Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller ★★★☆☆ Tin House Books, May 18, 2021
I didn’t hate this book at all but it was just so, so unremarkable. I loved the premise: Jeanie and Julius are 51-year-old twins living with their mother in rural England who drops dead one day and suddenly Jeanie and Julius are forced to navigate a world they don’t fully understand. It’s different and interesting but it just really fell flat for me.
The problem with Unsettled Ground is that there’s just no momentum. And I don’t mean that in the sense that it would have worked better as a page-turner murder mystery or anything like that; I’m an advocate of the literary-thriller hybrid genre and I think Fuller nails that tone here–there is a bit of a central mystery but it’s mostly a vehicle to explore the themes that she’s interested in interrogating. That’s all fine and well. But on a sentence-by-sentence level, this book dragged. There’s no sense that it’s moving forward toward anything, it just feels like it’s spinning its wheels and I did not at any point find myself compelled to pick it up.
Like I said, I did enjoy some of the thematic threads that Fuller explored in this novel and I don’t have an overwhelmingly negative feeling toward it; I just couldn’t bring myself to get invested at any point and I think this would be an incredibly lackluster addition to the Women’s Prize shortlist.
Thank you to Netgalley and Tin House for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
I never end up paying as much attention to the International Booker as I want to, because of its unfortunate schedule overlap with the Women’s Prize. But because I’m not giving the Women’s Prize my full attention this year, I decided to take a break from that one over the last couple of weeks and dabble in the Booker. (It’s a little ironic that this is the year that I’ve been giving the International Booker any of my attention, because on the whole, I’m not a huge fan of the 2021 longlist: it’s a very white and European list and there’s a really perplexing number of titles that feel more nonfiction than fiction.) But I picked out five titles that appealed to me, and in a fortuitous twist of fate, my library had them all, so I’ve been reading through them: The Pear Field, The War of the Poor, Minor Detail, At Night All Blood is Black, and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. I’ve read the first three and have library holds on the last two, so, here are my thoughts on the three I’ve read so far, all of which I enjoyed and any of which I’d be happy to see shortlisted, though I think Minor Detail is the only one that stands a real chance:
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette ★★★★☆ New Directions, 2020
Minor Detail is a novella in two parts: the first centers on the rape and murder of a Palestinian woman by Israeli soldiers a year after the War of 1948, and the second takes place in the present day, when a young woman comes across an article about this murder and becomes obsessed with it. This book is tiny but packs a pretty big punch — Shibli’s economy of language is seriously impressive, as is the brilliantly executed structure. An understated yet tremendously effective and intense read.
The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti ★★★★☆ Picador, 2020
This book is slim and perplexing and if I were more invested in the International Booker this year surely I’d take more umbrage at its inclusion (I wouldn’t say I found it groundbreaking, and I honestly don’t fully understand how it was eligible), so on that level I do understand this book’s largely negative reception. But, however you’d classify it and whatever it did or didn’t do to earn its spot on the longlist, I honestly really enjoyed it.
The War of the Poor focuses on Thomas Müntzer, a controversial theologian at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, and I’d say that having some kind of interest in that period of history is a baseline requirement to getting anything out of this. This book reads, as some have noted, like a Wikipedia entry on Müntzer’s life and death and all the revolts in between, but I also think that comparison minimizes its efficacy. I think Vuillard’s writing is riveting and this is a much more thematically coherent project than its Wikipedia counterpart, and I also enjoyed the meta commentary on the ways in which we engage with history. I found it to be sharp, engaging, topical, and poignant — certainly worth a read if its summary sounds appealing.
The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway ★★★★☆ Peirene Press, 2020
The Pear Field is a book which almost demands to be read in one sitting, and I don’t mean that as a compliment; this is one of those books that names every minor character who’s as much as mentioned one single time, and it’s so much to keep track of that it’s a more efficient use of your time as a reader to read it all at once rather than coming back to it and having to figure out who everyone is all over again. That said, that was really my only complaint in a book that I otherwise quite enjoyed.
The Pear Field follows Lela, an eighteen-year-old girl who works at a boarding school for poor, intellectually disabled, and/or unwanted children, who becomes obsessed with the idea of an American family adopting Irakli, a nine-year-old student she’s quite protective over. This book is a stark and gritty portrait of a group of students on the fringes of Georgian society; I found it moving and eye-opening but skillfully not emotionally manipulative, given its difficult subject matter. Definitely worth reading.
Huge trigger warnings for sexual assault of a minor.
What are your thoughts on the International Booker longlist? What are you hoping to see shortlisted?
EDIE RICHTER IS NOT ALONE by Rebecca Handler ★★★★★ Unnamed Press
Edie Richter is living in Boston with her husband, Oren, when her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Edie and Oren uproot their lives to move to San Francisco where she can be closer to her family, and she suffers considerable emotional strain as her father slowly loses his physical and mental faculties. “I knew Dad would stop recognizing me. I didn’t know I would stop recognizing him,” she confesses.
After watching his steady decline for months, Edie puts a t-shirt over her father’s mouth and suffocates him.
You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about Perth HERE.
NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen ★★★☆☆ originally published in 1817
I thought I had the full measure of Northanger Abbey when I first read it in 2017, so I nearly opted to skip it when my Jane Austen book club picked it up, but I decided to give it a re-read and I’m very glad I did. Having now read a couple of other Jane Austen novels, I found this book both richer and thornier the second time around, and also a hell of a lot more fun.
While I did know it was satire the first time around, I didn’t think that made for a more pleasurable reading experience–though in retrospect I think it’s because I still insisted on treating this book with a level of seriousness that it doesn’t ask of the reader. This book is absurd and unapologetically so, and once that clicked for me it ended up working incredibly well–arguably even better than Pride and Prejudice, which is a practically faultless book, unlike Northanger Abbey which is something of a structural mess, but which still left me a bit colder than this one did.
What I continue to dislike about Northanger Abbey is its central romance. There’s no sense that Cathy has met her match with Henry Tilney, or he with her; instead their dynamic where her youthful naivety meets his playful condescension makes my skin crawl. (As someone who’s accustomed to liking books about unlikable characters, this ended up being much more of a sticking point for me than I thought it would, and probably points to my lack of familiarity with the romance genre.)
Anyway, I think I partially like this book for how unpolished and imperfect it is, and of the three Austen novels I’ve read so far, I think this is the one I’m most likely to return to. I keep thinking about it while Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice have almost left my mind entirely.
I admired but didn’t particularly like this book. I’ve talked before about how I don’t really get on with books about motherhood, and sometimes the reverse is true too, I don’t always love books about daughterhood, especially when it’s the book’s main focus. (Something like Transcendent Kingdom is the exception, where the mother/daughter relationship is one thread among many.)
I was finding something salvageable in the first half of Burnt Sugar, but the second half just lost me. While I tend to enjoy ‘unlikable’ protagonists, Antara was often too much for me–I found her to be deliberately belligerent toward the reader in a way that I didn’t think was particularly interesting or well-executed. I think this book does have a lot going for it in terms of its chilly depiction of a strained mother/daughter relationship, but Antara herself staunchly refused to do any of the heavy lifting to earn my investment. I just didn’t find her believable or her actions comprehensible; this book is written in the first person and still I struggled to discern some of Antara’s motivations (this isn’t helped by the book’s awkward structure, flitting between the past and the present in a way that was occasionally challenging to follow and which I didn’t think ultimately did it any favors).
Avni Doshi’s prose also failed to impress me, but, like most of my criticisms here, I feel that might just be a matter of personal taste. I do see why this book has been so critically well-received, it just really wasn’t for me.
Thank you to Netgalley and Abrams for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
I’ve never read Susanna Clarke’s much-acclaimed debut Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and I don’t always do well with the sort of speculative novel where the reader is thrust into an undefined circumstance and spends the majority of the book waiting for the full picture to cohere. And that is… pretty much exactly what Piranesi is, so, it’s a testament to this book’s brilliance that I loved it despite how ill-suited it is to my personal tastes. So if, like me, you read the first page of Piranesi and groaned because it read like a bunch of gibberish, I’m going to have to implore you to stick with it for a hot second and let it work its magic. (It’s short!)
The thing that quickly won me over is Susanna Clarke’s writing and how beautifully-rendered this imaginative setting is. I think it’s best to go into Piranesi knowing as little as possible, so I won’t really talk about the plot, but suffice to say it’s set in a giant House which is essentially a labyrinth of halls, each lined with hundreds of statues, and in the middle of the House is an ocean. I’m usually not one to relish in descriptive writing but this setting was just so striking, so delightfully offbeat, that I was drawn in pretty effortlessly. As others have said, this book is kind of like a puzzle, but not one that you should race through the book to solve; it’s the sort of reading experience that’s better savored.
Without saying too much, what hit me the hardest about this book is its depiction of loneliness. It’s ostensibly a cerebral, ethereal, illusory book, but the longer I think about it, the more current and relevant it feels and its inclusion on the Women’s Prize longlist makes perfect sense to me. I’m delighted to have read it and it’s a book I know I’m going to want to return to.
In an effort to get my blogging rhythm back, I opted to forgo monthly wrap ups this year; once a month frankly comes around far too frequently for my liking and they feel a bit redundant when I review most books I read anyway.
But I don’t actually review every single book I read and I didn’t want the few I don’t review to slip through the cracks entirely, so I’ve decided to try quarterly wrap ups and see how this works for me. I also thought I’d group this thematically to try to make sense of some patterns in my reading habits rather than just giving you a chronological list.
So, let’s talk through everything I’ve read so far this year.
I’m reading through the complete works of Jane Austen with a book club and so far I’ve read these three: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey (a reread for me). While I’m not as enthused with Austen as I had hoped I would be, at least not yet, I’m glad I’m doing this and I’m particularly looking forward to diving into her later works. Mansfield Park is up next for April, and I’m hoping to review Northanger Abbey soon and talk about how I had quite a different reaction to it the second time around.
Shakespeare has been occupying considerably less of my time in 2021 than it did in 2020, which is to say… still quite a bit of my time.
The only two plays I’ve reread in their entireties this year outside Project Shakespeare have been Hamlet and Julius Caesar, to prepare for playing Claudius and Cassius respectively. Still two of my top 5 Shakespeare plays, I adore them both.
I’m also making it a project to read every retelling of King Lear that I can get my hands on. I’ve already read The Queens of Innis Lear (meh), A Thousand Acres (brilliant), and the anthology That Way Madness Lies (the Lear story was horrendous but the collection on the whole was inoffensive). I’m currently reading Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, though I’m not very far into that one yet. Hoping to finish it by the end of April though.
I’ve read three books for BookBrowse so far this year: Dark Horses, The Project, and Edie Richter is Not Alone. I haven’t reviewed this third one yet, but it’s my favorite thing I’ve read so far this year, so stay tuned for that.
After adamantly stating that I will NOT be reading the Women’s Prize longlist this year, I have proceeded to… spend the last few weeks reading the Women’s Prize longlist. Though in my defense, this list is kind of a banger, and I’ve given 5 stars to all three books I’ve read since it was announced: Transcendent Kingdom, Piranesi, and Consent. I’ll review Piranesi soon.
My ARC situation is, as always, utterly out of control, but these are the ones I’ve managed to read so far this year: Open Water (adored!), Filthy Animals (liked, with reservations), The Art of Falling (mixed feelings), Milk Fed (LOVED and also wanted to throttle it), and Kink (not worth your time aside from Brandon Taylor and Carmen Maria Machado’s stories).
And here’s everything else: The Fire Next Time (obviously brilliant), Pages & Co: The Lost Fairy Tales (so sweet, so wholesome; I’ll review the whole series when I’ve read the third one), Real Life (perfection), Big Girl Small Town (underwhelming), Edward II (literally the gayest shit I’ve ever read–adored it), and Are You Somebody? (very by-the-book Irish memoir, lovely audiobook).
I have two reading regrets so far this year: that I haven’t read a single translated book and that I didn’t do more for Reading Ireland Month. So Irish lit and translated lit are both going to get a bit more attention from me in quarter 2, I’m hoping. Otherwise, I’m feeling pretty good about how I’ve managed to balance all my disparate reading interests.