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.

Reading Roundup: March/April

In the Woods by Tana French. I was slow to get on the Tana French train, but I read Faithful Place last year and knew I’d be back for more eventually. In the Woods is the first of a series: a riveting, page-turning dive into the murder investigation for two unusual cases. I hate, hate that a key plot device never really gets resolution, but I enjoyed the ride too much to be mad about it.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Gearing up for a fall exhibition. I read this book several times in college, and was surprised about (a) how inattentive my college-aged readings had been and (b) that I didn’t enjoy my re-read more. I loved reading Dracula for the first time, but it’s far more campy and less existential; perhaps that’s why. But there was so much I missed on my first times through that it was well worth revisiting.

Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives. Have you ever disliked someone almost to the point of enjoyment? Maybe someone you know from work or school, someone who you ought to have a great deal in common with, except that they irritate you in thousands of small ways that you can’t stop thinking about or talking about? This book is that, for me.
On paper, we’re made for each other: it takes place in a large art museum not unlike one where I’ve worked, among overeducated and overmoneyed people not unlike some who I’ve met, driven by a sort of mystery that can only be solved by looking at books and art. Perfect, right? But this is not a good book. The narration is an irritating blend of purple prose and toneless slang. The characters are weirdly specific yet underdrawn, all quirks and little depth. The mystery fizzles out with an inconclusiveness that is not tantalizing. So, I kind of hate this book. But maybe I also love it? At any rate I couldn’t stop reading it. Make of that what you will. 

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. This novella was free on a Tor for a weekend, so I downloaded it and read it during the two hour duration of my latest tattoo. It turned out to be the perfect thing under those cicumstances. It’s a story about a school for wayward children who have visited other worlds, sort of like the Pevensies and Narnia, except everyone in this book hates them. It’s a fun gimmick–how many other worlds are there, how do children adjust when they return–but then on top of that there is a murder mystery, just gruesome enough to justify my white-knuckled grip of the phone during some of the more uncomfortable angles of my tattoo.
I mean, is it a good book? Do I love it? I can’t really say so; it’s not every author that can make the short novel form really work for a fantasy world. (The only Tor author I’ve read that does it really masterfully is Nnedi Okorafor.) All the same, I wholeheartedly recommend it to friends who enjoy the school-of-magic trope and want a short pleasant confection of a read.

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay. On the other hand, this is undoubtedly a Book I Love. I can’t help it! It’s like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell except in 19th century New York, and if the author had chosen to focus on the magic of women rather than men. There are delicious descriptions of herbs and teas and spells; a gratifying amount of attention to Victorian couture; a pleasing variety of textures in the inclusion of letters, book excerpts, and news columns; and a sort of encyclopedia of 19th century New York fads: Egyptomania, talking to ghosts, suffrage, and more. I was amused at the shout-out to several key figures of the era, including Madame Restell (whose portrait is included in a crime news broadsheet currently on display in the museum where I work) and Anthony Comstock (whose namesake law provided grounds to ban Ulysses among other major books).

Reading Roundup: January/February

Friends, one of the absolute best things about not being in school is that I can read what I want when I want. Here are a few books I read in the last couple of months. Not all of them will make it to the Books I Loved roundup at the end of the year, but I still want to talk about them with you.

Shrill by Lindy West
I haven’t been a Jezebel reader in a long while, but Lindy West’s writing is adored and widely shared in my social media circle and I’d read most of the articles that inspired or supported this essay collection. So it was more of a comfort-reading experience than a ground-breaking experience for me, but I still appreciate her bold, bawdy style.

Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
If you’ve ever wished to read a novel that is actually an opera in book form, this is for you. Huge, sweeping story full of surprise twists and mistaken identities; elaborate, sumptuously-described costuming; opera and circus arts; espionage; thwarted love. This book made me temporarily obsessed with the Napoleon line; I know very little about the louche Emperor Napoleon III, for example, but the excesses of a self-anointed leader are understandably fascinating right now.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibin
Tóibin is a favorite where I work, and this book was on sale on Amazon, so I thought I would acquaint myself with his writing. The appeal of this quiet, subdued story of an Irish-American immigrant in Brooklyn snuck up on me; at first it felt a little too quiet after the all the drama of Queen of the Night, but I found myself really sinking into the story and setting, thinking about Eilis and 1950s New York long after I put the book away.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru
I picked this book up from a pile of ARCs at the library where I work, attracted by its title. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, but I think that is because this is a book of a peculiar genre that might be someone else’s exact jam but isn’t so much mine. It’s sort of a slow-burn technohorror novel, featuring a great deal of white class anxiety and detailed descriptions of recording studio equipment before you realize that it is a ghost story. I read it with an odd mix of appreciation for and disengagement with the author’s craft until the last few chapters, when all the vague creeping horror of the novel coalesces into a vivid, visceral payoff.

What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
I also picked up this book from the ARC table, and against all odds I love it. It’s a collection of short stories, which is usually not at all my thing, but these stories have the feel of snapshots or fairytales that are precisely the right length. Some of the stories are magical or fantastic, exploring relationships (especially parent-child relationships) through supernatural elements in a way that reminds me of the short stories by Karen Russell which I also loved against all odds; the fantasy elements aren’t weird just to be weird, but seem to perfectly express the inherent weirdness of being human. Other stories play out more ordinary conflicts in everyday settings, but are infused with that sense of magic and otherness. I love them and can’t wait to read a novel by this author.

Home by Nnedi Okorafor
This is the sequel to Okorafor’s novella Binti, which I really enjoyed, but I wish I had taken the time to re-read it before beginning Home. It took me a little while to catch back up with the world–which is beautifully imagined and vivid enough to step into, but the action is a little confusing if you’ve forgotten (for example) that the lead character was physically altered at the end of the first novella.

In the reading queue

I am still reading James Joyce’s Ulysses in preparation for my workplace’s annual Bloomsday celebration. I admit that I do not love it, but I appreciate having a once-a-month seminar to discuss the book with a dozen other folks of various ages and educational backgrounds. Class discussion is lively and human and helps me warm up to the book.

My workplace had an incredible event in early February which featured local poets and blues music: I walked away with a stack of new books: The T-Bone Series by Quincy Scott Jones, She Was Once Herself by Trapeta Mayson, Orogeny by Irene Mathieu, and Monk Eats an Afro by Yolanda Wisher.

I’ve downloaded The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey, a 1920s mystery novel writer who I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of before now.

Books I read and loved in 2016

I know, it is certainly not 2016 anymore. And I know, my end-of-year roundup is usually Books By Women I Loved (in 2013, 2014, and 2015). You’ll see below that I still mostly read books by women. But I also set a goal two years in a row to make my reading list less white and less heterosexual, so this is an all-inclusive list of Books I Loved in 2016.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Charming, whimsical, melancholy. It’s one of the first books I read after I turned in my dissertation draft, and I blogged about its food scenes. I just recently watched the film adaptation with Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, and a young Henry Cavill–lovely.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm.  This novel was created in a lab for me. It’s a mystery–an art history mystery!–that centers on a Southern girl who moves up north to study art and then things get really complicated and she’s on the lam, hiding out in an antiques restoration shop. It’s suspenseful–I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop–but also makes some really smart observations about class differences and education.

The Marriage of Elinor by Margaret Oliphant. I read Miss Marjoribanks by the same author in 2015, but didn’t even mention it on my book roundup; it was pleasant but not love at first read. Now I think I underestimated Margaret Oliphant. A Scottish lady who was writing around the same time as my loves George Eliot and M. E. Braddon, Oliphant offers marriage plots that get turned on their heads. In The Marriage of Elinor, Elinor falls for a sexy but dishonorable man and marries him even though everyone tells her not to. She has some rough times with him, but neither party experiences untimely death or protracted horrors as you’d might expect from Victorian fiction. Nor are the trials of her marriage left unspoken, as with the ill-fated matches made by lesser characters in Jane Austen’s books. No, Elinor leaves her no-good husband and lives to tell the tale–to her cousin, who is in love with her but never marries her because she really doesn’t think of him that way. Elinor gave me new respect for Miss Marjoribanks, who spends her novel putting off marriage until the last possible page, since she likes her life just fine as the only daughter of a widower, mistress of the house, and thrower of the neighborhood’s best parties.

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck. I’m not sure how it came to pass that I’d never read this book before; it’s frequently mentioned in literary studies of food, since the novel is very much preoccupied with growing, eating, and starving. It was a brutal read but actually helped me get through a chunk of dissertation revisions. Whenever I was dragging my feet on revisions, I would read a few chapters; when I felt overwhelmed by page after page of famine, I embraced my revisions with open arms. It’s a well-written and engrossing book, I was into it and I’m glad I read it, but it’s bleak.

Faithful Place, by Tana French. I’ve put off reading Tana French because way too many people told me I should, and I get prim and fussy about books that are loved by many. But this book was a highly enjoyable page-turner, gritty detective fiction set in Dublin and embellished with some needed nuance for the “pretty dead girl” trope.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien was every bit as masterfully crafted and moving as I had been told it would be.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle,  which is a short and riveting revision of “The Horror of Red Hook” by H.P. Lovecraft. I never got too far reading Lovecraft, but I was deeply engrossed in LaValle’s version, which includes vivid description of Harlem in its Renaissance, some pretty convincing eldritch horrors, and an unmistakeable callout to police violence today. Bonus: I read the last half of the book in a coffee shop which happened to be playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as I approached the violent and horrifying climax. Awful things kept happening on the page and the music kept getting faster and faster. I don’t have a habit of listening to music while reading, but the background made this book even more memorable.

Fledgling, by Octavia Butler. This book was so unsettling and so deeply absorbing. Everyone knows that Butler is an incredible writer and world-builder but it’s kind of easy to take that for granted until you spend the length of a novel conveniently forgetting that the sensible, empathetic, charismatic, and sensual narrator is, to all human perceptions, a black girl child. It’s kind of messed up, because black girl children are continually hypersexualized and perceived as dangerous by our culture. But if anyone was going to make this protagonist work, it would be Butler. And although I’m not much of a vampire reader, I devoured this weird book quickly.

Emma and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper. I wasn’t sure I loved this book, but I am still thinking about it months later, so I think I do. It’s maybe a little precious, a term I have been taught to hate by male professors who prefer words like muscular or lean to describe prose. But this book is plenty lean, and its smalltown characters and their epic quests have left an indelible mark on me.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. One of those books you think you’ve read but have only read about, right? I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and became wrapped up in this book. Epistolary novels are not usually my jam.

The Winged Histories, by Sofia Samatar. I adore this book and I want everyone to read it.

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. I picked this up at a used book sale before the whole tempest about the author’s identity stirred up. Many of my fellow Toast commenters sang high praise of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and it was easy for me to see why: the prose is masterfully crafted, packed with sensory detail but narrated at a fluid, natural pace that doesn’t get bogged down in description. I read it quickly and appreciated its craft, but I wasn’t sure that I loved it until toward the end. The main characters’ relationship is so fascinating and harrowing that it comes as a great relief when they start to be more kind than competitive, yet that shift takes place just as adulthood opens up a big can of hot mess on both. This novel, the first in a trilogy, ends on a cliffhanger that I found deliciously motivating rather than frustrating. I look forward to reading the next!

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Another book I picked up from a used book sale. The book grabbed me by its intro, which mixes pop culture and scifi/fantasy references with historical details from the Dominican Republic and a little bit of magic and curses. How does that even work? How is it possible that the first chapters describe the life and times of a teenaged boy whose defining tragedy is an inability to get laid? How can a book be so well-written and finely imagined that it managed to sell me on the story I am least interested in hearing?  But Junot Diaz made Oscar’s story gripping, not pathetic. And I’m glad I stuck with him, because Oscar’s story gave way to stories about his mother, his sister, his grandmother, their lives together and apart, in the States and in the Dominican Republic, living in a political climate that I can’t even imagine but may soon have to, surviving unbelievable, almost supernatural events. I could not put this book down and I felt that I understood, in the end, how it all came together.

Honorable mentions:

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo. I love Susan Bordo, and I will always have a weakness for Tudor history, and I very much enjoyed the first section of the book which traces some popular myths and interpretations of Anne back to their very dubious sources. The first book alone would qualify as a Book I Loved! But I was less in love with Bordo’s interpretations of popular TV and movie Annes, which tiptoed a little into “The thing about youth culture is I don’t understand it” territory.

At the same time I downloaded The Ballad of Black Tom, I also downloaded Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Two imaginative, accessible fantasy fictions that only didn’t become Books I Loved because they were so short and fast. Honestly, though, if you’re a sci-fi/fantasy reader and looking to expand your horizons, you cannot go wrong by reading everything Nnedi Okorafor ever wrote.

The Role, by Richard Pearson.  I have a confession. I am a little mulish, sometimes, about reading my friends’ writing. I am not sure why; perhaps I’m defensive about about my book selection after years of required reading, or perhaps I am accustomed to books being books–I still feel surprised when books reveal their living human authors. But after being a bad friend for a year, I finally read my best friend’s first novel and adored it. It sounds just like him: funny and self-deprecating yet passionate and thoughtful. It takes you backstage during a new production and lord have mercy, if you’ve ever done an “experimental” play in college or beyond, you will find yourself in this story.

I can’t believe I managed to read so many wonderful books in the final year of my dissertation. I think that this year I’ll start posting monthly about books I’ve read. As pleasant as it is to effuse about books I love, I’m missing the chance to talk about books I only felt “meh” about, or books that I might have loved but felt betrayed by.

 

6 Things I love about Sofia Samatar’s Olondria novels

I read A Stranger in Olondria last year and observed how different it felt to read it compared to other books I enjoy. Typically, books that become my favorites are those that are impossible to put down; quick, intense reads. A Stranger in Olondria is so dense with description and mythology that I was compelled to read it slowly, but found that it was absolutely worth taking the time so that the story can unfold slowly in layers and layers of detail.

This year I read Sofia Samatar’s second novel, The Winged Histories, and I cannot wait to read it again. In fact I did re-read the first few chapters almost immediately after finishing the book, just so I could linger in that world again. I’m trying to read through the stack of new-to-me novels I picked up from a used book sale, but what I’d really like to do is start from the beginning of A Stranger in Olondria and go through it all again.

Why do I love these books?

  1. They are rich with sensory detail. Every scene is crowded with information about how things look, feel, sound, and smell.
    Young Adult Historical Vault recently revisited a book I loved as a child, Quest for a Maid, which depicts medieval Scotland in gloriously vivid detail: the main character comes from an enormous merchant household that works hard and plays hard, and her narrative is packed with candies, ribbons, colorful markets, winter sports, instructions for making dresses and keeping house, and magic. I still think of this book many years later in the oddest of places, such as when I encounter marzipan, walk into a pop-up market, or sew.
    I have a feeling Sofia Samatar’s novels will be like this for me too, with its vivid peppercorn trees, the riot of noise and stimulus of the markets, the elaborate written rituals of royalty. Now that I work in a library, I look at old volumes with ornate covers and remember the first time Jevick in Stranger sees a book. When I sit down to write, despite my preference for typing I still think of the handwritten journals and letters, the writing implements, the rituals of writing space both physical and mental employed by the characters who can write.
  2. The books take place in a culturally and historically rich world. I went to all the Middle Earth movies, no matter how terrible. I followed Harry Potter up through the seventh book; I’m even going to Harry Potter Quizzo this weekend. I’ve played every game in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age universes, and in between watching Marvel Comics television and film releases I try to catch up on the original characters and their plotlines. What all of these cultural artifacts have in common is that they take place in worlds that have history, mythology, culture with layers of conflict and interrelationships, sometimes geeky ornamentation such as invented languages or social rules. These are cherished by fans in part because you can dwell in their worlds by learning their rules, languages, lore.
    A Stranger in Olondria provides that the sweeping history, the clash of cultures, the languages and lore in one novel. That is nothing short of remarkable. The Winged Histories expands on that world in a very satisfying way. In both novels, the reader becomes acquainted with the legends and history of Olondria because the characters are learning it (as with Stranger‘s Jevick, who is an immigrant) or loving and finding comfort in its tales (as is frequently the case in Histories). This is a primary factor in my wish to re-read: no doubt there are nuances and details to the lore I missed the first time.
  3. This imagined world is not just another version of the one you already know. By way of explanation, another story: I’ve watched maybe two episodes of Game of Thrones. The first episode I saw was the first episode of Season 2, where the narrative has to check in with each of the seven kingdoms. Although I was not familiar with the plot or characters, it wasn’t hard to follow: the tyrant king, here; the rebel king, there; the sorceress, over here. It is a story built on tropes which felt very familiar to me, which is one reason why I didn’t feel the need to continue. From what I hear, the show introduces novelty and surprise by crossing lines we don’t expect it to cross moreso than by introducing fresh perspectives on these old tropes.
    Olondria is not Medieval England Redux. The center of its empire is warm and lush, where spices and pomegranates grow, but the empire reaches into tropical islands, deserted plains, and snowy highlands. Olondria has tenuously united a diverse array of peoples with a variety of cultures who have a variety of appearances beyond the usual formula of “white people north, brown people south.” The Olondrian Empire doesn’t have a one-to-one parallel with real history: it draws a little from the Roman Empire, a little from the British Empire, most likely from empires whose history is less well known to me. Olondria is pre-industrial but not archaic; its social structures are sophisticated and complex. Its fashionable aristocracy would be recognizable in any time or place, but the trends they pick up and drop feel new and surprising.
  4. The imagined world engages oppression meaningfully, not reflexively. For one example: The Winged Histories explores historical fantasy sexism in a nuanced, meaningful way. It’s not all rape and slavery, as the medieval fantasies of certain male writers tend to be. Nor does it depend on exceptionalism, with just one female rulebreaker to throw the plight of women into contrast. The four female narrators each experience oppression differently based on their respective cultural and family backgrounds. When they rebel, they feel a little lonely, but not completely alone because they can refer to historical precedents and a few living examples: an ambitious queen, a swordmaiden, a sister.
    Likewise, both novels depict the colonial history of the Olondrian Empire as complex. The Empire itself is far from uniform and united; like any real-life empire, it is only tenuously held together by a preferred religion and an exhausted military. The cultures who are assimilated into the Empire have their own complicated history of triumphs and failures. The result is a thoughtful reflection on the exchange of power.
  5. Both books passionately love books. For the love of print, buy a hard copy of each. I did not, even though I knew better for The Winged Histories, but I had already started reading the free sample on my Kindle and I couldn’t wait to continue. But this is a book that benefits from being held in the hands: characters take great risks for books, plunging their hands into fires to rescue burning pages, or carrying precious volumes in their shirts even onto the battlefield. Besides, it would have been helpful to flip between the swordmaiden’s narrative and the map of Olondria to track her travels. I didn’t even know there was a glossary in the back of The Winged Histories; I just marched doggedly through, inferring words like teiva and milim from context. Which was fine, but you don’t have to.
  6. They are magical. The magical and supernatural elements build slowly. Everyone in Olondia has heard of magic, of course; many of them practice living religions and are prepared to accept miracles, spirit guides, and visions, even if those events are rare. And everyone knows the legends, of course. But not everyone experiences magic, and when it happens to certain characters, they aren’t always sure how to explain what’s happening, or why it’s happening to them. Magic enters the story through a process of discovery, making it all the more wonderful and miraculous for the reader.

I have definitely talked myself into re-reading; I may even come up with an entirely different set of Things I Love.

Books by women I re-read and loved in 2015

I spent most of 2015 working on my dissertation, so I didn’t have a ton of extra time for reading new books–but during this process, I re-read a number of books I first encountered years ago. Man, do I ever love the books I am writing about. These novels continue to be my favorites!

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger. This 1933 novel follows a young couple who are active with a socialist group in the Great Depression. They struggle with their relative privilege in a time of privation, and flail a bit as they search for meaningful work–hey, rather like we do in the present day! The novel is frequently very funny–if you enjoyed skewering the left-leaning male intellectual in The Love Affairs of Nathanial P. then you’ll be amused at the comedic lack of self-awareness the Marxist men display here–but it is also bitterly sad, particularly in light of how modern and unchanged so much of it feels.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. I’ve read this maybe twice before, but I re-read it in one day and cried a little anyway. This novel is about a girl who develops the ability to taste emotions in food. When her mother bakes her a birthday cake, she is overwhelmed by her mother’s sadness and helplessness, and she turns to junk food to disconnect herself from these too-intimate insights into the emotional landscapes around her. As she gets older, she learns to manage it and can sort out the tastes of the tomato farmers and herb growers in a marinara sauce. It’s a whimsical premise taken quite seriously, and the result is a commentary not only on how we eat but how interconnected our lives are, how much we need those connections, but how hard it is to bear them.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. This novel has nothing to do with anything I was working on. I just had a hankering for something familiar in which I could learn something new, as is so often the case when one re-reads Middlemarch. Daniel Deronda was written later in Eliot’s life and, perhaps oddly, seems more morally rigid: Grandcourt is simply wicked without any of Bulstrode’s philantropy; Daniel and Rachel are pure and virtuous without Dorothea’s pride or character growth. But despite that and despite the book’s length, I was once again completely absorbed by Gwendolen’s rise and fall, Daniel’s yearning for a sense of cultural belonging, and all the glittering detail of their rather glamorous lives.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I must have read this book three or four times already, but what happens is that any time I pick it up to look for a certain quote or flesh out my notes for a chapter, I then get sucked in and read it all over again. It’s not a long read; it’s lush with description of venerable old houses and dazzling ballgowns and trembling lips or curls, but despite all that it moves like a police procedural through the stages of malaise and marital deception. Chapters end on the cusp of crisis–does May know, or doesn’t she?! Will Ellen stay, or won’t she?!–and you must keep reading. And despite all that, it’s still as tender and moving and unforgiving a portrait of romantic love as I’ve ever read. No wonder it won Wharton a Pulitzer.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Another book I’ve read half a dozen times, in part because I used to assign the novel to my college composition class. The comp textbook was themed around popular culture–advertising, narrative media, political journalism, etc.–so from there we would move to Atwood’s dystopian vision of a corporatocratic future, in which society is stratified into those who work for multinational companies (and live safely on their insular compounds) and those who live outside and have little choice but to consume the food and clothes and media these companies provide. In the character of Jimmy, who we see grow from a sweet little boy to an entitled but deeply inseure man to the seemingly sole survivor of an apocalyptic event, the novel makes a biting critique of toxic masculinity, late capitalism its compulsory consumerism, and climate change denialism all at once.
The sequels to this novel are not quite so sharp or compelling, but I think I’ll have to re-read those too just to stay in this world a little longer.

Not a novel, but I have to give a shout-out to Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo. First published in 1993, this book seems a little dated in some respects, such as its persistent concern with anorexia as a metaphor. But its sharp observations about bodies and capitalism, feminine beauty standards, and the shifts in cultural attitudes toward body size are still terrifyingly relevant, and I continually appreciate Bordo’s consistent if brief acknowledgements of how individuals of different races, genders, and cultural identifications negotiate these standards differently. More on this blog.

And if you missed it: books I read for the first time and loved in 2015!