Last 10 Books Tag

I saw this tag on Callum‘s blog and it looked like fun, so here we go!

1. What was the last book you DNF?

I have an ‘accidental DNF’ shelf that has 5 books on it, all of which I attempted to read during the summer of 2012, none of which I finished because fuck the summer of 2012.  I was working two jobs 6-7 days a week, about to move to Europe for a year which was stressing me out because I’d never even been abroad except for Canada, my cat died, I was on a way too high dosage of a medication because my college psychiatrist was an idiot which caused me to feel like a zombie 24/7, I got in an accident which totaled my car, and a male coworker decided to become obsessed with me and I just had no idea how to deal with that.  And sorry for oversharing, but I do want to impress upon you just how extreme my life conditions need to be in order to get me to DNF a book.

Anyway, the books themselves: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (I got about halfway), The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (about 1/3), Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (a little over halfway), Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (maybe 20 pages), and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (about 100 pages).  I will revisit these all one day.

2. Last book you reread?

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Macbeth by Shakespeare which I think I’ve read around four times.  I reread it most recently because I was going to see Sleep No More for the second time (which, if you’re in New York and you like immersive theatre, is a must-see), and I wanted a quick refresher.

3. Last book you bought?

I ordered four of the short stories that Faber released for their 90th anniversary: Mr Salary by Sally Rooney, Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro, Paradise by Edna O’Brien, and Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain.  The Edna O’Brien has arrived and I am eagerly awaiting the others!

4. Last book you said you read but didn’t?

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I vaguely recall back in high school claiming to have read Pride and Prejudice which I attempted to read when I was 13, but I only got a few chapters in.

5. Last book you wrote in the margins of?

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I think I’ve talked before about my incredibly stupid reason for not annotating my books: because my mom borrows a lot of them and she hates annotations which makes me self-conscious about it.  But, I did take part in Kaleena’s Traveling Book Review for Cat’s Cradle which necessitated writing in the margins, and it was quite a lot of fun.

6. Last book you got signed?

A little over a year ago I saw my queen Caroline Alexander give a talk about translating the Iliad, and she signed The War that Killed Achilles and my copy of her Iliad translation.

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Also, my dear friend Patrick borrowed my copy of A Little Life a while back and after he finished reading it asked if he could keep my copy and buy me a new one, which I didn’t think anything of, only to have a SIGNED COPY arrive in the mail, which is pretty damn cool.  Also, how ridiculous is Hanya’s signature?!  Ugh, I love her.

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7. Last book you lost?

Nothing comes to mind!

8. Last book you had to replace?

I guess I didn’t have to replace it, but I owned the trashy 80s romance cover of The Secret History, which I eventually gave away to a friend after I bought the more standard one.

9. Last book you had an argument over?

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I am all about having respectful disagreements and constructive discussions about books, so I do not use the word ‘argument’ lightly here, but I do think #antigonegate qualifies.  My favorite part of this was that the person arguing with me over Home Fire hadn’t even read the book.

10. Last book you couldn’t get a hold of?

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Speaking of Antigone, one thing I usually keep an eye out for in bookstores is Jean Anouilh’s adaptation, with no luck so far.

Tagging whoever wants to do this!

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book review: Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

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HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD by Ottessa Moshfegh
★★☆☆☆
Penguin Books, 2017

 

Ottessa Moshfegh has to be one of my favorite writers that I discovered in 2018; My Year of Rest and Relaxation both thrilled and unsettled me, and after I finished that I proceeded to devour her debut novel Eileen. So it was with optimism that I approached her short story collection Homesick for Another World – I was looking forward to more delightfully awful antiheroines and sardonic humor and a heightened awareness of the mundane. Be careful what you wish for, I guess?

What made Eileen‘s titular protagonist and My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘s unnamed narrator so fascinating wasn’t just the fact that they weren’t particularly likable people; their thorny exteriors were a result of two distinct tragic backstories, whose ramifications Moshfegh deftly explored throughout the course of each novel. It turns out that bite-sized stories about awful characters doing awful things and thinking awful thoughts are so much less interesting when their behavior isn’t rationalized or contextualized in that same way. Reading story after story about humanity’s capacity for cruelty starts to feel like a shtick after a while, like a party trick that’s worn out its welcome. It’s easy to become desensitized when you feel like the author’s main objective is to shock you.

Two stories stood out to me: The Beach Boy follows an older married couple returning from an island vacation, only for the wife to die unexpectedly as soon as they arrive home. Unpalatable as this couple may be, like all of Moshfegh’s protagonists, we actually are able to get invested in them before the story takes a turn for the macabre. And A Better Place ends the collection on a positively eerie note, telling the story of two young twins who are convinced that they weren’t born on earth, and to get back to that other place, they need to either die or kill someone. I think it speaks volumes that the best story in the collection is the one that’s least like the others; A Better Place is wildly inventive and not quite as grounded in gritty realism as the others, but still dark and twisted and more haunting than the rest of the stories combined.

That’s two out of fourteen that made an impression on me. The rest honestly just blend together. Moshfegh has such a unique voice as a writer that shines through all of the stories in this collection, but rather than bringing me the same kind of offbeat joy as her two novels, this collection just started to make me miserable after a while. Apparently my average rating for all these stories was 2.7 stars, but I’m rounding down due to the dread I felt about picking this back up when I wasn’t reading it. I’m still going to read everything Moshfegh writes… I’m just hoping for more novels from now on.

mini reviews #4: horror classics and other fiction

Time for the next installment!  See all my previous mini reviews here, and add me on Goodreads to see all my reviews as soon as I post them.

36605525CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata
originally published in Japanese, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
★★★★☆
date read: October 28, 2018
Grove Press, 2018

Sayaka Murata has a lot to say about the role of the individual in society and contrived societal expectations, and she says it all in under 200 pages with poignancy and humor. Our protagonist Keiko is considered an irregularity by her family and friends, as she doesn’t aspire to anything in life other than to continue working for the convenience store that has employed her for 18 years. Keiko takes solace in the routine and regularity of her job, and embraces the ways in which her identity is shaped by the corporate world. This is a charming and offbeat and quietly sad meditation on the cost of acceptance, the illusion of normalcy, and the pressures we all feel to conform. (I understand the comparison to Eleanor Oliphant, though I found Convenience Store Woman sharper and more convincing.)

 

897171THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
★★★★☆
date read: November 4, 2018
Penguin Classics, 2006
originally published in 1959

I’d been told time and again that this was going to be one of the most terrifying haunted house stories I was ever going to read, so I think my mixed reaction comes more from mismanaged expectations than anything. This story was not remotely scary. (But also, I’m just never really scared by horror in the way I’d like to be.) But I did find this to be a positively harrowing and unexpected psychological thriller which deftly explores isolation, sanity, and repression, through the eyes of a fascinating unreliable narrator. And the conclusion was positively haunting and breathtaking. I just wish I’d had a better idea of what I was signing up for – I doubt I would have been so impatient with the lengthy exposition had I known what a character study this was going to be. I’m almost definitely going to want to revisit this one at some point.

 

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FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley
★★★★★
date read: November 15, 2018
Harper Perennial, 2018
originally published 1818

Not so surprisingly, I got a lot more out of this at 26 than I did at 15.

 

 

 

32075854MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz
★★★★☆
date read: November 25, 2018
Harper, 2016

Magpie Murders was a fun, unexpected, and delightfully meta love letter to classic whodunnits and of course to the queen of mystery, Agatha Christie. You get two novels for the price of one with this one, and each is twisty, clever, and engaging – not equally so, I actually thought the novel within the novel offered more intrigue and less predictability. Though watching literary-agent-turned-amateur-detective Susan investigate the mysterious death of her top selling author was fantastically entertaining. A must-read for all mystery fans!

 

35297339ASYMMETRY by Lisa Halliday
★★☆☆☆
date read: December 13, 2018
Simon & Schuster, 2018

Nope, not for me I’m afraid. Asymmetry is more of an experiment than a novel, and an experiment that didn’t warrant half as much tedium as what I found myself subjected to. I ‘got it’ but I didn’t find the payoff rewarding at all. There’s a good argument to be made that the first two sections were badly written on purpose (once you figure out from the third section the thread that connects the two disparate stories) but if poorly executed structural innovation is all it takes for a book to be lauded as a masterpiece these days I think we need to raise that bar just a little bit higher.

Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think?  Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book review: The Stranger Inside by Laura Benedict

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THE STRANGER INSIDE by Laura Benedict
★★☆☆☆
Mulholland, February 5, 2019

 

The Stranger Inside has a pretty enticing premise: Kimber Hannon returns home from a week away only to find herself locked out of her house. When she notices someone inside she calls the police, who get him to open the door; he produces the paperwork complete with Kimber’s forged signature and insists that he’s renting the house for six months. Overcome with frustration, Kimber rushes inside her house, only to have the man grab her and whisper in her ear ‘I saw what you did.’

So that was a great opening, but it’s all downhill from there, I’m afraid. Which was more of a mess, the plot or the characters? Let’s start with the latter: Kimber has to win some kind of award for being the most insufferable protagonist in literary history. I truly do not believe that a protagonist needs to be ‘likable,’ but they sure as hell need to be interesting or sympathetic or something to hook the reader, especially in a thriller. I could not have cared less about Kimber: she’s selfish, remorseless, and emotionally immature, and why should I care that it all stems from a troubled adolescence when none of it is satisfactorily examined. At one point she befriends the wife of a man she had an affair with just because she thinks it would be funny to get back at him, without a second thought about the wife’s feelings, and we’re supposed to sympathize with her when she starts to realize this woman is actually a person? I really did not get the impression that Kimber was deliberately constructed to be a compelling antiheroine; I think she was supposed to be a flawed person who still deserved our sympathy, after everything. It didn’t work.

The plot itself was all kinds of ridiculous, with varying degrees of success; at times it was ridiculous and fun but at other times it was just ridiculous and boring. There were just too many convenient plot devices and moments that demanded suspension of disbelief. The pace at which information was revealed was haphazard at best, and it was a shame, because even the moments that should have been shocking were neutered by weak storytelling.

Now I’m going to end this review by going into spoiler territory, which I don’t often do, so that just goes to show how much the ending pissed me off.  [HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILER] Regarding the twist that Kimber didn’t actually kill Michelle: Why does Kimber deserve this narrative absolution?! She hasn’t displayed an OUNCE of guilt throughout the entire book; at one point when she’s accused of being a murderer, this is Kimber’s reaction: “[S]he has never imagined her sister’s death to be a murder, herself an actual murderer. In her head it’s always I killed Michelle or I accidentally killed Michelle or I took my sister’s life.” … how does that make it ok?! You literally pushed your sister off a cliff?!?! I’m pretty sure if I killed my (nonexistent) sister I’d be eaten up with guilt, regardless of how ‘accidental’ it was? Maybe the potential emotional impact of this ending could have been earned if there were even a hint of a possibility that Kimber cared anything for Michelle, but it felt like (literally) handing a get out of jail free card to a person you desperately want to see go to jail. Not even remotely satisfying. 

Also, love that the mentally ill character turns out to be evil. Real original, that!! [END SPOILER]

Thank you to Netgalley and Mulholland Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells

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THE END OF LONELINESS by Benedict Wells
translated by Charlotte Collins
★★★★☆
Penguin Books, January 29, 2019

 

Well, this utterly wrecked me. What a beautiful book.

The End of Loneliness, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, follows three siblings growing up in Munich, whose parents die in a car accident, leaving them orphaned and forced to attend boarding school. The focus is on Jules, the youngest sibling, who’s more of an observer than a participant in his own life; after his parents’ death he turns inward and fixates on a parallel narrative that he’s crafted of what his life would have been like had they survived. At boarding school he meets Alva, another loner who he’s able to connect with as he and his siblings grow apart, but after school they lose touch and Jules is once more on his own.

With a focus on the complex dynamics between the three siblings, Benedict Wells deftly explores the ripple effect of loss and grief. He also plays with the fallibility of memory in a way that recalls Kazuo Ishiguro, as Jules is recounting events from his childhood years later, and eventually certain cracks begin to form in his carefully curated narrative that suggest he may have chosen to remember certain events in a way that was convenient to him. This is a deeply melancholy book that gives little respite in its misery, but I found its emotional honesty refreshing. And with Jules’ retrospective narration, the grief discussed feels more like a bruise than an open wound (it’s a painful book to read, but not as visceral as something like A Little Life). It did bring me to tears at one point, but it wasn’t the kind of painful that I lost sleep over; it’s more of a quiet kind of haunting that slowly seeps under your skin.

My one criticism is that the end gets a bit twee and Wells insists on wrapping everything up a bit too neatly; maybe he’s playing with the idea that one of the characters floats around, that life is a zero-sum game; maybe he thinks his characters have all suffered enough to have earned a neat ending. But as a reader I ironically feel less fulfilled with the more closure I get, so I would have preferred things to end on a slightly more somber note. 4.5 stars – rounded down for now but maybe I’ll change it depending on how this stays with me.

Also – my advice going into this book is to avoid reading the Goodreads summary if possible (or maybe just read the first paragraph), as it essentially gives a paint by numbers account of the entire plot. It’s not that I felt spoiled while reading – it’s more driven by character than plot anyway – but it’s just unnecessary to give that much away when the book is less than 300 pages to begin with.

Thank you to Netgalley and Penguin Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Heavy by Kiese Laymon

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HEAVY: AN AMERICAN MEMOIR by Kiese Laymon
★★★★☆
Scribner, 2018

 

This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever attempted to write. Probably because, as my friend Hannah so aptly put it in her own review, this book was not written for me. But that’s what was so admirable about it. Kiese Laymon states clearly in the prologue to his memoir that he has no intention of writing a sanitized, palatable version of events; it’s almost painful in its honesty but it’s for this reason that I think this book is so crucial and necessary (especially for non-black readers).

Heavy is Laymon’s visceral and fearless attempt at reckoning with a number of issues that have plagued him his entire life – his relationship with his mother whose uncompromising expectations for her son often resulted in abuse, his fraught relationship with his own body, addiction, trauma, poverty, education, masculinity, and ultimately what it means to be black in America. The honesty and nuance with which he examines anecdotes from his childhood, even more than the anecdotes themselves, make this an unforgettable read.

(4 stars instead of 5 because ratings are subjective and I never ever end up connecting with audiobooks as well as when I’m reading printed text, which isn’t to say that Kiese Laymon did a bad job with the narration – on the contrary he was a joy to listen to – but I’m just not an auditory person. Anyway, this was brilliant.)

book review: Cherry by Nico Walker

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CHERRY by Nico Walker
★★★★☆
Jonathan Cape, 2018

 

Nico Walker is currently serving time in prison for bank robbery; his debut novel Cherry is essentially his fictionalized autobiography, in which the unnamed narrator dispassionately recounts dropping out of college, enlisting in the army, shipping out to Iraq, serving as an army medic, returning home, and developing PTSD as well as an opioid addiction.

Cherry is a deeply uncomfortable book to read on just about every level. The war scenes and depictions of drug abuse are graphic, the language is relentlessly profane, the narrator’s pervasive misogyny goes unchallenged. This is not a book about redemption or remorse or lessons learned or new beginnings; it’s about waste and abuse and mutually destructive relationships and squandered potential. This narrator hits rock bottom so many times that ‘rock bottom’ loses all meaning, and as he isn’t guided by any kind of recognizable moral compass you aren’t even sure if you should be rooting for him in the first place. You’re just kind of along for this ride that figuratively culminates in a train wreck.

Probably the most noteworthy thing about this book aside from the author’s background is its unique narrative voice – Walker blends his disaffected staccato with an urgency that keeps you turning pages, devouring the horror and humor and unexpected moments of tenderness. This is the kind of book that you feel a bit guilty for loving but at the same time you can’t deny that there’s something special about it.