Books read: October 2019

Posted on November 03, 2019 under Books

I didn’t quite make it to 100 books by the end of the month, but I read 8 for a total of 98, so I’m just a few days away from reaching that elusive number. Here’s what I read in October.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

My only five-star read this month, and a worthy winner of the Booker! (We will not talk about the tie shenanigans, because it is too frustrating.) Evaristo explores the lives of twelve British womxn – most of whom are Black or biracial – with each narrative loosely pivoting around a play written by the lesbian socialist Amma. This novel is simply delightful: clever, vibrant, moving, funny, political, it has it all. With twelve characters, it’s almost a given that some would be more interesting than others, but I found each character compelling and well-developed. This is such a stunning portrayal of the multiplicity of Black British womxnhood. Evaristo’s ability to fully capture the humanity of every character is admirable, and there is a very sensitive and compassionate treatment of LGBTQ+ characters. (Representations of trans and nonbinary people in fiction are so rare – how lovely when they’re done this well.) I yearned to spend more time with some of these characters, and while every perspective was equally interesting and readable, sometimes the shift in POV was a bit sad! Overall, a book whose humour does not betray its depth, with wonderful writing and larger-than-life characters.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

If we were awarding the Booker based on cover alone, this one would have my vote.

As sex worker Tequila Leila lies dying in a dumpster in Istanbul, she looks back at her life: its hardships, its triumphs, and the community of outcasts who brought her joy. An interesting concept, evocative, precise writing, and beautifully-drawn characters combine to create an intense and touching novel. Shafak treats her protagonist with such care. Leila’s humanity is portrayed fully: her troubled childhood, the abuse she endured, her optimism, her loving heart. She is not simply a trope used for the advancement of a plot; she is a full and complete human. So often the murders of sex workers are not taken seriously because they are not seen as fully human. Here, Shafak adamantly subverts this idea, insisting on both Leila’s humanity and the tragedy of her brutal murder. Leila is a valuable, beautiful person, capable of love and being loved; while her family has turned their backs on her, she has a group of loyal, caring friends who mourn her death intensely. In fact, one of the primary virtues of this novel is its portrayal of friendship and chosen family. I only wish we had been privileged enough to see more of Leila’s inner world. This was not my ultimate favourite on the Booker shortlist, but I’m very glad I read it.

A note on the Booker: I ended up leaning towards Ducks, Newburyport as my pick simply because it is such a remarkable achievement in its work on the form of the novel itself. However, I am thrilled Girl, Woman, Other won – I only wish that if there had been a tie both winners would have been equally as worthy. It does seem rather tone-deaf to make the first Black woman to win the prize split it with an established, iconic white writer. (Not to mention the fact that Atwood already has a Booker, for the complex, engaging, and ambitious The Blind Assassin, which is an achievement in every way that The Testaments simply is not.) But there you go.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Fearsome preacher Nathan Price uproots his wife and four daughters from Georgia to the Congo in the late 1950s for a one-year mission trip – but what unfolds ties them to the continent of Africa irrevocably, unravelling their family. This is clearly the work of a skilled writer, and it was very atmospheric. Each of the women’s voices was well-developed and differentiated from the others. Nathan’s need to control his wife and daughters for the sake of their morality cleverly mirrors the colonial justification for invasion and exploitation. Yet there are some inconsistencies and issues of believability with the voices of the young daughters, and one in particular was very one-dimensional. I found the pacing off – slow at first, then a rush through several decades, and then slow to wind down. The latter third of the novel felt aimless and deflated compared to the earlier parts.

I was happy to read a condemnation of Western foreign powers, and the US specifically. But I’m not sure about the framing of Africa as a whole. Yes, the effects of colonialism are horrific and lingering. I don’t think that poverty, famine, and disease should be downplayed. But I wish there had been more exploration of the resilience and strength of postcolonial societies without reducing Africa in general to an object of pity. It’s a fine line to walk – but the portrayal of Africa as abject and nearly lifeless is a form of rhetorical violence. Perhaps that’s to do with the fact that the novel is narrated by five white women whose whiteness and American-ness skews the way Africa is presented. I think there could have been a stronger, more focused historical critique of (neo)colonialism – as it stands, this is pretty one-dimensional, with “Europe and the US are terrible” as the thesis. (I don’t mean to sound like an apologist for colonial powers – those implicated in colonialism should be held responsible. But this isn’t exactly a nuanced take. Perhaps the intended audience isn’t well-versed in colonialism, though.) I think, overall, this is a book that shows quite a lot of skill, and while it was immersive and evocative, it wasn’t really for me.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

Yes, I just read this earlier in the year, but I had to re-read it for class and enjoyed it even more the second time. There are many layers to this narrative which are a joy to tease out. I’m not counting this twice since I did already read it this year, but I wanted to mention it again because I do think it’s a fantastic post-heritage novel and one of the best explorations of all that was happening in 1980s Britain.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

In the early 1990s, Pablo Escobar is terrorizing Colombia and capturing the imagination of nine-year-old Chula. Chula, her parents, and her older sister Cassandra live in relative wealth in Bogotà, while their maid, thirteen-year-old Petrona, comes from the slums of the city. Chula and Petrona develop a bond, and as the political situation in Colombia worsens, both girls get drawn into darkness. A well-developed sociopolitical atmosphere is betrayed by underdeveloped or unbelievable characters. I do find it difficult to connect with child narrators in general, especially because they tend to suffer from an unbelievable sophistication of thought. Chula was no exception here. Petrona, though pivotal to the plot, wasn’t quite as developed as I would have liked her to be. I found her positioning fascinating, but her inner life was lacking: things simply happened to her. There were some questionable representations here, too, which I won’t get into for the sake of spoilers. An interesting debut, but not quite everything I wanted it to be.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Taddeo’s nonfiction account of the sex lives of three women is rather captivating, though not without major flaws. Maggie had a sexual relationship with her high school English teacher, and when she pressed charges, he was found not guilty and Maggie was shunned in her small North Dakota town. Lina, lacking intimacy from her husband, turns to her high school boyfriend for sexual fulfilment, although he clearly doesn’t have romantic feelings for her. And Sloane sleeps with men and women her husband picks out for her while he watches. Ultimately this is a limited representation of female sexuality. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but there is some rather grand framing of the book as an exploration of female desire and the implication that there are universal truths here. Well, not really. This is a book about white women who primarily have sex with men. (That’s not to erase Sloane’s bisexuality, but her sexuality revolves around her husband. So much of the insights in this book simply do not apply to lesbians, and it feels a bit alienating when this is framed as illuminating the universal experiences of female sexuality.) It’s also pretty heavy on the description and not so much on the analysis, and while the prose is quite compelling in its literary style, I’m left feeling like this is certainly not as deep as it purports to be. (I also did find some parts of it a bit try-hard and overwritten.) There’s a bizarre lack of positionality here; Taddeo never signals exactly how she is gathering information, and seems to try to erase her presence. It’s hard to know what is recollection from years earlier and what is happening more contemporarily. Is she present for Maggie’s court proceedings? Does she attend the women’s group with Lina? Does the drama with Sloane unfold during Taddeo’s research, or before?

There’s a bit of unevenness, too, with the different stories. Sloane’s sections were the least developed and the sparsest overall, while Maggie’s interested me the most. In fact, I think the book particularly shone in the sections on Maggie, and I almost wish Taddeo had just written a book about her. Her intervention in this story of sexual abuse, uneven power dynamics, and systemic failure is compassionate and necessary. In general, I appreciated that Taddeo took a completely non-judgmental tone and attempted to understand sexual choices that we may see as unethical or deviant. I think there is quite a generous impulse here. There were certain sentences that made me pause – for example, the idea that teenage girls are “unpopulated” is both untrue (man, teenage girls have some complicated inner lives) and rather dangerous in its implications. Women, even young women, are not empty vessels waiting to be filled up. There was also a line about how Sloane “gave herself an eating disorder”, which… yeah. I think there was an interesting throughline of the codependency of these women on the men in their lives and the impulse – but inability – to define their sexualities on their own terms.

This book is compulsively readable and quite compassionate, but I don’t think it’s nearly as intelligent as it wants us to think.

Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen

In 1957 Communist China, one family attempts to escape to Hong Kong. When the mother is forced to leave one child behind as proof that the family will return, she makes a devastating choice. While I did find the historical and political climate well-developed and interesting, something about this failed to affect me very deeply. This is another one where the child protagonist seems like a stretch. In general, the characters never quite seemed real to me, and the narrative lacks complexity. It’s very goal-oriented, without any real subplots. It’s a fine read, but there was nothing about that impressed me technically or that I think will stay with me for very long. I think this would be a good read for teenagers looking to read fiction about other cultural and historical contexts, but I’m looking for something a little more stimulating and rigourous.

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

Sixty-four-year-old Joan Castleman accompanies her husband Joe to Helsinki, where he will accept a prestigious literary award. On the plane, she decides to leave him, and over the course of a few days in Helsinki, Joan reflects on their long marriage and the marginalization of her own literary ambitions. There is something quite enjoyable about this incisive, unflinching novel despite its flaws. The chief problem is that I figured out the much-hyped twist within the first quarter of the book. While Wolitzer’s writing is generally strong, there were some sections that felt awkward and forced, and I never quite shed the consciousness that I was Reading the Work of a Serious Writer. In terms of the theme of gender dynamics within heterosexual relationships and women compromising their desires and creative and intellectual potentials for men, it’s been done before and done better. (The third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series is like… the absolute best for this. The series as a whole does this brilliantly, but the third shines particularly.) But the sheer force and anger of Joan’s narration, the clarity with which she discusses these themes, is compelling, and ultimately this is a quick, enjoyable, well-crafted read. The ending was equal parts frustrating and satisfying, and pitch-perfect, I thought.

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

A lot of great covers this month!

I now only have one Toews novel left to read! I think she writes human loneliness so beautifully, the impulse to reach out to strangers and loved ones, the poignancy of simple acts of kindness. Her characters are both fragile and resilient, funny and serious. In Irma Voth, we follow the rebellious titular Irma, a nineteen-year-old who has been semi-exiled from her conservative Mexican Mennonite colony after marrying a young Mexican man. When her husband, Jorge, abruptly leaves her, Irma seeks human connection and finds it working as a translator on the set of an independent film about Mennonites made by a Mexican director. This creates tension within Irma’s insular community and causes her father to sever ties with her. Meanwhile, her younger sister Aggie is following in Irma’s iconoclastic footsteps, and Irma must try to protect her while simultaneously missing her mother, dead older sister, and husband. Having read All My Puny Sorrows this year, I will say that this is not Toews at her absolute best – but it’s still a gripping and emotionally resonant book. There is something so specific about Toews’ writing: it is simple, it breaks your heart with absolute clarity, and it uplifts. Truly one of the finest Canadian writers.

Once again, there were quite a lot of books that fell in the middle for me this month – though no complete duds. I will be back next month to report on book 100 and beyond!

There is one response to “Books read: October 2019”

  • Pre-emptive congrats on reaching 100!

    Those two Booker nominees sound really good (thanks for reading them all so I could pick just the good ones lol)

    I read Poisonwood years ago and liked the parts when the sisters were young but agree that the later parts dragged.

    Wolitzer….man, I read The Interestings a few years ago and thought it was like a fluff novel masquerading as “””deep literature””” (but it was ultimately enjoyable). Then I read the Female Persuasion more recently and got the same impression but the book wasn’t even enjoyable. I’m done with Wolitzer.

    In October I finished-
    Ghost Wall – I picked this up randomly after seeing a friend post about it on Instagram. A young teenage girl (14ish) has a dad who is obsessed with Bronze Age life so he takes his wife and daughter on an “experiment” with a college prof and a few grad students to live like Bronze Age people for a week. Of course he’s an abusive fuck invested in forced gender roles, rigidly adhering to Bronze Age customs etc and takes the experiment way more seriously than the prof and grad students, including a pretend “sacrifice” of his daughter. It was a weird unsettling book that I couldn’t put down (and is only just over 100 pages). Wish it had continued a bit further after the ending, but definitely don’t regret reading it.
    The Lager Queen of Minnesota – Fluff but enjoyable. I like J. Ryan Stradal in general, though I liked his last book better. Lots of food themes (this one was about beer as you might have gathered).
    Vampires in the Lemon Grove – I really liked Karen Russel’s Swamplandia a few years ago so I decided to pick up this short story collection. I loved the first two stories – 1st – Vampires in the Lemon Grove about two aging vampires trying to live normal-ish lives sucking lemons instead of blood. 2nd – Reeling for the Empire about girls who were tricked into literally becoming silkworms and spinning silk. Weird and creative, not the type of stuff I normally read. The remaining six stories were just-ok but I enjoyed the first two enough that I wasn’t too mad that the others were meh.
    Modern Lovers – SUPER fluff and an extremely simplistic plot. I liked it well enough but I kept waiting for more stuff to happen which …never did.
    This One is Mine – Holy shit, awful. I had really liked this author’s Where’d You Go Bernadette earlier this year and the two stories are sorta similar – rich white ladies dissatisfied with their lives. But while Bernadette was a more developed character (flawed but relatable) and that book was obvious satire, This One is Mine’s main character Violet was irredeemable as was literally every other character in the book. I don’t mind “unlikeable” characters but there was very little plot, no character development and terrible sex scenes. What the fuck.

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