Books read, April-June 2017

Posted on July 03, 2017 under Books

Another quarter gone, another mini book review post to follow. I read 15 books this quarter, bringing my total up to 31. I’m easily on track for my goal of 50 books in 2017!

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I first read this book in early 2013 and decided to re-read it four years later in anticipation of the Starz adaptation (of which I have only watched two episodes – not sure that it’s going to hold my attention). I would say I enjoyed this sprawling, consuming tale less than I did four years ago, but Gaiman’s writing is still enjoyable. I greatly admire his ability for synthesis; there’s so much going on in the novel and he manages to tie together so many histories and mythologies. The premise was less charming to me this time around, and there was a subplot which, while enthralling, didn’t feel as though it was a part of the same book. Overall I’d say it’s an ambitious, well-executed, but flawed novel.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

This was a very fun and clever book about an alternate 1980s UK. The main character, Thursday Next, is a Literary Detective who enters the world of Jane Eyre to pursue a murderer. (Yes, in this world the line between fiction and reality is not so clear…) I’ve seen comparisons to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I haven’t read, but I got a definite Phantom Tollbooth vibe with a pinch of Vonnegut for good measure. I think I’ll end up reading the rest of the books in this series when I want something light but not too fluffy.

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

I would call this a stream-of-consciousness prose poem rather than a novel. It’s unrelentingly bleak – think childhood illness, brain cancer, sexual abuse, the works. I find extended stream-of-consciousness narratives difficult and tedious, so I guess I wasn’t the right audience for this book from the outset. Combine that with the unending horrors presented in the book and it’s not easygoing. At certain points, I marvelled at McBride’s use of language, particularly towards the end of the novel. But I think that when a book is so unyielding in its darkness, the scales can tip towards melodrama and the whole thing can be surprisingly emotionally hollow. That was the case for me with this book, in any event.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

This book blew my mind when I first read it at age seventeen. Suffice to say I loved it even more the second time around. It tells the tale of the Binewskis, a circus family whose children are bred – with various cocktails of drugs – to be purposefully deformed so that they may draw large crowds. Its narratives alternate between the past and present, told by one of the middle children, Olympia, who is an albino, hunchbacked dwarf. As the story draws on the family’s dramas become more and more disturbing and perverse. Dunn’s prose is exquisite and insightful: she doesn’t just offer up an intriguing, dramatic plot (complete with murder, a cult, and so much more), but also meditations on normalcy. It’s unflinching, imaginative, and wholly extraordinary.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

Margaret Laurence is a wonderful, underrated Canadian writer. Though I enjoyed her best-known work, The Diviners, more, I found The Stone Angel very powerful too. It’s narrated by the formidable Hagar Shipley, a 90-year-old woman who looks back on her life, including her difficult childhood and her terrible marriage. Hagar is fierce and resists help from her son and his wife, though she is deteriorating both physically and mentally. She’s the nonagenarian antiheroine we all need! Having read The Diviners, which is set in the same Manitoba town – though a generation later – I loved recognizing certain characters and settings.

How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ

Seminal, biting feminist literary critique. I’ve been anti-canon since high school, and Russ perfectly elucidates why women’s artistic contributions are not taken seriously. She pays special attention to women of colour and lesbians as well. Essential reading, in my opinion.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Speaking of lesbians…! Rita Mae Brown’s groundbreaking classic is so full of heart; her protagonist, Molly Bolt, is delightful in her refusal to conform or to feel shame for her love of women. This is a funny, feisty, touching novel and a classic for a reason.

Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood

Out of the Atwood novels I’ve read this one has the least overt feminist spin – though it’s still there, of course. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, but it really doesn’t compare to Cat’s Eye or The Edible Woman in its portrayal of the minutiae of women’s day-to-day lives. (Though as it’s about a journalist on vacation in the Caribbean, perhaps it’s not entirely about that.) Atwood writes lovely prose, no doubt about it, and this is an enjoyable novel – just not her best work.

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Revisiting a fifth grade classic! As an adult, I found the novel a bit fast-paced – perhaps it’s because I’m used to fantasy novels being long, consuming, and detailed, rather than paced like a thriller. (I mean, the last fantasy I read was A Song of Ice and Fire, so…) Regardless, it’s so imaginative and I love the protagonist Meg – she’s a realistic child, shy and a bit awkward, who comes to trust and believe in herself more as the novel progresses. Great for kids and enjoyable for a nostalgic adult too.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Thought I’d revisit my favourite Vonnegut novel for the millionth time! This novel is everything he did right distilled into one book. It’s absurdist, dark, and caustic. I admit I’m a big fan of Vonnegut’s writing style anyway, but this was the first of his novels I ever read and it really set the tone for me. A few of his novels have come close, but I’ve now read seven and this is still my favourite.

Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Should I admit that my interest in reading this novel was sparked by an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? (By the way, that show is brilliant and I marathoned all twelve seasons in the space of like a minute and a half.) Regardless, it was surprisingly poignant and quietly thought-provoking. Charlie is one of the most sympathetic narrators I’ve encountered in a very long time, and his progression was believable and well-paced. There is an incredible amount of humanity in this novel. Definitely a tearjerker!

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

I’m glad I read Mother Night so soon after my Slaughterhouse-Five re-read, because it, too, is about WWII and is narrated by a character who is mentioned in passing in Slaughterhouse-Five. It takes the form of the confession of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American who was raised in Germany and who is currently awaiting trial in Israel for Nazism. The twist is that, according to Campbell, he was an American spy, and his Nazi propaganda actually contained coded messages to the United States. However, the only man who can corroborate his story is nowhere to be found, so here we have a classic case of an unreliable narrator. At the heart of Mother Night is the question of whether or not it matters if Campbell really was an American spy, if ultimately he was complicit in the spread of evil. I’d put this right up there with Slaughterhouse-Five and Bluebeard in my Vonnegut ranking.

The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

The premise of this book is so good: it’s about a girl who kills her sister’s murderer. But wait, it’s actually not, it’s about that girl and her last year of high school and her boyfriend/friend drama. Okay, to be fair, it was also a very scathing indictment of rape culture, and the twist ending was pretty awesome. But, well, it does feel a bit like a bait-and-switch. I wanted it to be way darker than it was, but it was normal YA with a murder-y twist. And I really wish that Anna, the sister, had been developed better. For a book that pushes some pretty feminist themes, I thought it was disappointing that the girl who was murdered ended up pretty much just being a convenient plot piece. I wanted to know about her, not about her sister’s boyfriend.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

My favourite Atwood novel. It’s rough going, and it doesn’t get easier when you re-read it, either. The depiction of girlhood – particularly bullying – is gruelling, unrelenting, brutal. When I first read this in 2012, I said that reading it felt like drowning, and I think that’s still true. It’s very banal, in a lot of respects, but it’s also so vicious in its deconstruction of the world. I suppose you might consider it post-feminist; it was written in the 80s and the narrator’s reluctance to be pigeonholed as a “feminist artist” point towards Atwood’s own ambivalence about being renowned as a feminist writer. Either way, this book is fucking brilliant and I love Margaret Atwood.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

I enjoy more contemporary lesbian literature, but the stuff that came out of the 70s and 80s – when things were so very different – is especially compelling to me. I think it’s about heritage, learning what came before. Winterson’s autobiographical novel is hilarious and heartbreaking, her voice strong and clear. She’s unapologetic but reflective. This book convinced me to check out her other work!

I’m hoping to read 10 more books by the end of summer, which will leave me with 4 months to read another 9. I think I can do it, but I’m a little apprehensive about the time-suck of moving to another country and starting grad school. So we will see!

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