Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

 If you need further proof that we’re haunted by the ghosts of our past, you’ll certainly find it in A Little Life. My feelings about this book are very mixed. I was torn between thinking it was tragically beautiful and thinking it was tragedy porn. I decided it is tragedy porn but it’s well written tragedy porn with literary merit.

Jude Fawley of Jude the Obscure is regarded as one of the most tragic characters in literature. Well, when it comes to tragedy, Jude Fawley has met his match in Jude St. Francis, the main character in this novel. This Jude was abandoned in a dumpster as a baby. Throughout his entire childhood and adolescence he is horrifically physically, emotionally and sexually abused by many people, several of them people he trusted to care for him. When he grows up he attends a prestigious college, becomes a successful lawyer and finds a group of good friends. A law school professor and his wife legally  adopt him as their own child (this professor lost his own son to a devastating disease when he was a little kid.  Pretty much everyone in this book experiences great tragedy in their lives.)

Yet Jude remains a tortured soul who is left with many physical and emotional scars as a result of the abuse he endured. The man who deliberately ran over him with his car left him partially crippled and his condition worsens over time. Throughout his life he endures traumatic flashbacks to his past. He suffers from low self esteem and has relationship issues with his friends, his lovers, his adoptive parents, his co-workers and his doctors. He has trouble opening up to people, believing that he’s deserving of their love and trusting that they’re not going to abandon him. To cope with all of this he regularly engages in self mutilation.

The tragic events don’t end with his childhood either. The poor guy just can’t catch a break in life. As you may know from my previous book reviews, I’m pretty morbid in my tastes in literature. Not only do I have a high tolerance for tragedy in literature, I have an appreciation and a craving for it. Yet even I have my limits and this book pushed me past them. I can only endure so many graphic descriptions of childhood sexual abuse and self mutilation before it becomes overwhelming and I start feeling nauseated.

I think the harsh realities of life should be depicted in literature and I certainly don’t want them sugar coated in order to avoid making the reader uncomfortable. However there’s a difference between tragedy that is plausible and endemic to the story, and tragedy that is artificially manufactured to create melodrama. There’s a difference between tragedy for the sake of illustrating a point or a truth and tragedy just for the sake of tragedy. Too often it felt like this book fell in to the latter categories.

Yet overall I did like A Little Life.  It was well written and it was emotionally gripping. It provided a lot of good insights, reflections and food for thought especially on subjects such as the nature of trauma, grief and friendship. I could feel the pain of the characters to the point that it became my own pain. Jude is such a tragic, vulnerable character, one that generates a lot of sympathy and compassion. Sometimes you just want to reach through the pages and hug him, to take away his pain, to convince him that he’s a good, valuable person who’s worthy of love and happiness.

Of course as the reader you are powerless to do that. Unfortunately the characters in the book who love him and try desperately to help him are also powerless to do that. There’s this notion that love is all you need, that love is always enough, that love can overcome anything. Unfortunately that’s often not the case. Sometimes the victims of trauma will struggle with and be devastated by their trauma for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the loved ones of the trauma victim will struggle with and be devastated by the pain of desperately wanting to save someone who cannot be saved.

There’s also a tendency to want to sort people who have suffered severe abuse and trauma in to two separate categories, two distinct dichotomies: those who were able to overcome their demons and achieve success and those who succumbed to their demons and failed at life. As Jude proves, it isn’t always that black and white. One person can fall in to both categories. Jude is very successful in some areas of life but struggles greatly in other areas as a result of his past. He is both a victim and a survivor.

Usually when a character commits suicide, it is at least somewhat surprising to the reader. I was not the least bit surprised by Jude’s suicide. I would have been surprised if he hadn’t committed suicide. When I read about it rather than being shocked by something I didn’t see coming, I sarcastically said to myself “Oh darn, and here I was thinking they were all going to live happily ever after.”

As saddened as I was by Jude’s suicide. I couldn’t help but consider it a miracle that he lasted as long as he did and I couldn’t help but feel glad that he had finally been relieved of his suffering.

 

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

This is my favorite book I’ve read so far this year. It’s about a woman named Mae who gets a job at a powerful internet company called The Circle that’s rather Google-esque and Facebook-esque. At first it seems like her dream job and everything is perfect. This is a company that really seems to care about the well being of its employees, that goes above and beyond to make sure they’re happy, healthy and having a good time.

There are all kinds of lavish parties and social events, special interest clubs, visits from celebrities, exquisite food, fancy decorations, comfortable dorm rooms in which employees can spend the night on campus and doctors to check up on the employees. The Circle even agrees to put Mae’s ailing father on her healthcare plan. Yet there’s also a dark side to The Circle and working there gets very stressful.

There’s a lot of pressure exerted on Mae to get perfect scores on her customer service reviews, to get lots of views, smiles and zings ( the equivalent of likes) and to rise in the company’s PartiRanks, which is based in her performance in those areas. Then there’s the pressure exerted on Mae to participate in The Circle’s social events, especially those that match up with her interests and experiences (her supervisors know all about her interests and experiences since they’ve searched through her social media profiles.)  In their efforts to connect people from all over the world together, to make information readily available to everyone and of course to grow their business, The Circle becomes very controlling and overbearing. They are invested in the lives of their employees not just in the workplace but outside the workplace as well and the boundary between the two soon becomes very thin.

Some of Mae’s family and friends resent the intrusion on their privacy and at first Mae does as well but after her supervisors admonish her for going kayaking without posting about it on the internet she quickly becomes brainwashed to the point that she agrees to go transparent, meaning she wears a recording device that broadcasts almost every second of her day in real time for the world to see. With the help of her supervisors she develops three central tenets to represent The Circle : Sharing is caring, secrets are lies and privacy is theft.

After that the novel becomes rather Orwellian. It is a novel that is both creepy and hilarious. What makes it so creepy is that as ridiculous as everything that happens in the novel is, it doesn’t seem all that far fetched. With the way things are headed in the real world, someday living in a society that resembles the one in this book doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility.

I’m a big fan of the internet and an avid user of social media but I recognize its inherent creepiness and I’ve noticed the levels of creepiness steadily increasing as time goes on. It’s gotten more invasive, more in you face, more stalker-y. Things that used to be private are now public.

It always freaks me out when right after I’ve read or talked about something on the internet ads geared towards that subject start popping up everywhere. No matter how many times I tell the internet that I don’t want to give it my phone number so that it can secure my account or my location so that it can serve me better, it won’t stop asking me for it. I think the use of the like button and emjois has become rather excessive.

There were several instances in this book that reminded me of my own real life encounters with the internet. When one of the founders of The Circle introduced a kind of universal social media profile with one log in across all social media sites I was reminded of something I encountered on WordPress called Gravatar. I asked a friend of mine who had it how she got it and she said she had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently she had been signed up for it without her knowledge or consent because the internet is creepy like that.

In this book multiple tragedies occur as a result of the invasive cyber crazed dystopian society The Circle is creating but the leaders rationalize the tragedies and continue on in their quest to take over the world. Maybe Mae couldn’t have been expected to realize that her ex-boyfriend would be driven to suicide as a result of her having The Circle and the networks of people connected with them track him down and pursue him after he’d gone off the grid to escape their influence but I thought it was foolish of her not to realize he would be horribly distraught by it.

At the end of the book the mysterious man who has been pursuing Mae throughout the novel reveals himself to be one of The Circle’s founding fathers. He tells Mae that The Circle has gotten out of control, that it’s become different than what he planned, more than what he bargained for, that it’s a destructive force that must be stopped. At first I thought that Mae might listen to reason and prevent The Circle from reaching ‘completion’, that the book might have a happy ending. Being the morbid thing that I am, I was disappointed because I wanted it to have a “He loved Big Brother” type of ending.

Luckily for me, it did end up having that kind of ending.  It ended the way I originally predicted it would, in the best and most (in)appropriate way it could have ended.

When I went to review this book on Goodreads and post my review on Facebook I was asked to give the book a star number rating. Then I was asked to review a number of places I had visited recently, places that had been tracked through my Facebook activity. That’s exactly the kind of thing that happened in The Circle.

Some More Books I Read This Year

A Dog’s Purpose ( W. Bruce Cameron)- If reading about a dog dying once isn’t sad enough for you try reading about a dog dying over and over again. That’s what happens in this book as the dog keeps getting reincarnated as a different dog with a different purpose in life. In addition to the sad moments there a lot of funny and sweet moments. It’s not great literature by any means but it’s an entertaining, big hearted book that shows all the ways in which dogs enrich our lives and we enrich theirs. Any dog owner or dog lover will be able to relate to and appreciate the story.

 

A Dog’s Journey (W. Bruce Cameron)-This is the sequel to  A Dog’ Purpose and it’s more of the the same except the dog’s owner is more psychologically disturbed this time. Eating disorders and suicide attempts come in to play. It’s not surprising that the girl has issues since her mother is one of the worst fictional narcissists I’ve ever encountered and a real piece of work. In most of the dog’s incarnations it’s a big dog but in this book he becomes a little dog with attitude at one point. That was his funniest incarnation. I was also amused by the dogs’ opinions of and interactions with cats in both books.

 

The Turner House ( Angela Flournoy)-  I chose this book in honor of Black History Month and I was pleased with my choice.  This book did a great job of portraying racism and the African American experience (not that as a white person I can ever fully understand that experience) but it was about so much more than that. It was about poverty, urban decay, addiction, mental illness, physical illness, family function, family dysfunction, the ties that bind us and the ties that sever us.

This book goes back and forth in time focusing on the lives of various different members of a 13 child family. It pays particular attention to the man who is in therapy because he’s seeing a ghost (called a haint) and his sister who’s struggling with a gambling problem. Meanwhile, all 13 of the siblings are arguing over what to do with the family house now that their sick mother is no longer living in it and it’s putting them in to financial debt.

By the end of the novel the house situation is not resolved and it’s not made clear whether or not the haint is real but I was satisfied with the ending.  It ends with a family gathering and it has a “Circle of life” feel to it. Regardless of whether or not the haint is an actual ghost, it’s made clear that the ghosts of our past will always haunt us and regardless of what happens to the Turner house, it’s clear that home is where the heart is.

 

 

 

Some books I’ve read this year

It Can’t Happen Here (Sinclair Lewis)-As we all know, unfortunately it did happen here. This is a novel written many years before Trump came to power about a president named Berzelius Windrip who bears a remarkable similarity to Trump. He even decides he wants to live at a hotel rather than at The White House. The results of Buzz Windrip’s presidency are disastrous just as the results of Trump’s presidency have been and will be disastrous. Many people are killed or put in concentration camps as a result of going against Buzz. I hope it doesn’t come to that with Trump but I wouldn’t put it entirely out of the realm of possibility. Things don’t end too well for Buzz or his supporters either and I’m sure that’s how it will go for Trump and his supporters too. There were no winners in the 2016 election.

In the beginning of the book the protagonist is reluctant to take part in the resistance against Buzz Windrip but by the end of the book he has become one of the leaders of the resistance. Resistance is what we need in our real world that is unfortunately emulating this novel and fortunately I’m continuing to see a lot of people resisting against all the bullshit of Trump and his administration.  While I’m not an active member of the resistance, I am rather fond of my Resist t-shirt that features a picture of Smokey the Bear (brought to me courtesy of the National Park Service.)

Since this was billed to me as being representative of Trump and the clusterfuck that surrounded his election, I found myself frustrated that certain relevant points pertaining to it were not included in this book but I had to remind myself that the author didn’t actually intend for it to be representative of him, as it was written before he was even born.  I’ve heard this is not one of Sinclair Lewis’s best books but I haven’t read any of his other books and I liked this one well enough.

A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)– This YA novel is a quick read. Some editions include illustrations. The plot concerns a boy whose mother is dying of cancer and the monster that comes to visit him. This book made good use of allegory. Fantasy and reality were well blended. The painful, complicated, conflicting emotions that are experienced when a loved one is dying were explained in a way that young readers could understand.

A friend asked me if I thought the book was too predictable. I didn’t think it was too predictable. The parts that were predictable were that way because they had to be and there were parts that defied expectations. I liked the part where the monster told the boy a fairy tale in which it seemed pretty obvious who the good guy was and who the bad guy was but the boy was shocked when the monster punished the person he thought of as the good guy rather than the person he thought of as evil. The monster then explained why the man he thought of as good deserved to be punished.

Lily and the Octopus (Steven Rowley)– After I read a book about a human dying of cancer I decided to read a book about a dog dying of cancer. I was drawn to the book because the dog had the same name as my dog.  I didn’t realize that the octopus in the title symbolized a tumor growing on the dog’s head. Like A Monster Calls, this book makes use of metaphor and allegory, blends fantasy and reality.  It’s a sweet story and it tugs at your heartstrings, especially if you’ve  ever loved and lost a canine friend. Make sure to have plenty of tissues handy when you read this.

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)– I read my first Neil Gaiman book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane a few years ago and I was blown away by it. Ever since then I’ve been vowing to read more Neil Gaiman books but I didn’t get around to it until this year. I chose American Gods because I’d heard good things about it and there’s a show based on it coming out soon.

I find it kind of challenging to describe this book. The plot involves a guy who has just been released from prison and experienced the death of his wife taking a job as a bodyguard for a mysterious conman. They then embark on an epic supernatural journey that involves the old gods of mythology trying to fight against the new ‘American Gods’ that are taking their place. These new gods reflect America’s preoccupation with things such as celebrities, media, technology and drugs.

This is a book full of symbolism, a lot of which I’m sure went completely over my head. It is a blend of fantasy, mystery and horror. I don’t like any of those genres on their own but when they’re all blended together in a literary way, it works for me. I found this book creepy and unsettling. Since I’m a morbid person I can appreciate a book that leaves me feeling that way. Neil Gaiman is an author unlike any other author I’ve read.

My Stroke of Insight (Jill Bolte Taylor)– This book was assigned to me by my therapist. It is a memoir written by a neuroscientist who experienced a stroke. Given her profession, she obviously had some special insights in to what happened to her neurologically. While reading this book it was often unclear to me whether these were insights she had while she was having/recovering from the stroke or insights she arrived at after the fact.

I had no idea that a stroke could be in any way pleasurable so I was shocked by the feelings of deep euphoria she experienced when the stroke hit. She described it as a feeling of being at one with the universe, of there being no boundaries between herself and the rest of the world. While I would never wish to have a stroke, that does sound like a pretty cool feeling that I wouldn’t mind experiencing. I think the closest I ever came was that time I was on a (legally prescribed) Ketamine trip.

The euphoric feelings were a result of the damage the stroke did to the left hemisphere of her brain. Before she got into the details of her stroke in the book she spent some time describing the differences between the right and left brain. Among those differences is that the right brain tends to be peaceful, accepting, interconnected with the world and living in the moment while the left brain tends to be judgmental, focused on the past and views the self as a separate entity.

Of course the left brain also performs some vital functions and the stroke left Jill Bolte Taylor severely impaired. It took her 8 years to recover. The decision to recover was a conscious choice for her. I applaud her decision because my lazy butt would have been very tempted to remain impaired and floating on cloud 9, rather than put in the hard work towards recovery and get back all the negative emotions associated with the left brain.

One of the main reasons Dr. Taylor decided to recover was that she wanted to share the insights she had gained from her stroke to help not just other stroke victims but people in general. She believes people can lead  more peaceful, fulfilled lives if they allow themselves to tune in to the propensities of their right brain.

She does provide some valuable insights. She noted that while recovering from the stroke she was drawn towards people who gave off positive energy and who focused on her accomplishments rather than on what she could not do, that those were the kind of people who were instrumental in her recovery. Whether you’re recovering from a stroke or not, it’s best to surround yourself with those kind of people and limit contact as much as possible with negative people who point out your faults.

The insight she provided that I found the most valuable and that spoke to me the most was when she pointed out that when a negative thought or feeling floods the brain, it only has a natural biological lifespan of about 30 seconds or so. If it persists after that it’s because the person is choosing to focus on it and we can learn not to focus on it, to shift our focus to something else. God knows I have a tendency to perseverate on negative thoughts and emotions. After reading this book, now more so than ever, when I experience a thought or emotion that is causing me distress, I make an effort to say to myself “Enough already, brain!  Let’s stop thinking about this for now.”

The Books I Read in 2016: Part 3

21. A Hologram for the King (Dave Eggers)- I read this book because there was a movie coming out starring Tom Hanks based on it but I still haven’t seen the movie. The book was okay. The plot and the characters didn’t do much for me but I do have to give the book credit for the way it made me feel at the end. The book ends with a failed business deal. In the grand scheme of all the tragedies that have occurred in literature, a failed business deal is nothing but somehow this book managed to make me feel sadder about a failed business deal than other books have made me feel about untimely deaths. The other thing that sicks out in my mind about this book is a hilarious dirty camel joke. To be honest I’m not even 100% sure that I read that joke in this book. I might just be associating it with this book because it takes place in Saudi Arabia and there are a lot of camels in Saudi Arabia. Regardless, I’m finding myself amused by a dirty camel joke right now.

22. Me Before You (JoJo Meyes)-Usually my problem with liking a book is that I don’t like it as much as I want to like it but this was a case of me liking a book more than I wanted to like it. It was a fluff romance that was not particularly well written nor were the plot or characters particularly well developed. To top it all off it expressed ideas about physical disability that many people found offensive in a similar way to how I found the ideas expressed about autism in Love Anthony offensive. Yet in spite of all that, I liked it. There was something about it that was charming, touching and compelling. Voluntary euthanasia of the disabled was probably too heavy and complex of a subject to be tackled by a romance author who calls herself JoJo. I have some mixed and conflicting feelings about euthanasia. In theory I think everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether they live or die and no one else should be able to decide for them but in actuality euthanasia for reasons other than fatal illness makes me sad and uncomfortable. I felt sad and uncomfortable when Will made that choice in this book but I can understand why someone in his position might make such a choice and respect his right to make it. I saw the movie and had similar feelings as I had about the book. Objectively it was not a very good movie but I enjoyed watching it plus Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin are just so cute. I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not understand the title Me Before You until I saw it explained on Goodreads. I read Me Before You as putting yourself before your partner in a relationship and that never really made sense to me in the context of the story. You’d think that the sequel being called After You would have clued me in to the fact that Me Before You means “how I was before I met you” but no, I really am that dense.

23. After You (JoJo Meyes)- I heard a lot of people who liked Me Before You say that they hated After You and that it ruined everything. I didn’t think it was that bad or at least it wasn’t much worse than Me Before You. Yes, the plot was contrived but it’s a romance novel, what do you expect? I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed Me Before You but that was partially because reading the two books back to back made me get sick of the character of Louisa.

24. All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque)-I can sum up this book in one sentence: War is hell. If anyone is under the impression that there is anything glamorous or desirable about war, this book should disabuse them of that notion. This book was recommended to me by my brother. He warned me that it was very gruesome and violent. I wasn’t put off by the violence in this case because it was intrinsic to the plot rather than gratuitous or sensationalized. I think I found the psychological toll the war took on the soldiers in this book even more disturbing than the physical toll it took. The last lines of this book are haunting.

25. H is for Hawk (Helen McDonald)- This is the award winning  memoir of a woman who after her father’s death adopts a hawk and trains it in falconry. When my mom’s friend saw me reading this book she was baffled and fascinated by it because she didn’t understand how a book about training a hawk could be good. It was very good. There are a lot of grief memoirs out there but I’ve never read one quite like this one. It’s combined with nature writing and some of the prose is beautiful. Training a hawk is not a traditional method of coping with grief but it seemed to work for Helen McDonald. I didn’t know much about falconry and thought of it as a mostly dead sport. It was interesting to read about and I’m glad it helped the author but I do find it kind of ethically questionable. She says that a hawk is not a pet and will never be fully tame. Why does a wild animal need to be kept in captivity so a human can have the pleasure of hunting with it? It seems better to just let them be wild, watch them from afar and enjoy the company of domesticated animals. A lot of this memoir is devoted to analyzing a memoir about falconry written a long time ago by an author named T.H. White.  He had some issues to deal with including being gay at a time and place when that was considered unacceptable and training a hawk seemed to be therapeutic for him as well. I enjoyed reading about his memoir from Helen McDonald’s perspective but I don’t have much desire to read his memoir in its entirety. Well, if it’s on sale as one of the Kindle daily deals I’ll probably buy it. I’m a sucker for those deals.)

The Books I Read in 2016: Part 2

A continuation of the list of books I read in 2016 and remember, there will be spoilers!

11. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino)-This is a book within a book within a book written in a postmodern style. I enjoyed reading it because it was such a unique and entertaining reading experience. It offered some good insights in to the meaning of the experience of reading and writing as well but of course I’ve forgotten what they were.

12. Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)-This is about a young woman named Ifemelu who immigrates to America from Nigeria. She settles in the Trenton/Princeton area, which is the area I’m from. I don’t see New Jersey represented much in fiction so that made the book appealing to me but it was not its main selling point. I found the story line mediocre but I really enjoyed the excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog. She had some very wise insights in to race and racism in American society. In one of the blogs I wrote about Donald Trump, I meant to quote a blog by a Trump supporter who said “I’m a white woman and I believe racism died out years ago” but I forgot to mention it (or maybe I blocked it out of my memory because it was so jaw droppingly stupid and offensive.) I remembered it again when I thought of Americanah. I’d love to see what Ifemelu would have had to say to that blogger. One of Ifemelu’s blogs dealt with how some people seem to think racists are just people who walk around in KKK robes lynching black people but in reality racism also manifests itself in other ways that are more subtle but still harmful. Some great quotes of hers were “Racism never should have happened in the first place so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it” and “Expecting African Americans to be fine now that slavery has been abolished is like setting a prisoner free with no money for the bus fare to get anywhere.” I was a bit disappointed when towards the end of the novel Ifemelu has an affair with a married man but no one’s perfect.

13. Betrayal- This book is a gathering of the investigative journalism that uncovered the child molestation scandal in the Catholic church and it is fucking horrifying. For years the Catholic church knew that their priests were molesting little boys and they just let it happen. They tried to cover it up and if someone found out about it, their biggest concern was covering their own asses, with very little concern shown for the victims or potential victims. They preached all about being a good person and condemned people for their sins while they were perpetuating one of the most heinous sins anyone could possibly commit. This book was narrated in a detached reporter kind of way so it didn’t go in to much detail about the emotional impact on the victims. I can only imagine how traumatic it must have been for them. The findings in this book formed the basis for the movie Spotlight. I tried to watch Spotlight but I fell asleep halfway through.

14. When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanthi) – This is the memoir of a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 36. Luckily this is not an instance where I have to choose between lying and saying that a book written by someone who suffered and died was good or feeling like a jerk for saying that a book by someone who suffered and died was bad. I can truthfully say that that this was a good, well written book. Paul Kalanthi was a brilliant, talented, compassionate man and his untimely death was a great loss for the world. It really was cruel of fate to give him lung cancer at such a young age when he’d never even smoked. One part of the book that’s stuck with me is the part where he and his wife are talking about having a baby. His wife says “Don’t you think having a baby would make your death more difficult and painful?” Paul replies “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” He then went on to say that he didn’t think life should be about avoiding suffering. This book was short and I wanted more from it but Paul Kalanthi died while he was in the middle of writing it. May he rest in peace and may his legacy live on.

15. A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini)- This book is a good test of whether or not you have a soul. If you read this book and you don’t cry or you aren’t at least moved by it then you have no soul and you have no heart either. Today a Facebook friend posted a status asking what the best book you read this year was and I chose this one because it had such a strong emotional impact on me. The book spans a few decades and tells the story of Laila and Mariam, two women living in Afghanistan. They live through some very tough times filled with war, violence, poverty, misogyny, abuse and the rise of the Taliban. Their paths cross when they both become the wives of one man, a very horrible man who thinks women are his property, existing only to please him and bear him sons. Speaking of bearing sons, a scene that made me cringe in horror is when Laila has to undergo a C-section with no anesthesia because the hospital doesn’t have any. That was probably less painful for her than having to put her daughter in an orphanage though. Through it all Mariam (who is unable to bear children of her own) is there for her. Although their relationship gets off to a rocky start, they develop a strong bond with one another. Their bond is put to the ultimate test when in a fit of rage, their husband beats and chokes Laila very hard. Realizing that if she doesn’t intervene, their husband will kill Laila, Mariam kills him in order to save her. The scene that follows between Laila and Mariam nearly killed me emotionally. It reminds me of the “Tell me about the rabbits, George” scene from Of Mice and Men, which is one of my favorite books of all time. Mariam takes all the blame for killing the husband and I wanted to kill the judge who said to her “I want to be merciful to you but I’m going to have to sentence you to death.” When the book ends Laila is with a man who treats her well and is pregnant with her third child. She’s debating what to name it if it’s a boy but if it’s a girl she’s already decided what the name will be. *Cue the tears.*

16. Blindness (Jose Saramongo)- This book was amazingly creepy and haunting. Its about an epidemic of blindness that suddenly and inexplicably sweeps across a city. The first victims of it are quarantined in an abandoned mental hospital. Soon enough all hell breaks loose as the fabric that binds society together falls apart and humans reveal themselves as the savage beasts that they are. It reminds me of Lord of the Flies but better and less boring. I’ve seen people complain about Saramongo’s writing style, which uses very little punctuation. It does take some getting used to and sometimes it can be hard to tell who’s speaking but I didn’t mind it too much. In general I have little tolerance for missing/incorrect punctuation but in this case it comes across as an art form, not just being sloppy.

17. Seeing (Jose Saramongo)- This is the sequel to Blindness. It takes place a few years after Blindness ends. At the end of Blindness everyone regains their vision as quickly and inexplicably as they lost it, except for the main character’s wife, who for some reason never lost her vision in the first place. This book centers around an election in which 80% of the votes cast are blank ballots. This greatly disturbs government officials. They suspect that since the doctor’s wife didn’t lose her vision, she might be behind the casting of the blank ballots. Why they thought there was any connection between the two was never made clear to me but maybe that’s the point. I’m sure that with corrupt government officials, apathetic voters and disappointing election in this story we could draw some parallels to the clusterfuck that was the 2016 U.S election. I mentioned in my previous blog entry that I’m a morbid person who tends to prefer sad endings over happy endings but the ending of this book was a little too bleak, even for me. I kept thinking “Please don’t kill the dog, please don’t kill the dog.” Yeah, it doesn’t end well for the dog. It doesn’t end well for the humans either but I know I’m not alone in being more disturbed by dog deaths than human ones.

18. A God in Ruins (Kate Atkinson)-This is the sequel to Life After Life. Actually it’s more of a companion book than a sequel. Life After Life follows the lives of a woman named Ursula. Her life begins and ends over and over again in various different ways. This book follows the life of Ursula’s brother as he serves in the war, gets married, has a kid, gets old and does various other things. I liked the character of Teddy. I couldn’t stand his daughter Viola though. She was just insufferable. Some people see unlikable characters as a flaw in a book but I don’t. Some characters aren’t meant to be likable and god knows there are plenty of unlikable characters in real life. When Teddy’s wife was gone for long periods of time and lying about her whereabouts, I thought along with Teddy that she was having an affair so I was shocked and saddened when she revealed that she had brain cancer. I heard there were a lot of ‘Easter eggs’ in this book that referenced the first book but I think I missed most of them.

19.Love Anthony (Lisa Genova)-I read Lisa Genova’s book Still Alice, which was about Alzheimers’s and I loved it so a book about autism by this author seemed like something that would be right up my alley. What a disappointment it was. I gave it the title of worst book I read this year. Objectively it may have been better than those 5th wave books but this book was bad in a rather offensive way and I was expecting so much more from it. It was as much of a trainwreck as Mariah Carey’s New Years Eve performance was and just like that performance, this book made me cringe in second hand embarrassment for its author. The premise is that a woman has an autistic son named Anthony who dies suddenly and the woman is left wondering what the meaning of his life is. Then some other woman channels Anthony’s spirit or something like that and writes a book from his perspective. This woman ends up crossing paths with Anthony’s mother and sharing the book with her. Through reading the book, Anthony’s mother learns that the purpose of her son’s life was to teach her the true meaning of love. Most kids are easy to love but since Anthony was autistic she had to work harder to love him. Through writing this book the second woman woman learns that she must take back her cheating husband because Anthony has taught her that you have to love people even when they’re not perfect. Ew, ew, ew. The idea that autistic people exist in order to teach neurotypical people the true meaning of love by being difficult to love is incredibly gross and patronizing. Lisa Genova did some research on autism for this book. It’s too bad she didn’t do enough research to realize how offensive the ideas she expresses in this book are to autistic people and those who love them.

20.The World According to Garp (John Irving)-I loved this book, just I loved the other two books I read by John Irving. This book is such a blend of tragedy and comedy. It has some of the most quirky, interesting, unforgettable characters and situations in modern literature. For starters there’s a nurse who rapes a comatose patient in order to conceive her son, a guy who loses a quarter of his penis in an unfortunate blow job/car accident, a transgender football player and a group of women who deliberately cut off their own tongues as part of a social protest movement. Then of course there’s T.S. Garp, a flawed but lovable character. It really hurt me to see Garp die in the end. It was doubly painful in the movie because Garp was played by Robin Williams. I wasn’t too affected by any of 2016’s celebrity deaths but when I read that Robin Williams died I gasped.

 

The Books I Read in 2016 (Part 1)

Today one of my Facebook friends posted on his wall that one of his friends told him that he never reads books, they’re just not a part of his world. My friend said he personally finds this incomprehensible because books have always been an essential part of his world. He then went on to ask what our relationship with books was, how it had changed over time and what we hoped to see in the future of books.

I replied that books have always been important to me and I’ve always loved reading. The main way in which my relationship with books has changed is that these days most of the books I read are not dead tree books, they’re electronic books. I still have an appreciation for dead tree books though and would hate to see them disappear. I don’t read as much as I could or want to because I’m a slow reader and I waste a lot of time on the internet that could be spent reading. Ironically a lot of the things I choose to read on the internet are about books.

For the past three years I’ve made it my goal to read 50 books but instead of improving with time I’ve been getting progressively worse. The first year I reached my goal. The second year I read 44 books. This year I’ve read 31 books.

As if that wasn’t enough to make me feel inadequate, I’ve discovered that while I have an exceptionally good memory for many things, my memory for books is pretty terrible. I took online quizzes on some of the books I read this year and I failed most of them. (In my defense the questions were about rather trivial details like the age of a character in chapter 3, the color of the sweater they were wearing in chapter 7 and the number of showers they took in chapter 12.)

Even though I don’t remember many of the details of the books I read this year, I do remember what I thought of them and how they made me feel. I follow a lot of book blogs on WordPress and many of them have been doing a round up of the books read this year so I figured I would do the same but before I do let me give a few words of warning.

  1. My  reviews will not include any deep literary analysis nor will they be written New York Times style with those key words like riveting, harrowing, epic, dazzling, poignant and tour de force. I am capable of doing deep literary analysis and picking up on the symbolism that everyone else misses but I’m also capable of thinking literally instead of literarily and failing to pick up on things that are painfully obvious to everyone else.
  2. I’ve consulted GoodReads to refresh my memory of the books I read but I can’t guarantee that I won’t get some details wrong. Apparently I have the memory of a goldfish when it comes to books. I would gladly trade my ability to remember the name of the goldfish of the kid who sat behind me in 6th grade math class for the ability to remember the details of the books I read 6 months ago.
  3. There will be spoilers, lots of spoilers, and I mean serious spoilers as in I’ll tell you who dies at the end. I find it hard to talk about books without talking about what happens in them and I lack the patience to delicately dance around and allude to the details without actually giving them away. I actually used to read the last pages of books first because I had to know what happened in the end immediately. I don’t do that anymore but I still don’t care much if I find out what happens in the end and I tend to forget how much other people do care. I’ve made some people very angry by spoiling books, movies and shows for them.

So without further ado the books I read this year:

  1. The Price of Salt (Patricia Highsmith)-This is the book that the movie Carol was based on. They re-issued the book under the title Carol with a picture of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett on the cover but I refused to buy that version of the book because I’m irrationally annoyed by movie tie in books. I also refuse to see a movie until I’ve read the book it’s based on so my mother had to patiently wait for me to finish the book before I’d see it with her on the big screen. I think a lot of people were drawn to the movie and maybe the book too because OMG hot lesbian sex!!! but there was so much more to it than that. It’s about loving someone in a time and place where such a love is disapproved of and forbidden. It was disgusting the way Carol’s husband hired a spy to stalk her and Therese, threatened and blackmailed them and then used evidence of Carol’s lesbianism in court to deny her custody of her daughter. I’m a pretty morbid person who tends to prefer sad endings over happy endings but I was happy with the semi-happy ending of this book.

2. Brooklyn (Colm Toibin)- A book about a young woman who immigrates to America from Ireland. I actually remember the details of this book pretty well but I can’t think of much to say about it so I guess it didn’t have much of an emotional impact on me. It was a pretty good book though and I’d say the same about the movie, although I missed the beginning of it because I got lost on the way to the theater. I also ended up having to sit in the front row, which made my neck hurt but Saoirse Ronan made it all worth it.

3. The Danish Girl (David Ebershoff)- I don’t think it was possible to find a copy of this book that didn’t have Eddie Redmayne on the cover but I have a crush on Eddie Redmayne (Alicia Vikander is awesome too.) It was a fictionalized account of the life of a real person so of course I found myself wondering what parts were true and which parts were made up. Considering the time period, I was pleasantly surprised and touched by how supportive the main character’s family and friends were of his decision to transition from a man named Einar to a woman named Lilli. It was interesting to me when the doctor discovered that Einar had a small pair of ovaries so I guess the desire to be a woman was at least partially biologically driven. It saddened me that Lilli died of an infection as the result of her sex change operation.

4. The Revenant (Michael Punke)- I read this book because of the movie by the same title that was coming out (are you noticing  a pattern to my reading habits?) It was a manly man historical adventure book, which is really not my kind of book so I didn’t enjoy it too much. It was too violent for me. The violence towards the animals bothered me more than the violence towards the humans did. Some of the humans were jerks who I couldn’t feel too bad for but the animals were innocent. The movie wasn’t really my kind of movie either but I’m glad Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his Oscar. He spent most of the movie just grunting in pain and rage but he did it well. I agree with those who think the book’s subtitle “A novel of Revenge” wasn’t really accurate.

5. The 5th Wave (Rick Yancey)- Yet another book I read because of a movie that was coming out and the fact that it was my 5th book of the year made it seem like an even more appropriate choice. It was part of a YA trilogy about an alien invasion so I wasn’t expecting much from it but it was even stupider than I imagined it would be. It wasn’t even stupid in a particularly endearing or entertaining way. There was some love triangle and some scene that involved the sexy guy clutching a teddy bear over the injured heroine as she smelled his sexy chocolate breath. Ew. I’m grossed out by descriptions of anyone’s breath. I didn’t end up seeing the movie because apparently it’s even worse than the book. It scored some ridiculously low rating like 19% on Rotten Tomatoes.

6. The Infinite Sea (Rick Yancey)- This was the sequel to The 5th Wave. Why did I read the sequel when I didn’t like the first book you ask? I just feel compelled to read sequels if I’ve read the first book. This one was no better than the first book but it was more confusing. The final book in the trilogy came out some time in May but so far I haven’t felt compelled to read it. I’m not even interested in finding out how the whole thing ends because I just don’t care.

7. The Invention of Wings-(Sue Monk Kidd)- Finally a book that didn’t have a movie based on it coming out this year! I read another book by Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees but since I read it years ago of course I remember nothing about it other than that I liked it. I liked this one too. It had some strong female characters that weren’t afraid to stand up for what they believed in as well as some strong female bonds. It depicted the horrors and cruelty of slavery in an emotionally affecting way. It was an Oprah’s Book Club selection and in general I think Oprah has good taste in literature but at times this book felt a little too geared towards Oprah’s Book Club if you know what I mean. It had a chick lit feel to it but it was high brow chick lit.

8. Library of Souls (Ransom Riggs)- This was the third book in The Miss Peregrine’s series. I was drawn to the first book mainly because of the title and the interesting pictures. I enjoyed the pictures all in the books and all three books had their charms but a lot of it just seemed silly and stupid and none of the books did much for me. The ymbrynes, hollowghasts and peculiars were cool at first but by the end of book three they were losing their appeal for me. I’m glad this book appears to be a trilogy because I wouldn’t have made it to book 7. I saw the movie of the first book and I was tempted to walk out on it so I definitely won’t be seeing any of the other movies.

9. Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)-This is a classic of African American literature and it always shows up on those lists of classic novels everyone must read so I’d been meaning to read it for a while and I finally got around to it. I wasn’t really disappointed by it but I wasn’t really blown away by it either. It was written in dialect/vernacular. In general I have a hard time with books that are written that way. I find myself voicing the dialogue in proper English in my head. I understand that it’s written that way for authenticity though and as the book progressed I got used to it and even appreciated it. My bad memory for books is showing here but I remember some scene involving the dialogue/ thought processes of animals at some animal funeral ( mules? crows?) that I enjoyed. I also have a thing for natural disasters so I enjoyed the hurricane scene. This is another book with strong female characters who aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves and it’s another books that shows the horrors of slavery as well as racism, misogyny and poverty.

10. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)- This was a book that I expected to be really good and objectively it wasn’t bad but it just didn’t grab me or affect me like I thought it would. A lot of  involved war/history descriptions and those do tend to lose me. Some of the characters were rather tragic and did pull at my heartstrings though. I felt sad when they died-that is once I realized they had died. The thing about books (and sometimes movies too) is that they often do not explicitly say that the character died. They use euphemistic language or context clues and with the way I think and perceive things I fail to pick up on them. After watching the movie of The English Patient I asked online if the English patient dies at the end and someone said “Yep, that’s why the nurse was crying as she gave him his medicine.”