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Mid-Year Book Freak-Out Tag (2.0)

This is a great tag for taking stock of my reading year and just sharing the bookish love. I answered the same questions for this tag last year, and I’ve been seeing it everywhere again lately so I’m picking it up for Round 2. If you’re curious for more info, all titles link back to my reviews.

The questions:

1. Best Book You’ve Read in 2018 SO FAR

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Not That Bad ed. by Roxane Gay. I kind of can’t believe my favorite book so far this year is nonfiction, and a collection of essays at that, but this one completely gripped me in a way that nothing else has yet in 2018. Highly recommend.

2. Best Sequel You’ve Read in 2018 SO FAR

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Iron Gold by Pierce Brown. This is the fourth book in the Red Rising series, and it’s  not my favorite of Brown’s books but I haven’t read many sequels this year. This one requires some patience because it’s mainly a set-up book between the original trilogy and whatever delightful chaos I’m sure is coming next, but it does some great things with characterization.

Runner-up would be Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo, but I really liked Six of Crows better in that duology.

3. New Release You Haven’t Read Yet But Want To

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The Outsider by Stephen King. I hauled two books last month and read one of them, and it wasn’t the one I was most anticipating. I love King’s writing and I really want to read more of his books. I’ve read several of his old classics, but I want to check out his most recent work.

4. Most Anticipated Release for the Second Half of the Year

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Providence by Caroline Kepnes. Sequels/new-releases-by-fave-authors are always my most anticipated because they’re the releases I watch for months, whereas new-to-me authors I like to pick up on impulse. Providence comes out tomorrow and I’ve had my eye on it a long time. I’m still reeling from the ending of Kepnes’ last release, Hidden Bodies, and even though Providence is not a sequel in the Joe Goldberg series I just need to see what Kepnes has been writing.

Runner-up would be Pierce Brown’s Dark Age, book 5 in the Red Rising series. This is probably my actual most-anticipated upcoming release, but since I already mentioned one of Brown’s books I thought I should switch things up.

5. Biggest Disappointment

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The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer. This is not to be confused with The Worst Book I’ve Read in 2018 So Far, which I think would go to Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall. The Female Perusasion is simply a book I expected a lot from that I didn’t feel it delivered in the end. This is exactly why I don’t usually anticipate books by new-to-me authors: my expectations end up skewed. I really hope the next Barnes and Noble Book Club selection impresses me more, but now I know not to plan for an automatic 5-star read.

6. Biggest Surprise

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A good surprise, and a bad surprise.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is a book I went into a little warily, having seen some positive early reviews and then absolutely nothing. I didn’t click with it immediately, but it ended up being one of my favorite books from the first half of this year.

On the other hand, The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware is a new release from an author I’ve loved since her first release, In a Dark, Dark Wood. I’ve always loved her atmospheric writing, but in this newest novel the atmosphere felt like a crutch that the rest of this predictable mystery had to rest on. By far my least favorite Ware book.

7. Favorite New Author

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Daphne du Maurier. I read my first du Maurier novel this year, the Gothic classic Rebecca. I loved the story, I loved the writing, and I’ll definitely be reading more of du Maurier’s books. It seems so cliche to fall in love with a classic author’s work, but Rebecca is so exactly to my taste that I can’t believe it took me so long to pick it up.

8. Newest Fictional Crush

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I didn’t pick one last year and my reason stands: when I like a guy in a book, I like him with his fictional counterpart; I appreciate fictional characters for the creations they are, but generally I don’t wish to meet them or date them.

But I did really enjoy reading about Mr. Knightly and Emma though, in Jane Austen’s Emma. I thought they were a great match, and that’s the best romance I’ve read this year.

9. Newest Favorite Character

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Leni from Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. She’s strong and resilient and inspiring, and she really saved this book for me when I struggled with Hannah’s writing style.

Runner-up: Eleanor from Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. This is another book that fell a little flat for me, but I did really enjoy reading about Eleanor and she has stuck with me since January.

10. Book That Made You Cry

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The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. We can’t pick our parents, right? And no matter how much we love them, sometimes they make the wrong choices. I have very little in common with Walls’ story in this memoir, but a few of the details about her parents’ failures really got to me anyway. It just sucks to depend on someone who lets you down. The whimsy of most of this story made the sad parts sadder for me, so it was an all-around success.

11. Comic Book That Made You Happy

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Saga: Volume 8 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This one was sad and happy, but definitely one of my favorite volumes of the series. Not to be confused with volume 7, also pictured, which was just kind of uneventful, though not particularly disappointing.

12. Favorite Book to Film Adaptation

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I may even have liked the film more than the book– I know, blasphemy. The book has a few great elements that the film doesn’t touch, but I thought the balance of plot and 80’s references was handled better in the film and it was just really well-done and fun to see brought to life.

13. Favorite Post You Have Done This Year

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Top 25 Favorite Books, 2018 edition. Every year I revise my list of top 25 favorite books of all time, and it’s definitely still a work in progress (how does anyone have one favorite book?), but I always love seeing how my tastes change from year to year, which titles stay, what new books make the list. It takes a lot of thought and effort and I always end up with a list of books I’ve loved, and love to look back on.

14. Most Beautiful Book You’ve Bought This Year

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Circe by Madeline Miller. This is the UK cover, which I ordered. Both the UK and US covers are gorgeous, but I bought this one. I just love the floral pattern and the shiny bronze color and the texture of the art. And there’s another drool-worthy pattern stamped onto the actual hardcover, underneath the jacket. I haven’t actually read this one yet, but it’s coming up fast on my TBR.

15. A Book You Need to Read By the End of the Year

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Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for 2018. There are a few others from the shortlist especially that I also want to check out, but I can’t not read the winner. Prizes aside, it just sounds like a great read: a modern Antigone retelling featuring two Muslim families. I’m hoping to get to it this summer.

 

If you’ve read this far, thanks, and consider yourself tagged. I love seeing the answers to these questions, so feel free to let me know in the comments if you’ve participated with this tag!

And that’s the end. Though I don’t actually have a lot of 5-star reads yet, I have been feeling great about my reading year. I feel like I’m learning and growing a lot as a reader in 2018, and branching out more with the books I’ve been picking up. Even the books I haven’t loved have taught me things that I’ve been applying (or removing) from my own writing as I’ve been focusing more heavily on that this year, as well. 2018 is going fast, but I can’t wait to see what fresh new surprises the second half has in store for my reading.

How’s your year going? Have you read any of these books?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Kiss Quotient

So my actual Book of the Month Club selection this month was Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly, but it’s set in the Grand Canyon, which I’m visiting later this summer so I’m putting that on hold for now. In the meantime, I borrowed a copy of another BOTM selection, Helen Hoang’s new adult romance novel, The Kiss Quotient. The draw: the heroine of the story is a woman with autism, in a gender-swapped Pretty Woman love story. Bonus: the hero is mixed-race.

thekissquotientAbout the book: Stella Lane is a phenomenal econometrician– which means she analyses what people buy, and creates algorithms to help sales companies suggest future purchases to their consumers. She’s rich, and up for a new promotion– but her love life is lacking. When her parents start making comments about grandchildren and suggesting help finding her dates, Stella decides to take matters into her own hands before they get too carried away. So she hires a male escort to help hone her skills before she approaches a coworker who she thinks might be a good match. Except Michael, her escort, quickly learns that Stella’s problem isn’t that she’s bad at sex– she just needs a partner who will be considerate of her autism. They agree to work together, each hiding secrets that the other is afraid to admit they already know about– and don’t mind at all.

I wanted to love this book the same way that I wanted to love Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and in some ways, I did love The Kiss Quotient. The writing and the story completely drew me in, even in the few places where I needed to suspend my disbelief a little more than others. I liked both Stella and Michael. I read the whole book in two days, in perfect summer weather, and it was just the sort of light, addicting drama that I was in the mood for.

And as far as I know, the autism is represented well, as it should be from an Own Voices author. I’ve seen several early reviews for this book stating that it’s helped readers discover their own autism, which is something I find intriguing and wonderful. I couldn’t resist seeing for myself the kind of strong representation that has inspired readers to share their own personal stories.

“With the labels, he might be more understanding, but he’d quit viewing her as Stella Lane, awkward econometrician who loved his kisses. In his eyes, she’d become the girl with autism. She’d be…less.”

But a couple of things bothered me increasingly as the story progressed.

The first is consent. Michael is presented as being very considerate and patient of Stella’s desires and limits. Stella thinks so, Michael thinks so, everyone thinks so. He’s repeatedly saying that he won’t do anything she’s not ready for, and in the chapters that follow his perspective (the chapters alternate between Stella’s and Michael’s stories, though always in third person) his thoughts reveal an interest in Stella for much more than her beauty or their sexual encounters. And yet, in my opinion, this is one of those cases where the telling doesn’t quite match the showing. In actuality, he’s listening to her body language instead of the words coming out of her mouth. This is less of a bother when Stella says ‘go ahead, just do it,’ and he refuses because her body is tense and uncomfortable and clearly not interested in what she says she wants him to do. But later on, once they’ve “mastered” a few skills, she expresses reluctance and he doesn’t listen because he thinks he knows what she wants/needs better than she does.

“He paused. Her words said no, but her body…”

” ‘This can be interpreted as stalking, you know.’ He ducked his head with a sheepish smile. ‘I know.’ ‘You need to stop all of this.’ ‘It’s not just a little romantic? I don’t have a lot of experience with courting, so you’ll have to excuse me if I come across too strong.’ “

No means no. And just because she agrees once does not mean Michael has permission whenever he wants it. Clearly it all works out all right in this book, but I just can’t condone that kind of behavior. The instance that bothered me the most was a kiss– Stella says she doesn’t want Michael to kiss her, and he says “I need this.” She gives in because it’s what he wants, not because she wants to be kissed. That’s not what I want to see in a romance.

The second issue for me is a lesser one, a trope that I just can’t stand though other readers might particularly enjoy it: deliberate miscommunication. This whole book is driven on the tension between Stella and Michael; they want each other, but their relationship begins as transactional, which leads them both to assume that the other isn’t emotionally invested. For hundreds of pages, they’re both thinking constantly, ‘gosh, I like this person a lot but they would never want to be with me for real,’ though the dual perspectives reveal the truth to the reader. Stella and Michael are so busy making assumptions about each other that their only obstacle to a happy ending is that they just won’t have an honest conversation. To me, that’s not compellingly tragic, it’s just frustrating. It’s predictable and boring. Why hit this same doubts over and over when any reasonable reader knows exactly how it’s going to turn out?

I suppose part of that problem stems from the predictability of the romance genre. You just can’t pick up a romance, read the introduction to the lead male and female characters and not know that their problems are going to be overcome. It’s almost entirely an emotional journey.

The emotion plays such a bit part in this story that even the little aspects that should have enhanced this book’s quirkiness were largely skipped over– like Stella’s and Michael’s professions. Stella is shown at her office primarily to display interactions with her coworkers, and provide evidence for her mental state: can she focus on her work today, or is she too distracted by Michael? The few details we do get about her work are tied into her feelings with Michael: an algorithm for underwear purchases turns into a symbol of Stella’s love. And Michael’s job seems designed to cause an awkward run-in with Stella when their relationship is at a low point– the reader is given almost no details of his work at all, even as he returns to the side of it that he’s most passionate about.

But nevertheless, I did enjoy this book. I liked seeing Stella’s and Michael’s individual difficulties, and how uniquely they combined as a perfect pair. Their romance is steamy, explicit but not too graphic, and mostly healthy. The “villain” is not flatly evil or exclusively bad. If you’re looking for a summer romance that’s new and different, The Kiss Quotient would be a great choice. It’s even a little funny, at times:

“He exhaled sharply, and his brow creased in puzzlement. ‘You don’t like French kissing?’ ‘It makes me feel like a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish.’ “

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Despite how much I loved reading this book, the  issues I had with the story were big enough to keep it firmly off of my favorites list, even as far as guilty pleasures go. But I liked this story and Hoang’s writing enough that I’ll definitely pick up the sequel (The Bride Test) next year, which I believe features an entirely new cast of characters in a completely different situation. A few small tweaks would’ve made The Kiss Quotient a truly fantastic read, so I have high hopes that Hoang will impress me even more the next time.

Do you pick up different genres at certain times of the year? When do you reach for a romance?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Vigilante

I’m back with another title to review from the Penguin Modern series: John Steinbeck’s The Vigilante. It’s been years since I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which I loved, and there are a couple of other Steinbeck titles I want to pick up this year- so I thought this would be a nice, easy reintroduction to his work. I can’t get over how manageable it is to pick up these little modern classics that have only 55-65 pages apiece; every one of them changes the way I think about literature, and I love them.

thevigilanteAbout the book: This volume contains three short fiction stories: “The Vigilante,” “The Snake,” and “The Chrysanthemums.” These are all literary fiction snapshots of particular characters in particular circumstances, who learn lessons or display some sort of social commentary that can be more widely applied to the reader’s experiences– whether personal or observational.

The third story, “The Chrysanthemums,” was my favorite, primarily because I found the first two rather disturbing. I’ll divulge a bit about each, but I want to avoid spoiling both the basic plots, and the unspoken commentary behind the plot, as those “morals” are arguably the most important elements of these stories.

“The Vigilante” features a lynching, and while that is disturbing in itself, I felt that the “moral” of this story cheapens that awful death. Our main character can’t even say after the event whether the lynched man was good or bad, or why he was deserving (if anyone ever is) of that particular fate in the first place. This story was originally published in 1938, which was a different time, clearly- but I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed this story in that era, either. It does offer an interesting psychological viewpoint, but I just kept wishing it had been presented in a different way.

“His brain told him this was a terrible and important affair, but his eyes and his feelings didn’t agree. It was just ordinary. […] everything was dead, everything unreal; the dark mob was made up of stiff lay-figures. In the flamelight the faces were as expressionless as wood. Mike felt the stiffness, the unreality in himself, too.”

“The Snake” focuses on a biologist in his laboratory, and a visitor who finds him there. Though her desires aren’t much different than the scientist’s– arguably even more well-intentioned, he finds himself repulsed by them. This could have been my favorite story of the bunch, but I was too uncomfortable over the scientist’s treatment of his animals, and the graphic description of the snake feeding on a rat. Also I have a soft spot for cats, and I can’t stand to see them as “specimens.” If you’re an animal lover, enter this one with caution.

And then we have “The Chrysanthemums.” This is a low-stakes story about: you guessed it, flowers. A farmer’s wife has a prize bunch of chrysanthemums that she’s passionate about, and she encounters two people in the pages of this story: her husband, who supports her passion, and a traveling workman who uses her interest to his own advantage. What’s most interesting about this one, I think, is that neither the farmer’s wife nor the workman have any real respect for each other, but it doesn’t seem to be the callous opinions of each other that bothers either of them. And as a bonus, there’s a nice little bit of feminism here, however brief:

” ‘It must be nice,’ she said. ‘It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things.’

‘It ain’t the right kind of life for a woman.’

Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth. ‘How do you know? How can you tell?’ she said.”

What all of these stories has in common is that none of them are about what they seem to be about on the surface; Steinbeck is a master at making a point without spelling out what point he’s trying to make. Each character is believable as a person, though they are only the puppets through which Steinbeck’s morals are displayed. These are stories that require the reader to do the lifting, though they guide the reader in the right direction. Steinbeck is clearly one of the greats.

“When the night is dark– why, the skies are sharp-pointed, and there’s quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp, and– lovely.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was so disturbed by some of the details in the first two stories that I seriously considered two stars, but I do love Steinbeck’s writing. None of these stories came anywhere close to my Of Mice and Men appreciation though, so I’m hoping for a lot better luck with The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, both of which I want to pick up within the year.

Do you like short stories? (I really do, but I don’t pick them up often enough.)

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

A brief history: I read Ruth Ware’s debut thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood, back in 2016 and loved it. I was hooked on the creepy atmosphere, the footprints in the snow, the lost phone, the noises in the sleeping house. I felt the same about A Woman in Cabin 10— the rising sense of anxiety and sleeplessness sucked me in completely. There were some predictable plot elements, and there was a lot about The Lying Game I didn’t like, but the one constant is that I’ve always loved Ware’s writing. Until now. I just read Ware’s brand new release, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, and it disappointed me.

thedeathofmrs.westawayAbout the book: Harriet (Hal) Westaway is down on her luck, to say the least. The bills are piling up, and the loan shark she went to for help is calling in the debt Hal owes. It’s the off-season on the Brighton pier, where she works as a tarot card reader in her mother’s old booth. Money’s always been tight, but it’s gotten worse since her mother’s sudden death a few years back. So when she receives a letter from the lawyer in charge of Mrs. Westaway’s estate stating that Hal’s grandmother has died and left her an inheritance, Hal overlooks the fact that this Mrs. Westaway cannot be her grandmother, to attend the funeral and reading of the will. When Hal’s inheritance turns out to be something she wasn’t expecting, she must delve into the mystery of who the estate was supposed to be left to– and whether Hal shares a dark connection with these Westaways after all.

“She should have been afraid, and part of her was. But deep down, in the core of herself, the secret predatory self that she kept hidden and locked away, Hal knew. She would not run again. Someone had tried to scare her away once, and it had almost worked. But it would not work again.”

First, I would say it’s important to approach this book as a mystery rather than a thriller. The story of Hal’s family history is a slowly unraveling thread that doesn’t pose a lot of danger to her until the very end, and even then the reader can be fairly sure about how things will turn out. There seems to be a trend lately of thriller-writers going the way of the slower-paced mystery instead– and that’s fine, but it can affect the way a book is read.

The mystery was the biggest problem with this book for me– I was one step ahead of Hal at every turn. The plot points are so predictable and easy to untangle that I wasn’t reading for answers, I was reading to prove my guesses right. While the mystery itself may be unique and disturbing, many of the clues are completely transparent. The use of twins, of cousins with the same name, odd nicknames, disappearances… these are tricks the seasoned mystery/thriller fan has seen before and will see right through in this novel.

“She found herself gasping for breath, a kind of slow drowning, and then she could not speak any longer, only shake her head- but not in disbelief. It was a kind of desperation for this not to be true. But it was. And she had known it for longer than she had realized. Perhaps she had known it since she had come to this house.”

Yep. Me too.

The one thing that might have made this book better is characterization. The Westaways are no more than the sum of their parts– their histories make them who they are, along with a couple of mannerisms that differentiate them, but otherwise these characters have no personality. I could not connect to a single one. Even Hal, who the reader follows through the novel, is acting most of the time– giving tarot readings she doesn’t particularly believe in, and posing as a member of the Westaway family even though she doesn’t actually think she belongs. It’s hard to know what’s real about Hal, which makes her less compelling. Even the creepiest moments, the little things that worked so well for me in Ware’s previous books, fell flat for me in The Death of Mrs. Westaway because Hal is so ready to dismiss them. Something happens that should unsettle her, but she just muddles on through her uncomfortable stay at Trepassen as though nothing is wrong and she’s not remotely concerned. How could I be concerned for her?

“She was about to carry on downstairs when something caught her eye, a darkness in the dark, and she made her way back to stand in front of the closed door, running her fingers over the wood, feeling, rather than seeing, how very wrong she had been. There was a lock on the door. Two, in fact. They were long, thick bolts, top and bottom. But they were on the outside.”

The only things I appreciated at all in The Death of Mrs. Westaway were the allusions to Rebecca and even Jane Eyre. Mrs. Warren as the new and improved Mrs. Danvers was particularly interesting to read, though Trepassen, the big old country house that the Westaways stay in as they sort out Mrs. Westaway’s will, comes across as a totally new creature rather than a facsimile of Manderly or Thornfield Hall. I adore old creepy houses, though the cold in this one did nothing to frighten me.

Oh, I also liked the tarot aspect of this book; usually when tarot is involved in any novel it makes me roll my eyes because it seems like such a ploy for the writer to imbibe meaning and give the characters information they shouldn’t have been able to discover, but in this book Hal is pretty skeptical of tarot herself. She uses her cards as a sort of general filter for how she looks at what she already knows, and as an excuse to offer the sort of positive life advice that her customers won’t admit they need.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Somehow, despite all the things that went wrong in this story for me, I managed to finish it in 2 days without losing faith in the possibility that the next Ruth Ware book will bring me back to In a Dark, Dark Wood-level excitement. I will probably read whatever Ware publishes next, but I certainly hope I’ll have better luck with it than I did this time around. The thing is, I don’t think that The Death of Mrs. Westaway is a bad book. I think the issues I had with it are specific to my reading experience– other readers might not be able to guess every facet of this mystery and therefore will be able to enjoy it more.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve read and enjoyed The Death of Mrs. Westaway or The Lying Game, you should also pick up Paula Hawkins’s Into the Water, a small-town mystery about a woman who drowned in a lake that’s infamous for the female lives it’s claimed. This one’s also a character-driven mystery rather than a thriller, though it is atmospheric and peppered with Ruth Ware-style unsettling details– because of course the killer is right under everyone’s noses– and anyone could be next.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Vegetarian

Despite (or maybe because of) the incredibly mixed reviews I’ve seen for Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, I decided to finally pick it up. It’s won (and been nominated for) several literary awards/prizes, so I thought at the very least, it would be educational– and choosing books that I can learn from is my biggest reading goal of 2018. Besides, it’s less than 200 pages long. Why wait, right?

About the book: Yeong-hye is a perfectly ordinary South Korean wife– until she decides to become a vegetarian. A strange dream leads her to purge meat from her life, a choice that ripples through her family in strange and varied ways. Yeong-hye’s husband and father see her choice as a disobedience and embarrassment; her sister considers it an illness, her brother-in-law thinks it oddly erotic, and other acquaintances find her new habits and their consequences disturbing, disgusting, or concerning. Yeong-hye continues to make whatever choices strike her as most natural– avoiding sex, baring her skin to the sun, allowing an artist to paint flowers all over her body– as her life begins to fall apart around her.

What I didn’t know when I started reading (and wish I did) is that this book is divided into three very different parts. Each section revolves around Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism, but all three feature a different perspective (though all through the same third person narration) and contain their own strong themes. The difference is so great between the three chapters that I felt almost that I was reading three separate pieces in a collection rather than one cohesive work. In the end, the fact that I couldn’t find enough to tie them together was my greatest disappointment with this otherwise extraordinary book.

The first part examines Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian through the eyes of her husband. Though Mr. Cheong is perhaps the least likable character in the entire story, this was my favorite section. Kang’s portrayal of Mr. Cheong reads as a powerful challenge to his position of male dominance over his wife. Mr. Cheong expects his wife to put her own desires behind the duties expected of a wife– ironing her husband’s clothes, cooking his meals, impressing his colleagues at work dinners. When she refuses to tolerate meat to make his life easier, Mr. Cheong is angry, confused, and just as intolerant as he claims she is. Though many of his thoughts about his vegetarian wife are infuriating and even despicable, they are also laughable because Kang so masterfully displays his hypocrisy.

“How on earth could she be so self-centered? I stared at her lowered eyes, her expression of cool self-possession. The very idea that there should be this other side to her, one where she selfishly did as she pleased, was astonishing. Who would have thought she could be so unreasonable?”

The first section also includes snippets of Yeong-hye’s surreal dreams, which were a highlight for me.

The second section was my least favorite; it follows Yeong-hye’s (unnamed) brother-in-law as he works on a new art project with Yeong-hye behind his wife’s back. This “art project” is highly sexual in nature and was inspired by a comment from Yeong-hye’s sister about the Mongolian mark that never faded from Yeong-hye’s buttock, a mark that inspires an unprecedented lust in him. The between-the-lines commentary in this section revolves around the blurred line between disgust for and attraction to Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism. Though I appreciated the nuance in perception of Yeong-hye, I disliked this section because it did very little to further the plot. The long pages about the brother-in-law’s lust were unsettling, though I think they succeeded in showing how even apparently positive reactions to Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism could in fact be manipulative and inappropriate. Overall, I felt that the points this chapter makes could have been made in fewer and less predictable pages, with less disturbing sexual fantasizing from the brother-in-law.

“It’s true, he thought. She really is ordinary. It’s me who’s the crazy one.”

The third section follows In-hye, Yeong-hye’s older sister, as she attempts to care for Yeong-hye after hospitalizing her. Though I loved In-hye’s character most of all, she also upturned a lot of my thoughts on the rest of the book. In-hye sees Yeong-hye’s choices as a sort of descent into mental illness, but as the section progresses In-hye also sees that descent as freeing, inspiring. What bothered me in this section is that In-hye’s eerie attraction to mental illness seems to separate from the vegetarianism: Yeong-hye’s choice to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle seems to be viewed only as a means to an end for In-hye, means that could be substituted by others. In this way, The Vegetarian seems to be neither advocating for or condoning vegetarianism (which I appreciate), but as it stepped back from the use of the vegetarian tool that so much of the book’s commentary relied on, I struggled to connect all of the themes into something cohesive.

Toward the end of the novel, as Yeong-hye’s mental state devolves and even In-hye’s sanity is called into question, the story moves toward a macabre conclusion. I love this kind of thing, where you can’t quite put your finger on what’s real and who you can trust, but it also pulled me away from the lessons I thought I had been learning in the rest of the book. It pulled back against what the previous sections had taught: keep an open mind about people who make different choices than you– but not too open, or you’ll both be lost. Ask questions about unfamiliar lifestyles rather than making assumptions– but the answers might not make any sense to you anyway. If you want to be in charge of your own life, you should also let others be in charge of theirs– but they might use their control in self-destructive ways.

Perhaps I missed something along the way. I found a lot of meaning in this book, but I was left wishing for some clue as to how to tie all of my impressions together. I wanted the three sections to interconnect more than I felt they ultimately did. How could anything have turned out better for the vegetarian? How did she want things to turn out? I’m afraid even Yeong-hye never understood what was happening to her.

“But she felt as though there were still an open would inside her body. Somehow, it seemed this wound had in fact grown bigger than her, that her whole body was being pulled into its pitch-black maw.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a phenomenal reading experience that made me stop and think every step of the way. Though I was left with questions, I think they’re the result of my own inability to draw the proper conclusions rather than the book’s inability to offer them. I think an eventual reread will give me a richer sense of The Vegetarian‘s meaning, and I look forward to trying that someday. I took off a star only because the sexual advances of the second section were unpleasantly disturbing; though that may have been the intention, I just didn’t enjoy reading it that way.

What’s your favorite controversial book?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Food

I’m back with another Penguin Modern review. This one, Gertrude Stein’s Food, will probably be the hardest one to talk about, but I’ll give it a shot. See, I decided to read this one pretty arbitrarily: “Food. I like food,” was the extent of my thought process when I bought this one. Shortly after, I realized it was the lowest rated of all 50 Penguin Moderns– currently 1.9 on Goodreads. By the time I reached the second paragraph, I knew why.

foodAbout the book: This collection is made up of short vignettes focused on different types of food, as well as food-related acts, items, locations, etc. The only pieces that seem a little out of place are “Tails,” and “End of Summer,” though even these sections fit the same form. Most notable about this book is Stein’s style of writing– a sort of rhythmic collection of nonsense words assembled in sentences that are sometimes grammatically correct and sometimes not, though their meaning is always up for interpretation. The vignettes seem designed to give a sense of their subject much in the way an abstract painting might evoke an emotion, rather than providing any clear organization or straightforward meaning.

Perhaps it’s best to give you a sample paragraph and let you see what I mean for yourself:

“The Saturday evening which is Sunday is every week day. What choice is there when there is a difference. A regulation is not active. Thirstiness is not equal division.”

Here’s a foodier one:

“There is read butter. A loaf of it is managed. Wake a question. Eat an instant, answer.”

It’s clear from the beginning that while fragments of these statements are coherent and may contain some nugget of an idea that meaning can be pulled from, the reader is supposed to do the bulk of the interpretation on his or her own. It is tempting to say that the words are entirely random, but I don’t think that is the case. There are plenty of food words strewn in, and many descriptive words that fit the title they fall under: “tender” and “carving” for ROASTBEEF, “red” for CRANBERRIES, “cold” and “white” for MILK, etc.

There are also words like “utter” in MILK that made me think words had been altered in a sort of phonetic way; maybe “udder” had been associated with MILK and and then changed? Further evidence for this theory is the rhythmic, almost poetic nature of the chosen words. I tried reading some of this collection aloud because the sounds are very pleasing to the ear. The rhythm was the main driving force through these pieces for me. The first two vignettes (ROASTBEEF and MUTTON) are the longest, and at that point I was more tolerant of meandering through this style; but as the book continues, the pieces get shorter and punchier, the rhythm increasing, the reader propelled to continue despite wondering whether there is anything at all to take away from this reading.

There is amusement, though. At least for me, there was. I had pretty low expectations for Food once I saw the low Goodreads rating, which I think helped me enjoy it more. There is absolutely no plot, but the rhythm of the words is enjoyable in the way reading made-up words from Dr. Seuss or Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is enjoyable. The fact that this book seems to be intentionally plotless makes that easier to stand than a book that is supposed to be plotted and is instead bland. I’m not sure I would call Food poetry, but I have no idea what other category it might fit under, either. Actually I’m not even sure whether to call this fiction, nonfiction, or something else entirely.

I did feel like I had a sense of the food or food-related word that titled each section from the text within, but I wonder if I was able to find those correlations between nonsense text and the section titles primarily because I was looking for them. Perhaps the meaning of these vignettes is that meaning can be found in the meaningless? That seems like a very modern art take on a piece of writing originally published in 1914. I’ll leave you to find your own meaning, if you’re interested in trying.

Here’s one more quote that caught my interest. This is the entire page:

“SALAD

It is a winning cake.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I’m actually still on the fence about that rating, maybe leaning toward 3. But if I had not been expecting a 1-star read with this one (and if I had not already bought it I wouldn’t have bothered reading it at all with that expectation), I would not have enjoyed it as much as I did. On the whole, I don’t think there’s anything I’m taking away from this reading experience, but surprisingly, I didn’t hate it.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Not That Bad

I did not know this book existed, even though I’d read Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger, earlier this year and liked it enough to look up more of her works. The first time I saw anything posted about Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture, a collection of essays edited by Roxane Gay, I knew it was a book I had to read. I ordered it the same day I first heard of it. I started reading it the day it arrived in my mailbox. I had to continually pause my other books to read more of this one, which I had not planned to read but couldn’t quit.

notthatbadAbout the book: Gay brings together thirty authors– from diverse races, genders, and backgrounds– who reflect on the ways they have personally been affected by rape culture. The essays vary widely, but are all tied together by dissatisfaction with rape culture in all its various forms– the ways it is dismissed, allowed, and perpetualized by men, authority figures, media, or others. The pieces themselves utilize several different forms, including drawings, lists, footnotes, fragments, poems, and more. Some essays talk about rape directly; others cover different violations, harrassments, and fears relating to sex.

“Sexual violence is a global epidemic that is all around us, yet it is nowhere, precisely because it permeates every facet of our presence in the world, echoing throughout our political and popular cultures, ricocheting off the cement walls that define our boundaries.”

I needed this book. Let me see if I can articulate why.

I’ve never been raped. I’ve never been close to being raped. As far as I know, no one among my close acquaintances has been anywhere close to being raped. But I’ve been afraid of it for as long as I can remember. I’ve changed my routes for this fear, I’ve changed my habits, decided what to wear or carry, oriented myself near exits, pretended to talk on the phone when I had to walk alone at night and couldn’t place a real call. It wasn’t until I started getting serious about feminist lit as recently as in the last couple of years that I began to realize what I was doing, that I was not alone in taking those steps for safety, and that I shouldn’t have to do that. The fear of being raped was just something that I lived with, without really thinking about. Once I was reading more feminism and learning the depths of the gender problem, there were a lot of things I started getting angry about, but I still felt outside of it. It wasn’t until reading Not That Bad that I saw another aspect to rape culture– the part that my fear fit into, even if fear is the worst that I ever encounter.

This book is about rape, but it’s not only about rape. Many of the writers don’t go into detail about their assaults, if there were any assaults. They talk about coping in the aftermath, about being too afraid or optimistic or shocked to say no or fight back, about being objectified in a hundred ways that are related to rape but aren’t necessarily rape. About being afraid. The power of them comes not from lengthy diatribes and disturbing details, but from the number of women (and others) willing to speak up about experiences of all sorts. Rape culture is a giant umbrella, and this book of essays shows its size. It’s more than everyday slights, but there’s a commonality in the narrative voices that shows the reader: this is any woman. This is every woman. These are children and men and transgender people. These are stories to relate to.

One particular thread ties these stories together. Gay opens the book with an introduction that touches on her own experiences, and explains how she let years pass before speaking up because she convinced herself that what had happened to her was “not that bad.” But it was. After this introduction, each writer makes an argument for why what happened to her (or him) was indeed that bad. It’s interesting to see just how bad some of the situations get before these writers admit how badly they’ve been treated, but on the other side of the spectrum, seeing the arguments for why some of the  “mild” harrassments are that bad makes the reader think twice about her (or his) own experiences with rape culture. Even though I have never been raped, I found a lot to relate to in these pages, and I think almost any reader– though especially female– will find points in this book that relate to their own lives.

“It’s a conundrum: If you survive, then it– that, the trauma– can’t have been that bad. Being dead is the only way to prove it was. It really was bad. It was terrible. It was so awful there was no way I could survive.”

I want to mention a sort of trigger warning. Clearly, you’re going to encounter rape in the pages of this book. Some of the essays offer more specifics than others, and it’s possible that those details may be painful or even harmful for some readers. But I do want to note that none of these pieces aim to sensationalize rape. These are essays that admit how hard or even impossible it can be to move on, but still encourage readers to try, to find what works as a coping mechanism, to speak out and advocate for change where such a tactic is possible. There are certainly dark moments in these stories, but the overall tone is uplifting and validating. This is a book that raises awareness about rape culture, but it is also a book that reaches out to the people who need to know they’re not alone. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

“Why ask all these questions that don’t have answers? It’s hard to admit, but part of it has to do with the need for an audience. We don’t exist without other people; therefore, our pain isn’t real until somebody else looks at it and goes: ‘Damn, that looks like it hurt.’ When you’re lost in the terror of your own memories, or when your actions occasionally prove their loathsome hold on you, the antidote to losing your mind is to have a handful of people around who know your wound and will verify its existence.”

My favorite pieces were the essays from Claire Schwartz and Zoe Medeiros. Their writing and themes particularly resonated with me, though I think it’s absolutely worth noting that I did not dislike a single essay from this collection. Every piece added something significant and beautiful to this collection.

“Sometimes people tell me that something bad happened to me, but I am brave and strong. I don’t want to be told that I am brave or strong. I am not right just because he was wrong. I don’t want to be made noble. I want someone willing to watch me thrash and crumple because that, too, is the truth, and it needs a witness.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever find any Roxane Gay book I love more– Not That Bad has the same raw punches visible in Hunger, without the stylistic choices that I didn’t enjoy in Gay’s own writing. She is a great writer, but in my opinion, an even more extraordinary editor. I will read any other essay collection she compiles.

Further recommendations:

  • If you haven’t read it yet and you’re interested in learning more about Gay’s experiences, you should pick up Hunger. In this memoir she links her obesity to her experience as a rape victim, while addressing prejudices against both.

I’m a fiction lover at heart, but there are some real gems I’m glad I haven’t missed in nonfiction, as well. Are there any types or subjects of nonfiction that you like to reach for?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant