Books read, July-September 2017

Posted on October 01, 2017 under Books

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

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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

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

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

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

The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand

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

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

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

My 1980s And Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum

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

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

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

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

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

Perfect by D.M. Quintano

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

A Summer Bird-cage by Margaret Drabble

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

The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble

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

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

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

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

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

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

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

Books read, 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.