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!

Books read, January-March 2017

Posted on April 04, 2017 under Books

I’m happy to say that I’m working my way through books at a much quicker pace than last year! In the first quarter of 2017, I read 16 books, which puts me firmly on pace for my goal of 50 this year. According to Goodreads, I’m actually 4 ahead of schedule. I’d like to continue with this as I know the last quarter of the year will be eaten up with grad school! I’ll try to keep these reviews brief since I have more books to feature in this post than usual.

Wonder Women by Sam Maggs

This is a non-fiction book which profiles various lesser-known female historical figures and their contributions to medicine, science, espionage, and social causes. I’d say it’s more suitable for a younger audience (think tweens to young teens) as it’s written in a very casual, chatty style and is full of pop culture references. I’m a bit outside of its ideal demographic, but I think it’s great for what it is. There’s a wonderful diversity to the women featured and Maggs is really devoted deconstructing both patriarchy and colonialism/white supremacy.

Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors by Susan Sontag

I’ve been developing quite an interest in metaphorical portrayals of AIDS in film and television and so Sontag’s seminal essays on the metaphors of illness seemed like a must-read. Her comparisons between the metaphorical treatment of tuberculosis, cancer, and AIDS are insightful and sharp, and though she was undoubtedly a great thinker, her writing is clear and devoid of academic jargon.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Having now read two Murakami novels (including the daunting and interminable 1Q84) I can’t say I fully understand the hype. After Dark takes part over the course of one night when two strangers meet in a Denny’s in Tokyo. There were parts of this novel that I really enjoyed; Murakami is great at exposing little horrors in apparent banality, and his writing is quite evocative. However, I found the dialogue stiff, and there were too many loose ends to make the novel fully satisfying.

The Diviners by Margaret Laurence

This book reminded me in a lot of ways of a book by another Canadian Margaret, Cat’s Eye by the inimitable Ms. Atwood. The Diviners is the story of Morag Gunn, a forty-seven-year-old writer, as she reflects on her life. That may sound a bit dreary, but her coming-of-age in the 1940s and 1950s is extremely compelling. Laurence’s writing is beautiful and lush and Morag is a fiercely independent character. Like Cat’s Eye, I felt fully immersed in this book, at times painfully so. The exploration of complicated relationships is absolutely stunning. Canada has produced some really incredible feminist novelists. Margaret Laurence is certainly less well-known on the international stage, but I highly recommend The Diviners.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I’ve found that books that I loved prior to about age 15 or 16 haven’t held up well over time, but works that I connected to right around the halfway-through-high-school mark are still enjoyable to me now. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was one of my favourites when I was about 15, and luckily it’s held up for me. Nine-year-old Oskar’s voice is so clear without being gimmicky, and his quest to find the secret behind the key that his father left behind when he died in the 9/11 attacks is very moving. I also loved the interlocking stories of his estranged grandparents, German immigrants and survivors of the Dresden bombing. Jonathan Safran Foer’s highly stylized writing isn’t for everyone, but I really connect with it. (I haven’t read his newest novel yet, though!)

End of Watch by Stephen King

This is the last book in a trilogy that I have not read, which I picked up out of boredom at work. I probably would have benefited from reading the first two books, but they’re not imperative for understanding this one. I don’t think this series will become as iconic as some of King’s other work, but it’s solid for what it is. I don’t think his writing is incredible in a general sense, but he gets the job done when writing a police thriller. The characters are distinct and reasonably likeable though not particularly well-developed. It’s an enjoyable quick read, but the plot isn’t anything special and I find the “technology turning people into mindless zombies” schtick overdone.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Man, apparently I’m really into graphic memoirs, because I loved this. I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Marjane Satrapi’s memoir about growing up raised by Marxists in Tehran, Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It’s funny, heartbreaking, and beautifully-illustrated. I’d love to watch the film version as well.

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

A Complicated Kindness is the story of Nomi Nickel, a very lost sixteen-year-old girl raised in a Mennonite town in Manitoba. Her mother and sister have already been excommunicated and she doesn’t know where they are; she lives with her father Ray, who loves her but doesn’t know how to parent her, and sees herself as essentially futureless. This is a book which is quietly heartbreaking. Nomi’s narrative voice is incredibly clear and compelling, and her feeling of stagnation and hopelessness became mine as I was reading it. I’m definitely going to pick up more of Miariam Toews’ books, because I was incredibly impressed with this one.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Another book about the harmful effects of raising children in strict religious circumstances, Purple Hibiscus is narrated by fifteen-year-old Kambili, who lives with her parents and brother Jaja in Enugu, Nigeria. Her parents are incredibly well-off, but her father is fanatically religious, strict, and abusive towards his wife and children. Kambili finally gets a taste of another world when she and Jaja go to stay with her lower middle class aunt and cousins in Nsukka in the wake of a military coup. Kambili isn’t exactly what you’d call a strong character; she’s very timid and lacks self confidence, which is exactly what you’d expect of someone in her position. I found her development extremely touching and realistic, and loved her relationships with her mother, cousins, aunt, and brother. I think I enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun a bit more, but now that I’ve finished all of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels I can confidently say that she is an absolutely excellent novelist.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I first read this book when I was 17, and the time seemed right to pick it up again. It’s even more poignant this time around; Atwood’s predictions about the future of patriarchal, religious America are eerily prescient. (I mean, it’s not like the US is Gilead right now, but so much of what is happening echoes the early stages she portrays.) I loved this book the first time but it took me awhile to get through, but I devoured it this time. There isn’t that much that really happens until the very end, but the worldbuilding is so realistic and terrifying that I think it’s compulsively readable in the eeriest way. Really looking forward to the TV series, too!

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

This is Atwood’s first novel and I can see why it established her as a prominent voice. I’d say that for me it ranks below both The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye (which is a brutal read for entirely different reasons), but I still thought it was excellent. You can tell when reading Atwood’s prose that she’s a poet as well, but her writing isn’t too flowery (like another Canadian poet/novelist, Michael Ondaatje, whose prose I find unbearable). This book reminded me a lot of Todd Haynes’ first feature film Safe, in that both narratives follow women who are pigeonholed into subservient, boring female roles and who develop mysterious conditions which can most obviously be read as psychosomatic reactions to their lack of autonomy under patriarchy. Anyone who’s interested in feminist fiction would probably really enjoy this one. I personally also loved the descriptions of Toronto: I particularly delighted in Marian’s visit to the ROM, where I have spent countless hours myself.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ve never read Eugenides’ more iconic works, but I found a copy of The Marriage Plot in my house and decided to bring it on a 10-hour Megabus round trip to pass the time. It did pass the time, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. The main characters are as follows: 1) A bland female sex fantasy who constantly needs men to explain things to her. 2) A shallowly religious loser who fancies himself a good person for going on a fleeting voluntourism trip to India and who, predictably, is unhealthily obsessed with the woman. 3) The woman’s manic-depressive, emotionally abusive, and deeply misogynistic boyfriend. Not a very sympathetic lot, all in all. Of course, this isn’t all there is to the book. There are also endless references to semiotic theory and second-wave feminism (both topics which I enjoy) which are explored in the most surface way. (The explicitly feminist character’s presence in the novel is brief and she is portrayed as shrill and unrelenting.) The main female character, Madeleine, was so blatantly written by a man and she enjoys absolutely no inner life that isn’t related to thinking about her boyfriend and male friend. This book certainly doesn’t inspire me to pick up anything else by Jeffrey Eugenides!

Griffin and Sabine, Sabine’s Notebook, and The Golden Mean by Nick Bantock

I first read these short epistolary books as a tween, and I was rather obsessed with them although they predictably went over my head somewhat. They’re quick reads which are composed of letters between an artist named Griffin Moss, who lives in London, and Sabine Strohem, a woman who lives in the fictional Sicmon Islands in the South Pacific. Since she was a teenager, Sabine has been able to see Griffin’s art as he creates it, and finally reaches out to him at the age of twenty-eight, beginning a correspondence between them. I think the books are very interesting and the artwork is wonderful to look at. It’s a unique and fascinating – if slightly disturbing – series. The books are quite short and fast-paced and I would have liked to linger in this strange world for longer, but that’s my only complaint.

Here’s To Us by Elin Hilderbrand

This is my first exposure to the so-called queen of beach reads. I picked this one up at work and ended up paying $15 for the e-book because we sold the last copy before I could finish it. Here’s To Us is about the death of celebrity chef Deacon Thorpe and focuses on one weekend as his three wives (who he was married to at different times, to be clear), his children, and his best friend/agent gather in Nantucket one last time to honour him. Obviously, this is a premise which invites drama and tears. Though the prose is nothing to write home about and the ending is ultimately predictable, it’s a very heartfelt novel and I really enjoyed all of the characters. Hilderbrand did a great job of really bringing to life Deacon’s three wives, all of whom are spirited, strong women in entirely different ways. If I’m ever in the market for a lighthearted but still enjoyable novel, I’ll check out her back catalogue!

And that is January to March in books!

Books read, October-December 2016

Posted on January 04, 2017 under Books

Well, I did make my goal of 25 books read in 2016. In fact, I read 7 books this quarter for a total of 29 in 2016. This still seems fairly pitiful to me, but it’s quite an improvement over the past few years. (I really did want to make it to 30, but it just wasn’t in the cards.) So here’s what I read between October and December…

Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins is an unavoidable media/cultural theorist if you study film/media studies/cultural studies, and so I’m quite familiar with his work and really enjoy it. I’d never read one of his books in full, and after reading the introduction of Convergence Culture for a class I took on Netflix (I know), I decided to read the whole thing. I finally got around to it in October in the hopes that it might be useful in my graduate research. Overall, I really enjoyed it – Jenkins lays out his theory of convergence culture using popular, accessible examples, such as Survivor, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. He writes very clearly, so although I’ve read his work primarily in academic settings (and although he’s an indispensable academic theorist), his work is totally accessible to a consumer market. I found his theories compelling and clearly-articulated and his case studies well-chosen and illuminating. I’d recommend Convergence Culture to anyone who’s interested in the current media landscape and how the roles of media producer and consumer are becoming blurred.

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

I was assigned Camera Lucida – as well as Mythologies, which I’ll get to – in my second year of university, and, of course, did not read them. In my defense, in 200-level classes professors go over the readings in such detail that they often render it unnecessary to actually read them while still getting their contents across quite thoroughly, so I’m familiar with quite a lot of Barthes’ theories without having actually read much of his work firsthand. Once again, I undertook to read the Barthes I’d ignored in anticipation of my graduate studies. Camera Lucida was assigned in perhaps the best undergraduate class I ever took, and his theory of the punctum has stuck with me since then. Reading the entirety of Camera Lucida was a great experience – the first half of the book was especially resonant in elucidating the semiotics and poetics of the still image. I could have done with a bit less of Barthes’ famed mooning over his dead mother in the second half, but overall I found Camera Lucida a great read, and one which I expect will be of use to me in the future.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

I do love my long-winded books, don’t I?! The Luminaries comes in at a whopping 832 pages, making it the longest book I read in 2016. I absolutely loved it – it was a rip roaring yarn of a Victorian pastiche with an interesting structure that was enjoyable the whole way through. I loved the characters, I loved the plot, I loved everything about it.

Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Mythologies is a study of myth, which Barthes defines as a type of speech which presents ideology as natural and ahistoric. The essays in this book that were good were really good – relevant, incisive, delightfully interesting. And the conceptual framework – the essay “Myth Today” – is fantastic and essential reading for those interested in semiotics. Unfortunately I found that there was a significant chunk of essays which didn’t hold my attention or feel relevant – I don’t live in 1950s France, and so I don’t feel that the entire book was resonant. “Myth Today” and a wide selection of Barthes’ essays about everyday objects and phenomenons are great, but the whole book doesn’t seem like essential reading in my own context.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

This is a fictionalized account of the December 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley. It’s a dense book, told from many different perspectives, much of it written in Jamaican Creole, and with an interesting chronological structure. (It spans thirty years, but is only told one day at a time – that is, it takes place on December 3, 1976, February 15, 1979, August 14, 1985…) It is also a very dark and disturbing book and I don’t recommend it for the faint of heart – it starts off deeply, unremittingly violent and does not let up. James’ use of language is expert and the ripple effect plot and exploration of Western imperialism on the political and social climate of Jamaica are fascinating. It’s very broad thematically; it’s about music, imperialism, diaspora, gender roles, gang violence, and more. I found some characters and points of view more interesting than others. I also found that the structure – while ambitious – didn’t quite work, though it came close. I’d still recommend this book overall, but it’s not without its flaws and it’s an undertaking to read.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir poignantly weaves together the story of her father’s suicide shortly after coming out and her own emerging lesbian feminist identity. Her writing is sharp-witted and at times heartwrenching, her illustrations are evocative, and the book truly is “tragicomic”. There are a lot of interesting details hidden in the deceptively simple illustrations – if you read this one, definitely keep an eye on what the characters are reading. I found Fun Home incredibly resonant and touching and I think it’s a must-read lesbian lit pick.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

My second Pulitzer winner of the year! The Sympathizer is the confession of a Vietnamese Communist double agent written while in a prison camp. Our narrator is half-French, half-Vietnamese. He went to university in California and eventually moved back to Los Angeles as an adult as a refugee after the evacuation of Saigon in the mid-1970s. I adored Nguyen’s writing style and use of language, and I thought the story itself was incredibly interesting, readable, and fast-paced. The book is satirical and brings up a lot of interesting questions and ideas. Not only is it simply an enjoyable read, it’s also incredibly thought-provoking, grappling with the question of representation, American military imperialism, the dangers of inaction, and hybrid identity. I’d certainly recommend this one if you’re interested in any of those topics and looking for a compelling, incisive novel.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This was the first book by Toni Morrison that I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. It’s about a woman who escapes slavery in Kentucky and her life eighteen years later when the ghost of her dead baby comes back to – literally – haunt her. It’s a very powerful and heavy story, but incredibly readable and sharply-written. The characters are incredibly interesting and the descriptions of slavery and other forms of violence are incredibly visceral and poignant. This novel has a lot of layers and I think occupies a lot of genres simultaneously: there are elements of magical realism and horror as well as historical fiction. Either way, it’s forceful as hell.

A breakdown of the books I read:

Fiction: 19
Non-fiction: 10
Written by women: 16
Written by men: 13
Written by people of colour: 9
Written by LGBT people: 4 (to my knowledge)
Written by white men: 9
Written by Canadians: 6

Overall, I’d say this was a good year for reading. I think I’ve become quite good at discerning what types of books I’ll enjoy, and there was nothing I truly disliked this year, just a few things that I found a bit disappointing or hard to get into. The lowest rating I gave on Goodreads in 2016 was three stars, which speaks to the quality of the books I read this year! I’m also surprised that 1/3 of the books I read in 2016 were non-fiction, since I’m really more of a fiction reader. Some of those were for school but most were on my own time. I’ll continue to read non-fiction as it piques my interest in 2017, but I’m guessing my ratio will be a lot lower this year as most of the stuff on my to-read list is fiction.