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!

Books read: October to December 2017

Posted on January 15, 2018 under Books

I read all of this quarter’s books on my Kindle!

I didn’t read too many books in the last quarter of 2017, but luckily I had planned for that eventuality and still made my goal of 50 (with one to spare). Here’s what I read in the last few months of 2017.

RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Shifting Visibility of Drag Culture: The Boundaries of Reality TV, edited by Niall Brennan

My undergraduate degree was basically in pop culture, and now that I’m in film & TV I still find myself much more drawn to mass culture – I seem to always want to write essays about Jurassic Park and reality TV. I just find the exploration of these types of cultural texts so much more compelling than analyses of high culture. The first essay that made me fall in love with the field of Cultural Studies was Janice Radway’s study of female romance novel readers. Her attention to the importance of the transformative function of this supposedly meritless cultural form inspired me and fuelled my interest in the academic study of popular culture. So of course I will always jump at the chance to read a book about a mass cultural phenomenon! This book came out in 2017 and is about an admittedly niche topic, so I was very excited to find that my university’s library had the e-book. As with most anthologies, I found some of the essays more interesting than others, but overall I thought it was full of fascinating insights on the campy, complicated, and often contradictory nature of Drag Race.

First Among Sequels and One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing by Jasper Fforde

These are the first two books in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next reboot, which takes place sixteen years after Something Rotten. While the books are undoubtedly still clever, I find that something of the magic of the original series is lost. These two seem a bit more formulaic and lack the same joy. I’ll keep reading them, but the first series was definitely better.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Generally I avoid historical fiction, but Margaret Atwood can make me read anything. Alias Grace is a fictionalized account of the real-life maid Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant to Toronto who was convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper in 1843. Atwood doesn’t change any of the known details about Grace, but she takes creative liberties in fleshing out her story. Whether or not Grace really did kill Nancy Mongtomery and Thomas Kinnear, I don’t know – but Atwood turns Grace into a compelling, sympathetic, and complex character regardless. I’m excited to get to the Netflix series now that I’ve read the novel!

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

I have watched both the documentary Going Clear and Leah Remini’s television exposé on the abuses of Scientology, so when this book came up as a suggestion on my Kindle, I was happy to fork over $1.99. Jenna Miscavige Hill is the niece of David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology, and was raised in the religion from the age of two. “Harrowing” is about right! As a toddler, Hill saw her parents – who were high-ranking members of the Sea Org – for only a few hours a week, and was raised at what is essentially a cross between boarding school and a work camp. She had to perform hard labour as a small child seven days a week, and was emotionally and psychologically manipulated and abused into adulthood. As someone who has avidly consumed media related to Scientology over the past few years, her story is not unfamiliar to me – but it still gives me goosebumps to think of what so many go through under David Miscavige’s leadership. It’s a comprehensive account of life under Scientology, doubly chilling because of the detailed, extended account of what can only be described as child abuse. Though this book is not very well-written, it’s extremely interesting and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in this subject.

Final Girls by Mira Grant

Though I’m not a huge horror/sci fi fan, I still love Mira Grant’s work. She always approaches common tropes from a totally different angle, and this novella is no exception. Dr. Jennifer Webb has developed a virtual reality-based therapy which heals clients by putting them in horror movie simulations. Her star clients are a pair of estranged sisters who grew inseparable after undergoing this therapy and learning to work together as a team. Journalist Esther Hoffmann, whose father’s life was ruined by regression therapy, is invited to write a story on Dr. Webb’s technology, and sets out to thoroughly debunk it. Dr. Webb invites Esther to experience the VR technology herself, and Esther reluctantly agrees. Of course, things go terribly wrong. It’s a thrilling read, a take on zombies, VR, and government conspiracies that I haven’t seen before, and the perfect length. I don’t often read novellas and short stories, but this is a short, adrenaline-filled burst that perfectly complements the premise.

Total books: 51
Fiction: 43
Non-fiction: 8
Books written by women: 30 (and one anthology)
Books written by people of colour: 5
Books written by LGBTQ people: 6
Canadian books: 10

Clearly I gravitate more towards books written by women, but I would like to read more diversely – those numbers aren’t great! I read a lot based on other people’s recommendations, so I’m going to seek out book blogs/YouTube channels run by people of colour and LGBTQ people this year.

As I mentioned earlier, my goal for 2018 is 30 books. This year I’ve already read four, but two were quite short and I know my pace will slow as the semester gets busier. But I think 30 should be doable – and with decent time management I might even manage to read a bit more than that.