Books I’ve Read Lately: July 2017
Hunger by Roxane Gay :: Reading this book is like looking into the author’s soul and seeing a piece of it so clearly that you’re momentarily blinded by its truth-telling nakedness. Every single sentence is personal and raw, so raw each one cuts into your own soul and shows you things you may have recognized in the abstract or maybe never recognized at all. The ability this book has to be so wholly personal to the author and still so relevant to anyone who picks it up is a feat that few memoirs accomplish – with or without overly broad clichés. It’s accomplished, at least in part, by her unwillingness to let you pity her. She is blunt; this is her story and these her truths. She does not shame the general populace for the things she deals with on a daily basis even though society at large deserves to be shamed for creating and perpetuating such an environment (in more than one way). This book is about her and living in her body; it’s not about the rest of us and how we feel. The reader may feel ashamed, but that’s on the reader and not on the words Gay uses. I read this in one sitting, tearing up and laughing and nodding along.
The Windfall by Diksha Basu :: This book reads fast, in part because I just wanted to get away from a certain character – the father figure. I thoroughly disliked him, which is a strength in the writing that he is made so real as to resonate. That said, I had to skim over several of his monologues as I found him a blithering idiot (he is not a blithering idiot; he merely behaves as one in specific contexts and I find that ever more grating). As a whole, the book has gotten fanfare due to its insight into new money in India – and this it does very well. My favorite character is a woman who is an outcast in her society because she embraces honesty and being in control of her own life; she’s also the only one who gets an unabashed happy ending, which seems to be an accurate portrayal of any family within any society. (more…)
Books I’ve Read Lately: June 2017
The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky :: I want to love this book, but it falls somewhere between good and great instead. The voice is brilliant and the sentences unfurl simply and unfettered. The exploration of her marriage and grief are on point, both disheartening and brutal. Personally, I’ve never been as lost or unsure of who I am as this woman (I’m sure that’s yet to come), which can make it hard to relate to her, though not in a bad way. I know that she will be relatable to many, many people and for them her choices and the lack of them will resonate more deeply. If I have to pinpoint what makes this book good and not great for me, it’d be the character’s passivity. Sure, she makes an active choice in the end (which is a bit rushed), but until that point she lets people make choices for her (even whether she goes to the funeral is determined by someone she hasn’t seen in ten years) or things “just happen,” like she’s afraid of herself. Some of this is grief and some of this is her own character flaw, and for that I can’t fault the book – it’s more that it takes too long for her to become an active player and I wanted more self-exploration from the character regarding her issues. Of course, there’s also something to be said about a book that refuses to do such a thing and instead just lets the character be. I’m on the fence between two positive feelings on the book and perhaps that’s not such a bad place to be.
Chemistry by Weike Wang :: This is one of those books where either you will love it or hate it, mainly due to its structure. The unnamed protagonist careens through this part of her life with equal parts denial, misguided ambition, self-repression, and chemistry. She rambles, she tells you facts that are adjacent to whatever she was telling you before in order to avoid the difficulty of facing herself. She lets you in and immediately pulls back because even she doesn’t want to be that far in on her own life. That said, it’s in the trivia provided and the subtleties between them that you gain understanding of this character. She’s not likable if you can’t empathize with her upbringing or how she distances herself from herself due to it, which is why a lot of people read: to get in these character’s heads and gain perspectives so unlike their own. That said, likability doesn’t make a difference to me because all humans are unlikable during events or timeframes in their lives; it should be the same with characters. This book has little in the way of a plot but it would be entirely unfair to say that nothing happens. This woman happens, her life unfolds, and the changes she undergoes are monumental to her even if they might seem mundane in comparison to a full throttle plot.
Circling the Drain by Amanda Davis :: This collection starts strong and then kind of falls apart before pulling itself together for a good final story. I had to really focus to finish this one, which is a rarity, especially when it comes to stories (ostensibly) about difficult people. I found most of the female characters to be lacking as well as a redundancy in why characters were the way they were. It could be that I’m just not the right audience for lovelorn women or, more often, love-scorned women who are passive and incapable of making firm life decisions for themselves. A few of these stories would be fine on their own or in a journal – they’re competent – but to have so many exploring the same theme in a row just grated on me. (more…)
Books I’ve Read Lately: May 2017
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood :: I love this book. It isn’t without its issues (there are a couple ho-hum sections near the end), but it is as near-perfect as I expect a memoir to be. Part of the reason this novel resonates with me goes beyond the writing (which is both gorgeous and hilarious): I, too, was raised in the church (hers Catholic, mine Lutheran), felt its stringent distaste for certain women (I am one of these), left it behind wholeheartedly though pieces will forever linger, and still must return to a family who believes; I, too, am a writer whose childhood is riddled with excitement over essay exams and unassigned notebooks of stories; I , too, am most at home near the sea, where the earth falls off into everything or nothing or both at once. Aside from these parallels, I love this book because it had me sharing pieces and paragraphs with others due to their beauty or their humor; this a balance not many strike and it should not be ignored.
The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate :: This is not an uplifting book by any means and it isn’t meant to be. I was drawn to it because of its protagonist – a woman in science, more particularly a black woman in a white male-dominated field. Of course, that’s not really what this book ends up being about; it is about alcoholism and addiction and how it affects every single person in a family. This side of the storyline I fully appreciate, each instance and memory cutting to the quick and forcing you to feel. (Full disclosure: I teared up more than once at the revelations of different characters.) That said, the structure didn’t work for me (it switches between first- and third-person POV as well as between characters in each POV) because I feel like we missed out on some important pieces from Josie’s current life with her husband (the “final conversation,” for instance) and also that it sold itself short. Early on, before we realize we will be switching POVs, Josie tells us that she has to recreate some memories to her ability and cannot be positive of their accuracy (this is written before she tells us about how her parents met) – but if you’re going to switch into the POV of the father and the mother later on, why not just do it now? It’s too easy a way to tell us our main narrator is unreliable; there are other ways. It feels uncharacteristic of the rest of the book given its excellent handling of difficult subject matter and easy-but-beautiful prose. Overall, other than the structure, the book pulls the reader into it and forces you to understand, if not empathize with, Josie even if you don’t particularly like her choices.