Favorite Reads of 2017 (So Far)

Being that we have reached the halfway mark of the year, I figured I ought do a quick roundup of my favorite reads of the year. This list won’t be all literary fiction, of course (I’m not that much of a snob!) and it won’t include many of the year’s breakouts (I haven’t read them yet!) But it will be an honest and true account of what I consider to be the high points of my reading life in 2017:

Faves:

 

  • The Leavers – Lisa Ko’s The Leavers is breathtaking look at immigration and intercultural adoption.  Polly’s a character you can’t help but feel both intense anger and intense sadness for. Her decisions cause a spiderweb of strife and pain for her son Deming, but are made in truly impossible times. As he grows up, Deming’s caught between the life he’s living with his adoptive parents and the life he ought to be living his mom. The Leavers is heartbreaking in both the worst and best of ways.

 

  • The Animators –  Kayla Rae Whitaker has established herself as a major young talent with her debut novel, The Animators. This story of two best friends, Sharon and Mel, who work as an animation duo, chronicles their personal and professional struggles at dawn of a new phase in their careers. The novel journeys through their pasts and how those pasts inform their current selves and their futures. The relationship between Mel and Sharon is one of my favorite recent depictions of female friendship – full, loving and prickly as hell. And Sharon’s rural background makes me recall my own. I selected this book sort of blindly via Book of the Month Club, and it’s absolutely my favorite Book of the Month Club selection.

 

  • A Passage to IndiaA Passage to India was my introduction to E.M. Forrester’s elegant and sumptuous prose. How I never read Forrester before is completely beyond me and I’m terribly upset with myself for not reading this amazing novel until I was 30 years old.   Forrester’s tale of cultural conflict and misunderstandings between the colonizing English and the India and Indians they colonize is ridiculously lyrical, beautiful and a genuine pleasure to read.

 

  • #famous – I’ve actually reviewed Jilly’s YA novel here. #famous isn’t perfect and this isn’t the sort of work filled with beautiful prose or deep thoughts. But it’s genuinely a fun, adorable read. The characters feel like the teenagers that they are actually meant to be and not some adult’s vague memory of adolescence. The dialogue was snappy and delightful and quite frankly, I need to see this on the big screen.

 

 

  • Attachments – This, I’ve always reviewed here. I love this book without any sort of hesitation. The plot circles around an IT guy, Lincoln, who falls in love with a woman, Beth, while he reads through the emails she exchanges at work with her best friend, Jen. It’s essentially a ridiculous screwball comedy in book form and how can that not be adored? Attachments leans into the ridiculousness of its premise which is what makes it so enjoyable to read. And again, Beth and Jen’s friendship is fantastic – it’s supportive and loving and not full of backstabbing bull. For me, this was a perfect read to chase a few blues away.

 

  • Freddy and Fredericka – I actually bought Freddy and Fredericka at a used bookstore on a whim and 90% due to the cover. Mark Helprin’s satire of the British royal family  (Freddy and Fredericka are a not-even-thinly veiled version of Charles and Diana)  is a magnificently fanciful fairy tale farce and it is amazing. Essentially, after a series of embarrassing events, Freddy and Fredericka get carted out to America to prove themselves worthy of the throne.  This book is dense, but it’s also hilarious. In some respects, the density is part of the reason I’m so fond of it – yes, it gets off to a slow start, but I found it to be like a marathon – it’s just the sort of book to be savored and read thoughtfully, rather than devoured in haste. It’s sympathetic and mocking of its protagonists and reminds you of their inherent goodness despite the situations of their lives and situations in which they find themselves. Fredericka in particular really comes into her own in the second half of the novel. The novel is both irreverent and down to earth and it’s just honestly, earnestly good.

 

  • The Muse – Some people haven’t felt as kindly towards Jessie Burton’s follow up to The Miniaturist but I really enjoyed The Muse. Burton is amazingly skilled at evoking the feeling of a bygone era and in The Muse, she manages to make both 1960s London and the Spanish Civil War come a life. Not only this, she tackles the tricky work of writing a black woman’s life in 1960s London. I have to love her for writing an experience that is very much not her own and for doing it so very well. Jessie Burton is basically my Literary Girl Crush.

 

  • Moonglow I’ve loved Michael for a very long time now. At least, it feels like a long time. I read Wonder Boys back in 2000 and I fell in love with his brain then. Whenever I read Chabon, I always feel like his characters are sitting back and regaling me with their tales. Moonglow is no different. Of course, Moonglow is a sort of a retelling his what his grandfather told him during his last weeks of life – a deathbed confession sorts. But early on, Chabon notes that part of this is fictionalized and the dreamy, sprawling feel makes it somewhat difficult to really get a handle on what parts are completely un-embellished. And yet, that is one of the things I liked best about Moonglow. The Goodreads blurb describes it as a “work of fiction non fiction”; an “autobiography in a novel described as a memoir” – this is entirely accurate and entirely wonderful.

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

  • Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • American Street  by Ibi Zoboi
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • The Secret Place by Tana French
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

In Defense of Suzanne Collins’ ‘Mockingjay’

It’s been years since Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy ended. As such, it’s been a while since the final book, “Mockingjay”, was released.

If I remember correctly, upon it’s release, “Mockingjay” received a fairly mixed reception. Many hardcore fans felt nothing but hatred and disdain for the book, along with a healthy dose of anger at Collins for writing what she did. ‘She’d let them down’, they’d say. I recall people saying that the book read as though it Collins simply threw it together, simply to be done with the behemoth with had eaten her life. Many people said that Katniss was no longer a badass heroine.

My feelings differ. Continue reading

The Benefits of A Second Read

Some books, you love from the very start. You have a seat, open the cover, turn the page and you’re hooked from the first word. The work consumes you, body and soul. When you finish, you feel as though you’re missing a limb. You’re missing something vital – those characters, those places! They’ve grown to be part of your very being and you’re left feeling bereft.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was like that for me. I started reading a bit nervously, because I’d read so many reviews of the book and had heard so   many people rail on about it, saying that it was overlong, overstuffed, overdone and overrated. I’d seen so many people express their wonder at it being a best seller and wonder “Why the heck did that thing win a Pulitzer?”.

Once I’d made it home from the library with my prize, I sat it on my nightstand and it sat for a few days, gently mocking me just a little.

I finally picked it up and…I was completely and utterly hooked from the word “Go”. I met Theo and his mother and I was amazingly drawn into that sprawling and somehow-at-the-same-time claustrophobic world and I didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t leave. I just had this hunger to know more.

I was over the moon and enamored with the book. When I didn’t like Theo or any other character (and that was pretty frequently), there was this pressing need to go on; to know more. I had to know what was happening. Some people find Tartt wordy – I like how incredibly verbose she is. Tartt and her writing enraptured and thrilled me.

The Goldfinch had me head over heels at that first reading. I ended up finishing that 700 page behemoth in a little under three days. It was nearly impossible for me to sat it down. I read while eating and tried to figure out a way I could read while showering (sadly, I couldn’t).

Tartt’s novel is, for me, an example of a book I connected with from the first moment. But I find myself more frequently finishing a book and going “eh, okay.”

With these books, I’m not in love. I’m not feeling hatred either, but I’m not thrilled, I’m not enraptured. I finish the book and put it aside and it doesn’t stick. I often wonder if perhaps, my feelings towards those books would improve upon a second read.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a book I think I’ll need to revisit. The start of the book was a true slog for me – as in it took me around a week and a half to get to page 200.

For some reason, at the time, I simply found the novel boring. Meticulously crafted, of course, but boring all time same. I wasn’t enjoying the reading. Clarke had created this intricate world and it was plain as day that the woman knew how to spin a tale. I just found it tedious.

Somewhere along page 500 or so, I started to really get into Jonathan Strange. I began to actually actively enjoy it. There was something about the book at time time – something about Arabella and Stephen and Jonathan’s descent that just captured my attention and made me yearn to know more about everything going on. I’m not sure if it was that I was getting accustomed to Clarke’s style or if it was just a natural progression and I simply cared more about the characters and their situations, but I became invested and burned through the remainder of the book pretty quickly.

Since finishing Jonathan Strange, I’ve come to feel that I’d probably like the book much, much more on a second read. Obviously, something clicked for me during the second half of the book and I think it’s worth exploring the possibility that “something” will click for me earlier if I take another look.

A second read made Jane Austen’s Persuasion far more palatable for me.

I first read Persuasion as an undergrad. I remember wandering in the NYU library, searching for some book to help with the writing of a paper. I’d stumbled upon a copy of Persuasion and since I loved Austen, I couldn’t help but check it out.

While I loved Emma and Pride and Prejudice, the moment I cracked them open, I just did not like Persuasion at all. I wasn’t entirely sure why, either. Persuasion is no more or less myopic than Austen’s other novels, but, with the exception of Mansfield Park, I experienced far more enjoyment reading the others.

Persuasion doesn’t have the humor of Emma. And Anne Elliot isn’t nearly as dynamic a lead as Elizabeth Bennett. Perhaps it was that the novel’s list of secondary characters wasn’t as interesting or devious as Willoughby, Fanny Dashwood or Caroline Bingley. I also didn’t care for Captain Wentworth as I did Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley.

I found it difficult to warm to Anne and Captain Wentworth and I suppose, without being able to invest in the secondary characters, I couldn’t engage with the novel at all. After finishing, I put it aside and didn’t think about it much, just enough to consider it my least favorite of Austen’s novels.

In December of last year, in a fit of boredom, I decided to re-read Persuasion. This time, I enjoyed it. It still isn’t my favorite of Austen’s works, but I found that I appreciate it more than I did. I am not sure if it’s the gift of age, but now, eight years removed from the first read, I find myself having enjoyed Austen’s subtlety and nuance more.

While I still prefer Lizzy Bennett’s headstrong ways – and wager that I always will – I understand Anne’s sedate resignation more. Anne is a woman older than Lizzy and with that age came life experience. Anne doesn’t have the gift of youth to benefit righteous conviction as Elizabeth both. While she does feel that she was right in listening to Lady Russell regarding Captain Wentworth, she also does have significant regret in refusing his proposal.

Anne loved Wentworth deeply, but bent to societal expectations of her at the time. She understood that she – a gentleman’s daughter – marrying a penniless sailor didn’t match the expectations of her. I still admire Elizabeth Bennett’s somewhat brash refusal to bend to society’s will by marrying solely for money – she refused an advantageous twice! – but now I can sympathize with Anne’s actions more than I could when I was younger.

In some respect, there is a quietness in Persuasion that isn’t in Pride and Prejudice  and Emma. Those two books are a bit louder, more dynamic than Austen’s final work, just as their heroines are more dynamic. The relationships between the heroines and their love interests are broader as well. Anne and Wentworth barely speak or spend time together until the end of the novel. Their closets interactions are ones we do not see, ones that faded with the years that grew between them. Lizzy and Mr. Darcy meet at the start of their novel and are in what feels to be constant (if not willing) contact. Emma and Knightley have known each other for years, have a long history as friends (and family, as Emma’s sister married Mr. Knightley’s brother) and talk freely with one another. While their interactions are always respectful, they aren’t timid with one another. Their relationship feels easier for the reader. It’s given to us softly until the end, but we never hesitate to believe that’s it’s there. We constantly see and hear of Emma’s affection for Knightley – she considers him just what a man should be – and he does not hesitate to show his affection for her, as well as rebuke her when needed. In fact, when he chastises her, it’s because Knightley knows that Emma is capable of being more.

Looking back, it’s easy for me to understand why I didn’t care for Persuasion when I first read it. It’s a bit quieter than I like my Austen and more subtle than I was used to with Jane. I was expecting her sharp humor and dialogue (you cannot tell me that Lizzy’s refusal of Darcy’s proposal isn’t one of the most amazing things ever), but that wasn’t what Persuasion was about and I was blind to that. Since I was blind, I missed what was beautiful about the novel. There is this quiet flush; this slow lurch that is delicious.

I think I’ve come to an age where it’s easier to understand Persuasion and Anne Elliot in particular. I’m at a place where I’m re-thinking my own decisions and wondering how I’ve gotten to where I am.

I now totally get why Emma and Elizabeth were protagonists I could really sink my teeth into. They were both young women and – particularly Elizabeth – trying to find live their lives by their own rules within the tight confines of greater world they live in. Lizzy was determined to marry for love (if all) and Emma turned to matchmaking out of an affection for those in her circle, her arrogance and in an attempt to engage a mind rendered idle by her class and status. During my youth, I’m not sure if I understood enough to understand Anne. I didn’t like how Anne gave up on her love with apparent ease to what society demanded of her. I didn’t like what I saw as her weakness. I didn’t like like what I saw as her timidity. I didn’t like that she and Wentworth barely spoke to one another – I took this as cowardice. I don’t any longer. I can’t. Now I see Anne as the majority of people  – those who mortgage what could be an amazing experience/life or what could be the best part of themselves. I can’t hate Anne for that. Not when so many of us are those people. I am one of those people.

Given how much I enjoyed Persuasion on the second read, I’m trying to think of other works I might enjoy after taking a look at them with fresh eyes. My experience with the novel has shown me that re-reads of works that you didn’t jive with can be important and have a real purpose. Maybe time is needed to connect to the novel; maybe experience that’s important.

I’ve got a long list of novels to re-discover. Let’s just hope they’re worth it.

Go Set a Watchman…To Kill a Mockingbird…and Me

So, today Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” has been released.

Ms. Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has long been an important book to me. So, I was crushed to read a NY Times article which stated that, in “Go Set a Watchman” Atticus Finch turns out to be an unrepentant racist and segregationist. This broke my heart and, at least for the time being, I won’t be reading it.

Unlike some, I don’t feel betrayed or let down by Ms. Lee — “GSAW” is essentially the first draft of what later became TKAM, and Atticus and the other characters belong to her to do with as she will. Ms. Lee allowed us to get to know her characters and for that I will always be grateful.

It’s just that, for me, this new turn of events puts a dent in something very important to me.

I have never seen Atticus Finch as a completely perfect, not racist person. I have always felt that, even with his noble defense in TKAM, that there were some teasings of racial inequality in his beliefs — he harbors a very paternalistic view of black people in TKAM. It’s just…Atticus was the perfect representation something that was so important for me to believe exists. Continue reading