wrap up: February 2018

Like last month, I’m going to start this post by giving a sort of life update before I get to the books.  As you may recall, I spent half of January in Houston for work which ended up being a pretty miserable experience, so I decided to treat myself to a week-long vacation in Los Angeles in February to visit one of my best friends, and I had such a great time.  I’m actually from SoCal originally (San Diego) but I’d never been to LA until last week, and I loved it!  Warm weather and an abundance of vegan/vegetarian restaurants is the way to my heart.

Obviously, I spent a lot of time at bookstores when I was in LA.  My friend and I hit up the following:

They were all pretty great, but I’d particularly recommend Skylight, Vromans, Book Soup, Iliad, and, if you like plays, Samuel French.

If you’ve been to LA, what’s your favorite bookstore there?

Anyway, all in all, it was a great trip, but it did end on a ridiculous and dramatic note, which involved my red-eye flight home being delayed 6 hours due to one of the passengers being arrested.  We were next in line to take off, when all of a sudden this man starts yelling and becoming more and more agitated and aggressive, and eventually he assaulted one of the crew members working, so we had to go back to the gate so the police could come on board and handcuff him and drag him off the plane.  After that we had to deplane and wait for another crew member to arrive to replace the man who had been injured, and then when we finally boarded again we had to wait over another hour because of a technical issue with their communications devices…. anyway, the whole thing was a very absurd and surreal experience and I was just glad to finally get home.  I have the worst and weirdest flight experiences.  On my flight out to LA a girl fainted mid-flight which at the time was quite scary but now seems like a totally ordinary occurrence.  Anyway, I think the moral of this story is that I’ve been tempting fate and I probably shouldn’t fly again for a little while.

Ok, now onto the books!

  • Himself by Jess Kid ★★★☆☆ + review
  • I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell ★★★★☆ + review
  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi ★★★★★ + review
  • The Odyssey by Homer ★★★☆☆ translated by Emily Wilson ★★★★★ + review
  • Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao ★★☆☆☆ + review
  • The Broken Girls by Simone St. James ★★★★☆ + review
  • The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh ★★★★☆ + review

Best: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Runner up: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James
Worst: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

FEBRUARY TOTAL: 7
YEARLY TOTAL: 14

Currently reading: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (audiobook – I’m enjoying it but I really only ever listen to audiobooks on planes so when am I going to finish this??), Medea by Christa Wolf, Happiness by Aminatta Forna, and Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (I’m determined to finish this in March – I’ve been trying to get through this since December).

I was hoping to finish more than 7 books this month, but that was kind of an unreasonable goal given that I took a week-long vacation and barely opened a book that entire time, so I guess 7 isn’t bad.  I’m also so close to being caught up with my ARCs, which is exciting – I’ve only got 2 more after I finish Happiness!  I’m also doing well on my 1 classic + 1 play each month resolution… granted, it’s only February, but I made a point of reading The Lonesome West yesterday so I’d be on track with this goal.

So how was everyone’s February?  And what’s the best book you read?  Comment and let me know!

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book (play script) review: The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh

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THE LONESOME WEST by Martin McDonagh
★★★★☆
originally published in 1997

The Lonesome West is the conclusion to McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy – three unrelated plays all set in the same Irish village. I’ve actually yet to read The Beauty Queen of Leenane, but I much preferred this to A Skull in Connemara. It’s about two brothers living alone after their father’s death, getting into arguments about mundane things that often escalate to physical violence.

Reading this play was a very quintessentially McDonagh experience: tension is high, but broken by dark, irreverent humor, and characters are all pretty much terrible people, and it should be irrevocably bleak for that, but there’s an undeniable quality of tenderness. As always, McDonagh doesn’t offer redemption or resolution. His stories are never about villains becoming heroes. But there’s still a glimpse of hope, that maybe people can change – certainly not in the course of a two-hour long play, but maybe eventually.

The dialogue in The Lonesome West was as witty and biting as ever, but there was also such an openness and honesty to it that I found refreshing. This exchange in particular struck me as rather beautiful in its simplicity, and as always I love McDonagh’s use of dialect. Seeing his plays performed live is obviously the ideal, but reading them still feels like a sensory experience.

WELSH. We should be scared of their ghosts so but we’re not scared. Why’s that?
GIRLEEN. […] The opposite of that, I do likecemeteries at night.
WELSH. Why, now? Because you’re a morbid oul tough?
GIRLEEN. (Embarrassed throughout.) Not at all. I’m not a tough. It’s because… even if you’re sad or something, or lonely or something, you’re still better off than them lost in the ground or in the lake, because… at least you’ve got the chance of being happy, and even if it’s a real little chance, it’s more than them dead ones have. And it’s not that you’re saying ‘Hah, I’m better than ye,’ no, because in the long run it might end up that you have a worse life than ever they had and you’d’ve been better off as dead as them, there and then. But at least when you’re still here there’s the possibility of happiness, and it’s like them dead ones know that, and they’re happy for you to have it. They say ‘Good luck to ya.’ (Quietly.) Is the way I see it anyways.

book review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

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THE BROKEN GIRLS by Simone St. James
★★★★☆
Berkley, March 20, 2018

 

The Broken Girls is a delightfully chilling mystery-meets-ghost-story, set in Vermont (my homeland!) in two parallel timelines – one in 1950, and one in 2014. The past timeline tells the story of four girls who are roommates at a desolate boarding school called Idlewild, where unwanted and illegitimate girls are sent by their families and then neglected. There are also rumors of a ghost called Mary Hand who haunts the school grounds, and one day, one of the four friends vanishes. In the present, journalist Fiona Sheridan attempts to come to terms with her sister’s murder, which occurred 20 years ago near the ruins of Idlewild.

Interestingly, there aren’t a whole lost of twists and turns in this book. In lieu of shock and awe, Simone St. James lends her efforts to weaving together several seemingly unrelated plot threads, and she does so expertly. This is a book for readers who like satisfying conclusions and neat resolutions – I didn’t have a big ‘wow’ moment, which I tend to enjoy while reading this genre, but the storytelling was superb, and I had fun reading this book from start to finish.

Naturally I love when books are set in Vermont, and St. James delivered with the atmosphere. Though the town of Barrons and Idlewild Hall may be fictional, the dark, bleak tone of a rural Vermont winter was captured perfectly. It’s the ideal setting for a ghost story in many ways, and St. James took advantage of that to create a ghost who’s as intriguing as she is haunting. The research St. James put into this novel is also admirable, particularly regarding the Ravensbrück concentration camp, a chilling piece of history which features into one character’s backstory.

The characters themselves are very well developed, though my main complaint about this book was the heavy focus on Fiona’s relationship with her police officer boyfriend, which lent itself to a somewhat cliched ‘his parents disapprove because cops and journalists can’t mingle’ sort of narrative. But the girls in the 1950 timeline though were vivid and compelling enough to make up for this for me, and I didn’t mind Fiona herself.

Anyway, since I started this on Saturday morning and finished it on Sunday afternoon, The Broken Girls is the perfect book to get lost in for a weekend if you’re looking for something quick, eerie, and compelling.

I chose this book as my February Book of the Month selection.  If you’re interested in checking out this great subscription service, feel free to use my referral link!  The Broken Girls will be published on March 20, 2018.

book review: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

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GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER by Shobha Rao
★★☆☆☆
Flatiron Books, March 6, 2018

I really thought I was going to love Girls Burn Brighter. The novel starts out with a short prologue about an old woman being interviewed by a journalist about her garden of trees. In only two pages, it was lovely, touching, and hard-hitting, everything that I hoped the rest of the book was going to be.

The story then begins with two girls, Poornima and Savitha, who become fast friends in their adolescence, who work together for Poornima’s father, weaving saris. Tragic circumstances soon pull them apart, and they spend the rest of the book searching for one another.

This book is brutal. That in itself is not something that turns me off. I mean, you know me – the darker the better is pretty much my unofficial motto. What began to grate on me was how gratuitous and pointless so much of this brutality was. Shobha Rao makes her point early on. Girls – particularly in India – are given an absolutely terrible lot in life. This book is a celebration of that female-specific resilience, and that’s what attracted me to this book to begin with. But there is just no end to the suffering Poornima and Savitha go through, for absolutely no narrative reason. It’s hard to talk about this without giving specific examples, but basically, it started to feel like torture porn after a while.

Keep in mind that one of my favorite books of all time is A Little Life – if you look at the negative reviews of that, of which there are many, ‘torture porn’ is a phrase that you will see crop up quite a bit. But I absolutely object to that, because not only does the heightened pathos of that narrative fit the quasi-surrealist tone of the novel, but Hanya Yanagihara has something to say about the extreme suffering and trauma that those characters go through. In contrast, I wouldn’t say that Shobha Rao has nothing to say – just that she says it, very early on, and then doesn’t add anything else. This isn’t helped by the fact that the book also begins to take on a very monotonous, telling-instead-of-showing tone. “This happened to Savitha. Then this happened. Then Savitha did this. Then she went here. Then she went there. Then this happened.” That was pretty much the entire second half of this book. It’s just like, at a certain point, we get it.

This review is turning out a lot more negative than I had intended. I was actually planning on giving this three stars at first. It’s readable, educational about Indian culture, and I genuinely cared about Poornima and Savitha. But the amount of suffering these characters went through was so excessive it eventually deadened my emotional reaction, which was obviously the opposite effect from what the author had intended. I think this book has important things to say – I just wish it had undergone more rigorous editing, and adhered to the tried and true adage less is more.

Thank you to Flatiron Books and Shobha Rao for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

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THE ODYSSEY by Homer
★★★☆☆
★★★★★ translation
WW Norton, 2017
originally composed in the 8th century BCE

 

It usually surprises people who know how much I love the Iliad and the Aeneid that I’m not half as passionate about the Odyssey. There isn’t necessarily one overwhelming reason, but it mostly boils down to the fact that as a reader, I am much more compelled by characters and internal struggles than I am by plot, and consequently, the Iliad and the Aeneid are more thematically compelling to me than the Odyssey is. I don’t meant to imply that Odysseus isn’t a complex character in his own right, because he is, of course, but I’m much less interested in his straightforward desire to reclaim his home from the threat of the suitors than I am in Achilles’ conflict of choosing not to fight because his honor was insulted, or Aeneas’ debate of whether he should continue on his fated journey to found Rome, when he has short-term happiness at his fingertips in Carthage. There’s some fun and excitement in the Odyssey, but ultimately I struggle to stay invested from start to finish.  It’s just not my favorite of the classics, and this re-read didn’t do much to change that.

What I did want to talk about though is Emily Wilson’s brilliant translation. This is only my second time reading the Odyssey – the first time I read Robert Fagles’ translation, which I’m also fond of, but Emily Wilson just raised the bar. Here are just a few of my favorite things about it:

  • Wilson translated the ‘rosy-fingered Dawn’ line differently every time. If you’ve read the Odyssey, you know just how frequently this line appears. What a feat.  The effect I think honors the repetition of the original, but the poetic license serves to enliven the reader’s reaction to it.  (I know the last time I read the Odyssey my eyes started to glaze over this phrase after a while, failing to take it in.)
  • It’s both readable and lyrical from start to finish.  Wilson doesn’t dress up her translation in showy vocabulary that obscures the meaning of the text.  It’s honest, direct, and concise, but still written beautifully.  Here are the opening lines:

    Tell me about a complicated man.
    Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
    when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
    and where he went, and who he met, the pain
    he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
    he worked to save his life and bring his men
    back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
    they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
    kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
    tell the old story for our modern times.
    Find the beginning.

    Gorgeous.

  • This entire translation is written in iambic pentameter. While that was not the meter of the original, dactylic hexameter isn’t a commonly used meter in the English language, so instead Wilson chose to render the poem in iambic pentameter, to lend it rhythm and musicality.
  • Wilson eradicated a lot of the misogynistic language that has been used up until now by contemporary male translators, but which was not present in the original Greek. (e.g., referring to the slave girls in Penelope’s household as ‘whores.’)

Also, I just wanted to share this excerpt from Wilson’s Translator’s Note, which almost made me cry, reading it as a woman with such a huge vested interest in the classics and translation:

It is traditional in statements like this Translator’s Note to bewail’s one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original. Like many contemporary translation theorists, I believe that we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation. My translation is, like all translations, an entirely different text from the original poem. Translation always, necessarily, involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original. The gendered metaphor of the “faithful” translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of The Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance.

This meant a lot.  Female translators, scholars, and classicists all deserve to have their voices heard.  I’m hopeful that the recent publications of Caroline Alexander’s Iliad and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey are just the start of a bigger trend of making way for women in such a male-dominated field.

If you haven’t read the Odyssey, this is the translation you should read, and if you have, it’s worth revisiting to experience Wilson’s skill and artistry.

Not Good Enough Tag

I’m back!  I’m not sure if I even announced on here that I was going anywhere, but, my impromptu hiatus was due to me spending a week in Los Angeles, which was great and which ended with a very dramatic conclusion, but I’ll talk more about that in my monthly wrap-up.  I’m very behind on reading everyone’s posts again, but I’ll try to get caught up today.

For now, a tag, that I was encouraged to do by Steph and Chelsea.

HOW IT WORKS:

  1. You write down the names of 30 fictional characters on pieces of paper.
  2. You pick two names at a time and answer each of the 15 questions. For each question one of the two characters will be the one you believe fits best and the other is “not good enough”.

YOU ONLY HAVE ONE MORE SPOT ON YOUR SPELLING BEE TEAM, WHO WOULD YOU PICK TO COMPLETE YOUR TEAM?

Harry Potter (HP) vs. Ryan Cusack (The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney)

Oh my god this is hilariously tragic.  Ryan Cusack is a teenage drug dealing high school drop out, and Harry is… Harry.  I guess I’ll have to go with Ryan Cusack though seeing as they don’t have English classes at Hogwarts.

BOTH CHARACTERS WANT TO KILL YOU, WHICH ONE WOULD YOU KILL FIRST SO YOU HAVE A BETTER CHANCE OF SURVIVING?

Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo) vs. Cal Trask (East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

Kaz Brekker, no question.  I mean, the outcome of this is definitely going to be me dying because I would not want to go up against Kaz, but I guess I’ve got no choice…

YOU’RE ON THE BACHELOR/BACHELORETTE AN YOU’RE DOWN TO THESE TWO CHARACTERS, WHICH ONE ARE YOU GOING TO GIVE YOUR ROSE TOO?

Jude St. Francis (A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara) vs. Cathy Ames (East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

Absolutely Jude St. Francis.  Not that Jude would ever go on a show like this, and he’d probably be uncomfortable with the attention, but Cathy is legitimately a sociopath and Jude is my son.

YOU’VE BEEN CHOSEN FOR THE HUNGER GAMES, WHO WOULD MOST LIKELY VOLUNTEER IN YOUR PLACE?

Tristan Saddler (The Absolutist by John Boyne) vs. Achilles (classics)

This is SO FUNNY djkslfjdsl.  I mean… Achilles.  I actually regret not putting Patroclus because that would have been funnier but oh well.  Even though Achilles sat out for half the Iliad, I don’t think he’d pass up a chance to show off at the Hunger Games.

YOU’RE STRANDED ON AN ISLAND. WHICH CHARACTER WOULD YOU SACRIFICE TO ENGAGE IN CANNIBALISM?

Alexander the Great (Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault) vs. Willem Ragnarsson (A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara)

I’m going down, that’s the inevitable conclusion here.  I would sooner die than hurt Willem, and I am not about to pretend I can take on Alexander the Great.  RIP me.

YOU’RE THE NEXT DC/MARVEL SUPERHERO (WITH YOUR OWN TV SHOW OF COURSE), WHO IS YOUR SIDEKICK?

Anatole Kuragin (War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy) vs. Alex (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess)

Oh my god.  Alex would probably be the logical choice because of his propensity for violence, but for the hilarity factor alone I have to go with Anatole Kuragin, who would be the most pretty and useless sidekick of all time.

YOU’RE A MANAGER OF AN AVOCADO ADMIRING COMPANY, WHO WOULD YOU FIRE FOR LACK OF COMMUNICATION SKILLS?

Hector of Troy (classics) vs. Pyrrhus (also classics but specifically An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis)

DEFINITELY Pyrrhus.  Hector is the embodiment of lawful good and he would admire those avocados to a fault.  Pyrrhus would probably sleep through his alarm every morning and roll into the avocado joint around noon and expect to get away with it because he’s so attractive, and it would probably work for a good amount of time.

YOU’VE JUST FINISHED A BOOK IN WHICH YOUR FAVOURITE CHARACTER DIES, WHICH CHARACTER IS MOST LIKELY TO COMFORT YOU?

Sansa Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin) vs. Edmund (King Lear)

Well obviously it’s my girl Sansa, because she is sweet and caring and Edmund is actual trash.

UGH, IT’S HIGH SCHOOL. WHO WOULD MOST LIKELY BE PART OF THE POPULAR CLIQUE?

Inej Ghafa (Six of Crows) vs. Cyril Avery (The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne)

Inej by default, just because Cyril Avery is so deeply uncool.  I don’t think Inej would be in the popular clique either, but maybe people would admire her from afar for being so competent and mysterious.

THE DAY HAS ARRIVED; YOU’RE FINALLY A YEAR OLDER! WHO WOULD HAVE THE NERVE TO FORGET YOUR BIRTHDAY?

Hermione Granger (HP) vs. Robb Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin)

Well Hermione never would, so it’s gotta be Robb Stark.  I don’t blame him though, he’s got bigger fish to fry, like the red wedding… and I don’t think they’re big on birthdays in Westeros.

YOU’VE JUST FOUND AN UPCOMING BOOKTUBE STAR? WHO WOULD MOST LIKELY BE?

Clytemnestra (classics) vs. James Farrow (If We Were Villains by ML Rio)

Probably James, who gets popular because he’s so smart and charismatic (and attractive), but Oliver records and uploads all his videos and he has no idea that he has such a huge internet following.

SLEEPOVER TIME! UNFORTUNATELY YOU CAN ONLY INVITE ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?

Sunja Baek (Pachinko by Min Jin Lee) vs. Aliena of Shiring (The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett)

SOPHIE’S CHOICE…… I’m going to go with Aliena just because I have loved her longer and I think we’d have more to talk about.  But, these characters are actually very similar (entrepreneurial, resilient women doing the best they can in hideously misogynistic circumstances) so it’s a close call.

BAM, YOU’RE PREGNANT. WHO’S THE FATHER/MOTHER?

Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) vs. Jean Valjean (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo)

Oh my god.  This is so hard.  But I mean… even disregarding biology I think I’d say Jean Valjean, who is THE greatest adoptive father in the history of literature, so definitely not a bad choice for co-parenting.

YOU’VE JUST WRITTEN A SUPER IMPORTANT TEXT. WHO WOULD ‘SEE’ IT, BUT NOT REPLY?

Lu Rile (Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon) vs. Marius Pontmercy (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo)

This is HYSTERICAL djklsjflds I don’t think enough people have read Self-Portrait with Boy yet to realize just how close of a call this is, but still, it’s gotta be Marius, whose entire awkward fictional existence has been leading up to being an answer to this question.

YOU’VE JUST WOKEN UP AND IT’S TIME FOR BREAKFAST. YOUR MUM’S BEEN REPLACED BY WHO?!

Francis Abernathy vs. Henry Winter (both from The Secret History by Donna Tartt)

THIS SO FUNNY I don’t want either of these human garbage cans to be my parent, but I guess I’ll have to go with Francis, who… may have some kind of nurturing instinct deep down, maybe.  I mean, since the alternative is Henry, there’s really only one answer here.

Not tagging anyone, but if you do it, pingback to me so I can read your answers!

book review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

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FRESHWATER by Akwaeke Emezi
★★★★★
Grove Press, February 13, 2018

 

It’s hard to talk about something that has no precedent. Freshwater is utterly unique, and the result is breathtaking. It’s a dark, sensual, and thoughtful novel about a young woman coming to terms with and accepting the multiple identities that define her.

The details of Ada’s life – raised in Nigeria, relocated to the U.S. for college – are only an elemental framework for what is ultimately an introspective story. The majority of this book is narrated by a chorus of Ada’s selves – conceptualized as Nigerian ogbanje – until a traumatic assault in college causes two of these selves to take shape, as Asụghara and Saint Vincent.

What I found so stimulating about this novel is that it challenged a lot of my conceptions about health and identity, particularly in how these are often so heavily informed by western culture. The perceived objectivity of psychology is something I’ve always found comforting and taken for granted, but with this book, I’m reminded of the significance of the relationship between culture and identity. Steeped in Igbo folklore, Freshwater chronicles Ada’s journey (and Emezi’s, as the book is informed by a lot of autobiographical elements) in a way that’s challenging, unexpected, and beautiful.

Emezi’s prose is so assured and lyrical it’s hard to believe this is a debut. This is an author to watch and a novel that absolutely everyone should read.

Thank you to Netgalley, Grove Press, and Akwaeke Emezi for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.