This Is My Genre book tag

I saw this tag on Callum’s blog and it looked fun, so let’s get started!

What is your favourite genre?

I was actually having a hard time coming up with an answer to this because my gut reaction is ‘literary fiction’ but that’s not even technically a genre, and I’d say the same goes for ‘classics,’ so, limiting myself to strictly ‘genre fiction,’ I’m deciding to go with historical fiction.  Especially because I feel like I don’t talk about my love for it as much as I should on here, so this is a good excuse to do so!

Who is your favourite author from that genre?

John Boyne is one of those authors I envy who has the magical ability to across multiple genres, but I’d say he’s primarily a historical fiction author – even his horror novel This House is Haunted is a gothic tale set in the 1800s.  So, John Boyne.  His way with words is so clever and his characters are all so flawed and vivid they practically leap off the page.  The Heart’s Invisible Furies is one of those books I recommend to literally everyone because it’s just that good.

What is it about the genre that keeps pulling you back?

So much!  I love history but I don’t necessarily have the drive or patience to wade through a several hundred page long nonfiction book about a historical subject, so it’s a great way to learn about certain subjects in a more accessible format.  I also love that epic, sweeping family sagas are so common to this genre – so many of my favorite books are 500+ page monsters and quite a lot of them are historical fiction.  And I just love getting sucked into a good story and feeling immersed in a setting, and when historical fiction achieves that it’s so excellent.

What is the book that started your love for that genre?

I don’t know if there was any one in particular, but Lisa See was one of my first favorite historical fiction writers.  I’d still highly recommend any of her novels, but my favorites are probably these three: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, and its sequel Dreams of Joy.  All of her books focus on female characters from different regions and periods throughout Chinese history; I always end up learning quite a lot from her.

If you had to recommend at least one book from your favourite genre to a non-reader/someone looking to start reading that genre, what book would you choose and why?

I couldn’t narrow it down, so I’m going to give recs based off your preferred genre:

If you mostly read thrillers, I’d recommend: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.  This tells the fictionalized story of a real person, the last woman to ever be sentenced to death in Iceland in 1829.  The rural Icelandic setting that Kent evokes is so vivid it’s stayed with me years after reading this, and this is one of the best examples I can think of when I think about historical fiction novels that make me feel truly immersed in the time period.  But it’s also quite a gripping story and getting to the heart of the crime that Agnes supposedly committed is a steady source of intrigue, so I’d highly recommend this one to just about everyone (if you have a strong stomach).

If you mostly read literary fiction, I’d recommend: Human Acts by Han Kang.  This is a flawlessly written novel about the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 in South Korea, where hundreds of civilians were killed by government troops.  This book is brutal and harrowing but also succinct and unsentimental and just flawlessly composed.

If you mostly read bestsellers, I’d recommend: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.  I’d honestly recommend this book to everyone.  It’s compelling, lyrical, heartbreaking, moving, etc. etc. etc.  It’s a multigenerational family saga that spans the 20th century which begins in Korea and ends in Japan, and it explores Japanese-Korean relations in such a candid way.  This is easily one of the most informative historical novels I’ve ever read about the time period and countries it’s depicting, but none of that bogs down the narrative, which is effortlessly engaging throughout.

If you mostly read sci-fi, I’d recommend: Kindred by Octavia Butler.  This is a really interesting historical/sci-fi hybrid, which essentially uses time travel as a tool to explore slavery and racism from a contemporary perspective (contemporary at the time Butler was writing this, in the 1970s).  The main character Dana, a black woman, is transported back in time for reasons she doesn’t understand to the Civil War era, and upon her arrival the first thing she does is save a white boy from drowning.  She then discovers that he’s going to grow up to be one of her ancestors, and the two characters’ fates become intertwined and it’s just a fascinating story.

If you mostly read YA, I’d recommend: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rivka Brunt.  Set in the 1980s, this is a sort of YA/adult crossover that follows a teenage girl, June, struggling to cope with the death of her favorite uncle who’s just died of AIDS.  It’s moving and heartfelt but never corny or trite, and it’s not only a fantastic coming of age novel but a really incisive look at the AIDS crisis during the time when it still wasn’t fully understood.

Why do you read?

To learn, to think, to challenge myself, to relax… my reasons change with each book!

Tagging Chelsea and Steph because they’re my fellow historical fiction lovers (not that you guys need to choose historical fiction).  And Hannah because she’s definitely not going to choose historical fiction.

book review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

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THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS by Pat Barker
★★★★★
Doubleday Books, September 11, 2018

 

It’s so hard to divorce my love of the Iliad from my experience reading The Silence of the Girls, but I think that’s partially what makes this such a fantastic retelling. Told primarily from the perspective of Briseis, a Trojan captive given to Achilles as a war prize, Pat Barker’s novel endeavors to tell the unsung story of the female characters who litter the background of the Ancient Greek epic. And she does a pretty brilliant job.

The pleasure I derive from reading retellings, and especially retellings of Homer, is twofold: I want to see the author’s unique slant on the narrative and feel that they’re contributing something new to the story, otherwise what’s the point, but I also want to be reminded of my love of the original. On both fronts, The Silence of the Girls is a resounding success. Pat Barker captured the grandiosity of these characters and events in a way that really struck a chord with me; I felt constantly on the verge of tears reading parts of this novel because Homer’s musings on fate and free will and grief and glory – in short, what makes the Iliad so epic and timeless – are all echoed in Briseis’ narrative. But Barker also manages it all from the sidelines, zeroing in on the experiences of a war slave who has no choice but to watch events unfold around her with no personal agency. Briseis is fully aware that she is not the hero of her own story, that she’s narrating these events as a spectator to her own life. You could argue that at times she almost has a bit too much awareness of this fact, but as she’s narrating these events from years later, the time and perspective have clearly allowed her to form the big picture.

I also felt these were some of the best depictions I’ve ever read of these characters, notably Achilles and Patroclus. I find that certain writers have a difficult time reconciling Achilles’ brutality with his heroism, and likewise Patroclus’ ruthless streak with his kindness. But Barker frankly addresses that, in times of war especially, these characteristics can easily coexist. I really felt that these characters had walked straight out of the pages of the Iliadinto Barker’s story, in a way that I haven’t seen achieved by any other retelling I’ve read (except maybe Ransom by David Malouf, which until now has been my go-to recommendation for modern Iliad retellings). Briseis is a very minor character in the original, and as such, Barker had a lot more leeway with her protagonist, but I was also satisfied with the result; I was immediately invested in Briseis and I thought she added a much-needed and underrepresented perspective to the story.

My biggest issue with this novel the unwieldy execution of the point of view shifts. Though this retelling focuses on Briseis, so much of the backdrop and what drives the characters’ motivations hinges on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and for Briseis to narrate that to us any more than she already does would verge too heavily into ‘telling rather than showing’ territory, so I really didn’t mind the occasional inclusion of the male perspectives. But the first person/third person switch feels arbitrary and messy, especially since Briseis herself spends so much time observing and narrating Achilles’s actions. I felt like Barker could have played with this a bit more; played up the uncertainty that maybe we aren’t reading Achilles’s thoughts, but rather, Briseis’ interpretation of Achilles’s thoughts…. but nothing is really made of this opportunity, as it’s clear that we’re supposed to be in Achilles’ head, but rather unclear why we’ve switched over to his thoughts at any given moment.

But aside from that, this book was pretty much everything I wanted it to be. It’s subversive yet subtle; affecting yet understated. It captures the epic scale of the Iliad and the quiet moments of beauty in the story and everything in between. It’s definitely a subtler feminist retelling than the likes of Circe and The Penelopiad, but I have to say I much, much preferred The Silence of the Girls – though I would readily recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the aforementioned novels. But for all my talk of retellings and Greek classics, I really don’t think you need prior knowledge of any of that before starting Barker’s novel – it’s a stunning story that should stand on its own just fine.

Thank you to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Pat Barker for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh
★★★★☆
Penguin Press, July 2018

This book was a weird and offbeat delight. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is exactly what its title advertises – our unnamed narrator decides that all she wants out of life is to sleep for a year straight. But not just 8 hour a night sleep – she wants to pass an entire year mostly unconscious, which she attempts to achieve with the help of a cocktail of pharmaceuticals prescribed by the least qualified psychiatrist of all time who she happened to find in the yellow pages.

I’m having a hard time putting my finger on what it is I liked so much about this book, when the interesting thing about it is that it makes no effort whatsoever to be likable. The narrator is a selfish twenty-something with no sense of responsibility toward anything or anyone in her life. The circumstances of her life are probably difficult for most readers to relate to – she’s rich, she’s thin, she’s pretty, she lives in the Upper East Side in an apartment paid for by her inheritance – and she neither needs nor wants our pity. But at the same time, this candid and frank style has its own kind of charm and dark humor (it reminded me a bit of The Idiot in tone), and I found the overall effect to be both intriguing and a bit unsettling.

And, as with all good unlikable protagonists, there’s definitely more to our narrator than she wants us to see. Her (borderline?) abusive relationship with her now dead parents certainly plays into the fact that she holds everyone – including us, including herself – at an arm’s length. She resists accessing her emotions to such an extent that at first you wonder if she might actually be heartless, but throughout the book you start to notice certain cracks in her carefully constructed facade. She tells the reader ad nauseum that she doesn’t care about her friend Reva, but this statement is occasionally belied by her actions especially under the influence of drugs. It’s an interesting look at repression as a coping mechanism, as well as the lengths we’re willing to go to to avoid the things we don’t want to face.

Ironically, while the narrator’s goal is laid out plainly from the first page – she wants to sleep for a year – Moshfegh’s agenda with this novel is much more opaque. I will gladly admit to thinking on more than one occasion “I don’t get it, I don’t get what Moghfegh is trying to achieve with this.” Because this book is just what it says on the tin: it’s about a girl taking a lot of drugs and sleeping for a year. But even through those moments of doubt, I was engrossed. Moshfegh’s prose is effortlessly engaging, and her rather unconventional exploration of mental health and ennui just really struck a chord with me. And the final page is like an emotional gut-punch. Having read this, I have a very good idea of why Ottessa Moshfegh seems to be such a polarizing writer, but if the rest of her books are this intriguing, I’m officially hooked.

mini reviews #2: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s nonfiction & various classics

Still making my way through my backlog of Goodreads mini reviews to transfer over to WordPress – if you missed my first installment of mini reviews you can check that out here!  Here’s the next round:

22738563WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
★★★☆☆
date read: April 5, 2018
Vintage, 2014

A really great introduction to feminism which would have been very valuable to me a decade ago. As it stands, I didn’t take a whole lot away from this, or even see familiar points articulated in novel ways… but I’m not the target audience. This is an important book to gift to your friends and relatives who still think ‘feminist’ is a dirty word.

33585392DEAR IJEAWELE, OR A FEMINIST MANIFESTO IN FIFTEEN SUGGESTIONS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
★★★☆☆
date read: April 28, 2018
Knopf, 2017

Between this and We Should All Be Feminists I don’t think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s nonfiction is for me, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have merit. I just didn’t get anything out of either of these essays that I haven’t already seen articulated by others in more thorough and nuanced ways. And once again, as with We Should All Be Feminists, I was disappointed with the lack of inclusion toward the LGBT community. But I did enjoy the particular insights into Nigerian and Igbo culture, and there’s a lot to be said about the brevity with which she is able to articulate her points, which makes this an accessible starting point for anyone unfamiliar with feminist theory.

6473195THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE by Agatha Christie
★★★★☆
date read: March 30, 2018
William Morrow, 2009, originally published in 1930

Yet again Christie manages to craft a mystery so intricate it’s all you can do to keep up, never mind get ahead of her. 4 stars instead of 5 as it took me ages to get invested in these characters for whatever reason, and because I got tired of Clement remarking upon how clever Miss Marple is (we get it). But the resolution was fantastic and I thought the humor in this one in particular was great.

92517THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams
★★★★★
date read: January 21, 2018
originally published in 1945

Thoughtful, entrancing, achingly sad. Worth reading the script even if you’ve already seen the play live (I have not) because the detail in Williams’ stage directions is so vivid.

 

 

50398NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen
★★☆☆☆
date read: December 29, 2017
originally published in 1818

This was the single most inoffensive reading experience of my life. I didn’t like this book. I didn’t dislike this book. I have no opinion on this book and I have absolutely nothing else to say.

Side note: this was my first Jane Austen (not counting the first couple of chapters of Pride and Prejudice that I tried reading when I was 13 before getting bored), and I’m aware that it’s widely regarded as one of her weaker novels, so I’m not letting it put me off Austen for good.  The one that appeals to me the most is Mansfield Park so I’ll probably read that next, though I have no idea when that will be.

Feel free to comment if you’d like to talk about any of these in more detail!

book review: The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida

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THE MADONNA OF THE MOUNTAINS by Elisa Valmorbida
★★★★☆
Spiegel & Grau, June 2018

What an excellent historical fiction hidden gem. Set in early 20th century Italy, The Madonna of the Mountains follows a country girl, Maria Vittoria, through her marriage and birth of four children, chronicling the family’s struggles against the backdrop of Fascist Italy during WWII.

This is one of the more convincingly historical novels I’ve read recently. Valmorbida’s characters are all distinctly of the time period; their trials and tribulations and character arcs are all expertly intertwined with the setting. After incidentally reading two other pieces of historical fiction set in Italy in the month of July, both of which were tonally anachronistic to the extreme (though in one case I believe it was intentional on the author’s part, but I digress), The Madonna of the Mountains was a breath of fresh air. This is a thoroughly convincing account of a country girl hoping against hope that she isn’t too old to marry at the age of twenty-five; a young wife struggling to keep her family fed when food rations are scarce; a mother trying to stave off the dishonor that one of her children has brought to her family. Valmorbida also infuses the narration with northern Italian dialect, and I always love foreign language integration into a novel, but being able to recognize where the dialect deviated from standard Italian was definitely part of the fun for me, and helped anchor me to these characters’ culture.

I will emphasize that unlike a lot of my favorite historical fiction, this is above all else a very quiet story. It concerns itself with the day to day of Maria’s life, the very very subtle ways in which her attitudes start to shift over time. This is not a WWII novel, and the conflicts are recounted from Maria’s very limited perspective (which isn’t to say that it isn’t well-researched; Valmorbida simply hides her research in the background rather than bringing it front and center). So while I did really, really enjoy this, it did lack a certain emotional punch that I’ve come to expect from historical family sagas which are steeped in unapologetic melodrama. But if you’re looking for something a little more subdued, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this.

Thank you to Netgalley, Spiegel & Grau, and Elise Valmorbida for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.