Books Read: August 2019

Posted on August 31, 2019 under Books

I didn’t read quite as much this month as I’d hoped to, mostly because I went on the type of vacation where I spent all my free time with family I hadn’t seen in a while. But I still managed 9 books for a total of 81, which is nothing to scoff at. In September and October I’m going to be focusing on the Booker shortlist (which comes out on Tuesday!) to hopefully read them all before the winner is announced.

Things are changing a lot for me in September – I’ve left my job after a year in order to start my PhD! Between my own work and my TA responsibilities, I imagine my free time will be rather reduced. If I read 5 books a month until December, I’ll get to 100, which I think is doable. In the meantime, here’s what I read this month:

A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews

Hosea Funk, the mayor of Algren, Manitoba, has one goal only: to keep Algren’s population an even 1500, in order to qualify as the smallest town in Canada and receive a visit from the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, a young woman named Knute and her four-year-old daughter Summer Feelin’ move back to Algren from Winnipeg in order to care for Knute’s father. What unfolds is a typically funny, heartfelt Miriam Toews dramedy. It’s clear that this is an early-career novel – though it’s just as charming, irreverent, and funny as I’d expect of Toews, it lacks the depth of her best novels. Her most recent books – All My Puny Sorrows, Women Talking – show that she has the range to tackle truly heavy subjects, while her earlier works betray a lack of confidence at truly committing to devastating her readers even as she makes us laugh. I don’t think it’s possible to not enjoy a Toews novel – each is entirely its own thing, and her writing is so damn funny – but they don’t all pack equal punches.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

In the mid 1930s, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis makes a terrible decision that irrevocably changes her life – not to mention that of her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of the wealthy Tallis family’s cleaning lady. This decision haunts all three throughout the war and beyond, and Briony wonders if it is possible to atone for her actions. The writing is lush, the characters heartbreaking, and the narrative framing effective. It’s vivid, evocative, devastating, and endlessly thought-provoking. Is it fair to blame an imaginative thirteen-year-old for doing the wrong thing in a state of shock? How old does somebody need to be to take agency for ruining somebody’s life? Is atonement ever truly possible? What is the role of art in mediating difficult truths? Sure, the beginning of the novel is a bit tedious in its portrayal of upper-class British life in the interwar period, but it makes up for it later on.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

In post-Arthurian England, an elderly married couple sets out to find their son. One problem: they can’t remember where he lives, why they haven’t seen him in years, or really anything about him due to a mysterious memory-erasing mist plaguing the country. Despite Ishiguro’s beautiful writing, I found this to be a pretty bland literary interpretation of the fantasy genre. It follows a simple journey narrative (we need to get from point A to point B, along the way we are obstructed by secondary tasks we must complete in order to fulfil our ultimate goal, we pick up some stragglers as we go). The result is a story with many a dull point which ultimately feels a bit rote. The fantasy elements were subtle, which I suppose is an interesting artistic choice, but fantasy feels like a genre that’s necessarily about going all-in. I liked the main characters – it’s not often a novel centers around an elderly couple. There were lots of interesting ideas about individual and cultural memory, who we are without memory, memory as a potentially destructive force. But ultimately these ideas were bogged down in a narrative that was not particularly interesting.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing’s seminal second-wave feminist novel of ideas felt, at times, like a chore to get through. It’s packed with insights on domestic relations, (post)colonialism, communism, marriage, and motherhood. It’s framed as a novella split into several parts and punctuated by the thoughts of the tortured writer Anna Wulf, who splits her journals up according to subject. Anna is still living off the royalties of her only novel while raising her young daughter alone and having a series of very unfulfilling and definitely unhealthy relationships. The writing itself was meticulous and admirable. I found certain sections fascinating – Anna’s past in colonial Africa and her disillusionment with 1950s communism were very interesting. I also liked the novel-within-a-novel to a point. The exploration of compartmentalization and the fragmentation of self was fascinating and well-done. There was a lot of biting criticism of the relations between men and women. (Isn’t it depressing to read second-wave feminist texts and realize how so little has changed?) But, yes, a lot of this novel is tedious and difficult to get through. Anna’s relationships with men are frustrating beyond belief. There’s a certain point where reading pages and pages and pages of a woman being completely passive and putting up with being treated poorly ceases to be enjoyable. I think the novel successfully plays with the conventions of the genre and is structurally a well-realized execution of an ambitious concept, but it dragged in a lot of places for me.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

In the suburbs of Tokyo, a young mother murders her abusive, irresponsible husband. She recruits her coworkers on the overnight shift at a boxed lunch factory to help her dispose of his body and avoid prison time. This was a smart, dark exploration of the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy. The crushing cycle of debt and low-wage work compounded by domestic strife affects the cast of female characters in various believably bleak ways. The characters were interesting and the descriptions of gore were satisfyingly unflinching. The pacing was a bit slower than I’d expect for a thriller and there was never a moment of extreme tension (except, perhaps, for the very end) – which I didn’t mind, but which might disappoint some people who are expecting something super quick and heart-pounding. The ending was a letdown – it felt undermining, and while I understand that Kirino was trying to do with it, it just didn’t work for me. Still, this is a fun revenge-fantasy thriller as long as you can stomach some serious violence.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

In 2003, twenty-nine-year-old Romy Hall begins serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering her stalker in front of her young son. There were some passages that I found incredibly moving, and the writing was strong generally. It’s obvious that Kushner has done a lot of research about the California penal system, and I think this was a strong critique of the prison industrial complex and the way it dehumanizes people who are frequently victims of social inequality. The characters were rich and sympathetic, and I think the novel successfully portrayed how criminality is not inborn but generally caused by structural socioeconomic problems. Women who resort to crime due to lack of options or because they are in abusive situations are continually retraumatized by the penal system and exploited for capitalist gains. This is a difficult, complex topic treated – from my vantage point, at least – delicately and accurately, though I’d certainly welcome information to the contrary. Romy’s trial and incarceration are incredibly frustrating: she was the victim of relentless, terrifying stalking, and she never had a chance at navigating the so-called justice system.

Despite being both asborbing and thought-provoking, there were some elements and storylines that I found extraneous. There’s a storyline about an ex-cop in a men’s prison which doesn’t add much to the narrative; the inclusion of passages from Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto was bewildering. Romy was a fascinating, well-developed character, but the focus on the ultimately sympathetic educated white protagonist will always read as a little tone-deaf. Granted, Romy was a lower-class sex worker and drug user and victim of a sexist justice system, which makes her a more interesting narrator than Orange is the New Black‘s Piper, who is an upper-middle-class white woman and certainly not a victim in the same way. That said, Romy does have access to various privileges which many of her fellow inmates lack, and she is consistently differentiated by her level of education. That’s not to say that the other characters aren’t sympathetic – in fact, they’re portrayed as extremely intelligent and cunning if not book-smart – but it’s always worth interrogating whose stories are told and why. Romy is not more of a victim because she’s white and literate, and I hope readers are able to think critically and not automatically lapse into thinking of her more sympathetically because of her privileges. There are many woman in similar situations to Romy who are not perceived as victims, because sex workers and drug users are seen as deserving whatever happens to them, particularly if they are racialized and lack the signs of formal education. That’s not to say that this story is not important, touching, or well-written – I just think it’s imperative that we always think about why some perspectives are privileged over others.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The theme of prison runs through much of Margaret Atwood’s work, whether we’re talking about literal prison (Bodily Harm, Alias Grace, Hag-Seed), another form of physical imprisonment (The Handmaid’s Tale), or mental imprisonment (by the past as in Cat’s Eye, in a bad marriage as in The Blind Assassin). In this speculative novel, a young married couple named Stan and Charmaine exist in a form of near-future late capitalism that has them living in their car, trying to avoid being robbed while barely making ends meet. Then they discover a new town called Consilience which guarantees every resident a job and house. The catch? Everyone alternates between one month living in the idyllic town and one month in prison, because the prison industrial system has been proven to generate so much profit, or something. (I never felt like the “benefits” of this model were fully explained.) But even when they aren’t in the prison, Positron, nobody is allowed to leave the town – which means everyone’s a prisoner all the time. I found this premise interesting – the idea of the prison industrial system adopted as a model for society feels relevant. But ultimately I think it was a bit underbaked, and I was left with a lot of questions.

I just wanted this to go further in its critique of the prison industrial system, when in the end it felt more like a tedious, shallow interpersonal drama with a resolution that ultimately didn’t say anything meaningful about society. To be fair, I did read this immediately after The Mars Room, which was clearly very well-researched and outwardly political, so it’s no wonder this falls flat in comparison! The world in this novel seems similar to that in the MaddAddam trilogy, and while that series doesn’t knock my socks off, its treatment of these ideas is a lot more complex and successful. The characters are really bland. There are various minor plot holes that are pretty annoying, especially when I normally think of Atwood as such a meticulous writer. Generally, I simply didn’t find that there was anything about the story, characters, or ideas in this novel that compelled me to keep reading. I don’t object to a comical treatment of dystopia (actually, I think that can be really great when done properly), but this just ended up feeling underdeveloped and banal. Definitely the worst of the twelve Atwood novels that I’ve read so far.

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

At the age of fourteen, awkward working class Wolverhampton native Johanna Morrigan embarrasses herself on local television and decides to reinvent herself as an edgy music journalist named Dolly Wilde. This is Caitlin Moran’s first novel, but it doesn’t make any difference that I read its sequel first. (Both work find as standalone novels.) Anyway, they’re peas in a pod: funny, cheeky, irreverent; quick and enjoyable; coming-of-age stories with a liberal feminist twist. I love the 90s setting: it’s rendered beautifully, and it’s an era that I love to see represented in media. (I think my fascination comes from the fact that I was born in the mid-90s, so while I only have a very small child’s memory of the decade, I feel some sort of claim to it.) The writing isn’t spectacular, and as always there’s more than a hint of “ironic” racism that colours all of Moran’s work. I’d categorize this as a fun, feminist-adjacent vacation read, but nothing too intellectually strenuous. I bet the upcoming film version starring Beanie Feldstein will be worth a watch.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

A very ambitious retelling of King Lear set in late-70s rural Iowa. The domineering, cantankerous owner of a thousand-acre farm decides to divide his land between his three daughters; the youngest, a big-city lawyer, has reservations, and she is excluded from the deal. Cracks begin to form between the two older sisters, their husbands, and the father almost immediately. This is a slow-building, rich portrait of a repressed, tragedy-stricken family. This is undeniably a feminist take on Lear; the older daughters – here called Ginny and Rose – are robust and realistic, and there are a lot of details that recast the story in their favour. After all, they are pretty one-dimensionally terrible in the original play, and it’s probably more believable that a very powerful and wealthy man abuses his power and is generally the worst than that his daughters are unaccountably awful. This is a very dense novel with ideas about the dissolution of family bonds, motherhood, and the link between body and land. It’s a clever, successful retelling. The setting may seem a little bizarre, but I actually think it works beautifully – the land in this novel is much more easily conceptualized than the kingdom in Lear, and it becomes a character in its own right. I’ve spoken to a few people who had to read this for high school English and (probably predictably) didn’t like it, but it was probably the standout of this month for me.

I will be back in a month with some thoughts on Booker nominees!

There are 2 responses to “Books Read: August 2019”

  • Oh man, I must have shelved A Thousand Acres hundreds of times when I worked at my town’s library in the 90s. I’ve never read it but it actually seems really good!

    I want to try out Atonement and How to Build a Girl and I really liked the Mars Room last summer. I still haven’t picked up any of the Booker nominees and I’m not sure I will.

    Recent finishes –
    My Kitchen Year – Another Ruth Reichl book, this one a hybrid cookbook / memoir. Most people hated this book (and yes it had some cringey moments) but I liked it.
    The Identicals – My first Elin Hilderbrand novel and I think I’ll keep reading her! Fluff but just good enough to not be completely vapid.
    Talking as Fast as I Can – One of Lauren Graham’s memoirs. It was fine, I like Lauren Graham or at least I like Lorelai Gilmore LOL. An easy read that I zipped through to get me past some anxiety-induced insomnia.

    Currently Reading
    Three Women and H is for Hawk – really have only just started these so I have no judgment on them yet
    The Bookish Life of Nina Hill – extreme fluff and a bit try-hard. Plus every metaphor is odd and why does “like an idiot” have to qualify the description of anyone smiling? That said it’s cutesy and enjoyable.

    • I definitely recommend A Thousand Acres if the premise is appealing to you! It is a bit slow-moving, but I’m fine with that. Atonement differed from my expectations but I wasn’t disappointed! Moran’s novels are for sure worth it when you’re looking for something lighter.

      That’s how I feel about Hilderbrand, too – I find she’s pretty good at creating characters that have surprising depth for the subject matter/genre. The Identicals was slightly too predictable for me, but I’ve enjoyed some of her other books! Here’s To Us was the first I read and it’s probably my favourite so far. I think she’ll be a yearly vacation read for me.

      I’ll let you know if any of the Booker nominees are worth looking into! ;) I’m rooting for some more than others – there are definitely a few that I’m hoping won’t make it hahaha. If the one that’s like 1000 pages and one sentence makes it I… may… not…. read that.

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