I’m going to experiment with doing these posts monthly, since I’ve read quite a bit this month and my book posts can get long quickly. This month I read 8 books – with my goal of 50 this year, I’m obviously really happy with this number.
Hunger: A Memoir of My Body by Roxane Gay
While this is certainly a book about what it means to be fat, it’s so much more than that. Running through the heart of the memoir is Roxane Gay’s childhood rape, and how that violation of her body is inextricably tied up in the way she treats her body in adulthood. Gay’s writing is accessible yet clearly intelligent, her insight sharp: most enlightening to me were her descriptions of how basic infrastructure does not accommodate her body. The title refers most obviously to an appetite for food, but Gay hungers for so much more: love, (self-)acceptance, resolution. Most profoundly moving about this book is the futility of longing for closure, the idea that working through trauma is a lifelong process that reflects in the mind, the body, and life as a whole.
Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga
Indigenous journalist Tanya Talaga tells the story of seven northern Indigenous high school students who died in Thunder Bay, Ontario between 2000 and 2011. All seven students were from remote communities and moved to Thunder Bay without their families for their high school educations. Of course, this story is not just about the lives and deaths of these teenagers but also about the legacy of the residential school system and the thriving culture of racism and neocolonialism that persists to this day. The indifference of the police in pursuing these cases is chilling; even after an eight-month inquest many of the deaths are of “inconclusive” cause due to sloppy police work which can never be remedied. I struggle to believe that five able-bodied teenagers who all happened to be from northern Indigenous communities accidentally drowned in the river over the span of a decade. The current Canadian government likes to talk a big game about reconciliation, but their promises are clearly hollow. (Just ask the water defenders at Unist’ot’en Camp how much support Justin Trudeau is giving their cause…) Talaga’s writing is searing and urgent: Canada has purposefully failed Indigenous people, a series of broken systems doing nothing to mitigate the serious harm neocolonialism continues to reproduce.
The Break by Katherena Vermette
Four generations of Indigenous women living in Winnipeg’s North End come together in the face of a brutal assault on one of their own. Each character struggles with letting their pasts go, but the love this matriarchal family has for each other is powerful. They display such resilience and strength. An overarching theme that I loved was women believing other women’s experiences of sexual assault and harassment, never diminishing, never questioning. My biggest issue with this novel was that one of the POV characters was a Métis police officer, whose perspective I just didn’t think added anything to the text. He was supposed to show the near-irreconcilability of Indigenous identity and law enforcement, but ultimately his storyline took away from what was otherwise a stirring narrative of bonds between women.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
This is a novel about the necessity of trees in sustaining life on planet Earth and about how all living things are delicately interconnected. There was a lot that I liked about it: multiple narratives and magical realism are fast-track tickets straight to my heart. Powers skilfully enshrouded nonfictional information into a work of fiction. Even before the characters are drawn together, there are connections between them, most notably in their traumas and losses that cause them to disconnect from humanity and seek solace in something larger. One loner character becomes a dendrologist; one becomes a wealthy video game designer; another is a reclusive artist. The descriptive passages are extremely well-rendered and lovely to read.
So, here’s the thing. It is time to stop putting up with bullshit from male authors who cannot help but sexualize a young female manic pixie dream girl character to the point that her much-older boyfriend gets turned on by watching her pee. I mean, no. It’s 2019, we are not doing this anymore.
That isn’t my only issue with this novel, but I must be very clear: sometimes female characters are so blatantly written by men that it is a substantial enough problem to knock off two stars from a rating. My other substantial problem with The Overstory is how poorly-integrated the political content was. Look, this is a polemical novel, and it’s not trying not to be. Obviously, Richard Powers is an environmentalist, and that is fine, and probably why he wrote this novel. But his opinions are put into the mouths of his characters in the form of monologues, and that just lacks finesse. We don’t need to be hit over the head with the message. These characters are radical environmental activists, for God’s sake. There’s no need to write literal pages of a speech telling us how amazing trees are. By the time we’ve made it four hundred pages into this book, we are all very aware. There’s just not a lot of subtlety or subtext here, though the book is so beautifully-written that you could be fooled into thinking there is.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Okay, let’s get this out of the way: despite its apparent dark subject matter, this is a fluffy novel. Moriarty’s characters are charming and well-conceived; everyone is fleshed-out and likeable despite their flaws. I went into this knowing absolutely nothing about the plot, but given the hype both the book and HBO series have engendered I expected a bit more. It was juicy and dramatic, but I think I was expecting it to be more artistically-complex given HBO’s highbrow inclinations. And I expected more twists! I enjoy a thriller here and there, and most of the joy in one is seeing how all the pieces that you missed come together. I never quite felt that with Big Little Lies; there was a lack of intricacy to the plot. (And I did figure out who died!) While the domestic abuse plot was handled sensitively in isolation, I do feel a bit iffy about the overall tone of the book (funny, juicy, generally lighthearted) with that particular theme. I’ve since watched the HBO adaptation, and that’s more in line with what I was expecting of the book, though I still didn’t love it. However, I’d say it’s worth a watch just for Nicole Kidman’s outstanding performance. This would be the perfect book to read on vacation, but it’s not exactly a masterpiece.
(By the way, I just want to say that Liane Moriarty’s younger sister Jaclyn wrote some of the best young adult novels of all time and I genuinely think I have read The Year of Secret Assignments more than any other book on this planet. I can actually see similarities in both authors’ senses of humour, too.)
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
The plot summary for this book does it no justice. Ostensibly, it’s about a Philippines-born translator hired by a white American filmmaker writing a screenplay about a massacre that happened in the Philippines at the turn of the century. The filmmaker’s father made his own war film in the Philippines in the 70s (think Apocalypse Now) before dying under slightly mysterious circumstances; his daughter Chiara struggles to move on, personally and artistically, from the shadow his work, life, and death have cast on her. Magsalin, the translator, struggles with Chiara’s privilege and the cultural imperialism inherent in her project, and decides to rewrite her screenplay. We see the tense interactions between the two women as well as their respective stories – though, interestingly, they are presented as novelistic prose, not as screenplays.
This is a really fascinating premise, but the book itself is structured unusually. Its chapters are numbered out of order, and there’s a lot of metafiction happening. (For instance, it is suggested that Chiara is actually just the protagonist of a mystery novel that Magsalin is writing.) Obviously, the exploration of film as an artistic discipline and cultural force was interesting to my personal interests, and I really enjoyed the way film terminology was woven into the text.
There is so much going on here: explorations of semiotics and the poetics of photography and film; the idea of history as a colonial construction, with blurred lines between history and art suggesting that history is subjective and adaptable; a fascination with appropriation and alternate readings of Western celebrity; a meditation on filmic mediation of the past. The prose is dense and quite academic at points, so it is a lot to digest and certainly begs a second reading. It’s clear that Gina Apostol is an extremely intelligent woman, and while there are passages that can be difficult to digest, the ambition and scope of the novel are admirable.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Sara de Vos is a little-known (fictional) painter from the Dutch Golden Age, whose only known surviving painting has been passed down through the de Groot family for centuries. In the late 1950s, wealthy New Yorker Marty de Groot finds that the painting has been stolen from his home and replaced with a convincing forgery. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is told from three perspectives: those of Sara, Marty, and the art history PhD student and forger extraordinaire Ellie Shipley. Over forty years later, Ellie is curating a show in her native Australia and discovers that both the original painting and the forgery are on their way, threatening to unravel her successful career. I’m a big fan of novels about art heists (I’m one of the only people I know who actually liked The Goldfinch…), and Smith’s prose is very strong. As someone with a graduate degree in film I’m very aware of the difficulties of trying to describe one medium using another, but Smith’s descriptions of de Vos’s paintings are vivid and rich. The forgery plot and interpersonal relationships are interesting and well-explored.
However, I didn’t feel that the historical context of the Netherlands in the 1630s was as developed as it could have been. I read Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist last year, and its 17th century Netherlands was much more richly-described. While Sara’s story was engaging, it felt like it was part of another novel. In Burton’s second novel, The Muse, the provenance of the painting at the centre of the mystery is integral to the plot, so the flashbacks illuminate the main story. In this novel, however, Sara’s life has little bearing on the forgery plot. It’s not that it isn’t nice to plump up the story with some historical context, but I wish that Smith’s imagining of this era had been a little more robust. If you’re going to go there, go there, you know? This was still an interesting, well-written book with a compelling plot, and I’d recommend it to people who share my interest in art-related intrigue in fiction.
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
The marketing of this book is actually bewildering; based on the summary on the back I was wondering why I’d added it to my to read shelf on Goodreads a year ago. Apparently, it’s about a recent university graduate who goes to live with a rich conservative MP in Thatcherite Britain. Except Nick, our protagonist, is gay, and this is essential to the text. (That’s where my interest comes from, obviously…) Having grown up in a working class family, Nick finds himself on the fringes of high society – invited to fancy parties and dinners with politicians, he is always an outsider, a fact underscored by his gayness. It is something that he believes his hosts “tolerate”, although they never talk about his sexuality or relationships despite the fact that he is out. Nick’s isolation and loneliness are partially because he’s pathologically pretentious, with esoteric interests and a condescending manner, but he also struggles to relate to his straight friends, and that particular form of isolation is believable and familiar. There are a lot of 80s tropes here: adulation of Margaret Thatcher; AIDS; lots of cocaine. It all feels fitting and inevitable, though. It’s like, you can’t have high society British people in the 80s without Thatcher. You can’t have a young gay man in the 80s without some mention of AIDS. (Well, there’s more than just a mention, and I like this handling of the topic, which I can be quite picky about being depicted properly.) And you just can’t have parties in the 80s without coke.
There’s not much plot to this novel (though it does get juicy at the end), and it’s longer than it strictly needs to be in a fairly self-indulgent way. But I guess I couldn’t be the one to be too disparaging about a self-indulgent, verbose gay writer, and anyway the prose was enjoyable enough that I didn’t mind. (I feel the same way about Donna Tartt, and though this book is nowhere near as long as The Goldfinch I think if you struggled to tolerate that you might not love this one.) It’s more of an extended character study and a rather searing interrogation into the hypocrisy and false superiority of the British upper class. Nick is not an easy character: his loneliness and desire for love make him sympathetic, but he’s so hedonistic and, despite his complicated doctoral work, rather shallow. There’s an emptiness to him that’s not the result of poor character development but of his own relentless pursuit of pleasure. The ending is incredibly satisfying in the way it wraps up every element of Nick’s character and relationships with others. I really enjoyed this one and I’d heartily recommend it, but you certainly have to be comfortable with a long-ish novel that’s not in the least bit plot-driven.
Overall a pretty good batch of books this month! Both non-fiction books were standouts; in terms of fiction, my favourites were Insurrecto and The Line of Beauty. I currently have a hefty stack of 11 books to get through, plus a few on my Kindle, so I should be good through March if I stay on this pace.
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