wrap up: September 2019

 

  1. Frankissstein by Jeannette Winterson ★★★★☆ | review
  2. The Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, translated by Sondra Silverston ★★★★☆ | review to come for BookBrowse
  3. The Need by Helen Phillips ★★☆☆☆ | review
  4. The Door by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix ★★★★☆ | review
  5. Valerie by Sara Stridsberg, translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner ★☆☆☆☆ | review
  6. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore ★★★★★ | review
  7. Lanny by Max Porter ★★★☆☆ | review to come

Favorite: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore
Honorable mention: The Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Least favorite: Valerie by Sara Stridsberg

SEPTEMBER TOTAL: 7
YEARLY TOTAL: 87

Other posts from this month:

September was also the month that Hannah and I hosted our very halfhearted readathon which Laura Frey dubbed ‘ARCS of Shame.’  Basically the idea was to read as many ARCs as possible in 2 weeks.  This did not go particularly well.  I managed 3 – Frankissstein, The Liar, and The NeedValerie was also an ARC though I didn’t manage to finish it in time.  3 ARCs in 14 days was… not my best work, and none of them became instant favorites, but at least I managed to knock out a few!  Anyway, I know a couple of you participated in this readathon, so thanks for joining us and I hope you did better than Hannah and I did!

Life updates:

Literally nothing.  I mean, I went to NYC for a weekend, but I already talked about that in my belated August wrap up.  The highlight of the rest of my month was probably seeing the Downton Abbey movie.  Which I did not think was a particularly good movie, but, I am overly invested in that show and in Thomas Barrow in particular, so… I was satisfied.  Oh, and I have become addicted to Love Island UK, thanks to Claire, who is the only person whose television recommendations I will be taking from now on.

OH, what am I talking about: the most important thing I did this month was create the Twitter account BadGoodreads with Ally and Rick, to… as Rick puts it, to ‘celebrate’ the Goodreads search engine.  Please follow us!

Currently reading:

 

Unbelievable by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong on audio (loving this), Cassandra by Christa Wolf (also loving this – but I put it aside for a little while because I was in this weird semi-book slump this month and the lack of chapter breaks in this book was not at all suited to what I was in the mood for – but I’m getting my reading inspiration back, slowly but surely), and Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb, which I’ve been reading for months now and which I’m determined to properly get back to in October.

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

P.S. Follow me!  @ Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram | Letterboxd | Ko-fi

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The Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the 21st Century | reaction

Last week the Guardian posted a list of the Top 100 Books of the 21st Century, which, as lists like this are wont to do, has sparked quite a bit of debate on Twitter and booktube and in the comments section of the article.  I find stuff like this fun and terribly interesting, so I’ve been enjoying all of the heated discussions so far.

Kamil @ WhatKamilReads on booktube made a video about this list, breaking it into four categories: books he was happy to see on the list, surprises that he wasn’t happy to see, going through the top 10 one at time, and then listing what he thinks was missing from the list.  I loved watched this and it inspired me to use Kamil’s format to make my own reaction post, so, here we go.  (Also, Eric Karl Anderson has a great discussion video about the list here!)

I do just want to say right off the bat that I take all of these ‘best books’ lists with a massive grain of salt; quantifying ‘the best’ literature just isn’t possible and I think that in general people can get a little too worked up about something that’s ultimately so inconsequential.  So I am writing this post in the spirit of having fun: I’m not doing this in order to discern what Objectively Belongs on a list like this and what Objectively Does Not… these are just my very subjective opinions about these 100 books, of which I have read 16.

Happy to see on the list:

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: I know you’re all sick of me talking about this book, so I’ll keep it short: I understand why this inspires so much ire in some readers, but it remains one of the most sensational books I have ever read.  Thrilled about its inclusion on here, even if I think it should be higher than 96.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: One of the big surprises and delights for me was the inclusion of genre fiction on this list; so many lists like this all too readily dismiss the literary merit and cultural impact of genre fiction, so seeing a groundbreaking author like N.K. Jemisin get the credit she deserves on this list was excellent.  Even if I do still need to finish this series.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones: Another huge surprise, not least of all because Tokarczuk’s novel Flights is the one that’s made a much bigger splash in the English-speaking world with its 2018 Man Booker International win.  I haven’t read Flights, but I thought Drive Your Plow was terrific.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Another huge surprise to see this one over the oft-compared (and in my opinion inferior) Circe by Madeline Miller.  ‘Feminist mythology’ has become quite the publishing trend in the last few years, and The Silence of the Girls remains the best novel I have read from this subcategory.

Women & Power by Mary Beard: The inclusion of nonfiction on this list is interesting as well.  Women & Power is essentially one of those ‘feminism 101’ books, but I can’t help but to favor this one over other comparable titles I’ve read like We Should All Be Feminists, because Beard’s approach to writing these essays through the lens of a classicist added a spin that made this collection really speak to my own tastes as a reader.

Human Chain by Seamus Heaney: This was fortuitous as I only read this poetry collection a few months ago, but it instantly became an all-time favorite of the genre.  You can read one of the poems that most struck me from this collection here.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: Another huge surprise and a huge delight; I read this after falling in love with its musical adaptation, and Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir did not even begin to disappoint.  This book is a great gateway into graphic novels (or memoirs), as Bechdel’s prose itself is the star of this book, I think.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson: One of the best memoirs I’ve read in recent years, The Argonauts is frank and raw and candid and all of those overused adjectives.  But even if the adjectives are done to death, this book is so singular.

Normal People by Sally Rooney: It’s inferior to her debut Conversations With Friends, in my opinion, but the cultural stamp that Sally Rooney has left on contemporary literary fiction cannot be ignored, and I am thrilled to see her recognized on here.

Surprises I’m not happy to see on the list:

Compared to the list of books I’m happy about, this list is much shorter!

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry: What’s the opposite of a problematic fave – something that you think is so objectively good that you feel problematic for not loving it?  That’s how I feel about this book.  On the one hand I’m not unhappy to see this queer epic on the list… and on the other hand I hated the experience of reading this book too much to fully get on board here.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: I’ve only read a few books by Toibin and I think he is an excellent writer, but I remain unimpressed by Brooklyn, his rather by-the-book Irish immigration saga.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon: I’ve read this twice: once in high school (loved it) and once many years later for a book club (hated it).  I understand why this is a bestseller but I don’t think it goes deep enough into anything to really achieve what it’s trying to do.

There are other books like Gone Girl on the list that made me go ‘… really, that one?’  But I haven’t read Gone Girl so I don’t feel like I’m in a place to pass judgement.  Similarly, with something like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, my gut reaction was ‘… really?’ but of course, it’s hard to argue that book’s cultural impact (and ditto Gone Girl, to be honest), so maybe my inner literary snob should quiet down.  Especially as The Guardian was curiously vague about their criteria for this list: are we being literal about the word ‘best,’ or are we interpreting ‘best’ as ‘most influential’?

The top 10:

Spoiler alert: I have read one (1).

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I haven’t been a fan of Ngozi Adichie’s nonfiction, but I have been wanting to give her fiction a shot.  All I have to say about this one is that I’m shocked that it’s this title and not Americanah.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: I’ve read one Mitchell – Black Swan Green – which I loved, but which I fully understand is the least David Mitchell-y of his books, so I probably shouldn’t use it as an indicator of what his fiction is normally like.  I would like to read more from him, though, and I’m not surprised to see this here.

Autumn by Ali Smith: A surprise, and a welcome one!  I adore Ali Smith, but I have not yet read anything from her seasonal quartet.  I’m sure I will love it though.  I would have put How to be Both on this list, but I obviously can’t speak to how it compares to Autumn; I’m sure Autumn does more to capture the zeitgeist, which does seem to be one of the rubrics in lists like this.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Speaking of the zeitgeist; I have not yet read this (I know, it is a shame) but I am very happy to see a book that discusses blackness in the U.S. make the top 10.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman: I tried to read this series as a child and never made it very far.  Not my thing.  But I’m sure it fully earned its place here.

Austerlitz by WG Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell: This is the title and author off the top 10 that I know the least about, so I’m afraid I don’t have much to say here.  Should I read this?

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: My favorite book of all time.  So.  I approve.

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayvich: I am dying to read literally anything by Svetlana Alexievitch, but my local bookstore never has her.  (I should probably start looking elsewhere.)  But I’m happy to see her on here; as a Nobel Prize winner you can’t really argue her significance.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: I’ll be honest – none of Marilynne Robinson’s books appeal to me at a glance.  But I’ve heard so many brilliant things that I should probably bite the bullet one of these days.  I’m sure it’s a very real possibility that I will end up loving her.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: And another one that I feel a bit guilty for not having read!  I’m not at all surprised to see this here but a little surprised to see it take the coveted spot, especially over Never Let Me Go, but everyone who loves this book simply raves about Mantel’s skill.  I’m intrigued.

What’s missing:

Translated literature: this is one of the elephants in the room that I keep seeing discussed – obviously when you call your list the ‘best books of the 21st century,’ claiming that 86 of them are from English-speaking countries is… pretty bold.  But of course, I’m not sure we could really expect much else from a UK publication.  That said, there are some huge omissions of the translated lit variety: The Vegetarian and Human Acts by Han Kang, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (even if I did not personally like this one).

Booker winners: given that the Booker’s tagline is ‘finest fiction,’ you’d think it would have zeroed in on a few more of the ‘best’ books of the 21st century, yes?  Some shocking omissions for me were Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Milkman by Anna Burns, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, Life of Pi by Yan Martel, and The Sea by John Banville (though I have not read the latter three).

Other: just a few more that I might have included.

I’m not going to go through these one by one.  But they’re good books.

So, that’s that.  What did you guys think of the Guardian list?  How many have you read off it?  Do you enjoy lists like this?  What notably omissions would your own list have included?  Let’s chat!

book review: We, the Survivors by Tash Aw | BookBrowse

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WE, THE SURVIVORS by Tash Aw
★★★★☆
FSG, September 2019

 

We, The Survivors tells the story of Ah Hock, a Malaysian man recently released from prison where he served time for murdering a Bangladeshi migrant worker. This poignant, quietly moving story is not a mystery or thriller: the identity of the victim and the circumstances of the crime are established early on. Instead, Tash Aw uses this novel to create a bleak and textured portrait of working-class Malaysia.

You can read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about Bangladeshi migrant workers in Malaysia HERE.


You can pick up a copy of We, the Survivors here on Book Depository.

book review: Valerie by Sara Stridsberg

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VALERIE (or THE FACULTY OF DREAMS) by Sara Stridsberg
translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
★☆☆☆☆
FSG, August 2019

 

When you read a quote unquote highbrow book, the impulse (at least for me) is usually to try to write a quote unquote highbrow review.  Because there isn’t much dignity in reading an intelligent book like Valerie (published as The Faculty of Dreams in the UK) and dismissing it with pedestrian critique, but whatever, I’m going to do it anyway.  I found this both boring and deeply annoying.

I can never really figure out what I want from novels which fictionalize the lives of real people.  Because my impulse is to lean more toward more factual, biography-style novels (see: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault), but then it’s almost like… why don’t I just read a biography of that person?  Why am I even reading a novel if I’m so opposed to creative liberties?  But I have also been known to enjoy more abstract fictionalizations (see: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf) which take a real life person and imagine, fictionalize, or dramatize details of their life, so it’s not something I’m inherently opposed to. Valerie falls into the latter category to an extreme.  Sara Stridsberg in her forward admits that this is not an attempt to recreate the details of Valerie Solanas’s life; it’s more of a ‘literary fantasy’ where she loosely spins together fragments of Valerie’s life and ideologies, while deliberately skewing facts (changing Valerie’s birthplace from Ventnor to Ventor; moving it from New Jersey to a desert in Georgia).  It just… didn’t work for me.

This is a book of ideas with nothing to ground them; the narrative threads are too few and far between for me to have anything to really grasp onto.  I didn’t understand for the longest time why Stridsberg was bothering to disguise this fragmented, meandering, awkward novel as the story of Valerie Solanas, and while I did feel like that question was eventually answered, it was too little too late for me.  I read this entire book thinking ‘I don’t care, I should probably care, why don’t I care, does the author care at all about how disengaged I am?’

But I do feel the need to remind everyone that I use the star rating system subjectively and I use my reviews to explain why I react to books in a certain way; I don’t think this is a ‘bad book’ and I would dissuade no one who’s interested in it from giving it a shot.  It just did nothing for me.  Though the US cover is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in a while, so there’s that.

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


You can pick up a copy of Valerie here on Book Depository.

book review: The Door by Magda Szabó

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THE DOOR by Magda Szabó
translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
★★★★☆
NYRB Classics, 2015
originally published 1987

 

What a brilliant, infuriating, deeply perplexing book.  The Door centers on the relationship between two very different women – the protagonist who is a writer, and her housekeeper, an older woman named Emerence.  A clash of values between the two provides the main conflict for this tense and elusive story: Ali Smith writes in her brief introduction, “Their relationship transforms into one full of the barbed hostilities of love.”

Emerence – cold, strong, and fiercely, irrationally independent – is an unforgettable character, though she doesn’t feel like a real person as much as a construct; but a construct for what is the question.  While The Door reads almost like a twisted fable, it’s morally ambiguous to the extreme: both characters engage in destructive behavior and it’s difficult at times to discern who exactly you should be sympathizing with.  Emerence herself feels like a (very deliberately constructed) contradiction: she abhors organized religion but appears to be the embodiment of something almost divine – there’s also a question of her relationship to Hungary’s shifting cultural landscape that I think could benefit from a deep dive into the sociopolitical context of this historical period.

But though I found this book brilliant from start to finish, there was something I grew to dread about picking it up the closer I got to the end.  Like Emerence herself, this book is entirely devoid of warmth in a way that started to feel draining; this from someone who genuinely loves dark fiction.  I’m happy to have read it and am eager to read more from Szabó – and from Len Rix, who did a great job with the translation – but I can’t decide if this is the sort of book I’ll want to revisit in a few years or whether I’m sufficiently unsettled as to appreciate it from afar without attempting a reread to reengage.  Time will tell.


You can pick up a copy of The Door here on Book Depository.

mini reviews #7: audiobooks with long titles & an ARC

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

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A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce
audiobook narrated by Colin Farrell
★★★☆☆
date read: July 2019
Audible, 2019
originally published in 1916

In spite of my whole ‘Irish lit thing’ I have never once felt compelled to pick up Joyce. But then Colin Farrell went and narrated this audiobook, so that was that. And though he does a terrific job, this is, unfortunately, probably a book that I should have read in print – I’m just not an auditory person at all and there is a lot going on in this book. So I’m not going to lie and pretend that I got as much out of this as I arguably should have, and I’m sure I’ll want to revisit it one day. But I ended up surprising myself with how much I did enjoy it – Joyce’s language isn’t as impenetrable as I had feared, and more mesmerizing than I had expected, and Stephen Dedalus’s journey was occasionally, unexpectedly, thrilling. There’s a lot to unpack here about religion and family and nationality, and if I ever reread this I will vow to attempt to unpack it all then.

You can pick up a copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man here on Book Depository.

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BUT YOU DID NOT COME BACK by Marceline Loridan-Ivens
translated from the French by Sandra Smith
audiobook narrated by Karen Cass
★★★★☆
date read: August 2019
Faber & Faber, 2016

This is a slim, hard-hitting book that doesn’t dwell on the horrors that Loridan-Ivens experienced in Birkenau so much as examine their aftermath. Returning to a family who was spared from the concentration camps while losing the only other family member who was sent to Auschwitz with her, she writes this memoir as an extended letter to her father, whose death overshadows her own survival. Sparse and poignant, But You Did Not Come Back is certainly worth a read even if you feel oversaturated with WWII lit.

You can pick up a copy of But You Did Not Come Back here on Book Depository.

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THE NEED by Helen Phillips
★★☆☆☆
date read: September 2019
Simon & Schuster, 2019

Right book, wrong reader. I don’t have much else to say. I think The Need is a smart, unexpected book that blends genres and arrives at something unique that I can see working for plenty of readers who are willing to embrace a bit of weirdness. I just don’t like books about motherhood, and at the end of the day, that’s what this book is. The science fiction/speculative element is only there to enhance the main character’s anxieties about juggling motherhood with her career, and if that’s a theme that usually makes you reach for a book, by all means, give this one a try; I unfortunately was just bored senseless.

Thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of The Need here on Book Depository.

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.

Liebster Award #2

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these awards posts, but I was just tagged today by the wonderful Emily and this seemed like perfect timing.  I meant to finish like, three books this week so I’d have some more reviews for you all, but I seem to be unable to finish anything these days so here we are.  Hopefully I’ll catch up on my reading over the weekend.

Rules:

  • Say thank you to the person who has nominated you for the Award.
  • Answer the 11 questions the person has asked you
  • Nominate 11 people
  • Ask the people who you have nominated 11 questions

Emily’s Questions:

What’s a book you LOVED but have never reread?

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I mean… most of my faves!  I’m not a big re-reader.  But I’ll choose a book that I do intend to reread at some point, and say Milkman by Anna Burns.  This is a truly extraordinary book that I have waxed eloquent about quite enough, I think.  But I think it could absolutely benefit from a reread.

Is there a genre (or subgenre) you tried recently and realized you’ve been missing out on and/or should read more often?

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I read Human Chain by Seamus Heaney earlier this summer and it reminded me how much I love poetry when it’s done right, which obviously everything by Seamus Heaney is.  More broadly I need to read more poetry, but I do want to read more from Heaney specifically.

How often do you visit your local library?

Not as often as I should – especially given that my local librarian follows me on Twitter (hi, Marie, if you’re reading this).  I actually LOVE libraries, especially my local one which is very cute and cozy, but I’m just constantly overwhelmed by the amount of unread books I already own.  One of my 2020 reading goals is going to be to allow myself more room for mood reading, which will hopefully mean using the library more.  Oh, and I do use Overdrive quite a lot, especially for audiobooks.

What are your most and least favorite things (one each) about where you live?

Favorite – it’s a very safe community; i.e., I don’t even lock my house when I leave for the day.  (Also, I know that nowhere is truly safe from the mass shooting epidemic in this country, but I have to confess that the thought of moving to a big city has been giving me a lot more anxiety this year than it has in the past.)

Least favorite – there are so many contenders, lol, but I was just thinking about this last night as I was driving home from the grocery store unsure whether or not I had enough feta in my fridge to make the recipe I was making for dinner – I absolutely HATE how remote everything is.  The nearest grocery store is a 15 minute drive from my house (and there’s nothing closer – like, convenience stores are not a thing in my town), the nearest shopping mall is 1 hour away, the nearest Starbucks is on another planet, the nearest LUSH store is (literally) in a different country; I’m just sick of how inaccessible everything is.

Is there a book you want to read eventually, just to say you’ve read it?

Actually War and Peace was this book for me, and now I’ve read it!  So, I don’t know.  I’m sure there are plenty of others but nothing comes to mind immediately.  Oh I guess I do want to be able to say that I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s books?  As of now I’ve read one (1).  So.  I should get on that.  Also the Bronte novels.  Have read two (2).

What’s the best weather for an afternoon of reading?

Whether I’m reading inside or outside, SUN.  I am not a ‘curl up with a book and a cup of tea when it’s storming’ kind of person.  I mean, I am, in the sense that books and tea are what I do with my free time anyway, but that kind of weather isn’t ideal and romantic to me.  If it’s dreary outside, I just fall asleep.  I am like a plant that wilts without sunshine.

What book are you most anticipating with a far out publication date (or no date announced yet)?

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I’m going to go with the new Dyachenko book – Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated from the Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey.  This is publishing on February 11, 2020 from Harper Voyager.  Vita Nostra was one of my favorite reads of 2018, and even though this one isn’t a continuation of the same story, it sounds absolutely brilliant.  Summary here.

Buddy reads or readathons, and why?

Buddy reads.  I’m really not a big readathon person (which is ironic, given that I just spent August doing WITmonth and am currently co-hosting a readathon).  I just find that the only readathons that really work for me are month-long themed readathons.  Ones where you try to cram in a bunch of reading in a smaller time frame just stress me out; believe it or not, I actually hate planning my life around reading; reading is something I do in my down time.

Anyway, that was all very anti-readathons, but I am also pro-buddy reads!  I prefer the kind of buddy read where you both loosely read the same book at the same time; I don’t love having to read a set number of pages per day.  But I love discussing a book with someone as we go along and comparing thoughts at the end.

If you had to write/blog under a pseudonym, what would you pick?

I have actually thought about this and decided that I would use my middle name and my grandmother’s maiden name for the most Irish pseudonym you have ever heard – Kathleen O’Connor.

Would you feel satisfied or disappointed to actually reach the end of your TBR?

Disappointed.  I don’t want a TBR of zero.  I always want to have more books to look forward to.

Pet pictures! Or a picture of your favorite real-life creature from anywhere in the world.

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These are my lil babes – Percy (grey, a menace) and Lily (black, an angel).  They are indoor cats who are only allowed outside while supervised.  They are very sweet and very spoiled.

I tend not to tag for awards that I’ve already done more than once (plus Emily tagged all of my friends already, lol!) but if you enjoy these questions and want to answer them either in a comment or in your own post, go for it!

Happy Friday, friends x