May Books

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It’s been a wee while but I’m back again with a round-up of the books I read in May, and you can watch the accompanying video here. This month I didn’t get round to reading as much as I wanted, mostly because I got stuck in a rut with two of the longer titles listed below that I really wasn’t enjoying; I need to get better at giving up on the books I don’t like. Anyway, there were at least a couple of hits which I can’t say for every month, so it's not all bad.

Highs

World’s Fair by E. L. Doctorow

4/5

This charming novel charts the childhood of a boy growing up in New York in the early twentieth century. The novel is narrated retrospectively mostly by the protagonist Edgar, which allows Doctorow to capture the perspective of a child without using childlike diction or grammar (which I find can sometimes be a bit irritating). He masterfully balances the adult expression against the minutiae of childhood experience and in doing so not only introduces a comic element but also intensifies and brings added significance to even the smallest elements of Edgar's early life. To break up his narrative, there are chapters addressed to him from the point of view of other older characters - his mother or older brother - and these give a more rounded sense of some of the darker elements of the novel as well as some of the gendered aspects without shoehorning them into the warm nostalgia of the main thread.

As many children do, Edgar recounts how he tried to untangle the complexity of his parents' relationship and the responsibilities of adult life. His father a dreamer, his mother put-upon and practical, Edgar often finds himself in the middle of their conflicts. However, Doctorow also documents the magic of the everyday in the life of the child, bringing some of the more mundane elements of the book to life. The street cleaning ‘water wagon’ is one of the earliest images in the novel, as Edgar remembers it shooting out an ‘iridescent rainbow [like] millions of liquid drops of sun’. At another moment, he describes how, being the baby of the family, he was frustrated being unable to assert himself at home as he does at school; ‘no matter how I grew and what I learned, I couldn’t seem to better my position’, a frustration I’m sure many children could sympathise with.

Another one of the novel’s charms is that it depicts that historical period in New York extremely vividly, making even Edgar’s visits to the local stores with his mother come to life. I found myself fascinated by the descriptions of daily life, and of course the World's Fair from which the novel takes its title. Whilst there is nothing ground-breaking going on here, it is very accomplished piece of work that engages you and draws you into its world. It's also not often that I find myself reading a novel that feels warm and nostalgic, and so I have been thinking about it regularly since I finished it.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

3.5/5

This collection of stories is a wonderful example of the kind of things speculative fiction can do, as Chiang seamlessly blends complex mathematics, science and linguistics with human stories and sentiments, creating something rather beautiful, moving and thought-provoking. Published in 2002, the collection has been re-released to coincide with the film Arrival which is based on the title story, and indeed it is one of the strongest. I don't want to reveal too much, but it’s about a linguist who is chosen to try and learn the language of a mysterious alien species that have appeared in the night sky, which in turn changes her own life dramatically (and not in the way you think). I haven't watched the film and I'm a little scared to, but if you enjoyed it please let me know. Another story depicts a brain-damaged man who becomes hyper-intelligent upon the injection of an experimental hormone ('Understand'), leading Chiang to experiment with what that might feel like (total control over the physiological processes of the body as one interesting idea). Indeed, throughout the stories Chiang seems particularly interested in the ways we might change the structure of our thought, and what that might look like.

However, whilst Chiang's humanism and attention to the ways in which we think (and can change how we think) is one of the best things about his stories, it also sometimes left me wanting more. Now I know these are only stories which means there isn't room for absolutely everything, but I think in some respects some of the ideas could have been pushed further to consider gender, race, and non-human intelligence more. For example, in 'Understand', animal intelligence is ruled out almost immediately when the narrator proclaims the hormone had no effect on them. In 'Seventy-Two Letters', in which there seems to be a basic prototype of a human, race isn't mentioned at all. It's possible I'm missing something, and I only say this because I loved the stories and their blend of science and fiction (plenty of books can get away without overtly attending to these things, like World's Fair), but it seemed to me that Chiang seemed to be hinting at them (otherwise why mention animal intelligence at all in 'Understand') but didn't push quite far enough. Ultimately, it doesn't mean that the stories aren't great in and of themselves, but the extra element would have really elevated them to favourite status for me.

Furthermore, the collection is a little uneven, particularly after the first few stories; the steampunk Victoriana offering in 'Seventy-Two Letters' didn't have the focus nor the human element of some of the best pieces, and the final story 'Living What You See: A Documentary' is a little too on the nose. It describes documentary-style what might happen if we could no longer identify beauty in faces. Nonetheless, many of these stories are well worth reading; Chiang's simple but effective style elucidates complex concepts in such a way that will make you want to go away and read up on the science/maths/linguistics immediately, and he is masterful at crafting stories that fit the theory perfectly, and make the nonfiction an integral part of the plot.

Lows

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

2/5

This novel follows a few years in the life of a middle-class family in Calcutta in the late 1960s. The bare bones of this book are all there for me; it looks in depth at family life, inheritance and obligation, whilst at the same time exploring through one of the younger family members the communist guerrilla action taking place at the time, as well as the issue of class in Bengali society. However, this novel was extremely slow and long, and failed to hit any of its marks satisfactorily. The style is ultimate realism (a new form of realism I've just coined that is the worst kind), and there is not much that I found interesting in the form or the style, as it plods along wordily for hundreds of pages. There seemed to be many things that Mukherjee wanted to include that weren't entirely relevant to his themes of family and class, and I honestly think the book could have been half as long. For example, there are whole pages dedicated to the prodigy child's mathematics problems - not his genius, but the maths itself - which were almost completely irrelevant; once you have read Chiang's seamless blend of maths and fiction, this sort of thing seems especially dull. Ultimately, I admire Mukherjee's intent with this book, but it just wasn't for me. Plus, if you are going to read it (after this glowing review…), it has some extremely violent and upsetting content that I think wasn't totally expertly handled, so be warned.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

1/5

It’s safe to say that if this book were published tomorrow it wouldn't go down so well. Published as it was in 2002, it was praised for its depiction of an intersex character, so much so that it won the Pulitzer Prize (!?). However, it is clear pretty much from the outset of this book that Eugenides himself is not intersex, because the treatment of the science, gender issues, and emotions of the protagonist seemed half-baked and at times outright ignorant. Not least because the revelation that the protagonist is actually intersex happens about four fifths of the way through, which smacks of an author who wanted to write about an intersex character but then realised that the actual reality of that was much more complex than they thought. This is further proven by the fact that when this revelation does occur, it is practically skimmed over in favour of some voyeuristic sex work section. The rest of the book was mostly dedicated to the life of protagonist Cal as they were growing up as a girl in Detroit as part of a Greek immigrant family, which seemed to be where Eugenides felt much more comfortable writing, and the two major themes didn't really come together for me. Finally, like The Lives of Others, it was long and wordy and many parts were irrelevant and I got bored. Multiple sins for this one.

Everything in between

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

2.5/5

And finally, Jean Rhys, who confuses me endlessly. In case you don't know, in this novel Rhys is writing back to Jane Eyre, providing a feminist anti-colonial prequel for the Creole first wife, Bertha, by describing Rochester's terrible treatment of her and the traumas of her childhood. I have read another of Rhys' novels, Voyage in the Dark, which described the life of a young woman coming from the Caribbean to the UK in the early twentieth century (an experience which Rhys, who was born and raised in Dominica, was familiar with). I note this because the two novels have a lot in common despite being set in different time periods; they both describe the white Caribbean or white Creole position as being uncomfortably liminal, not at home amongst the black community or the white British community. On the one hand, both of Rhys' protagonists will lament this, at times even going so far as to be what I would call racist (especially in light of their slave owning forefathers), but at the next they are staunchly anti-colonial and heavily critical of the white British presence. Although it is uncomfortable to read, I imagine it is quite an accurate depiction of white Caribbean life at the time, and for that reason it makes an interesting historical account. However, it's not often that you find the two of these things fighting in a book of this age because there weren't many white female Caribbean authors writing like this at the time, which is why I can never quite make up my mind about Rhys' work. With regards to the novel itself, it is well written and creates a dreamy, sometimes nightmarish atmosphere that perfectly builds the tension between Antoinette(/Bertha) and Rochester. It is very readable but still haunting and atmospheric, and I think it works extremely well as a prequel in conversation with Jane Eyre. A tricky book, but one that might be worth a read if any of the above interests you.