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.

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.