Books read: May 2019

Posted on June 03, 2019 under Books

May was a good month for me – I read 11 books for an even 50, meaning I hit my yearly goal seven months early. I’m making good progress towards my stretch goal of 100 – I know my reading will slow in the last third of the year, so I’m trying to make the next few months count! Regardless, 2019 will shape up to be my biggest reading year since I made it to 100 back in 2012, so I’m already feeling pretty satisfied.

Here’s what I read this month…

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

A childhood favourite that is even better when revisited in adulthood – hard to believe! So many images from this book are indelible in my memory, and they are just as captivating all these years later. Philip Pullman’s writing has incredible emotional depth, from the soaring excitement of adventure to the profound sorrow he is unafraid to explore. Children can be difficult to write convincingly, but Lyra is very real: righteous, stubborn, brash, clever, ultimately innocent even in the face of atrocity. Much of this series is a fairly overt critique of organized religion (and the Catholic church especially), which went over my head as a child. The General Oblation Board’s experiments on children echoes the Holocaust, residential schools, and many other atrocities sanctioned by and committed in the name of the Church. This novel is my favourite in the series; it is complex, evocative, enduring, and affecting beyond words.

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

In the second book in the trilogy, our heroine Lyra and the newly-introduced Will spend a lot of time in Cittàgazze, a parallel world that serves as the transition between all other worlds. This book itself feels like a transition, undeniably the middle book in a trilogy: slow to start, heavy on action in the second half which leaves a lot of loose threads for the final instalment. Yet the strength of Pullman’s writing and ideas keeps it interesting. There’s a particular moment in this novel that will reduce me to tears even if I read it a hundred more times. Because we are now building to a battle that implicates all of humanity, the focus broadens: it is not merely Lyra’s story, or even Lyra and Will’s. The perspectives of the other characters are interesting and help flesh out the world(s) of the novels, but sometimes I was a bit sorry to leave Lyra and Will. I still think it’s a fantastic book, but it’s not quite as good as The Golden Compass.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

The final book in the series does feel a bit scattered; there’s a lot at stake and a lot of threads to tie up. This one gets mixed reviews, in general, and while I understand why some might not find it satisfying, ultimately I think it’s a great ending. There is a lot of devastation in this book, all of it underscoring the pain of growing up as Lyra and Will, on the verge of adolescence, are confronted with some terrible truths. This one isn’t as story-driven as The Golden Compass, so it won’t light imaginations on fire in that way, but the worldbuilding is still fantastic, and the robustness of the characters is second to none. The ending is both heartbreaking and satisfying, and it hit all the right notes for me. In general, I will always have time for the His Dark Materials trilogy. It’s exciting and adventurous enough to appeal to a younger set, but it’s so rich in ideas that it simply transcends its YA designation. (Honestly, with all the anti-Church sentiment I’m surprised it was ever marketed that way, since it seems designed for an older, more politically-conscious reader.)

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Rain definitely leaked into my bag when I was bringing this home from the bookstore, but it’s still stunning.

The first book in a new trilogy set in the same world as His Dark Materials, here we’re taken back twelve years. Our main character is a twelve-year-old boy named Malcolm, who becomes enchanted with baby Lyra, who has been taken to live in safety in a convent. Secretly, Malcolm makes weekend visits to Oxford scholar Hannah Relf, who is one of a handful of people who can read the truth-telling alethiometer. The grip of the Church begins to tighten, to the dismay of many in Oxford, Dr. Relf chief amongst them. It’s hard not to feel that this novel served primarily as the setup for something greater (with a lot of tantalizing hints dropped, to be sure), and I did miss eleven-year-old Lyra and her insolence. Malcolm was a fantastic, believable character, and Hannah is just inherently likeable. Though I’m wary of the sudden cultural obsession with reboots (most of which turn out to be very underwhelming), I’m tentatively looking forward to the second book in this series, which will apparently be about twenty-year-old Oxford student Lyra. (So much potential for greatness, so much potential for… devastating disappointment.)

Tentacle by Rita Indiana

Nominally about a Dominican maid who is prophesied to go back in time and save the planet from environmental disaster, this dense little book is actually less about a cliché time travel plot and more about ideas. In 130 pages, Rita Indiana explores gender, sexuality, colonialism, art, environmentalism, Santería, folklore, capitalism, and more. As someone with little knowledge of the cyperpunk genre Indiana is drawing on or of the intricacies of Dominican politics, I’m sure I missed a lot of the finer points of the novel. I found it a bit stomach-turning in places; there’s a lot of sexual violence and a real disgusting misogynist whose thoughts we are privy to. I don’t necessarily think that was gratuitous, but my tolerance for those types of things is growing thinner. The time travel plot was executed in a fresh and interesting way, and the writing was vibrant and exciting. It’s not always easy to follow, which is fine; I don’t mind a novel that makes me work or that leaves me with a lot to think about. I really liked the tone of the ending (and it certainly surprised me), I just wasn’t completely satisfied with this book. I often feel this way about shorter novels and novellas; perhaps it’s a function of the fact that I read them so quickly that I don’t feel I have enough time to truly get into the story and world and characters. I like a fast pace, especially in a book that’s straddling the thriller genre, but there was so little breathing room that I was left feeling like I didn’t quite get the characters’ motivations. This is a well-written (and well-translated) book with an interesting premise and promising execution, but this felt like another book that was primarily about ideas. That’s all well and good, but it’s hard to engage fully with such a variety of big ideas in only 130 pages. I just wanted more, and I was especially frustrated because the potential is so clearly there.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

The premise of this so-called “feminist dystopia” is interesting: three sisters are raised on an island by their highly abusive parents, separated from society due to the fact that men are literally toxic to women. Now, this is obviously a heavy-handed metaphor, but it becomes more interesting when we are led to question whether or not this is actually true or simply the parents’ excuse for controlling and abusing their daughters. I also liked the unhealthy, codependent, hostile relationship between the sisters – the dynamics between them were incredibly disturbing.

However, this is not a feminist dystopia. First of all, the world outside of the island is very poorly-developed, and dystopia surely requires intellectual engagement with some sort of wider society – its history, its social structures, its linkage to the real world. Secondly, this is by no means a feminist text. The differences between men and women are treated as inborn, an essentialist take that actually undermines feminist work. Men are portrayed as naturally strong and violent, while women are flimsy and not very self-sufficient. Of course, part of this is the line fed to the sisters by their parents, not necessarily a stance the book takes, but ultimately I didn’t find it did much to critique this. A lot is left deliberately vague or explained poorly, which I couldn’t help but feel was an attempt to make this book seem deeper or more intellectually strenuous than it really was. (My coworker, who recently read it too, had the same thought.) I also didn’t love the writing itself; though it was evocative and eerie, the prose simply feels labourious and a bit repetitive.

This book simply lacks clarity both in terms of narrative and message. Try as I might, I can’t wring anything particularly feminist from it, other than the very basic message that men as a social class are harmful to women as a social class. (So, patriarchy exists? Did I need to read a 266-page novel to tell me this?) Or, what, that the essence of womanhood is victimhood? Maybe this book is really about the effects of long-term isolation and abuse, in which case billing it as some sort of feminist narrative is just silly. Whatever it is, I found a few sparks of interesting ideas in an ultimately unsatisfying narrative.

Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s penultimate novel tells the story of Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam vet and former professor at a college for people with learning disabilities who is now dying of tuberculosis in prison after being accused of inciting a prison break that decimated a small town. My favourite Vonnegut novels are invariably the more realistic ones, and especially those about war. Hocus Pocus is quite ideologically dense, taking an obvious anti-war stance and creating clear linkages between the mutually-reinforcing systems of the military, prison, and higher education. This novel works through ideas of hereditariness and inevitability, with particular focus on various hereditary conditions as well as the idea that certain combinations of social class, race, and education predispose people to certain experiences. A deliberately essentialist take on complex sociological concepts, sure, but there’s a lot of truth in this. The theme that connects the entire novel is the Vietnam War – its futility and devastation, its ability to create successful, prolific killing machines, the way it has impacted life in the USA of the early 1990s. Eugene, a prominent soldier in Vietnam, is persistently haunted by one particular image of a severed head. Although he himself killed countless people, it is this particular horror that he cannot shake. Similarly, the book personalizes the idea of injustice – war, the prison industrial system – using Eugene as a stand-in for devastation that is on too large a scale to adequately comprehend. This is a bit harder to get through than a lot of Vonnegut’s work, but the (par-for-the-course) scathing critique of modern American capitalism is worth every page.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

A young girl named Liesel Meminger arrives in a suburb of Munich in 1939 when her mother is unable to care for her. Soon after, her foster family takes in someone else – a young Jewish man named Max, who spends several years hiding in their basement. I first read this book almost ten years ago, in the summer of 2009, when I was fifteen. I had never before had such an intense emotional reaction to a book; I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for a good half hour after finishing it. I’ve been meaning to re-read it for years and years now, and I think the primary reason I’ve put it off is that I wasn’t sure if I could possibly enjoy it as much as I did then. Well, I didn’t. The narrative framing was not quite as seamless, and I couldn’t help but feel that some of the emotion comes simply out of obligation. Who wouldn’t cry at a book about the Holocaust, the devastation of war, the traumas children must bear? It’s not that the emotion isn’t real, it’s that it felt, at times, forced out of me.

There is lots to enjoy here, though. The tenderness of the relationships between Liesel and those around her is genuinely touching. Liesel herself is a great character: damaged and vulnerable but with such a delightful spark. Part of me wished that this novel had been slightly less apolitical (for example, the Hubermanns taking in Max is framed as simply an accident rather than a decision borne of a developed political consciousness), but I guess it’s not that sort of story. I just have a fierce desire for literature with a strong political stance, especially in this nightmarish day and age. I still like this book, but at nearly twenty-five I’m more clearly able to see its pretensions and considerable triteness even while enjoying certain aspects of it. I wouldn’t say this is a must-read, but if the premise interests you then give it a go.

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

A fiery novella about the failing marriage of a famous English actress living in Italy. Fame and unhappy marriages are two of my favourite literary themes, and the context of the Italian film industry makes me like this even more. The dark irony in actress Annabel’s obsession with her public image is rendered in a detached, precise way – even in the face of personal tragedy, Annabel’s first thought is how to control the narrative. Her relationships are either superficial or dysfunctional. Her marriage has been terrible for years, she detests her husband’s best friend, her own close friend is never actually present in the narrative, and her baby exists only as an excuse for her to get out of unpleasant social situations. There is quite a lot to unpack regarding gender roles, especially how integral an apparently loving marriage is to Annabel’s image and star power. Her less-successful husband is resentful of her recent accomplishments; it is suggested that he may feel emasculated by the fact that Annabel pays all the bills while he sits around occasionally producing a mediocre screenplay. At the beginning of the book, Annabel’s husband accuses her of faking her way through her career: she is not actually that talented, he alleges, she has simply fooled people into thinking she’s a good actress. Such is the case of her squeaky-clean, much-adored public image, which begins to unravel over the course of a few eventful days in Rome. A short book packed with interesting ideas about fame, the distinction between the public and private, authenticity, and married life in the 1960s.

The Fire Dwellers by Margaret Laurence

Another painfully-detailed novel about the minutiae about midcentury housewifery – one of my favourite literary interests that many others are sure to find tedious. Here we meet Stacey MacAindra, a thirty-nine-year-old mother of four living in the suburbs of Vancouver. Her husband is a salesman (and, delightfully, he seems to exclusively sell products that you’d only find in modern-day MLMs), and she is bored and unsatisfied with the tedium of her domestic life. Not much actually happens here; it’s very internally-focused book that picks apart Stacey’s intolerable suburban ennui. This is done impeccably, with remarkable precision and sharpness. I love this kind of thing, and I thought this was great. If the concept of reading an entire book about a bored housewife does not appeal to you, then I’m sure you will not enjoy this.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke

In the early 1800s, only two men practice magic in England: the elusive, paranoid Mr. Norell and his bold student Jonathan Strange. As Strange’s talents grow and their interests diverge, a great rift forms between them. Strange is particularly enchanted by the figure of the Raven King, said to have brought magic to England originally, while Norell fears and despises him. The worldbuilding in this novel is incredibly thorough (and, at 782 pages, it really ought to be), the story is interesting, and the characters are well-developed. The research into high society Georgian London and the Napoleonic Wars is apparent. However, this book definitely did not to be this long, and this is coming from someone who did not find The Goldfinch‘s length excessive. There are a lot of footnotes sprinkled into the book which feel, at times, gratuitous: some are extremely long, and some impart information that simply could have been integrated into the main text. All in all I got a feeling of self-congratulatory wittiness from some of the structure and tone, which I wasn’t crazy about. I think it’s a fun story and anyone who’s interested in urban fantasy or tales of magic would enjoy this – as long as you can commit to almost 800 pages!

I generally enjoyed my reading in May! This month I have quite a lot going on, including a vacation, so I’m not sure how much I’ll read. I’ve already purchased a few fluffy beach reads for my Kindle as well as a stack of CanLit from the thrift store, so I have a lot on deck for June!

Books read: April 2019

Posted on May 02, 2019 under Books

I was convinced that my reading had slowed significantly in April, but I ended up reading 10 books for a total of 39 this year. If I could read 11 in May for an even 50 by the end of the month, I’d be really happy.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

In a world ravaged by environmental disaster, Lauren Olamina lives in relative affluence with her family within a walled community. But when she loses her family, she is forced to leave home. Lauren, whose father is a preacher, has long since rejected the religion she was raised in, in favour of one of her own making. As she journeys north in search of safety and stability, she finds recruits for Earthseed, her religion. There are a lot of interesting political implications in this novel (environmentalism, anti-capitalism), and I really enjoy that the narrator is a young Black woman. Dystopian fiction tends to be very overwhelmingly white, and racism is explicitly addressed in the narrative. However, this definitely felt like the first book in the series, with a bare-bones plot that leaves a lot of loose ends. I think I’ve probably exhausted my teenage interest in dystopian fiction, but this would be a great read for someone who’s really into the genre.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

Another world suffering from environmental disasters – specifically, frequent earthquakes which regularly wipe out small towns. A small group of people with special powers, Orogenes, can affect seismic activity, and for decades Orogene children have been raised in a special military facility in order to control and harness their powers. This is an interesting fantasy world that avoids a lot of the tropes the male-dominated, white-dominated fantasy canon often indulges in. Jemisin normalizes same-sex relationships, trans people, and non-normative family structures and offers a cast of well-developed Black characters. The themes of oppression, discrimination, and self-determination are well-rendered. This is a complex world, and it took me a while to get my bearings; there was a lot of (necessary) exposition used to set the tone for the action to come later in the series, which made it a promising but not entirely interesting standalone novel. Fantasy isn’t really my genre, so I probably won’t continue on with this series, but I think fantasy fans (especially those who are tired of the same old) will enjoy this.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

This ended up being my favourite book in the Neapolitan series; the political commentary is absolutely searing, and it feels like the first two novels were truly building to this point. Ferrante exposes the hypocrisy of the educated upper middle class’s socialist activism excluding and even harming those they claim to liberate. As Elena struggles to live up to the hype of her first book in the wake of motherhood and domestic duty, she develops a true political awareness not based on regurgitating others’ opinions; meanwhile, Lila is bursting with true class consciousness, though it is almost impossible for her to act on this. This series has always brilliantly explored how women’s minds are so often wasted, nowhere more explicitly than in this novel. There were so many lines that just stopped me in my tracks, brimming with acidic clarity. For example, on the subject of male domination of academic and creative spaces: The solitude of women’s minds is regrettable, I said to myself, it’s a waste to be separated from each other, without procedures, without tradition.

The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde

The most recent novel in Fforde’s expansive Thursday Next universe, our heroine Thursday has taken a new job and uncovered a new conspiracy meant to further the interests of the evil Goliath corporation. The alternate early 2000s Britain is as clever, quirky, and endearing as ever, though I do miss Thursday’s adventures inside the Bookworld. That said, when you’re looking for something light, you really can’t go wrong with a book involving time travel, clones, and a pet dodo. I’m happily anticipating the next book in the series!

The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

The first novel in the reboot of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series is pretty obviously a cash-grab. The writing in the original trilogy was not exactly an exemplar of the craft, but there was a venom and compulsive readability that made the descriptions of every food item Lisbeth ingested worth it. The plot of the first book especially was clever and twist-y. This book just fell flat. There was very little tension; the plot was simplistic; the book lacked the original series’ focus on misogyny. (The Swedish series is literally called “Men Who Hate Women”!) This novel is more to the point than Larsson’s often meandering prose, but it’s just not as interesting.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The conclusion of Ferrante’s ambitious, sweeping Neopolitan novels is every bit as angry and depressing as the previous book. Lila and Elena continue to grow together and apart as they settle into middle age. There is hardly ever any relief offered in the accounts of our protagonists’ lives in their working class Naples neighbourhood, and the writing is simply unrelenting in its precision. I found the first two books in the series a bit hard to get into, but the last two were utterly compelling. I get the hype now – there’s something uncanny, jarring, unforgettable about this story.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

The body of Ada, a baby born in Nigeria, houses several spirits born of a snake god. She moves to the US for university and, when she experiences sexual trauma, the spirits begin to emerge. It’s never clear if this a metaphysical novel – that the spirits truly do exist – or if this is a metaphorical exploration of mental illness. Perhaps it’s both. I just couldn’t help but feel that this novel was a perfect example of style over substance. I found the prose a bit too much and the depth of the story a bit too little. It’s strange to say that, because there’s a lot going on: fractured families, diaspora, sexual assault, self-harm – I just never fully felt anything about any of it. There was very little in the way of character development, which is bizarre in what you might imagine would have to be a character-driven novel. (This is a story about multiple consciousnesses inhabiting one body!) This didn’t feel plot-driven (because there isn’t much plot), or character-driven, or literary. It was just, like, some themes that weren’t particularly thoroughly explored.

A Mind Spread Out On the Ground by Alicia Elliott

Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott’s insightful, compassionate essays primarily focus on the lingering effects of her childhood: raised in poverty on the Six Nations reservation by an abusive father and bipolar mother. She explores contemporary Indigeneity and the intersections between mental illness, poverty, nutrition, family dysfunction, racism, colonialism, and more. At times I wished the writing itself had been pushed just a little bit further; there are parts that feel a bit social justice academia jargon-y, which tends to give the impression of an underdeveloped and unoriginal style. However, the ideas presented in these essays are thought-provoking and necessary.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

In 2000 in New York, a privileged, mid-twenties narrator decides to spend a year sleeping. Her cold, unloving parents died in quick succession when she was in college, and her only “assets” in life are a clingy, status-obsessed friend, a much-older on/off boyfriend who truly sucks, and a poorly-paid job at an art gallery. The worst psychiatrist in the world prescribes her an endless supply of sleeping pills, and she spends months doing nothing but sleeping, watching movies, and hating every second she spends with her friend Reva. Seriously, that is what makes up the bulk of this novel. I really like the idea of a female narrator who is gross and shallow and unlikeable and a complete nonentity emotionally, and I found it interesting how disinterested the narrator is in her own life. But it was so difficult to connect with anybody that I never fully found myself absorbed in the narrative, which, as I said, is very repetitive. The writing is deadpan and funny, but not quite as sharp as I’d hoped for. I think a novel like this which lacks much in the way of both narrative and character needs brilliant, precise writing, and this fell short of that for me. I think Moshfegh is talented, but I won’t exaggerate and say that she’s amazing. She’s a good writer, better than many. But I wanted this to affect me emotionally, to make me think. I wanted to love it or at least to find something to sink my teeth into, but it ended up just being an easy read with an ending that managed to be both cheap and predictable.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Damn, I love this dustjacket.

Korede, a straight-laced nurse, and Ayoola, who is selfish, impulsive, and beautiful, are sisters living in Lagos. Their relationship is strained, which is not helped by the fact that Ayoola has a habit of killing her boyfriends. She claims she has only killed in self-defense, but Korede isn’t sure – yet she is always there to clean up after Ayoola (literally). This is a great concept with a somewhat lacklustre execution. I found it really exciting to see this novel set in Nigeria, since popular genre novels seem to revolve around the Western world. There’s more going on this novel than the title implies; it’s actually not very violent, nor is it a thriller. It’s fast-paced, but the story and ending are something different and surprising, and it’s primarily about interpersonal relationships. The bond between the sisters is fraught: their personalities are very different, but they are loyal to each other due to their shared abusive childhood.

I wish the characters had been more developed. Korede is a jealous, bitter wet blanket whose main personality trait is that she cleans a lot. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration: she’s the more interesting of the sisters because she’s very self-righteous but such an enabler. Ayoola, on the other hand, feels underdeveloped, and forget about any depth in the auxiliary characters.

I did enjoy the fast pace: it made for a breezy read (this could easily be read in one sitting), and I think it was perfect for the tone and plot. However, it does feel a bit disjointed and sometimes lacked flow between its very short chapters. There was an interesting backstory that I wish had been expanded on more, but maybe that would have bogged down the pace.

I think this book is well worth a read if the premise interests you, but it’s not exactly a literary masterpiece.

My favourites this month were definitely the last two books in the Neopolitan series as well as A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Otherwise a pretty middling pack, once again.

Books read: March 2019

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.