Reading Roundup: May/June

Recommended

The Windfall by Diksha Basu. A slow-burn family drama set in New Delhi. I really enjoyed it. A good reminder to read more contemporary fiction set in global cities outside of the U.S. and London–as one character reflects, all Americans see of India are scenes of extreme wealth or extreme poverty, and we don’t know how to conceptualize the middle-class Indian experience. In this book, class is a plot driver and character divider, but (as one would hope) the class differences highlight some other critical dividers such as gender, tradition, westernization.

Broken Harbor by Tana French. I’m not sorry. I can’t get enough of these Dublin Murder Squad books. There’s always at least one in a used bookstore. I like this one because the first-person narrator is an utterly unlikeable minor character in a previous book; while he tells his story, you don’t necessarily come to like him exactly, but you see what makes him tick.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. Ah, yes, in the tender season of spring, a girl’s mind turns to murrrderrr. I downloaded this book because there’s a new movie version coming out that, like its cinematic predecessor, is all camp and exquisite costuming and star turns. I am definitely going to go see it. As for the book, it took a little time to grow on me, but once the murder has been committed it’s all ruthless procedural–interviewing one train passenger at a time–and I loved it. I was even, naively, completely surprised by the ending.

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente. Here are some things you should know about me, as a reader. I don’t love short stories. (There are some notable exceptions, like Lesley Nneka Arimah’s new collection.) I usually do not like it when a single author introduces different characters with first-person narratives in different writing styles; again, there are exceptions, but unless an author is particularly skillful at code-switching, this affectation is jarring at best and offensive at worst. Finally, while I love me some superhero movies, I’m not a big comic book reader.
Thus, this is not really a book for me. Yet I still enjoyed it, and I’m glad it exists.
Basically, The Refrigerator Monologues tells the stories of several female characters–wives, mothers, girlfriends–who got caught in the crossfire of some other superhero-villain battle. Now they all hang out in the afterlife together, drinking tea and bitching. Some are superheroes themselves whose own powers got sidelined by those of their male companions; others are ordinary women whose lives and ambitions got snuffed by the deadlier drama of their superhero boyfriends. The superheroes are fictional, but some were recognizable to me as adaptations of known characters, like Harley Quinn and the Joker. Probably I would have enjoyed recognizing others if I was more familiar with the genre.

Ulysses by James Joyce. I mean…. I sort of read it. I may have skimmed the last few chapters. Who cares, there’s time to read it again next year. And I did enjoy writing about it, and reciting part of it at Bloomsday.

Not Recommended:

Quiet Until the Thaw by Alexandra Fuller. This book is a piece of work. It’s moving and elegantly written; at first I was reminded of The Things They Carried, but reimagined in Louise Erdrich’s Badlands landscape. Its main characters grow up and around an Indian reservation, and I think more of those stories need to be told and shared in literary fiction. But about a quarter of the way through I began to get a weird feeling, flipped to the back cover, and read that the author was a white British woman who had lived in Zimbabwe and Wyoming.
Okay, well, I guess it’s debatable whether that means she’s the wrong person to tell this tale. But it raised a red flag for sure, which was joined by a few others: the Kiplingesque way the narrator address the reader (“All My Relations,” translated from a Lakotan phrase); the fact that a main character is named Le-a, pronounced “Ledasha,” straight out of urban legend (and debunked by Snopes).
So I read this book, but I wish I hadn’t. I would have rather read a similar book by a different author, preferably one not blinkered by white privilege, or else an entirely different book by the same author.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier. This, like Quiet Until the Thaw, seems to be a case of Right Book, Wrong Author or vice versa. (I’m thinking of the Girl, that’s not your dress! posts at Tom & Lorenzo.) It’s a retelling of Othello set in fifth grade in 1970s suburban DC. And it’s pretty much the kind of story about race that white students tell when they are trying to get outside their comfort zones in fiction 101. American racism is complicated and insidious; the nation’s capital, with its history and its location right smack in the middle of what’s considered north and south, has its own particular complexities. White writers tend to make racism simple and obvious. And though this book is meant for a YA audience, I’ve read YA books with extremely smart and meaningful representations of racism–and I don’t think this book is it. To say nothing with how poorly this drama of war and murder is suited to the schoolyard.

New People by Danzy Senna. I loved Senna’s Caucasia and still think about it often years after I first read it. Caucasia is a coming of age novel as well as a novel of passing set in the twentieth century, sharp and critical but accessible–perfect classroom reading. New People is none of those things and I’m still not really sure what to make of it. At first it seems as though it will unfold until a critique of the early days of Brooklyn gentrification and fashionable race fetishism, but it really focuses on one woman’s complete downward spiral–but not in a Nella Larsen way? More in a Lydia Millet way. A month later I’m still worrying about it.

Currently on the nightstand:

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile. Y’all. This book. SO GOOD. I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of a story about contemporary cane farming in Louisiana but it is a story deftly and suspensefully told. I’ve nearly missed my subway stop several times while engrossed in a tractor auction or fishing expedition, and on the description level, the writing is just beautiful.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I mean. I loved Anna Karenina so much that I read two different translations, and everyone’s talking about Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, so I thought why not? So far I’m enjoying the book for all the same reasons I loved Anna–social and political drama played out in drawing rooms via manners and eyebrows; lush descriptions of everything from food and dresses to feelings and family connections; a gratifying amount of attention paid to the thoughts and wishes of female characters, who are all quite distinct. But it will take me awhile to finish this one.

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