wrap up: August 2018

Favorite: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Honorable mentions: Macbeth by Shakespeare (obviously), My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Milkman by Anna Burns, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
Least favorite: Snap by Belinda Bauer

AUGUST TOTAL: 12
YEARLY TOTAL: 91

So as you can see, it was a solid reading month aside from that 2-star streak in the middle, and it’s been quite Man Booker heavy.  I really did not go into this planning on reading the entire longlist, but it looks like that’s where I may be heading… I own a copy of In Our Mad and Furious City, I won a copy of Normal People, and I have library holds on Warlight, The Overstory, and Washington Black, so, those are all definitely on my horizon.

Currently reading: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (lol I haven’t picked this up in weeks, I’m sorry Thomas Hardy!!!  I’m enjoying it but I just have so much going on reading-wise and it keeps getting shuffled to the bottom of the pile), The Line That Held Us by David Joy, The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith, The Only Girl in the World by Maude Julien (audiobook).

What was the best book you read in August?  Comment and let me know!

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book review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

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EVERYTHING UNDER by Daisy Johnson
★★★★☆
Jonathan Cape, 2018 (UK)

 

This novel was stunning. Everything Under is a retelling of a Greek myth (more on that in a second), set in the English countryside, which follows Gretel, a lexicographer, who’s recently tracked down her estranged mother Sarah. It’s a tricky plot to summarize as it unfolds with a nonlinear chronology, but it ultimately pieces together the fractured narrative that connects Gretel, Sarah, and a boy named Marcus who stayed with them on their riverboat for a month when Gretel was thirteen, before disappearing.

Daisy Johnson’s prose is accomplished and lyrical; of the Man Booker longlisters I’ve read so far, I’d say she’s only behind Donal Ryan in terms of prose quality, which is an incredible feat. This book is stunningly atmospheric; the water beneath Gretel and Sarah’s riverboat feels like a living, breathing entity, and the whole novel has a tone that’s both vibrant and feral. It can be difficult to rework Greek mythology into a contemporary setting, but I felt that Johnson achieved this with aplomb, turning the ordinary into something almost mythical, which perfectly suited the kind of heightened drama that inevitably must unfold in a story like this.

I’m not really sure what’s going on with the marketing of this novel, because in some promos I’ve seen reference made to the myth it’s retelling, and in others I haven’t. I did know which myth it was going into it, and rather than hampering my experience with the novel I think it enhanced it. But I have seen others say they wished they hadn’t known this information ahead of time as the knowledge does naturally give away quite a few plot points. But I don’t think it’s a novel which endeavors to shock the reader with its twists and turns, and with fate and free-will at its thematic center, I don’t think it’s difficult to figure out where the story is headed, even quite early on. So, I guess it’s up to you whether you want to look up the myth it’s retelling, but if you’re a Greek mythology lover, I think you’ll enjoy knowing ahead of time so you can properly appreciate Johnson’s positively masterful foreshadowing and symbolism.

The reason I’ve dropped it down to 4 stars from 5, which I thought it would be for most of the time I was reading, was that I wasn’t very enamored with certain elements of the ending. I have to quote my friend Hannah’s review where she talks about the last 20% of the novel: “Here Johnson makes quite a lot of the subtext text” – this was my main issue as well. The stunning subtlety that I had so admired about the first three quarters of this book was sacrificed for a very literal manifestation of one of the novel’s themes, adding a sort of fantastical element that I didn’t think was necessary. What can I say, I just don’t like magical realism.

But ultimately I did think this was an incredibly strong debut (!!) novel. Johnson’s prose was incredible, and the amount of thematic depth here really took me by surprise. Johnson provides us with a thorough meditation on fate, agency, breaking and mending familial ties, the role of language in shaping us. I really loved this.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure | The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman

top 10 tuesday: Favorite Nonfiction

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and The Bookish which is now hosted by Jana @ That Artsy Reader Girl.  This week’s topic:

August 28: Back to School/Learning Freebie (in honor of school starting back up soon, come up with your own topic that fits the theme of school or learning! Books that take place at school/boarding school/during study abroad, books you read in school, textbooks you liked/didn’t like, non-fiction books you loved or want to read, etc.)

I’ve seen a lot of people interpret this as ‘favorite nonfiction’ which seemed fun, so I’m going to do that!  I’ve also been talking to What’s Nonfiction? recently who is a lovely person and has been getting me excited to add more nonfiction to my life, so let’s start with ones I’ve enjoyed in the past.


Women & Power by Mary Beard: The two feminist essays combined into this collection aren’t exactly groundbreaking for anyone remotely familiar with feminist theory, but I loved this anyway.  The first essay concerns itself with the role of women in the public sphere and the precedent of silencing women’s voices, using both historical and literary examples, and the second essay shifts to our societal conception of power as a male-dominated domain.  Being a classics lover myself, I loved Beard’s unique perspective on these subjects and all the parallels she draws to antiquity.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson: This was my first Nelson; I’ve since read Bluets but I much preferred The Argonauts, though I’m looking forward to reading The Red Parts soon.  The Argonauts is her memoir about her relationship with the genderfluid artist Harry Dodge, and her writing is piercing and insanely intelligent.  This was just a pleasure to read and I’m looking forward to reading Nelson’s complete works at some point.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: Well, it’s popular for a reason.  This book was great.  The Devil in the White City is Larson’s parallel account of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and the life of the serial killer H.H. Holmes.  Though these two threads never quite dovetail in the way I was hoping for (to me it kind of felt like 2 books packaged into 1), I still loved reading this highly informative and well-researched account of 1890s Chicago.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala: Wave is just about the most heartbreaking memoir imaginable: when Sonali Deraniyagala is on vacation with her parents, her husband, and her two sons in Sri Lanka, all of them are killed in the 2004 tsunami.  This is her account of surviving that devastating tragedy, and though it’s incredibly bleak and unsparing, it’s also filled with such love and gratitude toward her family.

Poetics by Aristotle: Probably my favorite of the Ancient Greek rhetorical texts, Poetics is an essential companion text for anyone interested in reading Greek tragedies.  Aristotle’s insights into humanity’s relationship to theatre are some of the most important foundations of contemporary literary criticism – and it’s under 150 pages.  Read this!

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: Probably the most famous true crime classic, In Cold Blood tells the story of the murders of 4 members of the Clutter family in 1959 Kansas, then details the capture and killing of the murderers.  This book is fascinating, compelling, and oddly haunting.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: This is McCourt’s devastating memoir about growing up in the slums of Limerick, and it’s quite unlike any other memoir I’ve read.  It’s an immersive survival story that can be quite difficult to read at times, but it’s also told with such forthrightness and an undeniable love for his flawed country, it’s hard not to get swept away by it.  I think this was my first introduction to Irish lit when I was 16 and I haven’t looked back since.

Black Boy by Richard Wright: I still haven’t read Wright’s more famous novel Native Son, but his autobiography Black Boy was brilliant.  It’s primarily a coming of age story about being black in the U.S. south under Jim Crow.  It’s a harrowing read at times, but it’s also quite a page turner.

Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King: I had to read this in my Latin class in high school, so I could probably go for a re-read, but it’s a really fascinating text.  It’s about the construction of il Duomo di Firenze, completed in the 1400s, which was actually a ridiculously complicated process.  So if you’re at all interested in architecture, I’d highly recommend this.  Or if you like The Pillars of the Earth.

Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox: And finally: Jo Cox was a British Labour MP who was murdered in June 2016.  This biography of her life written by her husband is just as powerful and beautiful as you’d expect, and it probably hit me harder than any other memoir or bio I’ve read.  (Obviously my feelings toward the book have become a bit more complicated with Brendan Cox’s recent sexual harassment scandal, but as he’s resigned from the Jo Cox Foundation where all the proceeds from the book go, I still feel like I can recommend it in good faith, since it’s ultimately about what a brilliant woman Jo was.  Though I obviously don’t blame anyone for choosing not to read it because of this.)

Also, I just started listening to The Only Girl in the World by Maude Julien on audio, inspired by this post, and I can already tell it’s going to be an incredibly hard-hitting read.

What’s your favorite nonfiction book?  Comment and let me know!

 

book review: Milkman by Anna Burns

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MILKMAN by Anna Burns
★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2018 (UK)

 

I loved Milkman, but it’s so painfully niche I can’t think of anyone I’d personally recommend it to. Set in an unnamed city that’s probably Belfast in the 1970s, Milkman follows an unnamed narrator who’s believed by her community to be having an affair with a man known only as ‘the milkman,’ who isn’t actually a milkman. Told in stream-of-consciousness prose and set against the backdrop of the Troubles, Milkman doesn’t offer much of a plot, but it does provide a perceptive and intelligent look at a community under duress and constant surveillance.

It also starts with these stellar opening lines:

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one.”

But this book is hard work, I will readily admit that. Though I loved the narrator’s sharp observational commentary, even I found the narrative style painfully long-winded at times. Paragraphs go on for pages; chapters go on for hours; the kind of concentration it takes to really immerse yourself in this novel can be draining. This is not what anyone would describe as an easy read, and I think it’s the kind of book that’s going to fall under the category of ‘I appreciated it but I didn’t like it’ for a lot of people.

This line of thought actually made me reflect on what it means to ‘like’ a book, because I wouldn’t describe my reading experience as ‘fun,’ necessarily, but despite that, I found Milkman incredibly rewarding. Anna Burns deftly crafts a living, breathing community, and paints a portrait of the realities of living in a city torn apart by civil unrest. Rumors and false perceptions dog these characters, and our narrator in particular, who’s considered an oddity, a ‘beyond-the-pale,’ due to the fact that she often reads while walking. In order to fit in in a society like this, every time you leave the house you have to bury a part of yourself, and Milkman incisively and comprehensively examines the toll that takes. I don’t know if I’ve ever read another novel that so expertly evokes the kind of anxiety that comes from the inability to trust your neighbor or even your own family. Characters in this novel operate under a veil of formality that you as a reader want to peel back to reveal their genuine hopes and fears and aspirations, but of course all you’re able to do is mutely watch them navigate social situations while unable to truly express themselves. This book can be infuriating because of that, but it’s supposed to be. There’s also an undeniably feminist undercurrent to the whole thing, as the narrator laments the difficulties unique to women during this time, though it remains a subtle element throughout.

Though it’s ultimately more of a psychological story than a historical one, drawing obvious parallels to any number of totalitarian regimes across history, Milkman does feel firmly rooted in its Northern Irish setting. This is a recognizably Irish novel, from its stream-of-consciousness prose to its pitch-black humor, and there’s no question that that played a huge role in my ultimate enjoyment of it, so above all else I think I’d recommend this to anyone who loves Irish lit and Irish history, but who can tolerate a lack of plot and likes their novels a bit on the philosophical side.

Personally, I’ll be thrilled if this is shortlisted for the Booker, but I also doubt that likelihood as it’s not the kind of novel that’s destined to reach a wide audience – not that the Booker necessarily prioritizes accessibility, but I would just find it unlikely if all five judges are in complete agreement about this one’s merits enough to advance it. But who knows. This had already been on my radar before the longlist announcement, but I’m very happy that it pushed me to read it sooner than I otherwise would have.

EDIT on 10/15: I changed my mind. I think it’s going to win!

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure | The Mars Room | Snap

book review: I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin

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I’LL BE RIGHT THERE by Kyung-Sook Shin
★★☆☆☆
Other Press, 2014 (originally published in 2010)

 

I feel like this is the ghost of the book it’s trying to be. Resonance and pathos are within its grasp but it isn’t quite able to achieve either. I’ll Be Right There follows Jung Yoon, a young woman looking back on the period of her life when she was a university student in 1980s South Korea, where she had close friend group that was eventually torn apart by tragic circumstances. It seems a bit callous to say that I ultimately didn’t care about these characters and the horrors they endured, but I guess that’s what it does come down to. Despite a premise that promises heartbreak and emotional turbulence, Kyung-Sook Shin goes to pains to ensure that the reader remain as apathetic about her characters as possible.

My main frustration with I’ll Be Right There is down to the fact that so much of this narrative happens off-screen. A secondary character will die, and rather than seeing it happen, or even seeing Yoon’s reaction to hearing the news, we’ll find out that six months have gone by since the last chapter and Yoon has been processing her grief all that time. It’s time the reader doesn’t get to spend with her, and the story suffers for it. It’s just impossible to get inside this character’s head, which is especially perplexing given the first-person narration. A tragic backstory will be revealed, and Yoon will flinch or shriek or cry as she hears the story told, but we’re just calmly informed that she does these things. She’ll develop an obsession with another student, and tell the reader that she’s interested in this person, but it’s almost impossible to discern why. She’ll feel an inexplicable attachment to her professor (who’s apparently meant to be at the center of this story in a mentor role, but who has maybe three scenes in the entire book and isn’t able to anchor the narrative in the way he’s meant to) and this is just never expounded upon.

And admittedly there’s something to be said about poignancy that’s achieved through unsentimental narration – Human Acts comes to mind – but interestingly, I don’t think that was the author’s intention here. This book is undeniably steeped in melodrama, or it tries to be, but the result is just hollow. Kyung-Sook Shin commits the cardinal sin of assuming the reader’s investment in her characters without earning it. It’s like all the elements are there to tell a beautiful and moving story about young people growing up against a backdrop of sociopolitical unrest, but there just isn’t enough humanity in this story to make it convincing or affecting. I know Kyung-Sook Shin is a prominent writer in South Korea and I really want to love her work, so maybe I’ll give it another try, but I’ll Be Right There was a pretty big disappointment.

book review: Snap by Belinda Bauer

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SNAP by Belinda Bauer
★★☆☆☆
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018

 

I was ready and willing to be wowed by Snap, the crime novel supposedly innovative and subversive enough to make it onto this year’s Man Booker longlist. I’ve talked before about the near-impossibility of divorcing your experience with a book from the context in which you read it; who knows how I would have reacted to this if I’d approached it as a guilty-pleasure thriller and not as a Man Booker nominee, but I did read it as a Man Booker nominee, and I’m at a loss as to how this run-of-the-mill, anticlimactic, bland thriller was able to hoodwink five judges into thinking it’s anything more than a supremely underwhelming contribution to the genre (Val McDermid’s influence aside).

But I’ll start with the positives, because Snap did scrape by with two whole stars from me. It’s undoubtedly pacey and gripping, with a fantastic concept: a woman leaves her children in her broken-down car to go get help, and she’s found murdered a week later. It kept me reading and kept me wanting to know what was going to happen. I know that seems like it should be a given for a thriller, but having read many which fall flat on their faces in this regard, it is nice to read a proper page-turner. I liked the setting as well; for some reason crime novels set in small town England have a vibe that really works for me and this was no exception.

Now everything else.

Screw utmost serenity! She had to tell Adam! She had to tell the police!

The writing in this book was so dreadfully awful. I can only implore you not to participate in a drinking game where you take a sip every time you see an exclamation point, because you would be unconscious by page 20. For some reason, Bauer doesn’t believe that emphasis or gravitas can be achieved without embellishing her sentences with excessive punctuation, italics, or some combination of the two. It only serves to undermine the book’s darker themes as it’s written with the dramatic flair of a novelized soap opera.

At a glance the plot itself seems intricate as there are so many different characters who play some kind of key role, but when you start to examine it more closely you begin to realize how unconvincing it all is. There are just so many plot holes (a very unique and distinctive knife is used to commit a murder and the police never think to look into the sale of that knife?!) and coincidences (a boy just happens to burgle a random house and look in a man’s hiking boot to uncover the missing key to his dead mother’s murder investigation?!). Interestingly Bauer attempts to write herself a get out of jail free card on this account, as a character remarks:

He’d never worked a case where coincidence hadn’t played a part, either in the commission of the crime or the solving of it.

… which is undoubtedly true to life in a certain way, but it’s also a bit insulting to your reader, to pile coincidence on top of coincidence and try to pass that off as a well-crafted mystery. Some of these coincidences ended up being utterly inconsequential, too, like the fact that one of the investigating officers lives right next door to the family at the heart of the crime without even realizing it. It just didn’t add anything to the story except for a VERY flimsy moment toward the end where we’re informed by a ham-fisted plot point that their proximity actually did matter! (It didn’t.)

But the most insufferable thing about this book – aside from the exclamation points – was the fact that Bauer just shows her hand too early. The only subversive thing about this novel ends up being the fact that there really is no twist, no shocking reveal, just a resolution that plateaus far too early to make the payoff feel remotely rewarding. Watching police try to prove what the reader already knows is just as thrilling as it sounds.

And I can’t end this review without commenting again on this book’s inclusion on the Man Booker longlist, which in itself caused quite a stir, raising the age-old question of whether genre fiction belongs in a literary prize. When the list was first announced, I was excited by the fact that there was some variety, that we weren’t seeing the same names that are nominated year after year. And I’m still an advocate of genre fiction having a place in the Man Booker and other literary awards… provided that it’s really exemplary genre fiction. I see no reason why a superb crime novel shouldn’t be longlisted. The problem is, this wasn’t a superb crime novel. Not even close. And I’m frustrated that the Booker wasted an opportunity to expand literary readers’ horizons on this rather pointless and ill-constructed novel.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure | The Mars Room

Women in Translation Recommendations

It’s Women in Translation Month!  The idea behind this is to use the month of August as an opportunity to read more translated books by women, as the vast majority of books translated into English are written by men.  There’s a readathon you can check out over on booktube (hosted by Matthew Sciarappa, Kendra Winchester, and Jennifer Insert Literary Pun Here, who’s recently decided to end her channel but we’re not talking about that as I’m still in mourning).  But even if you don’t want to participate or follow the prompts, #WITmonth is still a fantastic excuse to prioritize some translated books by women that you’ve been meaning to get to.  So I’m following Callum‘s example and posting some recommendations!

If Not, Winter by Sappho, translated from the Greek by Anne Carson: Most of Sappho’s lyric poetry (written to be accompanied by a lyre) is now lost, and most of what remains is only in fragments, sadly.  But this beautiful collection by Anne Carson is a must-read for anyone interested at all by antiquity, as Sappho provides a look at the daily lives and desires of women on the Ancient Greek island of Lesbos where she’s from.  I’m a huge fan of Anne Carson’s work, and she does a stunning job with this.

Medea by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by John Cullen: This is a stellar and politically-driven retelling of Euripides’ Medea, which focuses on the question of whether the court at Corinth had something to gain by Medea’s downfall.  With clear parallels to her own sociopolitical reality as she grew up in the GDR, Wolf spins this familiar story in an unfamiliar direction, while still staying faithful to the original.  I also think Cullen’s translation is just gorgeous.  This is such a thoughtful and powerful book.

Penance and Confessions by Kanae Minato, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Stephen Snyder (respectively): Both of these books follow a very similar formula, starting with a murder and culminating in acts of revenge.  They’re some of the best examinations of female rage that I’ve read in any contemporary thrillers, and Kanae Minato’s unique style reads with the air of a fable.  Her work is both twisted and darkly compelling.

The Vegetarian, The White Book, and Human Acts by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith: Kind of a #basic recommendation because who hasn’t heard of Han Kang, but I adore her too much to leave her off this list.  The Vegetarian absolutely blew me away when I read it a couple of years ago, as it’s one of the darkest and strangest and most haunting things I’ve ever read.  But it’s her quietly breathtaking Human Acts that’s actually my favorite of her novels, which focuses on the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 and provides a brutal look at humanity’s capability for violence.  The subtly affecting White Book is probably my least favorite of the three, but I still gave it 4 stars.  I cannot recommend Han Kang highly enough.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein: I actually read this in Italian, but I’m sure the translation is excellent as Goldstein is a rather prolific Italian translator, well known for translating the works of Elena Ferrante (who I still haven’t read, shamefully).  But anyway.  This memoir is very close to my heart as I also spent some time living in Italy, which was an incredibly immersive experience in terms of both language and culture, and Lahiri deftly examines what it’s like to live in that country as a foreigner who’s learning the language purely by choice.  But I think it’s a memoir anyone can relate to who’s spent some time living in a foreign country, it doesn’t have to have been Italy.

My #WITmonth TBR is brief and overly ambitious since I’m also doing the Man Booker longlist thing, but if I manage to read any this month, it’ll be some combination of these three:

I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Sora-Kim Russell.  This is the one I’m currently reading, though I’m not very far at all.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

Cassandra by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Jan van Heurck.

What are your favorite translated books by women?  And are you planning on participating in #WITmonth?  What’s your TBR?  Comment and chat with me about Women in Translation!