Tag Archives: short books

Reviews: Gutshot and Death, Desire, and Other Destinations

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

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

Gutshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death, Desire, and Other Destinations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Water Dancer and Africa’s Tarnished Name

Two recent reads! I’ve wanted to try Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing for a long time, but since I tend to gravitate toward fiction and he tends to write nonfiction, I was slow getting started. Now I’ve read Coates’s debut historical fiction novel and have a lot of mixed thoughts… And since it took me a while to get through The Water Dancer, I followed it up with a short collection of essays from Chinua Achebe in the Penguin Modern collection, Africa’s Tarnished Name, to build back some momentum. Both examine racism.

 

thewaterdancerIn Coates’s The Water Dancer, Hiram is stuck “down in the coffin” of slavery on a Virginia plantation. He’s smart, literate, and remembers *almost* everything he sees and hears,  so he works in the house, primarily for the landowner’s son and heir… who happens to be Hiram’s half-brother. Despite spending so much time together, the brothers’ lives couldn’t be more different, or more unfair. Hiram dreams of getting out, and stumbles upon a trick that might help him achieve that goal- somehow he is able to magic himself from one location to another. But he doesn’t yet understand how the magic works, and isn’t able to control the power. He seeks a different exit. Luckily, for Hiram, all roads lead Underground.

“I think now that this is how the running often begins, that it is settled upon in that moment you understand the great depth of your peril. For it is not simply by slavery that you are captured, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. And at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.”

There are a lot of things to like about this book, and a few reasons it didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped.

First off, I loved the characterization; though the main players seem somewhat stereotypical at first, I think Coates wields them well to speak more deeply about the roles that each fulfills, while also giving each character unique attributes to keep them from feeling too much like representative mouthpieces. I found the character development throughout the book was very satisfying, even if slightly hampered by foreshadowing.

I was also partial to the use of the magical element in this story. Essentially, Hiram is able to harness the power of memory and storytelling to conduct people out of slavery- this is not the entirety of the Underground Railroad operation as this novel depicts it, but a noteworthy branch. I like that Coates uses this magic to give literal power to the words and experiences of enslaved people, in a way that seems (I am not an own voices reviewer) to honor African culture and convey the importance of passing down traditions and heritage through the generations even (especially) when oppressors and their recorded history would rather erase those details.

“All of that feeling is called up, and on the strength of our remembrances, we are moved.”

There are effective little touches as well, like the use of the word “Tasked” rather than “enslaved,” and “Quality” rather than “masters.” Simple details like this help reframe the narrative so that anyone who’s read about the slavery in America’s past will not gloss over familiar words but will take a moment to reconsider this unjust hierarchy in a slightly new light, remembering that beneath the terminology each person is a singular human being living with their own complex emotions and choices.

But I struggled with a few aspects of the novel as well, and here I want to emphasize that I review based on my own reading experience, not on the objective merit of the book or author. Just because I didn’t love this book wholeheartedly does not mean I wouldn’t recommend it to interested readers.

My first complaint is purely a matter of personal taste- I generally don’t like reading episodic tales. Every time I thought I had a grasp on the type of story The Water Dancer is, it shifted to become something else. At first this is a story of plantation slavery, but it soon becomes the brutal story of an escaped slave, then a story of the Underground Railroad, and it continues to evolve from there with different settings, characters, and aims. Other readers may appreciate this technique more than I did.

Other readers may also appreciate the writing style more than I did. I found it a bit slow, repetitive, and overly explanatory. Furthermore, The Water Dancer is told in retrospect, as Hiram recounts what has happened to him from some unknown point in the future. This framing perspective, along with the theatrical flourishes that fill the writing as though the story is always aware of its own audience, puts the narration at just enough of a remove that I could never forget that I was looking at a page rather than imagining that I could see this tale unfold in historic Virginia. It feels always like a fiction.

But my biggest hangup is simply that I’m not sure The Water Dancer is doing enough to stand apart. Why read The Water Dancer if you’ve already read, say, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a Putlitzer Prize-winning magical realism account of slavery? I think the magical element achieves a more exciting metaphor in The Water Dancer, but otherwise both books cover many of the same themes and implications, and I think if you’ve read anything at all about slavery in the US and the Underground Railroad you’re likely to find The Water Dancer somewhat redundant. (Which is NOT to argue that reading one Black-authored book about slavery in the US is “enough”!)

Something that I think would have set The Water Dancer apart is a deep dive into Underground Railroad operations; Hiram is wonderfully poised to reveal an intricate web of machinations across state lines, between magical and non-magical efforts. With magic already involved, and the fact that this is a work of fiction, the sky really is the limit for what Coates could have done with the Underground Railroad, and yet even with an obvious Harriet Tubman character paving the way, even with many references to there being much at stake in the Underground and many wheels turning at once, the reader isn’t given a wider picture of how Coates’s Railroad works and its broader aims beyond the few characters highlighted here. An unfortunate opportunity to miss, in this reader’s opinion.

But ultimately, I think this is a great option for readers who enjoy commercial fiction about social issues, especially those interested in learning more about slavery in US history and the origins of American racism right now. If you haven’t read about the underground railroad yet at all and are looking for some fiction, The Water Dancer would be a very fair place to start.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Sadly the execution did not quite live up to the promise of The Water Dancer’s core concepts for me. Even so, I appreciated the ideas on display here, and this has upped my interest in Coates’s nonfiction; I’m hoping to have a more favorable review for his Between the World and Me coming up next month!

 

africa'starnishednameIn Africa’s Tarnished Name, four of Achebe’s essays are collected, from 1989-2008. Achebe is a Nigerian writer, looking here at insider and outsider perspectives on Africa. Frequently referenced is Conrad’s problematic classic Heart of Darkness (which I have read) and occasionally Achebe’s own fiction as well (which I haven’t).

In “What is Nigeria to Me?” Achebe looks at the current (as of 2008) state of the country, and how its troubled past has hurt its chances of advancing as a nation. Nigeria is presented as a place full of promise, if only it is given the opportunity to overcome internal unrest and find proper footing.

In “Traveling White” Achebe considers racism within Africa, based on anecdotal evidence.

In “Africa’s Tarnished Name” the author examines the ways other countries have historically spoken/written about African countries, and why. He explains how European and Western narratives were served by the othering and dehumanizing of Africans, that their ability to profit off of African slavery shaped the way they interacted with and presented Africa to their own people, to Africans’ detriment.

In “Africa is People,” written near the turn of the century, Achebe looks at modern(ish) attitudes toward Africa, emphasizing that the end goal is the reclaiming of Africans’ humanity, which deserves to be acknowledged by all nations as anyone else’s humanity does.

“If the philosophical dictum of Descartes ‘I think, therefore I am’ represents a European individualist ideal, the Bantu declaration ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu‘ represents an African communal aspiration: ‘A human is a human because of other humans.’ / Our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows. No person or group can be human alone. We rise above the animal together, or not at all.”

I had the chance to read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in a college class on postcolonialism, where the writer’s words and themes were duly challenged. I would highly recommend anyone who has or is planning to read Heart of Darkness on their own to pick up this volume of Achebe’s work as a handy little companion piece. If that’s not you but you’re interested in what Africa thinks about what others think about Africa, this is a great volume for that as well.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. The concepts touched on here weren’t all new to me, but I found this a very worthwhile read nonetheless. It acknowledges the pain of Africa’s past while holding on to optimism for its future- and it reminded me that I really should read more about African history. I’ve also added Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to my TBR.

 

Have you read either of these, or other works of Coates and/or Achebe that you would particularly recommend?

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Riot Baby and The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including Tochi Onyebuchi’s adult sci-fi novel, Riot Baby, and Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, a short essay collection on race, feminism, and more.

 

riotbabyIn Riot Baby, a contemporary novel by Tochi Onyebuchi with a sci-fi/fabulist element, a young girl with the ability to see the fates of those around her witnesses the 1992 race riots in LA at the same time as her brother is born. Kev is healthy and whole, but the city is on fire, and Ella sees the racial injustices taking place. She does what she can to protect her brother, but as they grow up, Ella’s power increases in many ways, and the more she can do, the more she learns about the world, and the more it hurts her to see how much hate is aimed at Black people. She grapples over her responsibilities toward justice in light of her unique capabilities. Meanwhile, her brother suppresses his own rage and falls victim to a system stacked against him, buoyed onward by his sister’s dedication to change.

“I see Ella walking through Milwaukee’s North Side, past makeshift memorials to dead black kids: teddy bears, browning flowers, ribbons tied to telephone poles waving in the breeze, and I know that she’s been touching the ground around those memorials and closing her eyes and seeing the whole of it, whether the bullet came from some other colored kid’s gun or from a cop, watching the whole story unfold before her. She does the same with the Confederate monuments that rise from the ground in the South like weeds. Tributes to treasonous generals and soldiers serving Big Cotton. She touches their bases, feels their mass-produced faces, runs her fingers over their inscriptions. She wants to know who was hanged here. Who was beaten here. In whose name they were violated. She’s gathering it within her. All of it.”

This is a very short and powerful book, but it took me a while to get into it.

There were two reasons for that: the first is that Ella’s powers are an anomaly, and until the last section of the book (there are four) I didn’t feel that this otherworldly element was necessary to the story beyond giving the narration an easy way to depict Black experiences more broadly than two non-empowered characters would have been able to show alone. Ella’s ability to head-hop and see pasts and futures gives a much wider scope to the brutality and systemic racism against Black people on display here, but it takes most of the novel for that breadth of perspective to mesh with the specific experiences of the two main characters. However, I did eventually think they fit together very well.

The other hang-up for me reflects my own privilege and limited experience; it is not Onyebuchi’s job to cater to me as a white reader, it is my job as a white reader to learn about experiences beyond my own in order to be able to understand the conversations about racism that are taking place (both in this novel and beyond). In Riot Baby, the narration takes big jumps between scenes, characters, and even years. The problem I had was some difficulty keeping up; the pacing moves very fast, with the expectation that the reader will inherently understand the nuances of the barrage of injustices on display and be able to contextualize them without pausing for breath. Certain gaps in my own knowledge (Black prison life, the LA riots,  Black-on-Black crime) made this a challenging read for me in places because I could see there was significance and a greater history that I wasn’t fully grasping. I’m mentioning it not because this is in any way Onyebuchi’s or Riot Baby‘s “fault,” but simply because I think other white readers might want to brush up on some nonfiction before diving into this one, or at least keep an internet tab open and be willing to take breaks while reading to ask necessary questions.

That said, I appreciated being pushed out of my comfort zone and loved the heart of this story. Ella’s power and Kev’s suppression of his power present as a metaphors for rage under oppression; one embraces the emotion and endeavors to channel it into productive changes, and the other tries to squash it down just to survive in a white-washed world. Their relationships with each other and their powers show how people beaten down by racism struggle and cope both internally and externally. They are individuals to empathize with, but they are also carrying a world of pain on their shoulders and stand as representatives of a much larger whole. Onyebuchi strikes an incredible balance, and when the pieces fall into place it’s astoundingly effective and emotional, conveying decades (and centuries) of accumulated despair while also inspiring the fight for a better future.

I highly recommend this book to anyone intrigued by the idea of social issues explored through a fabulist element. I think Riot Baby has a lot to say and says it well; any difficulty I had with it is the result of my own lack of knowledge, but if you’re willing to do the work, I think you’ll appreciate where this book will take you. For such a small volume, it digs deep.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I cannot overemphasize how blown away I was by the last section of this book. Parts of the read were difficult for me, but they were supposed to be. I really liked Onyebuchi’s style and the themes explored here, and I’m excited to pick up more of his work in the future. I’ve already ordered Beasts Made of Night, and hope to get to it later this summer. I see it has some lower ratings on GR, but I think having learned a bit about Onyebuchi’s style here and how I need to approach his books as a white reader, I’m eager to give it a try.

 

themaster'stoolswillneverdismantlethemaster'shouseIn The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, five of Audre Lorde’s essays are collected. They are: “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” “Uses of the Erotic,” “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” and “Learning From the 1960’s.” All were written between 1977-1982, and still apply perfectly today.

“Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.”

These essays are fairly short, and the entire book amounts to just over 50 pages. Since it’s so brief, I won’t go into much detail about each of the individual pieces; if you’re looking for that breakdown of info let me recommend Callum’s excellent review from earlier this month (which reminded me I had this volume on my shelf and motivated me to pick it up, thanks Callum!).

The first essays here, on poetry and eroticism, appealed to me the least. There will certainly be readers more interested in those topics who will likely find them more inspiring and vital. I thought both were well-written and worthwhile though they didn’t speak to me quite as personally.

But the latter three essays, all of which deal with racism in various ways, and all of which are filtered through the lens of Lorde’s perspective as a Black lesbian woman specifically, felt so very powerful and crucial to this time (which is worrying, as it shows how little progress has been made since they were written). In these pieces, Lorde touches on feminism, and how hurtful racial divides within that movement can be. She talks about discrimination based on sexual orientations. And of course, racism and civil rights. She argues about how people can be oppressed in different ways, to different degrees, and none of the oppressed groups will find their peace until they unite under the common cause: justice and equality for all. She acknowledges those who have been hurt, and calls out those who have done the hurting, and it’s especially impressive to see her handle this where those two groups overlap, as with white feminists who ignore black women’s needs in favor of their own. It’s important that none of us get too caught up in a single cause to overlook the ultimate goal. As a woman and a feminist I found these essays a helpful reminder on how to be a good ally and advocate by respecting differences AND the shared cause. That’s particular to my experience, but I can’t think of an audience that wouldn’t benefit from Lorde’s words in some way.

“I am a lesbian woman of colour whose children eat regularly because I work in a university. If their full bellies make me fail to recognize my commonality with a woman of colour whose children do not eat because she cannot find work, or who has no children because her insides are rotted from home abortions and sterilization; if I fail to recognize the lesbian who chooses not to have children, the woman who remains closeted because her homophobic community is her only life support, the woman who chooses silence instead of another death, the woman who is terrified lest my anger trigger the explosion of hers; if I fail to recognize them as other faces of myself, then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own, and the anger which stands between us then must be used for clarity and mutual empowerment, not for evasion by guilt or for further separation. I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is one of those books I think EVERYONE should read. With this one to judge by, I look forward to getting back to the other volumes from the Penguin Modern set that I’d forgotten about, and to reading further from Lorde! This was a great place to start with her work, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she has to say.

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Beach Read and The Gifts of Reading

Here are a couple of bookish books I’ve read recently! Emily Henry’s new romance novel Beach Read was my BOTM pick for April- it’s been a popular release this spring that helped pull me out of a reading slump! Also meant to help with the slump, I’ve been saving Robert Macfarlane’s charming little personal essay, The Gifts of Reading, for a moment I needed a pick-me-up; it’s a tiny little booklet of just 34 pages, but heartwarming and inspiring in spite of its size.

beachreadEmily Henry’s Beach Read is a romance novel in which a romance novelist (January) and a literary fiction writer (Gus) meet again a few years after their college writing class days. Suddenly the two are neighbors, and after being thrown together by the town’s bookshop owner they strike up a competitive friendship and challenge each other to swap genres for the summer. Meanwhile, both are dealing with trauma from their pasts, and use their writing and each other to work through what’s bothering them- which of course brings them even closer together.

“As different as I’d thought we were, it felt a little bit like Gus and I were two aliens who’d stumbled onto each other on Earth only to discover we shared a native language.”

Romance is the only genre in which the reader generally knows exactly how the book will end as soon as the characters are properly introduced- if not before. As someone who doesn’t typically enjoy predictability in any book, what makes a romance novel work for me is a convincing emotional journey- and this is where Beach Read excels. Considerably heavier than most of the romances I’ve read, the main characters in this novel are carrying some serious baggage; there is of course comedic relief and plenty of lighter moments, but even when things are good for January and Gus their hardships are never dismissed to make way for the steamy scenes, but rather become something for the two of them to work through together.

I actually don’t always like bookish books- author name dropping and stories within stories and references to people reading need to provide something to the book beyond cuteness to feel effective; lucky for me, Henry seems to get that, and doesn’t spend a lot of page time dwelling on what her characters are reading and writing. She uses these tactics only where they add something to the plot or characterization rather than letting the focus shift away from the emotional work her characters are putting into their writing and their relationship. Beach Read does include some commentary on romance being just as worthy a genre as literary fiction, though it feels more personal than philosophical because the antagonism is presented through characters who essentially embody their respective genres.

“I know how to tell a story, Gus, and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all of my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you’d get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, I’ve eliminated half the Earth’s population from my potential readers, and you know what? I don’t feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed.”

But there were a few details that made the overall effect less effective for me, despite my enthusiasm for the broader strokes.

First, neither of these characters ever asks for consent. This is something I always look for in romance novels, and even though both main characters seemed very self-aware, very considerate, and very attuned to the other’s body language, I can’t help feeling dissatisfied when in 350 pages of romance no consent is asked or given. Bonus points for proper condom usage, but that’s not quite enough to make up for it. Consent is sexy.

Second, and this is certainly subjective, the steamy scenes did not work for me at all. There was a lot of moving around and changing positions that I found overly elaborate and a bit hard to follow, but mainly those scenes just felt a lot less emotionally charged to me than earlier angst in the smaller touches. The language used to describe their more erotic encounters just did nothing for me, which isn’t to say they won’t work better for others.

Third, a lot of Beach Read‘s emotion is driven by miscommunication and lack of communication, which is a peeve of mine. This is an enemies-to-lovers romance, in which the characters are only enemies because they’re misconstruing and making assumptions. Additionally, the MC has some intense family drama going on- a distant mother, a dead father, his all-too-present lover nearby. (None of these are spoilers, they’re all introduced very early as part of the set-up.) While it’s reasonable to misunderstand what another person is doing and to avoid uncomfortable conversations, it frustrates me as a reader when an honest chat or two would essentially solve 300 pages of tension.

Ultimately, I loved the attempt and most of the details but just wasn’t quite swept away by the whole. I liked that Henry made the effort to do something different with this romance; everything about it is a little unexpected- a “beach read” set in flyover country, a romance featuring a lot of death (and a cult!), a romance novelist writing a literary circus tragedy, etc. It should have been the perfect formula to win me over, especially as it leans slightly literary. I like Henry’s writing, and have enjoyed her work in the past as well, but both books of hers that I’ve read now have left me feeling that one of her books might end up being a favorite for me, though this just isn’t it. Maybe my ideal Emily Henry book hasn’t been written yet. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Don’t be fooled- I had a great time with this one and it was perfect for my mood this month. I just don’t think it will be very memorable for me long-term, even though… it could have been.

 

thegiftsofreadingNext, I picked up Robert Macfarlane’s The Gifts of Reading, which was very thoughtfully gifted to me last year! This little nonfiction piece shares some of Macfarlane’s experiences with being gifted certain books throughout his life, and books he likes to give as gifts.

Macfarlane never quite comes out to say that we should gift books more often, but that is certainly the spirit of the piece. He effectively demonstrates that books given freely without expectation can have a profound, even life-altering effect on the reader. Most of the specific titles he mentions are books I haven’t read and don’t consider myself very interested in at this time, but I’m finding myself inspired to embrace book-gifting anew nonetheless, and perhaps to spend a little extra time with the books that others have given me over the years.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Honestly this was hard to rate, it’s so short and such a specific account of book gifting, but I did find it an enjoyable and encouraging read with an overall positive message. I have no idea who I would recommend this to- it is, perhaps, better to stumble across it without knowing too much, and simply let it take you where it will.

 

These two pieces have next to nothing in common, but both discuss books in a way that have restored some of the magic for me. I’ve been complaining about a reading slump for about a month (I swear I’ll stop now), but a little bookish reading turned out to be all I needed to kick it. What’s your favorite book about books?

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 9 (Plus Series Ranking!)

This has been a long time coming! If you’re new-ish here, you might not even know that I spent last year reading 29 of the 30 individually bound Faber Stories, a series of collectible short story editions published by Faber & Faber. There have been 30 volumes released between two batches- whether the series will be growing further in the future has not been announced, though I believe the intent was to celebrate their 90th year of publishing, which is now past.

When I reached the end of the first batch (which included 20 stories) I ranked them all here in order of favoritism; now that I’ve finished the rest I figured I might as well update that list! But first, I’ll go over the four stories I haven’t reviewed yet. Three I read back in December, intending to read the last in January… your guess is as good as mine as to why this took me until May!

 

Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver. 3 stars.

An old Cherokee woman who ran from Cherokee lands with a new husband just in time to avoid the US government’s forced relocation of Native American tribes is now a great-grandmother whose ancient culture lives on only in her heart and through the stories she impresses upon her granddaughter. Her oblivious American descendants take her to visit her birthplace, but the modern town they find in her tribe’s old place is no more than an inauthentic tourist trap.

This is a lovely and sad little piece about culture stolen from native peoples, and that culture living on as best it can through memories passed down to further generations. It is also a scathing critique of Americans’ irreverence for native history. That said, between the blurb on the jacket mentioning the disappointing trip to the Cherokee town, and the first two-page “chapter” providing the concept of culture living on as a seed inside living descendants, the reader has the entire formula of the story already within grasp just 5% into the read. I didn’t find much payoff in reading the rest, with the Point and the method of making it laid out so early, even though the writing is propulsive enough. Furthermore, I did have a fair grasp going in on the unfair and atrocious fates forced upon native tribes by US settlers, which made this story feel a bit predictable.  In any case, it’s a worthwhile point that Kingsolver is making, and she makes it well- it just wasn’t new to me at this point, which is no fault of hers.

Upon further inspection, this story was actually first published in 1989, so perhaps the trouble is simply that it’s a bit dated and would’ve had more punch for earlier readers.

” ‘I guess things have changed pretty much since you moved away, huh Great Mam?’ I asked. / She said, ‘I’ve never been here before.’ “

 

The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz. 2 stars.

In this volume, a Dominican-American man is going through a breakup; his girlfriend has discovered he’s been cheating on her (to an extreme extent), and dumped him. His best friend advises that the best way to get over the heartbreak is to find another woman- both struggle to find and maintain healthy relationships with women.

If there is anything positive to be found in this story, it eludes me. The MC and his friend have little respect for women, including those they supposedly love. When their misbehavior does lead to heartbreak (and complicated parenthood), they pity themselves without taking any responsibility for their mistakes or putting real effort into ditching bad habits. Yunior (the MC) does try exercise as a coping mechanism and distraction, but when it leads to injuries the story seems to be suggesting that there is no point in trying to resist cheating and objectifying women, it only leads to further punishment. I kept waiting for this to turn into a commentary on how awful this sort of behavior and mindset is for everyone involved, but right up to the final sentence it seems instead to be a wistful longing for being able to cheat in “monogamous” relationships without facing consequences. The men of the story seem to expect to sleep with whoever they want, when they want to, drop those women whenever it pleases them, and pop in to see any resultant children only when it suits them. I found the humor contemptible, felt no sympathy for these men, and gained nothing from this story.

hope I’m missing something. The only upside was that it was a quick read, at least.

 

Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce. 3 stars.

Only a story in the loosest sense, this little book is full of poetic vignettes about a man (clearly modeled after Joyce) in the midst of an affair with a student he teaches.

I think there’s going to be a very particular audience for this story, and I wasn’t it. There are a lot of references and similarities to other Joyce works, which I wouldn’t have noticed, not having read any others through- but nearly half of this volume is actually dedicated to pointing out and explaining these many ties. As a Joyce novice these didn’t have much meaning for me, though perhaps  someone better versed in Joycean lit would find them more appealing. The prose is beautiful, though very dense and somewhat impenetrable. Poetry connoisseurs might also have better luck.

Ultimately I thought this was lovely, though a terrible place to start with Joyce’s work as a relative beginner. If ever I were to become more knowledgeable and interested in Joyce’s life and work, I’d want to revisit this story to see if it would have more to offer me at that point.

 

Shanti by Vikram Chandra. 3 stars.

Set in India, this is a set of stories within a story within a story, set in the wake of WWII in 1945. The main characters are a man whose identical twin has died, a woman on a futile search for her missing fighter pilot husband, and a couple of their friends.

The jacket copy claims that this is “a spiraling tale of loss, and two wounded people becoming something new.” Without that hint of direction, I’m not sure I would have found the themes of this one out at all; there are so many layers to this tale and so many details given; it felt both elaborate and strangely empty. By which I mean, the biggest obstacle for me here was simply the fact that despite reports of how these people were dealing with their grief, I never felt a hint of emotion. And thus, no matter how each of the individual narratives might have worked for me, it never quite came together to a meaningful point or payoff. I believe the innermost level of narratives is meant to capture some of the characters’ unspoken emotions, but the fact that this is all told through a friend of this man and woman rather than either of them or even a neutral 3rd-person narrator puts the action too far distant to be properly effective.

All in all I found this a rather frustrating read, with moments of beauty overshadowed by my difficulty in sympathizing with the characters at the heart of the tale.

“They would go home, and even if nothing was finished, not ever, they would batten away the memories and find new beginnings.”

 

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Concluding thoughts:

Despite high hopes for at least two of these stories (Homeland and Shanti), this has turned out to be perhaps my most disappointing batch of Faber Stories yet. I don’t regret picking these up and rounding out my experience with this series of stories, but I had wished to end on a higher note. From this round, I’d say Homeland has probably been my favorite, and I’d read more from both Kingsolver and perhaps Joyce, based on these offerings.

 

To amp up the fun, my revised ranking of the Faber Stories, in order from most to least favorite! I’ve linked each title to its respective review set in case you’re interested in learning anything further about any of these in particular.

  1. Mostly Hero by Anna Burs – 5 stars
  2. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes by Alan Bennett – 5 stars
  3. The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan – 4 stars
  4. Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro – 4 stars
  5. Mrs. Fox by Sarah Hall – 4 stars
  6. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney – 4 stars
  7. Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera – 4 stars
  8. Paradise by Edna O’Brien – 4 stars
  9. Intruders by Adrian Tomine – 4 stars
  10. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman – 4 stars
  11. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor – 4 stars
  12. The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes – 4 stars
  13. Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin – 4 stars
  14. Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath – 3 stars
  15. The Victim by P. D. James – 3 stars
  16. Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss – 3 stars
  17. Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore – 3 stars
  18. Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett – 3 stars
  19. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah – 3 stars
  20. Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver – 3 stars
  21. My Son the Fanatic by Hanif Kureishi – 3 stars
  22. Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain – 3 stars
  23. Shanti by Vikram Chandra – 3 stars
  24. The Country Funeral by John McGahern – 3 stars
  25. A River in Egypt by David Means – 3 stars
  26. Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore – 3 stars
  27. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones – 3 stars
  28. Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma – 3 stars
  29. Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce – 3 stars
  30. The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz – 2 stars

 

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Set Reflection:

I would read more of these. I’ve absolutely enjoyed my time with this series overall; it’s nice to come to each story fresh- a new author, a new subject, pretty packaging. My average rating is 3.5, which is a bit low to get excited about but far from terrible. I still think this is a great way to sample authors’ work in bite-sized pieces; I’ve added several of these writers to my TBR as a result of reading this series (though shamefully I’m yet to pick those additional works up) and I just love the look of them. It’s been a good run. I probably wouldn’t recommend reading all of them unless you’re a die-hard completionist (welcome to the club!), but you can hardly go wrong picking up a few of these that appeal!

Who’s your favorite short story writer? (Feel free to mention someone who’s not included in this set!)

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Girl

That’s right, another Women’s Prize longlister. (This is going to be a theme.) Next up for me was the last of the short titles: Edna O’Brien’s Girl; this was another book that I had low expectations for- and sadly, this time those expectations proved correct.

girlIn the novel, Maryam is a young schoolgirl abducted, along with many female classmates, by members of Boko Haram, a violent religious insurgency group active in Nigeria. They are taken to a base camp, where Maryam is abused, made to work, encouraged to convert, and provided with a lifetime of nightmare material. Eventually she learns that even escape cannot free her from Boko Haram, as she struggles to find her way back to a home that cannot understand what her life has become and seems to have its arms closed against her.

” ‘You are no longer in that forest,’ he says. / ‘You weren’t there,’ I say hastily, too hastily. / I am shackled to it. It lives inside me. It is what I dream at night, with a baffled Babby slung across my belly, imbibing my terrors.”

Enter this book with caution, if you are planning to pick it up- the details are horrifying, and basically every trigger warning imaginable applies. (You can ask in the comments below if you’re wondering about anything specific!) The beginning of the book is actually the most brutal, in terms of abuse; I expected most of the novel to examine Maryam’s life in the camp, but in actuality only about a quarter of the story takes place there: the opening quarter.

Later on, this becomes more a tale of surviving in the hostile Nigerian bush, and then reentering a community inclined to hate victims for what has happened to them.

And yet, despite how brutal all of this content sounds, I struggled to stay invested while reading this book. I found the writing confusing and distracting with its frequent unexplained tense shifts. The first-person narration comes across surprisingly flat. Even with little knowledge of Boko Haram, the plot follows what seemed to me like a very predictable arc. Worst of all, for reasons difficult to pinpoint, the whole book struck me as disturbingly emotionless. It is possible some portion of my disengagement here is attributable to the current state of the world and a general difficulty in focusing, but this has without a doubt been my worst reading experience all month.

In the interest of having something positive to say about Girl, I did find the final quarter of the book the most compelling. This is the portion of the novel that depicts Maryam trying to assimilate back into a society isn’t quite sure what to do with her, and I appreciated it because it gave the best glimpse of how psychologically challenging this entire experience must have been for these Nigerian girls. Perhaps if the novel had taken an earlier approach into touching on Maryam’s mental state rather than simply listing all of the horrendous things that happen to her, I might have found it more compelling as a whole. Emotion is, of course, a subjective component in any writing, so this is not to say that anyone who finds more of it in Girl than I did is any way incorrect- I can only speak for my own experience.

“I will never get out. I am here forever. I am asking God to please give me no more dreams. Make me blank. Empty me of all that was.”

There is some debate going around on whether O’Brien was the right person to tell this story. I have some complicated and incomplete thoughts on Own Voices narratives at this point so I was wary knowing O’Brien had no personal connection or stake in this subject but was still willing to give the book the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the day, I think Girl is well-intended if slightly misplaced, and my biggest issue with it was that I didn’t find the story particularly readable; In that light, I don’t necessarily want to urge readers away from this book for its authorship, but I do think it’s important to pay attention to perspectives in what you’re reading and only expect from them what they are able to give. If Boko Haram is a topic you are interested in learning about, you don’t need to avoid this book, but I would urge that you don’t let your education stop here.

“When they burst into our dormitory we did not know who they were, but very soon we did. We had heard of them and their brute ways, but until you know something you do not know it.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I don’t think the intent was ill-meant here, and I hope other readers are having better luck with the prose and storytelling of this book than I did. But unfortunately, I can’t think of any positives with this reading experience beyond the fact that at least it was a short book. I’ve read and enjoyed a short story by O’Brien previously so this won’t necessarily be my last brush with her work, but I must admit I’m not in a hurry to pick up her other novels after this experience. I hope this was the low point of the longlist for me, and that the rest of the titles will prove a bit more inspiring.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Weather

One of the freshly longlisted Women’s Prize books happens to be a February release (in the US at least) that I picked up just a week before the announcement! Jenny Offill’s Weather is a very short read that I enjoyed, though not as much as I’d hoped.

weatherIn the novel, librarian Lizzie spends her days learning all sorts of things she never thought she’d need, and using her knowledge to save everyone that she can. This manifests in myriad ways, including taking care of her family at all costs, but also stubbornly using a private car service despite its inconveniences just in case she’s their last customer, as well as agreeing to answer mail for a friend’s doomsday podcast. The podcast’s focus on climate change and Lizzie’s savior complex lead to an obsession with prepper research and increasing tension in her family as her opinions on how best to take care of them undergo a drastic shift.

“My # 1 fear is the acceleration of days. No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.”

Offill’s writing drew me in immediately; it’s short, sharp, and intelligent, all in the best of ways. The paragraphs- comprised of only a few sentences each- are divided visually on the page with a line of white space after each, creating small, vignette-like blocks of text with prose that flits easily from one moment or subject to the next. There are so many intriguing lines, as well as a comfortable fluidity from point to point, that it’s simple to fall into the book’s momentum and suddenly find yourself halfway through the story. Even as someone who doesn’t often read 200 pages at a time, I found Weather a punchy one-sitting book.

It’s themes and commentary also appealed to me. I’ve not yet hit climate change novel fatigue (though I sense it’s on the horizon) so I appreciated this as the book’s central focus. I’m not particularly well-informed about preppers (people who actively stock survival gear and plan escape tactics to prepare for widespread emergency/disaster), which meant Lizzie’s research held my interest. Additionally, her everyday interactions with the modern world supply plenty of timely food for thought; these touch on everything from Uber’s popularity to our fixation on self care to the effects of poverty to the recent string of rape accusations against wealthy, high-powered men. It’s an eclectic mix, meant not to prove a point but to encourage readers to look more closely at commonplace issues and ideas gliding right beneath our noses. Offill has a tendency of dropping hints and leaving the reader to sort out what to do with them.

“The meditation class is no longer crowded. I find out a lot of people left recently because of something Margot said. Someone asked her what she thought about the waves of recent allegations in the press. She said that it caused her great sadness to think of these men’s dishonorable actions. But she dismissed the language of victims and perpetrators. When she was asked about punishment, she spoke instead of reincarnation. Everyone here has done everything to everyone else, she said.

Which explains why today it’s just me and three straight guys listening to her.”

And yet, though many of the book’s individual elements excited and engaged me, the underlying story seemed too scant to pull all of the threads together in a satisfactory way. Though we come to know the various members of Lizzie’s family- her husband, son, brother, mother- well enough, their stories lack an emotional urgency that might invest readers in their fates. Lizzie meets a journalist who wades firsthand into conflict and danger around the world for writing material, a man who understands Lizzie’s fear that humanity is on a brink, who may pose an unexpected threat to Lizzie’s marriage; and yet, when her husband and son take an extended trip out of state there is so little reaction to their sudden separation that it’s hard to worry about a more permanent divide. Likewise, when Lizzie’s brother starts a family of his own and then hits rock bottom, her focus is on keeping a roof over her brother’s head, not on the relationships he stands to lose. None of it feels sympathetic.

Which isn’t to say that Weather is an emotionless story. Despite a personal disconnect with Lizzie and the people in her life, her increasing worry about the state of the world and whether anything at all can be done about it provided palpable tension for me. If climate change and/or inevitable worldwide collapse are already on your mind, the rising level of anxiety throughout this book may produce a similar effect for you. This is not the title to pick up if you’re a reader who prefers a bit of optimism to soften a hard-hitting topic, as the book’s most effective trait is its ability to raise the reader’s level of concern in proportion with the world’s surface temperature.

What sets Weather apart from other climate change narratives (at least for me) is that it goes beyond trying to convince the reader that this phenomenon is indeed taking place and gives it a more interesting angle: if it is taking place, at the fault of humanity as a whole, what is the individual’s role going forward? Is there any productivity to be had in worrying about it, how does one person balance this problem with the more immediate demands of society, and how might she prepare for what comes next?

“My question for Will is: Does this feel like a country at peace or at war? I’m joking, sort of, but he answers seriously. / He says it feels the way it does just before it starts.”

In the end, though I loved the writing and the concept, Lizzie and her family narrative failed to interest me in Offill’s attempt at storytelling. There are many thematic and even a couple of stylistic similarities to Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport, a comparison which ultimately worked against me here because I was already biased toward Ducks (a problem that certainly won’t arise for all of Weather‘s readers, the difference in length falling clearly in Weather’s favor). This is in any case a well-written and worthwhile book, and while it didn’t manage to pull me in as much as I’d hoped, I’m glad to have read it and eager to see what others will make of its place on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’d be willing to read more of Offill’s work based on my experience with this book (my first dip into Offill’s writing), but I must say I’m not in a hurry. I don’t mind seeing this one on the longlist, but I do hope whichever title I manage to pick up next will excite me a bit more than this one did.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 8

I’ve been reading my way through Faber’s new collection of individually bound short stories this year, and am nearing the end of the titles published so far! Today I’ll feature the three stories I’ve read most recently, which will leave me with one more batch of four coming up around the end of the year. In case you missed them, here are the links to my previous Faber Stories mini-reviews: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Now let’s dive in.

My Son the Fanatic by Hanif Kureishi. 3 out of 5 stars.

In this story from 1996, a father watches his teenage son’s changing behavior with growing concern. Both are Pakistani Muslims living in England. The father is becoming, to an extent, “Westernized,” even as his son is learning about his cultural heritage and becoming more staunchly Islamic. The two cannot agree on a compromise between their religion and the Western ways of life, finding themselves at irreconcilable odds.

This is a straightforward piece with themes of assimilation and loyalty- to family, religion, and nation. The main focus is on the relationship between the father and his son. It’s an interesting glimpse into a clash of cultures, of how adapting to a new country can alter people in different ways, and even create rifts in families.

What didn’t work for me was the humor. The blurb in the front flap of the book calls this story a “comedy of assimilation,” claiming that it is “both uproariously funny and so prescient it’s barely funny at all.” Perhaps when the story was first published it came across differently, but I found the attempts at humor bothersome rather than amusing. First is the father’s fear that his son is selling his possessions to buy drugs. Rightfully he’s concerned, but his response is to tell his colleagues and spy on his son, and then makes light of it when it turns out to be religion-related instead, as though drug abuse is anything to joke about. There’s another detail about a friend of the father’s who is a prostitute, whose final scene in the story revolves around her being insulted for her profession and the father failing to defend her or their friendship. I didn’t find any of the writing outright offensive, and I don’t think it’s exactly meant to have the reader rolling in laughter anyway, but even so the tone just seemed a bit unpalatable to me.

“There was more to the world than the West, though the West always thought it was best.”

Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera. 4 stars.

In this story, originally written in Czech in 1969 (oddly there is no mention anywhere in this little volume of the identity of the translator), an aging woman returns to the city where her husband was buried to attempt to renew the lease on his grave. After receiving some bad news on that front, she runs into a man with whom she had a brief affair years previously. In thirteen tiny chapters, they spend the afternoon together, remembering their past encounter and wondering whether they are too old to change the way they left things.

There’s not much plot to this story; the unfortunate situation with the grave (and the meaning of the title) are revealed within the first five pages, and the rest of the story is spent in a will-they-or-won’t-they exchange between the two old lovers. Most of these pages are spent simply ruminating on how age changes things, no matter how much we might want to deny it. The constant presence of death as a theme in the background, combined with the beautiful writing, also lends the story a delightfully morbid air and the impression of a ticking clock.

This has got to be one of my favorite pieces about an affair written by a male author, ever. The woman seems like a real person, and isn’t objectified even though much of the story revolves around whether or not these people are going to sleep together again. The man is equally well-sketched. Both are concerned about how age has changed their physical bodies, and yet the details reflect their mental states and maturity rather than a shallow interest in appearance. Though this is on the surface a sort of romance, the reason it works so well is that ultimately it’s about the passage of time and the things that give life meaning. Is it better to remember a good experience and close the door on it, or to keep experiencing new things, even if they might tarnish the memories of the old things? This is the question that will decide these characters’ fates. Not much happens in these pages, but I thoroughly enjoyed the read all the same.

“Just as she could not have prevented her husband’s death, so also she was defenseless against his second death, this death of an old dead who is now forbidden to exist even as dead.”

Mostly Hero by Anna Burns. 5 stars.

At 144 pages, this is by far the longest of any of the Faber Stories published so far, but I did not want it any shorter. Having already loved Burns’ Booker Prize-winning Milkman last year, this was one of the Faber Stories volumes I was most excited to read, and even though my expectations were high going in, it didn’t disappoint.

In this story, which is a sort of spoof on sci-fi superhero narratives, our main characters are femme fatale, superhero, and Great Aunt. There are also assorted supervillains and a misguided cousin. Burns draws on what the reader expects from these “types” of characters to create interesting personas that both conform and defy conventional norms. The plot is fun, fast-paced, and continually surprising, beginning with a secret spell designed to make femme kill her boyfriend (superhero) without knowing what she’s doing, complicated by a backstory involving superhero’s tragic family past, and progressing into a plot for temporary world domination. No one is quite who they seem at first, and every revelation both takes the story a step farther and leaves the reader questioning what we typically expect from superhero narratives. It’s a captivating romp with deeper themes of expectation vs perception, of the blurry line between good and evil, of the messiness of love.

Similar in style to Milkman, with long sentences and paragraphs, a convoluted doubling-back of plotting and backstory, and the use of simple qualifiers in place of actual names,  the brevity of Mostly Hero makes it a bit more accessible though I think ultimately the writing will appeal to a similar audience. The topic is very different though, which means a reader who loved Milkman for its Irish focus might not get on with this one quite as well, while sci-fi fans might fare considerably better. Mostly Hero is still a literary story at heart, which is most apparent toward the end of the story when the plot begins to drag in favor of introspection. That was really the only downside to the reading experience for me, and the only reason I might have considered lowering my rating, but in the end I had such a fantastic time that a shift in focus at the end of the story couldn’t impact my overall impression. I absolutely loved this one.

“This was just the twist of fate and of incestuous Greek playacting to be expected in the dark, umbrous world hero lived in.”

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Concluding thoughts: this batch just kept getting better and better. I appreciated the commentary in My Son the Fanatic, though otherwise felt lukewarm about it, only to love the writing in Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead and to find myself overjoyed with every single detail of Mostly Hero. I can’t believe I haven’t gotten around to reading more of Burns’s work yet, but this story has reminded me of how much I love her writing, and I’ll definitely be trying harder to pick up the titles from her backlist going forward. It’s hard to imagine any of the Faber Stories I have left to read topping Mostly Hero for me, but I’m certainly hoping to find another gem!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Strange Planet

Last January (I think) I stumbled upon the beginnings of the Strange Planet comic series (on Instagram- it might feature on other sites as well, this is just where I follow it!). I adored the comics, and followed along avidly as (almost) every day a new comic appeared, and every day the account gained more followers (now up to 4.8 million!). So of course when creator Nathan W. Pyle published a Strange Planet book last month I had to have a copy, and I had to read it right away. Best decision.

strangeplanetIn the book, “beings” move through various aspects of everyday life and common encounters in a sort of alternate reality. The scenarios are much like human scenarios on earth, but these beings have their own speech patterns and are open and honest with each other in a way that humans are generally not. Through literal phrasing and heavy irony, the comics are ultimately a satirical look at human behaviors that have a ridiculous aspect to them that no one mentions in regular life; they also add a simple layer of comedy to everyday objects and encounters.

Here’s an example:

(Apologies in advance that none of my examples are quite square in the photo frame, the book was a bit stiff and difficult to photograph with only two hands)

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I’m no artist, so it’s hard for me to engage critically with that aspect, but the drawings certainly work for me. It’s simple, minimalist, easy to follow, and the color scheme matches the lighthearted and humorous tone. Each page includes four frames (with few exceptions), usually with a single solid background color, though those do change for different settings (indoor/outdoor/night/day/etc). The beings are always the same color, a light purple/blue. Other than size, facial expression, and placement in the comic squares, there’s really no way to differentiate between the beings- they could be different beings on every page, but they all act and speak similarly. It’s very effective as a technique for social commentary, as their individual identity matters less than larger picture they each help paint. Most of the pages are complete in themselves, though there are a few exclusive two-page spreads introduced in this book, which is roughly divided into a few subject categories to aid with cohesion. Cleverly crafted, in my opinion.

The only aspect about Strange Planet I’m less enthused about is that it seems to me to include two types of comics: a set that reveals a bit of interesting (and very human) social commentary on familiar routines and habits, and a second set that features these beings “discovering” basic everyday objects. While I love the first sort, the latter mainly felt silly to me. There’s nothing wrong with a comic being silly of course, but most of this comic series did provide me with something a little deeper to engage with, so I quickly became disappointed in the pages that didn’t provide more than a quick smile. Here’s an example of a silly discovery page, for reference:

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There’s nothing wrong, of course, with these pages that seem meant for pure amusement! And I do find the beings’ alternate words for basic objects enjoyable- there’s a funny little glossary at the back of the book in case readers miss the references, or just want to adopt a very literal vocabulary. (If the comments on Pyle’s posts are anything to judge by, it does seem that a fair amount of people are interested in speaking like these Strange Planet beings.) But I vastly prefer the pages that are eerily relatable and leave me with a moment of introspection over the way that our world works. Here’s an example of one I enjoy more, which leaves some room to puzzle over the way humans do things:

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The routine of going to an optometrist (eye doctor) when you think you might need glasses and being asked to read the letter chart is a recognizable moment many of us are familiar with- or at least know about- and thus the comic allows us to engage with that aspect of life in a new way. Most of the comics are like this, touching on everything from hiking, to amusement parks, adopting pets, throwing parties, watching/coaching/playing sports, applying makeup, graduating from school, traveling, and experiencing a range of emotions. Some obviously fit better than others depending on the reader, but that also means there’s likely something in here for everyone.

Interestingly, though the book does include some exclusive content that hasn’t been available online (yet), it isn’t an exhaustive bind-up: there are comics I’ve seen online that don’t appear in the book. But ultimately I stand by the purchase; I have a lot of fun with these comics and it’ll make a great little Christmas gift for those less inclined toward reading who are more likely to appreciate some humorous art. Highly recommend. A fun bonus: the books ends with a meta sequence that anyone who’s followed Strange Planet on social media will appreciate- one of the beings speaks like a human, and tells the other beings that they learned the lingo from a book, pulling a Strange Planet-looking book from their bag. It’s a perfect touch, that while we humans are reading about these beings, they may also be reading about us!

And just for fun, a few more of my favorites:

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My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This book came into my life just when I needed a short, fun read, and in only 144 pages it delivered exactly what I’d hoped for. I’m still checking Instagram every day for new installments, and I probably won’t be able to resist picking them up if any more books are published. It’s been such an experience watching Strange Planet grow and resonate with so many other viewers, even as it was winning me over. Many congrats to Pyle for his success, and I sincerely hope it continues!

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-reviews: Short Nonfiction

A little dip into non-fiction before November reaches its end! Two of the non-fiction pieces I’ve read recently are very short current issues pieces, so I’m going to talk about both of them together here, even though they cover different topics. The first is Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, about the border crisis between the US and Central America, specifically focusing on children seeking asylum in the US. Second will be Greta Thunberg’s No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, a collection of Thunberg’s speeches on the importance of climate change, from events/gatherings she’s attended around the world. Both pieces are meant to raise awareness and advocate for change.

nonficminireviews “Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.” -Luiselli

I read Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive earlier this year, a novel following a family on a road trip that revolves around the US border crisis. Tell Me How it Ends makes for a very apt companion piece to that novel (whether you’ve enjoyed LCA or not), though I imagine it would also be great as a stand-alone essay for anyone interested solely in exploring this topic through non-fiction.

In the essay, Luiselli reveals a bit about her personal life- her fraught experience with trying to get a green card, her own family’s trip toward the southern US border while learning about the crisis on the radio, and her work as a translator in immigration court. The parallels between her life and Lost Children Archive will be clear to anyone reading both pieces, but there’s also more to this essay than appears in her fiction.

Tell Me How it Ends, a slim volume just over 100 pages long, walks the reader through a questionnaire given to Central and South American children upon entry/capture in the US. As Luiselli lists the forty questions she, as a translator, has helped many children to answer, she provides commentary and anecdotal background based on specific encounters with immigrant children, on her knowledge of the immigration system, and on her perspective of where the line for what is moral and acceptable should be drawn. She provides history and statistics, direct quotes, and enough concrete information for the reader to feel grounded even in sections of the piece that are more opinionated. The path is clear from the evidence Luiselli provides to the conclusions she draws, though even those who disagree with her stance (for whatever reason) are likely to learn something worthwhile from the read. Furthermore, she’s a great writer whose skill really shines through when she puts aside (admirable) fictional constructs and simply speaks her mind, from her own perspective. I was certainly impressed with her fiction, but there’s an emotional depth to this essay that brings the topic to life in a whole different way.

” ‘Why did you come to the United States?’ I ask children in immigration court. Their answers vary, but they often point to a single pull factor: reunification with a parent or another close relative who migrated to the U.S. years earlier. Other times, the answers point to push factors- the unthinkable circumstances the children are fleeing: extreme violence, persecution and coercion by gangs, mental and physical abuse, forced labor, neglect, abandonment. It is not even the American Dream they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.” -Luiselli

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars.

Let’s switch gears.

Greta Thunberg is a 16 year-old from Sweden who, over the last year, has become a major voice in the matter of climate change. Completely alone and against the advice of her family, she began a school strike that has grown astronomically to include children and adults around the world, sparking much political and cultural debate.

This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second. They only care about what we actually do. This is a cry for help.” -Thunberg

Thunberg’s speeches (filling about 70 pages in the volume I read, although I know there’s a new expanded edition recently out in the US) are persuasive attention-grabbers with short, punchy sentences that are irresistibly quotable. It’s no wonder she’s received the level of global attention that she has; her words are full of momentum and all but impossible to turn away from. I’ve seen a couple of videos of Thunberg’s speeches, and can vouch for the fact that she’s just as magnetic in audio/visual as on paper.

That said, I did have a few small issues with this book. The first being that this simply isn’t a great place to start if you’re new to the climate issue, because there are very few facts in Thunberg’s speeches. She references specific reports and statistics, but doesn’t incorporate many of those findings and numbers into her prose. She mentions that we need to decrease carbon emissions by so much percent in this many years (the numbers are estimates and do change slightly throughout the course of this volume so I’m refraining from including specifics), but beyond urging that there’s a deadline this is not a scientific text. It’s based on science, but it’s a persuasive text. It reads like the persuasive papers I remember my class having to write in high school, where we could pick any topic that interested us and make an argument. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing- though it’s not quite what I was expecting, it does show how very true the title of this volume is: No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. If this 16 year-old can make a splash this big without a science degree (or even a language/writing one), what can the rest of us do? Thunberg plays up her age, her autism, her ordinariness. And she’s a sensation. To be honest, I was drawn to this book as much for the sensation she’s as for the climate discourse; I am planning to read further on the topic, so I can’t say that Thunberg’s speeches are ineffective, but I do think they would have been strengthened by a few more facts- never underestimate the power of a well-placed statistic.

In the end, I closed the book with a certainty that Thunberg knew what she was talking about, though I didn’t feel I understood the core problem any better than I had going in. I hope she keeps giving speeches and fighting for change, but I also hope that those who hear her speeches will look further and educate themselves on the matter before drawing conclusions.

“Our civilization is so fragile it is almost like a castle built in the sand. The façade is so beautiful but the foundations are far from solid. We have been cutting so many corners.” -Thunberg

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars.

Both of these pieces came to me when I needed something short and thought-provoking in my reading life, and both were perfect fits. Despite my final rating of the Thunberg collection, I did find both of these books gripping and well worth my time. I highly recommend them.

 

The Literary Elephant