Books read: March 2019

Posted on April 06, 2019 under Books

I read 12 books this month, which I’m obviously really happy with. I’ve now read 29 books this year. My goal of 50 is a foregone conclusion, and 100 seems doable, though still a stretch. I’d be happy if I hit the 80 mark. So here’s what I read in March…

His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet

In the mid-19th century, a triple homicide leaves a village in the Scottish highlands reeling. There is no doubt that the murderer is a teenage boy named Roderick Macrae; the central question is rather whether the murders are in any way justifiable. The bulk of the story is Roderick’s (alleged) first-person account of the murders and the climate leading up to them, and there is a rather satisfying use of the unreliable narrator trope. As such, the reader is positioned as the jury, having to decide what to believe based on incomplete, contradictory evidence. There’s a very interesting exploration of poor rural life and the corrupting influence of power; the political climate of the village of Culduie is tense and believable. That said, this book simply isn’t a page turner, and there’s something lacking in the premise. The introduction of the novel positions it at as a work of nonfiction, but how much historical nonfiction simply presents a collection of documents without any sort of authorial mediation? This framing device doesn’t quite work, and it’s not exactly a thrilling novel, but it’s still thought-provoking.

Son by Lois Lowry

This is the last book in Lowry’s The Giver series. It starts by taking us to the community from the original book, where we meet a fourteen-year-old girl named Claire who is chosen to be a “Birthmother”, i.e. an incubator whose child is reassigned to a “perfect” nuclear family. Claire’s medical trauma and her deep attachment to her son are incredibly compelling, but the book moves in a direction that ultimately lost me. A cool premise gives way to what feels like an excuse to tie up all the loose ends of the series. I’m sure this will be a satisfying conclusion for middle grade readers, but as an adult I can’t say it lives up to my memories of The Giver. (I definitely still own my copy of that book!)

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Considered one of the earliest dystopian novels, We portrays an orderly, mathematical society where everything is made of glass. The male protagonist meets a woman who opens his eyes to the oppression they face under their totalitarian authority and becomes obsessed with the idea of a different way of life. George Orwell was very much inspired by We, and while the world of 1984 is more robust, Orwell’s Julia is nowhere near as interesting as Zamyatin’s I-330. It’s hard to evaluate this novel from my standpoint, since the dystopian genre has developed so much in the last 95 years, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a lack of urgency given the situation. The narrator gets away with a lot for a very long time without any real sense of consequence. That said, I can see why this is a classic and it’s a great read for those who are into dystopian fiction.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Three middle-aged women are haunted by their former friend turned traitor, the monstrous Zenia, who stole their husbands, their money, and their happiness. It’s not exactly plot-driven, but I can’t help but find Margaret Atwood’s writing absolutely spellbinding. She writes the ennui and hardship of childhood absolutely brilliantly. (See Cat’s Eye for another example.) This is a retelling of a fairytale, so I think the possibility of the supernatural must be examined. Zenia’s apparent resurrection is an obvious sign that she is something more than human, as is the way she adapts to each women’s vulnerability seamlessly. She’s a shapeshifter, and this makes the novel more compelling than the idea that she is simply motivelessly evil.

When we watched Rosemary’s Baby in a class I took on horror during undergrad, my professor said something that stuck with me: that even if you remove the supernatural and allegorical elements from the film, it’s still terrifying, because it’s about a woman’s complete loss of bodily autonomy. I think the same is true for this book: take Zenia out of the picture, and it’s still bleak and disturbing. It’s a book about women struggling to shed their broken childhoods, whose relationships with men are by and large unhealthy – these things are true regardless of Zenia’s (possibly demonic) influence. This book is certainly a slow burner, but I tend to love Atwood at her wordiest, when she teases apart social and familial relations with terrifying clarity.

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Jess Goldberg, a butch lesbian who comes of age in the Buffalo of the 1960s. As a teenager, Jess begins going to gay bars before the pride movement takes off and suffers tremendously at the hands of the police and other institutions. The complex interplay between gender and sexuality are fully-realized in Jess’s rich inner life. The writing and narrative style lack sophistication and grace, but the heart and authenticity of the story solidify this book’s place as a classic of lesbian fiction.

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

In the 1940s, a group of Oxford students are inexplicably drawn to a young undergraduate named David Sparsholt. The novel unfolds over three generations as Sparsholt and his family maintain their connection with the well-to-do men from the Oxford days. Sparsholt has made a successful career as an engineer, but he is haunted by a scandal which is never fully explained. The bulk of the novel focuses more on his son Jonathan, a hedonistic gay portraitist who struggles to shed the connotations of his name. Hollinghurst writes so well about the British upper class and particularly about interlopers in those circles. There’s a focus on portraiture which implicitly frames the book as a portrait of the potraitist (or perhaps of his disgraced father). There’s also an emphasis on the difficulty of intergenerational communication, or perhaps of communication in general. Yet the social dynamics just didn’t interest me as much as I wanted them to; Hollinghurst’s Man Booker winner The Line of Beauty is simply meatier. (Well, of course, the young gay working class aesthete subsumed into the family of a Conservative MP in the 80s is inherently a more interesting premise.) So much of the action takes place implicitly, yet this book is still 450 pages long. The narrative felt jumpy, and while Hollinghurst’s writing is impeccable, the novel as a whole just wasn’t terribly compelling.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

This book plays with a lot of ideas: about grief, about suicide, about writing and the people who do it, about humanity’s bond with animals. It is so rich in ideas that the further I got into it the greater my sense that this was not really a novel at all, or not primarily a novel. Certainly Nunez takes great liberties with the form of the novel; there is little in the way of narrative (or, indeed, character). The interesting parts are almost exclusively our nameless narrator’s musings on various topics, with gratuitous references to great writers and thinkers as well as contemporary films. The writing is precise, compassionate, and insightful, but I couldn’t help but feel that there was something flimsy about this book. The narrator spends so much time thinking about writing and authorial responsibility that of course the novel itself must be read as a commentary on the genre. I think it is a smart book that works through a lot of interesting ideas with refreshing clarity. But it also purports to be a novel about a woman who adopts the dog left behind in the wake of her close friend’s suicide, and it falls flat there. The friend is unlikeable, perhaps deliberately: an archetypal established older male writer who laments the rise of political correctness. There is no real sense of who he is other than a cranky womanizer. Of course a good novel does more than simply tell a story, but I can’t help but feel that the premise of this novel was conceived as an alibi for what makes it actually interesting, which is not contingent on the narrative at all. A potentially interesting narrative is almost completely sacrificed for some higher intellectual purpose. The premise is incredibly compelling, but there’s no follow-through. I would read this as the novel it purports to be and I would read it if the fictional parts were excised and it was left as nonfiction, an exploration of various ideas that could stand on their own without being propped up by a thin “novel”. But as it stands, it isn’t quite hitting the mark for me as either one of those things.

Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

A little-known Watergate co-conspirator is released from prison and finds himself a high-level executive in a conglomerate that owns nearly every company in the world. From early on in the novel, we know this: then, slowly, the dots are connected. This is one of Vonnegut’s least absurdist works. Instead, it takes a fairly straightforward approach to idea of corporate greed and the importance of labour movements, as well as elucidating Vonnegut’s omnipresent idea that kindness is indispensable. I found the second half of the book incredibly touching, but the first half was a slog in a way Vonnegut’s characteristic style almost precludes. This is one I think I’ll keep returning to in thought, but it’s in the bottom half of my Vonnegut rankings. (And now I only have his last two novels to read!)

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

I think a part of me always knew I wouldn’t like this book, and that’s why I avoided reading it right when it came out. I loved Foer’s first two novels, but I had a suspicion that he would one day turn into the type of male writer we all like to make fun of. Here’s the thing: the story of a loving but dysfunctional family falling apart is not inherently interesting. That’s not to say it can’t be made interesting in the right hands, but as it stands this a story of two flawed but ultimately good people who can’t make their marriage work. They are good parents. They love their children. They just aren’t compatible anymore. And it’s not that interesting! So what does Foer do? He adds a complex geopolitical conflict that could potentially result in the end of Israel! Okay. So now we have the obvious parallel between the destruction of Israel and the destruction of an American Jewish family. But then we have this whole other issue of the literal fictional destruction of Israel while the novel avoids taking an actual political stance beyond the implication that younger Jewish Americans feel less connected to Israel, which is… not exactly a hot take. And the writing itself wasn’t even that good! So, no. I knew it, didn’t I?

The Story of Another Name by Elena Ferrante

It took me some time to get into My Brilliant Friend, and I had the same experience with the second book in the series. But once I get sucked in, boy am I sucked in. Here the dynamics between childhood best friends Lila and Elena deepen as they grow apart and back together in their teen years and early twenties. Lila, at sixteen, has married a wealthy merchant, but she is immediately unhappy in her marriage; meanwhile, Elena continues to throw herself into her studies, though she doesn’t believe that she is anywhere near as smart as Lila. Neighbourhood melodrama abounds as the unpredictable, headstrong Lila does whatever the hell she wants and Elena tries to pick up the pieces. Ferrante has such a skill for picking apart absolutely anything with such unnerving skill and insight. Lila is a tragic character, a symbol for all women whose vast potential for creativity has been stifled by patriarchy. I’m definitely going to continue on with this series; I think it’s so well-written. That said, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something slightly. Perhaps it’s because of the slow pace and standard structure of the novel, but people’s assertions that these books are electrifying, unlike anything else, etc. don’t quite compute for me! They’re very good – but revolutionary? I’m not so sure.

The Age of Sex Crime by Jane Caputi

Written in the 1980s as her PhD dissertation, Caputi’s basic premise is that the rise in serial killings is simply a specialized expression of patriarchy particularly adapted to current social conditions. Positioning Jack the Ripper as the archetypal sex criminal, Caputi argues that these crimes are not aberrations but rather reflections of patriarchal social order. She draws parallels between the current era of sex crime and the witch craze and situates the current climate within technological modernity, paying special attention to nuclear war and the role of still and moving image in proliferating violent misogyny. She also analyses pop culture – books, films, ads – to argue that the cultural obsession with sexually-motivated murder reflects societal norms (rather than that these texts provoke crime). In this way she much more effectively articulates what Alice Bolin skirts around in her 2018 book Dead Girls. (How incredible that Bolin doesn’t even cite Caputi in her shallow, self-indulgent book…) I often find when reading second-wave feminist texts that the conditions they describe are still completely unchanged, which is discouraging to say the least. In fact, the fact that this book is depressing is the only fault I can find in it; it’s sharp, meticulous, and thoroughly convincing.

The Girls by Emma Cline

Maybe a fitting follow-up to Caputi’s book: a fictionalized account of the Manson Family and Tate murders narrated by a lonely fourteen-year-old girl who gets sucked into a cult in late 60s Northern California. The occasional prescient feminist-lite insights are unfortunately bogged down by majorly overworked prose and a lack of immediacy. There is so little tension leading up to the murders, and everything is told rather than shown. The cult leader is apparently charismatic, but I never got that from the text, nor did I feel the escalating tension between the leader and a minor musical celebrity. The worldbuilding is lacking; nothing especially situates this novel in either time or place. Everything feels superficial, an idea that was never fully developed. You’d be better off reading Sharon Tate’s Wikipedia page, honestly.

I’m getting pickier the more I read, so I did feel lukewarm about quite a few in this batch. My favourites were The Robber Bride, The Story of Another Name, and The Age of Sex Crime. I’m slowly pegging away at my to-read list, so maybe there’ll be some gems in there for me to share next month.

Empties: January to March 2019

Posted on March 20, 2019 under Empties

I feel like this round of garbage accumulated very slowly and then very suddenly. I ran out of a bunch of staple products within a few weeks, which made my wallet sad but which was nonetheless satisfying. I note that I have not used up any haircare products over the last three months, but there is a lot of skincare in here.

Body

The Body Shop Coconut Body Butter x2: A very classic Clem move is buying three tubs of Coconut Body Butter at the beginning of winter when The Body Shop is doing 3 for $30 or buy 2 get 1. This is the only body butter I use, because the coconut oil makes it better than all the other ones. I go through it pretty quickly; I’ll probably polish off the third tub within the next month, at which point hopefully the weather will be more conducive to some lighter body creams. Obviously I will repurchase when November rolls around.

The Chemistry Brand Hyaluronic Concentrate: This was better in the fall when I first started using it; by deepest winter it was very necessary to layer it with something heavier. At $30, it’s pretty pricey for a hydrating body gel, especially when you’re me and have dry, scaly legs and arms. I won’t repurchase.

Skincare

La Roche-Posay Respectissime Waterproof Eye Makeup Remover: Look, I tried to cut corners and bought the Marcelle eye makeup remover when I used this up, and I regret it. It is not as good and it irritates my eyes. I will never stray from LRP again.

Biotherm Biosource Total Renew Oil: I love a good oil cleanser. This was a good oil cleanser. It’s also $37 for 200ml. I would rather pay $19 for The Body Shop’s 200ml cleansing oil. (Just kidding, you know I never pay full price for anything at The Body Shop, nor should you.)

Marcelle Ultra Gentle Cleansing Gel: I have been very loyal to this cleanser for a few years now. It’s gentle, it’s effective, and it’s cheap. I now have two of these in my bathroom: one on the counter and one in the shower. That’s how you know it’s very real between us.

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Caring Wash: Another gentle gel cleanser. I liked this a lot, but it’s $22 for 200ml to Marcelle’s $13 for 350ml, hence why Marcelle has replaced it in my shower.

Vichy Idélia Serum: This is leftover gratis from literally two years ago. That’s the way it is when you work in cosmetics. Anyway, this serum felt nice and gave my skin an instant glow, but the plant-based antioxidant ingredients aren’t really worth the high price tag.

NIOD Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Complex: Okay, this product also has a high price tag, but I love it so much. It has ten times as much hyaluronic acid as The Ordinary’s HA + B5, and the texture is far superior. It has made such a difference to my skin this winter – I’ve been only slightly dry, with absolutely no flakey patches. I’m eventually going to investigate if Hylamide’s hyaluronic acid serum is a reasonable middle ground (and at $18 a lot more affordable), but I admit I’ve already cracked into a new bottle of MMHC.

The Ordinary 100% Plant-Based Squalane: A nice lightweight facial oil, but not my favourite since it doesn’t have the added benefits a lot of other oils do besides surface hydration. Last spring I travelled with squalane as my only facial moisturizer, and it worked well under makeup and gave me sufficient overnight hydration. I ended up using up most of this bottle on my arms and legs, because I’m not really using oils in my facial skincare routine these days.

The Ordinary “B” Oil: I used this up on my arms and legs, too. I think this oil blend is a nice idea for the indecisive, but I’d rather receive the full benefits of one oil. I’m pretty happy with my oil-less face routine, but marula will be the next one I try when I want to change things up.

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA: I’ve gone through a few bottles of this now! I really like LA as an effective but gentle alternative to glycolic. I have very tolerant skin that does fine with glycolic, but lactic is a little more dry-skin friendly. I don’t like to have too many actives in my routine so I’ve retired this in favour of a vitamin C for the time being, but I’m sure I’ll go back to it at some point!

NIOD Survival 30: Dude, this is by far the best facial sunscreen I’ve ever tried. I was very much on the Vichy and La Roche-Posay train for a while, but Survival sits way better under my makeup. The pump tends to get clogged and spray product out a little aggressively, which is a bummer, and it’s obviously not cheap. But I’m firmly on this bandwagon. The texture is second to none (at least none that are readily-available in Canada), and I love that it’s packed with antioxidants for well-rounded protection.

NIOD Hydration Vaccine: This is a silicone-based barrier meant to prevent moisture loss from the skin. Supposedly it can be used AM and PM, but I don’t think this would sit nicely under makeup. I used it pretty much every night in the winter and I think it helped a bit – but I have so many hydrating products in my routine that I think I would have been fine without it. I probably won’t repurchase this one, but it was fun to try.

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Fluide: You can probably see that I have transitioned much of my skincare over to Deciem, but I’ve never been a fan of the Natural Moisturizing Factors. I am sticking with the LRP Toleriane line! I’ve tried every moisturizer in this line (I think), although when I bought this I definitely meant to get the regular Ultra. As a daytime moisturizer I think Toleriane Ultra is absolutely fantastic; this lighter version is nice, but I could have done with richer hydration during the coldest months. Totally my fault, and still a great product.

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Sensitive Riche (sample): This moisturizer brought me into the Toleriane world, and I am so grateful for it. This is great for very dry, sensitive skin. I find the Toleriane Ultra works a bit better with makeup, but I am still a huge fan of this one.

Abnomaly Petrowhat? in Milk: This is a squalane-based alternative to petroleum jelly ointments. Unfortunately, I really did not care for it, and ended up using it up on my elbows, where I’m not sure it did any more than it did for my lips. However, you can see I did my best to not waste a drop of it.

Makeup

CoverGirl The Super Sizer Mascara (Waterproof): I have now embarked on a doomed journey to replace my beloved discontinued Clarins Truly Waterproof. This mascara held a curl and built volume nicely, but it didn’t give me the ultra-long feathery effect I crave. It also smudged a bit under my eyes, which makes me wonder why I put myself through all the pitfalls of a waterproof mascara anyway.

Bare Minerals Prime Time Foundation Primer (deluxe sample): This is a very standard silicone-based primer, which is to say it did absolutely nothing for me and I had no thoughts on it.

Glossier Priming Moisturizer (sample): I guess this belongs in the skincare category, but I put it here to round out this sad little offering. My brief impression of this product is that it’s pretty hydrating and sits well under makeup, but there are a lot of moisturizers that tick those boxes and I’d rather stick with one I don’t have to specially order.

Miscellaneous

Orly Nail Lacquer in After Party: This is a very fun nail polish with black, navy, and purple microglitter. I distinctly remember ordering it to my first year dorm room, which means it’s at least six years old. I’ve used it a lot and now it’s very gummy and gross and it’s time to say goodbye. It was gorgeous, though.

Sally Hansen Gem Crush Nail Color in Lady Luck: I honestly don’t know how this survived the great nail polish declutter of 2017, because it is gaudy as hell in a way that does not appeal to me. (I mean, I love some gaudy things, just not this.) It’s also completely dried up and gross. Bye.

Sally Hansen Diamond Shine Base and Top Coat: Not as good as my trusty Sally Hansen Miracle Gel top coat, the subject of one of my earliest blog posts. (Please see the first image in this blog post for evidence that I indulge my love for gaudy things frequently. That hideous ring cost me $0.37 at H&M.) I have since corrected this error in judgment.

Quo Blending Sponge: This used to be my favourite blending sponge, but they have definitely reformulated it. It has way less give and it soaks up a tonne of product. I’m currently using another one which I bought simply to ensure that this one wasn’t just a dud (it was not), and then I’ll have to find something else.

Now I’m going to throw this all in the recycling bin and start anew!

Books read: February 2019

Posted on February 28, 2019 under Books

Okay, more book reviews! This month I read 9 books, taking the 2019 total up to 17. There was quite a bit this month that underwhelmed me, but there were some winners too.

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

A 10th-century Bohemian king wishing to escape death flees to India in search of immortality. He and his wife spend hundreds of years living their best lives and concocting an incredible perfume. In the late 20th century, the perfume in its original bottle has made its way to a divorced waitress in Seattle via her adoptive mother who runs a perfumery in New Orleans. The king, who has been separated from his wife for centuries, believes the key to reunion lies in finding the bottle. This is a darkly funny novel, sort of in the style of Vonnegut if Vonnegut were prone to overwrought metaphors and Orientalism and overt sexualization of women of colour. The immortal king prizes individualism, which is ironic given both his extreme attachment to his wife and the fact that the novel depends on the interconnectedness of people throughout a thousand years of history. There were parts of this book that I found enjoyable, and I thought it came together well at the end. It’s clever and amusing (a “romp”, some might call it), and I get the appeal. But it took me a long time to read for a 350-page novel, and I didn’t fully connect with Robbins’ writing style.

Against Interpretation and Other Essays by Susan Sontag

Reading this book, I realized that I like Sontag’s writing style more than I like her ideas. Some of her essays knock my socks off; I still think Illness as Metaphor / AIDS and its Metaphors is wonderful, and some of the more generalized essays in this collection were interesting. But a lot of her more specific art criticism is tedious, and I often found myself taking a slightly different critical position. “Notes on ‘Camp'” remains a thorn in my side; she articulates the aesthetics of camp so clearly and brilliantly, but, well, I didn’t spend a large portion of my master’s dissertation vigourously refuting her central claims in that essay for nothing. (Camp is political!) I don’t know if I should be irritated by her obsession with the art of European men or happy that she directs so much scorn towards them. She wrote some amazing zingers directed at men, which almost makes the whole thing worth it.

Lanark: A Life In Four Books by Alasdair Gray

A landmark in Scottish literature, Lanark is made up of four books presented out of order. The first and last concern the titular character as he attempts to navigate a surreal, dystopian afterlife which is probably hell; the middle books follow Glaswegian Duncan Thaw from childhood to his postwar life in art school. These sections are naturalistic and brilliantly-rendered. I think I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories about artists, and the Glaswegian content was glorious. Thaw’s afterlife was so genuinely bleak and disturbing in a way that I haven’t often encountered – and not because anything so terrible happens but because it’s characterized by endless bureaucracy, which is holding Lanark back from taking any real action while simultaneously being the only thing moving him forward. I haven’t read a book this atmospheric in a long time. There is such a playfulness with the form of literature, especially in the epilogue (which is slotted in three chapters before the end of the book). There’s definitely a permeating misogyny running through this one, and it’s hard to tell if that’s because of the author or a function of Lanark/Thaw’s rather unsympathetic character. I’m inclined to say it’s the latter, as the male characters in the book are uniformly terrible in a very deliberate way. There are a lot of themes in this one that I’ve noticed some earlier Scottish literature: the idea of doubling of the self, the suggestion of the devil’s presence, the ambivalent grappling with morality. (I’m mostly thinking of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.) This is a long, dense one, but I found it enchanting (in a very disturbing way) and I’d highly recommend it.

Final Girls by Riley Sager

In her sophomore year of college, Quincy Carpenter was the sole survivor of a violent attack on her group of friends. The media named her a “Final Girl”, alongside two other women who survived similar massacres. I was really excited to finally get to this one, because I’ve been known to enjoy a female-fronted thriller and because the premise is so delicious. I’m a huge baby about horror films, but I still find them absolutely fascinating. They’re so ripe for interpretation, and some of the best film criticism concerns the genre. (I took a class on horror during undergrad and I still think of it very fondly.) I thought this book was going to subvert horror tropes in an interesting way. I should have known from the beginning that Sager’s understanding of the horror genre is shallow at best; Quincy explains that the “final girl” is a trope used by “film geeks”, when in fact it was actually coined in an academic context by Carol Clover in the book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. (I mean, film buffs use it too, but there’s a lot more to it than that.) (By the way, last year I was talking about the final girl trope with this guy who was trying to refute it as if I were making it up on the spot, and I was like, “No, it’s a real thing, I took a class on horror in undergrad,” and he didn’t believe me until another guy backed me up and that’s basically what I imagine the majority of horror buffs to be like.)

In general I found basically nothing to redeem this book. I wasn’t expecting it to be a work of literary genius, but I thought it would be fun. But it wasn’t! While it was very trope-laden, there was no element of subversion. Here is an incomplete list of horror tropes that this book partakes in unironically: the final girl (morally pure, “not like other girls”, not reliant on men, unisex name), the cabin in the woods, the hard-partying sexually-active girl dying first, the mysterious stranger arriving out of thin air… Yet this book has no sense of the irony, humour, or intelligence required to make it a successful satire. It only has cardboard characters and a few unsatisfying cheap twists. Quincy is the blandest character in the world and no amount of repetitive Xanax abuse could make her interesting, nor could the constant insistence that she survived a massacre because she was somehow special or morally-superior. The pacing was far too slow for this book to be thrilling or even a bit tense. It was just flat and stupid, and the ending was infuriating. A twist only works if it’s been set up carefully. When it’s conjured out of thin air, it’s just garbage.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

In the mid-60s, eccentric alcoholic Eliot Rosewater feels (rightfully) guilty about the massive fortune he is set to inherit and dedicates his life to extravagant philanthropy lavished on a small town in Indiana. Meanwhile, a young lawyer assigned to help manage the Rosewater Foundation’s vast wealth sees opportunity in having Eliot declared legally insane and transferring his wealth to his distant cousin, a working class insurance salesman in Rhode Island. This appears to be Vonnegut’s most overtly political book in that he very clearly takes the stance that extreme wealth is unethical. (Well, I guess the anti-war message of Slaughterhouse-Five is up there, too.) Central to the novel is the idea that some people have no use (meaning they do not generate wealth) but that they deserve help and love anyway. As always, there is so much humanity in Vonnegut’s dark humour and absurdism. The ending of this one is hilariously satisfying in a way Vonnegut so rarely is. This is top tier for me – and now I only have three Vonnegut novels left to read. I’m hoping to knock those off before the year is out!

The New Fuck You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading, edited by Eileen Myles and Liz Kotz

I thought this would be a lot more angry and political, but it turned out to be experimental and touchy-feely and kind of crunchy, which I guess is the other side of the 90s lesbian coin. There were some pieces in this book that were extremely well-written and resonant, but a lot of it felt tedious. I’ll admit that I have never gotten into poetry (which is possibly a strange and nonsensical thing to say, but it is what it is), so there is that, but I really don’t think that experimental crunchy touchy-feely 90s lesbian poetry was ever going to be what got me into the genre. I was ready to be mad and political, so this just left me disappointed.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

In the mid 1990s, a precocious eighteen-year-old named Selin begins her studies at Harvard. In her Russian class, she makes two Eastern-European friends: Svetlana, who is larger-than-life and charismatic, and mathematician Ivan, who is withdrawn and mysterious. Selin is drawn to Ivan and begins a bizarre email correspondence with him. My stance on books generally is that if too much time is dedicated to handwringing over men I’m not a fan. However, things are a bit different when the book meticulously picks apart a certain type of male pretension and self-aggrandizement at the expense of women. Selin is such an interesting character; in less capable hands I think she would have been unbearable, but there’s an earnestness to her pretentiousness that makes her endearing rather than grating. Selin’s anxiety that she has no opinions echoes some of my own insecurities at the beginning of my undergraduate career. Batuman’s thoughts on language are fascinating: how it shapes our perspectives, how it fails us, how we struggle to articulate ourselves in languages that are not our own. This is a funny, touching, wonderfully-articulated novel that somehow manages to fully realize its ambitious scope.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

The cover is the best part of this book.

In Montego Bay, thirty-year-old Margot works at a hotel (and as an escort) to make ends meet. She wants to send her fifteen-year-old sister Thandi to medical school so that she may have a better life than Margot and her mother. Thandi, however, is more preoccupied with the boy she has a crush on and with her attempts to lighten her skin; she wants to be an artist, and though she’s a conscientious student, she finds the mounting pressure to make something of herself stifling. Margot, whose family does not know that she is a sex worker, is also hiding the fact that she is in love with a middle class woman who lives in their neighbourhood. When a new resort threatens to displace the community, Margot sees opportunity. The premise of this novel is great, but unfortunately I had a lot of problems with the execution. The characters are so unsympathetic it’s hard to care what happens to them; Margot especially does some truly terrible things while maintaining a martyr complex. There are a lot of themes here that interest me: colourism, same-sex relationships in extremely homophobic societies, intergenerational/inherited trauma, tourism as neocolonialism, sex tourism. I just didn’t feel that any of these topics was engaged with successfully; no meaningful conclusions were reached. The primary story was the dynamic between the two sisters, so when the novel shifted perspectives my attention wandered. This novel was set in the mid-90s, but the setting didn’t seem particularly developed, unlike The Idiot (which is unquestionably set in the 90s). The writing felt to me like it was trying very hard to be lyrical, but to its detriment that effort was very visible. In general it felt underdeveloped, and I found very little I liked. Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (though much longer) way more successfully works through themes related to Jamaican history and identity; Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place is an excellent longform essay on the Caribbean tourism industry as neocolonialism. This book failed to come close to either of those.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

After adoring Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, I have been trying in vain to find another one of her novels that fully realizes that potential. Swing Time is the closest I’ve found, though it seems to have generally received lukewarm reviews. An unnamed narrator takes us through her childhood in council flats in North London, a period marked by her ambitious, idealistic mother’s activism and her fraught friendship with a talented dancer named Tracey. As an adult, the narrator becomes the personal assistant to the philanthropic yet wrongheaded Australian mononymous pop star Aimee. The narrative moves between the narrator’s childhood in the 1980s to her career in the aughts as she helps Aimee construct a school for girls in a West African village. (The consequences of this foreign aid venture are explored quite believably, I think.) There’s a lot going on here, and I’ll admit that I didn’t necessarily think the village storyline meshed with what I thought was a captivating account of working class childhood. There aren’t really any likeable characters here, but I really enjoyed how the narrator was consistently drawn to difficult women: her mother, the charismatic yet cruel Tracey, Aimee. The shifting dynamics between the narrator and Tracey were rendered brilliantly, and I thought the complicated relationship between mother and child was touching. I really enjoyed the structure of the plot: because it moves back and forth, we are often told about an event in passing before it is shown. (I think the title is a reference to this, though of course it also refers to the film of the same name and the recurring theme of dance more generally.) Zadie Smith can turn a phrase like no one else; I consistently admire her writing, though her storytelling isn’t always perfect. The ending of the book felt like a bit of a letdown, like the whole novel was building to something that turned out to be fairly tame. (Also how I felt about the ending of NW.) Though Smith didn’t quite stick the landing for me, I enjoyed this book a lot more than NW and On Beauty, and this has given me hope that her upcoming novel might be the masterpiece I believe she has in her.

This month I would say my favourites were God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, The Idiot, and Swing Time. Some real misses in here, but next month we can start afresh and hope for more hits.