I read 14 books this quarter for a total of 45 this year, which means I have three whole months to read five to bring me to my yearly goal of 50! I tried to read a lot this quarter since I knew October, November, and December would be filled with academic reading. As Lenny Kravitz so wisely tells us, it ain’t over til it’s over, but I’m going to be cautiously optimistic and say that I’ll be able to hit my target. So here’s what I read over the summer!
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This ambitious novel starts with two Ghanaian girls, born in the 1700s of the same mother but raised separately. One marries a wealthy colonizer; one becomes a slave in the United States. We follow the two bloodlines eight generations, to early-2000s America. It’s a risky premise, and one that I think was executed well but not flawlessly. It helps to think of the book more as a series of vignettes than a novel; unsurprisingly, some chapters are more compelling than others. There were some characters whose stories I could really sink my teeth into and some who were more forgettable. Nonetheless, Gyasi vividly describes place beautifully, and her descriptions of 1700s Ghana and 1920s America are equally convincing. Worth a read, I think!
How Should A Person Be?: A Novel From Life by Sheila Heti
I’m going to copy my Goodreads review here because I don’t think I can summarize my thoughts on this “novel” any better:
I should have known as soon as I saw the blurb on the cover from Lena Dunham calling this book “amazing” that it would be self-absorbed and privileged. Heti’s preoccupation with herself is poorly disguised as a deeper, broader search for the meaning of life. She is incapable of thinking outside of herself until she deeply hurts her (also self-indulgent) best friend, and, in general, overthinks everything and creates trouble where there is none. She is the embodiment of bourgeoisie anxieties that, to put it bluntly, the working class doesn’t have the luxury to give a shit about. She takes a job at a hair salon not for the money but because she’s feeling unfulfilled procrastinating writing a play and doing coke with her other privileged artist friends. She decides to move to New York – one of the most expensive cities in the world – on a whim. And she frames everything she does as some sort of deep quest to finding human meaning, when really it’s just navelgazing at its finest. And yet I think she writes enjoyable, fluid prose. Somehow I couldn’t find it in myself to hate this book, although it’s irritating as hell – and, yes, exactly the kind of thing Lena Dunham would like.
The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand
I enjoyed Hilderbrand’s Here’s To Us (mentioned in this post) more than I expected, so I picked up her newest novel for a spot of light reading for a weekend trip. The novel concerns Harper and Tabitha Frost, estranged twin sisters who switch lives for a summer. Free-spirited Harper goes to raise uptight Tabitha’s rebellious sixteen-year-old daughter Ainsley and run her failing boutique on Nantucket; Tabitha escapes to Martha’s Vineyard to renovate the twins’ late father’s house. It’s an enjoyable read, but far from cerebral, obviously. The ending is predictably predictable, and the well-drawn characters and heart I discovered in Here’s To Us were absent from The Identicals. The polar opposite twins were too stereotypical for me to take seriously, and the family tragedy that drew them apart ends up being pretty anticlimactic. Fine for what it is, but nothing special.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler
After reading Solomon Gursky Was Here in a lit class that I was tricked into taking, my interest in iconic Montreal author Mordecai Richer was piqued. Duddy Kravitz is one of his better-known works; it’s about the titular character, a hustler if there ever was one, and his singular, lifelong goal of owning land. Duddy is an extremely well-drawn character: shady and amoral yet somehow still likeable. I love Richler’s descriptions of Montreal, as well. As someone who lived there for four years, the city feels familiar yet different, as it’s removed by several decades. That said, the plot didn’t quite do it for me – Duddy’s exploits were fun, but not as extravagantly enjoyable as the Gurskys’. Richler writes great dry prose and excels at creating antiheroes.
My 1980s And Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum
I read a review that compared Koestenbaum to Barthes, which seems fairly apt to me: both are self-indulgent, obsessive, and a little bit lyrical. (Koestenbaum suffers slightly less from an obvious Oedipus complex, however.) I can see this book as his version of Mythologies, though not focused around one thesis. (Oh, and he didn’t include any essays on items as banal as a glass of milk.) I found his writing insightful, fluid, and enjoyable to read. As with any collection of essays, some are better than others, but overall most captured my attention. Collections of cultural criticism can suffer from one inherent flaw: unless you are familiar with everything the essayist is writing about, you’re likely reading about a lot of cultural artefacts you haven’t experienced for yourself. That said, Koestenbaum describes vividly and kept me reading even when I hadn’t seen a specific painting he was writing about. I consider his descriptive writing top-notch and I’ll definitely reference it for inspiration when writing endless scene analyses in grad school.
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s first novel is noticeably different from his later novels both stylistically and tonally, though it has many thematic similarities. It explores a fictionalized America where almost every job has been replaced by computers, a concept that is all the more relevant 65 years later in today’s increasingly mechanized form of capitalism. This is by far the most character-driven of the Vonnegut novels I’ve read, which was interesting, but I have to say I prefer the acerbic style of his later work.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
This is Zadie Smith’s first novel and the first of hers I’ve read, and it definitely convinced me. This is a hilarious, poignant, and beautifully-written account of two immigrant families in 1970s and 1980s London and how their lives intersect. It hit every note for me: it was believable, expansive, and absolutely compelling. I can’t wait to dive into Smith’s other novels!
Perfect by D.M. Quintano
Ahh, just a spot of old school YA. I’ve read this book a million times and it’s certainly not as enjoyable as it was when I was 11. In fact, it’s highly flawed and boasts a fairly pathetic 2.5 star rating on Goodreads. I actually don’t think it’s as bad as all that – it’s actually quite darkly funny and well-paced. Is the plot great? No. Are the characters anything more than 2D cardboard cutouts? Of course not! But I still think it has its merits.
A Summer Bird-cage by Margaret Drabble
My mom recommended Margaret Drabble to me as I was telling her that I really enjoy narratives about the minutiae of women’s lives. Her first novel focuses on the relationship between two distant sisters, one of whom has recently married a famous novelist. I love women’s writing from the 1960s because so much of it concerns the absolute tedium of domestic life and women’s lack of autonomy, which I find fascinating. This is a really great look at the toll marriage can take on a woman, but also at the bond of sisterhood as the women grow closer while the marriage sours. It’s not exactly the most exciting novel, but obviously the genre “the minutiae of women’s lives” wouldn’t be.
The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble
This Drabble novel once again primarily concerns marriage: that of well-known actor David Evans and his wife Emma. David takes a theatre job for an entire season in a remote town, and Emma has to decline a news anchor job so she can uproot her family for the sake of David’s career. Similar themes to A Summer Bird-cage, but I think this novel is more compellingly-written. Emma is a very interesting character; I felt sympathy for her situation but not entirely for her as a person, because she’s quite cold. This is quite a short novel and I was really impressed at how much Drabble managed to say in so few pages.
Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
This is not one of my favourite Atwood novels, but it’s very disturbing and will stick with me for a long time. It’s narrated by an unnamed woman who has left her husband and baby for her lover, Joe. Her father disappears in the remote Quebec wilderness, and she brings Joe and two friends – who she doesn’t know particularly well – to try to find him. As the four characters get to know each other, the novel becomes more and more sinister – though it’s usually just an undertone, never anything overt. The narrator becomes increasingly isolated in the company of her friends. It’s very disconcerting, a psychological thriller with almost no action. Even when I don’t love an Atwood novel, I’m left in awe of her writing – this is no exception.
Lost In A Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, and Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde
These are the second, third, and fourth books in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. (I read the first in April.) Broadly speaking, this series is about an alternative 1980s UK, where time travel and cloning are abundant. The titular Thursday Next is a literary detective in Swindon who acquires the ability to enter books and live inside of them. The series follows her exploits in the real world and inside of books, as she polices both realms against political corruption and pure evil. These books are great fun and very clever, and I plan on finishing the series.
By the way, I got a Kindle in August, so the last three books aren’t pictured in the header image since I don’t have physical copies. Because I’m living abroad at the moment I really want to cut down on my physical possessions, so the Kindle makes a lot of sense.
Anyway, in another three months we will find out if I made my goal!
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