Book Review: Weather by Jenny Offill

Weather
WEATHER by Jenny Offill (Published by Knopf Publishing Group in 2020)

My Rating: ★★★★

If you’ve seen the sort of books I review on my blog, you’ll know that I’m the kind of reader who likes the reassurance of a plot, well-drawn characters, and straightforward storytelling. My favorite literary works are those like Tartt’s The Secret History (1992) and Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), which are plotted like mysteries and contain a lot of juicy family or relationship drama.

Weather isn’t like that at all. It doesn’t have a plot; most of the characters are sketches at best; and the storytelling feels like a bunch of poem fragments, bad jokes, fortune-cookie statements, and fun facts strung together. It’s a bizarre and oddly-shaped book with an equally bizarre and odd narrator. By all appearances, Weather shouldn’t be my thing.

And yet… I liked it a lot. I liked it so much that I right after I finished it I got a copy of Offill’s previous work, Dept. of Speculation (2014), and gobbled it up in a day; and after finishing Dept. of Speculation, I realized I still liked Weather more. In fact, while I still think that Girl, Woman, Other is the strongest contender for the prize, I’d say that as of today, Weather is my personal favorite.

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Book Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo (Published by Hamish Hamilton in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★

I must be the last person to read this since it (joint-)won the Booker Prize, but now that I have, I finally get what the fuss is all about. I haven’t read Atwood’s The Testaments (just The Handmaid’s Tale), but I’ll go out on a limb here and say that it can’t possibly be as good as Girl, Woman, Other. This is just so so SO good. I’d say that it’s probably the strongest contender for the Women’s Prize this year.

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Book Review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Red at the Bone
RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson (Published by Riverhead Books in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

In its synopsis, Red at the Bone is said to touch on a number of important issues—namely “sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood”—and while I do see those issues portrayed well in the novel, the heart of it for me is the question of what happens when a mother rejects motherhood and chooses instead to strike out on her own in the world as a woman. Red at the Bone succeeds in exploring this with nuance and insight.

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Book Review: Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Serpent & Dove
SERPENT & DOVE by Shelby Mahurin (Published by HarperTeen in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Wow, what a ride! This book has EVERYTHING I want in a YA fantasy novel—a richly-imagined world, an enemies-to-lovers romance, a fast-paced plot, strong main characters, and well-drawn side characters—and I stayed up until 2 AM to finish it, despite the fact that I had to be up at 6 AM the next day. I found myself immediately and helplessly sucked into the world, and there was nothing I could do but to succumb to the momentum of the story.

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Book Review: Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Nothing to See Here
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (Published by Ecco in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Nothing to See Here follows Lillian, a woman in her late twenties who still lives with her mother, works dead-end jobs, and dates unsavoury men, whose life changes overnight when her old high school friend asks for her help in taking care of her husband’s ex-wife’s twins. The catch? The kids spontaneously burst into flames whenever they’re upset. What’s even more surprising than this revelation, however, is that Lillian actually accepts the job, and what follows is an offbeat, heart-warming story about friendship, family, and the bonds we form that transcend genetic and biological ties.

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Book Review: Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Three Daughters of Eve
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak (Published by Bloomsbury USA in 2017)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Three Daughters of Eve is an ambitious and multilayered novel that explores the feeling of being caught in between the tensions that plague the modern era – between traditionalism and modernity, between religiosity and secularism, between East and West – and the consequences of being ideologically unmoored in a polarized world. While Three Daughters of Eve succeeds in scaling down these lofty ideas into the ways they shape the everyday life of the protagonist, it also uses the rest of its characters as caricatures of these ideas, turning moments of potentially genuine connection into staged battlegrounds where the clash between dichotomies can play out. The result is the reinforcement of such dichotomies rather than their dismantling. Despite that, I enjoyed the novel for the author’s skill in evoking time and place, and her depiction of the modern existential crisis.

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Mini-Review Monday #2 | I’d Rather Be Reading, How Fiction Works, and Born to Run

Hey everyone! Hope you’re all having a lovely day. Here’s another rapid-fire round of reviews on three of the nonfiction books I’ve read this January, centered around my hobbies: reading and running.


Books about Books

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel (2018)

I'd Rather Be Reading

My Rating: ★★★★☆

As a bookworm, I absolutely cannot resist are books about books. I mean, I already love reading, but when the content is also about the love of reading, it’s just pure delight. Also, I’m surrounded by people who aren’t readers, or who read for utilitarian purposes – i.e., to get information or to be “more successful” (yeah, just… no) – so sometimes I just want to be reminded that my obsessive, non-utilitarian love for reading is not odd or archaic, after all.

This book definitely hits all the right notes. Since I read this primarily to feel understood, the parts I related the most with were “The Books that Find You”, about serendipitously picking a book up at the time you most need it; “The Readers I Have Been”, about who we are as readers at different ages; “Again, for the First Time”, about the joys of rereading; “Windows to the Soul”, about how revealing your favorite books are; and finally, “Bookworm Problems”, which speaks for itself.

There are a number of quotes that I loved – I highlighted nearly all of “Bookworm Problems” – but this one stood out to me:

I feel certain of this: I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I weren’t a reader. I don’t just mean because I enjoy reading or spend so much time with my books. I mean that from an early age, and without consciously intending to, the ideas I got from books formed the interior architecture of my mind.

I felt it captures how our hobbies – the things we do for play and for pleasure – profoundly shape who we become.

In short, Ms. Bogel just gets it, and it was a relief and a delight to discover that I’m not alone in my bookish quirks. I’d really recommend this to all readers and book lovers everywhere.

Read from January 13-15, 2020 | Link to Goodreads

How Fiction Works by James Wood (2008, 2018)

How Fiction Works

My Rating: ★★★★★

James Wood is arguably one of the most (in)famous critics of our age. In this work, though, he is less of a critic than a craftsman carefully taking apart a scene or a sentence to show how beautifully wrought they are, or to remark on the workmanship of each writer.

The book is divided into sections concerning a specific aspect of fiction – narrating, detail, form, character, consciousness, language, and so on – and he tackles each with lucid prose and with generous examples from several authors (mostly from realist writers like Woolf, Chekhov, and Bellow). Wood’s attention to detail is astonishing, and by drawing the readers’ attention to the small details, I felt like he was lending me his eyes and shaping the way I’m going to read fiction. In the section on language and on the issue of mixed metaphors, for example, he cites four ways that different authors have described fire:

Lawrence, seeing a fire in a grate, writes of it as “that rushing bouquet of new flames in the chimney” (Sea and Sardinia). Hardy describes a “scarlet handful of fire” in Gabriel Oak’s cottage in Far from the Madding Crowd. Bellow has this sentence in his story “A Silver Dish”: “The blue flames fluttered like a school of fishes in the coal fire.” And Norman Rush, in his novel Mating, which is set in Botswana, has his hero come upon an abandoned village, where he sees that “cooking fires wagged in some of the lalwapas” (a lalwapa is a kind of simple African courtyard). So: a rushing bouquet (DHL); a scarlet handful of fire (TH); a school of fishes (SB); and a wagging fire (NM). Is one better than the others? Each works slightly differently. . . . (p. 209-210)

He then proceeds to detail how each succeeds, but in a different manner. Obviously, I never read fiction this closely – I can hardly remember the synopsis of a book I read a week later, let alone specific sentences in it! – so Wood’s work was also a lesson in slowing down and delighting in language.

One thing where I disagree with him, but where he makes a compelling argument, is regarding character. He dismantles Forster’s popular notion of “flat” and “round” characters and instead proposes that:

. . . the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence, and even plain plausibility—let alone likeability—than with a larger philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character “Isabel Archer,” even if they cannot tell you what she is exactly like. We remember her in the way we remember an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here. (p. 118)

This seems to be a very thin description of a character to me. I have read books where I was aware that a “character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake”, like, for example, Arthur Less in Lessbut I didn’t find it very satisfying to read. I like best protagonists who are dynamic, complicated, yet understandable, and who undergo some sort of character growth.

This doesn’t mean that I like Wood’s work any less, though. Overall, his work has definitely given me something to think about, and I’m sure I’ll be referring to it again in the future.

Read from May 4-6, 2019; January 13, 2020 | Link to Goodreads

Running

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall (2009)

Born to Run

My Rating: ★★★★☆

I truly enjoyed this one. I started this back in September, just two weeks or so before I began my first 10k, and while I’d only read the first half at the time, I remember feeling really fired up for the race. I believe that’s the book’s strongest point—McDougall has a real passion for running, and it really shows in his writing.

In this book, Mr. McDougall’s quest to run with less pain takes him on a whirlwind adventure to meet the Tarahumara, a reclusive tribe in Mexico also nicknamed the “running people”. I enjoyed learning about the mysterious Tarahumara, and how running is deeply woven into their lives as both play and ritual. While running for most of us is a sport or a form of exercise, for the Tarahumara, it’s part of their lives – as natural as eating and breathing.

Aside from them, we also meet a cast of white people who want to pit their endurance skills against the famed tribe, and all these people are absolutely crazy about running. I mean that literally: they’ve all attempted things no sane person would – run barefoot, join ultras without proper preparation or training, and even abandon civilization for running. Mr. McDougall’s descriptions here are possibly exaggerated, but nonetheless they’re also very entertaining.

That being said, this book also espouses in this book certain philosophies and theories about running that can beg belief. Mr. McDougall advocates barefoot running and veganism, has a tendency to exaggerate (“99.9% of all runners [will never qualify for] the Boston Marathon”—really?), and ties running back to a mythical past (that human beings evolved specifically for distance running). In these points, I either disagree with him or am skeptical about his claims. Still, my rating for the book holds because his writing was fun and inspiring, and this book gives voice to my own sudden, inexplicable obsession with running. I read it mainly to hear someone articulate why they love running so much, and on that point it definitely delivered. 4 stars for the very entertaining ride.

Read from September 21, 2019 - January 10, 2020 | Link to Goodreads

Have you read any of these books, or do you have a hobby that you love reading about? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you. 🙂

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Hi everyone! I’m back with another review. A Wizard for Earthsea is regarded as a classic in the YA fantasy genre, and while I don’t read a lot of fantasy anymore, it’s very close to my heart. Fantasy was the genre I read most as a kid, and it’s also the genre I first dipped into after college, when I started reading for pleasure again. Reading A Wizard of Earthsea definitely brought back that nostalgia in the best way.


A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children in 2012; first published 1968)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

This is my first by Le Guin, and I have to say, she does a pretty good job with a familiar but little-used fantasy trope. Here’s the long and short of it: a monstrously talented young wizard (think Chosen One levels) lets the talent gets to his head, tries to one-up his douchey rival at wizard school, backfires big time, and ends up doing damage control for the evil he unleashed.

I love it already. I love storylines where protagonists make a huge mess of things and have to clean up their messes afterwards. It just makes for a whole lot of character growth, and most of the bad decisions are over with quickly. Plus, even as they’re making bad decisions, they’re at least guaranteed to be aware that they’ve made bad decisions, so it saves readers a lot of frustration. (Unlike Harry Potter, who’s frustrating to read as an adult because he’s always charging into life-or-death situations with no plans whatsoever.)

The start was slow-going for me, though, and the characters were difficult to connect with. Le Guin uses a style of writing that’s reminiscent of a folk song or a ballad (minus the line breaks), so we have something that’s closer to Bible stories or The Iliad rather than Game of Thrones. But while I didn’t like it at first – or more accurately, I found it unfamiliar at first, and the unfamiliar always brings some discomfort with it – I found myself warming up to it by Chapter 3 or 4. I spent a few days just reading a paragraph or so at a time, but then suddenly, I found I couldn’t seem to stop reading and just sprinted towards the end in a few hours.

I also loved her world-building and the magic system. I’ve read a few YA/NA fantasy a year or so ago and I’ve gotten used to seeing the kind of magic where people can just suddenly do things out of thin air, with no consequences whatsoever. In Le Guin’s world, magic follows very logical rules, and there are always trade-offs to using – and overusing – magic. I appreciated this since it quickly raised the stakes for the characters and gave their magical decisions a lot more weight.

In conclusion, this was a great read for me, but something that I was slow to warm up to. It’s probably the kind of fantasy that’s best read when you have the time and patience for the world to unfold. I’ll definitely read more Le Guin, though – I have a physical copy of The Left Hand of Darkness, which hopefully I can pick up this year.


How about you? Have you read this book? What are your favorite YA fantasy/sci-fi books? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads | Read from January 3-8, 2020

Book Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

 

City of Girls

Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (Published by Riverhead Books in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

First of all, isn’t that cover gorgeous? Apparently I’m not beyond judging a book by its cover, because I’d added this to my TBR last year without even glancing at the synopsis! But when I did get to read it, I found the cover very apt for its subject matter – namely, the coming-of-age story of the narrator and costume designer Vivian Morris in the 1940s New York theatre scene.

Don’t let the pink feathers and gilded letters fool you, though. This isn’t just a sparkly romp through the glamorous 1940s; it’s also full of heart, and it deals with the thorny issues of female desire, sexuality, and friendship with a light yet surprisingly nuanced touch. After reading the book, I felt very full and leaky and on the verge of encircling the nearest human being in a gentle (albeit unsolicited) embrace.

This expansive yet tender feeling was also something I’ve felt after reading Gilbert’s last novel, The Signature of All Things, published last 2013 and which I read in 2018. Back then, I was very skeptical of reading anything by Gilbert. Like most people, all I knew about her was Eat, Pray, Love – a book I disliked on principle and one I never planned to read – but to my surprise, all it took was just the first lines of The Signature of All Things to banish that skepticism. Truthfully, I’ve never felt myself slip into the world of a book faster than when I read those opening lines. With an astonishment that’s admittedly unfair to Ms. Gilbert, I thought, Man, this woman knows how to tell a story – this woman can write.

In fact, I would say that out of all the authors I’ve read so far, Gilbert’s writing – her authorial voice, her portrayal of the characters, her subjects, the rhythm and architecture of her sentences – resonates with me on a very personal level. She may not be the most technically skilled writer (e.g., Virginia Woolf) or the keenest social observer (e.g., Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), but there’s just something about how she writes that feels closest to how I want to notice things, or how I want things to be talked about. I don’t know if that makes any sense – it’s so deeply felt that I have difficulty articulating it – but I don’t know, I just get her writing (or perhaps more appropriately, her writing gets me).

Elizabeth Gilbert
The author Elizabeth Gilbert

I think part of what I enjoy about her writing is the span and scope of it. Both The Signature of All Things and City of Girls spans nearly a century of history, told through the perspective of her female protagonist. In City of Girls in particular, she not only covers the New York 1940s theatre scene; she also touches on World Wars I and II, their aftermath, and the sexual revolution. These are undoubtedly Very Important Events, and as such they could easily have swallowed up the novel’s characters – and we, the readers, understanding the space needed to explore such events, might not have minded. But Gilbert prevents their sombre importance from eclipsing the story by prioritising her protagonist’s lived experience of these historical moments; she doesn’t sacrifice scope for intimacy of detail. Look at how she introduces the encroaching World War II:

There was a war coming, by the way.

[. . .]

Right around the time that I moved to New York—this would be the middle of June 1940—the Germans had marched into Paris. (So much for Dad’s theory.) But there was too much excitement going on in my life for me to follow the story closely. I was far more curious about what was happening in Harlem and the Village than what had happened to the Maginot Line. And by August, when the Luftwaffe started bombing British targets, I was going through my pregnancy and gonorrhea scares, so I didn’t quite register that information, either.

History has a pulse, they say—but mostly I have never been able to hear it, not even when it is drumming right in my goddamn ears.

When I first read this, I was struck by how a serious declaration such as ‘There was a war coming’ was followed by the offhand phrase ‘by the way’ – as if it were an afterthought. I think this sometimes mirrors how we are in our own lives, especially when we’re younger or preoccupied by a personal crisis – monumental events at the forefront of history seem to be relegated to the backgrounds of our lives, and it’s only in retrospect or with more time and space that we can truly think about the ramifications of what had happened.

That said, with a book of this span and scope, it’s bound to be unevenly told. A number of readers have commented on how they seemed to have read two different books – a very interesting first half, and a dull and boring second half. I’d agree that there is a tonal shift at around the midway point, but I’d say it’s less due to Gilbert’s inability to sustain good storytelling than it is due to the developmental transitions of the protagonist. Simply put: Vivian grew up.

In the first half of the novel, Vivian talks about her youth, and the ‘manic’ tone and vivid descriptions of each new experience reflect the wonder, anxiety, and excitement we all feel at the flush of discovering something for the first time (e.g., her first friend crush, falling in love for the first time, having an orgasm for the first time). What propelled the narrative of the first half forward was the series of people that Vivian met in the magical world of theatre. In particular, Vivian fixates on a handful of people that would later become important to her sense of self – the glamorous showgirl Celia Ray as her first friend and her first guide into the world of sexuality; the acclaimed actress Edna Parker Watson as her model for real sophistication; and the cool and arrogant Anthony Roccella as her first love. In retrospect, she admits:

I realize now that I always needed somebody to be infatuated with when I was twenty years old, and it didn’t really matter who, apparently. Anybody with more charisma than me would do the trick. [. . .] I was so unformulated as a human being, so unsteady in myself, that I was constantly grasping for attachment to another person—constantly anchoring myself to someone else’s allure.

In contrast, in the second half, the concentrated force of this youthful adulation is diffused by Vivian’s involvement in war efforts, and by her own burgeoning sense of maturity and certainty. Here, we begin to see her quiet confidence as a dressmaker, and her calm acceptance of her sexual appetites. This is the Vivian who is able to say:

Anyway, at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time.

After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.

As such, if the first half of the novel was a relentless assault of spectacle and novelty, the second half was a mellow savouring of meaningful experiences – e.g., female friendships, pleasurable sex, and intimate conversation. It’s in the second half that we get a more nuanced exploration of the different kinds of love that an individual can experience in her life. So while the two halves seemed disjointed for some readers, it worked well enough for me – I was able to see the whole they tried to represent.

There’s a lot more to commend in this novel – Gilbert’s vivid and masterful characterisations; her ear for natural-sounding dialogue – but this review is becoming too long, so I’ll end with one last point: why I only gave it 4 stars.

As much as I wanted to give this 5 stars, the one thing that didn’t work for me was the way the entire narrative was framed. Vivian is 95 years old when she’s recalling this story, in response to a letter written by someone named Angela, who’d asked, in essence, “What were you to my father?” We are to believe that this 470-page novel is a response to that, when the only part that reasonably answers that question is the last third of the novel. In my opinion, the story would have been more believable and just as interesting without this narrative frame.

All in all, though, it was a very delightful and immersive read, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

Find me on Goodreads | Read from December 22-30, 2019

Book Review: All Our Wild Wonder by Sarah Kay

All Our Wild Wonder

All Our Wild Wonder, by Sarah Kay and illustrated by Sophia Janowitz (Published in 2018 by Hachette Books)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

A quick review for a quick read:

I came across this at a booksale this week. This poem is a short, heartwarming tribute to teachers and educators, with an emphasis on those who had been intentional in cultivating wonder and the love of learning in our lives. In particular, the lines “She made us wonder. She made us question. / She made us proud of what we had learned” reminded me of one high school science teacher of mine who was known to be challenging because of her difficult tests and high standards. But she taught us so well and with so much enthusiasm that we were frequently surprised when we eventually did meet the standards that we’d thought were impossible to meet. For awhile, it made me feel like I was actually good at science. That was short-lived, of course, since college eventually proved me wrong, but I still carry the “muscle memory”, if you will, of challenging myself to master difficult concepts because of her. 

As for the poetry, I don’t think this is Sarah Kay’s best (then again, I’ve only watched her spoken word performances), but the words coupled with the line-drawn illustrations by Sophia Janowitz made for a really charming read.

All Our Wild Wonder - Pic Edited

One final thing that struck me about this book is that the teacher Sarah Kay gives tribute to in this poem, who also serves as the school principal, is an Indian woman who wears saris while she’s at work with the children. As a result, the children come to associate her image with that of education and learning, so much so that when they see Indian women in their saris on the street, they stare in wonder because there’s “so many principals!” I found this absolutely delightful.

Overall a charming read, and as the blurb says, it really would make a great gift for teachers. 

Read January 2, 2019 | Goodreads Account