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: 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.

wrap up: August 2019

  1. The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn, translated by Rosie Hedger ★★★★★ | review
  2. But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens, translated by Sandra Smith (audiobook) ★★★★☆ | mini review
  3. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang ★★★☆☆ | review
  4. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder ★★★★★ | review
  5. Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, translated by Bonnie Huie ★★★☆☆ | review | buddy read with Claire Reads Books
  6. Purge by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola Rogers ★★★★☆ | review
  7. We, The Survivors by Tash Aw ★★★★☆ | review to come mid-September for BookBrowse
  8. Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva, translated by Brian Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg ★★★★☆ | review

Favorite: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
Honorable mention: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Least favorite: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, I guess?

AUGUST TOTAL: 8
YEARLY TOTAL: 80

80 was my incredibly arbitrary Goodreads goal, so yay!  Also, 6/8 of these were by women in translation.  I did want to read more for #WITmonth but I think I did okay.

Other posts from this month:

Life updates:

So, like I said, I didn’t read as much in August as I had planned, but I ended up being kind of busy so I guess I’ll forgive myself.  For the first half of August I was cat-sitting and I ended up having a lot to do that week, and then this past weekend (technically the beginning of September, but whatever, it’s the reason this wrap up is late so I’ll talk about it now) I went to New York for the long weekend.

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It included many highlights: I went to the US Open and saw Naomi Osaka play Coco Gauff (which was wonderful); I saw the current production of Oklahoma which positively blew me away (I am not an Oklahoma fan so I did not have very high expectations, but seriously, if you have a chance to see this production, DO IT); I saw Sleep No More for the fourth time (I’m obsessed); and I met Matthew Sciarappa for brunch, after which we went to The Strand and he picked out books for me and my friends to buy.  I ended up with a copy of Compass by Mathias Énard, which I recently mentioned on here that I’m dying to read.  It was such fun.  Matthew was lovely and it was great to see my NYC friends again (New York is where my main irl friend squad lives, hence the fact that I return there so frequently).

Currently reading:

I’m failing miserably at my and Hannah’s readathon, but the Women in Translation show must go on!  I still need to finish these three books before I can pick up anything else: Cassandra by Christa Wolf (loving it), The Door by Magda Szabo (loving it), and Valerie by Sara Stridsberg (not loving it – sorry – though it is technically an ARC, so, win for me).

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

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

The Translated Literature Book Tag

This tag was created by Diana over at Thoughts on Papyrus, and in the spirit of Women in Translation Month I figured I should do before the end of August!  I am not focusing only on female authors for this tag, though that would definitely be a fun spin to put on it.

I. A translated novel you would recommend to everyone:

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The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.  Despite how niche its premise seems (math + baseball is a combination that would ordinarily cause me to run for the hills), I think this is one of the most universally appealing books I’ve read in a long time.  It’s sweet but not too saccharine, melancholy but not too depressing.  It’s just a nice, and short, story that I can imagine would appeal to most readers.

II. A recently read “old” translated novel you enjoyed:

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This is neither recently read nor very ‘old’, but whatever, in an effort to mix up my answers a bit and not talk about the Iliad for the billionth time: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind, translated from the German by John E. Woods – originally published in 1985.  I read this four or five years ago on the recommendation of a German friend who was suggesting some German lit for me to read and I thought it was brilliant.  Set in eighteenth century France, it follows a boy with an unnaturally keen sense of smell, and it has some of the most descriptive imagery I’ve ever read.  I’d highly recommend it, with the caveat that it’s incredibly dark and twisted and violent, and definitely not for everyone.

III. A translated novel you could not get into:

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The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves.  I desperately wanted to love this book, because Ruiz Zafón’s descriptions of Barcelona were written so gorgeously – the city itself was like a character in this book, which is something I love – but I could not get over the pervasive sexism (Clara’s narrative arc in particular horrified me) and how inexcusably predictable the plotting was.

IV. Your most anticipated translated novel release:

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The Teacher by Michal Ben-Naftali, translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir.  This is publishing from Open Letter Books in January 2020, and the summary from their website says:

“No one knew the story of Elsa Weiss. She was a respected English teacher at a Tel Aviv high school, but she remained aloof and never tried to befriend her students. No one ever encountered her outside of school hours. She was a riddle, and yet the students sensed that they were all she had. When Elsa killed herself by jumping off the roof of her apartment building, she remained as unknown as she had been during her life. Thirty years later, the narrator of the novel, one of her students, decides to solve the riddle of Elsa Weiss. Expertly dovetailing explosive historical material with flights of imagination, the novel explores the impact of survivor’s guilt and traces the footprints of a Holocaust survivor who did her utmost to leave no trace.

Ben-Naftali’s The Teacher takes us through a keenly crafted, fictional biography for Elsa—from childhood through adolescence, from the Holocaust to her personal aftermath—and brings us face to face with one woman’s struggle in light of one of history’s great atrocities.”

V. A “foreign-language” author you would love to read more of:

Sofi Oksanen (Finnish-Estonian), Yoko Ogawa (Japanese), Mathias Énard (French); these are some titles that I’m looking forward to reading by each of them.

VI. A translated novel which you consider to be better than the film:

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Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, lol.  Better than its many, many film adaptations.  Also better than the musical, and I freaking LOVE the musical.

VII. A translated “philosophical” fiction book you recommend:

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Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, translated from the Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey.  This is a hard book to explain – it’s essentially a fantasy novel set at a magical boarding school, but it isn’t interested in plot or characters as much as its central thesis: that the world is not as limited as we think it is.

VIII. A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long:

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A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous, translated from the German by Philip Boehm.  This is a compilation of diary entries kept by a woman in 1945 Berlin, in which she chronicles the sexual assault endured by German women after the occupation of Berlin by the Russians.  This sounds absolutely harrowing which is why I probably haven’t reached for it yet, but it’s been on my shelf for ages.  If I don’t read it by next August, it’s definitely going on my TBR for next year’s WIT Month.  (I only saw the ‘fiction’ part of this question after I’d already chosen this for an answer – it’s nonfiction!)

IX. A popular translated fiction book you have not yet read:

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.  I know, this is bad.  I kind of have this mental block with Elena Ferrante because I like the idea of reading these books in the original Italian, and then I’m too lazy to actually do that?  So they just remain unread.  But I know that either way I do really need to remedy this.

X. A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read:

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Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated from the French by Tina A. Kover.  There is something about this book’s summary that refuses to stick in my brain so I still have absolutely no idea what it’s actually about (it’s a family saga, maybe…?), but I have heard nothing but good things about it from those who have read it.  Plus, that cover!

Tagging: Hannah | Marija | Callum | Kristin | Laura

Hannah and I have too many ARCs: an emergency readathon

Hannah and I are always lamenting how many unread ARCs we have, so we finally decided to put our money where our mouth is and actually, you know, read some of them.  So we are doing a two-person readathon for the first 2 weeks of September, where we read only ARCs in that time.  I say it’s a two-person readathon, but feel free to join us!  This isn’t going to be a big affair with prompts and hashtags and all that good stuff.  The only prompt is to read your damn ARCs already.  But if this endeavor inspires you, please do join in, we’d love to hear from you.

So, what will I be reading?  No clue.  So I am just going to tell you all of the ARCs I have.  Please don’t judge me too unkindly.

Links are included to Book Depository for each of these titles, in case you’d like to grab a copy or read more about them.

Frontlist

Backlist

The only book I can tell you with 100% certainty that I will be reading for this readathon (assuming it arrives in the mail on time) is Liar.  Two I’ve started reading since starting this post are We, The Survivors, and Isolde and I’ll probably finish them before September so there’s really no point in including them here but I’m doing it anyway.

Otherwise, who knows.  Tell me what to read!  If a particular book gets mentioned a lot in the comments, or if someone makes a particularly compelling case, I’ll definitely be more inclined to prioritize that one.  I do know that I want to tackle a bit of backlist, so I may try to focus my attention there, but I haven’t decided yet.

Which ARCs do you have that you’re behind on reading?  Anything from this list that catches your eye?  Let’s chat!