Posted on February 28, 2019 under Books
Okay, more book reviews! This month I read 9 books, taking the 2019 total up to 17. There was quite a bit this month that underwhelmed me, but there were some winners too.
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
A 10th-century Bohemian king wishing to escape death flees to India in search of immortality. He and his wife spend hundreds of years living their best lives and concocting an incredible perfume. In the late 20th century, the perfume in its original bottle has made its way to a divorced waitress in Seattle via her adoptive mother who runs a perfumery in New Orleans. The king, who has been separated from his wife for centuries, believes the key to reunion lies in finding the bottle. This is a darkly funny novel, sort of in the style of Vonnegut if Vonnegut were prone to overwrought metaphors and Orientalism and overt sexualization of women of colour. The immortal king prizes individualism, which is ironic given both his extreme attachment to his wife and the fact that the novel depends on the interconnectedness of people throughout a thousand years of history. There were parts of this book that I found enjoyable, and I thought it came together well at the end. It’s clever and amusing (a “romp”, some might call it), and I get the appeal. But it took me a long time to read for a 350-page novel, and I didn’t fully connect with Robbins’ writing style.
Against Interpretation and Other Essays by Susan Sontag
Reading this book, I realized that I like Sontag’s writing style more than I like her ideas. Some of her essays knock my socks off; I still think Illness as Metaphor / AIDS and its Metaphors is wonderful, and some of the more generalized essays in this collection were interesting. But a lot of her more specific art criticism is tedious, and I often found myself taking a slightly different critical position. “Notes on ‘Camp'” remains a thorn in my side; she articulates the aesthetics of camp so clearly and brilliantly, but, well, I didn’t spend a large portion of my master’s dissertation vigourously refuting her central claims in that essay for nothing. (Camp is political!) I don’t know if I should be irritated by her obsession with the art of European men or happy that she directs so much scorn towards them. She wrote some amazing zingers directed at men, which almost makes the whole thing worth it.
Lanark: A Life In Four Books by Alasdair Gray
A landmark in Scottish literature, Lanark is made up of four books presented out of order. The first and last concern the titular character as he attempts to navigate a surreal, dystopian afterlife which is probably hell; the middle books follow Glaswegian Duncan Thaw from childhood to his postwar life in art school. These sections are naturalistic and brilliantly-rendered. I think I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories about artists, and the Glaswegian content was glorious. Thaw’s afterlife was so genuinely bleak and disturbing in a way that I haven’t often encountered – and not because anything so terrible happens but because it’s characterized by endless bureaucracy, which is holding Lanark back from taking any real action while simultaneously being the only thing moving him forward. I haven’t read a book this atmospheric in a long time. There is such a playfulness with the form of literature, especially in the epilogue (which is slotted in three chapters before the end of the book). There’s definitely a permeating misogyny running through this one, and it’s hard to tell if that’s because of the author or a function of Lanark/Thaw’s rather unsympathetic character. I’m inclined to say it’s the latter, as the male characters in the book are uniformly terrible in a very deliberate way. There are a lot of themes in this one that I’ve noticed some earlier Scottish literature: the idea of doubling of the self, the suggestion of the devil’s presence, the ambivalent grappling with morality. (I’m mostly thinking of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.) This is a long, dense one, but I found it enchanting (in a very disturbing way) and I’d highly recommend it.
Final Girls by Riley Sager
In her sophomore year of college, Quincy Carpenter was the sole survivor of a violent attack on her group of friends. The media named her a “Final Girl”, alongside two other women who survived similar massacres. I was really excited to finally get to this one, because I’ve been known to enjoy a female-fronted thriller and because the premise is so delicious. I’m a huge baby about horror films, but I still find them absolutely fascinating. They’re so ripe for interpretation, and some of the best film criticism concerns the genre. (I took a class on horror during undergrad and I still think of it very fondly.) I thought this book was going to subvert horror tropes in an interesting way. I should have known from the beginning that Sager’s understanding of the horror genre is shallow at best; Quincy explains that the “final girl” is a trope used by “film geeks”, when in fact it was actually coined in an academic context by Carol Clover in the book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. (I mean, film buffs use it too, but there’s a lot more to it than that.) (By the way, last year I was talking about the final girl trope with this guy who was trying to refute it as if I were making it up on the spot, and I was like, “No, it’s a real thing, I took a class on horror in undergrad,” and he didn’t believe me until another guy backed me up and that’s basically what I imagine the majority of horror buffs to be like.)
In general I found basically nothing to redeem this book. I wasn’t expecting it to be a work of literary genius, but I thought it would be fun. But it wasn’t! While it was very trope-laden, there was no element of subversion. Here is an incomplete list of horror tropes that this book partakes in unironically: the final girl (morally pure, “not like other girls”, not reliant on men, unisex name), the cabin in the woods, the hard-partying sexually-active girl dying first, the mysterious stranger arriving out of thin air… Yet this book has no sense of the irony, humour, or intelligence required to make it a successful satire. It only has cardboard characters and a few unsatisfying cheap twists. Quincy is the blandest character in the world and no amount of repetitive Xanax abuse could make her interesting, nor could the constant insistence that she survived a massacre because she was somehow special or morally-superior. The pacing was far too slow for this book to be thrilling or even a bit tense. It was just flat and stupid, and the ending was infuriating. A twist only works if it’s been set up carefully. When it’s conjured out of thin air, it’s just garbage.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
In the mid-60s, eccentric alcoholic Eliot Rosewater feels (rightfully) guilty about the massive fortune he is set to inherit and dedicates his life to extravagant philanthropy lavished on a small town in Indiana. Meanwhile, a young lawyer assigned to help manage the Rosewater Foundation’s vast wealth sees opportunity in having Eliot declared legally insane and transferring his wealth to his distant cousin, a working class insurance salesman in Rhode Island. This appears to be Vonnegut’s most overtly political book in that he very clearly takes the stance that extreme wealth is unethical. (Well, I guess the anti-war message of Slaughterhouse-Five is up there, too.) Central to the novel is the idea that some people have no use (meaning they do not generate wealth) but that they deserve help and love anyway. As always, there is so much humanity in Vonnegut’s dark humour and absurdism. The ending of this one is hilariously satisfying in a way Vonnegut so rarely is. This is top tier for me – and now I only have three Vonnegut novels left to read. I’m hoping to knock those off before the year is out!
The New Fuck You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading, edited by Eileen Myles and Liz Kotz
I thought this would be a lot more angry and political, but it turned out to be experimental and touchy-feely and kind of crunchy, which I guess is the other side of the 90s lesbian coin. There were some pieces in this book that were extremely well-written and resonant, but a lot of it felt tedious. I’ll admit that I have never gotten into poetry (which is possibly a strange and nonsensical thing to say, but it is what it is), so there is that, but I really don’t think that experimental crunchy touchy-feely 90s lesbian poetry was ever going to be what got me into the genre. I was ready to be mad and political, so this just left me disappointed.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
In the mid 1990s, a precocious eighteen-year-old named Selin begins her studies at Harvard. In her Russian class, she makes two Eastern-European friends: Svetlana, who is larger-than-life and charismatic, and mathematician Ivan, who is withdrawn and mysterious. Selin is drawn to Ivan and begins a bizarre email correspondence with him. My stance on books generally is that if too much time is dedicated to handwringing over men I’m not a fan. However, things are a bit different when the book meticulously picks apart a certain type of male pretension and self-aggrandizement at the expense of women. Selin is such an interesting character; in less capable hands I think she would have been unbearable, but there’s an earnestness to her pretentiousness that makes her endearing rather than grating. Selin’s anxiety that she has no opinions echoes some of my own insecurities at the beginning of my undergraduate career. Batuman’s thoughts on language are fascinating: how it shapes our perspectives, how it fails us, how we struggle to articulate ourselves in languages that are not our own. This is a funny, touching, wonderfully-articulated novel that somehow manages to fully realize its ambitious scope.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
The cover is the best part of this book.
In Montego Bay, thirty-year-old Margot works at a hotel (and as an escort) to make ends meet. She wants to send her fifteen-year-old sister Thandi to medical school so that she may have a better life than Margot and her mother. Thandi, however, is more preoccupied with the boy she has a crush on and with her attempts to lighten her skin; she wants to be an artist, and though she’s a conscientious student, she finds the mounting pressure to make something of herself stifling. Margot, whose family does not know that she is a sex worker, is also hiding the fact that she is in love with a middle class woman who lives in their neighbourhood. When a new resort threatens to displace the community, Margot sees opportunity. The premise of this novel is great, but unfortunately I had a lot of problems with the execution. The characters are so unsympathetic it’s hard to care what happens to them; Margot especially does some truly terrible things while maintaining a martyr complex. There are a lot of themes here that interest me: colourism, same-sex relationships in extremely homophobic societies, intergenerational/inherited trauma, tourism as neocolonialism, sex tourism. I just didn’t feel that any of these topics was engaged with successfully; no meaningful conclusions were reached. The primary story was the dynamic between the two sisters, so when the novel shifted perspectives my attention wandered. This novel was set in the mid-90s, but the setting didn’t seem particularly developed, unlike The Idiot (which is unquestionably set in the 90s). The writing felt to me like it was trying very hard to be lyrical, but to its detriment that effort was very visible. In general it felt underdeveloped, and I found very little I liked. Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (though much longer) way more successfully works through themes related to Jamaican history and identity; Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place is an excellent longform essay on the Caribbean tourism industry as neocolonialism. This book failed to come close to either of those.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
After adoring Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, I have been trying in vain to find another one of her novels that fully realizes that potential. Swing Time is the closest I’ve found, though it seems to have generally received lukewarm reviews. An unnamed narrator takes us through her childhood in council flats in North London, a period marked by her ambitious, idealistic mother’s activism and her fraught friendship with a talented dancer named Tracey. As an adult, the narrator becomes the personal assistant to the philanthropic yet wrongheaded Australian mononymous pop star Aimee. The narrative moves between the narrator’s childhood in the 1980s to her career in the aughts as she helps Aimee construct a school for girls in a West African village. (The consequences of this foreign aid venture are explored quite believably, I think.) There’s a lot going on here, and I’ll admit that I didn’t necessarily think the village storyline meshed with what I thought was a captivating account of working class childhood. There aren’t really any likeable characters here, but I really enjoyed how the narrator was consistently drawn to difficult women: her mother, the charismatic yet cruel Tracey, Aimee. The shifting dynamics between the narrator and Tracey were rendered brilliantly, and I thought the complicated relationship between mother and child was touching. I really enjoyed the structure of the plot: because it moves back and forth, we are often told about an event in passing before it is shown. (I think the title is a reference to this, though of course it also refers to the film of the same name and the recurring theme of dance more generally.) Zadie Smith can turn a phrase like no one else; I consistently admire her writing, though her storytelling isn’t always perfect. The ending of the book felt like a bit of a letdown, like the whole novel was building to something that turned out to be fairly tame. (Also how I felt about the ending of NW.) Though Smith didn’t quite stick the landing for me, I enjoyed this book a lot more than NW and On Beauty, and this has given me hope that her upcoming novel might be the masterpiece I believe she has in her.
This month I would say my favourites were God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, The Idiot, and Swing Time. Some real misses in here, but next month we can start afresh and hope for more hits.
Posted on January 30, 2019 under Books
I’m going to experiment with doing these posts monthly, since I’ve read quite a bit this month and my book posts can get long quickly. This month I read 8 books – with my goal of 50 this year, I’m obviously really happy with this number.
Hunger: A Memoir of My Body by Roxane Gay
While this is certainly a book about what it means to be fat, it’s so much more than that. Running through the heart of the memoir is Roxane Gay’s childhood rape, and how that violation of her body is inextricably tied up in the way she treats her body in adulthood. Gay’s writing is accessible yet clearly intelligent, her insight sharp: most enlightening to me were her descriptions of how basic infrastructure does not accommodate her body. The title refers most obviously to an appetite for food, but Gay hungers for so much more: love, (self-)acceptance, resolution. Most profoundly moving about this book is the futility of longing for closure, the idea that working through trauma is a lifelong process that reflects in the mind, the body, and life as a whole.
Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga
Indigenous journalist Tanya Talaga tells the story of seven northern Indigenous high school students who died in Thunder Bay, Ontario between 2000 and 2011. All seven students were from remote communities and moved to Thunder Bay without their families for their high school educations. Of course, this story is not just about the lives and deaths of these teenagers but also about the legacy of the residential school system and the thriving culture of racism and neocolonialism that persists to this day. The indifference of the police in pursuing these cases is chilling; even after an eight-month inquest many of the deaths are of “inconclusive” cause due to sloppy police work which can never be remedied. I struggle to believe that five able-bodied teenagers who all happened to be from northern Indigenous communities accidentally drowned in the river over the span of a decade. The current Canadian government likes to talk a big game about reconciliation, but their promises are clearly hollow. (Just ask the water defenders at Unist’ot’en Camp how much support Justin Trudeau is giving their cause…) Talaga’s writing is searing and urgent: Canada has purposefully failed Indigenous people, a series of broken systems doing nothing to mitigate the serious harm neocolonialism continues to reproduce.
The Break by Katherena Vermette
Four generations of Indigenous women living in Winnipeg’s North End come together in the face of a brutal assault on one of their own. Each character struggles with letting their pasts go, but the love this matriarchal family has for each other is powerful. They display such resilience and strength. An overarching theme that I loved was women believing other women’s experiences of sexual assault and harassment, never diminishing, never questioning. My biggest issue with this novel was that one of the POV characters was a Métis police officer, whose perspective I just didn’t think added anything to the text. He was supposed to show the near-irreconcilability of Indigenous identity and law enforcement, but ultimately his storyline took away from what was otherwise a stirring narrative of bonds between women.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Stunning cover design, if nothing else.
This is a novel about the necessity of trees in sustaining life on planet Earth and about how all living things are delicately interconnected. There was a lot that I liked about it: multiple narratives and magical realism are fast-track tickets straight to my heart. Powers skilfully enshrouded nonfictional information into a work of fiction. Even before the characters are drawn together, there are connections between them, most notably in their traumas and losses that cause them to disconnect from humanity and seek solace in something larger. One loner character becomes a dendrologist; one becomes a wealthy video game designer; another is a reclusive artist. The descriptive passages are extremely well-rendered and lovely to read.
So, here’s the thing. It is time to stop putting up with bullshit from male authors who cannot help but sexualize a young female manic pixie dream girl character to the point that her much-older boyfriend gets turned on by watching her pee. I mean, no. It’s 2019, we are not doing this anymore.
That isn’t my only issue with this novel, but I must be very clear: sometimes female characters are so blatantly written by men that it is a substantial enough problem to knock off two stars from a rating. My other substantial problem with The Overstory is how poorly-integrated the political content was. Look, this is a polemical novel, and it’s not trying not to be. Obviously, Richard Powers is an environmentalist, and that is fine, and probably why he wrote this novel. But his opinions are put into the mouths of his characters in the form of monologues, and that just lacks finesse. We don’t need to be hit over the head with the message. These characters are radical environmental activists, for God’s sake. There’s no need to write literal pages of a speech telling us how amazing trees are. By the time we’ve made it four hundred pages into this book, we are all very aware. There’s just not a lot of subtlety or subtext here, though the book is so beautifully-written that you could be fooled into thinking there is.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Okay, let’s get this out of the way: despite its apparent dark subject matter, this is a fluffy novel. Moriarty’s characters are charming and well-conceived; everyone is fleshed-out and likeable despite their flaws. I went into this knowing absolutely nothing about the plot, but given the hype both the book and HBO series have engendered I expected a bit more. It was juicy and dramatic, but I think I was expecting it to be more artistically-complex given HBO’s highbrow inclinations. And I expected more twists! I enjoy a thriller here and there, and most of the joy in one is seeing how all the pieces that you missed come together. I never quite felt that with Big Little Lies; there was a lack of intricacy to the plot. (And I did figure out who died!) While the domestic abuse plot was handled sensitively in isolation, I do feel a bit iffy about the overall tone of the book (funny, juicy, generally lighthearted) with that particular theme. I’ve since watched the HBO adaptation, and that’s more in line with what I was expecting of the book, though I still didn’t love it. However, I’d say it’s worth a watch just for Nicole Kidman’s outstanding performance. This would be the perfect book to read on vacation, but it’s not exactly a masterpiece.
(By the way, I just want to say that Liane Moriarty’s younger sister Jaclyn wrote some of the best young adult novels of all time and I genuinely think I have read The Year of Secret Assignments more than any other book on this planet. I can actually see similarities in both authors’ senses of humour, too.)
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
The plot summary for this book does it no justice. Ostensibly, it’s about a Philippines-born translator hired by a white American filmmaker writing a screenplay about a massacre that happened in the Philippines at the turn of the century. The filmmaker’s father made his own war film in the Philippines in the 70s (think Apocalypse Now) before dying under slightly mysterious circumstances; his daughter Chiara struggles to move on, personally and artistically, from the shadow his work, life, and death have cast on her. Magsalin, the translator, struggles with Chiara’s privilege and the cultural imperialism inherent in her project, and decides to rewrite her screenplay. We see the tense interactions between the two women as well as their respective stories – though, interestingly, they are presented as novelistic prose, not as screenplays.
This is a really fascinating premise, but the book itself is structured unusually. Its chapters are numbered out of order, and there’s a lot of metafiction happening. (For instance, it is suggested that Chiara is actually just the protagonist of a mystery novel that Magsalin is writing.) Obviously, the exploration of film as an artistic discipline and cultural force was interesting to my personal interests, and I really enjoyed the way film terminology was woven into the text.
There is so much going on here: explorations of semiotics and the poetics of photography and film; the idea of history as a colonial construction, with blurred lines between history and art suggesting that history is subjective and adaptable; a fascination with appropriation and alternate readings of Western celebrity; a meditation on filmic mediation of the past. The prose is dense and quite academic at points, so it is a lot to digest and certainly begs a second reading. It’s clear that Gina Apostol is an extremely intelligent woman, and while there are passages that can be difficult to digest, the ambition and scope of the novel are admirable.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Sara de Vos is a little-known (fictional) painter from the Dutch Golden Age, whose only known surviving painting has been passed down through the de Groot family for centuries. In the late 1950s, wealthy New Yorker Marty de Groot finds that the painting has been stolen from his home and replaced with a convincing forgery. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is told from three perspectives: those of Sara, Marty, and the art history PhD student and forger extraordinaire Ellie Shipley. Over forty years later, Ellie is curating a show in her native Australia and discovers that both the original painting and the forgery are on their way, threatening to unravel her successful career. I’m a big fan of novels about art heists (I’m one of the only people I know who actually liked The Goldfinch…), and Smith’s prose is very strong. As someone with a graduate degree in film I’m very aware of the difficulties of trying to describe one medium using another, but Smith’s descriptions of de Vos’s paintings are vivid and rich. The forgery plot and interpersonal relationships are interesting and well-explored.
However, I didn’t feel that the historical context of the Netherlands in the 1630s was as developed as it could have been. I read Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist last year, and its 17th century Netherlands was much more richly-described. While Sara’s story was engaging, it felt like it was part of another novel. In Burton’s second novel, The Muse, the provenance of the painting at the centre of the mystery is integral to the plot, so the flashbacks illuminate the main story. In this novel, however, Sara’s life has little bearing on the forgery plot. It’s not that it isn’t nice to plump up the story with some historical context, but I wish that Smith’s imagining of this era had been a little more robust. If you’re going to go there, go there, you know? This was still an interesting, well-written book with a compelling plot, and I’d recommend it to people who share my interest in art-related intrigue in fiction.
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
The marketing of this book is actually bewildering; based on the summary on the back I was wondering why I’d added it to my to read shelf on Goodreads a year ago. Apparently, it’s about a recent university graduate who goes to live with a rich conservative MP in Thatcherite Britain. Except Nick, our protagonist, is gay, and this is essential to the text. (That’s where my interest comes from, obviously…) Having grown up in a working class family, Nick finds himself on the fringes of high society – invited to fancy parties and dinners with politicians, he is always an outsider, a fact underscored by his gayness. It is something that he believes his hosts “tolerate”, although they never talk about his sexuality or relationships despite the fact that he is out. Nick’s isolation and loneliness are partially because he’s pathologically pretentious, with esoteric interests and a condescending manner, but he also struggles to relate to his straight friends, and that particular form of isolation is believable and familiar. There are a lot of 80s tropes here: adulation of Margaret Thatcher; AIDS; lots of cocaine. It all feels fitting and inevitable, though. It’s like, you can’t have high society British people in the 80s without Thatcher. You can’t have a young gay man in the 80s without some mention of AIDS. (Well, there’s more than just a mention, and I like this handling of the topic, which I can be quite picky about being depicted properly.) And you just can’t have parties in the 80s without coke.
There’s not much plot to this novel (though it does get juicy at the end), and it’s longer than it strictly needs to be in a fairly self-indulgent way. But I guess I couldn’t be the one to be too disparaging about a self-indulgent, verbose gay writer, and anyway the prose was enjoyable enough that I didn’t mind. (I feel the same way about Donna Tartt, and though this book is nowhere near as long as The Goldfinch I think if you struggled to tolerate that you might not love this one.) It’s more of an extended character study and a rather searing interrogation into the hypocrisy and false superiority of the British upper class. Nick is not an easy character: his loneliness and desire for love make him sympathetic, but he’s so hedonistic and, despite his complicated doctoral work, rather shallow. There’s an emptiness to him that’s not the result of poor character development but of his own relentless pursuit of pleasure. The ending is incredibly satisfying in the way it wraps up every element of Nick’s character and relationships with others. I really enjoyed this one and I’d heartily recommend it, but you certainly have to be comfortable with a long-ish novel that’s not in the least bit plot-driven.
Overall a pretty good batch of books this month! Both non-fiction books were standouts; in terms of fiction, my favourites were Insurrecto and The Line of Beauty. I currently have a hefty stack of 11 books to get through, plus a few on my Kindle, so I should be good through March if I stay on this pace.
Posted on January 02, 2019 under Books
Well, I reached 2018’s goal of 30 back in July, so this feels a bit anticlimactic. That said, I read 14 books in November and December, making the final tally for 2018 60. So, basically, I severely underestimated myself a year ago.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney’s second novel is thematically similar to her first, Conversations With Friends, which I enjoyed despite myself. These things are sure to become Rooney signatures: failure to communicate simple things, dysfunctional relationships with sex, relationships between sexually naïve women and experienced men, weirdly antagonistic yet codependent friendships, the pretentiousness of bourgeoisie who believe themselves to be progressive. This novel does an admirable job of processing these themes, and Rooney’s simple, straightforward prose and ability to create a believable psychological profile are on clear display here. I do always love a narrative where two people switch social positions, a dynamic that Rooney portrays delicately and believably. However, I can’t help but think that this is a less potent but more palatable version of Conversations With Friends. The difficulties of Conversations With Friends ultimately made it more interesting. Lately I’ve been finding it hard to enjoy things that are too slick, too smooth. Those adjectives imply a lack of grit, the difficulty of gripping something tightly. I think that’s how I feel in the case of Rooney’s two novels. Conversations With Friends is interesting because of the flaws, the possibility of failure. It’s lush with terrain that gives it grip. Normal People is sure to be more of a crowd-pleaser, but it lacks the same texture.
(By the way, huge thanks to Liz for hooking me up with an ARC of this after my review of Conversations With Friends! It’s out in the UK already, but North Americans will have to wait until April to read it.)
Making Camp: Rhetorics of Transgression in U.S. Popular Culture by Helene A. Shugart and Catherine Egley Waggoner
Camp was a central concern of my Master’s dissertation, so I’ve done a lot of reading on it, and I have yet to find a single article or book that I wholly agree with. Such is its slippery, elusive nature! I did really enjoy this book’s focus on women’s embodiment of camp, since the discussion tends to focus mainly on the male body and gay men’s consumption and creation of camp. However, I found myself scratching my head at a lot of the conclusions the authors came to, particularly regarding the political potential of their case studies. (For example, Xena‘s pathological queerbaiting being put forth as some kind of revolutionary lesbian representation was… not it.) I also found the writing a bit sloppy, rife with repetition and basic errors. I think this book is better in concept than in execution, basically. I am always happy to see someone thinking through the question of camp from a new angle, though, since it is very gay male-oriented. (Where are all the books on lesbian camp?!)
I’ll Be Gone In the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
Part of the appeal of true crime (aside from the could-be-me mixed with the relief of knowing that it probably won’t be) is our knowledge that there’s an ethical dilemma in commodifying people’s suffering and still being unable to look away. I read this book quickly and thoroughly enjoyed every page. Almost as interesting as the GSK case is the exploration of the meta aspects of the true crime genre. McNamara’s psychological struggles are laid bare, the promise of pursuit followed by the devastation of dead ends. The book is made all the more potent by McNamara’s premature death, the idea of unfinished business and an obsession never fully realized. I appreciate that McNamara is so even in her writing; she never puts forth wild theories or blames victims. And in the wake of the GSK’s arrest in April, her sharpness becomes apparent. Many of the theories that she thought important enough to include in the book turned out to be true. She had an incredible handle on the case, a connection to it that legitimizes the book’s existence in a genre that makes a spectacle out of the most unimaginable suffering.
I wish that McNamara had been able to finish this book, because it does unfortunately peter off, and there were elements of repetition and disjointedness. It feels like her team was reticent to revise her work too much, knowing that she was the expert, but it could have used some tightening up. But I acknowledge that some of the allure of the book is its backstory, including McNamara’s death. Regardless, this is sure to become a true crime classic.
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin
This book is not really about dead girls or their prominence in Western pop culture. Bolin touches on that briefly at the beginning of the book, but she doesn’t come to any particularly groundbreaking conclusion beyond “misogyny is bad, the pain of women is used to further men’s character development, and I hate the show True Detective“. She takes great pains to mention that she went to grad school, but this is not graduate level cultural analysis. Some of her essays are interesting; I enjoyed her thoughts on Britney Spears, Alexis Neiers, and the Canadian camp horror film Ginger Snaps. But make no mistake: the “essays on Twin Peaks and Serial” this book promises are really just a name drop or a few paragraphs that don’t come to any particularly enlightening conclusions. So much of this book is about Bolin, and how she moved to Los Angeles at age twenty-five (seriously, this book is about LA more than anything else), and how she’s read everything Joan Didion has ever written. It’s frustrating, because she’s clearly a talented, lucid author, but this is not the book it purports to be and the book it actually is is not all that interesting. For all the deconstruction Bolin does of white womanhood it’s ironic that she spends so much time writing about her own unremarkable white womanhood, though she thinks her move to LA from the Midwest is somehow special because she isn’t chasing fame. Well, her life in LA is not particularly interesting, and neither is this book.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
I read this in anticipation of the film, which I only wanted to see because it was directed by Barry Jenkins. (Basically any other director attached to this project would have been an immediate turnoff.) It’s remarkably depressing how relevant this book is over forty years later: Fonny’s unjust, racially-motivated incarceration for a rape the police know he did not commit could, and does, happen today. (It’s interesting that the male protagonist in Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, which I read this summer, is wrongfully convicted of the same crime.) His pregnant fiancée Tish’s love for him, wholehearted belief in his goodness, and strength in pursuing his release are brilliantly-rendered. This is fundamentally a narrative of the importance of love to survival in a hostile world, and it’s well worth reading. (Go see the film too!)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Yay, amazing Canadian representation in the form of a Giller Prize winner and Man Booker nominee! This novel tells the story of a boy who is born into slavery and then taken under the wing of his master’s eccentric scientist brother. The book takes us from the plantation in Barbados to the Canadian arctic to Nova Scotia to London to Marrakech – basically, it’s a rip-roaring adventure. And while it is certainly a fun, entertaining read, what I liked the most about it was the frustration of Washington’s talent and intelligence going largely unacknowledged. Living as a free man in Nova Scotia, Washington becomes a knowledgeable marine biologist and gifted scientific illustrator, but his contributions are erased, attributed to white men. This is the lot of so many people of colour, women, and other minorities through history, people with talent and sharp minds whose names we will never know. Also skilfully explored is the hypocrisy of the so-called abolitionist Christopher Wilde, who is disgusted by his brother’s treatment of slaves while using their labour to advance his own scientific progress. He believes himself to be morally robust, but his bond with Washington is uneven; he is more interested in the idea of Washington and in his usefulness than in his humanity. It’s an interesting, well-written novel. (Also, I am just delighted when CanLit gets some international attention.)
How To Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
Johanna Morrigan (pseudonymously known as Dolly Wilde) is a nineteen-year-old music journalist in mid-nineties London who finds herself unexpectedly well-known after a creepy comedian publicizes details of their sexual encounter. Moran writes deftly about the dynamics between men and women (particularly when sex is involved), and the defense of teenage girls at the heart of the novel is lovely. (I once wrote an essay about One Direction and teenage girls so I am very on board with this.) The conversational writing style is hilarious and easy to get into; the characters are a little bit absurd in a totally enjoyable way. However, one does get the idea that Moran finds light racism a bit funny (and, indeed, she has made many comments which basically confirm that she thinks racism is funny and/or not actually a big deal). So, that’s a bit of a downer. Also a downer is the fact that the ending of the novel is far too neat and perfect to be at all realistic. Johanna’s life is a hilarious mess; the end of the novel should be too.
Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay
This book’s power is not only in its generally cogent, well-articulated essays but in the weight of collectivity, the feeling that rape culture is impermeable, ubiquitous, and unrelenting. The stories in this book seem impossibly numerous, but they are so few. Most jarring is the realization that the title doesn’t only refer to the idea that sexual assault is “not that bad”, but victims’ own attempts to downplay trauma that refuses to be processed. This is a powerful, important collection that I highly recommend – though it’s obviously no easy read.
Love by Jeanette Winterson
I adore Penguin minis – they’re such a fun, easily-digestible way to discover new authors or explore a variety of someone’s work. Love is made up of excerpts from many of Winterson’s books as well as her own commentary. I’ve enjoyed her fiction, but I think the sharpness and clarity of her mind comes through best in her non-fiction and certainly in her meta-fictional commentary. Love is both a wonderful introduction to a breadth of her work as well as a demonstration of her exceptional insight.
Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò
A really interesting premise: a married couple in 1980s Nigeria struggles with infertility for so long that the husband takes a second wife at the insistence of his family. It’s an interesting concept and an ambitious portrait of a marriage over the span of decades, but it doesn’t totally work for me. Adébáyò’s writing is vivid; I enjoyed the incorporation of Nigerian fairytales into the narrative, the backdrop of political instability underscoring the instability of the marriage, and the fully-developed characterization of Yejide, the wife. Yejide’s heartbreaking reaction to sustained tragedy is completely believable. Akin, the husband, seems more like an afterthought, and he’s not as likeable as the novel tries to make him. There are certain plot points which seem slapdash and not followed through properly. However, it’s a touching story with a powerfully-rendered protagonist.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
This is one of the standouts of 2018 for me. Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a classic of lesbian literature; Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is Winterson’s attempt to revisit that story in middle age. It’s a memoir about an unhappy childhood, but it’s also a philosophical meditation on many of the themes Winterson explores in her fiction: the fluidity of time, dysfunctional family units, religion as an oppressive yet deeply alluring force, hostile motherhood, what it means to love and be loved. The scenes of her childhood feel familiar, of course, but it is the chapters that occur after the twenty-five-year jump that are truly stirring. Winterson recounts her breakdown after the dissolution of a relationship, and then her search for her biological mother. It’s a testament to her thoughtfulness, her sharpness, her buoyancy that a book that grapples with so many difficult moments is ultimately hopeful and triumphant. I’m not really one for a memoir, but I happily made this exception.
Milkman by Anna Burns
This year’s Man Booker winner is complex, layered, and challenging. It uses no proper names, and so we have a story narrated by middle sister in an unnamed city about “the political problems” – though that’s no less euphemistic than the term “the Troubles”, which is what the novel is actually about. Aside from the lack of proper names, certain characters are referred to only collectively: for example, middle sister’s three “wee sisters” speak and act in unison, always. But what is most interesting about the novel is the exploration of the impact of ethno-nationalist conflict on our eighteen-year-old protagonist. Middle sister is relentlessly pursued by a high-ranking paramilitary known as Milkman, and though she does not enjoy his attentions she lacks the language to articulate this to her community, who shun her for her alleged affair. Middle sister is quickly labelled a “beyond-the-pale”, her insular, paranoid, gossip-driven community shutting her out instead of helping her. It’s a poignant take on how political conflict exacerbates a young woman’s trauma. Most frustrating is middle sister’s desire to understand and articulate her dilemma, with patriarchal social rules limiting her ability to self-express. With no physical violence done to her, she does not know how to explain to others what she is experiencing. Present in the novel are “the women with the issues”, the community’s small feminist group, hinting at an alternate consciousness that middle sister fails to access despite her obvious interest in the group. This is a dense, difficult book, but one worth making an effort for and a worthy Man Booker winner.
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen
An interesting premise and promising first chapter give way to a disappointing collection of essays. Petersen attempts to acquit herself of her focus on straight white women: unruliness is accessible, with fewer consequences, to this category, thus their dominance in her book. This is undoubtedly true. It’s also a major fucking copout. The women she writes about are merely completing the work of so many who came before them, many of them women of colour, or trans women, or lesbians. Petersen tries to contextualize each essay, but what’s missing is acknowledgment of the labour of the subaltern that white women capitalize on. The adulation of Hillary Clinton is predictable white feminist fodder; the essay on Broad City ignores its near-constant queerbaiting; the assertion that Lena Dunham is hated because she puts her naked body on television conveniently glosses over all the shitty things she’s done. I mean, nobody’s perfect, but Lena Dunham has a self-described “blind spot” when it comes to race; she publicly accused a biracial woman of lying about being raped by her friend; she outed her sibling to their parents. Lena Dunham is one of those people that is so rotten that I inevitably forget half the shit she’s pulled because she is drowning in it. Even worse than the chapter on Dunham is the one on Caitlyn Jenner, labelled “too queer”, because there is no better spokesperson for LGBTQ women than a homophobic Republican whose privilege insulates her from basically everything most trans women experience regularly. (Hi, she said she’s faced more persecution for being a Republican than for being trans.) There are so many trans women, bi women, and lesbians (many of whom are women of colour) who do difficult, meaningful, necessary activism for the community. Caitlyn Jenner is not one of them, and she never will be, because her vague attempts at activism begin and end with issues that affect her directly. In conclusion, this book was dumb and a waste of my time.
There There by Tommy Orange
This is an ambitious debut about the intersecting lives of multiple generations of Indigenous people in Oakland, converging at a powwow that they all attend. I loved the central thesis of Indigeneity being as multifaceted as any other identity category; each character was distinct, their motivations clearly explored. This is a needed antidote to the tropes that permeate what little representation exists of Indigenous people in pop culture. The social commentary is acute and acerbic. Unfortunately, I think the execution of this novel was a bit uneven, exacerbated by the various character threads. Some characters and voices were more interesting than others; there is a family at the centre of the narrative who I was sad to be pulled away from when the perspective inevitably shifted. This is a relatively short novel and there just wasn’t room for the depth that some of these characters begged. I appreciate that the writing style adapted with each character, as well, but the more lyrical prose was vastly superior to the sparser style, and there’s a single random second person chapter that’s jarring. The conclusion was climactic, but its drama precluded meaningful resolution, and I don’t just mean because it’s a cliffhanger. This is a promising debut and a voice that needs to be heard, but unfortunately I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to.
And now for my yearly breakdown:
Total books: 60
Books written by women: 46
Books written by people of colour: 21
Books written by LGBTQ people: 18
Canadian books: 8
Much better than last year’s numbers, other than the CanLit category! And since I’m feeling spicy today, let’s list favourites. Fiction: The Muse by Jessie Burton, Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, Milkman by Anna Burns. Non-fiction: They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib, How To Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS by David France, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Stinkers of 2018: Ready Player One by Earnest Cline, The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen.
Here’s to some good books in 2019! (If I continue at this pace, I’ll have to do monthly posts, since this one is 3200 words long…)