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.

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