Well, I reached 2018’s goal of 30 back in July, so this feels a bit anticlimactic. That said, I read 14 books in November and December, making the final tally for 2018 60. So, basically, I severely underestimated myself a year ago.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney’s second novel is thematically similar to her first, Conversations With Friends, which I enjoyed despite myself. These things are sure to become Rooney signatures: failure to communicate simple things, dysfunctional relationships with sex, relationships between sexually naïve women and experienced men, weirdly antagonistic yet codependent friendships, the pretentiousness of bourgeoisie who believe themselves to be progressive. This novel does an admirable job of processing these themes, and Rooney’s simple, straightforward prose and ability to create a believable psychological profile are on clear display here. I do always love a narrative where two people switch social positions, a dynamic that Rooney portrays delicately and believably. However, I can’t help but think that this is a less potent but more palatable version of Conversations With Friends. The difficulties of Conversations With Friends ultimately made it more interesting. Lately I’ve been finding it hard to enjoy things that are too slick, too smooth. Those adjectives imply a lack of grit, the difficulty of gripping something tightly. I think that’s how I feel in the case of Rooney’s two novels. Conversations With Friends is interesting because of the flaws, the possibility of failure. It’s lush with terrain that gives it grip. Normal People is sure to be more of a crowd-pleaser, but it lacks the same texture.
(By the way, huge thanks to Liz for hooking me up with an ARC of this after my review of Conversations With Friends! It’s out in the UK already, but North Americans will have to wait until April to read it.)
Making Camp: Rhetorics of Transgression in U.S. Popular Culture by Helene A. Shugart and Catherine Egley Waggoner
Camp was a central concern of my Master’s dissertation, so I’ve done a lot of reading on it, and I have yet to find a single article or book that I wholly agree with. Such is its slippery, elusive nature! I did really enjoy this book’s focus on women’s embodiment of camp, since the discussion tends to focus mainly on the male body and gay men’s consumption and creation of camp. However, I found myself scratching my head at a lot of the conclusions the authors came to, particularly regarding the political potential of their case studies. (For example, Xena‘s pathological queerbaiting being put forth as some kind of revolutionary lesbian representation was… not it.) I also found the writing a bit sloppy, rife with repetition and basic errors. I think this book is better in concept than in execution, basically. I am always happy to see someone thinking through the question of camp from a new angle, though, since it is very gay male-oriented. (Where are all the books on lesbian camp?!)
I’ll Be Gone In the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
Part of the appeal of true crime (aside from the could-be-me mixed with the relief of knowing that it probably won’t be) is our knowledge that there’s an ethical dilemma in commodifying people’s suffering and still being unable to look away. I read this book quickly and thoroughly enjoyed every page. Almost as interesting as the GSK case is the exploration of the meta aspects of the true crime genre. McNamara’s psychological struggles are laid bare, the promise of pursuit followed by the devastation of dead ends. The book is made all the more potent by McNamara’s premature death, the idea of unfinished business and an obsession never fully realized. I appreciate that McNamara is so even in her writing; she never puts forth wild theories or blames victims. And in the wake of the GSK’s arrest in April, her sharpness becomes apparent. Many of the theories that she thought important enough to include in the book turned out to be true. She had an incredible handle on the case, a connection to it that legitimizes the book’s existence in a genre that makes a spectacle out of the most unimaginable suffering.
I wish that McNamara had been able to finish this book, because it does unfortunately peter off, and there were elements of repetition and disjointedness. It feels like her team was reticent to revise her work too much, knowing that she was the expert, but it could have used some tightening up. But I acknowledge that some of the allure of the book is its backstory, including McNamara’s death. Regardless, this is sure to become a true crime classic.
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin
This book is not really about dead girls or their prominence in Western pop culture. Bolin touches on that briefly at the beginning of the book, but she doesn’t come to any particularly groundbreaking conclusion beyond “misogyny is bad, the pain of women is used to further men’s character development, and I hate the show True Detective“. She takes great pains to mention that she went to grad school, but this is not graduate level cultural analysis. Some of her essays are interesting; I enjoyed her thoughts on Britney Spears, Alexis Neiers, and the Canadian camp horror film Ginger Snaps. But make no mistake: the “essays on Twin Peaks and Serial” this book promises are really just a name drop or a few paragraphs that don’t come to any particularly enlightening conclusions. So much of this book is about Bolin, and how she moved to Los Angeles at age twenty-five (seriously, this book is about LA more than anything else), and how she’s read everything Joan Didion has ever written. It’s frustrating, because she’s clearly a talented, lucid author, but this is not the book it purports to be and the book it actually is is not all that interesting. For all the deconstruction Bolin does of white womanhood it’s ironic that she spends so much time writing about her own unremarkable white womanhood, though she thinks her move to LA from the Midwest is somehow special because she isn’t chasing fame. Well, her life in LA is not particularly interesting, and neither is this book.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
I read this in anticipation of the film, which I only wanted to see because it was directed by Barry Jenkins. (Basically any other director attached to this project would have been an immediate turnoff.) It’s remarkably depressing how relevant this book is over forty years later: Fonny’s unjust, racially-motivated incarceration for a rape the police know he did not commit could, and does, happen today. (It’s interesting that the male protagonist in Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, which I read this summer, is wrongfully convicted of the same crime.) His pregnant fiancée Tish’s love for him, wholehearted belief in his goodness, and strength in pursuing his release are brilliantly-rendered. This is fundamentally a narrative of the importance of love to survival in a hostile world, and it’s well worth reading. (Go see the film too!)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Yay, amazing Canadian representation in the form of a Giller Prize winner and Man Booker nominee! This novel tells the story of a boy who is born into slavery and then taken under the wing of his master’s eccentric scientist brother. The book takes us from the plantation in Barbados to the Canadian arctic to Nova Scotia to London to Marrakech – basically, it’s a rip-roaring adventure. And while it is certainly a fun, entertaining read, what I liked the most about it was the frustration of Washington’s talent and intelligence going largely unacknowledged. Living as a free man in Nova Scotia, Washington becomes a knowledgeable marine biologist and gifted scientific illustrator, but his contributions are erased, attributed to white men. This is the lot of so many people of colour, women, and other minorities through history, people with talent and sharp minds whose names we will never know. Also skilfully explored is the hypocrisy of the so-called abolitionist Christopher Wilde, who is disgusted by his brother’s treatment of slaves while using their labour to advance his own scientific progress. He believes himself to be morally robust, but his bond with Washington is uneven; he is more interested in the idea of Washington and in his usefulness than in his humanity. It’s an interesting, well-written novel. (Also, I am just delighted when CanLit gets some international attention.)
How To Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
Johanna Morrigan (pseudonymously known as Dolly Wilde) is a nineteen-year-old music journalist in mid-nineties London who finds herself unexpectedly well-known after a creepy comedian publicizes details of their sexual encounter. Moran writes deftly about the dynamics between men and women (particularly when sex is involved), and the defense of teenage girls at the heart of the novel is lovely. (I once wrote an essay about One Direction and teenage girls so I am very on board with this.) The conversational writing style is hilarious and easy to get into; the characters are a little bit absurd in a totally enjoyable way. However, one does get the idea that Moran finds light racism a bit funny (and, indeed, she has made many comments which basically confirm that she thinks racism is funny and/or not actually a big deal). So, that’s a bit of a downer. Also a downer is the fact that the ending of the novel is far too neat and perfect to be at all realistic. Johanna’s life is a hilarious mess; the end of the novel should be too.
Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay
This book’s power is not only in its generally cogent, well-articulated essays but in the weight of collectivity, the feeling that rape culture is impermeable, ubiquitous, and unrelenting. The stories in this book seem impossibly numerous, but they are so few. Most jarring is the realization that the title doesn’t only refer to the idea that sexual assault is “not that bad”, but victims’ own attempts to downplay trauma that refuses to be processed. This is a powerful, important collection that I highly recommend – though it’s obviously no easy read.
Love by Jeanette Winterson
I adore Penguin minis – they’re such a fun, easily-digestible way to discover new authors or explore a variety of someone’s work. Love is made up of excerpts from many of Winterson’s books as well as her own commentary. I’ve enjoyed her fiction, but I think the sharpness and clarity of her mind comes through best in her non-fiction and certainly in her meta-fictional commentary. Love is both a wonderful introduction to a breadth of her work as well as a demonstration of her exceptional insight.
Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò
A really interesting premise: a married couple in 1980s Nigeria struggles with infertility for so long that the husband takes a second wife at the insistence of his family. It’s an interesting concept and an ambitious portrait of a marriage over the span of decades, but it doesn’t totally work for me. Adébáyò’s writing is vivid; I enjoyed the incorporation of Nigerian fairytales into the narrative, the backdrop of political instability underscoring the instability of the marriage, and the fully-developed characterization of Yejide, the wife. Yejide’s heartbreaking reaction to sustained tragedy is completely believable. Akin, the husband, seems more like an afterthought, and he’s not as likeable as the novel tries to make him. There are certain plot points which seem slapdash and not followed through properly. However, it’s a touching story with a powerfully-rendered protagonist.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
This is one of the standouts of 2018 for me. Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a classic of lesbian literature; Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is Winterson’s attempt to revisit that story in middle age. It’s a memoir about an unhappy childhood, but it’s also a philosophical meditation on many of the themes Winterson explores in her fiction: the fluidity of time, dysfunctional family units, religion as an oppressive yet deeply alluring force, hostile motherhood, what it means to love and be loved. The scenes of her childhood feel familiar, of course, but it is the chapters that occur after the twenty-five-year jump that are truly stirring. Winterson recounts her breakdown after the dissolution of a relationship, and then her search for her biological mother. It’s a testament to her thoughtfulness, her sharpness, her buoyancy that a book that grapples with so many difficult moments is ultimately hopeful and triumphant. I’m not really one for a memoir, but I happily made this exception.
Milkman by Anna Burns
This year’s Man Booker winner is complex, layered, and challenging. It uses no proper names, and so we have a story narrated by middle sister in an unnamed city about “the political problems” – though that’s no less euphemistic than the term “the Troubles”, which is what the novel is actually about. Aside from the lack of proper names, certain characters are referred to only collectively: for example, middle sister’s three “wee sisters” speak and act in unison, always. But what is most interesting about the novel is the exploration of the impact of ethno-nationalist conflict on our eighteen-year-old protagonist. Middle sister is relentlessly pursued by a high-ranking paramilitary known as Milkman, and though she does not enjoy his attentions she lacks the language to articulate this to her community, who shun her for her alleged affair. Middle sister is quickly labelled a “beyond-the-pale”, her insular, paranoid, gossip-driven community shutting her out instead of helping her. It’s a poignant take on how political conflict exacerbates a young woman’s trauma. Most frustrating is middle sister’s desire to understand and articulate her dilemma, with patriarchal social rules limiting her ability to self-express. With no physical violence done to her, she does not know how to explain to others what she is experiencing. Present in the novel are “the women with the issues”, the community’s small feminist group, hinting at an alternate consciousness that middle sister fails to access despite her obvious interest in the group. This is a dense, difficult book, but one worth making an effort for and a worthy Man Booker winner.
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen
An interesting premise and promising first chapter give way to a disappointing collection of essays. Petersen attempts to acquit herself of her focus on straight white women: unruliness is accessible, with fewer consequences, to this category, thus their dominance in her book. This is undoubtedly true. It’s also a major fucking copout. The women she writes about are merely completing the work of so many who came before them, many of them women of colour, or trans women, or lesbians. Petersen tries to contextualize each essay, but what’s missing is acknowledgment of the labour of the subaltern that white women capitalize on. The adulation of Hillary Clinton is predictable white feminist fodder; the essay on Broad City ignores its near-constant queerbaiting; the assertion that Lena Dunham is hated because she puts her naked body on television conveniently glosses over all the shitty things she’s done. I mean, nobody’s perfect, but Lena Dunham has a self-described “blind spot” when it comes to race; she publicly accused a biracial woman of lying about being raped by her friend; she outed her sibling to their parents. Lena Dunham is one of those people that is so rotten that I inevitably forget half the shit she’s pulled because she is drowning in it. Even worse than the chapter on Dunham is the one on Caitlyn Jenner, labelled “too queer”, because there is no better spokesperson for LGBTQ women than a homophobic Republican whose privilege insulates her from basically everything most trans women experience regularly. (Hi, she said she’s faced more persecution for being a Republican than for being trans.) There are so many trans women, bi women, and lesbians (many of whom are women of colour) who do difficult, meaningful, necessary activism for the community. Caitlyn Jenner is not one of them, and she never will be, because her vague attempts at activism begin and end with issues that affect her directly. In conclusion, this book was dumb and a waste of my time.
There There by Tommy Orange
This is an ambitious debut about the intersecting lives of multiple generations of Indigenous people in Oakland, converging at a powwow that they all attend. I loved the central thesis of Indigeneity being as multifaceted as any other identity category; each character was distinct, their motivations clearly explored. This is a needed antidote to the tropes that permeate what little representation exists of Indigenous people in pop culture. The social commentary is acute and acerbic. Unfortunately, I think the execution of this novel was a bit uneven, exacerbated by the various character threads. Some characters and voices were more interesting than others; there is a family at the centre of the narrative who I was sad to be pulled away from when the perspective inevitably shifted. This is a relatively short novel and there just wasn’t room for the depth that some of these characters begged. I appreciate that the writing style adapted with each character, as well, but the more lyrical prose was vastly superior to the sparser style, and there’s a single random second person chapter that’s jarring. The conclusion was climactic, but its drama precluded meaningful resolution, and I don’t just mean because it’s a cliffhanger. This is a promising debut and a voice that needs to be heard, but unfortunately I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to.
And now for my yearly breakdown:
Total books: 60
Books written by women: 46
Books written by people of colour: 21
Books written by LGBTQ people: 18
Canadian books: 8
Much better than last year’s numbers, other than the CanLit category! And since I’m feeling spicy today, let’s list favourites. Fiction: The Muse by Jessie Burton, Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, Milkman by Anna Burns. Non-fiction: They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib, How To Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS by David France, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Stinkers of 2018: Ready Player One by Earnest Cline, The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen.
Here’s to some good books in 2019! (If I continue at this pace, I’ll have to do monthly posts, since this one is 3200 words long…)
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