Books read, July to September 2016

Posted on September 27, 2016 under Books

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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…

Books read, April-June 2016

Posted on June 30, 2016 under Books

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I am pretty embarrassed to say that I fell down on the job of reading this quarter. I blame it on two things. First, most of April was eaten up by the end of my undergraduate career, when I barely had free time to breathe, let alone to read entire books. Then, no sooner had I finished my degree than I started back at work. I find it hard to get into a routine with shift work, and often I feel so tired by the end of eight hours on my feet that I want to do less intellectually-stimulating things than read. But June brought a renewed interest in reading, and I’m hoping that going forward I’ll be able to build in more time for it. Here’s what I’ve read over the past three months:

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

I had very high hopes for this book, but I just didn’t love it. It’s a quick read (I read it in one sitting on the Megabus back to Toronto), and the writing is nice, but the stories themselves were very forgettable to me. None of the characters were at all likeable, a fact which doesn’t always prevent me from enjoying a book, but which really got in the way this time. The main character is just so terrible. The female characters are all extremely shallow. Some parts of the book were very moving, and some stories were better than others, but overall I felt disappointed and strangely unmoved.

(I donated this book to Valu Village awhile ago, so it’s not pictured above.)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I bought The Goldfinch in August and finally read it in mid-June. It’s certainly a long one, but I was never bored by it unlike a lot of people I know. I loved the writing, the story, the characters. It is a bit slow, but I enjoy a meandering story when it’s done right. I’m glad I saved this book until I had the time to read it slowly and appreciate it.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects is, to me, the most disturbing of Flynn’s three novels, and it is not for the faint of heart. I enjoyed her writing (as always) and the trademark Gillian Flynn twist at the end. This is my least favourite of her novels, but I still really liked it. This is an example to me of a novel where unlikeable, bizarre characters actually enhanced my enjoyment. The ending wasn’t too great, but I always find Flynn’s conclusions a bit anti-climactic.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

I probably haven’t mentioned this on my blog before, but I’m a big Vonnegut fan. I read Slaughterhouse-Five my senior year of high school and since then have been picking up his books whenever I can. (That’s not that often, because bookstores always seem to stock the most popular titles, all of which I already own!) The Sirens of Titan is definitely one of my favourites – I loved the usual dry, satirical exploration of truth, luck, religion, and the meaning of life, and the revelation at the end is hilarious and comes together so well. Definitely up there with Bluebeard and Slaughterhouse-Five in my own personal Vonnegut ranking!

I currently have four unread books sitting on my shelf (Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins; Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton; Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; The Little Friend by Donna Tartt), so I’ll be working through those next. Plus I have a huge list of books I’m interested in, so, you know, I should be able to scrape together a slightly larger selection at the end of next quarter. I’ve read 12 books this year so far, so I’m pretty much on pace for my 25 book goal in 2016. Now that I’m back in the swing of things I’m hoping to do a bit better than that, even.

Books read, January-March 2016

Posted on March 31, 2016 under Books

Note: I’ve used affiliate links in this post.

I thought I’d start doing quarterly posts about the books I’ve read in my attempt to reach my goal of 25 for the year. Although this semester has been incredibly busy for me, so far I do remain on track, having finished 8 books so far this year. I’m hoping to pick up my pace over the summer – I’m really doing all I can at the moment; I keep telling people who ask me if I’ve seen the latest episode of a television show or a newly-released movie that I don’t have time for fun at the moment. I’m coming down the home stretch, though: in less than 3 weeks, I will be finished my degree.

Onto the books! These will be presented in order of when I finished them. This does not include any short stories, though I have probably read about ten this year so far.

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup by Lisa Eldridge

This is more of a survey course with 250 students and two TAs type book than an in depth seminar of 20 students book, but it is fantastic for what it is: well-researched, beautifully-presented, and absolutely brimming with Lisa Eldridge’s passion for makeup. I reviewed it in full in January.

Marx for Beginners by Rius

This is a graphic novel all about Marxism! I had to read it for my Marxist Cultural Theory class. Having already been through for years of high school and three and a half years of a liberal arts degree, I don’t know that I would categorize myself as a “beginner” when it comes to Marxism – though the book was highly readable and easily understood, so it would probably be an appropriate primer for a true beginner.

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

Honestly, when faced with the task of reading an 1835 French realist novel, I was not very enthused. And while it isn’t one that I’m likely to revisit, it was much more enjoyable than I expected. The plot wasn’t quite enough to balance out the often tediously lengthy description, but this was much less of a struggle to get through than I anticipated. Which doesn’t really sound like high praise, now that I think about it…

Whylah Falls by George Elliot Clarke

Really gorgeous narrative poetry about a Black family living in mid-20th century Atlantic Canada. I’m not normally a poetry person, but perhaps narrative poetry is the way to my heart. The story was as compelling – and heartbreaking – as the poetry itself.

Diamond Grill by Fred Wah

Another one that I really enjoyed! This is a literary/poetic autobiography, focusing on Fred Wah, Jr.’s father’s Chinese restaurant in Western Canada as well as his own hybrid Chinese-Scottish-Swedish identity. Peppered with recipes and mouth-watering descriptions of food – two of my classmates actually cooked from a recipe in the book, and it was pretty good! I loved the use of language and overall found this book very moving and evocative.

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

While this book was made up of interweaving narratives, a device which I usually enjoy, and while it was set it in my home city of Toronto, it fell very flat for me. The characters really lacked meaningful interiority, which was a shame, because their situations rendered differently could have been hugely emotionally affecting. Emotional connection with characters is almost always the number one factor in my enjoyment of a book! Really too bad, because the descriptive passages were great and the plot could have been awesome.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music, From Bill Haley to Beyoncé by Bob Stanley

This is a 550-page history of the past 70 years of pop music, which is certainly an ambitious task. Overall, I do think that the task was in good hands. Although the text suffered sometimes from over-editorializing (which at various points lead to sexist condescension), it was lucidly- and engagingly-written, packing in a massive amount of information without being dry or confusing. This isn’t a page-turner: it took me nearly 3 months to get through, and I normally finish books inside of half a week, even if they’re quite long.

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

Foe is a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic castaway tale Robinson Crusoe. This time, Cruso (as he is called in this novel) is joined on his island by Susan Barton, a British woman who has just spent two years searching for her lost daughter in Brazil. In Coetzee’s adaptation, Cruso’s “manservant” (aka slave) Friday is not indigenous to the Americas; rather, he is an African slave whose tongue has been cut out, supposedly by slavers – though Susan does question several times whether it was Cruso who cut his tongue out. It’s an interesting postcolonial (and to a lesser degree feminist-aligned) adaptation of the original novel, and while the writing is great, it fell short for me. Above all, it’s an exploration of authorship and whose story gets to be told, and it seems that Friday is the loser here. The novel can be read as an allegory for Apartheid (it was written in 1986 by a white South African), but it just didn’t push far enough for me. I do believe that Susan’s insistence on speaking for Friday and justifying why she kept him as a “servant” was meant to be rather damning of her character, but there is no narrative closure for Friday and he ends up being denied a voice. (I mean, literally, he has no tongue.)

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

(Can you tell from this list that I’m taking a class on Canadian lit? Probably only if you’re Canadian or particularly into CanLit.)

I must be a bad Canadian, because it’s taken me this long to read any of Mordecai Richler’s adult novels. (And I’m not entirely sure that I even read any Jacob Two-Two as a kid.) Being assigned a nearly 600-page novel in the last three weeks of my degree did not agree with me, but I actually ended up really enjoying the book. It’s part adventure story, part genealogy of the dysfunctional and sprawling Gursky family, and part rather apt picture of the Montreal of the 20th century. It’s told non-chronologically, spans many decades, and is made up of multiple narratives, which is right up my alley. And it makes heavy (fictionalized) use of the Franklin Expedition, which was an object of my obsession when I was about 11 or 12. I also loved the writing style – it’s very Montreal. All in all, a very rewarding read.

I was, like a nerd, going to include a list of some of the academic texts I’ve enjoyed over the past semester, but this post is already long enough, so I’ll leave you hanging.

I’m happy with the amount I’ve read this year so far: at this rate, I’m on pace to read 32 this year, which is 7 ahead of my goal of 25. (I have no doubt I’ll slow down in the fall, but a girl can dream.) As for my goal to read more by marginalized people: I’m not sure if I’m quite hitting my target of 75%, but this is a pretty diverse list. More women and more LGBTQ+ people in the next few months, though! My one true disappointment is that only two of these books were read simply for the fun of it: everything else was for school. Obviously, over the summer I will not have school dictating what to read, so I will be able to dive into the small stack that has been accumulating on top of my bookshelf. Meet you back here in 3 months and hopefully I’ll have another 8 books to share with you!