Posted on April 06, 2019 under Books
I read 12 books this month, which I’m obviously really happy with. I’ve now read 29 books this year. My goal of 50 is a foregone conclusion, and 100 seems doable, though still a stretch. I’d be happy if I hit the 80 mark. So here’s what I read in March…
His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet
In the mid-19th century, a triple homicide leaves a village in the Scottish highlands reeling. There is no doubt that the murderer is a teenage boy named Roderick Macrae; the central question is rather whether the murders are in any way justifiable. The bulk of the story is Roderick’s (alleged) first-person account of the murders and the climate leading up to them, and there is a rather satisfying use of the unreliable narrator trope. As such, the reader is positioned as the jury, having to decide what to believe based on incomplete, contradictory evidence. There’s a very interesting exploration of poor rural life and the corrupting influence of power; the political climate of the village of Culduie is tense and believable. That said, this book simply isn’t a page turner, and there’s something lacking in the premise. The introduction of the novel positions it at as a work of nonfiction, but how much historical nonfiction simply presents a collection of documents without any sort of authorial mediation? This framing device doesn’t quite work, and it’s not exactly a thrilling novel, but it’s still thought-provoking.
Son by Lois Lowry
This is the last book in Lowry’s The Giver series. It starts by taking us to the community from the original book, where we meet a fourteen-year-old girl named Claire who is chosen to be a “Birthmother”, i.e. an incubator whose child is reassigned to a “perfect” nuclear family. Claire’s medical trauma and her deep attachment to her son are incredibly compelling, but the book moves in a direction that ultimately lost me. A cool premise gives way to what feels like an excuse to tie up all the loose ends of the series. I’m sure this will be a satisfying conclusion for middle grade readers, but as an adult I can’t say it lives up to my memories of The Giver. (I definitely still own my copy of that book!)
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Considered one of the earliest dystopian novels, We portrays an orderly, mathematical society where everything is made of glass. The male protagonist meets a woman who opens his eyes to the oppression they face under their totalitarian authority and becomes obsessed with the idea of a different way of life. George Orwell was very much inspired by We, and while the world of 1984 is more robust, Orwell’s Julia is nowhere near as interesting as Zamyatin’s I-330. It’s hard to evaluate this novel from my standpoint, since the dystopian genre has developed so much in the last 95 years, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a lack of urgency given the situation. The narrator gets away with a lot for a very long time without any real sense of consequence. That said, I can see why this is a classic and it’s a great read for those who are into dystopian fiction.
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
Three middle-aged women are haunted by their former friend turned traitor, the monstrous Zenia, who stole their husbands, their money, and their happiness. It’s not exactly plot-driven, but I can’t help but find Margaret Atwood’s writing absolutely spellbinding. She writes the ennui and hardship of childhood absolutely brilliantly. (See Cat’s Eye for another example.) This is a retelling of a fairytale, so I think the possibility of the supernatural must be examined. Zenia’s apparent resurrection is an obvious sign that she is something more than human, as is the way she adapts to each women’s vulnerability seamlessly. She’s a shapeshifter, and this makes the novel more compelling than the idea that she is simply motivelessly evil.
When we watched Rosemary’s Baby in a class I took on horror during undergrad, my professor said something that stuck with me: that even if you remove the supernatural and allegorical elements from the film, it’s still terrifying, because it’s about a woman’s complete loss of bodily autonomy. I think the same is true for this book: take Zenia out of the picture, and it’s still bleak and disturbing. It’s a book about women struggling to shed their broken childhoods, whose relationships with men are by and large unhealthy – these things are true regardless of Zenia’s (possibly demonic) influence. This book is certainly a slow burner, but I tend to love Atwood at her wordiest, when she teases apart social and familial relations with terrifying clarity.
Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Jess Goldberg, a butch lesbian who comes of age in the Buffalo of the 1960s. As a teenager, Jess begins going to gay bars before the pride movement takes off and suffers tremendously at the hands of the police and other institutions. The complex interplay between gender and sexuality are fully-realized in Jess’s rich inner life. The writing and narrative style lack sophistication and grace, but the heart and authenticity of the story solidify this book’s place as a classic of lesbian fiction.
The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
In the 1940s, a group of Oxford students are inexplicably drawn to a young undergraduate named David Sparsholt. The novel unfolds over three generations as Sparsholt and his family maintain their connection with the well-to-do men from the Oxford days. Sparsholt has made a successful career as an engineer, but he is haunted by a scandal which is never fully explained. The bulk of the novel focuses more on his son Jonathan, a hedonistic gay portraitist who struggles to shed the connotations of his name. Hollinghurst writes so well about the British upper class and particularly about interlopers in those circles. There’s a focus on portraiture which implicitly frames the book as a portrait of the potraitist (or perhaps of his disgraced father). There’s also an emphasis on the difficulty of intergenerational communication, or perhaps of communication in general. Yet the social dynamics just didn’t interest me as much as I wanted them to; Hollinghurst’s Man Booker winner The Line of Beauty is simply meatier. (Well, of course, the young gay working class aesthete subsumed into the family of a Conservative MP in the 80s is inherently a more interesting premise.) So much of the action takes place implicitly, yet this book is still 450 pages long. The narrative felt jumpy, and while Hollinghurst’s writing is impeccable, the novel as a whole just wasn’t terribly compelling.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
This book plays with a lot of ideas: about grief, about suicide, about writing and the people who do it, about humanity’s bond with animals. It is so rich in ideas that the further I got into it the greater my sense that this was not really a novel at all, or not primarily a novel. Certainly Nunez takes great liberties with the form of the novel; there is little in the way of narrative (or, indeed, character). The interesting parts are almost exclusively our nameless narrator’s musings on various topics, with gratuitous references to great writers and thinkers as well as contemporary films. The writing is precise, compassionate, and insightful, but I couldn’t help but feel that there was something flimsy about this book. The narrator spends so much time thinking about writing and authorial responsibility that of course the novel itself must be read as a commentary on the genre. I think it is a smart book that works through a lot of interesting ideas with refreshing clarity. But it also purports to be a novel about a woman who adopts the dog left behind in the wake of her close friend’s suicide, and it falls flat there. The friend is unlikeable, perhaps deliberately: an archetypal established older male writer who laments the rise of political correctness. There is no real sense of who he is other than a cranky womanizer. Of course a good novel does more than simply tell a story, but I can’t help but feel that the premise of this novel was conceived as an alibi for what makes it actually interesting, which is not contingent on the narrative at all. A potentially interesting narrative is almost completely sacrificed for some higher intellectual purpose. The premise is incredibly compelling, but there’s no follow-through. I would read this as the novel it purports to be and I would read it if the fictional parts were excised and it was left as nonfiction, an exploration of various ideas that could stand on their own without being propped up by a thin “novel”. But as it stands, it isn’t quite hitting the mark for me as either one of those things.
Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
A little-known Watergate co-conspirator is released from prison and finds himself a high-level executive in a conglomerate that owns nearly every company in the world. From early on in the novel, we know this: then, slowly, the dots are connected. This is one of Vonnegut’s least absurdist works. Instead, it takes a fairly straightforward approach to idea of corporate greed and the importance of labour movements, as well as elucidating Vonnegut’s omnipresent idea that kindness is indispensable. I found the second half of the book incredibly touching, but the first half was a slog in a way Vonnegut’s characteristic style almost precludes. This is one I think I’ll keep returning to in thought, but it’s in the bottom half of my Vonnegut rankings. (And now I only have his last two novels to read!)
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
I think a part of me always knew I wouldn’t like this book, and that’s why I avoided reading it right when it came out. I loved Foer’s first two novels, but I had a suspicion that he would one day turn into the type of male writer we all like to make fun of. Here’s the thing: the story of a loving but dysfunctional family falling apart is not inherently interesting. That’s not to say it can’t be made interesting in the right hands, but as it stands this a story of two flawed but ultimately good people who can’t make their marriage work. They are good parents. They love their children. They just aren’t compatible anymore. And it’s not that interesting! So what does Foer do? He adds a complex geopolitical conflict that could potentially result in the end of Israel! Okay. So now we have the obvious parallel between the destruction of Israel and the destruction of an American Jewish family. But then we have this whole other issue of the literal fictional destruction of Israel while the novel avoids taking an actual political stance beyond the implication that younger Jewish Americans feel less connected to Israel, which is… not exactly a hot take. And the writing itself wasn’t even that good! So, no. I knew it, didn’t I?
The Story of Another Name by Elena Ferrante
It took me some time to get into My Brilliant Friend, and I had the same experience with the second book in the series. But once I get sucked in, boy am I sucked in. Here the dynamics between childhood best friends Lila and Elena deepen as they grow apart and back together in their teen years and early twenties. Lila, at sixteen, has married a wealthy merchant, but she is immediately unhappy in her marriage; meanwhile, Elena continues to throw herself into her studies, though she doesn’t believe that she is anywhere near as smart as Lila. Neighbourhood melodrama abounds as the unpredictable, headstrong Lila does whatever the hell she wants and Elena tries to pick up the pieces. Ferrante has such a skill for picking apart absolutely anything with such unnerving skill and insight. Lila is a tragic character, a symbol for all women whose vast potential for creativity has been stifled by patriarchy. I’m definitely going to continue on with this series; I think it’s so well-written. That said, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something slightly. Perhaps it’s because of the slow pace and standard structure of the novel, but people’s assertions that these books are electrifying, unlike anything else, etc. don’t quite compute for me! They’re very good – but revolutionary? I’m not so sure.
The Age of Sex Crime by Jane Caputi
Written in the 1980s as her PhD dissertation, Caputi’s basic premise is that the rise in serial killings is simply a specialized expression of patriarchy particularly adapted to current social conditions. Positioning Jack the Ripper as the archetypal sex criminal, Caputi argues that these crimes are not aberrations but rather reflections of patriarchal social order. She draws parallels between the current era of sex crime and the witch craze and situates the current climate within technological modernity, paying special attention to nuclear war and the role of still and moving image in proliferating violent misogyny. She also analyses pop culture – books, films, ads – to argue that the cultural obsession with sexually-motivated murder reflects societal norms (rather than that these texts provoke crime). In this way she much more effectively articulates what Alice Bolin skirts around in her 2018 book Dead Girls. (How incredible that Bolin doesn’t even cite Caputi in her shallow, self-indulgent book…) I often find when reading second-wave feminist texts that the conditions they describe are still completely unchanged, which is discouraging to say the least. In fact, the fact that this book is depressing is the only fault I can find in it; it’s sharp, meticulous, and thoroughly convincing.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Maybe a fitting follow-up to Caputi’s book: a fictionalized account of the Manson Family and Tate murders narrated by a lonely fourteen-year-old girl who gets sucked into a cult in late 60s Northern California. The occasional prescient feminist-lite insights are unfortunately bogged down by majorly overworked prose and a lack of immediacy. There is so little tension leading up to the murders, and everything is told rather than shown. The cult leader is apparently charismatic, but I never got that from the text, nor did I feel the escalating tension between the leader and a minor musical celebrity. The worldbuilding is lacking; nothing especially situates this novel in either time or place. Everything feels superficial, an idea that was never fully developed. You’d be better off reading Sharon Tate’s Wikipedia page, honestly.
I’m getting pickier the more I read, so I did feel lukewarm about quite a few in this batch. My favourites were The Robber Bride, The Story of Another Name, and The Age of Sex Crime. I’m slowly pegging away at my to-read list, so maybe there’ll be some gems in there for me to share next month.
Posted on February 28, 2019 under Books
Okay, more book reviews! This month I read 9 books, taking the 2019 total up to 17. There was quite a bit this month that underwhelmed me, but there were some winners too.
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
A 10th-century Bohemian king wishing to escape death flees to India in search of immortality. He and his wife spend hundreds of years living their best lives and concocting an incredible perfume. In the late 20th century, the perfume in its original bottle has made its way to a divorced waitress in Seattle via her adoptive mother who runs a perfumery in New Orleans. The king, who has been separated from his wife for centuries, believes the key to reunion lies in finding the bottle. This is a darkly funny novel, sort of in the style of Vonnegut if Vonnegut were prone to overwrought metaphors and Orientalism and overt sexualization of women of colour. The immortal king prizes individualism, which is ironic given both his extreme attachment to his wife and the fact that the novel depends on the interconnectedness of people throughout a thousand years of history. There were parts of this book that I found enjoyable, and I thought it came together well at the end. It’s clever and amusing (a “romp”, some might call it), and I get the appeal. But it took me a long time to read for a 350-page novel, and I didn’t fully connect with Robbins’ writing style.
Against Interpretation and Other Essays by Susan Sontag
Reading this book, I realized that I like Sontag’s writing style more than I like her ideas. Some of her essays knock my socks off; I still think Illness as Metaphor / AIDS and its Metaphors is wonderful, and some of the more generalized essays in this collection were interesting. But a lot of her more specific art criticism is tedious, and I often found myself taking a slightly different critical position. “Notes on ‘Camp'” remains a thorn in my side; she articulates the aesthetics of camp so clearly and brilliantly, but, well, I didn’t spend a large portion of my master’s dissertation vigourously refuting her central claims in that essay for nothing. (Camp is political!) I don’t know if I should be irritated by her obsession with the art of European men or happy that she directs so much scorn towards them. She wrote some amazing zingers directed at men, which almost makes the whole thing worth it.
Lanark: A Life In Four Books by Alasdair Gray
A landmark in Scottish literature, Lanark is made up of four books presented out of order. The first and last concern the titular character as he attempts to navigate a surreal, dystopian afterlife which is probably hell; the middle books follow Glaswegian Duncan Thaw from childhood to his postwar life in art school. These sections are naturalistic and brilliantly-rendered. I think I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories about artists, and the Glaswegian content was glorious. Thaw’s afterlife was so genuinely bleak and disturbing in a way that I haven’t often encountered – and not because anything so terrible happens but because it’s characterized by endless bureaucracy, which is holding Lanark back from taking any real action while simultaneously being the only thing moving him forward. I haven’t read a book this atmospheric in a long time. There is such a playfulness with the form of literature, especially in the epilogue (which is slotted in three chapters before the end of the book). There’s definitely a permeating misogyny running through this one, and it’s hard to tell if that’s because of the author or a function of Lanark/Thaw’s rather unsympathetic character. I’m inclined to say it’s the latter, as the male characters in the book are uniformly terrible in a very deliberate way. There are a lot of themes in this one that I’ve noticed some earlier Scottish literature: the idea of doubling of the self, the suggestion of the devil’s presence, the ambivalent grappling with morality. (I’m mostly thinking of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.) This is a long, dense one, but I found it enchanting (in a very disturbing way) and I’d highly recommend it.
Final Girls by Riley Sager
In her sophomore year of college, Quincy Carpenter was the sole survivor of a violent attack on her group of friends. The media named her a “Final Girl”, alongside two other women who survived similar massacres. I was really excited to finally get to this one, because I’ve been known to enjoy a female-fronted thriller and because the premise is so delicious. I’m a huge baby about horror films, but I still find them absolutely fascinating. They’re so ripe for interpretation, and some of the best film criticism concerns the genre. (I took a class on horror during undergrad and I still think of it very fondly.) I thought this book was going to subvert horror tropes in an interesting way. I should have known from the beginning that Sager’s understanding of the horror genre is shallow at best; Quincy explains that the “final girl” is a trope used by “film geeks”, when in fact it was actually coined in an academic context by Carol Clover in the book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. (I mean, film buffs use it too, but there’s a lot more to it than that.) (By the way, last year I was talking about the final girl trope with this guy who was trying to refute it as if I were making it up on the spot, and I was like, “No, it’s a real thing, I took a class on horror in undergrad,” and he didn’t believe me until another guy backed me up and that’s basically what I imagine the majority of horror buffs to be like.)
In general I found basically nothing to redeem this book. I wasn’t expecting it to be a work of literary genius, but I thought it would be fun. But it wasn’t! While it was very trope-laden, there was no element of subversion. Here is an incomplete list of horror tropes that this book partakes in unironically: the final girl (morally pure, “not like other girls”, not reliant on men, unisex name), the cabin in the woods, the hard-partying sexually-active girl dying first, the mysterious stranger arriving out of thin air… Yet this book has no sense of the irony, humour, or intelligence required to make it a successful satire. It only has cardboard characters and a few unsatisfying cheap twists. Quincy is the blandest character in the world and no amount of repetitive Xanax abuse could make her interesting, nor could the constant insistence that she survived a massacre because she was somehow special or morally-superior. The pacing was far too slow for this book to be thrilling or even a bit tense. It was just flat and stupid, and the ending was infuriating. A twist only works if it’s been set up carefully. When it’s conjured out of thin air, it’s just garbage.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
In the mid-60s, eccentric alcoholic Eliot Rosewater feels (rightfully) guilty about the massive fortune he is set to inherit and dedicates his life to extravagant philanthropy lavished on a small town in Indiana. Meanwhile, a young lawyer assigned to help manage the Rosewater Foundation’s vast wealth sees opportunity in having Eliot declared legally insane and transferring his wealth to his distant cousin, a working class insurance salesman in Rhode Island. This appears to be Vonnegut’s most overtly political book in that he very clearly takes the stance that extreme wealth is unethical. (Well, I guess the anti-war message of Slaughterhouse-Five is up there, too.) Central to the novel is the idea that some people have no use (meaning they do not generate wealth) but that they deserve help and love anyway. As always, there is so much humanity in Vonnegut’s dark humour and absurdism. The ending of this one is hilariously satisfying in a way Vonnegut so rarely is. This is top tier for me – and now I only have three Vonnegut novels left to read. I’m hoping to knock those off before the year is out!
The New Fuck You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading, edited by Eileen Myles and Liz Kotz
I thought this would be a lot more angry and political, but it turned out to be experimental and touchy-feely and kind of crunchy, which I guess is the other side of the 90s lesbian coin. There were some pieces in this book that were extremely well-written and resonant, but a lot of it felt tedious. I’ll admit that I have never gotten into poetry (which is possibly a strange and nonsensical thing to say, but it is what it is), so there is that, but I really don’t think that experimental crunchy touchy-feely 90s lesbian poetry was ever going to be what got me into the genre. I was ready to be mad and political, so this just left me disappointed.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
In the mid 1990s, a precocious eighteen-year-old named Selin begins her studies at Harvard. In her Russian class, she makes two Eastern-European friends: Svetlana, who is larger-than-life and charismatic, and mathematician Ivan, who is withdrawn and mysterious. Selin is drawn to Ivan and begins a bizarre email correspondence with him. My stance on books generally is that if too much time is dedicated to handwringing over men I’m not a fan. However, things are a bit different when the book meticulously picks apart a certain type of male pretension and self-aggrandizement at the expense of women. Selin is such an interesting character; in less capable hands I think she would have been unbearable, but there’s an earnestness to her pretentiousness that makes her endearing rather than grating. Selin’s anxiety that she has no opinions echoes some of my own insecurities at the beginning of my undergraduate career. Batuman’s thoughts on language are fascinating: how it shapes our perspectives, how it fails us, how we struggle to articulate ourselves in languages that are not our own. This is a funny, touching, wonderfully-articulated novel that somehow manages to fully realize its ambitious scope.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
The cover is the best part of this book.
In Montego Bay, thirty-year-old Margot works at a hotel (and as an escort) to make ends meet. She wants to send her fifteen-year-old sister Thandi to medical school so that she may have a better life than Margot and her mother. Thandi, however, is more preoccupied with the boy she has a crush on and with her attempts to lighten her skin; she wants to be an artist, and though she’s a conscientious student, she finds the mounting pressure to make something of herself stifling. Margot, whose family does not know that she is a sex worker, is also hiding the fact that she is in love with a middle class woman who lives in their neighbourhood. When a new resort threatens to displace the community, Margot sees opportunity. The premise of this novel is great, but unfortunately I had a lot of problems with the execution. The characters are so unsympathetic it’s hard to care what happens to them; Margot especially does some truly terrible things while maintaining a martyr complex. There are a lot of themes here that interest me: colourism, same-sex relationships in extremely homophobic societies, intergenerational/inherited trauma, tourism as neocolonialism, sex tourism. I just didn’t feel that any of these topics was engaged with successfully; no meaningful conclusions were reached. The primary story was the dynamic between the two sisters, so when the novel shifted perspectives my attention wandered. This novel was set in the mid-90s, but the setting didn’t seem particularly developed, unlike The Idiot (which is unquestionably set in the 90s). The writing felt to me like it was trying very hard to be lyrical, but to its detriment that effort was very visible. In general it felt underdeveloped, and I found very little I liked. Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (though much longer) way more successfully works through themes related to Jamaican history and identity; Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place is an excellent longform essay on the Caribbean tourism industry as neocolonialism. This book failed to come close to either of those.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
After adoring Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, I have been trying in vain to find another one of her novels that fully realizes that potential. Swing Time is the closest I’ve found, though it seems to have generally received lukewarm reviews. An unnamed narrator takes us through her childhood in council flats in North London, a period marked by her ambitious, idealistic mother’s activism and her fraught friendship with a talented dancer named Tracey. As an adult, the narrator becomes the personal assistant to the philanthropic yet wrongheaded Australian mononymous pop star Aimee. The narrative moves between the narrator’s childhood in the 1980s to her career in the aughts as she helps Aimee construct a school for girls in a West African village. (The consequences of this foreign aid venture are explored quite believably, I think.) There’s a lot going on here, and I’ll admit that I didn’t necessarily think the village storyline meshed with what I thought was a captivating account of working class childhood. There aren’t really any likeable characters here, but I really enjoyed how the narrator was consistently drawn to difficult women: her mother, the charismatic yet cruel Tracey, Aimee. The shifting dynamics between the narrator and Tracey were rendered brilliantly, and I thought the complicated relationship between mother and child was touching. I really enjoyed the structure of the plot: because it moves back and forth, we are often told about an event in passing before it is shown. (I think the title is a reference to this, though of course it also refers to the film of the same name and the recurring theme of dance more generally.) Zadie Smith can turn a phrase like no one else; I consistently admire her writing, though her storytelling isn’t always perfect. The ending of the book felt like a bit of a letdown, like the whole novel was building to something that turned out to be fairly tame. (Also how I felt about the ending of NW.) Though Smith didn’t quite stick the landing for me, I enjoyed this book a lot more than NW and On Beauty, and this has given me hope that her upcoming novel might be the masterpiece I believe she has in her.
This month I would say my favourites were God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, The Idiot, and Swing Time. Some real misses in here, but next month we can start afresh and hope for more hits.
Posted on January 30, 2019 under Books
I’m going to experiment with doing these posts monthly, since I’ve read quite a bit this month and my book posts can get long quickly. This month I read 8 books – with my goal of 50 this year, I’m obviously really happy with this number.
Hunger: A Memoir of My Body by Roxane Gay
While this is certainly a book about what it means to be fat, it’s so much more than that. Running through the heart of the memoir is Roxane Gay’s childhood rape, and how that violation of her body is inextricably tied up in the way she treats her body in adulthood. Gay’s writing is accessible yet clearly intelligent, her insight sharp: most enlightening to me were her descriptions of how basic infrastructure does not accommodate her body. The title refers most obviously to an appetite for food, but Gay hungers for so much more: love, (self-)acceptance, resolution. Most profoundly moving about this book is the futility of longing for closure, the idea that working through trauma is a lifelong process that reflects in the mind, the body, and life as a whole.
Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga
Indigenous journalist Tanya Talaga tells the story of seven northern Indigenous high school students who died in Thunder Bay, Ontario between 2000 and 2011. All seven students were from remote communities and moved to Thunder Bay without their families for their high school educations. Of course, this story is not just about the lives and deaths of these teenagers but also about the legacy of the residential school system and the thriving culture of racism and neocolonialism that persists to this day. The indifference of the police in pursuing these cases is chilling; even after an eight-month inquest many of the deaths are of “inconclusive” cause due to sloppy police work which can never be remedied. I struggle to believe that five able-bodied teenagers who all happened to be from northern Indigenous communities accidentally drowned in the river over the span of a decade. The current Canadian government likes to talk a big game about reconciliation, but their promises are clearly hollow. (Just ask the water defenders at Unist’ot’en Camp how much support Justin Trudeau is giving their cause…) Talaga’s writing is searing and urgent: Canada has purposefully failed Indigenous people, a series of broken systems doing nothing to mitigate the serious harm neocolonialism continues to reproduce.
The Break by Katherena Vermette
Four generations of Indigenous women living in Winnipeg’s North End come together in the face of a brutal assault on one of their own. Each character struggles with letting their pasts go, but the love this matriarchal family has for each other is powerful. They display such resilience and strength. An overarching theme that I loved was women believing other women’s experiences of sexual assault and harassment, never diminishing, never questioning. My biggest issue with this novel was that one of the POV characters was a Métis police officer, whose perspective I just didn’t think added anything to the text. He was supposed to show the near-irreconcilability of Indigenous identity and law enforcement, but ultimately his storyline took away from what was otherwise a stirring narrative of bonds between women.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Stunning cover design, if nothing else.
This is a novel about the necessity of trees in sustaining life on planet Earth and about how all living things are delicately interconnected. There was a lot that I liked about it: multiple narratives and magical realism are fast-track tickets straight to my heart. Powers skilfully enshrouded nonfictional information into a work of fiction. Even before the characters are drawn together, there are connections between them, most notably in their traumas and losses that cause them to disconnect from humanity and seek solace in something larger. One loner character becomes a dendrologist; one becomes a wealthy video game designer; another is a reclusive artist. The descriptive passages are extremely well-rendered and lovely to read.
So, here’s the thing. It is time to stop putting up with bullshit from male authors who cannot help but sexualize a young female manic pixie dream girl character to the point that her much-older boyfriend gets turned on by watching her pee. I mean, no. It’s 2019, we are not doing this anymore.
That isn’t my only issue with this novel, but I must be very clear: sometimes female characters are so blatantly written by men that it is a substantial enough problem to knock off two stars from a rating. My other substantial problem with The Overstory is how poorly-integrated the political content was. Look, this is a polemical novel, and it’s not trying not to be. Obviously, Richard Powers is an environmentalist, and that is fine, and probably why he wrote this novel. But his opinions are put into the mouths of his characters in the form of monologues, and that just lacks finesse. We don’t need to be hit over the head with the message. These characters are radical environmental activists, for God’s sake. There’s no need to write literal pages of a speech telling us how amazing trees are. By the time we’ve made it four hundred pages into this book, we are all very aware. There’s just not a lot of subtlety or subtext here, though the book is so beautifully-written that you could be fooled into thinking there is.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Okay, let’s get this out of the way: despite its apparent dark subject matter, this is a fluffy novel. Moriarty’s characters are charming and well-conceived; everyone is fleshed-out and likeable despite their flaws. I went into this knowing absolutely nothing about the plot, but given the hype both the book and HBO series have engendered I expected a bit more. It was juicy and dramatic, but I think I was expecting it to be more artistically-complex given HBO’s highbrow inclinations. And I expected more twists! I enjoy a thriller here and there, and most of the joy in one is seeing how all the pieces that you missed come together. I never quite felt that with Big Little Lies; there was a lack of intricacy to the plot. (And I did figure out who died!) While the domestic abuse plot was handled sensitively in isolation, I do feel a bit iffy about the overall tone of the book (funny, juicy, generally lighthearted) with that particular theme. I’ve since watched the HBO adaptation, and that’s more in line with what I was expecting of the book, though I still didn’t love it. However, I’d say it’s worth a watch just for Nicole Kidman’s outstanding performance. This would be the perfect book to read on vacation, but it’s not exactly a masterpiece.
(By the way, I just want to say that Liane Moriarty’s younger sister Jaclyn wrote some of the best young adult novels of all time and I genuinely think I have read The Year of Secret Assignments more than any other book on this planet. I can actually see similarities in both authors’ senses of humour, too.)
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
The plot summary for this book does it no justice. Ostensibly, it’s about a Philippines-born translator hired by a white American filmmaker writing a screenplay about a massacre that happened in the Philippines at the turn of the century. The filmmaker’s father made his own war film in the Philippines in the 70s (think Apocalypse Now) before dying under slightly mysterious circumstances; his daughter Chiara struggles to move on, personally and artistically, from the shadow his work, life, and death have cast on her. Magsalin, the translator, struggles with Chiara’s privilege and the cultural imperialism inherent in her project, and decides to rewrite her screenplay. We see the tense interactions between the two women as well as their respective stories – though, interestingly, they are presented as novelistic prose, not as screenplays.
This is a really fascinating premise, but the book itself is structured unusually. Its chapters are numbered out of order, and there’s a lot of metafiction happening. (For instance, it is suggested that Chiara is actually just the protagonist of a mystery novel that Magsalin is writing.) Obviously, the exploration of film as an artistic discipline and cultural force was interesting to my personal interests, and I really enjoyed the way film terminology was woven into the text.
There is so much going on here: explorations of semiotics and the poetics of photography and film; the idea of history as a colonial construction, with blurred lines between history and art suggesting that history is subjective and adaptable; a fascination with appropriation and alternate readings of Western celebrity; a meditation on filmic mediation of the past. The prose is dense and quite academic at points, so it is a lot to digest and certainly begs a second reading. It’s clear that Gina Apostol is an extremely intelligent woman, and while there are passages that can be difficult to digest, the ambition and scope of the novel are admirable.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Sara de Vos is a little-known (fictional) painter from the Dutch Golden Age, whose only known surviving painting has been passed down through the de Groot family for centuries. In the late 1950s, wealthy New Yorker Marty de Groot finds that the painting has been stolen from his home and replaced with a convincing forgery. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is told from three perspectives: those of Sara, Marty, and the art history PhD student and forger extraordinaire Ellie Shipley. Over forty years later, Ellie is curating a show in her native Australia and discovers that both the original painting and the forgery are on their way, threatening to unravel her successful career. I’m a big fan of novels about art heists (I’m one of the only people I know who actually liked The Goldfinch…), and Smith’s prose is very strong. As someone with a graduate degree in film I’m very aware of the difficulties of trying to describe one medium using another, but Smith’s descriptions of de Vos’s paintings are vivid and rich. The forgery plot and interpersonal relationships are interesting and well-explored.
However, I didn’t feel that the historical context of the Netherlands in the 1630s was as developed as it could have been. I read Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist last year, and its 17th century Netherlands was much more richly-described. While Sara’s story was engaging, it felt like it was part of another novel. In Burton’s second novel, The Muse, the provenance of the painting at the centre of the mystery is integral to the plot, so the flashbacks illuminate the main story. In this novel, however, Sara’s life has little bearing on the forgery plot. It’s not that it isn’t nice to plump up the story with some historical context, but I wish that Smith’s imagining of this era had been a little more robust. If you’re going to go there, go there, you know? This was still an interesting, well-written book with a compelling plot, and I’d recommend it to people who share my interest in art-related intrigue in fiction.
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
The marketing of this book is actually bewildering; based on the summary on the back I was wondering why I’d added it to my to read shelf on Goodreads a year ago. Apparently, it’s about a recent university graduate who goes to live with a rich conservative MP in Thatcherite Britain. Except Nick, our protagonist, is gay, and this is essential to the text. (That’s where my interest comes from, obviously…) Having grown up in a working class family, Nick finds himself on the fringes of high society – invited to fancy parties and dinners with politicians, he is always an outsider, a fact underscored by his gayness. It is something that he believes his hosts “tolerate”, although they never talk about his sexuality or relationships despite the fact that he is out. Nick’s isolation and loneliness are partially because he’s pathologically pretentious, with esoteric interests and a condescending manner, but he also struggles to relate to his straight friends, and that particular form of isolation is believable and familiar. There are a lot of 80s tropes here: adulation of Margaret Thatcher; AIDS; lots of cocaine. It all feels fitting and inevitable, though. It’s like, you can’t have high society British people in the 80s without Thatcher. You can’t have a young gay man in the 80s without some mention of AIDS. (Well, there’s more than just a mention, and I like this handling of the topic, which I can be quite picky about being depicted properly.) And you just can’t have parties in the 80s without coke.
There’s not much plot to this novel (though it does get juicy at the end), and it’s longer than it strictly needs to be in a fairly self-indulgent way. But I guess I couldn’t be the one to be too disparaging about a self-indulgent, verbose gay writer, and anyway the prose was enjoyable enough that I didn’t mind. (I feel the same way about Donna Tartt, and though this book is nowhere near as long as The Goldfinch I think if you struggled to tolerate that you might not love this one.) It’s more of an extended character study and a rather searing interrogation into the hypocrisy and false superiority of the British upper class. Nick is not an easy character: his loneliness and desire for love make him sympathetic, but he’s so hedonistic and, despite his complicated doctoral work, rather shallow. There’s an emptiness to him that’s not the result of poor character development but of his own relentless pursuit of pleasure. The ending is incredibly satisfying in the way it wraps up every element of Nick’s character and relationships with others. I really enjoyed this one and I’d heartily recommend it, but you certainly have to be comfortable with a long-ish novel that’s not in the least bit plot-driven.
Overall a pretty good batch of books this month! Both non-fiction books were standouts; in terms of fiction, my favourites were Insurrecto and The Line of Beauty. I currently have a hefty stack of 11 books to get through, plus a few on my Kindle, so I should be good through March if I stay on this pace.