Books read: January + February 2018

Posted on March 04, 2018 under Books

I’ve decided to do a book post every two months instead of every quarter, because it can be hard to remember stuff I read three months ago when I’m compiling the posts. Also, I read a lot in the first two months of 2018, and I don’t want to make this post even longer by having to squeeze another month into it!

I need to read 2.5 books each month to make my goal of 30 by the end of the year, and I read 11 in January and February – so I’d say I’m doing pretty well! I definitely don’t expect to stay on this pace the whole year, but I think I can easily read 30.

So, here’s what I read in the first two months of 2018.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This book tells the story of the Lees, a mixed-race family living in Ohio in 1977. Their family is barely hanging together as a unit, and when the middle child, 16-year-old Lydia, is found dead in a lake, the family begins to crumble. I thought the characterization was so rich in this novel; though every character was flawed and made awful, hurtful mistakes, I felt deep sympathy for each of them. I was relieved that Lydia was well-developed through flashbacks, because I hate the trope of a female character dying to further other characters’ emotional development. I could feel how suffocated each character was – whether because of gender roles, racism, or the burden of expectation. I particularly enjoyed the mother, Marilyn, who had dreamed of becoming a doctor before becoming pregnant and giving everything up for a life of housewifery. (Obviously, if you’ve been reading my book posts for some time, you’ll know that this is a general theme that interests me greatly.) Everything I Never Told You grapples with a lot of big themes – racism, patriarchy, homosexuality – but never feels overwrought or like an after school special. It’s powerful, but in a quiet way.

Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

This was a Christmas present from my friend Hayley, who clearly knows me well! This book comprises two essays based on lectures given by Mary Beard, a professor of Classics. She draws on ancient examples of men silencing and suppressing women in order to argue that, well… we maybe haven’t come as far as we’d like to believe. Women are still being silenced, our power undercut. Beard writes clearly and powerfully (heh), and the book is a quick, fiery, and enjoyable read. After reading quite a lot of popular feminist texts that are almost apologetic (and seem to always make #NotAllMen-type concessions), it’s refreshing to read one that is so unabashedly angry. However, for something subtitled “a manifesto”, I was hoping for just a little more in the way of a call to arms or action plan. Overall, two great essays executed well, though.

All The Pretty Little Horses by Mira Grant

Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series is one of my favourites ever – they’re political thrillers set in a world ravaged by zombies, and each novel gets progressively more twisty and insane (in the best possible way). All The Pretty Little Horses is a prequel novella, set in the early days of the apocalypse. It follows the parents of our Newsflesh protagonists as they establish themselves as survivalist heroes in the terrifying new world. I was glad to get some of their backstory as they’re fairly two-dimensional in the main series, but ultimately it just wasn’t the most exciting read. Their children Georgia and Shaun make for much more compelling characters.

NW by Zadie Smith

This should have been right up my alley – I absolutely love multiple narrative strands and perspectives when done properly, and Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth was one of my favourite reads of 2017. I still really enjoyed Smith’s writing in this novel – her dialogue is excellent and her narration is always a bit cheeky, which I love. But not all of the characters are on equal footing – the character whose perspective starts the novel was off-putting and not very interesting. And the end was pretty anticlimactic. I can’t deny that Smith’s prose is wonderful, but this just didn’t have the same emotional impact as White Teeth. I’m really glad I didn’t start with NW, because I might not have felt compelled to pick up any of her other work.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

The premise for this book is absolutely delicious! It’s billed as a retelling of Snow White, with the improbably-named Boy Novak as our protagonist. It’s 1953, and Boy flees from her abusive father, settling in a small town in Massachusetts. She marries into a wealthy family – and it seems that she loves her husband’s charming, precocious daughter, Snow, more than her husband. But when Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, it becomes clear that her husband is black, passing as white, and suddenly Boy can’t stand Snow. It’s a fascinating idea and I can’t fault Oyeyemi’s writing. However, the marketing is a bit off; this isn’t really a fairytale retelling. And there’s a twist at the end that’s just… very insensitive and tasteless, really. I won’t spoil it, but if you’re interested many Goodreads reviewers go over it.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

I’ve been trying to get my hands on Burton’s first novel, The Miniaturist, for literal years, but it’s never in stock at my local independent bookstore or at Chapters. I decided to settle for The Muse on my most recent Chapters trip, and I’m damn glad I did. This book was tailor-made for me, really: it involves multiple intersecting narratives and art-related deception and intrigue. One narrative follows Trinidad-born Odelle Bastien in 1967 London. Odelle has recently started administrative work at a prestigious art gallery, and coincidentally meets a man at a party who possesses a mysterious painting which sets Odelle’s boss, the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, on edge. The secondary narrative, of course, is that of the painting – a painting which has come to be under secret, dangerous circumstances in 1936 Spain, during the early days of the Spanish Civil War. This novel is exciting the whole way through – and though its twists aren’t fully-concealed (I did figure them out), it’s complex and fully-realized.

Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood

I’ve never read The Tempest, but I’m familiar enough with the plot that I followed this novel easily. It’s a revenge-plot-within-a-play-within-a-novel. After twelve years in exile, disgraced former theatre director Felix decides to get his revenge on those who wronged him. Felix has spent the past few years teaching Shakespeare to low-security prisoners in smalltown Southern Ontario. (I’m going to assume the town is a standin for Stratford, known for really leaning into the name and doing an annual Shakespeare festival – and also for being Justin Bieber’s hometown.) Felix decides to lure his enemies into the prison under the guise of watching his production of The Tempest, with the idea of executing his revenge plot during the staging of the play. It’s a quick read, very cleverly-adapted. I like the prison setting because it echoes a major theme of the play as well as of Atwood’s own novels. (Often, her characters find themselves literally or metaphorically imprisoned.) It also gives her the opportunity for a bit of social critique regarding the necessity of literacy and theatre programmes in prisons, though it integrates into the plot so well that it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. At times, Felix’s explanations of the themes of the play veered into “reading a lecture” territory, but overall it’s a great novel with a lot of payoff. (I was particularly delighted by the careful attention Atwood paid to naming her characters!)

Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman by Lindy West

I’ve enjoyed Lindy West’s writing for years, and this compilation of personal/feminist essays was no exception. She’s a funny, unapologetic, and incredibly smart woman. I particularly liked the section of the book which focused on online trolling and the impact that’s had on her personally and professionally. The internet has given misogynists very loud voices, and part of patriarchal oppression in 2018 online abuse. (Mary Beard touches on this a lot in Women and Power, too!) A few of the essays were basically just West rehashing arguments she’d had with people with additional commentary, which I didn’t love, but generally it was a very strong book.

Notes on “Camp” by Susan Sontag

I recently discovered that Penguin publishes little volumes of seminal essays by famous writers, which they sell for the bargain price of ¬£1 a piece. So… I bought six! I had been planning on reading “Notes on ‘Camp'” for my dissertation anyway, so this one was a no-brainer. This one actually includes both “Notes on ‘Camp'” and “One Culture and the New Sensibility”. “Notes on ‘Camp'” is obviously the more prominent essay, however, so I’ll focus on that. I really love Sontag’s writing: it’s so sharp without ever becoming jargon-y. Her descriptive language is beautiful, too. Unfortunately I had some major issues with the very premise of her definition of Camp. Namely, she marginalizes and downplays how interconnected Camp is to the formation and performance of LGBTQ identity and, bewilderingly, refers to Camp as “depoliticized – or at least apolitical”. I’ve always thought of Camp as inherently very political by its close association with the LGBTQ community and its resistance to the norms of dominant cultural values. This is still a beautifully-written, seminal essay, but those are some pretty major faults. (Which, it should be noted, later academics have refuted – Moe Meyer’s “Reclaiming the Camp” is notable here.)

Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe

This volume includes four of Achebe’s essays on postcolonial Africa, spanning from 1989 to 2008. The first essay focuses on Nigeria’s political climate; the second is about his experience travelling throughout Africa in the 1980s and the racism he experienced during that time. The last two essays are about the representation of Africa by the Western world. Though he doesn’t cite her, a lot of the issues he writes about mirror Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” He writes so beautifully about colonial impositions of representations of Africa and links artistic representations of the continent (most notably Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) to wider political, cultural, and economic contexts. Achebe’s writing is clear and powerful, and there are so many incredibly potent lines scattered throughout all four essays.

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House by Audre Lorde

This book consists of five of Audre Lorde’s essays. The way she writes about harnessing anger at injustice into a productive force is so powerful and inspiring. Though the term intersectionality wasn’t coined until after these essays were written, she is such a strong advocate for perceiving the ways different identities work together. If you’re interested in her work I’d really recommend this one as an excellent starter. One of my favourite lines comes from the essay “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”: “Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” Activists are so frequently told to be less emotional and less angry, and it is vital to acknowledge that anger can actually be a great resource in creating change.

And that is it for January and February. I’ll see you in two months for some more reviews!

Books read: October to December 2017

Posted on January 15, 2018 under Books

I read all of this quarter’s books on my Kindle!

I didn’t read too many books in the last quarter of 2017, but luckily I had planned for that eventuality and still made my goal of 50 (with one to spare). Here’s what I read in the last few months of 2017.

RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Shifting Visibility of Drag Culture: The Boundaries of Reality TV, edited by Niall Brennan

My undergraduate degree was basically in pop culture, and now that I’m in film & TV I still find myself much more drawn to mass culture – I seem to always want to write essays about Jurassic Park and reality TV. I just find the exploration of these types of cultural texts so much more compelling than analyses of high culture. The first essay that made me fall in love with the field of Cultural Studies was Janice Radway’s study of female romance novel readers. Her attention to the importance of the transformative function of this supposedly meritless cultural form inspired me and fuelled my interest in the academic study of popular culture. So of course I will always jump at the chance to read a book about a mass cultural phenomenon! This book came out in 2017 and is about an admittedly niche topic, so I was very excited to find that my university’s library had the e-book. As with most anthologies, I found some of the essays more interesting than others, but overall I thought it was full of fascinating insights on the campy, complicated, and often contradictory nature of Drag Race.

First Among Sequels and One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing by Jasper Fforde

These are the first two books in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next reboot, which takes place sixteen years after Something Rotten. While the books are undoubtedly still clever, I find that something of the magic of the original series is lost. These two seem a bit more formulaic and lack the same joy. I’ll keep reading them, but the first series was definitely better.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Generally I avoid historical fiction, but Margaret Atwood can make me read anything. Alias Grace is a fictionalized account of the real-life maid Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant to Toronto who was convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper in 1843. Atwood doesn’t change any of the known details about Grace, but she takes creative liberties in fleshing out her story. Whether or not Grace really did kill Nancy Mongtomery and Thomas Kinnear, I don’t know – but Atwood turns Grace into a compelling, sympathetic, and complex character regardless. I’m excited to get to the Netflix series now that I’ve read the novel!

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

I have watched both the documentary Going Clear and Leah Remini’s television expos√© on the abuses of Scientology, so when this book came up as a suggestion on my Kindle, I was happy to fork over $1.99. Jenna Miscavige Hill is the niece of David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology, and was raised in the religion from the age of two. “Harrowing” is about right! As a toddler, Hill saw her parents – who were high-ranking members of the Sea Org – for only a few hours a week, and was raised at what is essentially a cross between boarding school and a work camp. She had to perform hard labour as a small child seven days a week, and was emotionally and psychologically manipulated and abused into adulthood. As someone who has avidly consumed media related to Scientology over the past few years, her story is not unfamiliar to me – but it still gives me goosebumps to think of what so many go through under David Miscavige’s leadership. It’s a comprehensive account of life under Scientology, doubly chilling because of the detailed, extended account of what can only be described as child abuse. Though this book is not very well-written, it’s extremely interesting and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in this subject.

Final Girls by Mira Grant

Though I’m not a huge horror/sci fi fan, I still love Mira Grant’s work. She always approaches common tropes from a totally different angle, and this novella is no exception. Dr. Jennifer Webb has developed a virtual reality-based therapy which heals clients by putting them in horror movie simulations. Her star clients are a pair of estranged sisters who grew inseparable after undergoing this therapy and learning to work together as a team. Journalist Esther Hoffmann, whose father’s life was ruined by regression therapy, is invited to write a story on Dr. Webb’s technology, and sets out to thoroughly debunk it. Dr. Webb invites Esther to experience the VR technology herself, and Esther reluctantly agrees. Of course, things go terribly wrong. It’s a thrilling read, a take on zombies, VR, and government conspiracies that I haven’t seen before, and the perfect length. I don’t often read novellas and short stories, but this is a short, adrenaline-filled burst that perfectly complements the premise.

Total books: 51
Fiction: 43
Non-fiction: 8
Books written by women: 30 (and one anthology)
Books written by people of colour: 5
Books written by LGBTQ people: 6
Canadian books: 10

Clearly I gravitate more towards books written by women, but I would like to read more diversely – those numbers aren’t great! I read a lot based on other people’s recommendations, so I’m going to seek out book blogs/YouTube channels run by people of colour and LGBTQ people this year.

As I mentioned earlier, my goal for 2018 is 30 books. This year I’ve already read four, but two were quite short and I know my pace will slow as the semester gets busier. But I think 30 should be doable – and with decent time management I might even manage to read a bit more than that.

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!