Disgrace, by JM Coetzee, read this month. 1.5 (out of 5) stars.
I so often don’t have a great relationship with Pulitzer winners.
I guess I’ll have to read this again to see if I feel the same way about it, but this felt to me like an aging white man unable to come to terms with changing sexual and racial equality, and it really rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t know if I’ve been reading too much commentary lately about books written by white men for white men, but I’ve never read a book that felt more like that than this one. And, I think because of that, all the annoyances (or worse) that I felt toward the main character or the story, I can’t seem to separate from Coetzee, who I’d never read before, and really know nothing about.
David Lurie has “an affair” with a student of his, which looks exactly like rape, and which is never remotely described that way. (Even ignoring the professor/student relationship, she expressly says no, after he plies her with alcohol. I don’t know the laws in South Africa, but he’s committed rape three different ways in the USA, and I suspect it’s the same there.) So this is a story of a man who loses control of his life, from his job and his home to his relationships with friends and his daughter. The racial stuff I don’t know enough about South Africa to really evaluate. His character, though – it seems that we’re not supposed to think of him as a bad guy (even if not a good guy) although he’s completely reprehensible. His salvation in the end? I couldn’t be made to give a shit.
“‘…a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.'”
Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent; 3.5 stars (out of 5)
This is an interesting character study on gender, but also on the author. I wasn’t quite as excited with the ending of this book as I was with the beginning, but there is so much of interest in here, and it’s well written, so that I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to think more about gender, masculinity in general, and how both fit into our culture.
The deception (she pretends to be a man, and uses her acceptance as a man to enter into a man’s world) that takes place in this book (and, for me, the coming clean) can be really uncomfortable. However, it allows her to discuss not just her perceptions but others’ as well, and to see the difference in how she’s received when viewed as male or female. It made me think a lot about how misgendering someone regularly can make someone feel, and what being forced to assume the bodily persona of someone else must feel like for transgendered people, and how that must screw with their heads.
This grabbed me pretty much right away, and covers a lot of territory (although I still wanted to hear more of the everyday issues she went through – how many hours a day was she ned; how did her girlfriend feel about this; when she lived as Ned, was it all the time or did she go back and forth between Ned and Norah; how long did it take every day to become Ned? Some of this is vaguely touched upon, but I’d like more of that to be woven in (ideally), or (at the very least) put in a separate chapter.). She does make a couple of surprising statements in the beginning (implying that all lesbians are more butch than straight women or lumping lesbians together in general) and used the word “gypped” once. But this is obviously her viewpoint and observations, and many of them are not just interesting but useful.
This was a fast, intriguing read.
This was a weird reading month for me. I read more than 10 books this month, including an 1100 pager (which I almost reviewed here), but mostly didn’t like what I was reading. I’ve picked the best of the bunch (along with The Source by James Michener, the 1100 pager that was also good).
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros; 3.5 stars (out of 5)
So many of the vignettes that tell this story are both powerful and also so beautifully written.
I’d forgotten that this is a book written in tiny bites, little notions almost. Not linked short stories, but linked moments, more like. It’s an interesting way to tell a story of a child’s life, of a person’s relation to her self/community/location, her dreams. It’s really well done and some bits are even better than that. I really like this. It’s probably best read in one sitting.
I do wish many of the vignettes were longer; I would have liked it more if some of them were expanded upon and fleshed out. It worked to do it this way (and I understand that doing it this way was quite deliberate), but it also (sometimes) broke up what would have been a nicely flowing narrative.
“But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath.”
“It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse – which is supposed to be bad luck if you’re born female – but i think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their women strong.”
“Everything is holding its breath inside me. Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas. I want to be all new and shiny. I want to sit out bad at night, a boy around my neck and the wind under my skirt. Not this way, every evening talking to the trees, leaning out my window, imagining what I can’t see.”
“Sally, do you sometimes wish you didn’t have to go home? Do you wish your feet would one day keep walking and take you far away from Mango Street, far away and maybe your feet would stop in front of a house, a nice one with flowers and big windows and steps for you to climb up two by two upstairs to where a room is waiting for you. And if you opened the little window latch and gave it a shove, the windows would swing open, all the sky would come in. There’d be no nosy neighbors watching, no motorcycles and cars, no sheets and towels and laundry. Only trees and more trees and plenty of blue sky.”
“My mother says when I get older my dusty hair will settle and my blouse will learn to stay clean, but I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain.”
“When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, you understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are.”
Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston; 2.5 stars (out of 5)
This is a remarkable, even unbelievable story. Even knowing it’s his true account of what happened, it’s almost impossible to read this as nonfiction because it’s such an extreme situation. And so difficult to imagine not just doing what he did, but being able to do what he did. So that said, Aron is an incredible person, an inspiration. Not just this story of his, but all of the other ones in this book, show us that he has amazing outdoorsman skills and abilities, and is smart, with a lot of passions and friends. Also that he’s reckless, not as careful as he should be, consistently makes choices that put himself (and sometimes others) in danger because he’s in search of either an adrenaline rush or the thrill of escape or just something more. As he himself says in this book of being stuck and having to cut off his own arm to survive, part of him sought this kind of adventure.
It’s a strange mash-up, this book. He talks about how being stuck in the slot canyon for 5 days (plenty of time to think) helped him understand a friend of his, whose personal philosophy differed from his own, which had always been “you are what you do.” His friend was more of the “you are who you are” side of things, and he says that he started to understand (or maybe I read more into it) that some of his adventuring was proving himself to people and showing them what he can do. So he says that he understands that life isn’t about that, isn’t about being able to tell someone about that last peak you summited. But then the entire book is story after story of accomplishment and example after example of all the risky hikes and climbs and slopes that he survived. Maybe, like the rest of us, he’s working it out (he wasn’t even 30 when the book came out) but it read as a look-at-me series of stories, interspersed with the story of his surviving the slot canyon (which really is incredible) and some philosophy as he tries to make sense of it all.
I feel I’m being a bit hard on him, but I’m not feeling like there was an arc here or that he actually learned much. About himself, sure, he learned that he could probably handle and survive far more than most of us, and frankly, with grace. But overall it’s a story of a guy who’s not much changed by the end; this is just another of his adventure stories he can relay with his climbing buddies. More harrowing than his chased by a bear and stuck in an avalanche stories, but of the same vein.
Like I said, I feel like I’m being hard on him, because I actually think that, while he comes across as wanting attention, part of me feels like he deserves it for all that he does, and he also does seem like a genuinely good guy who wants to do good in the world, and who appreciates good in the world. He is a multi-talented guy (he was a pianist, too) and a pretty good writer (especially for someone who isn’t a writer; parts of this were definitely overwritten but I can forgive that). I’d totally want to hang out with him, but I sure wouldn’t want to go on a hike with him.
What? This post is only a couple of weeks late? Huzzah! Well, I wanted to review The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi because I loved it, but I just reviewed a different book of hers that I also loved a couple of months ago, so instead, I’ll give you:
Thinner by Stephen King; 3.5 stars
This was not a book I remember liking very much the first time around, so I was pretty surprised to find this as good as I did. It’s not mistake-free, but the writing is good, the concepts are solid, and the story is a fast-moving thriller. He has a surprising amount to say about marginalized communities and how we treat them (nothing in depth, but the point is made repeatedly) and I love that. He foreshadows an ending and then gives you a satisfying twist to it. I am definitely pleased with this one overall.
“Sure, we need the Gypsies. We always have. Because if you don’t have someone to run out of town once in a while, how are you going to know you yourself belong there?” (italics not mine)
As usual, I started out strong in 2015, but had a slow couple of months of getting through some thick ones that kept me from reaching my unofficial reading goal of the year. Still, I read more in volume than I ever have before. And great quality; my average rating has increased a bit due to the good reading I did this year. Here they are, in order, as always. For “best of” just skip to the bottom.
- The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (read for book club)
- Firestarter by Stephen King (a reread, or another read through)
- A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (book club)
- Storyteller by Leslie Marmon Silko
- The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (book club)
- The Stonemason by Cormac McCarthy
- Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
- Danse Macabre by Stephen King
- Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Another Sunset We Survive by Kate Gray
- Nevada by Imogen Binnie (book club)
- Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra
- The Martian Child by David Gerrold
- Light in August by William Faulkner
- A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (book club)
- Murder in the Marais by Cara Black (book club)
- The Turtle Warrior by Mary Relindes Ellis
- The Broker by John Grisham
- Ruby Fruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (book club, another read through)
- The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (book club)
- Cover Her Face by PD James (book club)
- Push Not the River by James Conroyd Martin
- Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
- Cujo by Stephen King (another read through)
- No Horizon is So Far by Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft
- The Man Who Invented Florida by Randy Wayne White (book club)
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
- Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before by Karelia Stetz-Waters (book club)
- Ambulance Girl by Jane Stern
- Creep Show by Stephen King
- Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs by Cheryl Peck
- Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson
- Don’t Move by Margaret Mazzantini
- Different Seasons by Stephen King
- Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison
- This Is Not It by Lynne Tillman
- A Born-Again Wife’s First Lesbian Kiss by Mary Diane Hausman
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker (book club, another read through)
- Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff (book club)
- Kilmoon by Lisa Alber (book club)
- Wicked by Gregory Maguire
- The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (another read through)
- The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (book club)
- A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
- Bone Knowing by Kate Gray
- Timothy; or Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg (book club)
- Beneath the Bleeding by Val McDermid (book club)
- Christine by Stephen King (another read through)
- Wonderlands: Good Gay Travel Writing by Raphael Kadushin
- Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
- How to be Compassionate: A Handbook for Creating Inner Peace and a Happier World by The Dalai Lama
- Curious Wine by Katherine V Forrest (book club)
- Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
- Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates
- The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley
- One Kick by Chelsea Cain (book club)
- Remember Me by Melanie Batchelor
- Pet Sematary by Stephen King (another read through)
- How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- Bingo Barge Murder by Jessie Chandler (book club)
- A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane
- Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King
- The Admirer by Karelia Stetz-Waters (book club)
- The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre
- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (another read through)
- Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (book club, another read through)
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (another read through)
- The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers (book club)
- The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen (book club)
- Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- My Education by Susan Choi (book club)
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (book club, another read through)
- Nursery Crimes by Ayelet Waldman (book club)
- Speaking With the Angel edited by Nick Hornby
- Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen and Barbara Fields (book club)
- The Swashbuckler by Lee Lynch (book club)
- The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (another read through)
- Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub
- Belshazzar’s Daughter by Barbara Nadel (book club)
- White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi (book club)
- The Remnants by Robert Hill (prepublication copy)
- Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
- The Christmas Carol Murders by Christopher Lord (book club)
- The Jumping Frog by Mark Twain
- Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (book club)
- Snow by Orhan Pamuk
- Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (book club)
- The Hounding by Sandra de Helen (book club)
Best of the best for the year were definitely: The Color Purple, Bastard Out of Carolina, White is for Witching and Once Were Warriors
Included in the second tier of the best of the year category are: The Price of Salt, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, Saving Fish From Drowning, Another Sunset We Survive, Firestarter, and The Fountainhead.
Onward and upward in 2016!
Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan; 4 stars (out of 5); read in December 2015
I had forgotten how much I like Amy Tan’s writing, and I definitely didn’t remember her being so funny. Still, this takes a serious look at the manipulation of the media and of how well-intentioned people can so easily do more harm than good. (And also how Americans so often step on other people’s toes, or worse, but that’s more incidental.) It’s a really interesting question about how to help and what constitutes help, especially when there is such a cultural divide that there is no real understanding between the groups of people. She starts with a quote from Camus (“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”) and pretty much takes off running from there, with engaging side plots and a great cast of characters. And I love what she says in the back of my edition in an interview: “…I am interested in intentional meaning. That is the reason for the title, Saving Fish from Drowning. One can argue that one is not killing fish but taking them out of the water to save them from drowning. Within what we say is what we mean, what we don’t intend, what we want people to think we mean…and all the chaos that results is the source of a lot of stories.”
I really, really like what she’s done here, and she’s done it in a way that also tells a great story along the way, with humor and some memorable characters.
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi; 4.5 stars (out of 5); read in November 2015
I think this would get 5 stars from me if I knew more about folklore and the specific folktales and literary references she makes throughout. And almost undoubtedly will get 5 stars from me on my next reading, since I’ll have the benefit of understanding the confusing and strange way she opens the book (that I reread about 2/3 of the way through and again at the end), which put me off of the book at first this time around.
Once I got past the few few pages, I loved this. even though I know I missed some things, maybe even big things. Possibly I loved it in part because of this – it’s so well written, and I love knowing that there are more layers of a story to open to me each time I read it; but I’d only want to reread it because it’s so perfectly written. There are so many similarities thematically to one of my favorites, The Haunting of Hill House, but it’s also so different. The things that I love about this are largely also things that I loved in Hill House, most notably ideas of madness vs some evil manifestation, the (multiple, in this case) unreliable narrators, the house itself being a character. Other themes are totally different, as Oyeyemi talks about race and immigration and family of origin (a little). And I appreciated all of that too – some of it quite a bit. I want to take note of the little things next time – who Oyeyemi links in the text when she flows, in one sentence, from one narrator to another, and what she’s saying by doing that. Things like that – there are so many things like that to pick up on, that are like clues about who we can believe and trust, if anyone, and how it all relates to reality, if it does. I just love books that make you unsure of it all, the more you read. This is brilliantly done, and just so well written.
There’s a surprising amount to this book, and that’s with however much I missed in this reading. I’ll look forward to reading this one again and again.
Mostly I read this stunned and mesmerized, but here I laughed out loud: “…it descended into a semi-aggressive debate over her assertion that Thackeray’s Becky Sharp would easily beat Bronte’s Cathy in a fistfight. The only criticism she would have accepted was that she was giving patriarchy precedence over the female consciousness explored in the Gothic. But since that criticism wasn’t offered, she stood her ground.”
“Her grief was almost theoretical. It didn’t mean any less, but it was a different sort of grief from Miranda’s. It was the sort of grief you didn’t have to suppress because letting it out made it smaller instead of bigger. The sort of grief you could say something about because you instinctively understood that it could not continue, rigid inside your breathing apparatus like a metal stem. Miranda made a face at herself in the hallway mirror. Deep thoughts? Why didn’t she just draw a diagram of the different kinds of grief?”
“Sometimes our subconscious is so transparent it’s boring. I would have written that in my diary, but I’d stopped keeping one.”
“…and we kissed and fumbled with buttons and put hands and lips to bare skin until one or the other of us said, ‘I can’t,’ and if it was me I don’t know why because I wanted to.”