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.

Books read, July-September 2017

Posted on October 01, 2017 under Books

I read 14 books this quarter for a total of 45 this year, which means I have three whole months to read five to bring me to my yearly goal of 50! I tried to read a lot this quarter since I knew October, November, and December would be filled with academic reading. As Lenny Kravitz so wisely tells us, it ain’t over til it’s over, but I’m going to be cautiously optimistic and say that I’ll be able to hit my target. So here’s what I read over the summer!

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This ambitious novel starts with two Ghanaian girls, born in the 1700s of the same mother but raised separately. One marries a wealthy colonizer; one becomes a slave in the United States. We follow the two bloodlines eight generations, to early-2000s America. It’s a risky premise, and one that I think was executed well but not flawlessly. It helps to think of the book more as a series of vignettes than a novel; unsurprisingly, some chapters are more compelling than others. There were some characters whose stories I could really sink my teeth into and some who were more forgettable. Nonetheless, Gyasi vividly describes place beautifully, and her descriptions of 1700s Ghana and 1920s America are equally convincing. Worth a read, I think!

How Should A Person Be?: A Novel From Life by Sheila Heti

I’m going to copy my Goodreads review here because I don’t think I can summarize my thoughts on this “novel” any better:

I should have known as soon as I saw the blurb on the cover from Lena Dunham calling this book “amazing” that it would be self-absorbed and privileged. Heti’s preoccupation with herself is poorly disguised as a deeper, broader search for the meaning of life. She is incapable of thinking outside of herself until she deeply hurts her (also self-indulgent) best friend, and, in general, overthinks everything and creates trouble where there is none. She is the embodiment of bourgeoisie anxieties that, to put it bluntly, the working class doesn’t have the luxury to give a shit about. She takes a job at a hair salon not for the money but because she’s feeling unfulfilled procrastinating writing a play and doing coke with her other privileged artist friends. She decides to move to New York – one of the most expensive cities in the world – on a whim. And she frames everything she does as some sort of deep quest to finding human meaning, when really it’s just navelgazing at its finest. And yet I think she writes enjoyable, fluid prose. Somehow I couldn’t find it in myself to hate this book, although it’s irritating as hell – and, yes, exactly the kind of thing Lena Dunham would like.

The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand

I enjoyed Hilderbrand’s Here’s To Us (mentioned in this post) more than I expected, so I picked up her newest novel for a spot of light reading for a weekend trip. The novel concerns Harper and Tabitha Frost, estranged twin sisters who switch lives for a summer. Free-spirited Harper goes to raise uptight Tabitha’s rebellious sixteen-year-old daughter Ainsley and run her failing boutique on Nantucket; Tabitha escapes to Martha’s Vineyard to renovate the twins’ late father’s house. It’s an enjoyable read, but far from cerebral, obviously. The ending is predictably predictable, and the well-drawn characters and heart I discovered in Here’s To Us were absent from The Identicals. The polar opposite twins were too stereotypical for me to take seriously, and the family tragedy that drew them apart ends up being pretty anticlimactic. Fine for what it is, but nothing special.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

After reading Solomon Gursky Was Here in a lit class that I was tricked into taking, my interest in iconic Montreal author Mordecai Richer was piqued. Duddy Kravitz is one of his better-known works; it’s about the titular character, a hustler if there ever was one, and his singular, lifelong goal of owning land. Duddy is an extremely well-drawn character: shady and amoral yet somehow still likeable. I love Richler’s descriptions of Montreal, as well. As someone who lived there for four years, the city feels familiar yet different, as it’s removed by several decades. That said, the plot didn’t quite do it for me – Duddy’s exploits were fun, but not as extravagantly enjoyable as the Gurskys’. Richler writes great dry prose and excels at creating antiheroes.

My 1980s And Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum

I read a review that compared Koestenbaum to Barthes, which seems fairly apt to me: both are self-indulgent, obsessive, and a little bit lyrical. (Koestenbaum suffers slightly less from an obvious Oedipus complex, however.) I can see this book as his version of Mythologies, though not focused around one thesis. (Oh, and he didn’t include any essays on items as banal as a glass of milk.) I found his writing insightful, fluid, and enjoyable to read. As with any collection of essays, some are better than others, but overall most captured my attention. Collections of cultural criticism can suffer from one inherent flaw: unless you are familiar with everything the essayist is writing about, you’re likely reading about a lot of cultural artefacts you haven’t experienced for yourself. That said, Koestenbaum describes vividly and kept me reading even when I hadn’t seen a specific painting he was writing about. I consider his descriptive writing top-notch and I’ll definitely reference it for inspiration when writing endless scene analyses in grad school.

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s first novel is noticeably different from his later novels both stylistically and tonally, though it has many thematic similarities. It explores a fictionalized America where almost every job has been replaced by computers, a concept that is all the more relevant 65 years later in today’s increasingly mechanized form of capitalism. This is by far the most character-driven of the Vonnegut novels I’ve read, which was interesting, but I have to say I prefer the acerbic style of his later work.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

This is Zadie Smith’s first novel and the first of hers I’ve read, and it definitely convinced me. This is a hilarious, poignant, and beautifully-written account of two immigrant families in 1970s and 1980s London and how their lives intersect. It hit every note for me: it was believable, expansive, and absolutely compelling. I can’t wait to dive into Smith’s other novels!

Perfect by D.M. Quintano

Ahh, just a spot of old school YA. I’ve read this book a million times and it’s certainly not as enjoyable as it was when I was 11. In fact, it’s highly flawed and boasts a fairly pathetic 2.5 star rating on Goodreads. I actually don’t think it’s as bad as all that – it’s actually quite darkly funny and well-paced. Is the plot great? No. Are the characters anything more than 2D cardboard cutouts? Of course not! But I still think it has its merits.

A Summer Bird-cage by Margaret Drabble

My mom recommended Margaret Drabble to me as I was telling her that I really enjoy narratives about the minutiae of women’s lives. Her first novel focuses on the relationship between two distant sisters, one of whom has recently married a famous novelist. I love women’s writing from the 1960s because so much of it concerns the absolute tedium of domestic life and women’s lack of autonomy, which I find fascinating. This is a really great look at the toll marriage can take on a woman, but also at the bond of sisterhood as the women grow closer while the marriage sours. It’s not exactly the most exciting novel, but obviously the genre “the minutiae of women’s lives” wouldn’t be.

The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble

This Drabble novel once again primarily concerns marriage: that of well-known actor David Evans and his wife Emma. David takes a theatre job for an entire season in a remote town, and Emma has to decline a news anchor job so she can uproot her family for the sake of David’s career. Similar themes to A Summer Bird-cage, but I think this novel is more compellingly-written. Emma is a very interesting character; I felt sympathy for her situation but not entirely for her as a person, because she’s quite cold. This is quite a short novel and I was really impressed at how much Drabble managed to say in so few pages.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

This is not one of my favourite Atwood novels, but it’s very disturbing and will stick with me for a long time. It’s narrated by an unnamed woman who has left her husband and baby for her lover, Joe. Her father disappears in the remote Quebec wilderness, and she brings Joe and two friends – who she doesn’t know particularly well – to try to find him. As the four characters get to know each other, the novel becomes more and more sinister – though it’s usually just an undertone, never anything overt. The narrator becomes increasingly isolated in the company of her friends. It’s very disconcerting, a psychological thriller with almost no action. Even when I don’t love an Atwood novel, I’m left in awe of her writing – this is no exception.

Lost In A Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, and Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

These are the second, third, and fourth books in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. (I read the first in April.) Broadly speaking, this series is about an alternative 1980s UK, where time travel and cloning are abundant. The titular Thursday Next is a literary detective in Swindon who acquires the ability to enter books and live inside of them. The series follows her exploits in the real world and inside of books, as she polices both realms against political corruption and pure evil. These books are great fun and very clever, and I plan on finishing the series.

By the way, I got a Kindle in August, so the last three books aren’t pictured in the header image since I don’t have physical copies. Because I’m living abroad at the moment I really want to cut down on my physical possessions, so the Kindle makes a lot of sense.

Anyway, in another three months we will find out if I made my goal!

Books read, April-June 2017

Posted on July 03, 2017 under Books

Another quarter gone, another mini book review post to follow. I read 15 books this quarter, bringing my total up to 31. I’m easily on track for my goal of 50 books in 2017!

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I first read this book in early 2013 and decided to re-read it four years later in anticipation of the Starz adaptation (of which I have only watched two episodes – not sure that it’s going to hold my attention). I would say I enjoyed this sprawling, consuming tale less than I did four years ago, but Gaiman’s writing is still enjoyable. I greatly admire his ability for synthesis; there’s so much going on in the novel and he manages to tie together so many histories and mythologies. The premise was less charming to me this time around, and there was a subplot which, while enthralling, didn’t feel as though it was a part of the same book. Overall I’d say it’s an ambitious, well-executed, but flawed novel.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

This was a very fun and clever book about an alternate 1980s UK. The main character, Thursday Next, is a Literary Detective who enters the world of Jane Eyre to pursue a murderer. (Yes, in this world the line between fiction and reality is not so clear…) I’ve seen comparisons to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I haven’t read, but I got a definite Phantom Tollbooth vibe with a pinch of Vonnegut for good measure. I think I’ll end up reading the rest of the books in this series when I want something light but not too fluffy.

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

I would call this a stream-of-consciousness prose poem rather than a novel. It’s unrelentingly bleak – think childhood illness, brain cancer, sexual abuse, the works. I find extended stream-of-consciousness narratives difficult and tedious, so I guess I wasn’t the right audience for this book from the outset. Combine that with the unending horrors presented in the book and it’s not easygoing. At certain points, I marvelled at McBride’s use of language, particularly towards the end of the novel. But I think that when a book is so unyielding in its darkness, the scales can tip towards melodrama and the whole thing can be surprisingly emotionally hollow. That was the case for me with this book, in any event.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

This book blew my mind when I first read it at age seventeen. Suffice to say I loved it even more the second time around. It tells the tale of the Binewskis, a circus family whose children are bred – with various cocktails of drugs – to be purposefully deformed so that they may draw large crowds. Its narratives alternate between the past and present, told by one of the middle children, Olympia, who is an albino, hunchbacked dwarf. As the story draws on the family’s dramas become more and more disturbing and perverse. Dunn’s prose is exquisite and insightful: she doesn’t just offer up an intriguing, dramatic plot (complete with murder, a cult, and so much more), but also meditations on normalcy. It’s unflinching, imaginative, and wholly extraordinary.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

Margaret Laurence is a wonderful, underrated Canadian writer. Though I enjoyed her best-known work, The Diviners, more, I found The Stone Angel very powerful too. It’s narrated by the formidable Hagar Shipley, a 90-year-old woman who looks back on her life, including her difficult childhood and her terrible marriage. Hagar is fierce and resists help from her son and his wife, though she is deteriorating both physically and mentally. She’s the nonagenarian antiheroine we all need! Having read The Diviners, which is set in the same Manitoba town – though a generation later – I loved recognizing certain characters and settings.

How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ

Seminal, biting feminist literary critique. I’ve been anti-canon since high school, and Russ perfectly elucidates why women’s artistic contributions are not taken seriously. She pays special attention to women of colour and lesbians as well. Essential reading, in my opinion.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Speaking of lesbians…! Rita Mae Brown’s groundbreaking classic is so full of heart; her protagonist, Molly Bolt, is delightful in her refusal to conform or to feel shame for her love of women. This is a funny, feisty, touching novel and a classic for a reason.

Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood

Out of the Atwood novels I’ve read this one has the least overt feminist spin – though it’s still there, of course. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, but it really doesn’t compare to Cat’s Eye or The Edible Woman in its portrayal of the minutiae of women’s day-to-day lives. (Though as it’s about a journalist on vacation in the Caribbean, perhaps it’s not entirely about that.) Atwood writes lovely prose, no doubt about it, and this is an enjoyable novel – just not her best work.

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Revisiting a fifth grade classic! As an adult, I found the novel a bit fast-paced – perhaps it’s because I’m used to fantasy novels being long, consuming, and detailed, rather than paced like a thriller. (I mean, the last fantasy I read was A Song of Ice and Fire, so…) Regardless, it’s so imaginative and I love the protagonist Meg – she’s a realistic child, shy and a bit awkward, who comes to trust and believe in herself more as the novel progresses. Great for kids and enjoyable for a nostalgic adult too.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Thought I’d revisit my favourite Vonnegut novel for the millionth time! This novel is everything he did right distilled into one book. It’s absurdist, dark, and caustic. I admit I’m a big fan of Vonnegut’s writing style anyway, but this was the first of his novels I ever read and it really set the tone for me. A few of his novels have come close, but I’ve now read seven and this is still my favourite.

Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Should I admit that my interest in reading this novel was sparked by an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? (By the way, that show is brilliant and I marathoned all twelve seasons in the space of like a minute and a half.) Regardless, it was surprisingly poignant and quietly thought-provoking. Charlie is one of the most sympathetic narrators I’ve encountered in a very long time, and his progression was believable and well-paced. There is an incredible amount of humanity in this novel. Definitely a tearjerker!

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

I’m glad I read Mother Night so soon after my Slaughterhouse-Five re-read, because it, too, is about WWII and is narrated by a character who is mentioned in passing in Slaughterhouse-Five. It takes the form of the confession of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American who was raised in Germany and who is currently awaiting trial in Israel for Nazism. The twist is that, according to Campbell, he was an American spy, and his Nazi propaganda actually contained coded messages to the United States. However, the only man who can corroborate his story is nowhere to be found, so here we have a classic case of an unreliable narrator. At the heart of Mother Night is the question of whether or not it matters if Campbell really was an American spy, if ultimately he was complicit in the spread of evil. I’d put this right up there with Slaughterhouse-Five and Bluebeard in my Vonnegut ranking.

The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

The premise of this book is so good: it’s about a girl who kills her sister’s murderer. But wait, it’s actually not, it’s about that girl and her last year of high school and her boyfriend/friend drama. Okay, to be fair, it was also a very scathing indictment of rape culture, and the twist ending was pretty awesome. But, well, it does feel a bit like a bait-and-switch. I wanted it to be way darker than it was, but it was normal YA with a murder-y twist. And I really wish that Anna, the sister, had been developed better. For a book that pushes some pretty feminist themes, I thought it was disappointing that the girl who was murdered ended up pretty much just being a convenient plot piece. I wanted to know about her, not about her sister’s boyfriend.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

My favourite Atwood novel. It’s rough going, and it doesn’t get easier when you re-read it, either. The depiction of girlhood – particularly bullying – is gruelling, unrelenting, brutal. When I first read this in 2012, I said that reading it felt like drowning, and I think that’s still true. It’s very banal, in a lot of respects, but it’s also so vicious in its deconstruction of the world. I suppose you might consider it post-feminist; it was written in the 80s and the narrator’s reluctance to be pigeonholed as a “feminist artist” point towards Atwood’s own ambivalence about being renowned as a feminist writer. Either way, this book is fucking brilliant and I love Margaret Atwood.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

I enjoy more contemporary lesbian literature, but the stuff that came out of the 70s and 80s – when things were so very different – is especially compelling to me. I think it’s about heritage, learning what came before. Winterson’s autobiographical novel is hilarious and heartbreaking, her voice strong and clear. She’s unapologetic but reflective. This book convinced me to check out her other work!

I’m hoping to read 10 more books by the end of summer, which will leave me with 4 months to read another 9. I think I can do it, but I’m a little apprehensive about the time-suck of moving to another country and starting grad school. So we will see!