Books I have read lately

Books I’ve read since the last time, in no particular order.

Sarai Walker, Dietland. A young woman who has been overweight her entire life and works as an agony aunt for a teen style magazine falls into the hands of fat acceptance activists / terrorists. Very mixed feelings about it — I liked the topic and some chapters were very touching and convincing — while others were simply so surreal that they undercut my sympathy for the work. I read tonight that this novel just got picked up as a TV series by AMC (I would have watched this, but now I’m uncertain; I turned off To the Bone after ten minutes). Picked up after reading an interview with the author in the Guardian.

Dorit Rabinyan, All the Rivers. A young Israeli woman falls in love with a young Palestinian man while both are sojourning in NYC. Can their romance withstand the return to Israel — or even the tensions in their circles of friends in the USA? I picked this book because I’d read that (a) it had been banned as a text in Israeli public schools and (b) that German chancellor Angela Merkel admired it. The story is unsurprising, although I enjoyed it, but I felt like it suffered from translation (at the same time that my Hebrew is not good enough to read it in the original). I liked it enough to pick up the other book of hers in our library, Strand of a Thousand Pearls, about a Persian Jewish family’s relationships in Israel — I liked the language of this one better, but the story somewhat less — it reminded me a lot of Isabel Allende, whom I loved reading in the 1990s.

Lê Thị Diễm Thúy, The Gangster We Are All Looking For. A young girl who comes to the US as a refugee from Vietnam relates incidents from her life, with time shifts between her present in the US and her family’s past in Vietnam and in refugee camps. The first chapters in particular — written from the narrator’s viewpoint after she’s just gotten off the plane are beautifully poetic and full of a restrained emotion. I admired the language a great deal, and the images by means of which the emotions are related. I picked this up because I read an article somewhere about how Vietnamese American literature more or less gets ignored by critics — and this was recommended and in our library. Unfortunately I have lost the article, but I would read both more work by this author and more of this literature. Recommended.

Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Detailed biography of the author most well-known in the U.S. for “The Lottery” (which we all read in school) and several suspense / horror novels. I don’t especially like Jackson’s work and normally I would not have read this book, but I think I read a really positive review of it somewhere (the New Yorker? The Atlantic?) and then I mentioned it on RL FB and it turns out the author is a friend of a friend. Franklin sees the surrealism of Jackson’s writing in part as a creative or symbolic distortion of her real-life suffering and connects it on that basis to the work that kept her in the black: Erma Bombeck-like family stories avant la lettre. Above all, she talks in depth about Jackson’s struggles to write. Highly recommended.

Weike Wang, Chemistry. A Chinese American graduate student in chemistry gradually realizes she doesn’t have what it takes to succeed, drops out of graduate school, and finds herself. This book was highly praised and I read about half of it; I think I am not in the place in my life to appreciate it any longer. But I would give it points for the perspective of the narrator, insofar as I don’t think I’d ever thought much before about the way that relationships in this sort of immigrant families might affect life choices. The comparable novel of my generation was probably Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, which I read with a lot of enjoyment when I was in graduate school. Wang’s protagonist is much more subtle than Goldstein’s, though.

Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone (I read this in the German original, Jeder stirbt für sich allein. I’m in process of liquidating my library and I just got to a box of German language books. I bought this at some point but never read it). A working class couple in Nazi-era Berlin begins to print subversive leaflets after their only son is killed at the front in France. The history surrounding the book — and its author — is fascinating. Fallada is most well-known for Little Man, What Now?, the paradigmatic German novel of the Weimar Republic / Depression years. I love about this what everyone loves about his work — the stringent and detailed descriptions of both material life and emotions, the unwillingness to make anything pretty, that really make me feel like I am located in the world of the novel. Recommended if you like long historical novels.

Han Kang, The Vegetarian. A Korean woman suddenly decides to stop eating meat; the story is told largely from the viewpoint of family members responding to her. I picked this up because NBK recommended it; it won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. It’s kind of shocking. I suspect in ten years it will be considered a feminist classic; I frequently found myself thinking of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Recommended.

Mary Lefkowitz, History Lesson. Lefkowitz, Emerita of Wellesley College, tells the story of her struggles with a colleague after she tried to correct his Afro-centric teaching on ancient history. This had been on my reading list for a long time and for some reason I finally got around to it now. I was hoping for a more insightful narrative; she conflates Afrocentrism and postmodernism and she never really digs into why her colleague disagrees with her, which could have been an interesting story, preferring to focus on what she saw as his persecution of her. But if he’s simply a nutty, misguided crook, then why does she need all the academic scaffolding? Recommended only if you enjoy academic politics.

Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent. A recently widowed woman is freed to pursue her naturalistic interests in a possible ancient creature even as her new friend, a local vicar, tries to silence any notion of superstition in his congregation, and she deals with the concerns of her new group of friends and a would-be lover. Also picked up on the recommendation of NBK. The language is very delicious and the feel very Victorian; the characters are highly developed and their conflicts are interesting and well-narrated. The book reminds a great deal, in tone, of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Hour. Recommended.

Percival Everett, So Much Blue. A successful middle-aged abstract painter is hiding a painting in his garage as his relationship with his family deteriorates; the painting is a synecdoche for other things he’s hiding. The narrative switches deftly between the present, a college-period episode in El Salvador, and a week in France about ten years previously — these perspectival switches are one of the most impressive things about the novel. I’m not sure I found the resolution completely credible, but in the end I liked the mood and the emotion behind it so well I didn’t care. Picked this up because a review described Everett as “the best currently active American novelist you’ve never heard of” or something like that. It turns out he’s married to Danzy Senna, whose memoir I read several years ago. I’ll definitely be reading more of his novels. Recommended.

Heather Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Riot of 1971. At the height of the U.S. prisoners’ rights movement, inmates in one of New York’s largest and most notorious prisons went on strike against their living conditions. After attempts to negotiate stalled, then-governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the riot put down, which caused 43 deaths. In 2008, the state settled a suit over civil rights violations with the families of the inmates for $12 million. This detailed, academic history of the incident considers a lot of evidence not included in previous histories of the event — including records that the author stumbled over and have since been “disappeared” by the archives. It includes a lot of oral history evidence that makes for compelling reading. Also, the story itself is horrifying and I didn’t know much of it. Picked this up because it just won the Pulitzer Prize for History. As history writing it’s skillful, and it’s politically significant, but it’s not earth-shattering. Recommended if the topic interests you.

Haroon Moghul, How to be a Muslim: An American Story. Often moving memoir of one of the students who founded the NYU Islamic Center, discussing in depth his struggles with Islam and the need to reconcile his religion and his immigrant (Pakistani) parents’ culture and expectations with his life in the U.S. and his own needs. In particular, I found the theme of how he was overtaken by events in the wake of 9/11 touching and convincing. There’s also a sort of potted history of Islam interspersed with his commentary in here for anyone who needs it; I found that part less interesting. Recommended if you enjoy religious angst and its resolution.

Nancy Tystad Koupal, Pioneer Girl Perspectives. In 2014, the North Dakota Historical Society published a scholarly, annotated edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl. This was the original manuscript that ultimately expanded (under editing) into Wilder’s famous series of children’s books. The new volume is a collection of essays intended as commentary on various aspects of the Pioneer Girl manuscript. I will read anything by or about Wilder’s work; I know her books almost by heart at this point. I’ve also followed with interest the discussion about the role that her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, took in shaping the work for publication. This collection paints a number of contexts, most interestingly around Lane’s turn to writing as a career and her years in Missouri during the Depression. Frankly, I was surprised at how hostile these scholars (with one exception) are to Lane. Usually, one expects a bit more neutrality from academics. Recommended if the topic interests you extremely. But if you love Wilder’s books, do make sure you have read the original Pioneer Girl — this a highly accessible work with really painstaking scholarship.

Sally Bedell Smith, Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life. Thick, but not unreasonably detailed biography by an author who’s written several books about the British royal family. She writes occasionally for Vanity Fair, which I think of as “responsible gossip” journalism, and this book is mostly in that vein. It’s intriguing and to her credit that I could not decide whether she likes her subject or not. I learned a lot more about the part of Charles’ life that preceded my birth, and particularly about his closest friendships and his relationship with his uncle, Lord Mountbatten. Not sure why I picked this up, but if you like VF’s royalty reporting you should like this.

Kathy McKeon, Jackie’s Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family. Account of the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy and her children from shortly after her husband’s assassination into her marriage with Aristotle Onassis, by a woman hired as her maid / assistant. Nothing unexpected. However, McKeon’s early life (she immigrated from Ireland) was extremely impoverished and while I knew that rural Irish families were still struggling in the mid-1960s, this book made it very concrete. Some neat pictures. I think I ordered this because the library suggested it. Recommended for those interested in the Kennedys.

Angelica Baker, Our Little Racket. This is a “financial crash of 2008” novel, the first one I’ve read, and the author’s debut. The novel tells the story of the effects of the crash on the families and pecking order of Greenwich, Connecticut, with emphasis on the viewpoint of the banker’s daughter and that of the women associated with the men who crashed the U.S. economy. It’s a serious page-turner, and Madison, the teen protagonist, shows an impressive amount of self-control. It’s a credit to Baker that I enjoyed this so much, as I have no sympathy with the vast majority of the social group upon which she bases the novel’s characters. Recommended.

Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida. A college wrestler gradually loses his mind. I can’t say a lot more than that because I dropped it after 30 pp. It’s a stream of consciousness novel and I found no way “into” the voice of the narrator; these sort of memoirish novels have been very popular in the last decade or so and I find each one a “take it or leave it” affair. I decided not to take this one, although it is being heavily hyped. For a more sympathetic perspective, see this review. Not recommended.

Catherine Lacey, The Answers. A young women on the brink of financial and physical collapse is hired to participate as an actor in an experiment about love. Another one that’s been highly praised in the literary press, and the novelist is considered one of the most talented prose stylists of her generation. I finished this one, anyway. I saw what everyone is saying about her prose, and the plot is clearly not supposed to be credible, but I couldn’t figure out if the highly weighted and often clichéd statements about love were supposed to be serious or satirical. It was hard for me to figure this book out. For that reason I neither recommend nor don’t recommend this one.

Hari Kunzru, White Tears. Two young white men invent a black blues singer, and when violence ensues, the trail must be followed back to its roots. This will probably be in my top ten for the year. It’s a combination mystery and reflection on race and power, but it’s not polemical or preachy. And it starts fast and just picks up speed from there. Supernatural components, emotionally brutal, violent ending. I don’t get why this isn’t getting more press. Highly recommended.

Gabourey Sidibe, This is Just My Face. Autobiography of the actor who played the title role in Precious. I learned more about her tumultuous childhood, but I didn’t find what I was looking for in the book otherwise. Mostly fluff when it could have dug deeper. Read only if you’re interested in Sidibe’s childhood.

Hiromi Kawakami, The Nakano Thrift Shop. Series of interactions around the owner and employees of a second-hand store in a Tokyo neighborhood where the stuff is only old, not antique. We meet the employer and his sister and their lovers and the employees; the story is told from the perspective of Hitomi, a cashier who falls in love (she thinks) with her coworker, Takeo. I don’t know quite how to describe this; the plot is really aimless, although it goes somewhere in the end, and the characters are often opaque. Much of what the novel seems to be saying has to be extrapolated as it is never stated. Very highly recommended.

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton, and Anything is Possible (a sequel, or at least a story from the same settings). In the first book, the protagonist is in the hospital, and her very distant mother comes to visit her and tell stories about the people at home; in the second, we see the independent stories of some of those people (and more) and their interrelationships with each other. I loved the first book (except for what seems to be a blatant self-insertion in the form of a minor character), but I was confused about the second; I suspect reviewers will think it edgier but it reminded me a lot of Spoon River Anthology and at times, I thought, its statements about “love” and other big themes verged on kitsch. In any case, recommended, although for some reason these two are bugging me.

Fiona Barton, The Child. It’s been a while since I read a mystery and this one came recommended by NPR as an insightful commentary on the demise of print reporting, but I found that aspect of it hackneyed, and I’d solved the mystery on p. 168 of 353. Read the last ten pages to confirm and gave it back to the library. Very disappointing. Not recommended.

~ by Servetus on July 30, 2017.

18 Responses to “Books I have read lately”

  1. I’m glad you liked both The Vegetarian and The Essex Serpent! The Yellow Wallpaper is currently being discovered by some German booktubers, will add it to my list.
    I definitely want to read the Shirley Jackson biography. The Prince Charles one sounds interesting, too.


    • The Yellow Wallpaper is one of those things that many Americans read in their introductory English composition class (or maybe at the end of high school). I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I reread it about a ten years ago and I found it really eerie and meaningful. If you like Jackson I think you might like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. No fan fiction recommendations?


  3. I read The Essex Serpent at your suggestion. I also thought the language was beautiful, the mood perfectly set and most of the characters were engaging, but I don’t care much for epistolary novels, which this had too much of for me. Still, I would recommend it. I definitely related to the notion of throwing off the restraints of ones old life for a new life. The A.S. Byatt book you mentioned ( I loved Angels and Insects) is called The Children’s Book. The Children’s Hour is the old book/film about lesbians in a girls’ school.


    • ah, yeah. I’ll try to remember that in future. It didn’t overwhelm me.

      re: Byatt, indeed, sorry. I should have checked it. It’s the only novel of hers that I recommend — I haven’t really enjoyed the others I’ve tried.


  4. The Essex Serpent is doing the rounds in my book club because it’s local to us!


  5. Thanks for this. Will put The Essex Serpent and Pioneer Girl Perspectives on my list.


    • I’m assuming you know this, as an apparent LIW fan, but if not — get Pioneer Girl first if you haven’t read it. Also, these books can be hard to buy. I haven’t looked recently, but with Pioneer Girl somehow the North Dakota Historical Society prevented it from being sold at discount on Amazon. Which was great, but made it harder to put one’s hands on. (full disclosure — I read them both in the lirary although someday I will buy a copy of Pioneer Girl to add to my collection).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have not read any of these, and many of them I have not even heard about! Thank you for this, I am always looking for new things to read and since I know we have similar tastes in literature I have put several of them on my wish list. It’s hard to find new books sometimes. I do read reviews, but often find the books disappointing.
    Do you have any websites that you might recommend with good book reviews? I know they are so subjective, and that is what makes it difficult. For example, there is one British blogger who writes about books but our taste is so different that I usually dislike the books she loves!


    • In the 90s I relied on the NYT book review section but I’ve sort of gotten away from that. Like everyone I have a love / hate relationship with Michiko Kakutani, but am not confident things will get better now that she’s resigned. The New Yorker, although they don’t publish tons of book reviews. Lately I’ve been relying on The Atlantic (this is middle to high brow), Catapult (covers the literary fashion), and Vulture (midle to low brow) — they all have quarterly reading list suggests in addition to reviews. And someone just put me onto Lithub. Also, my public library website has a curated list of “new and noteworthy” that I look at from time to time.


    • oh, and NPR. Which I don’t look at super regularly because it’s moved so far to the center that it’s starting to bug even me, but often has good suggestions.


  7. Books, books, books ❤


  8. Love this posts, although they are not good for my book-wishlist 🙂
    ‘Jeder stirbt für sich allein’ was recently made into a movie (with Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson), I missed it in cinemas but will watch it on DVD


  9. […] last time, in no particular order. Warning: genre fiction. I get from mysteries what most people I know well […]


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