wrap up: April 2018

Best: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Runner up: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Worst: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

APRIL TOTAL: 16
YEARLY TOTAL: 42

Monthly play: Eurydice, Antigone
Monthly classic: Antigone

Currently reading: The Idiot by Elif Batuman, The Pisces by Melissa Broder.

Quantity wise, this was easily the best reading month I’ve ever had.  I mean, plenty of these were very short, but I’ve still never been able to say I’ve read 16 books in one month before.

In May I’m going to keep up with my Women’s Prize reading – after The Idiot I’ve only got When I Hit You and The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock left from the shortlist, and I’d still like to read A Boy in Winter.  I’m also trying to keep up with ARCs and keep up with my monthly classic and monthly play goal.  I felt like I cheated in April with counting Antigone as my classic since I’ve already read it, so I’ll do better this month.

What’s the best book you guys read in April?  Comment and let me know!

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book review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman
★★★☆☆
Viking, 2017

I’m very conflicted about Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, and I think that’s largely because the context in which you read a book can be a significant factor in the relationship you end up having with it (at least for me). I first heard of this book when it was one of Book of the Month’s options for December, and when I think about Book of the Month, I usually think: commercial, will appeal to a wide audience, best-seller potential (lest I come across as a literary snob, these aren’t bad things! I love Book of the Month.) Anyway, I think if I’d have read this then, I may have been more forgiving. But reading it as a part of the Women’s Prize longlist, I had other elements in mind: is this book going to be ‘literary,’ does it have a strong artistic vision, does it break barriers and push the envelope and give us something truly original? Reading it in this context, I found it hard not to be slightly more critical.

This book has two real strengths for me – the examination of the importance of friendship, trite as it may sound, is actually incredibly touching, and Eleanor’s narrative voice is fresh and unique. Eleanor’s budding friendship with Raymond was a huge strength; I found their interactions to be genuine and rather heartwarming. And Honeyman’s prose is excellent, it’s smart and witty, and Eleanor herself is particularly noteworthy for how unlikable she is (you guys know this is something I love). This isn’t a manic pixie dream girl situation where a protagonist waxes lyrical about how shy and awkward and ‘different’ they are, but the most alternative thing about them is that they have brown hair. Eleanor is authentically an outcast, and the fact that she’s gone her whole life without any friends is a fact which is absolutely supported by her behavior throughout the book.

However. There were certain elements that didn’t work for me: namely, Eleanor’s character development over the span of this novel (which takes place over the course of a few months) to me felt hackneyed and unrealistic. When she and her coworker Raymond help and elderly man who’s fallen over in the street, this sets into motion a chain of events for Eleanor, and suddenly she finds herself in unprecedented social situations: going to bars and parties and other people’s houses. I think the problem for me is that there’s an emotionally manipulative undercurrent here – it’s constantly shoved in the reader’s faces how alien these experiences are to Eleanor, which for me at least left little room for my own emotional reaction, when I was being told exactly what to think. I don’t necessarily object to this novel’s treatment of trauma, but I do think it was somewhat lazy the way every single one of Eleanor’s idiosyncrasies were narratively pardoned by this traumatic event in her past, and how, with the introduction of Raymond into her life, she’s not only willing to quickly uproot so many of her routines which had been firmly in place for years as coping mechanisms, but also confront her past in a way she never had before. It was just too much too soon.

For the most part I enjoyed the humor in this novel, but there were so many moments which felt like they were being played for cheap laughs and didn’t ring true for me. I get that Eleanor has had a very difficult and unconventional life, but am I really supposed to believe that a thirty-year-old woman who’s lived her entire life in the UK doesn’t know what McDonald’s is, or refuses to give her name to a Starbucks employee because she thinks it’s a breach of her privacy, or doesn’t recognize a high-five? There were a lot of moments like this which I felt sort of compromised the realism of Eleanor’s character, which is a shame, as she is someone that I believe a lot of readers will be able to relate to.

Who knows what I’m trying to say. I liked this and I didn’t. I get the hype and I don’t. Maybe I read this at the wrong time, or maybe I’m just the wrong reader for it. Who knows. I’m being critical, because I didn’t love this book, but I actually did enjoy reading it and got through it rather quickly. I’ve just got too many nagging criticisms, and I don’t think this will stay with me in any sort of significant way.

book review: This House is Haunted by John Boyne

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THIS HOUSE IS HAUNTED by John Boyne
★★★★☆
Other Press, 2013

 

This House is Haunted is essentially a love letter to Victorian and Gothic literature – it’s like if you put The Turn of the ScrewJane Eyre, and the complete works of Charles Dickens into a blender, with an occasionally tongue in cheek contemporary spin. It’s also a reminder of why John Boyne is one of my favorite authors; there’s such a compulsively readable quality to his prose, where it’s witty and compelling and tense all at once.

I feel like a very common pitfall of the ghost story horror genre is phenomenal buildup to a sort of anticlimactic conclusion, and I’m sorry to say that this isn’t really an exception. This is filled to the brim with delightful ghost story tropes that fans of this genre will adore (a spooky Gothic mansion, creepy children, a standoffish caretaker, a harrowing family history), and I loved the experience of reading this novel, but as we got closer to the end, I became more confident that I was going to be disappointed, and sure enough, the climactic scene and denouement left me pretty cold. There’s also an entire element of the resolution that didn’t totally work for me (the presence and identity of the second spirit I thought took away a lot of the tension).

But, all that said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this book. I loved the way Boyne played into certain familiar tropes while subverting others. I loved our heroine Eliza, who’s both vulnerable and strong-willed. And, to give credit where it’s due, creating a compelling ghost story as a contemporary author is hard. How on earth do you write a conclusion that’s fresh, devoid of cliches, and appropriately scary for your modern reader? I still haven’t found a ghost story that totally works for me in this regard, so I’ll have to keep looking. But for its wonderful buildup, vivid characters, and clever prose, I’m rounding up my 3.5 stars.

book review: Sight by Jessie Greengrass

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SIGHT by Jessie Greengrass
★★★☆☆
Hogarth Press, August 21, 2018

Sight is an ambitious and introspective novel in which our unnamed narrator recounts her experience with new motherhood, while at the same time coming to terms with the death of her own mother and grandmother. To say that I have conflicting feelings about this novel would be an understatement; it’s like every singular element of this novel draws two completely contradictory reactions from me. I both admire it and find it insufferable at the exact same time.

Let’s start with the prose, which is what everyone is going to be talking about when they talk about Sight, and rightfully so. It feels like Jessie Greengrass’s sentences go on for days, each one carefully crafted to show very evident technical skill. Some of these sentences are striking, with poignant, meaningful commentary on the human condition:

“I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure–kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused. I can’t have both.”

Some, not so much:

“All morning, caught up in the business of appointments, I had forgotten to feel sick, but now it returned, the constant queasy ostinato over which rose exhaustion’s disharmonious cadence, a progression paused before the point of resolution, aching forwards.”

I mean, ‘I had morning sickness’ would have sufficed, but okay.

After a while of immersing yourself in this prose, what first feels lush and fresh begins to feel methodical and calculated – even the variances of syntax have a very distinct rhythm to them. At times I would get lulled into it, and at others, it would feel like it was written by a particularly verbose robot. The interesting thing about Sight is that while it endeavors to reflect on the human condition, it does so in such a measured way it’s almost as if it’s devoid of all humanity. This is a book and a character that wants to be able to reduce the human experience to a series of elements which can be scientifically categorized, made evident by the heavy integration of medical history into the narrative.

That brings me to my next point, which is that Sight is very light on the narrative. This entire book is driven by the narrator’s fixation on her relationship with her mother, on whether or not she wants to have a child, on her ownership of her own body – and while I’d take character-driven novels over plot-driven novels any day, I hesitate to even call this character-driven, because by the end of it, we still know hardly anything about this person. For all the navel-gazing in this novel, we don’t even know where this character works. Does she even have a job? No, this isn’t the point, but it also makes it harder to fully immerse yourself in this character’s world.

There’s another line, “but the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment” which I think not only sums up this character’s introspective journey, but also, for me sort of characterizes the book as a whole. This is a book which dives into themes which I ordinarily find interesting – how well can we truly know other people, how well can we know ourselves – and examines them so thoroughly, it leaves almost no room for the reader to actively engage. I feel like this is one of those novels which attempts to ask questions of its readers without being particularly interested in their answers, because you can find all of the answers in its pages. I mean, maybe that’s not even a bad thing. It just doesn’t get me particularly excited.

I admire the technical skill that went into this novel, but it ultimately didn’t leave as strong of an impression on me as I had hoped it would. But there’s a lot of thoughtful commentary in these pages, and it’s worth a read if you like your books heavy on the philosophy.

Thank you to Netgalley, Hogarth Press, and Jessie Greengrass for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

Women’s Prize 2018 Shortlist Reaction

The shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced today, and we have the following:

I didn’t post my shortlist prediction on my blog, but on Twitter I guessed the following: Sight, When I Hit You, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Elmet, Home Fire, and Sing, Unburied, Sing, so I got 4/6!  I’m really gutted that Elmet didn’t make the cut – I think it’s an extraordinary novel that deserves the recognition.

Of the shortlist, I’ve read 3 so far: Sight, Home Fire, and Sing, Unburied, Sing.  My thoughts can be summed up briefly:

Sight: An incredibly ambitious novel that I wanted to love more than I ultimately did.  I love all things introspective, but this at times got a bit solipsistic for my tastes.  Full review to come later today, hopefully.

Home Fire: A brilliant retelling of Antigone that amplifies themes present in the original play, and repurposes them for a host of Muslim characters living in the UK in the present day.  I really enjoyed this.  And got into a 10-hour argument about it on Goodreads yesterday.  Full review here.

Sing, Unburied, Sing: I wanted to love this, not least of all because Jesmyn Ward is a professor at my alma mater.  But I did not.  Though I agree with all of this novel’s messages, I felt that they were presented in an extremely heavy-handed way which didn’t leave much room for the reader to engage intellectually or emotionally.  Full review here.

The only other longlisted book that I’ve read which I haven’t mentioned here is See What I Have Done, and I am overjoyed to see that it didn’t make the shortlist, to say the least.

Of the shortlisted books I haven’t read, I’m most looking forward to When I Hit You.  I’ve heard nothing but good things.  I ordered it last week so it should arrive any day now.  I’m sort of on the fence about reading The Idiot and The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock – I hadn’t initially been planning on reading either of them, but since I’ll soon have read the majority of the shortlist, I almost feel like I might as well…

I know it’s too soon to predict a winner as I haven’t even read the full shortlist, but my impression right now is that it’s 50/50 between Sight and When I Hit You.

What do you guys think of the shortlist?  How many of these have you read?  Who do you think is going to win?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

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HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie
★★★★☆
Riverhead Books, 2017

 

I don’t know why I’d been under the impression that Home Fire was going to be a kind of loose, ‘blink and you miss it’ retelling of Antigone, but I’m almost glad that that had been my expectation, because the reality of this book completely caught me off guard. And I loved it. In this novel Kamila Shamsie gives us a fearless adaptation set in present-day London, following two Muslim families both grappling with family legacy and national identity.

I hesitate to say that you won’t get anything out of this book if you aren’t familiar with Antigone, but just in terms of my own experience, my reading of it was almost entirely informed by the parallels. Just consider that this reads more like a Greek tragedy than it does a contemporary novel – not in terms of prose quality, certainly, but in terms of themes and narrative structure.

There is nothing subtle about the way in which Shamsie riffs off Sophocles, but the hidden depths in Home Fire makes it a rewarding and necessary retelling, as does Shamsie’s choice to reframe the story around an all-Muslim host of characters. The main theme at the heart of Antigone – measuring the power of the individual against the power of a corrupt state – is also the main theme of Home Fire. But it’s complicated here by the fact that the protagonists and antagonists alike are all a part of the same minority group; all striving to live as best they can in a society which continues to alienate and dehumanize them.

The main criticism which I’ve seen leveled against this book – that its characters are flat – is valid, and I agree to an extent, but I also find myself forgiving this more here than I might in another novel. The characters are ‘flat’ as such because they’re deliberately constructed archetypes, and this is where I’m wondering if this would be a less rewarding reading experience for those not already familiar with the original story and characters. The Creon figure here I thought was particularly fascinating for the way Shamsie subverted certain elements of his narrative.

Anyway, I thought this novel was stimulating; the way in which Shamsie uses a classical narrative to give voice to a minority group is one of the best reasons I can think of to adapt a story that’s already been told to death. Home Fire is topical and classical all at once, and an engaging, dramatic tragedy from start to finish.

book review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO by Taylor Jenkins Reid
★★★★★
Atria Books, 2017

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is the most wonderfully immersive book I could have chosen to read over a weekend when I desperately needed an escape from reality. I hadn’t really heard much about the plot of this book going into it, and honestly, that’s how I’d recommend approaching it if at all possible, because it just sweeps you up into such a compelling and unexpected tale from the very first page.

The characters in this book are all brilliant and well-crafted, none more so than Evelyn, our ruthless and at times unlikable protagonist. If you’re familiar with my tastes, you’ll know that I absolutely adore antiheroines when well written, and Evelyn is so vibrant and multifaceted she practically jumps off the page. Though it’s only been a few days since I’ve finished this, I can already tell that Evelyn is going to be utterly unforgettable. But Evelyn didn’t entirely steal the show away from this book’s host of intriguing supporting characters – each one of them was so three-dimensional it was easy to forget this story is entirely fictional.

There were several elements that ended up being hugely pleasant surprises – the inclusion of several LGBT+ characters being the main one (I won’t say too much more here so I don’t spoil anything, but, suffice to say this book is not half as heterosexual as its title would imply). What also surprised me was how invested I became in this story. I flew through this 400-page long book in only 2 days – I couldn’t put it down and I was rewarded with a conclusion so beautiful and bittersweet it brought me to tears.

Everyone should read this book. I realize I’ve said absolutely nothing about the actual plot here, but this is a ‘take my word for it’ type situation if I ever saw one.