February Reading Recap

The Artist's Wife 1933 by Henry Lamb 1883-1960
“The Artist’s Wife” by Henry Lamb. 1933. Courtesy of the Tate Modern Museum.

I’m a little embarrassed to say that my goal of writing about every book I read this year crumbled about a month and a half into 2019. Instead of trying to catch up with everything I’ve missed (which was the original plan. Yikes), I’m going to write up a brief recap of everything I read in February and the beginning of this month. I might delve a little deeper into a few of them in separate posts, but until then–this foothold:

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel–winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction–is the most well-crafted book I’ve read this year. As a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, Shamsie builds her novel around the play’s central plot device: the repatriation of a body. We don’t know who it will be, or how the events will unfold, but we have five locations and five narrators leading the reader to one of the best endings in fiction I’ve read in many years.

Shamsie breathes life into fully formed characters–molding them from the bones of an ancient narrative that carries just as much weight today as it did thousands of years ago. The five perspectives of Shamsie’s characters create a complex image of Muslim identity in the West, and, in turn, render, discover, and reject the notion of “home” as events unfold. Her retelling shows us that these constructions of identity remain the same, whether they rest on nationality, ethnicity, or religion.

“Mr. Salary” by Sally Rooney

I’ve made it known far and wide that I love Sally Rooney’s work. The way she renders emotion and the minutiae of relationships with inimitable precision will earn her a place among the greatest writers of my generation. Her short story, “Mr Salary,”–first published in Granta in 2016–functions as a skeleton for her first novel Conversations With Friends. More than anything else, I was intrigued to see the matter of her brilliant first novel as it was in its earliest iterations.

The Friend Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel is not one I would have read of my own accord. It appeared on several “best of” lists at the end of last year, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a sucker for those. I actively try to read books I’ve never heard of or ones I would not normally read. When it comes to literature, I am easily persuaded.

In this instance, I wish I’d spent time reading something else. The Friend wasn’t a bad book, but it lost focus early on. Ostensibly, this novel is about the narrator’s loss of a close friend who has committed suicide. After his death, she ends up taking ownership of the friend’s Great Dane. Had the narrative focused on the loss of the friend and the narrator’s subsequent care of the dog, the book might have made a better case for itself. Even better if it had focused on one of those two things more than the other. In my opinion, the narrator’s exploits with the dog are the book’s strongest elements.

Unfortunately, Nunez ends up weaving three distinct narrative threads–the narrator’s contemplation of the friend’s death, the narrator’s reflection on man’s relationship with animals, and the narrator’s thoughts on the changing nature of those who become writers–much to the books detriment. To her credit, Nunez moves between these three elements fairly well, but it’s too much to tackle in a book that’s just over 200 pages.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

This was my go-to gym read during the early weeks of February. Kwan transports readers to the wealthiest places on earth in this novel, which is not something I would typically care to read about, but I heard a lot of positive things, and I was looking for something light to read. Nothing about the main romantic plot line is original in any way, which is fine. The novel’s appeal, I thought, stemmed from its intimate knowledge of how the ultra-wealthy of Southeast Asia live their lives. More than that, it was entertaining and funny–a solidly enjoyable read.

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

I loved the first installment of Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series, so this was a highly anticipated follow-up for me. The Vanishing Stair showcases Johnson’s great technical ability as a writer, but it lacked some of the first book’s polished shine. And as with so many second books in a trilogy, the plot of this one spends a lot of time setting things up for the final installment. Johnson did do a great job of lacing a lot of dark elements throughout the book without them becoming overwhelming, and overall, I think it was well done.

Cherry by Nico Walker

Much has been made of the fact that the author of this book is currently serving an eleven year sentence for bank robbery. Buzzfeed’s profile of Walker, published in 2013, details his horrific experiences in Iraq and his descent into PTSD. Obviously, a lot of autobiographical content went into Cherry, but it is ultimately fiction–brilliant, fucked-up, devastating, earth-shattering fiction.

The novel’s narrator is a dirtbag, but he’s likable–more and more so as the novel progresses. The book’s latter half, from the section called “Cherry” forward, is so gut-wrenchingly well-written that I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Walker had never before written fiction because what he’s produced says more about the futility and stupidity of war, and the pain of drug addiction, than any book I’ve read.

Cherry is now nominated for the PEN Hemingway Award, and it was (allegedly) Hemingway (though it probably wasn’t) who said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit a typewriter and bleed.” And that’s what Walker did.

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman

I was really looking forward to this book, but it fell far short of my expectations. Sarah Weinman published an article in 2014 linking Sally Horner’s kidnapping to Vladimir Nabokov’s classic controversial novel, Lolita. She adapted her article into this book, which was a huge mistake. There’s simply not enough information for a manuscript of this length. What you end up with is a lot of filler and very little substance.

I have no particular feelings about Lolita other than that–on a technical level–it is brilliant and deserves “classic” status. I did not know that Nabokov actively opposed the discussion of real life influences on his fiction, and I don’t really care that he felt that way because fiction is not real life and vice versa.

Weinman draws a lot from the fact that Nabokov briefly mentions Sally Horner’s kidnapping in the book (which makes it obvious that he knew about her, so I don’t understand why she felt the need to justify her argument with tenuous evidence?) to support her claim that Nabokov could not have written the book had he not mined Horner’s case for inspiration. I understand the concept of wanting to tell Sally’s story and return agency to a life that was filled with horror and tragedy, but to what end? Do we vilify Nabokov for writing his book? Weinman toes a weird line between respect and condemnation when writing about the Nabokovs, and it was unclear what she wanted the purpose of this book to be other than as a means for readers to bear witness to Sally Horner’s life.

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

I just watched both seasons of The Crown and thought this would be a fun book to read in tandem. It is meant to be funny but I didn’t find it so because of my age and deeply ingrained American-ness. As a whole, it gives readers a fairly comprehensive look at an improbable life. She was kind of an asshole, but also a bit of a legend. A little tragic, and almost entirely ridiculous.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong has an upcoming collection that Jia Tolentino–one of my favorite humans–recommended. I thought it would be prudent to read his debut collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds to learn more about his work. Some of his poems are very good. In general, specific lines and images stand out as exemplary elements rather than whole poems taking on the quality of greatness. He draws on visions of water and night and dreamscapes to build his poems, and it becomes repetitive by the end. I can only imagine he’s developed over time. I liked this collection enough to be optimistic about his new one.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I read that Sally Rooney, Lisa McInerney, Harriett Gilbert, and a bevy of other writers/readers whose opinions I respect loved this book. It’s a slim novel, but it packs a lot of commentary about alienation, solitude, capitalism, and societal obligation into just 160 pages. The narrator–a thirty-six-year old convenience store worker named Keiko–is neurologically atypical in some undefined way. For eighteen years, she’s remained a part-time worker at this store because she’s found within its aquarium-like environment a microcosm of “normalcy” where she becomes a cog in a well-oiled machine.

A lot of Keiko’s observations are astute and genuinely funny, but I felt a little something might have been lost in translation, particularly as it pertains to the style of Murata’s sentences. Overall, it was really enjoyable and only slightly unnerving.

Ruth Ware Meets Paula Hawkins in Lucy Foley’s ‘The Hunting Party’

The Hunting Party Lucy Foley Book Review

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

What happens when a group of friends travels to a remote estate in the Scottish Highlands for New Years? One would hope for an opportunity to catch up—to reminisce about old times and rekindle the connections that are becoming more tenuous as the years pass. Eight friends whose shared history encompasses more than a decade should be enjoying an exciting and carefree annual holiday. But the idyllic getaway they signed up for almost immediately takes a turn for the sinister as the group’s fault lines begin to shift, revealing irreparable damage just beneath their veneer of perfection.

Lucy Foley takes her cue from the Agatha Christie playbook in her fourth novel, The Hunting Party. We know from the beginning someone ends up dead. Who is the victim? And who among the handful of people staying at this remote lodge could have done it? Among the group of friends, there is the center: Miranda. She is the sun around which everyone orbits, and we quickly learn that she wields a certain amount of power over the others. There is Miranda’s distant husband, Julien; Bo and Nick, the perfect couple; Samira and Giles, new parents to an infant daughter; Mark, who is prone to violent outbursts; Mark’s girlfriend, Emma, the newcomer; and Katie, the shy, illusive watcher. The only other people present are the lodge manager, Heather, and the gamekeeper, Doug — both isolating themselves from the outside world as well as a strange Icelandic couple who show a little too much interest in the gore of hunting.

Like the best mystery writers, Foley reveals over time the circumstances leading up to the victim’s death, dropping breadcrumbs and peeling back layers as she moves back and forth through time in the narrative, which is told from the perspective of five characters: Heather, Doug, Miranda, Katie, and Emma. Geographically isolated and trapped by snow, the festive atmosphere quickly becomes a playing field for shifting power dynamics and the sad, grasping claw of highly-educated professional thirtysomethings in their effort to recapture the days of their youth, not realizing that, perhaps, too much has changed.

Foley examines the subtle shifts in mood—the secrets threatening to leak out—with razor-sharp precision, and infuses the nostalgia and half-baked attempts at fun with subtle hints of sadism, violence, and callous disregard as it flits through her characters’ minds. For Heather and Doug, she plumbs the depths of loss and grief. Most remarkably, the landscape itself takes on a life of its own, as though the freezing Scottish winds are sinking into the lodge fixtures as if through flesh.

Police can’t reach the lodge until the snow clears. With a murderer sitting amongst their numbers and no one else in sight, Heather begins piecing together what happened to the ill-fated guest. Foley paces the dual narrative perfectly until the two finally meet. Her combination of character study and atmosphere become the key ingredients of a tightly-wound, expertly crafted mystery. And once you begin this book, you won’t be able to stop.

Revisiting “The View From Saturday” by E.L. Konigsburg

viewLast July, Jia Tolentino published a retrospective review of E.L. Konigsburg’s 1996 masterpiece The View From Saturday. Her thoughts on the novel regarding its subtleties and the author’s clear, spare language encouraged me to read the book again. I must have been in 4th or 5th grade when I read it for the first time, slightly younger than the cosmically strange protagonists of the story, and I loved it. The idea of four precociously intelligent 11-year-olds bonded by an indescribable energy fascinated me at the time. Undoubtedly, I believed myself to be just like them, when, in fact, I was no where near as clever or formal.

The four students–Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian, aka “the Souls”–represent Mrs. Olinski’s 6th grade academic bowl team. They decimate the competition and find themselves in the finals. No one can understand how these four random students outwitted teams of 7th and 8th graders. Even Mrs. Olinski can’t quite identify what drew her to her team. As the novel progresses, the narrative doubles back on itself with pieces of the story fitting into place as each character’s perspective is told.

As with all good novels, Konigsburg manages to say a lot through very little. She writes cleanly and clearly, but there’s an element of mysticism or magic (sometimes overt) in the way she tells the story. In many ways, the spareness of the book’s sentences convey the preternatural clearsightedness of the children and their ability to understand the things about themselves that those around them cannot.

So many of the details in this story would have been lost on me as a child. I loved the story, and I understood the idea of it. I thought it was perfect at the time. Nevertheless, the deftness of Konigsburg’s writing paired with the intricacies of the story’s plot never would have occurred to me.

When I read it for the first time, I was focused solely on the four kids, wholeheartedly wanting to be them. Mrs. Olinski’s realizations throughout the book didn’t register with me as much as they did when I read it as an adult. Her character seemed perfect, then, and wise. But there’s a moment when she goes to Silington House for the first time and she is overcome by jealousy at the family interactions going on around her. It’s a striking moment of rage that exemplifies just how masterful Konigsburg is as a writer.

On “The Proposal” by Jasmine Guillory

proposalOne of my greatest flaws as a reader is loyalty. If I’m unimpressed by an author’s debut novel, I will continue to read the next two or three books they publish just to make sure the first wasn’t a fluke. Such is the case with Jasmine Guillory’s contemporary romance novels. Her first–The Wedding Date–had a handful of standout qualities: one of the romantic leads is a POC, the love scenes are functional if not a little derivative (but that’s to be expected. How original can you get with that sort of thing?), and the plotting is well paced. When I finished it, I thought my lukewarm reception had to do with the fact that I’m not naturally inclined to enjoy romance novels unless they’re of the Nora Ephron variety.

I picked up Guillory’s debut more or less because I enjoy quick reads when I’m in between books that take up a lot of my attention. I decided to read The Proposal out of sheer curiosity–I wanted to see where she would take the interwoven story line. I’ll admit I became invested in the characters enough to want to know what happens to them. If you really loved her debut, then you will certainly love the second book, because she follows The Wedding Date formula to a tee. It was, par for par, exactly the same as the first one, except The Proposal has more of an emphasis on female friendship and the nature of toxic relationships, which I thought was good.

To be clear, Guillory’s writing is not bad, but it is repetitive. Books of this nature tend to follow such a stringent formula that readers have to turn to the nitty-gritty details for substance, and there isn’t a whole lot of that in this book. But I also knew when I picked this book up it was likely to be the same as Guillory’s first, just with different characters. Her focus on diversity within the romance genre is reason enough to read her work, but I guess I was hoping for more? There was a little too much of the “I’ll show you my scars and you show me your scars and we’ll cry about it” kind of thing, but without any nuance or irony.

On the other hand, I think this book was doomed from the beginning in my eyes because I read Josie Silver’s One Day in December just a week or so ago. Boy was that a page-turner. It starts with a life-altering moment that leads to an unalterable series of events–a series of events that the reader cannot help but be invested in completely from the start.

So Silver’s debut was by threshold for acceptability going into this. Ultimately, it doesn’t really mean anything because I know I’m going to read Guillory’s third novel, which is coming out in June. I think the next one will be better than The Proposal because it introduces tension between its central characters at the beginning of the novel rather than near the end as the first two books have done. And since it features the same cast, the reader can expect a nice sense of familiarity. Maybe loyalty isn’t such a flaw after all…

On “The Wife” by Meg Wolitzer

the wife
Courtesy of imdb.com

I haven’t kept up with award show season this year, so it was quite a fortuitous surprise that the legendary Glenn Close should win a Golden Globe last night for her performance in Bjorn Runge’s adaptation of Meg Wolizter’s 2003 novel just as I finished reading it. The film wasn’t a must-see for me, nor was it the reason behind my decision to pick up the book. I chose to read it after listening to BBC Radio 4’s “A Good Read” podcast hosted by the inimitable Harriett Gilbert. Comedian Lolly Adefope picked The Wife as her good read for the segment.

While reading the novel–the first I’ve read by Wolitzer–I was struck by the timelessness of the story and the bare-bones truth of its central theme: everybody wants a wife. In the book, Joan Castleman–the wife of literary superstar, Joe Castleman–has decided she is going to end her marriage after four decades. From the beginning, the reader understands how unhappy Joan is. The source of her deep-seeded resentment is revealed over time.

Joe has just won a prestigious award bestowed by the Finnish equivalent of the Academy of Arts and Letters, though, as Joan points out, it is not as prestigious as the award the Swedes hand out every year. This grand fete thrown in Joe’s honor pushes Joan to the end of her rope, causing her to look back on the course of their relationship and the events that let them to the present.

Joan expresses the sentiment that everyone must want a wife because she has done everything for Joe over the course of their marriage, and in return he has done nothing. He is childish, preening, and mildly stupid. How does this type of man publish such great work? We can suspect what the real source of his success is from the beginning. But even when Joan reveals the truth, readers will be shocked.

Wolitzer is a master of layering her narrative and moving back and forth through time. She renders, in perfect detail, the minutiae of the Castlemans’ failed marriage, getting to the heart of the ways in which men leech power from those who support them.

Ottessa Moshfegh Celebrates the Weird in ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’

my-year-of-rest-and-relaxation-book-reviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Ottessa Moshfesh has distinguished herself as one of the most accomplished writers of this century. Her novel Eileen and the short story collection Homesick for Another World showcase her natural affinity for the weird. Moshfegh’s latest novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, is no exception.

The story is told through an unnamed narrator who we learn is a beautiful, wealthy young woman, orphaned several years prior to the events of the book. She has all the fixings of a comfortable life among the Manhattan milieu of which she’s a part, but in reality, she has only one goal: to sleep for one year. More than sleep, she wants to completely shut off all conscious thought. She quits her job, squares away her finances, and prepares to remove herself from society.

After locating the worst psychiatrist known to man, she gluts herself on an impressive cocktail of psycho-pharmaceuticals to achieve her utopia of complete withdrawal. Unfortunately, the master plan isn’t quite foolproof. Reva, the narrator’s friend since college, visits regularly looking to confide in the narrator and jealously muse over the wealth and beauty she herself does not possess. The narrator observes Reva as something of a circus side-show, bearing witness to her problems while also judging her for her vacuity and resenting her presence.

As the novel progresses, the narrator realizes even the powerful drugs she consumes aren’t enough to erase certain memories and urges. She remembers the aloofness of her parents and their eventual deaths, her father’s by cancer and her mother’s by suicide. And she remembers the degrading relationship she maintained with an older man named Trevor who treated her poorly, but whom she still calls in drug-fueled blackouts. The narrator views these memories unsentimentally, though they irk her for their incessancy. She relies on the final tool in her arsenal—a drug that blacks her out for days at a time—finally putting an end to the thing in her for which she has no name: grief.

Moshfegh’s deft and humorous account of the narrator’s quest for rest and relaxation explores the ways in which we mourn and preserve ourselves in the face of immense sorrow. The misanthropic malaise evidenced in the narrator’s need for oblivion parallels our modern collective urge—the atavistic impulse—to withdraw from a society that requires our digital presence at all times. We also see the stirrings of late-capitalist criticism in the way the narrator vivisects her own entitlement, beauty, and luxury, Reva’s need for entitlement, glamour and wealth, along with society’s exploitation of art for commercial gain. In this way, Moshfegh presents the malignancy plaguing her narrator as something both personal and communal. Even if the events of the novel take place nearly twenty years ago—in the months leading up to 9/11—the themes Moshfegh expresses are strikingly relevant.

Moshfegh builds this story with her trademark wit and precision along with an unflagging sense of the hilarity in being weird.

Claire Fuller’s ‘Bitter Orange’ Is A Haunting, Cerebral Tale of Isolation

bitter-orange-book-reviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Claire Fuller‘s eerie new novel Bitter Orange comprises a heady mix of isolation, paranoia, guilt, and a hint of gothic when a troubled couple and a lonely, middle-aged woman are hired to survey the grounds of a dilapidated estate called Lyntons in the English countryside. The novel begins 20 years after the summer of 1969 and the events of the novel’s main narrative. Frances Jellico, a bookish spinster, recalls this brief period from a hospital bed where she will soon die. The vicar who sits by her side knew Frances and the couple, Cara and Peter, during that time. He seeks answers to a question that develops early in the novel: Why did Frances do it?

From her attic room at Lyntons, Frances initially dives into her work. She spent years caring for her ailing mother after her father left. Her mother’s recent death gives her a newfound freedom. But when Frances meets Cara and Peter, she becomes enmeshed in their mysterious world. For Cara, Frances is a person with whom she can share the story of her past without the fear of Peter’s judgment. She is beautiful and close to nature as well as capricious and superstitious — an Irish woman from a Protestant family raised Catholic who believes she became pregnant through divine intervention. Frances listens closely to the story of how she met Peter and this holy child with fascination. She knows it cannot be true — that details of Cara’s story must be fabricated. But it enthralls her.

Peter, on the other hand, understands Frances as a practical woman and seems to be drawn to what he sees as stability. He asks her to keep an eye out for Cara who he suggests is mentally unable due to the loss of her baby. He resents her superstitions, her wild storytelling, and her desire for more than he can give. He will not divorce the wife who gets most of his money, so he and Cara are left in limbo, traveling from place to place.

Frances relishes the approval and attention she receives from both of them. But the cracks in the idyll they’ve made for themselves slowly expand, morphing their friendship into something subtly malignant. Fuller incorporates elements of suspense and mystery with the gothic dread that inherent to the English manor house. It is the house’s presence as its own character that drives the tension between the trio. Sinister objects, glimpses of faces in windows, and the air of decrepitude that surrounds them moves the narrative arch to its horrific ending.

A novel of this nature — one that rests upon the perspective of a potentially unreliable narrator as she attempts to remember and navigate the threads of a tenuous, complex relationship — would likely have fallen flat in the hands of a writer less in command of this story. Fuller uses the full scope of her ability in to weave a tale of betrayal, guilt, and the decay of paradise, in the process making it a story that fits squarely into the era it portrays while also acting as an outlier with its sinister overtones.

Just as they say the revolutionary summer of 1969 ended with the murder of Sharon Tate, so too does Frances Jellico’s brief, happy summer.