Books Read: August 2019

Posted on August 31, 2019 under Books

I didn’t read quite as much this month as I’d hoped to, mostly because I went on the type of vacation where I spent all my free time with family I hadn’t seen in a while. But I still managed 9 books for a total of 81, which is nothing to scoff at. In September and October I’m going to be focusing on the Booker shortlist (which comes out on Tuesday!) to hopefully read them all before the winner is announced.

Things are changing a lot for me in September – I’ve left my job after a year in order to start my PhD! Between my own work and my TA responsibilities, I imagine my free time will be rather reduced. If I read 5 books a month until December, I’ll get to 100, which I think is doable. In the meantime, here’s what I read this month:

A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews

Hosea Funk, the mayor of Algren, Manitoba, has one goal only: to keep Algren’s population an even 1500, in order to qualify as the smallest town in Canada and receive a visit from the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, a young woman named Knute and her four-year-old daughter Summer Feelin’ move back to Algren from Winnipeg in order to care for Knute’s father. What unfolds is a typically funny, heartfelt Miriam Toews dramedy. It’s clear that this is an early-career novel – though it’s just as charming, irreverent, and funny as I’d expect of Toews, it lacks the depth of her best novels. Her most recent books – All My Puny Sorrows, Women Talking – show that she has the range to tackle truly heavy subjects, while her earlier works betray a lack of confidence at truly committing to devastating her readers even as she makes us laugh. I don’t think it’s possible to not enjoy a Toews novel – each is entirely its own thing, and her writing is so damn funny – but they don’t all pack equal punches.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

In the mid 1930s, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis makes a terrible decision that irrevocably changes her life – not to mention that of her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of the wealthy Tallis family’s cleaning lady. This decision haunts all three throughout the war and beyond, and Briony wonders if it is possible to atone for her actions. The writing is lush, the characters heartbreaking, and the narrative framing effective. It’s vivid, evocative, devastating, and endlessly thought-provoking. Is it fair to blame an imaginative thirteen-year-old for doing the wrong thing in a state of shock? How old does somebody need to be to take agency for ruining somebody’s life? Is atonement ever truly possible? What is the role of art in mediating difficult truths? Sure, the beginning of the novel is a bit tedious in its portrayal of upper-class British life in the interwar period, but it makes up for it later on.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

In post-Arthurian England, an elderly married couple sets out to find their son. One problem: they can’t remember where he lives, why they haven’t seen him in years, or really anything about him due to a mysterious memory-erasing mist plaguing the country. Despite Ishiguro’s beautiful writing, I found this to be a pretty bland literary interpretation of the fantasy genre. It follows a simple journey narrative (we need to get from point A to point B, along the way we are obstructed by secondary tasks we must complete in order to fulfil our ultimate goal, we pick up some stragglers as we go). The result is a story with many a dull point which ultimately feels a bit rote. The fantasy elements were subtle, which I suppose is an interesting artistic choice, but fantasy feels like a genre that’s necessarily about going all-in. I liked the main characters – it’s not often a novel centers around an elderly couple. There were lots of interesting ideas about individual and cultural memory, who we are without memory, memory as a potentially destructive force. But ultimately these ideas were bogged down in a narrative that was not particularly interesting.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing’s seminal second-wave feminist novel of ideas felt, at times, like a chore to get through. It’s packed with insights on domestic relations, (post)colonialism, communism, marriage, and motherhood. It’s framed as a novella split into several parts and punctuated by the thoughts of the tortured writer Anna Wulf, who splits her journals up according to subject. Anna is still living off the royalties of her only novel while raising her young daughter alone and having a series of very unfulfilling and definitely unhealthy relationships. The writing itself was meticulous and admirable. I found certain sections fascinating – Anna’s past in colonial Africa and her disillusionment with 1950s communism were very interesting. I also liked the novel-within-a-novel to a point. The exploration of compartmentalization and the fragmentation of self was fascinating and well-done. There was a lot of biting criticism of the relations between men and women. (Isn’t it depressing to read second-wave feminist texts and realize how so little has changed?) But, yes, a lot of this novel is tedious and difficult to get through. Anna’s relationships with men are frustrating beyond belief. There’s a certain point where reading pages and pages and pages of a woman being completely passive and putting up with being treated poorly ceases to be enjoyable. I think the novel successfully plays with the conventions of the genre and is structurally a well-realized execution of an ambitious concept, but it dragged in a lot of places for me.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

In the suburbs of Tokyo, a young mother murders her abusive, irresponsible husband. She recruits her coworkers on the overnight shift at a boxed lunch factory to help her dispose of his body and avoid prison time. This was a smart, dark exploration of the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy. The crushing cycle of debt and low-wage work compounded by domestic strife affects the cast of female characters in various believably bleak ways. The characters were interesting and the descriptions of gore were satisfyingly unflinching. The pacing was a bit slower than I’d expect for a thriller and there was never a moment of extreme tension (except, perhaps, for the very end) – which I didn’t mind, but which might disappoint some people who are expecting something super quick and heart-pounding. The ending was a letdown – it felt undermining, and while I understand that Kirino was trying to do with it, it just didn’t work for me. Still, this is a fun revenge-fantasy thriller as long as you can stomach some serious violence.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

In 2003, twenty-nine-year-old Romy Hall begins serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering her stalker in front of her young son. There were some passages that I found incredibly moving, and the writing was strong generally. It’s obvious that Kushner has done a lot of research about the California penal system, and I think this was a strong critique of the prison industrial complex and the way it dehumanizes people who are frequently victims of social inequality. The characters were rich and sympathetic, and I think the novel successfully portrayed how criminality is not inborn but generally caused by structural socioeconomic problems. Women who resort to crime due to lack of options or because they are in abusive situations are continually retraumatized by the penal system and exploited for capitalist gains. This is a difficult, complex topic treated – from my vantage point, at least – delicately and accurately, though I’d certainly welcome information to the contrary. Romy’s trial and incarceration are incredibly frustrating: she was the victim of relentless, terrifying stalking, and she never had a chance at navigating the so-called justice system.

Despite being both asborbing and thought-provoking, there were some elements and storylines that I found extraneous. There’s a storyline about an ex-cop in a men’s prison which doesn’t add much to the narrative; the inclusion of passages from Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto was bewildering. Romy was a fascinating, well-developed character, but the focus on the ultimately sympathetic educated white protagonist will always read as a little tone-deaf. Granted, Romy was a lower-class sex worker and drug user and victim of a sexist justice system, which makes her a more interesting narrator than Orange is the New Black‘s Piper, who is an upper-middle-class white woman and certainly not a victim in the same way. That said, Romy does have access to various privileges which many of her fellow inmates lack, and she is consistently differentiated by her level of education. That’s not to say that the other characters aren’t sympathetic – in fact, they’re portrayed as extremely intelligent and cunning if not book-smart – but it’s always worth interrogating whose stories are told and why. Romy is not more of a victim because she’s white and literate, and I hope readers are able to think critically and not automatically lapse into thinking of her more sympathetically because of her privileges. There are many woman in similar situations to Romy who are not perceived as victims, because sex workers and drug users are seen as deserving whatever happens to them, particularly if they are racialized and lack the signs of formal education. That’s not to say that this story is not important, touching, or well-written – I just think it’s imperative that we always think about why some perspectives are privileged over others.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The theme of prison runs through much of Margaret Atwood’s work, whether we’re talking about literal prison (Bodily Harm, Alias Grace, Hag-Seed), another form of physical imprisonment (The Handmaid’s Tale), or mental imprisonment (by the past as in Cat’s Eye, in a bad marriage as in The Blind Assassin). In this speculative novel, a young married couple named Stan and Charmaine exist in a form of near-future late capitalism that has them living in their car, trying to avoid being robbed while barely making ends meet. Then they discover a new town called Consilience which guarantees every resident a job and house. The catch? Everyone alternates between one month living in the idyllic town and one month in prison, because the prison industrial system has been proven to generate so much profit, or something. (I never felt like the “benefits” of this model were fully explained.) But even when they aren’t in the prison, Positron, nobody is allowed to leave the town – which means everyone’s a prisoner all the time. I found this premise interesting – the idea of the prison industrial system adopted as a model for society feels relevant. But ultimately I think it was a bit underbaked, and I was left with a lot of questions.

I just wanted this to go further in its critique of the prison industrial system, when in the end it felt more like a tedious, shallow interpersonal drama with a resolution that ultimately didn’t say anything meaningful about society. To be fair, I did read this immediately after The Mars Room, which was clearly very well-researched and outwardly political, so it’s no wonder this falls flat in comparison! The world in this novel seems similar to that in the MaddAddam trilogy, and while that series doesn’t knock my socks off, its treatment of these ideas is a lot more complex and successful. The characters are really bland. There are various minor plot holes that are pretty annoying, especially when I normally think of Atwood as such a meticulous writer. Generally, I simply didn’t find that there was anything about the story, characters, or ideas in this novel that compelled me to keep reading. I don’t object to a comical treatment of dystopia (actually, I think that can be really great when done properly), but this just ended up feeling underdeveloped and banal. Definitely the worst of the twelve Atwood novels that I’ve read so far.

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

At the age of fourteen, awkward working class Wolverhampton native Johanna Morrigan embarrasses herself on local television and decides to reinvent herself as an edgy music journalist named Dolly Wilde. This is Caitlin Moran’s first novel, but it doesn’t make any difference that I read its sequel first. (Both work find as standalone novels.) Anyway, they’re peas in a pod: funny, cheeky, irreverent; quick and enjoyable; coming-of-age stories with a liberal feminist twist. I love the 90s setting: it’s rendered beautifully, and it’s an era that I love to see represented in media. (I think my fascination comes from the fact that I was born in the mid-90s, so while I only have a very small child’s memory of the decade, I feel some sort of claim to it.) The writing isn’t spectacular, and as always there’s more than a hint of “ironic” racism that colours all of Moran’s work. I’d categorize this as a fun, feminist-adjacent vacation read, but nothing too intellectually strenuous. I bet the upcoming film version starring Beanie Feldstein will be worth a watch.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

A very ambitious retelling of King Lear set in late-70s rural Iowa. The domineering, cantankerous owner of a thousand-acre farm decides to divide his land between his three daughters; the youngest, a big-city lawyer, has reservations, and she is excluded from the deal. Cracks begin to form between the two older sisters, their husbands, and the father almost immediately. This is a slow-building, rich portrait of a repressed, tragedy-stricken family. This is undeniably a feminist take on Lear; the older daughters – here called Ginny and Rose – are robust and realistic, and there are a lot of details that recast the story in their favour. After all, they are pretty one-dimensionally terrible in the original play, and it’s probably more believable that a very powerful and wealthy man abuses his power and is generally the worst than that his daughters are unaccountably awful. This is a very dense novel with ideas about the dissolution of family bonds, motherhood, and the link between body and land. It’s a clever, successful retelling. The setting may seem a little bizarre, but I actually think it works beautifully – the land in this novel is much more easily conceptualized than the kingdom in Lear, and it becomes a character in its own right. I’ve spoken to a few people who had to read this for high school English and (probably predictably) didn’t like it, but it was probably the standout of this month for me.

I will be back in a month with some thoughts on Booker nominees!

Books read: June 2019

Posted on July 01, 2019 under Books

Well, halfway through the year already and I’m doing very well with my reading! I read 10 books in June, for a total of 60 in 2019. I’m still somewhat loftily aiming for 100 in 2019 – the next two months will really determine if that’s possible or not. Here’s what I’ve made space in my brain for lately…

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

In the spring of 2012, I read Slaughterhouse-Five as an independent study novel for my grade 12 English final essay. Timequake, Vonnegut’s last “novel”, was the final one I had to read after seven years. (I like the neat math of having read fourteen novels in seven years.) Timequake is Vonnegut’s retrospective on his literary career and his life, with a fictional edge treated in his usual absurdist way. The Timequake is an event that caused everyone to repeat ten years between 1991 to 2001; while everyone was aware that this was happening, they could not change a single thing they did the first time around, grand or mundane. Vonnegut blends past and present, fictional and real, in mind-bending ways. The Timequake in question occured in 2001, but the book was written in 1996 – so he is speaking in the past tense of something which happened in a future that he had not yet experienced. The “novel” is framed as the second version of a novel with the same premise, but Vonnegut mostly writes about his own life, while sprinkling in some ideas and passages from the original novel, which he scrapped. Yet the characters in this novel are treated as real people who he knows in the year 2001. (It’s funny to think about how 2001 used to sound impossibly futuristic, and now it just sounds like… this. And I guess also world events of long-lasting global consequence.) The theme of my 2012 essay was Slaughterhouse-Five‘s treatment of time, so I suppose this is a satisfying thematic end to my Vonnegut journey. For Vonnegut fans, this one is pitch-perfect: moving, sad, cynical but hopeful, and really funny. Because it’s not a novel in the sense of his other books, this makes sense to me almost as a nice way of wrapping up his body of work, alluding to many of his recurring themes and philosophies and giving us one more absurd Vonnegut situation to ponder.

The Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Esi Edugyan

Two-time Giller Prize winner Edugyan’s first novel is about a Ghanaian immigrant who uproots his Calgary-based family in the late 1960s after inheriting his uncle’s small-town home. The community struggles to accept a Black immigrant family, and here the novel shines. Edugyan beautifully articulates the chilling, subtle forms xenophobia frequently takes. The family dynamics are fascinating, too: Samuel’s marriage is ice cold, and his twin daughters Chloe and Yvette are creepy and possibly pure evil. The themes of second chances, the futility of trying to shed a dissatisfying past, and guilt over leaving behind a motherland were compelling, but not always fully explored. Unfortunately, I found the execution lacking generally. The characters were completely opaque, and while that may serve to underscore their hollowness, I just couldn’t find anything to fully sink my teeth into. The spooky twins were central to the story, but the climax of their sinister behaviour was rushed. The pacing was choppy, very slow at some points and then rushing past points of drama and interest too quickly to explore their pathos. I think it’s pretty clear that this was a first novel! However, I really enjoyed Edugyan’s most recent Giller-winner, Washington Black, and I’d still like to read more of her work.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Two sisters, Elfrieda and Yolandi, grew up in a repressive Mennonite community in Manitoba. Now middle-aged women who have left their religious community behind, the sisters have maintained their closeness. Elf is a celebrated concert pianist; her younger sister Yoli is a twice-divorced novelist who makes a lot of bad decisions about her love life. Oh, and Elf really, really wants to die. This is the most convincing, compassionate exploration of suicide I have ever encountered. Elf is never presented as selfish for her many suicide attempts; instead, this novel confronts us with the question of whether it is cruel to force somebody to live, especially in a psychiatric facility in which their autonomy is completely undermined. Is life worth it when it can only be sustained under duress, locked up and denied basic agency and simple pleasures? Can every case of suicidal ideation be cured, or are there some untreatable cases? Is suicidal depression not a chronic, agonizing condition that can, sometimes, only be alleviated by death? Can assisted suicide in instances of severe psychological pain be the truly correct and compassionate option? These are difficult, scary questions, and Toews does not shy away from them. She constructs a set of beautiful, strong characters, an imperfect but ultimately fiercely loving family who must come together under impossible circumstances. I really don’t know how she has managed to make a book so sad and so funny and so real. I’d call this a must-read, with the obvious caveat that this is a book about a suicidal woman and that it will undoubtedly be triggering for many people.

Stealing the Show: How Women are Revolutionizing Television by Joy Press

TV critic Joy Press uses several TV shows from Murphy Brown to the present day as case studies to explore the rising influence of women in the television industry. Each of her case studies looks at a show created by a woman (or, in the case of Transparent, a nonbinary person) about a strong woman with significant presence of women writers. This is well-researched and I really enjoyed the exploration of the cultural period each show belongs to, although I could always do with deeper acknowledgment of mass culture as a reaction to social and political movements. I sincerely wish there had been more acknowledgment of the many other roles women play in the creation of a TV show; the focus on showrunners as auteurs doesn’t tell the whole story, and female editors (of whom there are many) and other crew members play a huge part in shaping the TV landscape, both onscreen and behind the scenes. However, my biggest issue with this book is Press’s ultimate defense of Lena Dunham. Please, feminist media critics, I am begging you, evacuate her butthole. Most frustrating is that there’s always an acknowledgment of the terrible things she’s said and done, all of which are immediately swept under the rug. It’s like, “YES Lena Dunham’s concept of New York includes only white people, YES Lena Dunham outed her sibling to their parents, YES Lena Dunham accused a young biracial woman of lying about being raped, but the real reason she is so hated is because she is BRAVE and TRANSGRESSIVE and NOT SKINNY.” Okay. No. Please do not try to tell me about Lena Dunham’s “disarming humour”. Lena Dunham traffics in shock value at the expense of pretty much every population that she doesn’t belong to, her “feminism” entirely self-serving. We NEED to move past this.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

The first in a trilogy, Oryx and Crake imagines a world that has been reduced to a disease-ravaged wasteland. Its (apparent) only inhabitants are a group of genetically-modified superhumans who have the intellectual capacity of children, terrifying animal hybrids, and a human named Snowman, who is apparently the only person who remembers the world as it was. The narrative alternates between the past and present (a trademark of Atwood’s writing), and we get to see the segregated, capitalist world that existed before total collapse. There are a lot of interesting things to pick out here: the aggressive advertising of self-improvement products, the obsession with youth, the fact that corporations pretty much own everything. This is a very different dystopia to that of The Handmaid’s Tale, one that focuses less on regressive patriarchy and more on how bad capitalism is. Atwood’s writing and worldbuiling is always sensational, so no complaints there. And yet this was not really my cup of tea. First of all, there was only one female character who really matters, and she’s kind of an Orientalist fetish object who exists exclusively as the target of Snowman’s sexual obsessions. Like, if a man wrote this book I would probably be really mad. But Margaret Atwood can’t just get a pass for being Margaret Atwood! Don’t be racist, Peggy! I’m begging you! Anyway, the first book in a series can often feel a little bit incomplete, so I’ll continue on with it, first of all because I bought the second book at Value Village for $5, and second of all because I’m trying to read all of Atwood’s novels.

Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being by Amy Fung

Amy Fung, an immigrant from Hong Kong who has lived in several major Canadian cities, writes not only about the experience of being a first-generation Canadian and all that entails but also about her position as a settler on unceded and Treaty territory. Functioning as a long-form land acknowledgment, this collection of essays takes a confrontational and unflinching look at the tensions between the experiences of being a racialized immigrant and someone benefiting from the legacy of colonialism and exploitation of Indigenous territory and natural resources. The necessity of confronting complicity in the ongoing disenfranchisement of Indigenous people is made clear, often uncomfortably so. Fung writes about the Canadian art landscape and its marginalization of Indigenous artists, the way “diversity” in the art world panders to the “progressive” white gaze. There were moments where I found the writing a bit clunky, taking me out of the argument, but generally it was seamless. There are a lot of big, uneasy ideas packed into this slim volume, and all of them felt fully explored. This is a perspective that all people living in (formerly?) colonial states should consider.

Such a Lonely, Lovely Road by Kagiso Lesego Molope

Kabelo Mosala wants nothing more than to impress his frigid parents by following in his doctor father’s footsteps. Growing up in a small South African township where everyone knows everyone else’s business, Kabelo is forced to deny his feelings for his neighbour, Sediba, for fear of disappointing his parents and community. But as Kabelo enters adulthood, it becomes impossible for him to deny to himself that he is gay. I fully expected to like this Canadian-South African novel, but I struggled through it. First of all, I have never read a novel this poorly-edited. There is an astounding amount of typos and other errors a copy editor should have caught; some of the prose is clunky, making the whole thing feel amateurish, sloppy, and like a first draft. I wanted more depth out of Kabelo’s narration; though it’s clear he’s going through a lot of inner turmoil, I found him lacking interiority. I wanted to know more about him. The blurb promises that this story is set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, but AIDS is barely mentioned until the last third of the novel. Ultimately, it feels predictable. The setting is different, and I thought that the South African sociopolitical dynamics were interesting and believable – the racial tensions as well as the disparity between townships and cities were rendered well. But at the end of the day, this is a pretty simple narrative of a gay man struggling to decide whether or not to stay closeted, and the South African context wasn’t enough to elevate it beyond that for me.

Dancer From the Dance by Andrew Holleran

The Great Gatsby meets the interesting period of the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS New York gay scene. A group of pretentious, hedonistic gay men spend all their time partying, pining, and being emotionally hollow. The prose is lush and paints an evocative picture of this particular slice of gay cultural history. I have no doubt that at the time of its publication in 1978, this would have been a rather groundbreaking novel. However, I simply want more out of LGBTQ fiction than just… being about gay people. The characters are not likeable, there are a lot of racist and misogynistic sentiments that characters expressed (unchallenged by the narrative), and the whole thing feels excessively hedonistic to no real end. I get why people like this, and I get why it’s always included on lists of must-read gay literature, but if we’re going to get into stories about pretentious gay hedonists I want something with grit and texture like Alan Hollinghurst’s spectacularly self-indulgent and thoroughly enjoyable The Line of Beauty.

Silver Girl by Elin Hilderbrand

In Elin Hilderbrand’s world, everything that happened to you in high school is of the utmost importance when you’re 50; everyone is nominally “liberal” but it’s perfectly acceptable to struggle for years to accept that your child is gay, leading to a three-year rift between you; when your boyfriend of six months gets you pregnant and tells you, against your desires, that he’s “not okay with you killing one of God’s creations”, you have the baby and spend thirty years married to him until he dies of brain cancer; and there is not a single problem that cannot be solved by a summer on Nantucket. I’m not sure I want to live in this world. Well, I wouldn’t mind the last part, because I know my problems are easily solvable considering what our two protagonists, estranged best friends Meredith Delinn and Connie Flute, are enduring. Meredith’s husband has just been sentenced to 150 years in federal prison after being found guilty of the worst financial crime of all time. (Think Bernie Madoff, the obvious inspiration for this story.) Meredith and her oldest son are both under investigation as well, and, sick of the public scrutiny, she begs Connie to spend the summer at Connie’s summer home on Nantucket. Connie has her own problems: she’s still grieving over the loss of her husband, and she’s estranged from her only child.

Now, let me be clear. This is a fluffy beach read, and that’s how I’m evaluating it. A work of literary genius it is not. But a solid, engaging bit of light reading perfectly suited to a vacation? It is certainly that, despite its questionable politics. The story is juicy, the characters have more depth than the genre requires, and the descriptions of Nantucket are compelling. It’s overwritten in many places and generally nothing to write home about style-wise, but the story itself is fun and it’s compulsively readable. This is the third Hilderbrand novel I’ve read, and I can’t deny that she knows how to come up with an interesting premise and surprisingly well-developed characters. Sure, the endings are always predictable, tidy in the most unrealistic way; sure, it’s a stretch to feel sorry for a woman who falls from extreme wealth into the horrors of an upper middle-class life; sure, some of the social views displayed are questionable. But when you’re literally sitting on a beautiful beach looking out at the beautiful water, this is the kind of book you want to read. (Well, maybe you don’t. I do.)

Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

Sisters Miranda and Lucia Bok couldn’t be more different. Miranda, the older sister, has always been sensible and practical out of pure necessity, while Lucia is a free spirit. Following a sudden marriage, Lucia begins hearing voices, and is eventually hospitalized with schizoaffective disorder. The relationship between the sisters is troubled but loving and very believable. Lucia’s illness is treated compassionately; she is depicted as competent, passionate, intelligent, sensitive, capable of loving and being loved. The scope of the book is fairly wide in time, setting, and theme, but the pacing never felt rushed. There’s a lot of exploration of immigration, what it means to belong, the inescapability of family ties, what responsibility we have to those we love. I wasn’t a huge fan of the way the novel shifted between first and third person narration, which felt jarring and unnecessary. I also wanted to spend more time with Yonah, Lucia’s kindhearted, larger-than-life first husband. Generally, though, I think this is a tender, realistic, empathetic portrayal of an incredibly stigmatized mental illness. (Between this and All My Puny Sorrows, it’s been a good month for books about sisters navigating the devastating effects of mental illness.)

My favourites this month were All My Puny Sorrows and Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being, if you couldn’t tell.

August will probably be fairly busy for me, so I’m trying to really focus on reading in July. I do have a few (very) hefty books in my to-read stack, so we’ll have to see just how much progress I make! Regardless, I’m doing really well and truly enjoying reading this year.

Books read: May 2019

Posted on June 03, 2019 under Books

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

Here’s what I read this month…

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

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

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

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

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

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

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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

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

Tentacle by Rita Indiana

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

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

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

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

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

Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

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

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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

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

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

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

The Fire Dwellers by Margaret Laurence

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

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke

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

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