January Books

I thought instead of doing singular reviews of just some books I read every month on here, I would try doing one big post to accompany this week’s book video, that would go into more depth on the best and the worst and give synopses of some of the others so you can easily locate them if you need in the future. Let me know which way you prefer.

Highs

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

This was a thoroughly accomplished novel and an enjoyable read, especially considering its contents; it’s a retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein set in the aftermath of the US invasion - sounds pretty dark, right? But this is a satire that describes how junk-dealer Hadi puts together a 'Whatitsname' made from the body parts he finds on the streets in order to make a point about how the dead are being 'treated as rubbish'; by making it a complete body, he hopes that it will be treated as human. Unluckily for him, Hadi's corpse is reanimated with the soul of a hotel guard recently killed by a bomb himself, and a surreal chaos ensues. It’s not just Hadi and the corpse though; there is a wide cast of characters in this book which are skilfully wrought; from the enterprising journalist to the belligerent older woman that takes the monster to be her long lost son (a particular favourite). Saadawi manages to depict the sheer unreality of occupied Baghdad - the sectarianism, the confusion, the futility, the madness - in a matter-of-fact and satirical way that if anything, heightens the devastation.

There is lots to like about this book, and the symbolism of the 'Whatitsname' would be an extremely fruitful place to begin any analysis of this. It at once becomes the 'first true Iraqi' because of its bringing together many different 'ethnicities, tribes, races and social classes' in fleshy form, but in the next moment it represents the grey area between criminality and innocence; when its body parts begin to fall off and it wants only true victims to replace these parts, it must begin killing the innocent. But this is also a novel about storytelling, or fatherhood, or creation. Its certainly a worthy reimagining of Shelley's original work, and I would highly recommend it.

The White Book

This is not really a novel nor a collection of poems or stories. It is more of a meditation on the colour white and the narrator's older sister, who lived for only two hours. Imbuing this short life with meaning, this book thinks through grief, the fragility of life, doubleness, innocence, time, motherhood, materialism, love, history and healing. The Guardian described this as a kind of 'secular prayer book', which I think is an excellent description of the kind of effect reading this is going to have on you. It's probably not going to be your favourite ever book unless you particularly love reading poetry or the like, but I wanted to place it here in the Highs because it is a beautifully written book that's well worth a read, especially because it won't take you that long, either. If you're an aspiring writer, it might also be a place to look for inspiration.

Rebecca

Rebecca is such a fun book. Wickedly gothic, it tells the story of a young woman who impulsively marries a middle-aged man whilst on holiday, but finds herself haunted by the apparent perfection of his first wife, Rebecca, upon her arrival at his estate back in Cornwall. Surrounded by Rebecca's things and Rebecca's staff and even Rebecca's dogs, she feels her inadequacy heavily (especially because she is of a lower class and is not familiar with estate life). Du Maurier has a skill for tapping into its heroine's insecurities, and the fact that they're so familiar to most readers (I would imagine) only heightens the effect of the novel. Rebecca seems to pervade the very walls and grounds of Manderley (the estate) and the novel maintains the ghostly tension throughout. My only slight disappointment was that the twist at the end, or rather the conclusion to the story was a little disappointing, but it may be that I've just watched too many modern crime dramas at this point and always expect something rather outlandish. I would definitely recommend this one if you've never got round to reading it.

Lows

Everything Under

I want to be nicer about Everything Under because I want to be supportive and positive about young female writers but something about this book really grated on me. Perhaps it’s the fact that (spoiler!) this book is based on a Greek myth - or should I say one of the most famous Greek myths - in Oedipus. I didn't actually know this until the very end of the novel, and it sure would have explained a lot about this book. Although it isn't necessary to know about it, it's clear to me that the myth is supposed to be providing the ~meaning~ in this watery, murky book. And there's few things I hate more than when an author uses a Greek myth to back a wishy washy story up.

See? I can't help but be rude about this book for some reason, and it is very possible that it's all down to my personal preferences when reading, so I'm sorry Daisy Johnson, and I'm sure I couldn’t have written anything like this myself. Nonetheless, I found this book a pretty unenjoyable read. I think lyrical writing and a sort of plotless, meandering vibe can work if you have something to say. But if what you have to say is retelling the Oedipal myth with a bit of pointing towards something vague about gender and motherhood, then the emphasis is on the wrong bit. Plus some of the writing just felt a bit unsure; it really felt like a first novel. Somehow in a simple moment when the narrator leaves the house, sentences like 'There was a crust of light pollution and a sliver-moon' managed to stay in place. Indeed, one of my major notes I wrote was that this novel needed some serious editing; someone to get rid of some of the more repetitive strains and keep only the best.

In case you are unfamiliar with this novel, it's about a daughter who finds her mother afflicted by dementia after a lengthy estrangement, and follows her as she begins to unravel some of the secrets of her childhood on the rivers and canals of the UK. Needless to say, this novel is waterlogged with water metaphors, but I struggle to see why it is set where it is, other than to provide an eerie atmosphere. This is the kind of thing you have to back up with something more. Ultimately it left me with a bit of an empty feeling, and there was a lot of potential here too to write something more poignant about mothers, daughters, female sexuality and perhaps its dialogue with the Oedipal myth. Better to pick up Angela Carter, or maybe Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, which for some reason kept popping into my head as I read this book. It’s a similarly lyrical story but it conveys its gendered message in a far more assured way, and the writing is confident and precise. It lacks some of Johnson's more folkloric elements, but I didn't feel like they added too much to Everything Under, either. There are other things I could bang on about here, but I'll spare you all.

My New American Life by Francine Prose

I don't have a whole lot to say about this book other than to make the point that I don't really understand the point of it. Supposedly about the Albanian immigrant experience, it depicts a young Albanian woman who works as a live-in nanny for a teenage boy in New Jersey. Her quiet life is interrupted by three men from her home country who ask her to do something illegal. This brief synopsis sounds a lot better than the actual reality of reading this book; I honestly have no idea what really happened in it. It felt like Prose really had no idea what she wanted to write or say (and her depiction of Albania and Albanians seemed pretty basic), and she kept repeating herself over and over. It was a task to get through this novel and I just kept waiting for something to happen, but it never came. Do not recommend!

Everything in Between - for more detailed reviews and synopses of these, please refer to my video.

A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms ad The Kingdom of Gods by N. K. Jemisin

If you love Jemisin as much as me, it might be worth dipping your nose into her first ever trilogy, but it certainly does not feel as assured as her later work. Conforming to more traditional Fantasy tropes, I found it to be a little disappointing, but thoroughly enjoyed spotting all the elements she later developed into Broken Earth.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

An obvious classic but gone by so fast that unless you were studying it (probably at school), it is easily subsumed by bigger, fatter novels in the mind. However, Steinbeck's writing in this which is at once clean and crisp and on the other rich with beautiful description has definitely made me keen to read more.

Moo by Jane Smiley

I didn't enjoy Moo as much as I did A Thousand Acres, another Smiley book I read. Set on a university campus in the American Midwest, this is a satire on university life, capitalism and relationships. It was enjoyable but it is relatively long, and be prepared not to particularly bond with any of the characters; this is a novel that's trying to show you an overarching tableau of characters and deliver on the ideas.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

A novel I started off disliking but ended up having a bit of an epiphany about midway through, landing it in this section of the blog post. At first it seemed like Kushner had done a lot of research on female prisons and then put it all into a kind of lacklustre, bitty story. If you are familiar with the injustice and brutality of the prison system, this didn't really seem to be adding anything new by turning it fictional. However, as soon as the narrator's son became a more vital part of the storyline, and some of it veered out of sheer realism it seemed to become a lot more meaningful. I'm not saying you need that emotional story part to make Kushner's very valid point, but it seemed from the first half as though she should have simply transcribed some of the interviews that she had had, and let the women talk for themselves. It was the second part of the novel where she added writer's flair and made it important in another way, too.

Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord by Louis de Bernières

I can't deny that I find Bernières writing style and novels generally really enjoyable. This one less so than the first instalment in the Latin American trilogy, as it is a less focussed and even more episodic than usual, but generally they are fun and can be really funny, plus I love a little bit of magical realism. But I just can't let him have all the rampant sexism (presumably at least partially inspired by Gabriel García Márquez's own use of women in his books [still recovering from Love in the Time of Cholera], along with much else about Bernières' Latin American trilogy) and the possibly offensive and/or robbed material of actual Latin American writers. Sorry, mate. I'll finish the trilogy though.

From a Low and Quiet Sea

This is sadly one of this month's least memorable books. It describes three men; a Syrian refugee, a young man recently heartbroken, and an older man called John who laments his life's failures, including his botched relationship with a younger woman. Then at the end, it (spoiler!) brings them all weirdly together in a frustrating half-finished way. The first section is actually probably the best, even though presumably Lampy and John are likely closer to Donal Ryan's own life experience, and there are some touching and lyrical moments throughout. However it just left me wondering why, and there didn't seem to me to be much beneath the surface of this book apart from a vague connection through 'love and loss'.

Less

Let's start by saying I'm not entirely sure why this book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, because although it was good it didn't strike me as anything absolutely showstopping. (Having just looked up prize winners from the last few years, I'm suddenly a lot less confused; Less is certainly a lot better than Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad) A comic novel that depicts a sad middle-aged writer, forever in the shadow of his talented ex-partner or young lover, who goes on a round-the-world trip to run from his problems. Poignant at times and a bit of a tearjerker towards the end, it has some really lovely things to say about getting old and about love, especially within the queer community, but ultimately it didn't quite feel completely finished.