I read a lot.
Part of that is educational – I try to keep up in genres that I work in – and much of it is for the pure joy of reading. I read late at night, read while brushing my teeth, read on the bus. I just love reading. Generally, I try to rotate between nonfiction, literary fiction, science fiction/fantasy, and poetry books each month, so my bookshelf is a hodgepodge of different styles and authors.
I’ve often been asked to recommend books, so I thought I’d begin a little series called What I’m Reading. Once a month, I’ll include a list of the books I finished in the last month (I won’t include anything I’m still halfway through) and a little review. These are just my personal opinions, from my own bookshelf. Take them with a grain of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism.
Since it’s the New Year, here’s what I read in December 2016.
The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. Nonfiction; Penguin, 2014.
My mother had been bugging me to read this for about a year. I was wary of a feel-good, schmaltzy, good-old-boys story and avoided it until my book club picked it up. Then I read the whole thing in four days.
The story is about a rowing crew from University of Washington that improbably competes in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Using some excellent narrative nonfiction techniques, Brown reconstructs the difficulty of life in the Great Depression and the early, rough-and-tumble West Coast boys who tried to compete with the elite East teams. As my mother-in-law put it, “It’s a bit biased against the East Coast,” and I guess it is; but as a West Coaster myself I couldn’t put it down. My only complaint was the sections on Germany seemed a bit ominously cinematic, copying WWII documentary foreshadowing we’ve all seen a million times. Overall, though, it was detailed and well-researched. The sections on what it was like to row in a team, perfectly in sync, were meditatively beautiful.
Look, by Solmaz Sharif. Poetry; Graywolf Press, 2016.
Everyone should read this book. I taught it this term in one of my college classes because I was captivated by the way the poet upends jargon and military phraseology. Based on a dictionary of American military terms, it explores the impact of war, racial profiling, and fetishism. The poems rattled me. I wanted to be shaken by them, again and again, until all the shitty, boiled and bloated ways we talk about war sloughed off, and we were left with the terrible, hard bones of Sharif’s language.
The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein. Fiction; Europa, 2013.
For anyone who hasn’t already delved into Ferrante’s series, I won’t spoil the plot; but the tale of friendship between two smart girls, trapped in the economics and misogyny of a poor neighborhood of Naples, is some of the best character-building I’ve ever read. I preferred this volume to the first (more sex, more violence, and the women are becoming real adults), but its definitely part of an ongoing tale and requires starting at the beginning.
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. Fiction; Riverhead Books, 2016.
I picked this up in an airport on my way to visit my in-laws. I was hoping for a smart, fun mystery a la Gone Girl, which I had unexpectedly enjoyed. Instead, I found Hawkins’ prose to be rather dull, her characters predictable and self-indulgent, and the mystery not very mysterious at all. My husband has a pretty big crush on Emily Blunt, though, so he might make me see the movie.
This One Summer, Mariko Tamaki. Graphic novel; First Second, 2014.
My sister-in-law is a graphic novel writer and I picked this off her bookshelf over Christmas. It’s a beautiful illustrated young adult comic about a summer house by the lake, where a young preteen, just beginning to watch horror movies and think about boys, struggles to understand her mother’s depression. Best thing about it was the dialogue, which was perfectly on point. L0vely and worth a read, even if you’re not usually a comics person (I’m not).
The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin. Science Fiction; Orbit, 2015/2016.
I love a good world-building fantasy. These first two books in a trilogy by N.K. Jemisin have great world-building elements: an unstable environment (literally: a world whose plate tectonics cause constant volcanoes, earthquakes, and geysers of sulfur); magical powers (a group of people who can control the movement of the Earth, both preventing quakes and causing terrible collateral damage); and a compelling social system (the magical people, called orogenes, are respected, abused, and reviled for their powers). Jemisin writes “decolonized” fiction and I love her fresh take on fantasy, as well as the way her narrator implicates us in this world. This is a brooding, dark, almost nihilistic world – and I can’t wait for the third in this series.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong. Poetry; Copper Canyon Press, 2016.
Delicate, almost lacy bindings of words. A centering on the male self, both through the poet’s father and the narrator himself. A gorgeous grappling with nature, with exile, with war, with sex. I looked forward to waking up every morning and getting to read a couple of poems with my coffee; they colored my whole day, the little shards of glass through which I peered at the world until I went to sleep.
Basti, by Intisar Husain, trans. Frances Pritchett. Fiction; New York Review Books Classics, 2012.
This is an old novel, originally written in Urdu, and I’ve wanted to read it for a long time. It’s really about the partition of India and Pakistan and the war that separated Pakistan and Bangladesh – historical events that I as an American know too little about. While that made it difficult for me to understand some of the references and events in the novel (I spent a lot of time in the glossary and on wikipedia), I still enjoyed the narrative style, which is dreamlike and mythological and at times almost trippy. The narrator seems to be a bit of an everyman, caught in political events that are beyond his power to control, and there’s a love story about his girl, who is caught on the other side of the war – but mostly it’s the prose here that’s the main player. I was reading in translation, so I’d be curious to hear from Urdu readers what the experience is like in the original language.
What are you reading? Leave me a comment (respectfully) and tell me what you thought of these books, if you’ve read them too.
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Stewart Butterfield