this one, but it’s missing from my favorites list because it didn’t leave me with much food for thought; closing the cover really is the end of the experience with this one.

thehandmaidstalegraphicnovel8. The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault. I thoroughly appreciated Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a few years back, and this graphic novel format of the same story reignited my interest. The standout elements were the bold colors and clean lines of the artwork, and the superb narration. Everything about this was gearing me up for 5-star favorite status (even though the original novel was only a 4 for me!), but what held me back was the ending, deviating from the classic script just enough to change the entire direction of the story, paving the way for The Testaments and marring the read for me.

womentalking7. Women Talking by Miriam Toews. This short novel, based on the true tragedy of numerous sexual assaults in a Menonite colony, stood out to me for it’s jaw-dropping details, the cleverness involved in effectively utilizing a male narrator in a story about female power and voice, and for the intricate way the characters’ actions are tied up in their religion. The only aspect that held me back was the utter lack of plot; the title is perfectly informative in describing what happens in this book, and while I loved the statements it made, I have to admit it wasn’t a story with much momentum.

nonficminireviews6. Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli. In little more than a hundred (nonfiction) pages, Luiselli manages both to educate her readers about the children caught up in the US border crisis, and to give a sharp tug to the heartstrings. It’s a standout for its emotive prose, its bravery in speaking out against the US government, and its unique structure: framed around the 40-question form immigrating children need to fill out upon entering America. The only thing holding me back here- through no fault of Luiselli’s- is that this is an ongoing problem, which understandably means there are no answers or conclusions here.

aspellofwinter5. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore. The most compulsively readable Women’s Prize winner I’ve read so far, this historical gothic-toned tragedy kept me up nights because I just had to know what would happen next. It’s darkly beautiful and absolutely haunting, which are standout details in my opinion. I adored the style and atmosphere through most of the novel, and appreciated the focus on how women have been stifled and taken advantage of through history. What held me back is a shift in tone and direction at the end, along with how incredibly sad some of the details left me.

askmeaboutmyuterus4. Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman. Someone in my life talked to me about endometriosis this year, I heard about this book soon after, and was shocked to realize how big a problem it is for women not only to get diagnosed, but treated properly for this condition. What stands out most here is the way Norman uses her own diagnosis in this memoir as a springboard to explore a larger issue in medicine- unfair treatment of ailing women- both in history and modern day. Similar to my hang-up with the Luiselli piece, I’m holding back here mainly for a lack of resolution to an ongoing problem; I was left with plenty of questions, though I understand Norman couldn’t possibly have answered all of them.

driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedead3. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Much like with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Overstory, the plot didn’t entirely work for me with this one, though I appreciated basically everything else. I don’t often read (and even less often enjoy) books that focus heavily on animals, but the standout narrative voice (an old, eccentric Polish woman) hooked me immediately, and by the time I closed the novel I couldn’t look at animals the same way as before. (The narrator tries convincing her village that animals are murdering humans in revenge for their mistreatment.) What held me back was only that the structuring of this story as a mystery felt like tacking a cheap thrill onto a story that might have been a bit stronger as a straightforward exploration of a very intriguing premise.

humanacts22. Human Acts by Han Kang. This brutal little book delves into a student uprising in 1980 Korea; it’s a fictional account of the real event. The stand out element for me here was the way Kang posits that both vulnerability and abuse of power are inevitable human traits, necessarily existing side by side. It’s incredibly dark and sad, but certainly hard-hitting and effective. The only aspect that held me back was the frequent switch of perspective, not only from one character to another but also in point of view (1st, 2nd, 3rd person); these switches could be confusing at times, and did not always seem to serve any productive purpose.

marysmonster1. Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge. Here we have a graphic fictionalized biography of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein); it also includes the famous monster and plays up themes found in Shelley’s novel, transposed onto the stage of her real life. Standout features are the soft gray-scale artwork, the free verse narration, and the impeccable blending of fact and fiction. What held me back from including this on my favorites list is that it took me a while to get into this one; the book opens with Shelley’s childhood, through which both the “plot” and the writing are more simplistic and just felt a bit too YA or even MG for my current taste. (It becomes much more adult later on, I would not recommend to an MG or young YA audience- perhaps 16+.)

There you have it, folks: my 2019 almost-favorites!

After writing all of those little paragraphs for each book, I’m realizing it was a bad idea to end them all on the downside I found to each of these books- the goal was to talk them up and hopefully persuade some more readers to give these titles a chance! Even though each of these stories comes with a reason it won’t be on my favorites list, these were all highly enjoyable 4- or 5-star reads for me that didn’t miss the mark by much! Some of the “flaws” I’ve mentioned are inevitable side effects of their topics (as with the ongoing-problem nonfiction pieces) or personal opinions that other readers might feel very differently about (like the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel, which I think Testaments fans will appreciate, or Mary’s Monster feeling too young at first, which is unlikely to bother readers who pick up MG/YA more regularly than I’ve been doing).

And so, I’ll close here with a reminder that there’s more to reading than lists and numbers (even though both are present in this post…). Take a moment to look back at your reading year with me and appreciate the upsides to some of the books that you won’t be featuring on your favorites list; consider what you’ve gained even from the books you aren’t going to be gushing about at the end of the year. Sure, we all find some duds, but at the end of the day, we still love reading.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Silent Companions

It would’ve been ideal to get around to all of my horror reviews before the end of October, but I want to incorporate more horror into my regular reading anyway, so I suppose reviewing out of season is a good warm-up! Whether you’re waiting for next Halloween or ready for more spooks right away, I highly recommend adding Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions to your list!

thesilentcompanionsIn the novel, Elsie is visited by a new doctor in the mental hospital where she’s been living for several months. He reminds her that she arrived at the hospital under questionable circumstances, and announces that the police are asking him to help clear up the mystery of what happened that day. There are only a few ways this new inquest can turn out- in a death sentence for the crime that Elsie might have committed, in a transfer to a more permanent asylum, or in her release from suspicion and medical observation. Elsie doesn’t think the doctor will believe her frightening, supernatural story, and she certainly doesn’t want to recount it, but telling the tale seems like her best option. As the doctor’s investigation progresses, we delve deeper into Elsie’s memories leading up to the tragic night that left several people dead and a grand house in ruins.

“Until then I am stuck with our misbegotten companions. I cover their faces with sheets but I know they are there, watching. As if they know what has happened. As if it amuses them.”

This story is told in three time lines; the “present” moment at St. Joseph’s hospital, the events of 1865 at the familial home called The Bridge (taking place about a year before the hospital scenes), and an account from a diary found at The Bridge from the year 1635. Thus the entire story is historically set, lending The Silent Companions the feel of an old classic, minus the stuffy writing. The narration shifts back and forth between the three chronologies, each fitting neatly into the next as the characters read and discuss the diary in 1865 and then Elsie narrates that history to the doctor.

The 1635 sections appealed to me the least because I found most of the characters in that timeline unpleasant, and there’s not as much forward motion in the plot until the end of that segment. Even so, each of the story lines engaged me and flowed well enough from one to the next that I was never disappointed to reach the end of the chapter and come to the next narrative shift.

The story follows a woman in a mental hospital with a tragic past, yes, but I haven’t even mentioned the horror aspect yet: the silent companions themselves. Silent companions are life-sized art pieces- paintings of people that are not framed, but free-standing, meant to appear as though a real person is present in the room. Elsie finds one when she moves into The Bridge. And then she finds more. They appear in the diary entries from 1635 as well. There seems to be something sinister about them. Perhaps their eyes might follow the characters across the room. Perhaps they tend to be found in places they weren’t left. Perhaps there is something they want from the living.

” ‘We should sleep in the same room from now on. I don’t feel safe alone.’ Elsie nodded. She did not ask what Sarah meant by alone. No one was truly alone. Not ever, not in this house.”

Whether or not you will enjoy this book will probably depend on whether the supernatural element surrounding the silent companions appeals to you at all. I think you’ll know fairly well ahead of time whether you are willing to suspend your disbelief for potentially animated paintings with an agenda of their own. For readers willing to accept this aspect of the story, everything else follows beautifully: the discourse about women’s agency (or lack thereof) in these historical periods; the fine line between madness and experiencing something that cannot be neatly explained; the gothic tone and foreshadowing that give the old house its own sort of presence. Almost everything about this story is unsettling, and the ending- a masterpiece of inevitability and surprise- is particularly haunting in its implications. It’s clear this story was written by a woman, with subtle hints of modern perspective woven throughout- there’s plenty of focus on the challenges women have faced throughout history, in childhood, in marriage, in business, in parenthood, and in running a house. Best of all, Purcell’s writing is clear and vivid, capturing the reader’s attention with astute characterization and dramatic imagery immediately and refusing to let go.

“Did evil have wants and needs? Surely not, surely that would make it too human. No longer a tug from the depths of the abyss, but something sentient that could surface in anyone. In her. ‘Perhaps the evil is seeking something.’ Sarah’s breath came hot against her skin. ‘Seeking… a more permanent host.’ “

It’s best not to know much more going in.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. In case it wasn’t clear, I absolutely adored this book. Not a single complaint. Even though life was busy while I read this one, I sped through it in two days and was sad to reach the end. I’ll absolutely be reading more from this author!

Do you read horror outside of October?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Wilder Girls

CW: body horror, death (suicide, murder, and other), unethical scientific/medical experiments.

I’ve had my eye on Rory Power’s Wilder Girls for months (how could I not, with that stunning cover?!) and finally found the perfect moment for this YA dystopian / horror in October. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, though I found the writing a little inconsistent.

wildergirlsIn the novel, Raxter School for Girls is under quarantine. No one comes or goes from the island ever since the Tox started infecting the girls; over a year later, all of them have experienced the effects firsthand, students and teachers alike. Many have been killed by their bodies’ inability to adapt to sudden biological changes, including gills, morphing bone structure, scales replacing skin, and more. They’ve been told to stay put and wait for a cure, but when her friend goes missing, Hetty starts looking closer at what’s happening on Raxter Island, and finds some unsettling answers.

“We don’t get to choose what hurts us.”

First off, I must say I really like the premise and structure of this book. The mystery of the Tox and the quarantine kept me wondering and engaged from the first chapter to the last; it touches on current issues, it fits into a great setting (secluded island, defunct girls’ school), it allows for an exploration and celebration of female strength. The dual POVs were both essential and engaging. I’ve heard Wilder Girls likened to a feminist Lord of the Flies, which I don’t think is an entirely accurate comparison, nor does it do this story justice- it’s not a book about girls left alone going wild and reforming their own social order, but rather about a group of girls all stuck inside the same crisis and doing their best to help each other survive. There are still teachers present, enforcing structure and discipline into life at the school. As far-fetched as some of the details may seem, Powers does ground her central ideas by tying them to real-world problems- the main one addressed being climate change.

These days I prefer YA that tackles social issues or offers other food for thought relating to the real world that we live in. While I found just enough of this content behind the story to keep me satisfied, Wilder Girls might have made more of an impact if those themes had appeared earlier on; as is, the climate matter is tacked on at the end, leaving little room for the reader to consider the book’s ultimate horror: that a similar future might not be so far off. But I do expect more focus on a pacey plot and dramatic characters in YA than a lot of existential questions, so while perhaps I would have appreciated a bit more page time dedicated to climate change effects, I wasn’t disappointed with the amount provided.

While I enjoyed most of the plot (aside from a couple of convenient coincidences), I did struggle with a couple of other elements. The first was that I had some trouble understanding the characters’ choices- especially the teachers. They are presented as authority figures, but I had a hard time discerning whether the students trusted them, whether they should be trusted, and what the adults’ general attitude toward the students was during this crisis. Part of the problem is that the precarious dynamic between the adults and the teens is caught up in the main mystery of the Tox- character motivations are made clear when the story hits its climax, though I found them confusing up to that point. For one thing, there are only a couple of teachers left, and around 60 students, several of whom are only a couple of years below the age of the youngest teacher. When things start to look grim, I couldn’t understand why so many teens would continue to blindly follow adults they know don’t have all the answers. When food becomes scarce, for instance, what seventeen year-old wouldn’t question the people bringing in supplies and promising that it’s all temporary, that a cure is coming? What seventeen year-old doesn’t wonder whether they are being lied to when the promises don’t come true? And furthermore, Hetty is far from the first girl to see a friend go missing- why does it take over a year for any of these kids to investigate? Power does a fantastic job detailing relationships between the girls- friendships, rivalries, some f/f romance- but leaves a gaping hole in place of any explanation for the odd dynamic between those in authority on Raxter and those who follow.

“…she sounds like somebody’s mother. Patient, and controlled, because someone here has to be, and we’re children, but we stopped being kids a year and a half ago.”

In the end, I might not have even noticed the strange teacher/student interactions if I hadn’t already been having a strange experience with the writing style. I loved the physical and sensory details Power provides throughout this entire novel; every description of a body mutation brought on by the Tox, every description of the island’s natural elements overtaking attempts at civilization, of the living conditions at the school, and of the girls themselves, was vivid and effective for me. But when it came to explanations, I was somewhat lost. I don’t think Power’s logic is poor or lacking, just that it was very clear my brain runs on a different track than this author’s. Here’s an example:

“They teach us to shoot in what Welch calls a bladed stance, with the support shoulder to the target and the trigger shoulder to the back. She says it’s to make sure we hit right the first time, just in case the bullets stop coming on the boat and we have to make them count.”

I had to read this three times to understand that this stance was supposed to increase shooting accuracy, which means less wasted bullets and more saved ammunition. That may seem like only a slight rewording, but somehow the path between point A  (the stance) and point B (the worry of having fewer supplies coming in) felt to me like a winding road I could barely follow. It didn’t make sense to me that a stance was going to “make sure we hit right the first time,” and the link, that accurate shooting means wasting fewer bullets, is implied, not spoken. Fine. That’s not an impossible leap, and obviously I did figure it out in the end. But somehow, the end of this paragraph felt like a total non sequitur to me. Little things like this were tripping me up constantly in this book, though I think most readers won’t have any difficulty. Something about Power’s wording, in this instance and in many others, just did not match with the way that I process language and logic. I don’t think I can explain myself any better than that, so I’ll stop there and let you make of it what you will. If you understood Power’s meaning immediately, you probably won’t have any confusion with the writing style. Unfortunately for me, I had to do a fair amount of careful rereading, which jarred me from the story every time.

All in all, I really did like this book (enough to vote for it in the Goodreads Choice Awards!) and don’t want to scare off potential readers with my middling rating or complaints about the writing style- which, through no fault of the author’s, I just didn’t jive with. This book isn’t going to be a good fit for every reader, but I think the deciding factors are likely to be the body horror and the age range, not Power’s wording. There is some detailed graphic imagery that’s worth being aware of before diving in, especially for younger readers, who are clearly the target audience here, but if that doesn’t bother you I highly recommend giving this one a try. It’s weird, it’s wild, it’s wonderful.

(If you’re still not sure, I thought this one had a similar vibe to Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls, if that helps!)

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I thought this was a solid debut, with unique ideas and promising style. I’ll probably check out Power’s 2020 novel when the time comes, to see whether the slight issues I had with the writing will be hammered out in a second novel, and to enjoy whatever unusual journey Power will take us on next!

Did you read any YA titles for October/Halloween this year? I’d love to hear what worked or didn’t!

 

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 10.19

I’m not back to regular blogging yet (I’ve got about two more really busy weeks coming up, and hope to catch up with posts later this month), but I had this one mostly drafted in advance and wanted to get it up before it seemed irrelevant. I read mostly spooky/gothic/horror books in October, and it turned out to be probably my best reading month of the entire year so far in terms of enjoyment, which seems like a sign that I should read these genres more frequently year-round!

Here’s what I read in October:

  1. Dark Age by Pierce Brown. darkage4 stars. I actually read most of this in September, but finally finished it at the start of this month. It’s a 700+ page 5th book in a series that I enjoyed, but perhaps not as much as I expected to or as much as I’ve previously enjoyed other books in this series. In my review, I talk more broadly (no spoilers) about the Red Rising series as a whole, so feel free to check that out if you’re at all interested in the series, no matter how many of the books you’ve read (or not read) so far!
  2. In the Tall Grass by Stephen King and Joe Hill. 4 stars. I read this short, supernatural horror story just as the Netflix adaptation was being released, and thoroughly enjoyed both mediums. My review covers both!
  3. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedead4 stars. This is a translated literary fiction novel about a “crazy” old woman in a remote Polish village who loves animals more than people. Though the mystery wasn’t the most compelling aspect for me, I still found the story delightfully macabre and perfect for October, and the narrator’s voice is so compelling that I imagine it would be great to pick up at any time of the year.
  4. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore. aspellofwinter4 stars. Despite the title, this was another excellent October read (though of course it would be great in winter as well), with a wonderful gothic tone running through most of this incredibly tragic historical fiction tale. I’m a bit more cautious about recommending this one because there are some major trigger warnings that come with this title, but I did find it a worthy first Women’s Prize winner and really enjoyed the experience even though it was so sad!
  5. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann.ducks,newburyport 5 stars. This Booker shortlisted novel missed the win, but fully deserves more attention. It’s a thousand-page book mostly told in one single run-on sentence, but it’s been one of my favorite reads of the year without question. My review ran a bit long but I’m pleased with how it turned out (which doesn’t happen so very often), so if you’re at all curious about this literary novel on motherhood and violence in Trump’s America, please do check out my review for more info!
  6. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. wehavealwayslivedinthecastle5 stars. A classic horror story here, and another duo review with some thoughts on the recent film included alongside the novel as well. This was creepy and so bizarre, and exceptionally well-written; a perfect fit for my reading taste and one I highly recommend for anyone looking for some fairy-tale-esque psychological horror.
  7. Wilder Girls by Rory Power. 3 stars. This is a recent YA release set in a dystopian near-future, on a secluded island housing a girls’ school. There’s a cli-fi element to this one, as well as plenty of body horror, but the mystery aspect was what kept me most interested. (Quite a genre-bender, this one!) I had some issues with characterization and the way that Power explained things, but overall found this a quick, fun read. Full review pending.
  8. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. thesilentcompanions5 stars. Here we have a gothic, historical horror. By the time I picked this one up I had forgotten everything about its synopsis, which made it quite a delightful surprise. I adored Purcell’s writing from the start, found all of the characters/perspectives compelling (even when I didn’t necessarily like or agree with the character), and loved the balance of psychological/fantastical in the horror element. Full review pending.
  9. Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin. 4 stars. This was the first story I picked up from the new additions to the Faber Stories collection, and is actually a little volume of two short stories. Both deal with motherhood (though neither from the mother’s perspective, interestingly) and hauntings; they are simple and straightforward enough that they failed to really surprise me, but both are competent literary works that address an interesting point of view, and they pair nicely. Full review pending, to appear in my next batch of Faber Stories mini reviews.

wrapup10.19

I was hoping to get to a few more spooky titles, but Ducks took longer to read than planned and I couldn’t begrudge it for the extra time- it was so nice to give it my complete attention and just luxuriate in its brilliance rather than trying to finish on a schedule. That meant that I wasn’t finished with it before the winner(s) announcement for the Booker Prize (you can find my thoughts on that here), but I didn’t mind. And, since I enjoyed the spooks I did read so much this month (three 5-star reads! and almost everything else was a 4-star! I didn’t dislike anything!), I don’t mind having some horror stories left for other months. I’m still currently reading my Halloween book, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, the third book in the Hannibal Lecter series that I’ve been reading at the rate of one book per Halloween; additionally, I’m currently reading Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, a short nonfiction essay piece that works as a companion to Lost Children Archive. Reviews for both of these will be coming up as well. (If you’re wondering how I’m still finding time to read and not blog, the answer is that I have some down time at work without good internet access. Fitting in some reading has been a lifesaver in the midst of my current crazy work schedule!

 

Some stats:

Average rating – 4.2 (a 2019 record high!)

Best of month – Ducks, Newburyport

Worst of month – Wilder Girls, but even my “worst” was pretty enjoyable this month, and naming it here is more a result of not quite jiving with the writing style than thinking it’s a bad book at all.

Books hauled 14, I think; I’ve got my October haul / November TBR partially drafted as, so maybe that will be up later this week or early next? (I feel bad posting anything when I don’t also have time to interact with all of my blogger friends and their posts, so we’ll see.)

Owned books read for the first time – 6. Not as many as I hauled (again. This is seriously getting to be a problem), but it does mean that 2/3 of the books I read this month were owned-unread books, which is a good proportion. And I expect November will be similar, as I haven’t had time to visit the library, either.

October TBR tally 1/8. I had a couple more of those 8 in my October-hopefuls stack that I didn’t end up getting to at the end of the month, but I knew going in that I was planning to focus more on reading horror than on reading whatever was new to me this month, so I’m not surprised this result is low. (In case you’re curious, here’s the link to my Sept. haul / Oct TBR.)

Year total – 104. I have officially surpassed my Goodreads challenge of 100 books for 2019! It feels like a good time of year for that- my goal wasn’t too easy or too hard to reach, but if I feel like pushing myself I can still try to beat last year’s total of 118 books for the year.

 

I haven’t had a chance to peruse any other wrap-ups yet, so if you feel like sharing, let me know what your favorite book from October was! (Spooky or non, of course!)

The Literary Elephant

Review: Ducks, Newburyport

Lucy Ellman‘s 1,030-page novel, Ducks, Newburyport, was my 9th read from the Booker longlist, and my 3rd from the shortlist. Sadly, Ducks was not one of this year’s two Booker Prize winners, but I think it’s an incredible book fully worth the read anyway, so with any luck I’ll be able to convince you with this review, despite the length! (Fair warning: this review is long too.)

ducks,newburyportIn the novel, an unnamed woman baking pies and living with her family in Ohio shares her thoughts in a continuous mental outpouring that covers the events of her life over a couple of months. As most people are, she’s both unique and ordinary, set apart by a string of distinct circumstances but also incredibly relatable in many of her observations and opinions. Through this woman, we see what it’s like to be a mother of four, in a second marriage, working from home, worrying about the state of the world and its future, and most importantly, just trying to survive in 2019 America.

“…the fact that I think a lot of people think all I think about is pie, when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelizing and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiraling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else, twinge, bad back,”

The greatest obstacle, I think, in encouraging readers to pick up this masterpiece of a novel, is its size, combined with it’s run-on sentence structure, so I’m going to focus on addressing those aspects.

Ducks, Newburyport contains two alternating parts: one of them is indeed a single run-on sentence that begins on page 2 and does not contain any periods or paragraph breaks until page 988 (the end of the story in my copy- there’s some extra material at the back including a glossary of abbreviations, which is very useful!!). There is a 30-page stretch in the middle of the book where the narrator’s thoughts become verse-like, but even this segment is contained within the same single sentence without a change in voice or tone. Instead of full stops, there are commas aplenty, and the phrase “the fact that” marks the start of a new thought. (This phrase acts like the word “STOP” in old telegrams to mark the end of one sentence and beginning of the next, and once this structure becomes clear, the repeated words themselves fade into the background.) The sentence as a whole, and many of the individual phrases, do not necessarily make grammatical sense, but the style doesn’t leave the reader stumbling over meaning. The effect- that an entire life presents as one unending thought process- is worth it. In this all-encompassing sentence we see: statements, questions, statistics, quotations, lyrics, acronyms, names, individual words, numbers, and more. There are some lengthy movie spoilers in this running commentary (mainly for musicals and black-and-white classics that you’ve probably either already seen or aren’t going to). Additionally, the Little House on the Prairie series is as close as this woman has to a religious text, so you’ll fare well if you have some prior knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder, though it’s not essential to be an expert going in. All told, this main sentence is a wide mix of almost every subject and emotion imaginable.

The other component of this novel is a third-person omniscient narrative of a mountain lioness’s adventures and tribulations. These sections are properly punctuated, interrupting the Ohio housewife’s inner chatter every 50 pages or so and lasting no more than 2 pages each. The two storylines eventually overlap in content, and in the meantime often overlap thematically with observations on motherhood, animal nature, human impact upon the environment, etc. I wasn’t expecting to, but ended up loving these segments as much as the human element.

“Through her own extreme caution, she conveyed to the cubs that men are more dangerous than they look. They killed with ease, and didn’t even eat their prey. They plundered, lay waste, then abruptly retreated to their cars. They were not the true inhabitants of the forest, they were usurpers, dangerous visitors who roughly invaded the territory of others. They did not respect lions.”

Between the mountain lioness breaks and the use of “the fact that,” it’s easy to put this book down and pick it back up again without feeling too in-the-midst, though the continuous nature of the stream-of-consciousness narration flows beautifully from one thought to the next. Some thoughts seem to do little in the way of characterization or moving the plot, reading more like free-association lists, but many of these “random” sets of words offer interesting juxtapositions that are a sort of commentary in themselves, and still other groupings seem meaningless at first but are later explained. The narrator’s thoughts circle back to the things that are most important to her, and with time and repetition we gain further insight. For this reason, I think this would be an excellent book to reread, as words and phrases that are at first innocuous pick up significance along the way. It’s a book of many layers. Ellmann spent 7 years assembling this marvelous creation, and it shows.

So what is it about, you’re probably wondering by this point. There is a plot, but it’s best not to know the specifics before they are slowly revealed over the course of the novel. Essentially, it’s a story of motherhood and violence in Trump’s America. This is a mom working to make ends meet, in hopes of being able to afford to send her kids to college when the time comes. Baking has become a rote activity, so she she spends her days worrying about what she sees in the news and wondering whether her own family is safe. Among her thoughts are disturbing headlines and details of American crimes and tragedies, often involving shootings and deaths. Some of these can be hard to read, especially when strung together, and her anxiety honestly gave me a bit of anxiety as well, which leads me to believe this might be a difficult read for anyone who avoids  grisly stories in the news or is actively worrying about their own children’s safety already. There are some real gut-punches here.

“…the fact that I pretend to be coping, like all the other moms do too, but I think we all live in terror that some school shooter will line our kids up one day and make them beg for their lives,”

The political content is certainly timely and engaging, but most of these opinion bits stand independent of the plot and chronology; the parts of the book that gripped me the most were the pages that included specific events that provided an anchor to the narrator’s weaving thoughts. This book is  ingenious for the way that it plays the long game- with such a surplus of detail, the biggest hints of what’s to come hide in plain sight; it’s fascinating on the surface, but you have to wonder if it’s going anywhere. (Let me assure you that it is.) In scenes that play a shorter game, the narration is more immediately focused, with a common thread grounding our narrator’s thoughts. For instance, there’s a scene where the family is stranded at the local mall during a flash flood, and though the narrator’s thoughts continue to wander, the disaster at hand gives her train of thought something to come back to and allows the reader to feel that the story really is moving in some particular direction.

“…the fact that America’s not a safe place for a girl, the fact that nobody’s safe in America,”

And now, let’s look directly at the book’s length. At the end of the day, I think Ellmann wrote Ducks, Newburyport as a thousand-page book because the idea of a book this long primarily featuring one housewife’s thoughts in a single meandering sentence is a highly intriguing one. It catches attention. It says women’s thoughts and experiences are important, even if the woman in question is a stay-at-home mom who bakes pie and rehashes her regrets and frets about the world without acting upon those worries. It’s absolutely stunning, conceptually. In actuality, I think Ellmann could’ve covered the same topics and themes to near or equal effect in about half the length. My biggest hang-up with this book is that it just doesn’t feel necessary for it to be quite this long, though I don’t think it ever could have succeeded as a short book- it does cover a lot of worthwhile ground, and the way it circles around its topics and doubles back at them hundreds of pages later (don’t worry- Ellmann makes sure you’ll remember what you need to) is a big part of what makes this so impressive. So even though I don’t think all 1,030 pages are strictly crucial to the overall story and purpose, somehow they work. I was never bored while reading. I never wished for fewer pages. So little is happening at some points, and yet I loved reading it every time I picked it up. It frustrates me that readers will avoid this book because of its length, when it could easily have been shorter.

Though there’s certainly a bit of fluff (a whole page of creek names that didn’t do anything for me, for example), so many of the words and phrases at play are clearly chosen with care. Ellmann can string two words together (for example, “ducks, Newburyport,”) that hold no meaning for the reader the first three times they appear; hundreds of pages later, we find out why they’re significant to this narrator, and their emotional significance to her then colors each context in which they appear. As many of our thought-tracks likely do, this narrator’s inner chatter is built of its own syntax. But despite the impression of impeccable literary construction, this book read like the most authentic stream of consciousness I’ve ever encountered.

Relatedly, I was able to forgive many of the small complaints I had about this narrator’s quirks because they felt like such organic offshoots of her personality. I didn’t always like reading about this woman’s nonsensical dreams, her constant remembrances of “Mommy,” her embarrassment every time the word “cock” crossed her mind, or her frequent self-corrections; but each of these annoyances felt like the little things that start to bother you when you’re living with someone new, for instance. No one’s perfect, and when you live with someone you get to know their small undesirable traits. Inhabiting this woman’s mind for 988 pages felt like that- nothing worth moving out over, but we’re bound to have our differences. And because I was able to rationalize most of my (very few) dislikes about Ducks, Newburyport in this way, they actually turned out to be additional reasons I thought Ellmann’s writing was effective; she absolutely brings this woman and all of her concerns to life- flaws included.

“…the fact that, personally, I think we underestimate dangers, the fact that we have to maybe, because it’s not practical to think about them all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, it’s just that fear gets in the way when you got stuff to do, when you’re living on the edge,”

In the end, I think the patience required for the length poses the greatest challenge here. The prose is readable and engrossing, the arguments and themes stand fairly obvious, and our narrator really feels like an everywoman, at least in her general attitude. I think readers will know early on whether the style of this novel is going to work for them or not, and if it is, and you have a reasonable amount of stamina, enjoyability and sheer momentum are likely to outweigh the challenge of sticking with it, in my opinion. If you appreciate literary fiction and are interested in the current mental state of America, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

“…the fact that you’ll never know what sort of person you might have been if you’d read different stuff,”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had such a fantastic time reading this novel that it’s turned out to be one of my highlights of the year. Obviously I’ve nitpicked a few things, but they felt like small potatoes compared to my appreciation of the work as a whole. I think this would’ve made an excellent Booker winner, but I haven’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, and am holding out hope that I’ll find that one worthy of the win when I pick it up soon as well. I’m also curious to try more of Ellmann’s work in the future.

Are you considering reading Ducks?

 

The Literary Elephant