I was silent on my blog in the month of August because I was working on my dissertation, which is now finished and handed in. That means I’m officially done my Master’s! Anyway, I’m back with one of my favourite types of posts: a book roundup.
I read my thirtieth book in July, thus making my yearly goal less than 60% of the way through the year. Now I’d officially like to match last year’s count of 51 books, though of course if I could get to an even 52 – one per week – I’d be especially thrilled. (Okay, secretly my stretch goal is 60, so let’s say somewhere between 52 and 60 by December 31.) I read 11 books in July and August, bringing my total count to 36 so far.
Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! by Kurt Vonnegut
I have now read nine of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels, so I’m making pretty good progress at getting through his catalogue. I also have a good idea of where different things fall in my personal ranking, and while Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night, and Bluebeard still remain my top three, Slapstick is certainly a wonderful demonstration of everything I love about Vonnegut’s writing. Nobody does absurdism better, but Vonnegut manages to retain such an urgent sense of humanity. Slapstick centers on twins Wilbur and Eliza, who were born with a birth defect and who, together, have a singular genius mind. Throughout their lives, they are isolated in various ways – due to their appearances and intellect; through literal exile; thanks to a flu that causes the apocalypse. This novel is much more sentimental than Vonnegut’s work usually is, though I suppose that’s not surprising given that the introduction is about his sister’s death. I will say that this probably isn’t a fantastic entry point for those unfamiliar with Vonnegut’s work, but I certainly enjoyed it. I might even like it better than his best-known absurdist work, Breakfast of Champions.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
I genuinely thought this was going to be a good book and now I’m happy that I only paid a few bucks for it on the Kindle store. Reading this novel, I could clearly picture Albom congratulating himself on producing heavy-handed saccharine drivel masquerading as something heartfelt and inspirational. It’s as though he crammed every sad thing he could think of into one story: war, car accidents, infertility, unresolved parental tensions, children dying… and yet all of it is surface-level, there only to impress upon the reader how profound this book is without ever truly engaging with any of these themes. All of the “deep” “inspiring” “beautiful” life lessons are delivered via dialogue; the reader is not left any room for personal interpretation or revelation but simply force-fed sappy tripe. The section on war was at first promising, but instead of concluding that war is destructive and violent and life-ruining, Albom ended up with a watery version of “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, a sentiment that was passé by the end of WWI. Throw in advocating for forgiving rapists and child abusers and you’ve got a book that certainly sets my own political consciousness on edge. Regardless, though, I think this is a poorly-written, clumsy novel and I have no idea how it has managed to capture so much attention.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Longtime readers will know that historical fiction pre-1900 isn’t a genre that I dabble in frequently. The era of Napoleon’s reign is very far outside of my fictional interests. But for Jeanette Winterson, I can make an exception – especially if the book includes a lesbian romance. Winterson’s writing is exquisitely atmospheric, and she packs in the most gorgeous magical realism. (You may know that while I stay even further away from high fantasy than historical fiction, I am very into magical realism.) It’s a rumination on the human effects of war and the strength of love, and above all a very evocative tale about the ability of passion to both create and destroy.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
Academically, I have always been interested in the study of popular culture. (My undergrad was basically in pop culture studies, and my graduate work has focused primarily on reality television.) Hanif Abdurraqib’s essays so beautifully illuminate why: because popular culture tells us so much about the quotidian, about the personal, about how mass-produced art touches us in profound ways. Abdurraqib does not simply write about music or sports; he writes about being Black and Muslim in America, about love, about loss, about growing up. Pop culture is how he, like so many of us, makes sense of the world and his position in it. He mediates his complex thoughts, his heartbreaks and victories, through pop culture, or perhaps it’s the other way around. It’s no surprise that he’s a poet, though his lyrical prose remains clear and insightful. He just has such a masterful command of language, and so it’s not only a joy to read his thoughts on Fall Out Boy or Serena Williams, it is delightful to marvel at his technical ability. Though he grapples with many unpleasant truths – about premature deaths, about police brutality, about the insidiousness of racism and Islamophobia in their many forms – there is something life-affirming about his writing. He searches for the good while remaining aware of the presence of the bad. It’s exactly the collection of essays that needed to be written in this hellish Trumpian era, and that demands to be felt deeply when we are close to losing hope.
How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS by David France
It is only natural that the LGBTQ community and movement have changed so much since the early days. But it’s also a bit sad that so much history has been forgotten, AIDS only a footnote to so many. This can’t necessarily be attributed to wilful ignorance; of course, the disease decimated a generation of gay men, so many of them incredibly young, and many stories died along with them. This book obviously deals with the unthinkable magnitude of loss; the complicity of the government and scientific community in ignoring, commodifying, and amplifying the crisis; the brutal homophobic rhetoric that the crisis engendered. But it’s also a hopeful book, because it shows us what activism can do. No, HIV/AIDS should not be thought of as something of the past, but it is undeniably true that thanks to the tireless work of scientists and activists – many of whom, it must be recognized, were gay people with AIDS – the life expectancy and quality of life for those with HIV/AIDS have improved dramatically since the early days of the crisis. And so in such a dark and horrible time, I think this book is a necessary reminder of what we can accomplish through meaningful grassroots activism, and that marginalized communities absolutely can advocate for themselves to create change. This book deals with an expansive and emotional topic, and it demands delicate treatment: it must be both meticulously-researched and deeply compassionate. David France, a gay journalist who was involved in early AIDS activism and who personally knew many of the key players, is the perfect author. His writing is packed with information but so engaging, and his ability to personalize the stories of the people who tamed the disease is incredible. This book contains so much humanity within its 515 pages. It’s an important, stunningly-written history.
France directed a 2012 documentary of the same name, which is also great (though far narrower in scope). I also highly recommend the short documentary When AIDS Was Funny, about the Reagan administration’s deafening silence on the crisis as it claimed thousands of bodies.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
I’ve enjoyed Koul’s Twitter presence and longform content for several years now, and her book is just as funny as I would have expected. Her essays (mostly) center around womanhood and being the first-generation Canadian daughter of Indian immigrants, and her exploration of the complexity of her family dynamics is wonderful. I just wanted there to be a bit more of a wow factor than I found – though perhaps that’s because I read it immediately following two incredible, substantive, emotionally-powerful non-fiction books. I’d still totally recommend this – it’s just not as good as, say, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple, predictable, and repetitive life, but when she witnesses an accident on her way home from work, everything changes and she is forced to confront her loneliness (and her childhood trauma). Eleanor is a hilarious character, with the running gag of the novel being that she is quick to chastise others for their poor social skills even though she is the one behaving in an unusual way. I don’t often come across novels set in Glasgow, and the friendliness and warmth of the supporting characters is very much in line with my experience of Scottish people. (By the way, I have done some calculations and determined that, given that Eleanor lives in the West End and there is only one Tesco Extra in the West End, the book must be referring to the Maryhill Tesco where I did all my shopping.) I think Eleanor’s various eccentricities require a slight suspension of disbelief, and the big reveal at the end was (mostly) easy to piece together – though there is a substantial twist which is then bizarrely not fully explored. It’s a very enjoyable read which strikes a good balance between dark and fluffy, but it’s not without its flaws.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Roy and Celestial have only been married for a year and a half when Roy is convicted of a crime that he did not commit. At first, they try to make their marriage work while he is in prison – but as time goes on, they grow apart, up-and-coming artist Celestial’s cerebral world so far removed from Roy’s reality. But when Roy’s conviction is overturned, he wants to return to their marriage, though Celestial has moved on. Though I wished at times that the book explored the political aspect of the story, Jones’ portrayal of the human cost of racialized unjust incarceration was poignant and believable. All sides were sympathetic, the conclusion realistic and satisfying.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I picked this up thanks to Elena‘s recommendation, and I’m very glad I did! This novel follows four generations of a Korean family who are displaced to Japan. It spans the better part of the 20th century, and it is clearly meticulously-researched. Above all, this is a novel about the strength and importance of family, particularly in the face of challenges (discrimination, immigration, war, loss). The writing is beautiful; Lee’s ability to capture a particular setting – whether urban or rural, the 1930s or 1980s – is wonderful. I loved the characters; each was distinct and sympathetic though flawed. I think the book tends a bit towards melodrama in certain areas, and I wished that some of the characters’ storylines hadn’t been tied up as an afterthought. But I think that this is an ambitious and beautifully-written book which so evocatively portrays the struggles and triumphs of a single family in a fraught sociopolitical climate.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
This was the inaugural work book club selection. It’s a very quick read and it makes a compelling spectacle, though it’s not particularly well-written. It was pretty clearly written by a man; the descriptions of the female characters were just… very male-gaze-y, and so many of the female characters are vapid, bitchy, class-conscious gossips. I imagine the movie is a lot better: all the joy is in witnessing extreme opulence, and surely a visual medium has the upper hand there. And you don’t even have to slog through sloppy writing to get to it!
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
This is a very difficult book to write about. It’s allegedly about a college student named Phoebe Lin, who in failing to process her recent trauma joins a cult. It’s narrated by her boyfriend, Will, who has recently left his zealous faith. But really this book is mainly about an emotionally-scarred, hot young woman and the boyfriend who is obsessed with the idea of her. It’s almost disappointing that this was written by a woman, as if men haven’t forced this tired narrative on us enough. The book isn’t all bad; it’s thought-provoking and I really can’t fault Kwon for how well she evoked such a dark, uneasy atmosphere throughout. But the explorations of religion and grief seemed quite surface to me, and there were almost no actual details about the cult. I mean, surely we’re all in it for the probing psychological profile of cult members, the tales of scandal that happen within. (I personally find cults second only to serial killers on the morbid fascination scale, so you know I was waiting for it to get juicy.) Maybe I wanted it to be a book that it just wasn’t. That’s also kind of how I felt about Donna Tartt’s A Little Friend. But this book sort of does a similar thing to that one: its summary is a bait-and-switch. If you accept that and take the book for what it actually is, maybe it’s better. Another Donna Tartt reference: the unrealistically pretentious, sinister small-town college student thing does beg comparison to The Secret History, though it’s certainly not at that level. It’s a strange one. Maybe you should read it and make up your own mind.
I predict my next post will feature quite a few books as well, as I recently started a new job with an hour’s commute each way – prime reading time! I have a big stack waiting for me, too.
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