February Reading Wrap-Up

Books read in February: 9 // Total books read in 2018 so far: 20

Favorite book read in February: André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name


The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (⭐️⭐️)

Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle is a historical novel set in post-WWII Germany. A group of women, widows of resistance fighters, grapple with the aftermath of war, struggle to come to terms with their troubled country, and piece together their lives. I usually love historical fiction, but this book just plods along, the characters read like unsympathetic caricatures, and the plot never fully grabbed me.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (⭐️⭐️⭐️)

Binti, a young Himba woman who is the first of her people to be accepted to the best university in the galaxy, flees her homeland and boards a spaceship that will take her on an eye-opening and life-changing journey. The first novella in Nnedi Okorafor’s sci-fi trilogy, Binti is a quick, engaging read that tackles ideas of race, identity, black power, and “otherness” in a fantastical, outer space setting.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Hillary Clinton’s memoir What Happened was my book club’s pick for the month and supplied interesting fodder for conversation, though we agreed that the writing was, at best, very mediocre, and parts read like a shout-out/hand slap to the various folks who’ve helped/hindered Clinton along the way. While t
he rehashing of the lead-up to the 2016 presidential debacle was more emotionally grueling than fascinating, the most engaging bits were the descriptions of the Clinton’s interior lives, their family gatherings, dinners with friends, their favorite television shows, their private chats. Being invited into these quiet, personal spaces, moments that speak to the importance of family, community, and survival, grants the reader some kind of social catharsis against the tumultuous, razor-sharp political situation we inhabit today.

Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Heart Berries is a beautifully written memoir by Native American writer Terese Mailhot. In it Mailhot puts big, messy emotions on paper, exposing her life – missteps and triumphs, bouts in a mental hospital, jealousy and rage – and her huge heart. She writes with a fearless pen about identity, colonial whiteness, and the trauma that persists in the body after the generations of violence against her people. A strong, powerful book.


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (⭐️⭐️)

The Miniaturist, a historical novel set in 1886 Amsterdam, follows the young bride Nella Oortman as she moves into the house of her newly-wed husband. He is often absent and his strong-willed, cruel sister rules the roost. The first half of the book was well-plotted and the story of Nella’s maneuvering within her new, strange world was an interesting one; the second half of the book fell flat and the plot moved off into predictable yet ridiculous territory.


The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
I decided to take Oakland-based Jasmine Guillory’s breakout romance The Wedding Date on vacation to Mexico and am happy I did. It’s the perfect beach read. After meeting in a stuck elevator, Drew Nicols asks stranger Alexa Monroe to be his guest to a wedding, his ex’s. She agrees, and their biracial romance blossoms. It’s a playful, easy book with a huge dose of food porn thrown in to whet the appetite.

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
My favorite book so far this year has been André Aciman’s 2007 coming-of-age novel, Call Me By Your Name. Set in Italy during a summer in the 1980’s, the novel centers around the charged romance between 17-year-old Elio and the 24-year old American scholar/student, Oliver, staying at Elio’s parents’ villa. It’s a gorgeously evocative glimpse at the endless possibility of youth, the disarming intensity of first love, and the blind need of infatuation. I wept through the last 40 pages, and upon finishing I went back and read those last pages again, heart aching and feeling all the feels.


The Idiot by Elif Batuman (⭐️⭐️⭐️)

Where Call Me By Your Name is electric with passion and longing, Elif Batuman’s ambitious coming-of-age novel, The Idiot, is emotionally bereft. The heroine of the book is Selin, a bookishly smart young Harvard student who stumbles as much through her academic life as she does through her emotional one. Batuman satirizes academia and shines a light on what it meant to be on the cusp of adulthood in 1995 when email was new and missing a phone call on accident was still a thing. Satire is not my favorite genre and I kept expecting to be wowed by this book, to find some gem in the narrative that pulled it all together, to feel something deeper for the bland main character, but it, and she, ultimately left me cold and indifferent.


Defectors by Joseph Kanon (⭐️
)
Stilted dialogue. Uninteresting characters making baffling decisions. Slow plot.
Hard pass.

#3 The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

girlinthetowerKatherine Arden’s The Girl in the Tower is the second in the Winternight trilogy following the fantasy fairy tale The Bear and the Nightingale. The story picks up where The Bear and the Nightingale leaves off, with the young heroine Vasya donning the clothes of a boy and fleeing the life she has known in her small medieval Russian village. She braves the snowy landscape, encountering mystical creatures and dangerous bandits, in search of a different life, a life of her own, where she is not controlled by a husband or by the church.

Arden is an artful storyteller, beautifully weaving magic and adventure together to create a narrative that is captivating, entertaining, and evocative. A very enjoyable read.

2017 Favorites

Top 10 Books of 2017 Brief Book Reviews(5)

I read so many really great books this year. Books that broke my heart, made me laugh and cry, books that terrified me, books that enchanted me and made me wonder, books that made me fear the future and books that carried me into the past, books that grounded me in the present and books that transported me to magical worlds.

Of the 104 books I read this year, these were my favorites:

Top 10 Books of 2017 Brief Book Reviews(1)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This book astonished me. Within the first few pages, I knew that it would be one of my favorites of the year. A favorite for always. It is just. that. GOOD. It’s hilarious and smart, touching and bizarre, and I fucking LOVED it. A truly remarkable read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
I had the great pleasure of hearing Jesmyn Ward read from Sing, Unburied, Sing with my friend Guinevere a few months back at East Bay Booksellers. As far as I am concerned, Jesmyn Ward can do no wrong. She does things with language and narrative that are magic. The characters in this book, their story, will amaze you and break your heart. Read it, it’s so worth the heartbreak.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
I loved this story of complicated father figure Samuel Hawley and his teenage daughter Loo navigating their way through the world. It’s a tale full of adventure, danger, suspense, and heart. Tinti keeps you hanging on every sentence, every word, up until the glorious end.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Idaho is a gorgeously written debut novel about family, memory, and loss. The narrative pivots around the murder of a child and is both haunting and lovely, with a line of suspense that keeps the reader turning page after page. I was so moved by Idaho, by the characters and the writing, and I can’t wait to see what Emily Ruskovich comes out with next.

Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard
What amazes me, again and again, about Knausgaard’s writing is that there is a pedestrian everyday-ness about it. He catalogs and peels apart the world around him in seemingly ordinary prose. And then, in peeling back and exposing ugliness and the ritual of the mundane, he shows us such great beauty and insight. That beauty is, at times, simply breathtaking.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
This book stole my heart, broke it, and stitched it back together. It’s the story of an all-consuming tangled mess of love and violence, of growing up, of survival. It’s brutal and terrifying and beautiful and brave, and completely riveting. An absolutely stunning debut. Read it.  Trigger warning: rape, incest

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I can’t believe I waited so long to read Pachinko, my 104th book of the year. It’s a saga about multiple generations of a Korean family in Japan, about identity and duty and honor, about love and longing and loss, about the triumphs and hardships of life. It’s a great read, a page-turner, and Lee is a wonderful, seemingly effortless storyteller.

Hourglass by Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass is a memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. It is intimate and insightful and achingly beautiful and I loved it.

Hunger by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is a powerhouse. Hunger traces the before and after in Gay’s life. Before she was raped, and after; before she used food as a salve and after, when food filled the void of hurt and pain left by the boys who raped her when she was 12, when hunger built her body into a massive impenetrable fortress. Gay is consistently smart and insightful, and her look inward in Hunger is fastidious and unflinching. Her look outward, towards the way women in society can never escape the weight of their bodies, their worth constantly measured by their ability to disappear into thinness or reviled for their audacity to take up space, is dead-on.

Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab
I sing the praises of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic fantasy trilogy to anyone who will listen. As I mentioned in my review of the third book, A Conjuring of Light, “these books are the perfect escape.” And they are! They are a pleasure to read because they’re FUN and full of magic, and they make me happy. Start with book one, A Darker Shade of Magic, and you won’t be able to stop. I’ve been trying to find a magical series that replicates the feelings I was imbued with while reading this trilogy but I haven’t found another fantasy series that I’ve loved as much. Let me know if you do…

More great reads of 2017:
Silk Poems by Jen Bervin
The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Her Body and Other Parties stories by Carmen Maria Machado
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen
Human Acts by Han Kang
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Look poems by Solmaz Sharif
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
News of the World by Paulette Jiles

What were your favorite books of 2017?

#88 Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún

32920269Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections is a quick, dark, and calculated novel about family and politics. Set in Bolivia after WWII, and based on real historical figures, the narrative follows the German Ertl family, father Hans and two of his daughters, on an expedition into the Amazon, and beyond.

The Ertl family provides Hasbún with great fodder for his story. In Germany, Hans Ertl had worked with Leni Riefenstahl as a Nazi propaganda cinematographer. After WWII, he fled the country with his family, relocating in Bolivia where he made expedition documentaries, and eventually became a farmer. His daughter, Monika Ertl, became a guerrilla fighter after joining up with the remnants of Che Guevara’s army.

While there is a precise elegance to Hasbún’s writing, and the history of the Ertl family is intriguing, the novel, composed of vignettes told from various perspectives, felt limited and disjointed, and lacked an emotional nucleus.

#84 Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

32620302Mr. Smith, the protagonist of Francis Spufford’s historical novel Golden Hill, set in small-town 18th century New York City, is a mystery. Neither the characters around this aptly named any man, nor the reader for that matter knows what he’s about when he shows up in New York newly off the boat from England with a note for a large sum of money to be paid by a particular man at a well-known counting house. The money can’t be paid out immediately, so Mr. Smith goes about his mysterious business, making friends and enemies, getting into trouble with the locals, all the while staying mum on his identity and his mission.

Throughout this novel, the question lingers: who is this Mr. Smith? When Mr. Smith’s purpose is revealed, finally, I wished Spufford had spent more time on that story than building a complete narrative out of Mr. Smith’s mysterious circumstances. As a whole, Golden Hill, quickly paced, smartly written, and rich with historical touchstones, offers a glimpse of early life in America and the makings of a complicated nation.

#80 Conspiracy of Ravens by Lila Bowen

26038869Conspiracy of Ravens is the second in Lila Bowen’s The Shadow series starring Nettie Lonesome. Conspiracy of Ravens picks up right where Wake of Vultures ends; Nettie, now fully identifying as Rhett Hennessy, gathers his strength in the wilds of Bowen’s fantastical Southwest and sets out with his posse to hunt evil, monsters and men, as the Shadow.

I loved Wake of Vultures and liked Conspiracy of Ravens. Both are surprising, intense, bloody, and groundbreaking, though Bowen’s plot blocking and narrative structure started to feel formulaic and mechanical in this second book.

The transformation of Bowen’s mixed-race trans hero/ine, from Nettie to Rhett, from gritty boyish girl to the Shadow, offers a new and refreshing coming-of-age story in a genre where so many main characters in fantasy are young white cis men who go to wizard school and discover their great magic skills.

 

#63 The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

32075861Set in Victorian London and the countryside of Essex, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent follows Cora Seaborne as she journeys with her son and his nanny, Martha, to the marshy (fictional) village of Aldwinter for a change of scenery after the death of her cruel husband. There, Cora learns about sightings of a mythical sea serpent whose potential is fueling the imaginations of the locals and inciting creature panic.

While in Essex, superstition and religion intersect, friendships are born and tested, and the lives of Perry’s characters are forever changed.

I was hoping for something intensely readable like Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith or Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night, but the reading of this was fairly laborious. It’s a hefty book with some smart writing and well-crafted passages, but the story never fully grabbed me and the book put me to sleep a few nights in a row.

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#45 Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend

31147231Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands is a fast, plot-driven novel with a quasi-interesting main character, Frances Conway. Frances, born in Minnesota, positioned as bookish and smart, is made to go to secretarial school by her immigrant parents instead of finishing high school, runs away to Chicago with her best friend Rosalie, moves to San Francisco, and eventually ends up in the Galapagos Islands in the lead-up to WWII married to a handsome and complicated spy.

As intriguing as that storyline sounds, I wasn’t charmed by Frances and this was a hard book to write about. On the one hand, I enjoyed aspects of this story; Amend is a strong writer who creates a real sense of place within her narrative. Most notable were the sections in which Frances lives rough on one of the Galapagos Islands. These sections were vivid and rich, a pleasure to read.

On the other hand the novel is disjointed and full of holes. As a reader I couldn’t reconcile that the author glazed over 30 years of the Frances’ life in a few paragraphs, taking her from just under 20 to 50 in one page with a literary not much happened in those years shrug. Really? Also, the female friendship aspect of the story, Frances’ friendship with Rosalie, felt forced and flat. Frances, for all her experiences, remains fairly naive and boring despite her early bookish years, and I couldn’t quite understand what glue held their friendship together for so long.

 

#44 Human Acts by Han Kang

30091914Poignant and gut-wrenching, Han Kang’s Human Acts excavates the moments leading up to and during, and the devastating aftermath of, the 1980 Gwangju (where Kang grew up) Uprising of students in South Korea from various narrative perspectives.

Human Acts opens with “The Boy, 1980,” told from the vantage of Dong-ho, a young boy looking for the body of his best friend whom he saw get shot in the street. “The Boy’s Friend, 1980” (my favorite perspective in the book) voices the experience of that friend, now dead, one soul among a jumbled heap of bodies left to rot for days in the forest. As in The Vegetarian, Kang doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of the body, she pushes characters to the physical limits of life and beyond; in Human Acts, bodies endure torture, carry the scars of mutilation, are mercilessly shot and killed, bodies bloat and blacken with decomposition.  In “The Boy’s Mother, 2010” Dong-ho’s mother speaks tenderly to her dead son, addressing “you” as she wonders if her inaction played a role in his death. Dong-ho, both alive and dead, makes appearances in all of the narratives, which, as a whole, create a breathtaking and acutely brutal portrait of human cruelty, frailty, and endurance.