Posted on December 11, 2019 under Books
In November, I read 11 books, bringing my count up to 109! I don’t think I will quite hit 120 by the end of December, but obviously I’ve done very well this year.
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
A retelling of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe, this novel takes place in Inverness, Scotland and focuses on the tense relationship between sisters Anthea (a scattered, unhappy idealist) and Imogen (an ambitious people-pleaser). Imogen has helped Anthea get a job at a local PR firm, but Anthea embarrasses Imogen at work by being uninterested and absent. When a local vandal with a message targets their office, Anthea ends up starting a relationship with this charming, non-binary activist, which Imogen struggles to accept. I think Smith’s writing is lovely and lyrical and I enjoy the feminist message of the book. In fact, I can’t find anything specific to criticize about this book, yet I just did not particularly connect to it. I feel the same way about Smith’s Autumn, which I reviewed positively in September – though I do think it’s an objectively good book that most people will enjoy, there is something about Smith’s writing that I think is simply not for me. But if this sounds interesting, by all means check it out.
Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson
Another modern retelling, this one (obviously) of Frankenstein. This one is a lot more complex than Girl Meets Boy, because Winterson takes us back to 1800s Italy with her take on the events that led to the writing of Frankenstein while also providing us with a modern story. The main story takes place in the contemporary US/UK and focuses on a young transgender doctor named Ry Shelley and their affair with Victor Stein, a leading AI researcher. Winterson grapples with gender, the proliferation of sex robots, and bodiless consciousness while also writing some very lush scenes in the historical portions of the novel. I love Jeanette Winterson and frequently find her work moving in a way that I can’t quite describe, but this one missed the mark for me. There was a lot going on and all the ideas prevented character and plot development. This one reminded me a lot of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, with the exploration of sex robots and the satirical edge that felt cheap and unaccomplished.
Mr. Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo
Barry Walker, originally from Antigua, is a successful and wealthy real estate developer in London. At age seventy-four, he loves his adult daughters, struggles to bond with his teenage grandson, and has a lot of marital issues with his wife… because he is secretly gay, and has been in a committed relationship with his best friend Morris for sixty years. Barry’s wife, Carmel, has no idea, and though he has promised Morris he will leave her and live as an out gay man, the prospect terrifies him. Barry is a believable, flawed, fantastic character – self-assured yet insecure, outwardly sexist yet tender towards many women in his life. The cultural and religious forces that keep him closeted are vividly rendered, and I felt deeply sympathetic towards his struggles. This book is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, with a very satisfying ending. Bernardine Evaristo knocks it out of the park again! I can’t wait to check out more of her work.
Cherry by Nico Walker
Walker’s backstory is fascinating: a former medic in Iraq who returned to the US to become a bank robber to support the heroin addiction he developed to numb his PTSD, he wrote this novel from prison. (He is scheduled for release in about a year.) The novel is about a young medic in Iraq who returns to the US to become a bank robber to support the heroin addiction he develops to numb his PTSD. Imaginative! This is clearly not the work of an accomplished writer, which does lend the narrator an authentic voice. While I sympathized with his trauma, addiction, and desperation, I found the misogyny in the book hard to stomach. I think I wanted this to be a more pointed critique of the military industrial complex and the way governments and big pharma manufactured the opioid crisis, but it stopped short of that. I think a lot of people would like this, but I really didn’t enjoy the reading experience and I found myself wishing that Walker had just written a memoir.
Dark Days by James Baldwin
A Penguin Minis collection of three of Baldwin’s essays. He is simply an incomparable writer – clear, accomplished, and incisive beyond belief. I want to read more of his fiction and nonfiction, because everything of his I’ve read has been excellent.
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
A transgender researcher named Dr. Voth finds a manuscript that suggests new information about British folk heroes Jack Sheppard – a legendary thief and jailbreaker – and his lover Edgeworth Bess. Jack, it seems, is a trans man, while Bess is of South Asian origin. The novel consists of the historical manuscript mediated through Dr. Voth’s increasingly long and personal footnotes. This layered mediation of the past through the present is interesting. Rosenberg writes successfully about the euphoria of recognition, and this work is clearly a self-conscious intervention in the erasing tendencies of history. The use of anachronism was interesting and helped normalize the existence of trans/gender-nonconforming people in this historical context. There is something a bit self-congratulatory about it, and a lot of that has to do with the footnotes. I have yet to encounter a book that makes extensive use of footnotes as a quirky narrative feature that doesn’t feel at least a little bit smug. I mean, the footnotes at least made sense in terms of the narrative framing, and the fact that they took me out of the historical manuscript helped create that sense of the past and present connecting. That is to say, I get why they were used. It’s just not a device that appeals to me. I think there’s also a lot to say about applying modern ideas of gender and sexuality to the past – it’s a dangerous game! I think this is a cool novel that successfully grapples with many interesting concepts – but I don’t know if I actually enjoyed reading it.
Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue
This book pretty much does what it says on the tin, tracing different tropes of lesbian love throughout the history of (Western) literature. It’s a very cool and engaging history with some surprising examples. This was obviously a massive undertaking so I’m not surprised that Donoghue wasn’t able to explore non-Western literary traditions, but I would love to see some work done in that area as well. There also aren’t a lot of recent (i.e. twenty-first century) examples, I assume because these days lesbians are actually allowed to exist explicitly and not just subtextually. Donoghue’s academic background is clear, though this is an accessible popular text. This is an important work in making visible the histories that have been hidden from us.
Benefits by Zoë Fairbairns
This novel is unmistakably a product of 1970s second-wave feminism, for better and for worse. It’s a fascinating speculative look at how austerity programmes can be weaponized against women, and how men and women are unevenly affected by class issues. In the mid-1970s, a religious right wing British government cuts all public benefits except for one – the Benefit given to mothers. At the same time, journalist Lynn is trying to decide if she should have a baby while forming friendships with a group of feminists who live communally in an abandoned tower. As the novel takes us through the early-aughts, we see a dystopia where austerity is used to control women’s reproduction and real coffee is almost impossible to find. It’s possible to see a lot of the present in this fictionalized future.
Given that feminist dystopia seems to be having a moment, with about a book a second being compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, I am rather surprised that this novel isn’t more widely-read and considered a classic of the genre. (I don’t think it’s even in print anymore – I had a hard time tracking it down!) It’s true that this particular imaginary world doesn’t really pay attention to the ways government policies might affect women of colour differently (although it is important to note that the cast of characters is not entirely white, and WoC play pivotal roles in the narrative), and there are some descriptions of skin colour that are a little fetishistic. But the attention to class and sexuality is impressive. Like The Handmaid’s Tale (come on, the comparison is inevitable), the dystopia of this novel is based on reproductive control of women – but in a very different way. I’ve never seen a dystopia pay such attention to bureaucratic structures. A very interesting novel – and one that still seems relevant and prescient though we’ve now lived through the decades it depicts.
Therapy by Stephen Grosz
This mini volume is made up of touching, thoughtful anecdotes about Grosz’s time as a psychoanalyst. I felt that some of these stories ended a bit too abruptly, but Grosz’s writing is fascinating, humane, and moving. A nice little book to read in an afternoon.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
This was better-written and -conceived than a lot of modern feminist dystopias (and I do use that term loosely, because these days it seems more like a marketing term than an indication of political engagement.) The multiple character perspectives were juggled well, though inevitably some characters are more interesting than others. Margaret Atwood’s influence is clear here, both in terms of generic conventions and the manifestation of the cult. (While I’m not a huge fan of Atwood’s MaddAddam series, the way she invokes the religious group is very well-done.) The writing wasn’t incredible, but it also didn’t make me cringe. Personally, I think that the “speculation” in speculative fiction needs to be realistic and based on reality. The premise here – adolescent girls developing electric power – is more of a sci fi/fantasy concept that doesn’t really tell us anything about current social orders. I’m also not sure what I think about this book’s conclusions on power and gender roles. Physical power = political power? Physical power = cruelty? Women are only oppressed because we aren’t strong? The message was unclear, and, like a lot of modern “feminist dystopias”, pretty much apolitical. It didn’t seem to really say anything about society other than point out uneven power relations and ask “What if this asymmetry were reversed?” For me, a truly radical idea would be the abolition of gender hierarchies, not a reversal. But I’m probably asking too much of a mass-produced novel.
A Small Gathering of Bones by Patricia Powell
A relatively early work in the genre of AIDS fiction, this intriguing novella is set in late 1970s Jamaica. We follow a closeted couple – Dale and Nevin – and their friend Ian, who is becoming increasingly afflicted by a mysterious illness. The use of language here is very interesting – the words “gay”, “HIV”, and “AIDS” never grace the page, mirroring the repression of these characters. This is not an easy book to read – packed into its 137 pages is an unflinching look at the ways homophobia can manifest, including parental disownment and violence. Dale and Nevin’s relationship disintegrates painfully, mirroring the progression of Ian’s illness.
I think the question of the narrative voice is important here; we see the story from Dale’s perspective, meaning we never get a truly intimate look at Ian’s illness. A lot of AIDS literature denies us access to those who are ill, which creates a somewhat troubling position for the audience. I also noticed a level of pathologization of so-called “risky” behaviour, a discourse which has frequently been used to blame people with AIDS for their illness. The end of the novella also has uncomfortable implications. This book is old as I am, and written when the AIDS epidemic was still fairly new – it wasn’t until 1996 that HIV/AIDS began to decline, mostly due to treatment breakthroughs – and our understanding of the disease and the language we use to discuss it has evolved since then. That may explain certain things, but I still find myself unsettled! Though I believe this book was written with good intentions, and though it is a rich, dense, accomplished work of writing, I am uncomfortable with some of its political implications as it at once challenges and reifies a complex set of social norms.
I have found myself wondering about the future of this blog since I’m no longer particularly interested in writing about beauty products (as I’m sure you’ve noticed). I’ve started a bookstagram account which I encourage you to follow, as I imagine I’ll be shifting my reviews over there and probably just leaving this blog up for posterity and maybe the occasional post. My life has changed a lot in the five years since I started this blog, and now that I’m a PhD student I have to prioritize my time carefully. Writing this blog used to be a fun hobby, but it’s not something that brings me a lot of enjoyment these days. I’ve been sharing my thoughts online in some form or another for over half my life, so that won’t stop – I just find myself gravitating to and away from different platforms and formats over time. I want to leave myself the possibility of long-form blogging, but I also don’t want to commit myself to anything. I think I’ll do some year-end wrap-up posts as normal, and then… who knows!
Posted on November 03, 2019 under Books
I didn’t quite make it to 100 books by the end of the month, but I read 8 for a total of 98, so I’m just a few days away from reaching that elusive number. Here’s what I read in October.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
My only five-star read this month, and a worthy winner of the Booker! (We will not talk about the tie shenanigans, because it is too frustrating.) Evaristo explores the lives of twelve British womxn – most of whom are Black or biracial – with each narrative loosely pivoting around a play written by the lesbian socialist Amma. This novel is simply delightful: clever, vibrant, moving, funny, political, it has it all. With twelve characters, it’s almost a given that some would be more interesting than others, but I found each character compelling and well-developed. This is such a stunning portrayal of the multiplicity of Black British womxnhood. Evaristo’s ability to fully capture the humanity of every character is admirable, and there is a very sensitive and compassionate treatment of LGBTQ+ characters. (Representations of trans and nonbinary people in fiction are so rare – how lovely when they’re done this well.) I yearned to spend more time with some of these characters, and while every perspective was equally interesting and readable, sometimes the shift in POV was a bit sad! Overall, a book whose humour does not betray its depth, with wonderful writing and larger-than-life characters.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
If we were awarding the Booker based on cover alone, this one would have my vote.
As sex worker Tequila Leila lies dying in a dumpster in Istanbul, she looks back at her life: its hardships, its triumphs, and the community of outcasts who brought her joy. An interesting concept, evocative, precise writing, and beautifully-drawn characters combine to create an intense and touching novel. Shafak treats her protagonist with such care. Leila’s humanity is portrayed fully: her troubled childhood, the abuse she endured, her optimism, her loving heart. She is not simply a trope used for the advancement of a plot; she is a full and complete human. So often the murders of sex workers are not taken seriously because they are not seen as fully human. Here, Shafak adamantly subverts this idea, insisting on both Leila’s humanity and the tragedy of her brutal murder. Leila is a valuable, beautiful person, capable of love and being loved; while her family has turned their backs on her, she has a group of loyal, caring friends who mourn her death intensely. In fact, one of the primary virtues of this novel is its portrayal of friendship and chosen family. I only wish we had been privileged enough to see more of Leila’s inner world. This was not my ultimate favourite on the Booker shortlist, but I’m very glad I read it.
A note on the Booker: I ended up leaning towards Ducks, Newburyport as my pick simply because it is such a remarkable achievement in its work on the form of the novel itself. However, I am thrilled Girl, Woman, Other won – I only wish that if there had been a tie both winners would have been equally as worthy. It does seem rather tone-deaf to make the first Black woman to win the prize split it with an established, iconic white writer. (Not to mention the fact that Atwood already has a Booker, for the complex, engaging, and ambitious The Blind Assassin, which is an achievement in every way that The Testaments simply is not.) But there you go.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Fearsome preacher Nathan Price uproots his wife and four daughters from Georgia to the Congo in the late 1950s for a one-year mission trip – but what unfolds ties them to the continent of Africa irrevocably, unravelling their family. This is clearly the work of a skilled writer, and it was very atmospheric. Each of the women’s voices was well-developed and differentiated from the others. Nathan’s need to control his wife and daughters for the sake of their morality cleverly mirrors the colonial justification for invasion and exploitation. Yet there are some inconsistencies and issues of believability with the voices of the young daughters, and one in particular was very one-dimensional. I found the pacing off – slow at first, then a rush through several decades, and then slow to wind down. The latter third of the novel felt aimless and deflated compared to the earlier parts.
I was happy to read a condemnation of Western foreign powers, and the US specifically. But I’m not sure about the framing of Africa as a whole. Yes, the effects of colonialism are horrific and lingering. I don’t think that poverty, famine, and disease should be downplayed. But I wish there had been more exploration of the resilience and strength of postcolonial societies without reducing Africa in general to an object of pity. It’s a fine line to walk – but the portrayal of Africa as abject and nearly lifeless is a form of rhetorical violence. Perhaps that’s to do with the fact that the novel is narrated by five white women whose whiteness and American-ness skews the way Africa is presented. I think there could have been a stronger, more focused historical critique of (neo)colonialism – as it stands, this is pretty one-dimensional, with “Europe and the US are terrible” as the thesis. (I don’t mean to sound like an apologist for colonial powers – those implicated in colonialism should be held responsible. But this isn’t exactly a nuanced take. Perhaps the intended audience isn’t well-versed in colonialism, though.) I think, overall, this is a book that shows quite a lot of skill, and while it was immersive and evocative, it wasn’t really for me.
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Yes, I just read this earlier in the year, but I had to re-read it for class and enjoyed it even more the second time. There are many layers to this narrative which are a joy to tease out. I’m not counting this twice since I did already read it this year, but I wanted to mention it again because I do think it’s a fantastic post-heritage novel and one of the best explorations of all that was happening in 1980s Britain.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
In the early 1990s, Pablo Escobar is terrorizing Colombia and capturing the imagination of nine-year-old Chula. Chula, her parents, and her older sister Cassandra live in relative wealth in Bogotà, while their maid, thirteen-year-old Petrona, comes from the slums of the city. Chula and Petrona develop a bond, and as the political situation in Colombia worsens, both girls get drawn into darkness. A well-developed sociopolitical atmosphere is betrayed by underdeveloped or unbelievable characters. I do find it difficult to connect with child narrators in general, especially because they tend to suffer from an unbelievable sophistication of thought. Chula was no exception here. Petrona, though pivotal to the plot, wasn’t quite as developed as I would have liked her to be. I found her positioning fascinating, but her inner life was lacking: things simply happened to her. There were some questionable representations here, too, which I won’t get into for the sake of spoilers. An interesting debut, but not quite everything I wanted it to be.
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
Taddeo’s nonfiction account of the sex lives of three women is rather captivating, though not without major flaws. Maggie had a sexual relationship with her high school English teacher, and when she pressed charges, he was found not guilty and Maggie was shunned in her small North Dakota town. Lina, lacking intimacy from her husband, turns to her high school boyfriend for sexual fulfilment, although he clearly doesn’t have romantic feelings for her. And Sloane sleeps with men and women her husband picks out for her while he watches. Ultimately this is a limited representation of female sexuality. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but there is some rather grand framing of the book as an exploration of female desire and the implication that there are universal truths here. Well, not really. This is a book about white women who primarily have sex with men. (That’s not to erase Sloane’s bisexuality, but her sexuality revolves around her husband. So much of the insights in this book simply do not apply to lesbians, and it feels a bit alienating when this is framed as illuminating the universal experiences of female sexuality.) It’s also pretty heavy on the description and not so much on the analysis, and while the prose is quite compelling in its literary style, I’m left feeling like this is certainly not as deep as it purports to be. (I also did find some parts of it a bit try-hard and overwritten.) There’s a bizarre lack of positionality here; Taddeo never signals exactly how she is gathering information, and seems to try to erase her presence. It’s hard to know what is recollection from years earlier and what is happening more contemporarily. Is she present for Maggie’s court proceedings? Does she attend the women’s group with Lina? Does the drama with Sloane unfold during Taddeo’s research, or before?
There’s a bit of unevenness, too, with the different stories. Sloane’s sections were the least developed and the sparsest overall, while Maggie’s interested me the most. In fact, I think the book particularly shone in the sections on Maggie, and I almost wish Taddeo had just written a book about her. Her intervention in this story of sexual abuse, uneven power dynamics, and systemic failure is compassionate and necessary. In general, I appreciated that Taddeo took a completely non-judgmental tone and attempted to understand sexual choices that we may see as unethical or deviant. I think there is quite a generous impulse here. There were certain sentences that made me pause – for example, the idea that teenage girls are “unpopulated” is both untrue (man, teenage girls have some complicated inner lives) and rather dangerous in its implications. Women, even young women, are not empty vessels waiting to be filled up. There was also a line about how Sloane “gave herself an eating disorder”, which… yeah. I think there was an interesting throughline of the codependency of these women on the men in their lives and the impulse – but inability – to define their sexualities on their own terms.
This book is compulsively readable and quite compassionate, but I don’t think it’s nearly as intelligent as it wants us to think.
Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen
In 1957 Communist China, one family attempts to escape to Hong Kong. When the mother is forced to leave one child behind as proof that the family will return, she makes a devastating choice. While I did find the historical and political climate well-developed and interesting, something about this failed to affect me very deeply. This is another one where the child protagonist seems like a stretch. In general, the characters never quite seemed real to me, and the narrative lacks complexity. It’s very goal-oriented, without any real subplots. It’s a fine read, but there was nothing about that impressed me technically or that I think will stay with me for very long. I think this would be a good read for teenagers looking to read fiction about other cultural and historical contexts, but I’m looking for something a little more stimulating and rigourous.
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
Sixty-four-year-old Joan Castleman accompanies her husband Joe to Helsinki, where he will accept a prestigious literary award. On the plane, she decides to leave him, and over the course of a few days in Helsinki, Joan reflects on their long marriage and the marginalization of her own literary ambitions. There is something quite enjoyable about this incisive, unflinching novel despite its flaws. The chief problem is that I figured out the much-hyped twist within the first quarter of the book. While Wolitzer’s writing is generally strong, there were some sections that felt awkward and forced, and I never quite shed the consciousness that I was Reading the Work of a Serious Writer. In terms of the theme of gender dynamics within heterosexual relationships and women compromising their desires and creative and intellectual potentials for men, it’s been done before and done better. (The third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series is like… the absolute best for this. The series as a whole does this brilliantly, but the third shines particularly.) But the sheer force and anger of Joan’s narration, the clarity with which she discusses these themes, is compelling, and ultimately this is a quick, enjoyable, well-crafted read. The ending was equal parts frustrating and satisfying, and pitch-perfect, I thought.
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews
A lot of great covers this month!
I now only have one Toews novel left to read! I think she writes human loneliness so beautifully, the impulse to reach out to strangers and loved ones, the poignancy of simple acts of kindness. Her characters are both fragile and resilient, funny and serious. In Irma Voth, we follow the rebellious titular Irma, a nineteen-year-old who has been semi-exiled from her conservative Mexican Mennonite colony after marrying a young Mexican man. When her husband, Jorge, abruptly leaves her, Irma seeks human connection and finds it working as a translator on the set of an independent film about Mennonites made by a Mexican director. This creates tension within Irma’s insular community and causes her father to sever ties with her. Meanwhile, her younger sister Aggie is following in Irma’s iconoclastic footsteps, and Irma must try to protect her while simultaneously missing her mother, dead older sister, and husband. Having read All My Puny Sorrows this year, I will say that this is not Toews at her absolute best – but it’s still a gripping and emotionally resonant book. There is something so specific about Toews’ writing: it is simple, it breaks your heart with absolute clarity, and it uplifts. Truly one of the finest Canadian writers.
Once again, there were quite a lot of books that fell in the middle for me this month – though no complete duds. I will be back next month to report on book 100 and beyond!
Posted on October 01, 2019 under Books
Another month has come and gone, with nine books read for a total of 90 in 2019. Yay! This month, amongst others, I read four Booker nominees. (I could have finished all six, but I’m waiting on two that aren’t yet out in Canada to arrive from the UK. They’re supposed to get here this week, which will keep me on track to finish the shortlist by the winner announcement on October 14.)
Here’s what I read in September.
Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope
The peak of this book is its cover.
After committing a horrible crime, twenty-six-year-old drug addict Adam leaves New York City for an Israeli kibbutz with the mission of returning his late grandfather’s brooch to its rightful owner. Interesting portrayals of secular Jewish cultural traditions and the exploration of atrocity without atonement and closure ultimately give way to lazy stereotypes and shallow political engagement. Misogyny permeates the portrayal of a young Belarusian kibbutznik; mental illness and addiction are pathologized and treated unrealistically; racism expressed against Palestinians is never challenged by the text; indeed, there is a complete refusal to consider the importance of Palestinian sovereignty. I objected strongly to the politics of this novel, and I found its premise overdone and banal.
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
Nigerian chicken farmer Chinonso falls in love with the wealthy, educated Ndali after rescuing her from suicide. Her family objects to their union, and Chinonso decides to pursue an education in Cyprus in order to win their favour. But when he arrives in Cyprus after selling his modest assets, he realizes that he has been scammed. The story is narrated by Chinonso’s chi, or guardian spirit, and the incorporation of dense Igbo cosmology into the narrative and prose is wonderful. The story is socially-relevant, tackling themes of racism, (post)colonialism, classism, diaspora, and immigration. It’s an ambitious novel with a lot to say, and while I found a lot to like about it, it stopped quite short of perfection for me. Ndali, the driving force behind the narrative progression, is tragically underdeveloped; there is a lot of foreshadowing through heavy-handed metaphor; the pacing felt off. This one is absolutely brimming with potential, and it’s clearly the work of a talented, accomplished author. It just doesn’t quite get there.
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
Rushdie confronts the opioid crisis and modern America through a satirical, absurdist retelling of Don Quixote. In less capable hands, the abundance of big ideas in this novel would have suffered from a lack of synthesis. But Rushdie manages a strong indictment of Big Pharma’s complicity in the opioid epidemic, a touching portrayal of fractured family dynamics, an investigation of racism as part of the American (and British) experience, and a lot of metafictional musing. This book seems to insist that there is something rotten at the core of American culture. This is a novel that is certainly smug and self-impressed at times, but it satisfyingly and thoroughly works through a set of enormous, complex, difficult, interrelated ideas.
Autumn by Ali Smith
Written and set in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016, Ali Smith uses the relationship between thirty-two-year-old precariously-employed art history lecturer Elisabeth and her centenarian former neighbour Daniel as a way of working through sociopolitical uncertainty. As Daniel lays dying, Elisabeth visits him weekly, constantly returning to memories of their touching (though unconventional) relationship as a form of escapism in frustrating and scary times. Smith’s poetic prose moves quickly, and I found myself having to force myself to slow down and linger in the poignant moments she creates. She evocatively captures the atmosphere of a fractured nation as well as the longing to return a simpler past. An interesting novel that is much more complex than it appears on the surface.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Set fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel reads to me as a clear opportunistic attempt to tie the Hulu series and the novel more closely together while expanding on a creative property that has proven very lucrative. Atwood’s prose is always strong, and the world she has built is well-developed, believable, and clever. I remain stuck on the reaction I had when this novel was first announced: that it is extraneous. Nothing in The Handmaid’s Tale indicates that it’s anything but a standalone novel, and if it had been conceived of as the first in a series surely that sequel would have arrived sometime prior to thirty-four years after its publication. But then I have to ask myself it that matters in evaluating its merits.
The narrative framing of verbal testimony is not believable. People do not speak the way Atwood has written them, especially not when giving testimony in court. Much of the novel was predictable; I saw every major twist coming, which is disappointing to say the least. The theme of women’s complicity in their own oppression is interesting, but that thought was not pushed far enough. Can Aunt Lydia be sympathetic if she has also suffered? Can she atone? It’s not that I object to the idea that even people who commit acts of extreme evil are people, with complicated histories and inner lives. (Indeed, villains generally shouldn’t be presented as caricatures.) I just struggle to find any sympathy towards someone who is directly responsible for mass sexual violations of women, as well as torture and death on a large scale. This is especially true when we remember that Gilead is an explicitly white supremacist society, as depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale – an element that the television show does not adopt and which The Testaments certainly glosses over. (In this novel, there doesn’t appear to be any sense of racial difference.) What a missed opportunity for a timely and relevant discussion of the white woman’s perpetuation of racism, the idea that white women will frequently align ourselves politically with whiteness over womanhood. Current right-wing populism adopts overt white supremacy as a political strategy; a novel written in the current era, which is clearly trying to reconfigure the original story of The Handmaid’s Tale to make sense of contemporary society (and to fit into the modern storyworld of the show), should acknowledge this. That said, Atwood is probably not the person to incorporate a nuanced critique of white supremacy into anything she writes, given that she… hasn’t ever broached that topic.
I have major issues with the end which I can’t really articulate here without spoiling it, but safe to say it undermines the reality of oppressive regimes as well as the atmosphere of the original text. Much of the power in The Handmaid’s Tale was its ambiguity, its refusal to give us answers. It was the story of one woman who lacked agency and knowledge, the story of minuscule modes of resistance. We didn’t have answers about where Offred ended up; we didn’t even know her name. While The Testaments leaves something to the imagination, it is richer in information and answers enough questions (either explicitly or through implication and links to the television show) that it diminishes the power of the original text. Answers are not always possible, necessary, or desirable. In the case of The Testaments, they are a liability.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
A fascinating novel that confronts and challenges normative modes of novel consumption, both intellectually and physically. (It’s hard to hold such a large book! It’s hard to know when to stop reading!) Ellmann holds nothing back in her exploration of modern American culture, weaving in ideas of grief, domesticity, the instability and polarization of contemporary America, environmental disaster, gun violence, nostalgia, motherhood, family… The one-sentence, stream-of-consciousness framing, rather than being gimmicky, is a strangely accurate literary approximation of human thought processes, making use of association, digression, and non-linear patterns of thought. There’s a lot of attention paid to the domestic space – as a site of repression, comfort, and even terror. The narrator’s interest in film is fascinating – it can be read as a desire to inject glamour and structured narrative into a repetitive, banal existence. When considering film’s long association with the public domain, it’s an interesting contrast with the domestic setting of the novel. The narrator also has a deep nostalgia for American cultural texts of the past, constantly invoking old Hollywood films and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Here is a longing to return to perceived simpler times, especially in the face of the complexities and anxieties of Trump’s America. (This also reflects the narrator’s constant return to her painful past, particularly to the unresolved loss of her mother.) Our nostalgic, innocent, loving, family-oriented narrator represents a moral compass that has largely been lost. This is a thoroughly modern novel that meticulously captures an era of American (and global) history. It’s a difficult text, but well worth the time, effort, and attention it demands.
Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury by Sigrid Nunez
A fictional biography of the (real) pet marmoset of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Sigrid Nunez reconstructs early twentieth century literary England with immense care and attention to detail. Nunez beautifully articulates the importance of pets in the lives of those who love them. (This is a fascinating theme that she also explores in 2018’s The Friend.) She brings the Woolfs to life, too, tenderly portraying the difficulties and joys of their marriage. Yet there seems to be something in Nunez’s writing that I simply cannot fully connect with. She has a rather spare writing style, and I wonder if that might cause me to feel a distance from the compelling topics that she renders with skill.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Nguyen follows up his Pulitzer-winning fiction debut The Sympathizer with a collection of short stories about Vietnamese immigrants in California. It’s a solid collection for the most part, but it doesn’t wow me the way his novel did. Predictably, some stories are better than others; there are a few that are truly touching, even devastating, and some that feel incomplete. One in particular, about a young gay Vietnamese refugee’s sexual awakening in 1970s San Francisco, has a frustrating amount of potential while ultimately displaying only a surface understanding of the emergence and embodiment of young gay identity. The overarching strength of this collection is in its insistence on the multiplicity of experience. The decision to give each protagonist a common heritage and site of displacement is clever: this feels like a relatively small field of humanity, yet Nguyen brilliantly portrays the diversity of Vietnamese immigrant life. Centring a perspective that is so frequently peripheral is a political act that I can certainly get behind.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Known for years only as Emily Doe, the sexual assault victim of Brock Turner and the writer of a viral victim impact statement, Chanel Miller has stepped out of the shadows with a statement that cannot be ignored. Equal parts hopeful and angry, Miller’s writing is bold, brave, and unapologetic. She describes what it is like to navigate systems that work to retraumatize victims and uphold rape culture. She beautifully elucidates moments of clarity, pain, and optimism. She is a remarkable person; my admiration for her work is immense. During the trial, Brock Turner’s defense lawyer used the gap in Miller’s memory to attempt to rewrite the story of her rape – but here Miller takes charge of the narrative. It is an unspeakable injustice that a sentence of ninety days in county jail constitutes a relatively good outcome for a sexual assault trial – but the recall of Judge Persky, the change in California’s definition of rape, and the amplification of Miller’s voice prove that justice can manifest itself in many ways. Should Turner still be behind bars? Yes. But we live in a world in which everybody knows that he sexually assaulted an unconscious woman, where tens of millions of people have read her victim impact statement and many more will read her book. Brock Turner is a washed-up swimmer and convicted sex offender; Chanel Miller is a force to be reckoned with, and he could not take away her humanity, her intelligence, her compassion, her strength, her resilience – nor could he dilute the love and support of her family, friends, and strangers from all over the world. There were moments where I felt that the text could have benefited from a bit more editing to tighten up the prose, but Miller’s writing, attitude, and approach are enough to reduce anyone to tears. I am so glad I knew her name and her story, and I hope she continues to use her powerful voice.