Posted on January 02, 2019 under Books
Well, I reached 2018’s goal of 30 back in July, so this feels a bit anticlimactic. That said, I read 14 books in November and December, making the final tally for 2018 60. So, basically, I severely underestimated myself a year ago.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney’s second novel is thematically similar to her first, Conversations With Friends, which I enjoyed despite myself. These things are sure to become Rooney signatures: failure to communicate simple things, dysfunctional relationships with sex, relationships between sexually naïve women and experienced men, weirdly antagonistic yet codependent friendships, the pretentiousness of bourgeoisie who believe themselves to be progressive. This novel does an admirable job of processing these themes, and Rooney’s simple, straightforward prose and ability to create a believable psychological profile are on clear display here. I do always love a narrative where two people switch social positions, a dynamic that Rooney portrays delicately and believably. However, I can’t help but think that this is a less potent but more palatable version of Conversations With Friends. The difficulties of Conversations With Friends ultimately made it more interesting. Lately I’ve been finding it hard to enjoy things that are too slick, too smooth. Those adjectives imply a lack of grit, the difficulty of gripping something tightly. I think that’s how I feel in the case of Rooney’s two novels. Conversations With Friends is interesting because of the flaws, the possibility of failure. It’s lush with terrain that gives it grip. Normal People is sure to be more of a crowd-pleaser, but it lacks the same texture.
(By the way, huge thanks to Liz for hooking me up with an ARC of this after my review of Conversations With Friends! It’s out in the UK already, but North Americans will have to wait until April to read it.)
Making Camp: Rhetorics of Transgression in U.S. Popular Culture by Helene A. Shugart and Catherine Egley Waggoner
Camp was a central concern of my Master’s dissertation, so I’ve done a lot of reading on it, and I have yet to find a single article or book that I wholly agree with. Such is its slippery, elusive nature! I did really enjoy this book’s focus on women’s embodiment of camp, since the discussion tends to focus mainly on the male body and gay men’s consumption and creation of camp. However, I found myself scratching my head at a lot of the conclusions the authors came to, particularly regarding the political potential of their case studies. (For example, Xena‘s pathological queerbaiting being put forth as some kind of revolutionary lesbian representation was… not it.) I also found the writing a bit sloppy, rife with repetition and basic errors. I think this book is better in concept than in execution, basically. I am always happy to see someone thinking through the question of camp from a new angle, though, since it is very gay male-oriented. (Where are all the books on lesbian camp?!)
I’ll Be Gone In the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
Part of the appeal of true crime (aside from the could-be-me mixed with the relief of knowing that it probably won’t be) is our knowledge that there’s an ethical dilemma in commodifying people’s suffering and still being unable to look away. I read this book quickly and thoroughly enjoyed every page. Almost as interesting as the GSK case is the exploration of the meta aspects of the true crime genre. McNamara’s psychological struggles are laid bare, the promise of pursuit followed by the devastation of dead ends. The book is made all the more potent by McNamara’s premature death, the idea of unfinished business and an obsession never fully realized. I appreciate that McNamara is so even in her writing; she never puts forth wild theories or blames victims. And in the wake of the GSK’s arrest in April, her sharpness becomes apparent. Many of the theories that she thought important enough to include in the book turned out to be true. She had an incredible handle on the case, a connection to it that legitimizes the book’s existence in a genre that makes a spectacle out of the most unimaginable suffering.
I wish that McNamara had been able to finish this book, because it does unfortunately peter off, and there were elements of repetition and disjointedness. It feels like her team was reticent to revise her work too much, knowing that she was the expert, but it could have used some tightening up. But I acknowledge that some of the allure of the book is its backstory, including McNamara’s death. Regardless, this is sure to become a true crime classic.
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin
This book is not really about dead girls or their prominence in Western pop culture. Bolin touches on that briefly at the beginning of the book, but she doesn’t come to any particularly groundbreaking conclusion beyond “misogyny is bad, the pain of women is used to further men’s character development, and I hate the show True Detective“. She takes great pains to mention that she went to grad school, but this is not graduate level cultural analysis. Some of her essays are interesting; I enjoyed her thoughts on Britney Spears, Alexis Neiers, and the Canadian camp horror film Ginger Snaps. But make no mistake: the “essays on Twin Peaks and Serial” this book promises are really just a name drop or a few paragraphs that don’t come to any particularly enlightening conclusions. So much of this book is about Bolin, and how she moved to Los Angeles at age twenty-five (seriously, this book is about LA more than anything else), and how she’s read everything Joan Didion has ever written. It’s frustrating, because she’s clearly a talented, lucid author, but this is not the book it purports to be and the book it actually is is not all that interesting. For all the deconstruction Bolin does of white womanhood it’s ironic that she spends so much time writing about her own unremarkable white womanhood, though she thinks her move to LA from the Midwest is somehow special because she isn’t chasing fame. Well, her life in LA is not particularly interesting, and neither is this book.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
I read this in anticipation of the film, which I only wanted to see because it was directed by Barry Jenkins. (Basically any other director attached to this project would have been an immediate turnoff.) It’s remarkably depressing how relevant this book is over forty years later: Fonny’s unjust, racially-motivated incarceration for a rape the police know he did not commit could, and does, happen today. (It’s interesting that the male protagonist in Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, which I read this summer, is wrongfully convicted of the same crime.) His pregnant fiancée Tish’s love for him, wholehearted belief in his goodness, and strength in pursuing his release are brilliantly-rendered. This is fundamentally a narrative of the importance of love to survival in a hostile world, and it’s well worth reading. (Go see the film too!)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Yay, amazing Canadian representation in the form of a Giller Prize winner and Man Booker nominee! This novel tells the story of a boy who is born into slavery and then taken under the wing of his master’s eccentric scientist brother. The book takes us from the plantation in Barbados to the Canadian arctic to Nova Scotia to London to Marrakech – basically, it’s a rip-roaring adventure. And while it is certainly a fun, entertaining read, what I liked the most about it was the frustration of Washington’s talent and intelligence going largely unacknowledged. Living as a free man in Nova Scotia, Washington becomes a knowledgeable marine biologist and gifted scientific illustrator, but his contributions are erased, attributed to white men. This is the lot of so many people of colour, women, and other minorities through history, people with talent and sharp minds whose names we will never know. Also skilfully explored is the hypocrisy of the so-called abolitionist Christopher Wilde, who is disgusted by his brother’s treatment of slaves while using their labour to advance his own scientific progress. He believes himself to be morally robust, but his bond with Washington is uneven; he is more interested in the idea of Washington and in his usefulness than in his humanity. It’s an interesting, well-written novel. (Also, I am just delighted when CanLit gets some international attention.)
How To Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
Johanna Morrigan (pseudonymously known as Dolly Wilde) is a nineteen-year-old music journalist in mid-nineties London who finds herself unexpectedly well-known after a creepy comedian publicizes details of their sexual encounter. Moran writes deftly about the dynamics between men and women (particularly when sex is involved), and the defense of teenage girls at the heart of the novel is lovely. (I once wrote an essay about One Direction and teenage girls so I am very on board with this.) The conversational writing style is hilarious and easy to get into; the characters are a little bit absurd in a totally enjoyable way. However, one does get the idea that Moran finds light racism a bit funny (and, indeed, she has made many comments which basically confirm that she thinks racism is funny and/or not actually a big deal). So, that’s a bit of a downer. Also a downer is the fact that the ending of the novel is far too neat and perfect to be at all realistic. Johanna’s life is a hilarious mess; the end of the novel should be too.
Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay
This book’s power is not only in its generally cogent, well-articulated essays but in the weight of collectivity, the feeling that rape culture is impermeable, ubiquitous, and unrelenting. The stories in this book seem impossibly numerous, but they are so few. Most jarring is the realization that the title doesn’t only refer to the idea that sexual assault is “not that bad”, but victims’ own attempts to downplay trauma that refuses to be processed. This is a powerful, important collection that I highly recommend – though it’s obviously no easy read.
Love by Jeanette Winterson
I adore Penguin minis – they’re such a fun, easily-digestible way to discover new authors or explore a variety of someone’s work. Love is made up of excerpts from many of Winterson’s books as well as her own commentary. I’ve enjoyed her fiction, but I think the sharpness and clarity of her mind comes through best in her non-fiction and certainly in her meta-fictional commentary. Love is both a wonderful introduction to a breadth of her work as well as a demonstration of her exceptional insight.
Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò
A really interesting premise: a married couple in 1980s Nigeria struggles with infertility for so long that the husband takes a second wife at the insistence of his family. It’s an interesting concept and an ambitious portrait of a marriage over the span of decades, but it doesn’t totally work for me. Adébáyò’s writing is vivid; I enjoyed the incorporation of Nigerian fairytales into the narrative, the backdrop of political instability underscoring the instability of the marriage, and the fully-developed characterization of Yejide, the wife. Yejide’s heartbreaking reaction to sustained tragedy is completely believable. Akin, the husband, seems more like an afterthought, and he’s not as likeable as the novel tries to make him. There are certain plot points which seem slapdash and not followed through properly. However, it’s a touching story with a powerfully-rendered protagonist.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
This is one of the standouts of 2018 for me. Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a classic of lesbian literature; Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is Winterson’s attempt to revisit that story in middle age. It’s a memoir about an unhappy childhood, but it’s also a philosophical meditation on many of the themes Winterson explores in her fiction: the fluidity of time, dysfunctional family units, religion as an oppressive yet deeply alluring force, hostile motherhood, what it means to love and be loved. The scenes of her childhood feel familiar, of course, but it is the chapters that occur after the twenty-five-year jump that are truly stirring. Winterson recounts her breakdown after the dissolution of a relationship, and then her search for her biological mother. It’s a testament to her thoughtfulness, her sharpness, her buoyancy that a book that grapples with so many difficult moments is ultimately hopeful and triumphant. I’m not really one for a memoir, but I happily made this exception.
Milkman by Anna Burns
This year’s Man Booker winner is complex, layered, and challenging. It uses no proper names, and so we have a story narrated by middle sister in an unnamed city about “the political problems” – though that’s no less euphemistic than the term “the Troubles”, which is what the novel is actually about. Aside from the lack of proper names, certain characters are referred to only collectively: for example, middle sister’s three “wee sisters” speak and act in unison, always. But what is most interesting about the novel is the exploration of the impact of ethno-nationalist conflict on our eighteen-year-old protagonist. Middle sister is relentlessly pursued by a high-ranking paramilitary known as Milkman, and though she does not enjoy his attentions she lacks the language to articulate this to her community, who shun her for her alleged affair. Middle sister is quickly labelled a “beyond-the-pale”, her insular, paranoid, gossip-driven community shutting her out instead of helping her. It’s a poignant take on how political conflict exacerbates a young woman’s trauma. Most frustrating is middle sister’s desire to understand and articulate her dilemma, with patriarchal social rules limiting her ability to self-express. With no physical violence done to her, she does not know how to explain to others what she is experiencing. Present in the novel are “the women with the issues”, the community’s small feminist group, hinting at an alternate consciousness that middle sister fails to access despite her obvious interest in the group. This is a dense, difficult book, but one worth making an effort for and a worthy Man Booker winner.
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen
An interesting premise and promising first chapter give way to a disappointing collection of essays. Petersen attempts to acquit herself of her focus on straight white women: unruliness is accessible, with fewer consequences, to this category, thus their dominance in her book. This is undoubtedly true. It’s also a major fucking copout. The women she writes about are merely completing the work of so many who came before them, many of them women of colour, or trans women, or lesbians. Petersen tries to contextualize each essay, but what’s missing is acknowledgment of the labour of the subaltern that white women capitalize on. The adulation of Hillary Clinton is predictable white feminist fodder; the essay on Broad City ignores its near-constant queerbaiting; the assertion that Lena Dunham is hated because she puts her naked body on television conveniently glosses over all the shitty things she’s done. I mean, nobody’s perfect, but Lena Dunham has a self-described “blind spot” when it comes to race; she publicly accused a biracial woman of lying about being raped by her friend; she outed her sibling to their parents. Lena Dunham is one of those people that is so rotten that I inevitably forget half the shit she’s pulled because she is drowning in it. Even worse than the chapter on Dunham is the one on Caitlyn Jenner, labelled “too queer”, because there is no better spokesperson for LGBTQ women than a homophobic Republican whose privilege insulates her from basically everything most trans women experience regularly. (Hi, she said she’s faced more persecution for being a Republican than for being trans.) There are so many trans women, bi women, and lesbians (many of whom are women of colour) who do difficult, meaningful, necessary activism for the community. Caitlyn Jenner is not one of them, and she never will be, because her vague attempts at activism begin and end with issues that affect her directly. In conclusion, this book was dumb and a waste of my time.
There There by Tommy Orange
This is an ambitious debut about the intersecting lives of multiple generations of Indigenous people in Oakland, converging at a powwow that they all attend. I loved the central thesis of Indigeneity being as multifaceted as any other identity category; each character was distinct, their motivations clearly explored. This is a needed antidote to the tropes that permeate what little representation exists of Indigenous people in pop culture. The social commentary is acute and acerbic. Unfortunately, I think the execution of this novel was a bit uneven, exacerbated by the various character threads. Some characters and voices were more interesting than others; there is a family at the centre of the narrative who I was sad to be pulled away from when the perspective inevitably shifted. This is a relatively short novel and there just wasn’t room for the depth that some of these characters begged. I appreciate that the writing style adapted with each character, as well, but the more lyrical prose was vastly superior to the sparser style, and there’s a single random second person chapter that’s jarring. The conclusion was climactic, but its drama precluded meaningful resolution, and I don’t just mean because it’s a cliffhanger. This is a promising debut and a voice that needs to be heard, but unfortunately I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to.
And now for my yearly breakdown:
Total books: 60
Books written by women: 46
Books written by people of colour: 21
Books written by LGBTQ people: 18
Canadian books: 8
Much better than last year’s numbers, other than the CanLit category! And since I’m feeling spicy today, let’s list favourites. Fiction: The Muse by Jessie Burton, Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, Milkman by Anna Burns. Non-fiction: They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib, How To Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS by David France, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Stinkers of 2018: Ready Player One by Earnest Cline, The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen.
Here’s to some good books in 2019! (If I continue at this pace, I’ll have to do monthly posts, since this one is 3200 words long…)
Posted on November 03, 2018 under Books
My reading slowed down a little bit in the first third of October, but I managed to read 10 books over the last two months, bringing me up to a total of 46. I’m very happy with this number! I now only need to read 6 more in November and December to make my goal.
Because I think books can be beautiful objects, this month I’m also sharing photos of some of the individual books that I think are particularly nice-looking.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
To be honest, I thought this book would be okay but not amazing, but boy was I wrong. I absolutely loved the slow, lazy pace, the description of Cameron’s small-town Montana coming of age, the realistic emergence of her lesbian identity. I know some people find it a bit slow, but I thought the pace was perfect, and, you know, teenage lesbians never get the privilege of unhurried coming of age stories so I’m going to savour the hell out of this indulgence. Rarely do I encounter characters who feel as real as Cameron, whose tough façade, genuine conviction in who she is, deep insecurity, and unprocessed grief over the death of her parents converge in such delightfully authentic ways.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
This is a book about mass, serial sexual assault. It is, consequently, incredibly heavy. It’s based on a true story and concerns a meeting involving eight women from two different families in a Mennonite colony in South America. Being women, they are illiterate, so they recruit a socially reclusive man from their community to record their conversation; the novel is in the form of the minutes of this meeting. The conversation is about the recent revelation that many women and girls from their community (including some of the women present at the meeting) have been given horse tranquilizer and repeatedly raped in the nighttime. The religious leaders of the colony have ordered the women to forgive their attackers, who are also members of the community. The women gather to discuss what to do next: namely, if they should stay and fight this injustice, or leave their community and start anew. It’s absolutely harrowing, but impeccably-written. Each woman has such a clear and distinct voice; Toews treats the topic delicately but completely gets across the immediacy of the dilemma. I think it’s fairly self-evident that those who are sensitive to portrayals of sexual assault (perhaps particularly in the current climate) may want to stay away from this novel, wonderfully-written though it is. It is incredibly powerful and incredibly disturbing.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I have read a lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, so I appreciate when it’s done differently. This is a novel about the flu that ends the world, and it’s also about the troubled life of a thrice-married movie star originally from a tiny island off the coast of British Columbia. It’s a strange mixture, but the opulence of Arthur Leander’s celebrity lifestyle contrasts with the barrenness of the post-flu world – but there is also a symmetry in the isolation of fame and the apocalypse. The world-ending plague has linkages to real-life epidemics: its arrival in Toronto echoes the SARS scare of the early 2000s (I was just old enough to remember that), its spread via air travel reminiscent of Gaëtan Dugas, a Quebecois flight attendant long thought (erroneously) to be “patient zero” for AIDS. What I found most fascinating about this novel was the divide between those who remember the pre-flu world and look back on it with nostalgia and the younger generation, who view things like electricity and air travel as incomprehensible, akin to magic. It’s a very interesting, strange novel. Also, I’m a sucker for anything set in Toronto.
Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut
Not one of my favourite Vonnegut novels, but still impeccably-written. This one is about a man name Rudy Waltz, who in childhood accidentally shot and killed a pregnant woman and was ostracized from his Midwest community. As a narrator, Rudy seems so far removed from humanity, not necessarily sub-human but somehow inhuman, and he describes humanity with detachment that is borne of his alienness rather than sociopathy. It’s a book about the impacts of childhood trauma and social isolation on the psyche, which is interesting, but it does lack focus. I’m now ten books deep into Vonnegut’s catalogue, and while sometimes I encounter one that I think deserves to be considered on the level of Slaughterhouse-Five or Breakfast of Champions, I can see why this one isn’t often discussed.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, is absolutely enchanting. So far I have yet to read anything by her that comes close to matching it. She creates characters so wonderfully, and in On Beauty she perfectly captures the cerebral pretensions of academics who are so far removed from the real world that they damage their relationships. But – and, given its subject matter, it’s possible that this is the point – the book felt a bit smug, like its main purpose was to assert its own cleverness. It also felt a bit like a series of vignettes that never fully come together; it shares the issue of an anticlimactic ending with Smith’s NW. Reading her books is frustrating because White Teeth was so enjoyable that it’s almost painful to not feel that her obvious talent is realized.
America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
This is a gorgeous portrait of Filipino communities in Northern California in the early 1990s. The main character, Hero, is a bisexual communist who comes to live with her uncle and his family after being a field doctor for a rebel army in the Philippines for a decade. Her upper class parents have disowned her for her political affiliations, and she must start over as an undocumented immigrant and unofficial nanny of her seven-year-old cousin. It’s a beautifully-drawn story about family, friendship, and diaspora. My only complaint is that the prologue focused on Hero’s cousin’s much-younger wife, Paz, whose story is very interesting – but she becomes a secondary figure in the rest of the novel, which is a bit disappointing!
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I really enjoy novels about fraught female friendships; one of my favourites is Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, and certain aspects of the relationship between our narrator Elena and her abrasive but dazzling best friend Lila remind me of that book. This novel follows their friendship from its establishment in early childhood until Lila’s wedding at age sixteen to a wealthy businessman. The girls’ respective power relative to each other and their community shifts as they grow up, and Elena ultimately finds herself in Lila’s shadow although she has far surpassed her academically. It’s a thoughtfully-drawn portrait of both female friendship and a country in the middle of a shift towards prosperity under modern industrialization. (I find Italian works set in the post-war period really interesting because the country changed so rapidly – Italian cinema is fascinating for the same reason.) The conclusion of the novel is rather abrupt (and does nothing to address the prologue, which is set decades in the future on the occasion of Lila’s sudden disappearance), but I guess that’s what the rest of the series is for.
Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Fourteen-year-old June is a misfit, understood by one person: her beloved uncle Finn. When Finn dies of AIDS in 1986, June discovers that he had a partner for a decade. June’s mother, who loved Finn but struggled with his sexuality and the stigma of his disease, made the total absence of his partner in June’s life contingent on her brother’s relationship with her. But in the wake of Finn’s death, June strikes up a secret friendship with Finn’s partner Toby, who is also dying. As some of my blog readers might know, I’ve consumed a lot of books and films about AIDS (particularly its early days) and everything in this novel felt realistic, particularly the way June’s family struggled to reconcile their love for Finn with their homophobia and the hysteria surrounding the disease. June was very believably fourteen, though I didn’t fully understand the genesis of her outcast identity.
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
This is a book about people who think they’re very smart and politically radical but who gleefully participate in the institutions they claim to hate. It’s also about a twenty-one-year-old self-described bisexual communist (hey, a theme!) having an affair with a thirty-two-year-old actor who is the husband of a well-known photographer and writer who befriends her one night. I can see why thoughts are so divided here; none of the characters are likeable or display any sort of growth, and their political posturing is truly insufferable. It’s the kind of self-consciously clever novel that seems destined to irritate. But despite it all I actually liked it! It’s full of irony and subverted expectations: that these people can talk endlessly about radical politics while still living privileged lives, that despite the novel’s overt centering around conversations it’s actually about the repeated, sustained failure to communicate, that the sex scenes are without exception a bit pathetic. It’s not really a titillating story about an affair or a politically-meaningful text, but I think that’s what I like about it, that it starts doing these things and then purposefully stops short. The anticlimactic ending is fitting for these characters who are, despite their beliefs in their own intelligence, milquetoast bourgeoisie who are pathologically incapable of making good choices. It all sounds a bit grim, and it is, and I get why people would hate this one. Not really a ringing endorsement, but, hey, I really did like it and if you’re curious I think you should see for yourself.
Starlight by Richard Wagamese
Northern Ontarian Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese died in 2017 before completing this novel, which is about a woman and her daughter escaping from an abusive situation and coming to live on a farm run by a gentle nature photographer named Frank Starlight. There is a lot here that is substantial, compelling, touching. I find the exploration of communication and commonality fascinating, particularly because these characters are explicitly inarticulate and uncomfortable expressing themselves verbally. They find comfort in each other (and nature), affirming their love for others and the world around them in unconventional but profound ways. Starlight is also an interesting character – particularly his ambivalence about his Indigenous identity, which is tied up in the absence of his biological father. (This echoes Wagamese’s real life; he was raised in foster care and discouraged from pursuing his cultural heritage.) However, this novel does feel unfinished, and I don’t just mean because it literally stops halfway through. (I think this is handled well, actually, with an explanation of Wagamese’s intention for the ending, an excerpt from a work with similar themes, and a personal essay in which he explores the absence of his father, who died a year before he reunited with his biological family.) I mean it reads like a draft – a draft by a gifted writer, but a draft nonetheless. I’m talking long sections of pure dialogue, character motivations that don’t quite work, things like that. I think this book is best seen as a posthumous gift to longtime fans; as a standalone novel, it’s imperfect, and I imagine it isn’t the best introduction to his work. That said, I’d like to check out some of his completed novels to get an idea of his writing at its best.
I have a stack of eight books I’d like to get through before the end of the year – I’ll see you in two months with the final tally of 2018.
Posted on September 02, 2018 under Books
I was silent on my blog in the month of August because I was working on my dissertation, which is now finished and handed in. That means I’m officially done my Master’s! Anyway, I’m back with one of my favourite types of posts: a book roundup.
I read my thirtieth book in July, thus making my yearly goal less than 60% of the way through the year. Now I’d officially like to match last year’s count of 51 books, though of course if I could get to an even 52 – one per week – I’d be especially thrilled. (Okay, secretly my stretch goal is 60, so let’s say somewhere between 52 and 60 by December 31.) I read 11 books in July and August, bringing my total count to 36 so far.
Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! by Kurt Vonnegut
I have now read nine of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels, so I’m making pretty good progress at getting through his catalogue. I also have a good idea of where different things fall in my personal ranking, and while Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night, and Bluebeard still remain my top three, Slapstick is certainly a wonderful demonstration of everything I love about Vonnegut’s writing. Nobody does absurdism better, but Vonnegut manages to retain such an urgent sense of humanity. Slapstick centers on twins Wilbur and Eliza, who were born with a birth defect and who, together, have a singular genius mind. Throughout their lives, they are isolated in various ways – due to their appearances and intellect; through literal exile; thanks to a flu that causes the apocalypse. This novel is much more sentimental than Vonnegut’s work usually is, though I suppose that’s not surprising given that the introduction is about his sister’s death. I will say that this probably isn’t a fantastic entry point for those unfamiliar with Vonnegut’s work, but I certainly enjoyed it. I might even like it better than his best-known absurdist work, Breakfast of Champions.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
I genuinely thought this was going to be a good book and now I’m happy that I only paid a few bucks for it on the Kindle store. Reading this novel, I could clearly picture Albom congratulating himself on producing heavy-handed saccharine drivel masquerading as something heartfelt and inspirational. It’s as though he crammed every sad thing he could think of into one story: war, car accidents, infertility, unresolved parental tensions, children dying… and yet all of it is surface-level, there only to impress upon the reader how profound this book is without ever truly engaging with any of these themes. All of the “deep” “inspiring” “beautiful” life lessons are delivered via dialogue; the reader is not left any room for personal interpretation or revelation but simply force-fed sappy tripe. The section on war was at first promising, but instead of concluding that war is destructive and violent and life-ruining, Albom ended up with a watery version of “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, a sentiment that was passé by the end of WWI. Throw in advocating for forgiving rapists and child abusers and you’ve got a book that certainly sets my own political consciousness on edge. Regardless, though, I think this is a poorly-written, clumsy novel and I have no idea how it has managed to capture so much attention.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Longtime readers will know that historical fiction pre-1900 isn’t a genre that I dabble in frequently. The era of Napoleon’s reign is very far outside of my fictional interests. But for Jeanette Winterson, I can make an exception – especially if the book includes a lesbian romance. Winterson’s writing is exquisitely atmospheric, and she packs in the most gorgeous magical realism. (You may know that while I stay even further away from high fantasy than historical fiction, I am very into magical realism.) It’s a rumination on the human effects of war and the strength of love, and above all a very evocative tale about the ability of passion to both create and destroy.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
Academically, I have always been interested in the study of popular culture. (My undergrad was basically in pop culture studies, and my graduate work has focused primarily on reality television.) Hanif Abdurraqib’s essays so beautifully illuminate why: because popular culture tells us so much about the quotidian, about the personal, about how mass-produced art touches us in profound ways. Abdurraqib does not simply write about music or sports; he writes about being Black and Muslim in America, about love, about loss, about growing up. Pop culture is how he, like so many of us, makes sense of the world and his position in it. He mediates his complex thoughts, his heartbreaks and victories, through pop culture, or perhaps it’s the other way around. It’s no surprise that he’s a poet, though his lyrical prose remains clear and insightful. He just has such a masterful command of language, and so it’s not only a joy to read his thoughts on Fall Out Boy or Serena Williams, it is delightful to marvel at his technical ability. Though he grapples with many unpleasant truths – about premature deaths, about police brutality, about the insidiousness of racism and Islamophobia in their many forms – there is something life-affirming about his writing. He searches for the good while remaining aware of the presence of the bad. It’s exactly the collection of essays that needed to be written in this hellish Trumpian era, and that demands to be felt deeply when we are close to losing hope.
How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS by David France
It is only natural that the LGBTQ community and movement have changed so much since the early days. But it’s also a bit sad that so much history has been forgotten, AIDS only a footnote to so many. This can’t necessarily be attributed to wilful ignorance; of course, the disease decimated a generation of gay men, so many of them incredibly young, and many stories died along with them. This book obviously deals with the unthinkable magnitude of loss; the complicity of the government and scientific community in ignoring, commodifying, and amplifying the crisis; the brutal homophobic rhetoric that the crisis engendered. But it’s also a hopeful book, because it shows us what activism can do. No, HIV/AIDS should not be thought of as something of the past, but it is undeniably true that thanks to the tireless work of scientists and activists – many of whom, it must be recognized, were gay people with AIDS – the life expectancy and quality of life for those with HIV/AIDS have improved dramatically since the early days of the crisis. And so in such a dark and horrible time, I think this book is a necessary reminder of what we can accomplish through meaningful grassroots activism, and that marginalized communities absolutely can advocate for themselves to create change. This book deals with an expansive and emotional topic, and it demands delicate treatment: it must be both meticulously-researched and deeply compassionate. David France, a gay journalist who was involved in early AIDS activism and who personally knew many of the key players, is the perfect author. His writing is packed with information but so engaging, and his ability to personalize the stories of the people who tamed the disease is incredible. This book contains so much humanity within its 515 pages. It’s an important, stunningly-written history.
France directed a 2012 documentary of the same name, which is also great (though far narrower in scope). I also highly recommend the short documentary When AIDS Was Funny, about the Reagan administration’s deafening silence on the crisis as it claimed thousands of bodies.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
I’ve enjoyed Koul’s Twitter presence and longform content for several years now, and her book is just as funny as I would have expected. Her essays (mostly) center around womanhood and being the first-generation Canadian daughter of Indian immigrants, and her exploration of the complexity of her family dynamics is wonderful. I just wanted there to be a bit more of a wow factor than I found – though perhaps that’s because I read it immediately following two incredible, substantive, emotionally-powerful non-fiction books. I’d still totally recommend this – it’s just not as good as, say, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple, predictable, and repetitive life, but when she witnesses an accident on her way home from work, everything changes and she is forced to confront her loneliness (and her childhood trauma). Eleanor is a hilarious character, with the running gag of the novel being that she is quick to chastise others for their poor social skills even though she is the one behaving in an unusual way. I don’t often come across novels set in Glasgow, and the friendliness and warmth of the supporting characters is very much in line with my experience of Scottish people. (By the way, I have done some calculations and determined that, given that Eleanor lives in the West End and there is only one Tesco Extra in the West End, the book must be referring to the Maryhill Tesco where I did all my shopping.) I think Eleanor’s various eccentricities require a slight suspension of disbelief, and the big reveal at the end was (mostly) easy to piece together – though there is a substantial twist which is then bizarrely not fully explored. It’s a very enjoyable read which strikes a good balance between dark and fluffy, but it’s not without its flaws.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Roy and Celestial have only been married for a year and a half when Roy is convicted of a crime that he did not commit. At first, they try to make their marriage work while he is in prison – but as time goes on, they grow apart, up-and-coming artist Celestial’s cerebral world so far removed from Roy’s reality. But when Roy’s conviction is overturned, he wants to return to their marriage, though Celestial has moved on. Though I wished at times that the book explored the political aspect of the story, Jones’ portrayal of the human cost of racialized unjust incarceration was poignant and believable. All sides were sympathetic, the conclusion realistic and satisfying.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I picked this up thanks to Elena‘s recommendation, and I’m very glad I did! This novel follows four generations of a Korean family who are displaced to Japan. It spans the better part of the 20th century, and it is clearly meticulously-researched. Above all, this is a novel about the strength and importance of family, particularly in the face of challenges (discrimination, immigration, war, loss). The writing is beautiful; Lee’s ability to capture a particular setting – whether urban or rural, the 1930s or 1980s – is wonderful. I loved the characters; each was distinct and sympathetic though flawed. I think the book tends a bit towards melodrama in certain areas, and I wished that some of the characters’ storylines hadn’t been tied up as an afterthought. But I think that this is an ambitious and beautifully-written book which so evocatively portrays the struggles and triumphs of a single family in a fraught sociopolitical climate.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
This was the inaugural work book club selection. It’s a very quick read and it makes a compelling spectacle, though it’s not particularly well-written. It was pretty clearly written by a man; the descriptions of the female characters were just… very male-gaze-y, and so many of the female characters are vapid, bitchy, class-conscious gossips. I imagine the movie is a lot better: all the joy is in witnessing extreme opulence, and surely a visual medium has the upper hand there. And you don’t even have to slog through sloppy writing to get to it!
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
This is a very difficult book to write about. It’s allegedly about a college student named Phoebe Lin, who in failing to process her recent trauma joins a cult. It’s narrated by her boyfriend, Will, who has recently left his zealous faith. But really this book is mainly about an emotionally-scarred, hot young woman and the boyfriend who is obsessed with the idea of her. It’s almost disappointing that this was written by a woman, as if men haven’t forced this tired narrative on us enough. The book isn’t all bad; it’s thought-provoking and I really can’t fault Kwon for how well she evoked such a dark, uneasy atmosphere throughout. But the explorations of religion and grief seemed quite surface to me, and there were almost no actual details about the cult. I mean, surely we’re all in it for the probing psychological profile of cult members, the tales of scandal that happen within. (I personally find cults second only to serial killers on the morbid fascination scale, so you know I was waiting for it to get juicy.) Maybe I wanted it to be a book that it just wasn’t. That’s also kind of how I felt about Donna Tartt’s A Little Friend. But this book sort of does a similar thing to that one: its summary is a bait-and-switch. If you accept that and take the book for what it actually is, maybe it’s better. Another Donna Tartt reference: the unrealistically pretentious, sinister small-town college student thing does beg comparison to The Secret History, though it’s certainly not at that level. It’s a strange one. Maybe you should read it and make up your own mind.
I predict my next post will feature quite a few books as well, as I recently started a new job with an hour’s commute each way – prime reading time! I have a big stack waiting for me, too.