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.

Things I Loved This Week

kacey
Photo courtesy of royalalberthall.com.

From Harriett Gilbert and Jia Tolentino (again) to my beloved Kacey Musgraves, here are the things I loved this week:

  • Harriett Gilbert’s presentations on BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read accompany me on my drive to and from work. This week, her guests chose Milkman by Anna Burns and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson–a book I’ve written about in the past.
  • Claire Mullen writes about Nahui Olin: “Poet, Artist, Erotic Muse of Mexico’s Avant Garde.”
  • Jia Tolentino’s profile of and interview with Marlon James.
  • Fifty writers, from George Saunders to Hilary Mantel, choose some of their favorite short stories for the Guardian’s compilation “Bite-sized: 50 great short stories.”
  • I discovered Kacey Musgraves’ full performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London about a year ago. It made me cry because it is perfect. I revisited her iconic show this past week.

Things I Loved This Week

baldwin
Photograph by Jane Evelyn Atwood / Courtesy David Zwirner

This week has been a sad one. Mary Oliver died on Thursday aged 83. More than anything, I recommend people reread their favorite Oliver poems and relish her love for the natural world.

In other news, the government shutdown is still in full swing with no end in sight. To ease the burden, Chapo Trap House and Amber Frost provide comic reprieve and hope for the future, Vinson Cunningham talks about the landscape of hell, and we remember James Baldwin and Patrice Lumumba.

On “Mosquitoland” by David Arnold

18718848This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

David Arnold‘s 2015 novel, Mosquitoland, is everything any person who feels out of place would want to read. 16-year-old Mary Iris Malone (or “Mim” for short) is a variation of every young person who feels like the very chemistry of his or her being is wrong, that it does not bode well with the universe at large.

Alas, Mim claims herself and everything she loves with unabashed kookiness and fervor. Nothing and no one will stop her. In this case, her sights are set on getting out of Mosquitoland—the Mississippi town that her father and her stepmother moved her to after Mim’s parents divorced. Just like that, she was forced to leave behind everything she knew in Ohio for a life forced upon her by her overbearing, condescending father and her well-meaning, but aloof stepmother.

Mim is not okay. For weeks, she hasn’t heard from her mother, and she has a sneaking suspicion that her stepmother is hiding her letters. She decides to leave Mississippi on the next Greyhound bound for Ohio. Her mother is the only person that understands Mim. And she knows—unlike Mim’s dad, that she doesn’t need to pop an anti-psychotic pill every day to be okay, to function.

Along the way, Mim meets a cast of characters that help her on her journey from sweet Arlene–an elderly woman who loves Mim’s funky sneakers, to Walt–a kindhearted homeless teenager who loves Mountain Dew and the Chicago Cubs. They travel with her on her journey to the truth, guiding her with their kindness and humor. Nothing can stop her.

Or can it? Arnold writes Mim as a fearless young person who won’t hesitate to assert her individuality and strength at any cost, but there is a sinister undertone to her exuberance. Something happened in her past that affects the way Mim looks at the world and caused her father to clamp down on her life. The reason behind the medication.

In a series of letters to someone named “Isabel,” Mim lists her ticks, neuroses, and defects–her displaced epiglottis that causes her to vomit randomly, the blindness in one eye that she got from staring at the sun during an eclipse, the way she spaces out sometimes and loses herself in memories. Arnold builds this correspondence towards an ultimate confession–towards the heart of the thing that made Mim who she is.

Throughout the novel, Arnold explores all manner of difficult subjects—mental illness, suicide, sexual assault, homosexuality, and the way society treats its lowliest members. Mosquitoland spends a lot of time probing the idea of how we, as humans, pass judgment on each other, and how we sometimes shy away from difficult things in life.

Arnold’s Mim negates fear and self-consciousness with her fierceness, and she works through the heartbreak in her life with a strength that most people do not possess. As a lame, fairly shy teenager, I read this book with wonder and a hint of resentment. Why couldn’t I have been more her as a teenager?

I believe it’s because Mim possesses that level of hyper-intelligence that seems only to exist in YA novels. No one I knew was as smart as that at sixteen, nor as ambitious. But, then again, maybe I led a sheltered life. Arnold’s narrative was enough to make me wish that more people were like her. Strong. Weird. Lover of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Feisty as hell.

Arnold’s innovative, lovable protagonist will likely go down as one of YA’s most iconic characters. Mim’s unconventional story will speak volumes to every outcast looking to make sense of cruel things around them and how to be okay.

On “Ruin and Rising” by Leigh Bardugo

ruin and risingAfter finishing Siege and Storm, I thought I had a pretty good inclination as to how the third installment of the Grisha trilogy, Ruin and Rising, would conclude the story. As it turns out, I was way off. Way, way off.

I thought Bardugo would go against the grain and have Alina end up with Nikolas, so they could rule Ravka with equanimity and grace…But maybe that was just wishful thinking on my end. (Scratch that–it definitely was. Team Nikolas for life.) At the end, I love that she was the only person alive who could understand the darkness that he still felt in himself. Let’s just say it’s an ideal Fan Fiction avenue that I intend to pursue.

By the end of the second novel, I truly hated the idea of Alina ending up with Mal, or having their lives intertwine any more than was strictly necessary to advance the plot. Alas, Bardugo threw it back in my face in Ruin and Rising where the reader finds out *SPOILER ALERT* that Mal is the descendent of Bagri’s oskatzatsy’a (sp?) sister.

Through the use of merzost, Morozova resurrects his daughter after Baghra, in a fit of rage, uses the Cut on her. Without meaning to, Morozova turns her into the third amplifier, and her descendent, Malyen Oretsev, is destined to follow Alina Starkov wherever she goes and eventually die at her hand.

This twist in Alina and Mal’s fate was unexpected at first, but quickly became the obvious conclusion if the two were going to end up together. While I hate obvious conclusions, Bardugo does an amazing job of building the story up and letting the plot reach its end naturally.

That being said, some of the threads that Bardugo attempts to tie together at the end seem a little far fetched. The idea that Morozova and his human daughter never died when they were thrown into the water in chains feels unlikely. I can’t wrap my head around the idea that a small girl who had just been cut in half could survive with merzost alone.

I was moved, however, at the final resting point of Alina and Mal’s relationship. After all that, they know there weren’t brought together solely by forced beyond their control, but by their own choices. Plus, their supporting cast is one of the best in YA fiction. Tolya, Tamar, Nikolas, and the others are written with outstanding empathy and depth, which adds much needed nuance to what can become a formulaic YA plot.

All in all, it was a solid conclusion to a very well done series, and I can’t wait to start on Six of Crows.

On “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

61-1atkJmYL__SX333_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

George Saunders is highly regarded as a short story writer, gaining recognition and accolades like the O.Henry Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, and the MacArthur Fellowship. When he announced the publication of his first novel, the literary world held its breath in anticipation, wondering what the acclaimed writer would do with his departure from the short story form. What we got—Lincoln in the Bardo—is one of the strangest, funniest, and most heartbreaking novels in recent memory.

The novel, set in 1862, concerns the death of Abraham Lincoln‘s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie. A few long hours leads to a fever that won’t break. Everyone knows young Willie isn’t doing well, but Abraham and Mary Todd are obligated to hold one of their lavish parties anyway. Throughout the night, both parents check on Willie, but it’s too late.

Guilt plagues Abraham Lincoln and his wife as they lay him to rest in the historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. If only they had forgone the party that night. If only Lincoln wasn’t—at that moment—responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers as the Civil War builds to a frenzy. It takes everything in his power to leave Willie behind and keep moving.

It is only after Willie’s funeral, when everyone has left, that the characters of the Bardo appear. Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas comprise the youngster’s slapdash welcoming crew. In this halfway point between life and death, the people of the cemetery don’t really believe they’re dead; they’re just in their “sick-boxes” waiting to rejoin their loved ones.

As the reader finds out, the people here have refused to let go of the “previous place,” where they can’t quite remember what life was like, but they repeat the stories that leave them longing for what never happened in life. Hans Vollman, for example, married a woman much younger than himself. Rather than force himself on her on their wedding night, he took the time to build a friendship with her, which then blossomed into romantic love.

On the day the couple was to finally consummate their union, he is hit in the head by a beam in his workshop, never knowing the love of his dear wife. It’s only in true Saunders fashion that, in the Bardo, Hans Vollman has a constant, unceasing erection from the failure to satisfy his anticipation. The way he does this is subtle, but when you realize what “member” everyone is talking about, it becomes the funniest thing.

Tragically, Roger Bevins III, slit his wrists in the previous place, but he believes he’s still on his kitchen floor waiting for his family to find him. In life, his “proclivity,” as he calls it, was a love for men. But his lover decides to “live the right way” and ends their relationship leaving him despondent. It is only at the moment when it’s too late that he realizes he wants nothing more than to live. In the Bardo, Bevins has ears and eyes that appear at the slightest sensory input because he’s all too eager to take in everything all at once.

Unfortunately, the Reverend, Vollman, and Bevins know that children cannot stay in the Bardo for long before horrible things start to happen to them. But they cannot convince young Willie to let go.

Saunders’ narrative shifts seamlessly from the surreal to the tragic. Lincoln must grapple the weight of grief, while Willie must come to terms with the fact of his death even though he can’t bear to leave his father behind. The novel’s finest moments show the inner workings of the president’s mind as he weighs the meaning of his sorrow with the overarching theme of death that extends from the Bardo to the battlefields of the war.

What’s incredible about Lincoln in the Bardo is its structure. Many writers have drawn acclaim for their manipulation of conventional form, but Saunders’ work is stunning for the sheer amount of research it must have taken to build the fabric of certain pieces of the narrative. For example, the night of Willie’s death/the Lincoln’s party, Saunders tells the story with excerpts from real primary sources and historical texts along with made up sources and texts. Some of them agree, some do not, but they allow for the reader to see various texts working in concert to form a completely new piece of art.

Even paragraphs in the Bardo scenes are attributed to specific characters, almost as if it were a play. The multiple perspectives from myriad voices are the product of painstaking effort on Saunders’ part.

While it takes a few chapters to get used to Saunders’ style, Lincoln in the Bardo is well worth the effort, and I imagine many people can finish it in one sitting. This compelling story of a father losing his son, fighting with grief and guilt while also shaping the landscape of the United States is unabashedly ambitious and completely unmissable.

On “Siege and Storm” by Leigh Bardugo

51OGPbo8TzL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ahhh…I was so eager to get my hands on the rest of the Grisha trilogy after reading the first installment, Shadow and Bone. Every bit of Bardugo’s narrative, character development, and bleak Russian detail captivated me. But as every reader should know by now, these obsessions are never good for one’s health as the following novels are always slight, if not complete, letdowns.

I’ll start with the relationship between Alina and Mal. To be blunt–I hate it. Deeply. With a passion. As separate characters, they’re acceptable. Of course, I care more deeply about Alina than Mal, but together, they’re a catastrophe. I understand the tension and gradual degradation of their relationship is essential to the plot and Alina’s recession into the Darkling’s state of mind, but to my mind, Mal is always wrong.

Trust me, I sympathize with the whole abandoning a successful army career to be with Alina thing, but he didn’t have to do it. His constant sullenness and expectations of Alina are really freaking annoying if I’m going to be honest with you. His burden is far less than hers. Does he have to save the country? Does he have to protect both Grisha and humans from the Darkling’s wrath? Does he have to be a political puppet for the crown? No? Not at all? Didn’t think so, dude. So shut the fuck up.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest. Who else thinks Alina and Nikolai are the true lovers of this story? They understand each other. He’s far less mopey, and is driven toward the same goal as her–saving Ravka. I know he’s not trustworthy, but at least he’s honest about the fact that he isn’t, and, in my opinion, Mal isn’t exactly at the top of the class in that respect either. Nobody is.

Besides the obvious love triangle situation that Nikolai’s presence introduces to the series, his existence is one of the novels most compelling elements. His ambition, constantly overshadowed by rumors of his illegitimacy, is the pulse that that makes the narrative thrive beneath Alina’s increasing desperation and isolation.

To that end, isolation is something Bardugo knows how to explore better than most YA authors out there. The conflicting push and pull relationship she has with her power leaves her stranded from Mal–the only the person she ever loved. And he is all at once afraid, jealous, and angry with her for that very power, which she tells him she would never give up, even if she could.

That sense of power, constantly pushing her closer to the Darkling until the moment of their mutual self-destruction, is the most powerful part of the narrative, and I am, once again, eager to see how it will play out in the third novel, Ruin and Rising.

I hope that last installment has Alina a little less driven by Mal/what Mal thinks/what Mal’s doing. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but one can dream. I want much more Nikolai. There better be much more of him, Leigh Bardugo. He is the greatest character to spring up in this book.