Books Read: September and October 2018

Posted on November 03, 2018 under Books

My reading slowed down a little bit in the first third of October, but I managed to read 10 books over the last two months, bringing me up to a total of 46. I’m very happy with this number! I now only need to read 6 more in November and December to make my goal.

Because I think books can be beautiful objects, this month I’m also sharing photos of some of the individual books that I think are particularly nice-looking.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

To be honest, I thought this book would be okay but not amazing, but boy was I wrong. I absolutely loved the slow, lazy pace, the description of Cameron’s small-town Montana coming of age, the realistic emergence of her lesbian identity. I know some people find it a bit slow, but I thought the pace was perfect, and, you know, teenage lesbians never get the privilege of unhurried coming of age stories so I’m going to savour the hell out of this indulgence. Rarely do I encounter characters who feel as real as Cameron, whose tough façade, genuine conviction in who she is, deep insecurity, and unprocessed grief over the death of her parents converge in such delightfully authentic ways.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This is a book about mass, serial sexual assault. It is, consequently, incredibly heavy. It’s based on a true story and concerns a meeting involving eight women from two different families in a Mennonite colony in South America. Being women, they are illiterate, so they recruit a socially reclusive man from their community to record their conversation; the novel is in the form of the minutes of this meeting. The conversation is about the recent revelation that many women and girls from their community (including some of the women present at the meeting) have been given horse tranquilizer and repeatedly raped in the nighttime. The religious leaders of the colony have ordered the women to forgive their attackers, who are also members of the community. The women gather to discuss what to do next: namely, if they should stay and fight this injustice, or leave their community and start anew. It’s absolutely harrowing, but impeccably-written. Each woman has such a clear and distinct voice; Toews treats the topic delicately but completely gets across the immediacy of the dilemma. I think it’s fairly self-evident that those who are sensitive to portrayals of sexual assault (perhaps particularly in the current climate) may want to stay away from this novel, wonderfully-written though it is. It is incredibly powerful and incredibly disturbing.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I have read a lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, so I appreciate when it’s done differently. This is a novel about the flu that ends the world, and it’s also about the troubled life of a thrice-married movie star originally from a tiny island off the coast of British Columbia. It’s a strange mixture, but the opulence of Arthur Leander’s celebrity lifestyle contrasts with the barrenness of the post-flu world – but there is also a symmetry in the isolation of fame and the apocalypse. The world-ending plague has linkages to real-life epidemics: its arrival in Toronto echoes the SARS scare of the early 2000s (I was just old enough to remember that), its spread via air travel reminiscent of Gaëtan Dugas, a Quebecois flight attendant long thought (erroneously) to be “patient zero” for AIDS. What I found most fascinating about this novel was the divide between those who remember the pre-flu world and look back on it with nostalgia and the younger generation, who view things like electricity and air travel as incomprehensible, akin to magic. It’s a very interesting, strange novel. Also, I’m a sucker for anything set in Toronto.

Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut

Not one of my favourite Vonnegut novels, but still impeccably-written. This one is about a man name Rudy Waltz, who in childhood accidentally shot and killed a pregnant woman and was ostracized from his Midwest community. As a narrator, Rudy seems so far removed from humanity, not necessarily sub-human but somehow inhuman, and he describes humanity with detachment that is borne of his alienness rather than sociopathy. It’s a book about the impacts of childhood trauma and social isolation on the psyche, which is interesting, but it does lack focus. I’m now ten books deep into Vonnegut’s catalogue, and while sometimes I encounter one that I think deserves to be considered on the level of Slaughterhouse-Five or Breakfast of Champions, I can see why this one isn’t often discussed.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, is absolutely enchanting. So far I have yet to read anything by her that comes close to matching it. She creates characters so wonderfully, and in On Beauty she perfectly captures the cerebral pretensions of academics who are so far removed from the real world that they damage their relationships. But – and, given its subject matter, it’s possible that this is the point – the book felt a bit smug, like its main purpose was to assert its own cleverness. It also felt a bit like a series of vignettes that never fully come together; it shares the issue of an anticlimactic ending with Smith’s NW. Reading her books is frustrating because White Teeth was so enjoyable that it’s almost painful to not feel that her obvious talent is realized.

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

This is a gorgeous portrait of Filipino communities in Northern California in the early 1990s. The main character, Hero, is a bisexual communist who comes to live with her uncle and his family after being a field doctor for a rebel army in the Philippines for a decade. Her upper class parents have disowned her for her political affiliations, and she must start over as an undocumented immigrant and unofficial nanny of her seven-year-old cousin. It’s a beautifully-drawn story about family, friendship, and diaspora. My only complaint is that the prologue focused on Hero’s cousin’s much-younger wife, Paz, whose story is very interesting – but she becomes a secondary figure in the rest of the novel, which is a bit disappointing!

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I really enjoy novels about fraught female friendships; one of my favourites is Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, and certain aspects of the relationship between our narrator Elena and her abrasive but dazzling best friend Lila remind me of that book. This novel follows their friendship from its establishment in early childhood until Lila’s wedding at age sixteen to a wealthy businessman. The girls’ respective power relative to each other and their community shifts as they grow up, and Elena ultimately finds herself in Lila’s shadow although she has far surpassed her academically. It’s a thoughtfully-drawn portrait of both female friendship and a country in the middle of a shift towards prosperity under modern industrialization. (I find Italian works set in the post-war period really interesting because the country changed so rapidly – Italian cinema is fascinating for the same reason.) The conclusion of the novel is rather abrupt (and does nothing to address the prologue, which is set decades in the future on the occasion of Lila’s sudden disappearance), but I guess that’s what the rest of the series is for.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Fourteen-year-old June is a misfit, understood by one person: her beloved uncle Finn. When Finn dies of AIDS in 1986, June discovers that he had a partner for a decade. June’s mother, who loved Finn but struggled with his sexuality and the stigma of his disease, made the total absence of his partner in June’s life contingent on her brother’s relationship with her. But in the wake of Finn’s death, June strikes up a secret friendship with Finn’s partner Toby, who is also dying. As some of my blog readers might know, I’ve consumed a lot of books and films about AIDS (particularly its early days) and everything in this novel felt realistic, particularly the way June’s family struggled to reconcile their love for Finn with their homophobia and the hysteria surrounding the disease. June was very believably fourteen, though I didn’t fully understand the genesis of her outcast identity.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

This is a book about people who think they’re very smart and politically radical but who gleefully participate in the institutions they claim to hate. It’s also about a twenty-one-year-old self-described bisexual communist (hey, a theme!) having an affair with a thirty-two-year-old actor who is the husband of a well-known photographer and writer who befriends her one night. I can see why thoughts are so divided here; none of the characters are likeable or display any sort of growth, and their political posturing is truly insufferable. It’s the kind of self-consciously clever novel that seems destined to irritate. But despite it all I actually liked it! It’s full of irony and subverted expectations: that these people can talk endlessly about radical politics while still living privileged lives, that despite the novel’s overt centering around conversations it’s actually about the repeated, sustained failure to communicate, that the sex scenes are without exception a bit pathetic. It’s not really a titillating story about an affair or a politically-meaningful text, but I think that’s what I like about it, that it starts doing these things and then purposefully stops short. The anticlimactic ending is fitting for these characters who are, despite their beliefs in their own intelligence, milquetoast bourgeoisie who are pathologically incapable of making good choices. It all sounds a bit grim, and it is, and I get why people would hate this one. Not really a ringing endorsement, but, hey, I really did like it and if you’re curious I think you should see for yourself.

Starlight by Richard Wagamese

Northern Ontarian Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese died in 2017 before completing this novel, which is about a woman and her daughter escaping from an abusive situation and coming to live on a farm run by a gentle nature photographer named Frank Starlight. There is a lot here that is substantial, compelling, touching. I find the exploration of communication and commonality fascinating, particularly because these characters are explicitly inarticulate and uncomfortable expressing themselves verbally. They find comfort in each other (and nature), affirming their love for others and the world around them in unconventional but profound ways. Starlight is also an interesting character – particularly his ambivalence about his Indigenous identity, which is tied up in the absence of his biological father. (This echoes Wagamese’s real life; he was raised in foster care and discouraged from pursuing his cultural heritage.) However, this novel does feel unfinished, and I don’t just mean because it literally stops halfway through. (I think this is handled well, actually, with an explanation of Wagamese’s intention for the ending, an excerpt from a work with similar themes, and a personal essay in which he explores the absence of his father, who died a year before he reunited with his biological family.) I mean it reads like a draft – a draft by a gifted writer, but a draft nonetheless. I’m talking long sections of pure dialogue, character motivations that don’t quite work, things like that. I think this book is best seen as a posthumous gift to longtime fans; as a standalone novel, it’s imperfect, and I imagine it isn’t the best introduction to his work. That said, I’d like to check out some of his completed novels to get an idea of his writing at its best.

I have a stack of eight books I’d like to get through before the end of the year – I’ll see you in two months with the final tally of 2018.

There are 2 responses to “Books Read: September and October 2018”

  • LOVE your book posts and this definitely makes me want to check out America is Not the Heart and Cameron Post. I really liked Station Eleven, despite being lukewarm in general on dystopian / post-apocalyptic fiction. I’ve made it to my 50 book goal already, but I’ve been in a reading rut for the past few weeks. The only thing I’ve finished lately that I can recommend is There, There by Tommy Orange, which is several interwoven Native American narratives centered around a powwow that they will be attending. It was heartbreaking but a good read.

    I’ve been on the Eleanor Oliphant wait list since you recommended it awhile back. Here’s hoping that comes in soon.

    • I always love your recommendations too – added There, There to my ever-expanding list!

      I really like the concept of dystopian fiction but I think so many tropes are overdone that a lot of it is just bad. A lot isn’t contextualized either – I like to see a linkage between our world and the fictional dystopian world. If the world just kind of exists it’s much less compelling. The wasteland element of Station Eleven has definitely been seen before, but I loved the focus on the arts that you don’t often see in the genre. (I guess most people think fighting for survival precludes more esoteric interests, but it’s interesting to think of humans seeking beauty even in dark times.)

      I hope you get your hands on Eleanor Oliphant soon and that you like it! I think it has the perfect tone – not too heavy, not pure fluff. It’s a fun one and I can totally see why it’s been so popular.

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