Tag Archives: literature

What I Read: February 2017

2017 is my year of reading books written by women. Here’s what I read in February:

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

This is the first of anything I’ve ever read from Margaret Atwood, and two things brought me to this novel: the upcoming Hulu show, and its resurgence in literary discourse as an example of dystopian fiction.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the United States government has been taken over by an extreme Christian movement that strips all women of their rights — including the ability to read. The government creates a class of women — called handmaids — and who are specifically given to government leaders for (somewhat) clinical reproductive purposes. The story is told from the perspective of one of them — Offred — who is the handmaid for a high-ranking official in  a dystopian New England. As Offred describes what has happened to her and embarks on an illicit relationship with the official, we learn about how this society came to be and works.

This book was so profoundly affecting that there were a couple of moments where I had to put the book down and go do something else. Based on the American political climate and the current administration’s priorities, this dystopian fiction seems like it could turn into reality at any moment. The handmaids have been indoctrinated into being surrogates as punishment for having political and sexual agency. I don’t know or hope that our society would ever get to this place, but defunding the clinics that keep women healthy, limiting access to birth control and abortion and doing very little to combat economic inequality looks like a step in that direction. The subtext of this novel is also that women were unappreciative of feminism activism, and that this indifference contributed to this social outcome.

I wish that I had learned about this book when I read George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, which are all always mentioned with admiration. Atwood takes a far more complex storytelling approach with interweaving flashbacks and a metafictional epilogue, and I’m far more interested in reading a book about a dystopian female experience than I am about another white dude. I would highly recommend this book, especially to people who are trying to read more books about women written by women.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  

I spent a significant portion of my childhood poring over books like the Little House on the Prairie series and Betsy-Tacy. I definitely self-identified with the young female protagonists, and the time period these books came from enraptured me: living in a dugout wearing gingham dresses and eating cornbread sounded so magical at the time.  Somehow I completely missed Little Women, the book and the movie.

For those of you that don’t know the story, the novel centers around the March family — mostly the four sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy — and chronicles growing up as women in the Civil War era. There’s a not-subtle-at-all Christian theme to the book, and the gender roles are very traditional.

It’s interesting to read this kind of book as an adult, because I could see my 9-year-old self falling deeply in love with Little Women and its characters in the same way I did the other books. I would have pretended that I was Jo, and probably would have made my sister be Amy. (I have no shame in divulging that I dressed as a pioneer girl for Halloween one year / I’d play Pioneer in the backyard, so I probably would’ve played Little Women too.) I probably would have thought Laurie was Man of the Century, and I would have wanted to transform my backyard fort into the March residence. This novel would have done some serious damage to my little heart.

As a 23-year-old woman with a literature degree, I’m obviously much more critical of the story and themes than I would have been as a kid. There’s this specific tone to this novel’s era that a lot of young people miss (including myself at the time) just because they don’t have the historical knowledge yet and the wits to apply it. These books, including Little House and Betsy-Tacy, were written for white women mostly by white women to promote a very specific image of white womanhood. They focus on the romance and debutante lifestyle, while effectively sanitizing the violence and racial strife. The Civil War intersects with Little Women in that Mr. March goes off to fight for the North and the family has to incur the hardships of life during wartime, but that is really the extent of its involvement in the story. And for the most part, the women in this book stay inside of the expectations of their gender and follow the traditional path to motherhood.

I don’t mean to underscore this book’s importance. Alcott helped to shape 19th-century American literature, and it’s a sociological example of what and who people wrote about. I know several women that I love who love this novel. But for me, it boggles my mind that Little Women really could have been formative for me, but the delay in reading it until adulthood altered that course. This is my main takeaway from this reading experience — it makes me think about other books I have and haven’t read in a different light.

And for one final, less-measured observation — the latter part of the book where Jo marries a much older professor in like, two-and-a-half seconds is straight up garbage. Shout out to all of the readers in the 1870s who felt the same way.

bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody

After the Women’s March and the increasing political attacks on women’s healthcare, I felt like I needed to read more about the history of feminism and round out my theoretical knowledge. This is the first book I’ve turned to.

Whoever you are, whatever your level of knowledge is and however you feel about contemporary politics, you need to read Feminism is for Everybody ASAP. The book is exactly what the title says it is — hooks makes a powerful argument that working towards a feminist society is beneficial for everyone. She lays out the entire theory and history in such an easily digestible way, so you really have no excuse. There is no better political moment than the present to read this in.

There were three significant things I got from this book. First, hooks provides a definition of feminism that I completely agree with. According to hooks, feminism is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” This comes from a far more intersectional approach than just equality of the sexes, because it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Secondly, I now have the vocabulary to fully articulate why you cannot simultaneously be anti-choice and feminist. Telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies works to preserve a system of oppression.

If feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression, and depriving females of reproductive rights is a form of sexist oppression, then one cannot be anti-choice and be feminist. A woman can insist she would never choose to have an abortion while affirming her support of the right of women to choose and still be an advocate of feminist politics. She cannot be anti-abortion and an advocate of feminism.

And thirdly, I got more context about second-wave feminism that I didn’t have before. Learning that white women became the movement’s face over the women of color who were the first organizers and activists reaffirmed my belief that all of our work must be intersectional. A lot has changed in the last few decades, but we still have a lot of work to do and a lot of education to spread.

Once you read this book, read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

Sue Roe’s In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art.

When I pick up art books, I have always preferred narrative nonfiction to traditional textbooks. The stories about how the art came to be in communities are much more compelling than the “this art movement was a thing from this year to this year” overarching approach, and the info sticks with me better. Sue Roe does a really good job in painting these scenes, and her latest book, In Montmartre, draws out the beginnings of modernism in the Parisian neighborhood. It’s pretty incredible that in just a decade — without any real kind of technology — a small community of men and women created art, music, dance, literature and fashion that has been everlastingly influential.

And their lives were anything but glamorous. In the context that these artists’ paintings and sculptures sell for millions today, many people think that they have always been successful. That wasn’t the case at all. In In Montmartre, you read about the nearly-condemned studio space penniless Picasso worked in, and the familial tragedy Matisse dealt with in tandem with artistic and critical frustration. It puts hard work, creativity and talent into perspective — big things happen one day at a time.

I will say that you already have to be somewhat interested into modernist art to really enjoy this book. Knowing the art and who the people are makes the drama far more compelling, and makes the stakes feel a lot higher. There are several moments in the story where everything could have gone sideways and art history would have had a much different outcome. I do recommend starting with Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists before reading this book. You’ll have a better sense of bearings, and some references will be clearer.

What have you been reading lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under What I Read

What I Read: January 2017

2017 is my year of reading books written by women. Here’s what I read in January:

Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth

Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth has been on my to-read list for quite some time, far before Shire’s involvement in Beyonce’s Lemonade. You may have seen the Somali writer and poet’s words in the news recently. In response to the Trump administration’s recent ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, protestors have quoted from her poem “Conversations About Home” (which is in this book): “No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark.”

These poems are about Africa, trauma, tradition, gender, displacement and precarity in all of its forms, and they are often uncomfortable. The common thread is Shire’s searing observations on the female body in Muslim culture — the prize of virginity, the things women must do to keep their husbands’ attentions and the othering of her body when juxtaposed against white women. But Shire’s narrator also seems to urge her female readers to view their femininity as a source of exceptional inner strength. My favorite poem is actually the last one, “In Love and In War”:

To my daughter I will say,

‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’.

This was actually the last book I read in January: I wanted something short to fill in the last few days, and I read this 38-page pamphlet of poetry in about an hour. If you don’t normally read poetry, try reading this pamphlet — I think you’ll find it extremely enlightening in today’s political climate.

Nayyirah Waheed’s Salt

I became a big fan of Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry when I followed her on Instagram, where she reposts a lot of the poems you find in Salt. I wanted to read the collection in full, and I’m so glad I did — Instagram screenshots of the poems don’t do the words justice. Most of the poems are often two lines and rely extensively on enjambment — line breaks in middle of sentences.

Waheed’s poetry touches on so many points all at once: the black woman experience, the magic of femininity, the fragility of masculinity, the power of the earth and the elements, and the importance of a resilient relationship with your own self. Waheed’s intended audience seems to be other black women and women of color, and I had to assess my own role as a white woman reading these poems. I think reading and supporting the work of women of color is crucial to working towards being truly intersectional, and I want to make an effort to understand their experiences more fully.

Each poem tells its own story, but it’s all extremely cohesive and breathtaking. I am in awe of how Waheed can turn simple words into such profound and complex ideas, and she makes most of the poetry I’ve read up until this point seem clunky and inarticulate. That’s how much I love Salt.

knowing your power

is what creates

humility,

not knowing your power

is what creates

insecurity.

— ego

It’s impossible for me to pick one favorite poem from Salt. Every single poem is beautiful, insightful and haunting. I will return to this poetry collection over and over again.

Suzanne Roberts’ Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail

In my mission to read more books about California written by women, I came across this delightful memoir. After she graduated from college in 1993, Roberts and two friends decided to hike the John Muir Trail from Mount Whitney to Yosemite Valley. Along the way, they run into all of the problems you think they’d have: tense group dynamics, bears, injuries, food shortages and weird dudes. In her travelogue, Roberts reflects on her thoughts about her future and often leans on Muir’s words and writings to contextualize her feelings.

The main thing I liked about this book is that it’s a testament to how powerful the human and nature relationship is, and that believing in that power can provide spiritual and emotional clarity. In the California context, it made me realize how important it is to preserve our natural heritage so that people can have those experiences. Roberts-as-her-character isn’t particularly sympathetic, but by the end you’re rooting for her to find her way. And it did make me want to attempt the same trip, even though I am definitely not a hiker. It’s a solid 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

Swing Time, which is named after a Fred Astaire movie, follows two British women and the course of their friendship: an unnamed narrator, who is an assistant to a pop star, and her childhood friend Tracey, who attempts to pursue a career as a dancer. Both women are biracial living in 1990s England, and dance is their common interest. As they grow up, their lives diverge and intersect. But the main thing to note about the plot is that it’s framed in the unnamed narrator’s firing and her explanation of how it happened, which is engulfed in her history with Tracey. You learn about all of the characters through the narrator’s lens, and because she’s not particularly likable nor introspective you stay at the surface-level.

Here’s my deal with Swing Time: Smith executes the plot flawlessly and everything comes full circle in a satisfying way. This joins My Brilliant Friend in the vein of real, complex female friendship dynamics. The ideas of black bodies in white spaces, class differences and political privilege come up over and over again in smart and nuanced ways — especially when mirrored against dance, which is arguably a social equalizer.

But although this book made a lot of best of 2016 lists and I did enjoy reading it, it’s not my favorite Smith novel. I read On Beauty in 2015, and that novel’s universe was more immersive with dramatic stakes that that felt higher — a refreshed, academic, American version of E.M. Forster’s Howards End. Smith also has some really good essays and short fiction, and I would recommend starting with those first.

What have you been reading lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Leave a comment

Filed under What I Read

Think Tank: My Year of Reading Books by Women

In 2016, I had two crystallizing experiences about the kinds of books I read.

Crystallizing Experience #1:

I have had a Barnes and Noble edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray that I bought in high school for no reason I can remember and never got around to finishing. I recall trying to get through the first two chapters but getting bored, so it got shelved indefinitely. In 2016, I wanted to economize my 50-book goal as much as possible by reading the to-read books I already had, so I introduced Dorian into the rotation back in July.

As I was slogging through it, I realized that 15-year-old Zoë had the right idea about the book’s dullness. I’m sure at the time people thought this novel was interesting, but it doesn’t hold up today. It’s a story written by a white and privileged man about a white and privileged man, with a philosophical message about art (that it only exists to be beautiful) that I’m not sure I agree with. I did not like the gender dynamics throughout the plot, and the symbol of “whiteness” that kept coming up did not sit well with me.

At the same time, I thought about the books that I’d read as a student and in my post-grad life. In middle and high school, the book selections were often the “classics,” which was a designation I didn’t think about or challenge. In college, I was extremely lucky that my literature program’s texts came from a diverse group of professors who drew from a diverse group of authors, and that the class discussions were designed to make us students look past the surface level. Since graduating, I’ve kept working on expanding my literary knowledge: reading more from the authors I’d grown to love, the novels that the literary part of my Twitter timeline couldn’t stop talking about and theory texts and nonfiction books. This desire — to always seek out something new-to-me to read — is one of the things I like most about myself.

When I finished The Picture of Dorian Gray, I felt like I had wasted my time reading something that was supposed to be a gem in the English canon’s jewelry box. I hated that I felt that way, and it struck me as an opportunity to revisit and reconsider my choices in literature. I’m sorry that it had to be Oscar Wilde to get me to come to this conclusion, but it had to happen eventually.

Crystallizing Experience #2:

In an incredible essay, Rebecca Traister said exactly what I felt in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential elections: “We have gotten a clear view of how deeply this country is invested in keeping women and people of color on the sidelines.” I thought that there was no way the American people way would elect a candidate that boasted he could grab women by the pussy, but I was deeply, deeply wrong. This national decision made me want to not only be a better woman, informed about her body’s physical and political properties, but to seek refuge in art made by women. I don’t think I’m the only one who felt this way.

Both of these experiences helped me come to the conclusion that I want and need to spend more quality time reading books written by women and people who identify as such. I consider myself an ardent, but woefully under-informed feminist, and that is unacceptable. I want and need to cultivate my thoughts on feminism and intersectionality to be able to fully participate in discussions. Most importantly, I want and need to spend my money on art and initiatives made by women who entirely deserve the support. I owe it to myself to do it.

Since I’m a big advocate of setting annual achievable goals, I decided to make this my 2017 goal — to read 50 novels and nonfiction books written only by women. Throughout the year, I’ll chronicle what I read like I did in 2016.  My only expectation is to expand on my thoughts around what it means to be a woman in the world. This project isn’t anti-white or misandrist. But it is a desire to appreciate exceptional artists in a purposeful way, and challenge myself to continually consider my world view. This is the moment I need to act upon it. Will you join me?

 

 

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under Think Tank

What I Read: December 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I documented the books I read all year. I want to make sure I get out some thoughts close enough to December, so I’m sticking with the three-sentence model I’ve been using the past few months. Here’s what I read at the end of 2016:

Walt Whitman‘s Selections from Leaves of Grass.

I bought this vintage book at a used bookstore awhile ago, for two reasons: I thought the artwork was interesting (¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) and I’d never read any Walt Whitman poetry. I figured that a selections book would contain the best stuff, but these poems did not move me in the slightest. I want to read more poetry, but I’m putting Whitman back on the shelf.

Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.

This nonfiction book is about Hunter S. Thompson’s wild experience living with and reporting on the Hell’s Angels, a motorcycle group born in California in the 1960s — previously, I only knew about the Hell’s Angels from reading about The Doors. Thompson masterfully weaves the stories of the group into the bigger picture of the counterculture. I enjoyed reading this book, and never got tired of reading it or felt like hurrying to the end.

Carey McWilliams’ California: The Great Exception.  

This book is supposedly one of the books to read about California — it was written around the time of the state’s centennial, and takes a look at the problems that the state faced at the time and how it got there — but I will spare you the time of reading it (it is longwinded and often boring) by just telling you what my main takeaway was. Here it is, and it’s unsurprising: California would not be the way it is today if it hadn’t been for the Gold Rush, and the same social, economic and political problems we face in 2017 were the same we faced in 1850 and 1950. If you’re a fellow California  interested in reading more about the state, stick with Kevin Starr‘s work.

What have you been reading lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Leave a comment

Filed under What I Read

What I Read: October & November 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. I liked the three-sentence reviews I wrote for August and September, so I’m going to do that again. Here’s what I read in October and November:

Joan Didion’s Where I Was From.

Every time I read a Joan Didion book, I’m blown away by her genius and skill. In this nonfiction essay collection about California, Didion works through the disconnect between the myths of California’s beginnings and its present-day reality, and how that has affected the perception of California and its people. It’s the perfect example of writing that centers on something extremely personal and contributes to a bigger picture in a measured and articulate way.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my new favorite author, and I highly recommend her work. Americanah is a beautiful love story, but it’s also about a woman finding her identity and voice — all while painting a rich portrait of Africa you don’t see very often. This novel will make for an incredible movie, if done carefully and right.

Francesca Block’s Weetzie Bat.

This is a delightful young adult novel about a woman living in a Shangri-La version of Los Angeles, and I wish I would have discovered when I was a teenager. It’s whimsical and mystical in that you have to suspend your disbelief on some plot elements, but it’s extremely serious and honest in its themes, especially sexuality. Would recommend to a precocious teenage girl who loves LA.

Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child.

The Story of the Lost Child is an incredible end to an incredible series about two women from Naples and how their lives intersect and diverge. Believe all of the hype you’ve ever seen or heard about Elena Ferrante or the Neapolitan Novels. This series is one of my favorites, and I’m so glad I spread the four-book series out over the year — it was much more satisfying that way.

John Steinbeck’s The Harvest Gypsies.

This collection of newspaper articles describing California migrant camp life in the 1930s expanded my tiny bit of knowledge about the Dust Bowl. It adds some dimension to Steinbeck in that you can recognize inspiration for his novels, but it’s not necessary Steinbeck reading. If you really want to read Steinbeck, you’re better off reading or rereading The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden or Of Mice and Men.

Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another.

Okay, so — I picked up this book because I wanted to learn more about Martha Gellhorn and who she was as a war journalist. But the more I read, the more uncomfortable I was with the racist and classist language she uses to describe the people she meets and the places she goes in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. I finished the book, but I would not recommend it.

Kevin Starr’s California: A History.

I’m embarking on a California reading project (more on that later), and this was the first history book I picked up — I found it on several must-reads-about-California lists. California provides a really good overview of state’s history from the European exploration efforts to the Schwarzenegger era, but I will say it moves extremely fast. It’s a good starter book, and it’s definitely inspired me to read more about my state’s incredible history and culture.

What have you read lately? Tell me about it in the comments.

2 Comments

Filed under What I Read

What I Read: August & September 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. I normally write a few paragraphs about each book, but to switch it up and challenge myself I’m only going to write three-sentence reviews. Let’s go — here’s what I read in August and September:

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.

This is an extremely poignant novel about a young half-Vietnamese man living in the 1970s United States as an undercover Communist agent, framed in the form of a confession. This book delves deep into the complexities of political identity and war, and made me think about how we blur the lines between history and mythmaking. Reading The Sympathizer taught me to seek out different perspectives of American historical events than the ones I’m conditioned to look for and believe.

William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life is probably one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Finnegan writes such poetic prose, and his storytelling was so engrossing that it made me care deeply about surfing and the sport’s place in people’s lives. The only downside of this book was that while reading it all I wanted to do was lay on a Hawaiian beach and watch the waves.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

This essay-in-the-form-of-a-book is required reading for every single human on this planet. Adichie’s candor makes me proud to be a woman and a feminist. After you read this short book, read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad is a good novel that is conceptually imaginative and engaging, but it is horrific and will make your heart hurt. This novel about a young slave running away for her freedom on an actualized underground railroad system is well-researched and well-written, and I learned a lot of historical events I didn’t know about. I gave this book five stars on Goodreads, but I’ll say it is not the best Colson Whitehead novel — try The Intuitionist or Zone One first.

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

This is another novel that will make your heart hurt, especially if you’re very passionate about animals. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves takes a closer look at who and what make a family, and also how we write our personal histories within larger histories. It only took me a few days to read because it’s extremely engrossing, so it’s a good pick if you’re looking for something quick.

Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn.

Battleborn is a collection of short stories set mostly in the hot Nevada desert. Watkins is the daughter of a Manson family member, and once she tells you that you can’t shake it from the book’s background. Watkins does an excellent job of straddling the line between fiction and nonfiction, and making the physical landscape and setting the most powerful player on the character roster.

Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Other Essays

Susan Sontag drops truth bombs. The best essays in this collection are “Against interpretation,” “On style,” Happenings: an art of radical juxtaposition” and “One culture and the new sensibility.” The only drawback to read Against Interpretation in 2016 is that a chunk of the essays center on movies or books or people I’d never heard of, which made it harder to truly grasp the gravity of Sontag’s arguments and follow along.

Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power’s The Career Code.

The Career Code is written by two awesome women who know a lot about fashion, editorial and running a business. It’s full of evergreen advice for young women who want to be professionals. None of the advice is particularly deep or earth-shattering, but I have a feeling I will revisit this book often.

Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type

I picked this book up because I want to be a better editor, and it helped me get acquainted with typographical terms and layout design. In today’s world, a journalist has to know more than just the writing (coding and layout included), and you have to seek out the resources to be better. Even if you’re not a journalist, this is a good The More You Know kind of reference book.

Alice Walker’s Revolutionary Petunias.

Alice Walker is a goddess and a national treasure. “Be nobody’s darling; / Be an outcast. / Take the contradictions / Of your life / And wrap around / You like a shawl, / To parry stones / To keep you warm.” struck me to my core. If you read Revolutionary Petunias and like Alice Walker, try Sandra Cisneros’s poems.

Ali Smith’s Artful.

I went into reading Artful thinking it was going to be a novel, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s more of a fictional criticism and essay hybrid. That sounds weird, but Smith is very inventive — and I am still in awe of her creativity and command of language. If you like books that defy genre, you’ll like it.

What have you read lately? Let’s chat in the comments.

Leave a comment

Filed under What I Read

What I Read: July 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here’s what I read in July:

Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition.

I first heard about The Corpse Exhibition at a literature lecture at my alma mater. I keep a small notebook in my purse at all times so that I can scribble down names, titles or phrases I like when I’m at a lecture like this, or just out and about. The Corpse Exhibition was one of those book titles, and was brought up as an example of literature about life during wartime — and most importantly, written from the Iraqi point of view.

The Corpse Exhibition is a collection of Blasim’s short fictional stories. I knew the 200-someodd page book wasn’t going to be an easy read, based on the context alone. I had to put it down after every few stories, because they all deal with some heavy shit. There is a lot to unpack in every story: extreme violence, family relationships, nationalism, philosophy and legacy.

What struck me the hardest in The Corpse Exhibition is how every story points back in some way to the precarity of the body. For some characters, the body is a gruesome reminder that life can be taken away at any moment. For others, the body is expressly a political tool. And sometimes there’s a disconnect between physicality and identity that leaves one adrift. I cannot imagine living like that.

For the people in these stories, the war is always looming — even if it’s not explicitly mentioned. It permeates every aspect of their life, which is very hard for most Americans to wrap their heads around. It’s so, so important that we make room for voices like Blasim’s, because we usually only get one side of the narrative. The people who live in the Middle East are also humans just like everyone else with stories to tell, and both politicians and mainstream media conveniently forget that.

Reading The Corpse Exhibition in today’s political climate is extremely timely, and I highly recommend it. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite story from this collection, because all of them are very good.

 

Joseph Conrad’s Victory: An Island Tale.

I am a Big Fan of Joan Didion, and because Victory: An Island Tale was at the top of her favorite books list, I wanted to check this out. Last month, I read a novel that Victory inspired — while that wasn’t one of my favorite books either, I thought that if Joan (we’re on first name basis around this blog) liked it I would too. Before this novel, I had not read any Conrad so I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Victory is a sizable novel that’s broken into three parts. The story centers on a European white dude named Axel Heyst, who is extremely cynical and tries to lead a life of detachment. Because of a series of events, Heyst ends up working for a coal company in Indonesia. While there, he meets a woman in a traveling musicians group who is being abused by the local hotel’s proprietor. Heyst takes her away to his own private island, and the hotelier exacts revenge.

I’m not 100 percent why Joan likes this novel or Conrad so much, because I thought it was was terribly inconsistent. I spent part of my reading time referencing summaries, because the story was hard to follow and had a lot of sidebars that I didn’t know what to do with. Conrad is supposedly known for his command of the English language, but I was not impressed. The ending, although very sad and predictable, was the only part of the book that I thought was good and lived up to this book’s “psychological thriller” label. And on top of all of that, Victory had a post-colonial setting with no real commentary on why that was important. Lena, Heyst’s lover, had no dimensionality and basically served as a plot device.

I’m glad that I read this book because I have a Conrad example in my knowledge fund, but I didn’t enjoy it. If anything, this book has taught me that it’s totally fine if your reading list deviates from what’s considered canon. In my experience, most of it isn’t that good anyway.

Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop

Goodreads recommended this book to me about a month ago. When I read the synopsis of this book, I was immediately on board for a book by a woman that talked about journalism. Halfway through the novel, I found out that Waugh was actually an English man and journalist who was fed up with the industry’s dubious practices. So it goes.

Anyways, this satirical novel is set in England in the 1930s. Because of a name mixup with his much more famous cousin, a writer named William Boot is sent to cover a political revolution and civil war in a fictional African nation. Everyone involved, from the men who run the newspaper he writes for to the fellow journalists Boot meets, is extremely incompetent. They don’t shy from bending the truth and trying to pull one over on the publication.

Scoop‘s plotline is pretty entertaining and engaging, but in 2016 it seems pretty dated. There is literally no money for journalists to use to write off unnecessary expenses, and the ethics and accountability is a little bit stronger in an age where everyone on Twitter will fact check you. Waugh wanted to showcase how much journalism’s ethics had slid by this newspaper boom of the early 1900s, but I wonder what he would think about today’s climate.

If you are a fan of British humor, you will probably like this book. I will put Brideshead Revisited on my list, but I’m not in a hurry to read it. If you’ve read Evelyn Waugh and like his work, I’d also recommend Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.

Emma Cline’s The Girls

The Girls has been getting a lot of good press lately in the literary world. I had read the Goodreads summary for it when I first heard of the book, and I was immediately intrigued.

The Girls is the story of a woman named Evie Boyd, who gets involved with a Charles Manson-like cult in 1960s Northern California. As an adult, Evie is pulled into retelling her part of the narrative. Teenage Evie is trying to navigate adolescence and her parent’s divorce, and is initially entranced by the woman who drew her to the group, Suzanne. Evie lives with one foot in her real life, and another in the world of the ranch the group is homesteading on. This novel deals in themes of adolescence, sexuality and liminality.

 

In particular, Cline does a really great job of meditating on the idea of orbiting. Evie feels a magnetic pull to the group, and its history becomes a part of her. Even though Evie doesn’t partake in the violence the group eventually commits, the story still unsettles her — as an adult she spends a lot of time, thinking about the what-ifs and where her life would be. Someone’s presence in your life can influence you in incredible ways, whether you realize it immediately or later down the road. Looking at someone’s story through this angle makes someone much more human, rather than someone who was casually connected to murder.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book, which is mostly my fault, is how liberally Cline borrows from the Manson story. Last fall, I listened to a superb podcast about Charles Manson’s Hollywood. I totally understand Cline’s fascination, but I knew exactly how the cult plot of The Girls was going to go. If you’re interested in The Girls, it’s better to know close to nothing about the Manson murders going into reading the novel. When you’re done, definitely check out the podcast.

What have you been reading lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

2 Comments

Filed under What I Read