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.

Books read, July to September 2016

Posted on September 27, 2016 under Books

books-july-to-september

Last time around I was hoping to beat that quarter’s total of four books read, and I did that quite handily. I read four by the end of August and a total of eight between July and September. I’m now only four books away from my 2016 goal of 25. I have six books in my to-read pile, so I’m hoping to get through at least that by 2017! Here’s what I read this quarter…

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ahh, I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing and admire her so greatly as a person. Americanah was one of my favourites of 2015, and Half of a Yellow Sun promises to be at the top of my 2016 list. It’s about Biafra’s attempt to create an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s and the effects of the tumult on the lives of five main characters. Adichie’s writing is gorgeous, her characters unbelievably well-drawn, and the tension tangible. I’m absolutely going to be picking up Purple Hibiscus, her first novel, because I’ve heard it’s wonderful as well.

We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler

I didn’t even know this book existed until I was poking around my favourite local independent bookstore and saw it. “That looks good!” I said to my mom. I read the blurb and then said, “I’m going to buy it.” It’s about the commodification and depoliticization of feminism that has come as a direct result of the popularization of the movement, a topic which I am very interested in. I thought it was very well-written and engaging, with timely pop culture examples that I’d expect of the co-founder of Bitch magazine. I really wish it had taken a more focused Marxist approach (I mean, the topic is begging for it, really), but if anyone is interested in an intelligent critique of modern feminism from a self-identified feminist I’d totally recommend this.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

It’s funny to me that nine years ago when Deathly Hallows came out we were all begging JKR for more, and now that she is giving us more, we’re all begging her to stop. The Cursed Child was okay, to me. Good for what it is, even. Maybe I’m being generous because I imagine that it would be spectacular to see, though reading the script is admittedly less so. The actual mechanisms and structure of the plot are clever and certainly smack of JKR’s involvement.

However, the plot itself seems a bit silly to me: it’s essentially a nostalgia tour, as Harry’s youngest son revisits several seminal moments from the original series and then we explore how the entire wizarding world would be changed forever if the events had not happened in the same way. This makes me question who the play is for. Surely not for devoted fans, as there’s not much new? But it relies so heavily on the established Harry Potter mythology that I can’t see it attracting a new generation of fans, either. I thought the dialogue was bad and some of the characterization was off. I’m sorry, I’ve read the original series four million times, I will never accept that Ron was drunk during his wedding vows, however flawed he may be! That said, I did like the character of Scorpius, and Albus’s character growth was nice.

I don’t think this is necessarily bad, I just don’t really get why it exists. And I think it might be time to retire Harry Potter. I say that as someone who has been an aggressive HP fan since 2000.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

I wanted to pick up The Secret History since it’s very widely talked about and I liked The Goldfinch, but Chapters didn’t have it so I settled for Tartt’s second novel, which is mostly not talked about.

Now, if you’re like me and you read the summary on the back of the book and think, “Cool! A mystery about a murdered little boy set in the South! This sounds like literary Gillian Flynn!”, then you will be disappointed. Because the book is not really about Robin Cleve Dufresnes’s murder, and you will probably get to page 400 or so and think, “So, I’m definitely not going to find out who killed him.” Which, I think, would be fine had the blurb not very much made it seem like it was a regular murder mystery.

No. It is not. It is a book that is peripherally about his murder and more directly about his formerly well-to-do, dysfunctional but loving Southern family. The “main” plot – that is, his twelve-year-old sister Harriet’s investigation into his murder – frequently gives way to classic Donna Tartt meandering. Very well-written meandering, but meandering all the same. Which, I think, is fine, because that’s what this book is. It is not a quick, snappy murder mystery with a twist ending. It’s a long, descriptive portrait of a family shaken by a death that they are too repressed to acknowledge healthily. I found it enjoyable when I viewed it that way and let go of the feeling that I had been bait and switched. That said – and I didn’t feel this way about The Goldfinch – I do think this book could have benefited from a bit of editing.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I finished The Little Friend and immediately found The Secret History at aforementioned local independent bookstore, who never lets me down. Having read all three of Tartt’s novels within the past few months, I think I can pretty fairly say that this one was my favourite, although I enjoyed all three with some fairly minor reservations. The Secret History is by no means a quick-paced thriller (I mean, it’s 560 pages long), but it replicates a lot of the psychological effects of a thriller and is a lot more compulsively readable than her other two novels. However, anyone who already knows they don’t like Tartt’s writing style (that is, very descriptive, prone to wandering, potentially 100 pages longer than strictly necessary) will probably have the same issues with this one. Personally those things don’t bother me greatly with her books specifically, so I really liked The Secret History, its dark psychology, and its inversion of the “whodunnit” question into “whydtheydoit” and “willtheygetcaught”.

Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton

I liked this a lot, with some reservations. Definitely fascinating and unique in concept if imperfect in execution.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

This book is a series of essays about the semiotics of images. Four of the essays are text- and image-based and three use images only. Despite the fact that it was published in 1972, it didn’t feel dated to me at all, nor did it feel too academic to be accessible. I read it quickly and easily. Most of the arguments were not particularly innovative or nuanced, but they were all very well-articulated in clear language. My favourite essay, probably not surprisingly, was the third overall (and second text essay), about how women in art are positioned as the surveyed while men are the surveyors. Like I said, not exactly a unique argument, but interesting nonetheless. I also liked the essay on oil paintings as a symbol of capitalist acquisition and the one about how advertisements hail their viewers. This is pretty easy reading for what it is, but I’d only recommend it to someone who already has an interest or background in semiotics since it’s not exactly consumer non-fiction.

The Wonder by Emma Donaghue

I loved Room when I read it back in 2011 and liked Hood okay. The concept for The Wonder – an eleven-year-old girl in 1850s Ireland who has apparently survived not eating a bite in four months – intrigued me, so I bought it right away and tore through it in one sitting. I absolutely loved it. There isn’t much action for a lot of the book, but the psychological component kept me turning the pages. The story is told from the perspective of Lib Wright, a nurse hired by a committee of townspeople to keep watch over Anna O’Donnell to determine whether she is a fraud, and I loved her character. She was very no-nonsense on the surface but deeply empathetic and a fiercely moral person. And as the book careens towards it conclusion, it truly felt high-stakes, both in terms of the plot and human emotion. A fascinating look at religious fanaticism, the deadly effects of sexism, and how inaction can be akin to complicity. I can’t think of a single thing I’d change about it.

P.S. The Wonder is not included in the picture because I’ve lent it to my mom. I know you were all dying to know…