Books read: March + April 2018

Posted on May 05, 2018 under Books

Well, I’m pleased to announce that in the first third of the year I’ve shot past the halfway point. In March and April I read 8 books, for a total of 19. I’m well on my way to my goal of 30 in 2018 – it appears that I may have underestimated myself.

The Problem That Has No Name by Betty Friedan

Another £1 Penguin Modern volume! This one contains two chapters from Friedan’s seminal sociological study The Feminine Mystique. The first is the most interesting to me – it’s about how housewives, promised fulfilment through marriage and childrearing, are actually bored, exhausted, and dissatisfied. As you may know from reading some of my older book posts, I have a (very niche) interest in narratives about women developing inexplicable psychosomatic disorders as a result of the drudgery of housewifery, so you can see why this section was of particular interest to me. In fact, many of the housewives Friedan studied did develop symptoms such as hives and exhaustion. The second essay in the book traces the history of American first-wave feminism, as Friedan ultimately argues that in the 1960s there was a regression after women won the right to pursue education and work. Friedan’s writing is urgent and compelling, making it quick to devour these two essays.

Of course, women now commonly go to university and develop successful careers, so we have to reframe Friedan’s work. Studies have shown that women are no more happy than we were in an era of fewer freedoms – so now we’re left to wonder if we’re better off “having it all”. Womanhood still seems tinged with ennui. It’s interesting to meditate on this even though the context has changed so much since the publication of The Feminine Mystique!

The Red Tenda of Bologna by John Berger

I will read anything by John Berger. His writing has a lush, dreamlike quality; I really felt like I was walking through Bologna as I read this essay about memory, family connections, and art. It’s not often I come across non-fiction writing that is so evocative and sensual. Berger is best-known for the second essay in the volume Ways of Seeing (which featured in an earlier post), but I’d highly recommend his other writing as well. I’m not a massive reader of non-fiction (and read pretty exclusively in the genres of feminist/pop cultural analysis), but Berger’s writing is far from dry and straightforward.

Fame by Andy Warhol

Warhol’s writing has such a levity – he doesn’t take anything too seriously, and he injects a lot of dry humour into his essays. I don’t always agree with the conclusions he reaches, but he has such an interesting way of framing things that I found myself nodding along anyway. I took an anthropology class in my undergrad where basically every assignment was about making visible social norms and values that are so engrained that we don’t question them. I feel like Warhol’s essays do this a lot, casting things that we take for granted as absurdities in a quest to make new meaning. Though I’m quite familiar with a lot of Warhol’s work (as a sentient adult human and as someone who did a degree in pop culture), I’d never read any of his essays before. I think I understand his artistic point of view better now. And now I really want to go watch Lou Reed’s screen test on a loop because it’s so good and also I love Lou Reed and wish he were still on this plane of existence.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

I was really excited to read this book, because Seanan McGuire is the real name of one of my favourite contemporary writers, Mira Grant. Grant is the pseudonym McGuire adopts when writing the most badass, exciting, twist-y, fun sci fi. (Seriously, the Newsflesh series is so good, and I’m not a sci-fi or zombie novel person.) Unfortunately, I may not get on with her urban fantasy persona quite so well. Now, I will disclose upfront that I don’t read much fantasy in general and particularly little urban fantasy. But I am willing to give anything a chance, really; I’m not a genre snob. And the premise of this series is wonderful: it’s about children (predominantly girls) who find doors to other worlds. Each kid seems to find a different world, ranging from the underworld to fairy nations to lands filled with candy. Each world is exactly what they need: an escape, tailor-made to their needs. Many of the kids who return to the “real” world are despondent and wish they could go back, so the elderly Eleanor West (who spent many years in her own world) creates a boarding school to help rehabilitate them. There’s something about finding a secret doorway to another world that just appeals to my inner child. But the payoff in this novel is just nonexistent: the dialogue sucks, the characters aren’t well-developed, and the pacing is off. I figured out the identity of the serial killer at the heart of the plot way before it was revealed, which was disappointing because Mira Grant’s novels have the best twists. I won’t be continuing on with this series, but as long as Grant continues pumping out Newsflesh novellas I will eat them up.

Feedback by Mira Grant

Speaking of which…! I’m a huge fan of the Newsflesh series – it’s about political bloggers who find themselves wrapped up in a sinister government conspiracy in the zombie-infested America of 2040. Feedback, the fourth novel in the series, follows a different group of political bloggers. It retains a lot of Mira Grant’s signatures: a badass female heroine; an incredibly thorough consideration of the ways society has changed in response to the zombie outbreak of 2014; a lot of fun action (and less fun death). But Grant had a lot to live up to because the original trilogy boasts some of the most enjoyable action characters of all time as well as truly mindblowing twists. I don’t think Feedback quite hits the mark: only the narrator, Aislinn, is fully-developed, and even then she’s basically just an Irish version of Georgia Mason from the original series. The action wasn’t as twisty and fun, either. Some of the impact of the major character deaths was mitigated somewhat by the fact that, well, I was expecting a lot of destruction since I’ve read the original trilogy and am very aware that Grant will kill basically anyone. It’s still a really fun novel, but at 500+ pages I was expecting a little more oomph.

Coming To You Live: A Newsflesh Novella by Mira Grant

… and then this is exactly what I want out of the Newsflesh world. Shaun and Georgia Mason remain the most enjoyable action protagonists ever and this novella gives us a new high-stakes situation instead of rehashing more of the same. This will have little appeal to those who haven’t read the original series, but for longtime fans it’s a nice way to spend a little more time with these awesome characters.

The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins

I wasn’t expecting anything incredible out of this novel, but I managed to go in totally unspoiled, which helped a lot. It’s a solid, enjoyable thriller if you don’t use too much brainpower on it. The writing isn’t great, the identity of the killer was pretty obvious (at least to me, and I rarely figure these things out), and without the train voyeurism angle it’s a pretty standard plot. But I thought the character of Rachel was pretty interesting, and the book takes a kind of feminist-adjacent angle that was mildly compelling if not in any way politically radical. In terms of female-fronted thrillers I think Gillian Flynn will always take the cake, but I read this novel while on vacation and I think that’s a pretty good time for it. It’s a quick, easy, and fun read, in any event.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Finally, after years of trying to find a copy of this book to no avail, Aisling hooked me up! A few people told me they enjoyed Burton’s second novel, The Muse, quite a bit more, but I have to say I love both. I understand the criticisms of The Miniaturist, but at the end of the day I was totally sucked in. I can’t remember the last time I devoured a 400-page book so quickly and eagerly; it didn’t lag at all. I loved the story and the characters, and the world felt so rich and complete. I saw certain things coming, but other major plot points came totally out of the blue even though in retrospect there were plenty of hints dropped. Altogether, I think it was a cleverly-plotted and incredibly compelling novel. I’ll eagerly read whatever Jessie Burton puts out next – her novels are the perfect blend of clever and readable.

I have about nine days left in my European travels (in Copenhagen right now, leaving for the Faroe Islands tomorrow), and the days have been so packed that I haven’t had too much opportunity to read. But I’m hoping the second half of May and all of June will be fairly fruitful, although I do have a dissertation to write between now and September. I’m definitely on pace for 30 books in 2018, though secretly I’d like to do 50 again. We’ll see!

There are 2 responses to “Books read: March + April 2018”

  • I quite enjoy Warhol’s work – so much that when I lent my partner a copy of some of his essays and he somehow lost it in his parents’ house for 7 years, I was unimpressed (we found it last summer when he started making them go through their belongings). I should read it again.

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