Books Read: May and June 2018

Posted on July 01, 2018 under Books

Happy Canada Day! We’re now halfway through 2018 (ahhh!) and I’m feeling very good about how this year is going books-wise.

May was a bit of a wash; I was travelling and then preparing for and executing a cross-continental move. But I got back in the swing of things in June, and I think I managed to read a respectable amount. In these two months, I read 6 books, bringing my yearly total up to 25 – which means I’m halfway to 50 halfway through the year. I set a goal of 30 for 2018, so I think it’s safe to say I’ll be meeting that. Since I’m doing so well, I’d be happy if I could stay on pace and meet (or exceed) last year’s total of 51.

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

This book is based on the real-life case of Debra Lafave, who molested one of her fourteen-year-old students. (Generally the media describes Lafave’s in softer terms such as “seducing” her student, because that’s how we talk about female sexual predators, I guess.) It absolutely succeeded in getting me in the head of a pedophile, which ultimately is not a place that I care to be. Celeste’s monologues were very well-written, reminding me a lot of Amy Dunne’s self-righteous, angry narration in Gone Girl. Clearly, Nutting is truly talented, and that talent is what elevates this book above the simple category of “shock value smut”. That said, I don’t think it’s an especially complex novel, and since the subject matter is so stomach-turning it’s not one I’d ever revisit or even recommend to anyone. Needless to say, it has the potential to be incredibly upsetting if not triggering, so please proceed with caution.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I wrote a very scatching review of this book on Goodreads. Here are some of the salient points, though you are very welcome to read the whole thing (as well as some of the other one- and two-star reviews on there, because they’re amazing):

You know those people who use their extensive knowledge of pop culture as a substitute for a real personality? This is the literary equivalent of that. I’m not against a book whose primary function is spectacle over substance; sometimes you just want to be dazzled as a reader. It’s like the cinema of attractions in book form. That’s cool. It’s just that this wasn’t a spectacle that I particularly enjoyed.

[Lack] of incredible writing chops does not necessarily deter me from enjoying a book. A formulaic, predictable plot does, though. Watery social commentary that any half-sentient sixteen-year-old could come up with does. A novel that is packed full of pop culture references but completely lacking in any indication that the author has heard of a single woman in his life does. … Art3mis is afforded the wonderful plot of “Is she hot in real life and will she sleep with our protagonist?” She’s a blatant male fantasy: chock full of all the requisite masculine nerd culture references but a curvy, pretty woman instead of a basement-dwelling man. Wonderful! Emailing Art3mis to warn of imminent danger, Wade charmingly adds “PS – I think you look even more beautiful in real life,” because every intelligent, accomplished woman wants unsolicited, condescending affirmations about her appearance when she’s being hunted down by an evil corporation.

Ready Player One depicts a bleak future, but it doesn’t draw any attention to one of its most disturbing elements: the lack of female influence on the cultural, social, and political landscape. This book is a celebration of a male-dominated nerd canon disguised as an adventure novel slash social critique. If you’re into the male-dominated nerd canon, you might enjoy its spectacle. Clearly, I did not.

Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez

Scarborough is a suburb of Toronto, amalgamated into the city in 1998 by an evil premier who we will not speak of. (I’m not a fan of amalgamation, but that’s another story.) It’s one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Toronto, itself one of the world’s most multicultural cities. Scarborough compassionately and complexly tells the intersecting stories of various low-income people who live in Scarborough. They are all united by a morning literacy programme offered at a local school, with many of the children attending for the promise of free breakfast. Almost all of the characters in this novel are people of colour, and Hernandez’s care and research in representing their cultures and experiences living in Canada is evident. She writes children and adults equally convincingly, affording every character compassion and nuance. The standout character is the literacy programme coordinator Hina, who you just hope is really out there supporting low-income communities, standing up for herself, and just generally being lovely and strong. Though this novel certainly has its fair share of sad – and even heartbreaking – moments, it’s not tragedy porn. It’s simply the story of a community and its resilience. I absolutely love reading novels set in Toronto, and I’m so glad that Scarborough exists to such local acclaim – these are stories that are not often told but that are so important for us all to understand as neighbours. I don’t remember the last time I was so gripped by a book that I read it in one sitting!

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Some of the best modern fiction is being written by Nigerian and Nigerian-American women, and I’m so glad that books like this, Homegoing, and of course Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s works are gaining international attention. Under the Udala Trees is about Ijeoma, who comes of age during the Biafran War in the late 1960s. Sent away to be a housegirl for a grammar school teacher and his wife, Ijeoma meets and falls love with a Muslim girl named Amina. While I found the prose a bit stiff at times, the story was beautiful, the character of Ijeoma so richly-drawn and believable. In general I never tire of LGBTQ narratives, but it is true that so many are white and Western. I’m endlessly glad that this book exists, and Okparanta has so much to say about homosexuality in Nigeria, both within the novel and outside it.

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Some of the best feminist-oriented coming-of-age stories have been produced by Canadian women. Alice Munro is best known for her short stories (she’s won a Nobel Prize!); Lives of Girls and Women is her only novel, though it could be argued that it’s a series of short stories centering on the precocious Del Jordan. Born in the 1930s, Del is raised by an enlightened, progressive mother in the small town of Jubilee, Ontario. The book follows her from age nine to young adulthood as she navigates the social and sexual expectations of a rapidly-changing world. The lives referenced in the title represent the different people Del is throughout the book as well as the different paths she could take. Her mother represents what she would have been reduced to had she been born a generation earlier; her friend Naomi represents the more conventional path taken by women. But Del is not a beacon of feminist consciousness like her mother. She is curious and sharp, but she pushes back against her mother’s progressive politics, looking for something greater than herself but also craving normalcy. She’s a fascinatingly complex character, a very convincing portrait of a young woman in the 1940s and 50s.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I got it into my head that I want to read all of the books on that fake BBC-endorsed “100 books to read before you die” list, mostly just to say I had but also because there’s probably some good stuff on it. I’m still trying to decide if I should do it or not, and the biggest deterrent is the 50,000 pages of Dickens I would have to read. I thought I’d dip my toes into it and read some of the books I’m actually interested in, and I started with The Picture of Dorian Gray. Obviously I knew the basic story, but hadn’t actually read it. I ended up really liking it – it’s full of drama, intrigue, murder, and hyperbole about how having to watch a bad play is a truly torturous experience… basically everything you need in a late 19th century novel. I thought the character of Lord Henry was the most interesting; though the novel centres around Dorian and all of his soulless indiscretions, Henry is just as terrible – and he hasn’t even sold his soul for eternal youth. Of course, the dramatic tension of the plot was enough to reel me in, but it’s also a fascinating character study.

Out of the six books I read in May and June, there was only one I really disliked – all the others were very enjoyable. Can’t complain too much about that!

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!

Books read: January + February 2018

Posted on March 04, 2018 under Books

I’ve decided to do a book post every two months instead of every quarter, because it can be hard to remember stuff I read three months ago when I’m compiling the posts. Also, I read a lot in the first two months of 2018, and I don’t want to make this post even longer by having to squeeze another month into it!

I need to read 2.5 books each month to make my goal of 30 by the end of the year, and I read 11 in January and February – so I’d say I’m doing pretty well! I definitely don’t expect to stay on this pace the whole year, but I think I can easily read 30.

So, here’s what I read in the first two months of 2018.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This book tells the story of the Lees, a mixed-race family living in Ohio in 1977. Their family is barely hanging together as a unit, and when the middle child, 16-year-old Lydia, is found dead in a lake, the family begins to crumble. I thought the characterization was so rich in this novel; though every character was flawed and made awful, hurtful mistakes, I felt deep sympathy for each of them. I was relieved that Lydia was well-developed through flashbacks, because I hate the trope of a female character dying to further other characters’ emotional development. I could feel how suffocated each character was – whether because of gender roles, racism, or the burden of expectation. I particularly enjoyed the mother, Marilyn, who had dreamed of becoming a doctor before becoming pregnant and giving everything up for a life of housewifery. (Obviously, if you’ve been reading my book posts for some time, you’ll know that this is a general theme that interests me greatly.) Everything I Never Told You grapples with a lot of big themes – racism, patriarchy, homosexuality – but never feels overwrought or like an after school special. It’s powerful, but in a quiet way.

Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

This was a Christmas present from my friend Hayley, who clearly knows me well! This book comprises two essays based on lectures given by Mary Beard, a professor of Classics. She draws on ancient examples of men silencing and suppressing women in order to argue that, well… we maybe haven’t come as far as we’d like to believe. Women are still being silenced, our power undercut. Beard writes clearly and powerfully (heh), and the book is a quick, fiery, and enjoyable read. After reading quite a lot of popular feminist texts that are almost apologetic (and seem to always make #NotAllMen-type concessions), it’s refreshing to read one that is so unabashedly angry. However, for something subtitled “a manifesto”, I was hoping for just a little more in the way of a call to arms or action plan. Overall, two great essays executed well, though.

All The Pretty Little Horses by Mira Grant

Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series is one of my favourites ever – they’re political thrillers set in a world ravaged by zombies, and each novel gets progressively more twisty and insane (in the best possible way). All The Pretty Little Horses is a prequel novella, set in the early days of the apocalypse. It follows the parents of our Newsflesh protagonists as they establish themselves as survivalist heroes in the terrifying new world. I was glad to get some of their backstory as they’re fairly two-dimensional in the main series, but ultimately it just wasn’t the most exciting read. Their children Georgia and Shaun make for much more compelling characters.

NW by Zadie Smith

This should have been right up my alley – I absolutely love multiple narrative strands and perspectives when done properly, and Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth was one of my favourite reads of 2017. I still really enjoyed Smith’s writing in this novel – her dialogue is excellent and her narration is always a bit cheeky, which I love. But not all of the characters are on equal footing – the character whose perspective starts the novel was off-putting and not very interesting. And the end was pretty anticlimactic. I can’t deny that Smith’s prose is wonderful, but this just didn’t have the same emotional impact as White Teeth. I’m really glad I didn’t start with NW, because I might not have felt compelled to pick up any of her other work.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

The premise for this book is absolutely delicious! It’s billed as a retelling of Snow White, with the improbably-named Boy Novak as our protagonist. It’s 1953, and Boy flees from her abusive father, settling in a small town in Massachusetts. She marries into a wealthy family – and it seems that she loves her husband’s charming, precocious daughter, Snow, more than her husband. But when Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, it becomes clear that her husband is black, passing as white, and suddenly Boy can’t stand Snow. It’s a fascinating idea and I can’t fault Oyeyemi’s writing. However, the marketing is a bit off; this isn’t really a fairytale retelling. And there’s a twist at the end that’s just… very insensitive and tasteless, really. I won’t spoil it, but if you’re interested many Goodreads reviewers go over it.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

I’ve been trying to get my hands on Burton’s first novel, The Miniaturist, for literal years, but it’s never in stock at my local independent bookstore or at Chapters. I decided to settle for The Muse on my most recent Chapters trip, and I’m damn glad I did. This book was tailor-made for me, really: it involves multiple intersecting narratives and art-related deception and intrigue. One narrative follows Trinidad-born Odelle Bastien in 1967 London. Odelle has recently started administrative work at a prestigious art gallery, and coincidentally meets a man at a party who possesses a mysterious painting which sets Odelle’s boss, the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, on edge. The secondary narrative, of course, is that of the painting – a painting which has come to be under secret, dangerous circumstances in 1936 Spain, during the early days of the Spanish Civil War. This novel is exciting the whole way through – and though its twists aren’t fully-concealed (I did figure them out), it’s complex and fully-realized.

Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood

I’ve never read The Tempest, but I’m familiar enough with the plot that I followed this novel easily. It’s a revenge-plot-within-a-play-within-a-novel. After twelve years in exile, disgraced former theatre director Felix decides to get his revenge on those who wronged him. Felix has spent the past few years teaching Shakespeare to low-security prisoners in smalltown Southern Ontario. (I’m going to assume the town is a standin for Stratford, known for really leaning into the name and doing an annual Shakespeare festival – and also for being Justin Bieber’s hometown.) Felix decides to lure his enemies into the prison under the guise of watching his production of The Tempest, with the idea of executing his revenge plot during the staging of the play. It’s a quick read, very cleverly-adapted. I like the prison setting because it echoes a major theme of the play as well as of Atwood’s own novels. (Often, her characters find themselves literally or metaphorically imprisoned.) It also gives her the opportunity for a bit of social critique regarding the necessity of literacy and theatre programmes in prisons, though it integrates into the plot so well that it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. At times, Felix’s explanations of the themes of the play veered into “reading a lecture” territory, but overall it’s a great novel with a lot of payoff. (I was particularly delighted by the careful attention Atwood paid to naming her characters!)

Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman by Lindy West

I’ve enjoyed Lindy West’s writing for years, and this compilation of personal/feminist essays was no exception. She’s a funny, unapologetic, and incredibly smart woman. I particularly liked the section of the book which focused on online trolling and the impact that’s had on her personally and professionally. The internet has given misogynists very loud voices, and part of patriarchal oppression in 2018 online abuse. (Mary Beard touches on this a lot in Women and Power, too!) A few of the essays were basically just West rehashing arguments she’d had with people with additional commentary, which I didn’t love, but generally it was a very strong book.

Notes on “Camp” by Susan Sontag

I recently discovered that Penguin publishes little volumes of seminal essays by famous writers, which they sell for the bargain price of £1 a piece. So… I bought six! I had been planning on reading “Notes on ‘Camp'” for my dissertation anyway, so this one was a no-brainer. This one actually includes both “Notes on ‘Camp'” and “One Culture and the New Sensibility”. “Notes on ‘Camp'” is obviously the more prominent essay, however, so I’ll focus on that. I really love Sontag’s writing: it’s so sharp without ever becoming jargon-y. Her descriptive language is beautiful, too. Unfortunately I had some major issues with the very premise of her definition of Camp. Namely, she marginalizes and downplays how interconnected Camp is to the formation and performance of LGBTQ identity and, bewilderingly, refers to Camp as “depoliticized – or at least apolitical”. I’ve always thought of Camp as inherently very political by its close association with the LGBTQ community and its resistance to the norms of dominant cultural values. This is still a beautifully-written, seminal essay, but those are some pretty major faults. (Which, it should be noted, later academics have refuted – Moe Meyer’s “Reclaiming the Camp” is notable here.)

Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe

This volume includes four of Achebe’s essays on postcolonial Africa, spanning from 1989 to 2008. The first essay focuses on Nigeria’s political climate; the second is about his experience travelling throughout Africa in the 1980s and the racism he experienced during that time. The last two essays are about the representation of Africa by the Western world. Though he doesn’t cite her, a lot of the issues he writes about mirror Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” He writes so beautifully about colonial impositions of representations of Africa and links artistic representations of the continent (most notably Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) to wider political, cultural, and economic contexts. Achebe’s writing is clear and powerful, and there are so many incredibly potent lines scattered throughout all four essays.

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House by Audre Lorde

This book consists of five of Audre Lorde’s essays. The way she writes about harnessing anger at injustice into a productive force is so powerful and inspiring. Though the term intersectionality wasn’t coined until after these essays were written, she is such a strong advocate for perceiving the ways different identities work together. If you’re interested in her work I’d really recommend this one as an excellent starter. One of my favourite lines comes from the essay “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”: “Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” Activists are so frequently told to be less emotional and less angry, and it is vital to acknowledge that anger can actually be a great resource in creating change.

And that is it for January and February. I’ll see you in two months for some more reviews!