Reviewing six months later: January-March 2020 wrap up
A few days ago, I wrote a blog post about how I have an urge to find books with staying power. I am finding myself more interesting in the personal side of reading. When someone reviews a book, I want to know why they picked it up in the first place, if it changed them, if they think it will stay with them for the coming months or years. I am curious about my own reading life, and wonder which of the books I pick up will become these beloved tomes.
For my own interest, I am going to attempt to wrap up what I read months after I finished the books. I want to see how much I remember of the books, how much they have stayed with me, and whether my feelings about them has changed over time.
I have roughly ordered these from best to worst, starting with the books I remember the most positively and still think about it. Apart from checking the spelling of names and places, I haven't looked up the plot of any of these; this is what I remember from them.
1. The Yield → Tara June Winch
I read the entire longlist for the Stella Prize this year, an Australian literary prize that celebrates fiction and non-fiction writing by women and non-binary people in Australia. The Yield was one of these books, and easily my favourite book of the first three months of the year. At its heart, it is a story about a young woman named August. She is returning home to Australia after many years abroad because her grandfather has just passed away. August is dealing with the strangeness of returning home as well as the grief she feels for a man who she was close to, but hasn't seen in recent years.
There are other components of this book worked cleverly into the narrative. August's grandfather is a Wiradjuri man and was writing a dictionary to try and record the Wiradjuri language. Excerpts from his dictionary are interwoven throughout the novel, as well as a side plot involving Indigenous land rights.
August as a character has stuck with me enormously, as have the themes of this novel. It is one I think about all the time, and really want to read a second time.
2. Ducks, Newburyport → Lucy Ellman
Ducks Newburyport is an unusual novel. It's 1000 pages long, stream of consciousness, and has few few full stops. I was full of trepidation when I started this novel, and only did so when Eric Karl Anderson was so enthusiastic about it on his blog. It is essentially the story of a woman in Ohio who is living her fairly normal life, and worrying about all the things in the world that most of us tend to worry about.
The novel is completely inside her head, and I was completely swept up into her world as she worries about politics, about her business, her relationship with her husband, her kids, her car, the cold, etc. The prose has a really nice rhythm to it, and the narrative voice is very compelling. I thought it was funny, warm, and bold, and it still makes me smile if I think about it. This is one I would love to reread in the not-too-distant future.
3. Tar Baby → Toni Morrison
Tar Baby was one of the first books I read this year and was my first Morrison. It is set on a small island in the Caribbean, at the house of a rich white American couple, Valerian and Margaret. The couple have two black servants, Sydney and Ondine, and it is their story that has stuck with me the most. I found Sydney and Ondine both incredibly compelling characters, and I wanted to read more and more about them. There was such a delicate power balance between Valerian/Margaret and Sydney/Ondine, with Valerian and Margaret being completely dependent on the two. I really enjoyed this and it compelled me to read more by Morrison as soon as possible.
4. Vita Nostra → Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
This. Was. Crazy.
It's the story of a girl who recruited to a mysterious university, where she is given seemingly senseless assignments, like listening to white noise for eight hours straight. She has no idea what this university is and what it's for, but she finds herself lying to her mother about it and defending it even when it makes no sense to be doing so. As she is drawn deeper into the university's activities and she begins to understand somewhat what they are doing, she becomes more and more removed from her family and classmates, and more and more caught up in the activities of her mentors.
This is a sort of fantasy-come-speculative fiction novel, and another one I would love to reread. It is so mysterious and vague at the beginning before you understand more of the plot, and I think I would get more out of it on a second reading. It's absorbing and engrossing, and I really really enjoyed it.
5. The Weekend → Charlotte Wood
The story of a group of older women who are lifelong friends, packing up the house of one of their friends who has recently passed way. Although I wasn't super taken by this novel when I first read it, the story and the characters has really stayed with me. The women have all kind of drifted apart over time, and you hear from each of their perspectives and how they each drive each other nuts. A really interesting look at ageing and friendship, why we chose the friends that we do, and why we stay friends with them.
6. Americanah → Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is probably Adichie's most famous novel. It's the story of two Nigerians who immigrate to the US. It's about race and integration, identity and belonging. The thing I remember the most about this novel is not the novel itself, but a particular conversation it stimulated with a friend who moved from Malawi to Canada when she was young. I would not have had the chance to talk to her about this and hear her personal experience had it not been for Americanah, so I am extremely grateful to it for that.
The rest of the fiction books I read I largely enjoyed, but they haven't stayed with me as much as these first six. These are the rest of the novels I read in the first quarter, roughly ranked from most memorable and enjoyable to least.
7. The Nickel Boys → Colson Whitehead
This was a book for my real-life book club, and it provoked some super interesting discussion. One of our members is actually from the town that this book is set in, and knew quite a lot about the history of the 'school' that is in the novel. According to her the book was quite inaccurate, which led to an interesting discussion about who should be telling stories and how important accuracy is. Ten months later I still have no idea how to feel about this book!
8. Songspirals → Gay'wu Group of Women
This was a total first for me: a collaborative novel between some scholars/writers in Australia, and some Yolngu women. The Yolngu women recounted how much work it was to get the non-Indigenous writers ready to hear stories as they tell them, and how vital Indigenous storytelling is. I did struggle with the way it was written at times, however I appreciate that the text was not catered to me.
9. Of Mice and Men → John Steinbeck
My first Steinbeck. I remember this story pretty well, and I enjoyed reading it. There was a lot packed into this 100-odd page novel, and I think it's one I would have enjoyed reading at school had it been on our curriculum.
10. Flowers for Algernon → Daniel Keyes
A classsic sci-fi about a boy whose intelligence is expanded exponentially. I found it interesting from a scientific/ethical perspective.
11. The Butcher's Hook → Janet Ellis.
A historical fiction set in Georgian London, about a girl who is kind of a brat and trying to be with the boy she loves.
12. Lucky Ticket → Joey Bui
From the Stella longlist, a short story collection with stories set in both Vietnam and Australia. I quite liked all the stories in here and would definitely read any longer-form work by this author.
13. The House of Youssef → Yumna Kassab
Another short story collection from the Stella longlist, this time about the experience of Lebanese immigrants to Australia. I quite enjoyed this one as well and will be on the look out for more books on this topic.
14. Women Talking → Miriam Toews
A small story about a group of Mennonite women. I was surprised to find that this book is actually narrated by a man, and to be honest I found it hard to see the 'patriarchal takedown' that this book is lauded for.
15. The Bloody Chamber → Angela Carter
A collection of fairytale retellings that I borrowed off a friend. I really liked the titular story and some of the others, although I can't say that the collection compelled me to pick up more works by this author.
16. There Was Still Love → Favel Parrett
One of the Stella longlisted novels, this is a story about a Czech family who immigrated to Australia. I was interested in this as my grandparents also immigrated from Europe to Australia, and it's not a theme I've read much about. I didn't particularly enjoy it and I can't say that I remember much of it.
17. Here Until August → Jospehine Rowe
Another Stella-longlisted short story collection! At the time I enjoyed this one the most out of the three that were longlisted and thought they were the best written, however I honestly can't recall a single story in here.
18. Vicious → V.E. Schwab
A book I had had on my TBR list for years. Speculative fiction about some guys in university/college who find some way to defeat death or make themselves invincible or become genetically engineered or something. 'twas OK.
19. The Taking of Annie Thorne → C.J. Tudor
I read this accidentally, thinking it was something else. This isn't my favourite genre in general but I thought this was a particularly bad example of a detective POV mystery.
Actually all the non-fiction I read in this quarter has stayed with me. Ranked roughly in order from most memorable to least:
1. The Five → Hallie Rubenfold
Historian Hallie Rubenfold does an amazing job here unpacking what is known about the women killed by Jack the Ripper. She ends the book with an essay and conclusion about our fixation with true crime, and why as a culture we are so interested in serial killers. It made me really think about how I consume true crime, and I stopped listening to a few podcasts that I felt glorified the perpetrators of violent crime.
2. Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions → Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A letter from Adichie to her friend, suggesting ways in which you can raise your child to be a feminst. Adichie is strongest in her non-fiction in my opinion - read with highlighter in hand!
3. Australia Day → Stan Grant
Stan Grant's examination of Australia Day and why there is a push to change the date. Grant examines the root of the cause and looks at how Indigenous people are treated in Australia, and why the glorification of colonialism is a problem in the first place. Essential reading.
4. Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race → Renni Eddo-Lodge
I reread this in March because I picked up Invisible Women, and Eddo-Lodge discusses some of the problems with the lack of intersectionality in that book. It's fantastic, if you haven't read it, do it.
5. Missoula → Jon Krakauer
I really liked Krakauer's books, and this one was no exception. A close-up look at a town in Montana in the US, and the sexual assault cases in that town. Krakauer looks at the way which sexual assault victims are treated and often dismissed by officials, and how the public support tends to be overwhelming in favour of the perpetrator, accompanied by victim blaming. It still makes my blood boil if I think about it.
6. Citizen: An American Lyric → Claudia Rankine
This is an experimental poetry collection that mixes media, looking at race relations in the US, and particularly the way black citizens are treated by police.
7. On Identity → Stan Grant
Grant discusses his identity as an Indigenous Australian with white heritage. He talks about the effect of 'black blood', and how we are obsessed with labelling people - especially those who are perceived as 'other'.
8. Paper Emperors → Sally Young
Historian Sally Young looks at the history of newspapers and the media in Australia. She dissects who owns them, what motivates them, and how reporting is intrinsically biased and agenda-driven in Australia. This was really chilling, and it was sombering to reflect on how this bias has shaped our government and politics for the past 100 years.
Books I didn't finish
Sapiens → Yuval Novah Harari
On Reading Well → Karen Swallows Prior
The Year of Magical Thinking → Joan Didion [I intend to reread this one on day!]
The Iron King → Julie Kagawa
Bruny → Heather Rose
Diving Into Glass → Caro Llewellyn
Tell the Wolves I'm Home → Carol Rifka Brunt