I’ve decided to do a book post every two months instead of every quarter, because it can be hard to remember stuff I read three months ago when I’m compiling the posts. Also, I read a lot in the first two months of 2018, and I don’t want to make this post even longer by having to squeeze another month into it!
I need to read 2.5 books each month to make my goal of 30 by the end of the year, and I read 11 in January and February – so I’d say I’m doing pretty well! I definitely don’t expect to stay on this pace the whole year, but I think I can easily read 30.
So, here’s what I read in the first two months of 2018.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
This book tells the story of the Lees, a mixed-race family living in Ohio in 1977. Their family is barely hanging together as a unit, and when the middle child, 16-year-old Lydia, is found dead in a lake, the family begins to crumble. I thought the characterization was so rich in this novel; though every character was flawed and made awful, hurtful mistakes, I felt deep sympathy for each of them. I was relieved that Lydia was well-developed through flashbacks, because I hate the trope of a female character dying to further other characters’ emotional development. I could feel how suffocated each character was – whether because of gender roles, racism, or the burden of expectation. I particularly enjoyed the mother, Marilyn, who had dreamed of becoming a doctor before becoming pregnant and giving everything up for a life of housewifery. (Obviously, if you’ve been reading my book posts for some time, you’ll know that this is a general theme that interests me greatly.) Everything I Never Told You grapples with a lot of big themes – racism, patriarchy, homosexuality – but never feels overwrought or like an after school special. It’s powerful, but in a quiet way.
Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard
This was a Christmas present from my friend Hayley, who clearly knows me well! This book comprises two essays based on lectures given by Mary Beard, a professor of Classics. She draws on ancient examples of men silencing and suppressing women in order to argue that, well… we maybe haven’t come as far as we’d like to believe. Women are still being silenced, our power undercut. Beard writes clearly and powerfully (heh), and the book is a quick, fiery, and enjoyable read. After reading quite a lot of popular feminist texts that are almost apologetic (and seem to always make #NotAllMen-type concessions), it’s refreshing to read one that is so unabashedly angry. However, for something subtitled “a manifesto”, I was hoping for just a little more in the way of a call to arms or action plan. Overall, two great essays executed well, though.
All The Pretty Little Horses by Mira Grant
Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series is one of my favourites ever – they’re political thrillers set in a world ravaged by zombies, and each novel gets progressively more twisty and insane (in the best possible way). All The Pretty Little Horses is a prequel novella, set in the early days of the apocalypse. It follows the parents of our Newsflesh protagonists as they establish themselves as survivalist heroes in the terrifying new world. I was glad to get some of their backstory as they’re fairly two-dimensional in the main series, but ultimately it just wasn’t the most exciting read. Their children Georgia and Shaun make for much more compelling characters.
NW by Zadie Smith
This should have been right up my alley – I absolutely love multiple narrative strands and perspectives when done properly, and Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth was one of my favourite reads of 2017. I still really enjoyed Smith’s writing in this novel – her dialogue is excellent and her narration is always a bit cheeky, which I love. But not all of the characters are on equal footing – the character whose perspective starts the novel was off-putting and not very interesting. And the end was pretty anticlimactic. I can’t deny that Smith’s prose is wonderful, but this just didn’t have the same emotional impact as White Teeth. I’m really glad I didn’t start with NW, because I might not have felt compelled to pick up any of her other work.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
The premise for this book is absolutely delicious! It’s billed as a retelling of Snow White, with the improbably-named Boy Novak as our protagonist. It’s 1953, and Boy flees from her abusive father, settling in a small town in Massachusetts. She marries into a wealthy family – and it seems that she loves her husband’s charming, precocious daughter, Snow, more than her husband. But when Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, it becomes clear that her husband is black, passing as white, and suddenly Boy can’t stand Snow. It’s a fascinating idea and I can’t fault Oyeyemi’s writing. However, the marketing is a bit off; this isn’t really a fairytale retelling. And there’s a twist at the end that’s just… very insensitive and tasteless, really. I won’t spoil it, but if you’re interested many Goodreads reviewers go over it.
The Muse by Jessie Burton
I’ve been trying to get my hands on Burton’s first novel, The Miniaturist, for literal years, but it’s never in stock at my local independent bookstore or at Chapters. I decided to settle for The Muse on my most recent Chapters trip, and I’m damn glad I did. This book was tailor-made for me, really: it involves multiple intersecting narratives and art-related deception and intrigue. One narrative follows Trinidad-born Odelle Bastien in 1967 London. Odelle has recently started administrative work at a prestigious art gallery, and coincidentally meets a man at a party who possesses a mysterious painting which sets Odelle’s boss, the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, on edge. The secondary narrative, of course, is that of the painting – a painting which has come to be under secret, dangerous circumstances in 1936 Spain, during the early days of the Spanish Civil War. This novel is exciting the whole way through – and though its twists aren’t fully-concealed (I did figure them out), it’s complex and fully-realized.
Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood
I’ve never read The Tempest, but I’m familiar enough with the plot that I followed this novel easily. It’s a revenge-plot-within-a-play-within-a-novel. After twelve years in exile, disgraced former theatre director Felix decides to get his revenge on those who wronged him. Felix has spent the past few years teaching Shakespeare to low-security prisoners in smalltown Southern Ontario. (I’m going to assume the town is a standin for Stratford, known for really leaning into the name and doing an annual Shakespeare festival – and also for being Justin Bieber’s hometown.) Felix decides to lure his enemies into the prison under the guise of watching his production of The Tempest, with the idea of executing his revenge plot during the staging of the play. It’s a quick read, very cleverly-adapted. I like the prison setting because it echoes a major theme of the play as well as of Atwood’s own novels. (Often, her characters find themselves literally or metaphorically imprisoned.) It also gives her the opportunity for a bit of social critique regarding the necessity of literacy and theatre programmes in prisons, though it integrates into the plot so well that it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. At times, Felix’s explanations of the themes of the play veered into “reading a lecture” territory, but overall it’s a great novel with a lot of payoff. (I was particularly delighted by the careful attention Atwood paid to naming her characters!)
Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman by Lindy West
I’ve enjoyed Lindy West’s writing for years, and this compilation of personal/feminist essays was no exception. She’s a funny, unapologetic, and incredibly smart woman. I particularly liked the section of the book which focused on online trolling and the impact that’s had on her personally and professionally. The internet has given misogynists very loud voices, and part of patriarchal oppression in 2018 online abuse. (Mary Beard touches on this a lot in Women and Power, too!) A few of the essays were basically just West rehashing arguments she’d had with people with additional commentary, which I didn’t love, but generally it was a very strong book.
Notes on “Camp” by Susan Sontag
I recently discovered that Penguin publishes little volumes of seminal essays by famous writers, which they sell for the bargain price of £1 a piece. So… I bought six! I had been planning on reading “Notes on ‘Camp'” for my dissertation anyway, so this one was a no-brainer. This one actually includes both “Notes on ‘Camp'” and “One Culture and the New Sensibility”. “Notes on ‘Camp'” is obviously the more prominent essay, however, so I’ll focus on that. I really love Sontag’s writing: it’s so sharp without ever becoming jargon-y. Her descriptive language is beautiful, too. Unfortunately I had some major issues with the very premise of her definition of Camp. Namely, she marginalizes and downplays how interconnected Camp is to the formation and performance of LGBTQ identity and, bewilderingly, refers to Camp as “depoliticized – or at least apolitical”. I’ve always thought of Camp as inherently very political by its close association with the LGBTQ community and its resistance to the norms of dominant cultural values. This is still a beautifully-written, seminal essay, but those are some pretty major faults. (Which, it should be noted, later academics have refuted – Moe Meyer’s “Reclaiming the Camp” is notable here.)
Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe
This volume includes four of Achebe’s essays on postcolonial Africa, spanning from 1989 to 2008. The first essay focuses on Nigeria’s political climate; the second is about his experience travelling throughout Africa in the 1980s and the racism he experienced during that time. The last two essays are about the representation of Africa by the Western world. Though he doesn’t cite her, a lot of the issues he writes about mirror Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” He writes so beautifully about colonial impositions of representations of Africa and links artistic representations of the continent (most notably Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) to wider political, cultural, and economic contexts. Achebe’s writing is clear and powerful, and there are so many incredibly potent lines scattered throughout all four essays.
The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House by Audre Lorde
This book consists of five of Audre Lorde’s essays. The way she writes about harnessing anger at injustice into a productive force is so powerful and inspiring. Though the term intersectionality wasn’t coined until after these essays were written, she is such a strong advocate for perceiving the ways different identities work together. If you’re interested in her work I’d really recommend this one as an excellent starter. One of my favourite lines comes from the essay “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”: “Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” Activists are so frequently told to be less emotional and less angry, and it is vital to acknowledge that anger can actually be a great resource in creating change.
And that is it for January and February. I’ll see you in two months for some more reviews!
There are 4 responses to “Books read: January + February 2018”
Leave a Reply
Please feel free to leave a comment; I'd love to hear your thoughts on this post. Please don't leave a link to your blog in the body of your comment. If you leave your URL in the appropriate field in the form I will be able to click your name and check out your blog. Comments that don't adhere to this policy will be edited or deleted.