Books read, January-March 2017

Posted on April 04, 2017 under Books

I’m happy to say that I’m working my way through books at a much quicker pace than last year! In the first quarter of 2017, I read 16 books, which puts me firmly on pace for my goal of 50 this year. According to Goodreads, I’m actually 4 ahead of schedule. I’d like to continue with this as I know the last quarter of the year will be eaten up with grad school! I’ll try to keep these reviews brief since I have more books to feature in this post than usual.

Wonder Women by Sam Maggs

This is a non-fiction book which profiles various lesser-known female historical figures and their contributions to medicine, science, espionage, and social causes. I’d say it’s more suitable for a younger audience (think tweens to young teens) as it’s written in a very casual, chatty style and is full of pop culture references. I’m a bit outside of its ideal demographic, but I think it’s great for what it is. There’s a wonderful diversity to the women featured and Maggs is really devoted deconstructing both patriarchy and colonialism/white supremacy.

Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors by Susan Sontag

I’ve been developing quite an interest in metaphorical portrayals of AIDS in film and television and so Sontag’s seminal essays on the metaphors of illness seemed like a must-read. Her comparisons between the metaphorical treatment of tuberculosis, cancer, and AIDS are insightful and sharp, and though she was undoubtedly a great thinker, her writing is clear and devoid of academic jargon.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Having now read two Murakami novels (including the daunting and interminable 1Q84) I can’t say I fully understand the hype. After Dark takes part over the course of one night when two strangers meet in a Denny’s in Tokyo. There were parts of this novel that I really enjoyed; Murakami is great at exposing little horrors in apparent banality, and his writing is quite evocative. However, I found the dialogue stiff, and there were too many loose ends to make the novel fully satisfying.

The Diviners by Margaret Laurence

This book reminded me in a lot of ways of a book by another Canadian Margaret, Cat’s Eye by the inimitable Ms. Atwood. The Diviners is the story of Morag Gunn, a forty-seven-year-old writer, as she reflects on her life. That may sound a bit dreary, but her coming-of-age in the 1940s and 1950s is extremely compelling. Laurence’s writing is beautiful and lush and Morag is a fiercely independent character. Like Cat’s Eye, I felt fully immersed in this book, at times painfully so. The exploration of complicated relationships is absolutely stunning. Canada has produced some really incredible feminist novelists. Margaret Laurence is certainly less well-known on the international stage, but I highly recommend The Diviners.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I’ve found that books that I loved prior to about age 15 or 16 haven’t held up well over time, but works that I connected to right around the halfway-through-high-school mark are still enjoyable to me now. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was one of my favourites when I was about 15, and luckily it’s held up for me. Nine-year-old Oskar’s voice is so clear without being gimmicky, and his quest to find the secret behind the key that his father left behind when he died in the 9/11 attacks is very moving. I also loved the interlocking stories of his estranged grandparents, German immigrants and survivors of the Dresden bombing. Jonathan Safran Foer’s highly stylized writing isn’t for everyone, but I really connect with it. (I haven’t read his newest novel yet, though!)

End of Watch by Stephen King

This is the last book in a trilogy that I have not read, which I picked up out of boredom at work. I probably would have benefited from reading the first two books, but they’re not imperative for understanding this one. I don’t think this series will become as iconic as some of King’s other work, but it’s solid for what it is. I don’t think his writing is incredible in a general sense, but he gets the job done when writing a police thriller. The characters are distinct and reasonably likeable though not particularly well-developed. It’s an enjoyable quick read, but the plot isn’t anything special and I find the “technology turning people into mindless zombies” schtick overdone.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Man, apparently I’m really into graphic memoirs, because I loved this. I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Marjane Satrapi’s memoir about growing up raised by Marxists in Tehran, Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It’s funny, heartbreaking, and beautifully-illustrated. I’d love to watch the film version as well.

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

A Complicated Kindness is the story of Nomi Nickel, a very lost sixteen-year-old girl raised in a Mennonite town in Manitoba. Her mother and sister have already been excommunicated and she doesn’t know where they are; she lives with her father Ray, who loves her but doesn’t know how to parent her, and sees herself as essentially futureless. This is a book which is quietly heartbreaking. Nomi’s narrative voice is incredibly clear and compelling, and her feeling of stagnation and hopelessness became mine as I was reading it. I’m definitely going to pick up more of Miariam Toews’ books, because I was incredibly impressed with this one.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Another book about the harmful effects of raising children in strict religious circumstances, Purple Hibiscus is narrated by fifteen-year-old Kambili, who lives with her parents and brother Jaja in Enugu, Nigeria. Her parents are incredibly well-off, but her father is fanatically religious, strict, and abusive towards his wife and children. Kambili finally gets a taste of another world when she and Jaja go to stay with her lower middle class aunt and cousins in Nsukka in the wake of a military coup. Kambili isn’t exactly what you’d call a strong character; she’s very timid and lacks self confidence, which is exactly what you’d expect of someone in her position. I found her development extremely touching and realistic, and loved her relationships with her mother, cousins, aunt, and brother. I think I enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun a bit more, but now that I’ve finished all of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels I can confidently say that she is an absolutely excellent novelist.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I first read this book when I was 17, and the time seemed right to pick it up again. It’s even more poignant this time around; Atwood’s predictions about the future of patriarchal, religious America are eerily prescient. (I mean, it’s not like the US is Gilead right now, but so much of what is happening echoes the early stages she portrays.) I loved this book the first time but it took me awhile to get through, but I devoured it this time. There isn’t that much that really happens until the very end, but the worldbuilding is so realistic and terrifying that I think it’s compulsively readable in the eeriest way. Really looking forward to the TV series, too!

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

This is Atwood’s first novel and I can see why it established her as a prominent voice. I’d say that for me it ranks below both The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye (which is a brutal read for entirely different reasons), but I still thought it was excellent. You can tell when reading Atwood’s prose that she’s a poet as well, but her writing isn’t too flowery (like another Canadian poet/novelist, Michael Ondaatje, whose prose I find unbearable). This book reminded me a lot of Todd Haynes’ first feature film Safe, in that both narratives follow women who are pigeonholed into subservient, boring female roles and who develop mysterious conditions which can most obviously be read as psychosomatic reactions to their lack of autonomy under patriarchy. Anyone who’s interested in feminist fiction would probably really enjoy this one. I personally also loved the descriptions of Toronto: I particularly delighted in Marian’s visit to the ROM, where I have spent countless hours myself.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ve never read Eugenides’ more iconic works, but I found a copy of The Marriage Plot in my house and decided to bring it on a 10-hour Megabus round trip to pass the time. It did pass the time, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. The main characters are as follows: 1) A bland female sex fantasy who constantly needs men to explain things to her. 2) A shallowly religious loser who fancies himself a good person for going on a fleeting voluntourism trip to India and who, predictably, is unhealthily obsessed with the woman. 3) The woman’s manic-depressive, emotionally abusive, and deeply misogynistic boyfriend. Not a very sympathetic lot, all in all. Of course, this isn’t all there is to the book. There are also endless references to semiotic theory and second-wave feminism (both topics which I enjoy) which are explored in the most surface way. (The explicitly feminist character’s presence in the novel is brief and she is portrayed as shrill and unrelenting.) The main female character, Madeleine, was so blatantly written by a man and she enjoys absolutely no inner life that isn’t related to thinking about her boyfriend and male friend. This book certainly doesn’t inspire me to pick up anything else by Jeffrey Eugenides!

Griffin and Sabine, Sabine’s Notebook, and The Golden Mean by Nick Bantock

I first read these short epistolary books as a tween, and I was rather obsessed with them although they predictably went over my head somewhat. They’re quick reads which are composed of letters between an artist named Griffin Moss, who lives in London, and Sabine Strohem, a woman who lives in the fictional Sicmon Islands in the South Pacific. Since she was a teenager, Sabine has been able to see Griffin’s art as he creates it, and finally reaches out to him at the age of twenty-eight, beginning a correspondence between them. I think the books are very interesting and the artwork is wonderful to look at. It’s a unique and fascinating – if slightly disturbing – series. The books are quite short and fast-paced and I would have liked to linger in this strange world for longer, but that’s my only complaint.

Here’s To Us by Elin Hilderbrand

This is my first exposure to the so-called queen of beach reads. I picked this one up at work and ended up paying $15 for the e-book because we sold the last copy before I could finish it. Here’s To Us is about the death of celebrity chef Deacon Thorpe and focuses on one weekend as his three wives (who he was married to at different times, to be clear), his children, and his best friend/agent gather in Nantucket one last time to honour him. Obviously, this is a premise which invites drama and tears. Though the prose is nothing to write home about and the ending is ultimately predictable, it’s a very heartfelt novel and I really enjoyed all of the characters. Hilderbrand did a great job of really bringing to life Deacon’s three wives, all of whom are spirited, strong women in entirely different ways. If I’m ever in the market for a lighthearted but still enjoyable novel, I’ll check out her back catalogue!

And that is January to March in books!

There are 10 responses to “Books read, January-March 2017”

  • I read end of watch and the other books in the trilogy from Stephen King as well. I have to say that out of all three, the second was my favourite… Finder’s Keepers. Though I agree it really doesn’t compare to his other books like Under the Dome or even The Stand (my favourite!)

    Thanks for sharing the books you’ve read and your reviews – there’s a few here I’ll definitely need to check out! :)

    Lindsey Elyse | Sustainably Savvy/a>

    • I’ve actually never read any of his other novels, though I have read On Writing (which I enjoyed). I’d like to read a few of the more iconic works. Let me know if you read any of these!!

  • I loved the Griffin and Sabine books as a tween, too! I haven’t read them in years, but I can still remember distinct phrases and images. And I’ve been meaning to read The Handmaid’s Tale for a while, but I’ve been putting it off because, well, I know it will strike way too close to home.

    • There are a lot of very memorable images in those books. The artwork is gorgeous.

      The Handmaid’s Tale is hard to read in our current conditions, but it’s great. I just love Margaret Atwood.

  • Some of the professors at my graduate school remembered Susan Sontag visiting for the yearly writer’s conference; they described her in the most glowing terms. I am forever sad that she was gone before my time.

    I need to read some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I need to give Margaret Atwood another chance. I remember reading her when I was in undergrad and not being particularly enthralled, but perhaps I was just cranky from all of the Julian of Norwich I had to read.

    • Oh man, that’s amazing. There aren’t too many thinkers who I’m sad aren’t alive anymore, but she’s definitely one of them.

      I’ve heard from other sources that Atwood can be hit and miss; her work is so varied that I doubt everything would appeal to everybody. Other than The Handmaid’s Tale everything I’ve read from her (two other novels and a handful of short stories) has been realistic fiction, which I’ve loved. I’m not sure that I’d be such a huge fan of her more sci fi-based work, but I’ll probably give it a try. I’m also just a huge fan of her persona/politics/etc and I love that we’re from the same city, haha.

  • I think that one of the flaws in dystopian fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale is that they always portray a population under overt control by a highly repressive government. I think that the much greater danger is a population that’s controlled through subtle means, which is arguably what we have now. Of course, having overt control requires a lot less explanation and makes for better satire.

    On another note, I always find myself wishing that Murakami would focus on short stories, There are bursts of his novels that I think are perfect, but the overarching narratives don’t draw me in.

    • I generally find that a lot of speculative fiction about more insidious/hidden means of control of the population is quite heavy-handed, though – the Stephen King novel I mention in this post is a good example of that (though it’s really more of a police thriller). It seems that these days a lot of writers are trying to warn us about the dangers of technology, which I think is a valid topic to pursue, but I rarely see it pulled off very well. The Handmaid’s Tale is of course mostly about government control, but I think the exploration of televangelism as a driving factor to the religious fanaticism in Gilead is interesting and apt as well. The actual regime Offred describes is a bit out there (as are most dystopian premises), but the societal circumstances leading up to the coup that installed the theocracy are quite subtle and certainly reflected at least partially in our current circumstances. I’ve read a shitload of dystopian fiction (I was super into the genre when I was about 17/18) and a lot of it is pretty bad and lacks subtlety and nuance. I’ll agree that many dystopian worlds about governmental control are poorly-executed. I don’t mind too much when it’s thoroughly-imagined and makes some sort of critique of current societal structures: like, clearly, The Handmaid’s Tale is an exaggeration of flaws present in Western society. (Reductio ad absurdum, maybe, but well-done, I think.) It’s the stuff where there’s a concept but no clear tie to our current culture that I just think is lazy. Not that Divergent is on the same level as dystopian classics, but it comes to mind as an example of this. I guess it’s a decent enough story, but the structure of their society has nothing to do with ours so it doesn’t read as anything but a depressing fantasy. Dystopian is most compelling to me when it has some sort of critique built in, though of course then it runs the risk of seeming preachy or heavy-handed.

      And I think I’d have to agree with your assessment of Murakami – I’ve never read any of his short stories, though. I read 1Q84 more than 5 years ago and there are parts of it that have really stuck with me, but I didn’t find reading it enjoyable overall and there was certainly far more bulk than necessary. And that’s coming from someone who likes long, meandering novels!

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