Tag Archives: short books

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.”

 

faberstories9

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

 

faberstoriescomplete30

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.”

faberstories8

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)

strangeplanet6

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:

strangeplanet1

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:

strangeplanet4

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:

strangeplanet3

strangeplanet2

strangeplanet5

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