It’s been a while since I updated my reading list.
The problem I’ve discovered with reviewing the books I’ve read in one monthly stack is that if I have a particularly long, heavy book, I might spend all month reading and have nothing finished to show at the end of it. Plus there’s sometimes a temptation to hold off for a few more days so that I can polish off the last 20 pages of a paperback and have one more book to add to my stack. Then there’s the desire to have a stack to begin with. It’s so satisfying to show off a big ole pile of completed reading. When there’s only one of two volumes, it can leave you feeling unaccomplished.
But so anyway, I meant to keep sharing what I’d read each month, but then I didn’t get as much finished in February as I’d planned. So I figured I’d do a post about what I’d read while I was in Spain, but when I got home I hadn’t quite finished The New Tsar, so I thought I’d wrap that one up first. Then that took me till mid-summer, and now here I am, beginning of December, and it’s time I just did this round up because otherwise it will never happen.
At least I have a ginormous pile of books to show for it…
Tolkien: The Hobbit, The Silmarillian, The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien hardly needs a review from me, and in any case, I had these on my stack so that I could re-read them before I give my speech at Bob’s Tolkien Feast. But—without giving away what I want to talk about—it did strike me how different it was reading these books this time round. It had been a while since I’d last read them, and I’d forgotten some of the peculiarities of Tolkien’s writing style.
In particular, Tolkien spends the bulk of his time writing from an extremely removed point of view. I’d forgotten how much description he puts into the terrain of his world, and how his pacing sometimes dwells on minutia, or on glimpses of the wider world that are not referenced in the rest of his work. Whereas many other authors will devote more of their pages to intimate conversations between characters, on their backstories, fears, and motivations, he paints most of the members of the Fellowship in broad strokes, relying on the general traits of elves, dwarves, men, etc. to carry them through.
For instance, if you were to ask “what makes Legolas different from other elves,” the answer for the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring is: nothing. He’s a pretty generic elf, and we don’t get a lot of opportunity to know him better because his dialog in the series is largely impersonal: he talks about the quest, the present moment, and situations in the larger world, but not about himself. In fact, it’s his eventual friendship with Gimli that defines his character more than anything else—and vice versa.
Not that this is problematic. I generally find attempts to manufacture a more personal narrative for members of the Fellowship to be wildly off-base. If The Lord of the Rings offers less robust character development* than I’ve since grown used to reading, that isn’t necessarily a fault. The books simply aren’t about their characters as much as they are about Middle Earth and the larger narrative themes. However, it does give me pause when I think about portraying the series in film, especially if done as a TV series. It would be hard to write a three-season run without fleshing some of those characters out a little more, and I don’t know if I want that.
*Note: The exceptions here are, of course, the hobbits, although even Merry and Pippin don’t really get fleshed out until The Two Towers.
Wolfskin, Juliet Marillier.
I wrote about Marillier back in January when I finished Den of Wolves. That book left me underwhelmed, so I re-listened to her entire Sevenwaters series while I was in Spain. It’s still so good. Seriously, ladies, if you’re looking for a good historical fantasy series with strong servings of action and romance, these will consume you.
For that matter, Wolfskin fits right into that camp. Marillier steps a little outside her usual stomping grounds of Celtic myth and lore to pick up on some Scandinavian legends, but she does a mighty job with it. But I felt this novel showed considerable merit in its handling of the relationship between Eyvind and Somerled, which is the central moral conflict of the novel.
This still falls squarely into the “light reading” category for me, but it’s light reading with enough meat on its bones to leave you feeling satisfied at the end.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My love of Adichie is no secret. In fact, I had a particular thrill earlier this year to learn she’d been granted an honorary degree from my own Alma Mater, the University of Edinburgh. Not that I quite get what the purpose of honorary degrees is except to allow various universities to look good by recognizing the success of individuals whose achievements had nothing to do with their institution. Or maybe I’m missing something here? Whatever: Congratulations, Ms. Adichie, I’m proud to have some connection to you, however tangential.
Back to the book, Adichie is a fabulous author, and Americanah is no disappointment. I felt drawn to this book in particular by my own experiences living in different cultures. Ifemelu’s confusion about American life—as when she ignores her cousin’s instructions to boil the hotdogs and tries to cook them in oil instead—line right up with some of my own cultural faux pas. Reading a character approach American life with the same perplexity I felt when trying to unpack German, Russian, or British culture left me laughing and commiserating at at once.
More importantly, I loved reading Adichie’s analysis of race in America. It is fascinating to read a story from a Nigerian woman who spent years in the American higher education system dissect the complicated dynamics between (as she describes in the book) African blacks, non-African blacks, and white Americans. I’m usually a bit hostile about commentary from non-Americans on American culture, because I find such criticisms to be shallow and ill-informed, and also because it feels like outsiders attacking my tribe.
But sometimes that outside perspective can see things more clearly than the rest of us can. A lot of what Adichie says comes from a place of deep understanding and even love for America. In the end, I’m glad she still seems to like us, in spite of seeing our flaws so clearly.
Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick
This book made me question so much about my life.
On the one hand, this was such a compelling read for me, that it made me really grateful for my Russian Studies degree and the time I had spent living in Russia. On the other hand, it made me wish I’d gone into journalism. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the lengths journalists take to track down a story until I read this book.
For context: David Remnick moved to Russia in the 80’s and lived there for several years, covering the decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union for the Washington Post. Lenin’s Tomb is his account of life in the Soviet Union during that time. Remnick travelled all across the country, interviewed high-ranking officials and individual citizens alike, staking out the apartments of former KGB officers, and dodging Russian bureaucracy to get a glimpse at the Russian life the Soviet government didn’t want foreigners to see.
Remnick’s conclusion was sadly optimistic (which he notes in his forward). But this book is still incredible for a look at what the Soviet Union was like in the final years before its fall.
Stories of Your Life, Ted Chiang
This collection of short stories is so impressive, it makes me want to go buy everything Chiang has ever written… which is a woefully short list of titles, at the moment. Apart from this collection, he only has a handful of other short stories and a novella out there. Yet in spite of his short bibliography, he’s managed to rack up an impressive award list, and his “Story of Your Life” served as the basis for the film Arrival, which if you haven’t seen it yet: hot damn, it is so good.
What most entertains me about Chiang is his penchant for treating metaphors or other theoretical concepts literally. I may not have said that correctly, but to illustrate: in “Babylon,” the protagonist climbs the tower of Babel to reach the dome of heaven. Which is a literal dome. In fact, the whole world in the story is built to reflect a literal interpretation of old models of the universe: as the protagonist climbs, he eventually passes the moon, sun, and stars, which continue passing through the sky beneath him. When he reaches the top, the builders of the tower argue about where and how to drill into the dome, fearful lest the puncture one of the reservoirs of water that are used to pour rain upon the earth.
Similarly, in “Hell is the Absence of God,” angelic apparitions are a frequent cause of both miracles and horrific accidents, and in the process have become almost commonplace. It was inspired by the book of Job, and is possibly my favorite short story every written, period.
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, James Runcie
I came to the Sidney Chambers book series after watching most of Grantchester on Amazon, which in turn I came to because it stars James Norton, who played Prince Andrei in BBC’s recent War and Peace adaption, which, if you haven’t seen it, why the F not, + oh boy do I have the gif for you, ahem:
But anyways, these books are delightful, although it turns out the BBC series diverges significantly from its source material, to the extent that some of the characters are almost different people. I guess this didn’t bother me as I came to the series first, but if you’re coming at it the other way around, you could be very disappointed.
I guess the good news is that, if you super enjoyed the series, as I did, you can read these and have the great satisfaction right from the beginning of not having almost any of them spoiled for you, because even the ones that are covered often have different endings than in the series. I have the second book on my to-read shelf, but I’m saving it for the perfect cozy winter night to curl up and read it a good mug of tea.
Newt’s Emerald, Garth Nix.
Honestly, what I have to say about this book has more to do with Garth Nix than anything else. I remember listen to this Keys to the Kingdom series back in my library days and enjoying them, but the work of his that I truly adore is his Abhorsen series. I’ve been itching to re-read them lately, including the prequel book Clariel, because there’s a new book out that I haven’t gotten to yet and I want to refresh my memory of the story before I go read it.
That said, while Newt’s Emerald wasn’t anything like that series, it was good fun. Nix draws heavily on Georgette Heyer, but the Georgian period doesn’t seem to come as naturally to him as it does to her. Which: Heyer is fun and all, but I don’t think anyone could call her writing a competent portrayal of Austen-era society. It’s not meant to be. And Nix, being somewhat derivative of Heyer, draws on the kind of story she would write and takes liberties of his own.
It’s fun, light reading. I started it one evening and finished in the next morning and enjoyed it all the way through. But it was almost too light for me, unlike the Abhorsen series which is wonderfully brooding. Maybe he wanted a break from writing that and decided to try something completely different? I wouldn’t blame him, and I’m happy with the result. However, it’s left me with a craving for his other work.
The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievich
Read this if you’d like to have your heart ripped out every second page. Seriously, though: it is a compilation of hundreds of interviews of Russian women who fought on the Russian and Ukrainian front in World War II. Alexievich interviewed them during the 70’s and 80’s, originally publishing her book in the Soviet Union during the early part of that decade. The stories in this chronicle are unlike anything I have ever read about wartime. Simultaneously mundane and appalling, it is an incredible work both in the narrative told by the women within, and in its very existence. Heavy reading in that it weighs down the soul, but riveting. Difficult both to put down and to pick back up. You should read it anyway.
The New Tsar, Steven Lee Meyers
This is the only biography of Putin that I’ve read, but it makes me want to read another. Odd, as this one paints such a clear picture. But then I hear some other story, and it turns this around on its head. People are complicated, and it’s hard to know what the truth is about an individual. Were they really a megalomaniac from birth? Or could they have lived their lives as a highly competent and loyal servant of the state had circumstances not conspired to land them as head of state?
Probably that is what I find so odd about this narrative: that as far as Meyers describes, Putin’s leadership of Russia was almost accidental, in that it had far less to do with his maneuverings than with Yeltsin anointing him as his successor in such an unexpectedly short timeframe.
Tolstoy would feel vindicated: there are no Great Men.
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
I feel guilty about not liking this book more. With a premise so near to my heart (I thought the underground railroad was a literal railroad until possibly as late as my mid-teens), I went into this expecting something more fantastical than what it was. Maybe I was over-sold this book?
In any case, it’s not the book’s fault. As a work of literary fiction, it deserves every ounce of acclaim that’s come its way. It’s a powerful story, although one with little catharsis. Not that there’s much to expect by the end.
I felt disoriented while reading, however. I kept having to go back and re-read a few paragraphs because I had missed some key detail or misunderstood something that had happened. It feels like it deserves a second reading.
Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
This filled a really lovely space in my summer when I had a few lazy weekends and didn’t want to do anything but sit around and read. The opening line to this book would make a list of my top favorite opening lines ever: “The Christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” (One of my other favorite lines comes on the next page: “DAs were the guys that smoke your cigarettes because they’re trying to quit.”)
I recall feelings from this book more than the plot or any particular character. The prose reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald in that way. Both involve parties, and gin, and relationships falling apart.
But I enjoyed this one most for its stories of siblings. Which, what can I say: I’m a sucker for a good sibling story. I empathized with Franny Keating a great deal, too. Will definitely have to pick up more from this author.
What’s on my plate for December?
I listened to the first few Lord Peter Whimsey books on Audible last month, but they don’t have the entire series, so I’m checking the rest out of the library. I also checked out a couple other books that have come out this year, IQ by Joe Ide and Himself by Jess Kidd. I’ll have to return them soon, and I’d like to read through them fast enough not to have to renew the loan.
Following my reading of Americanah I ordered the three books from Chinua Achebe which are, as I understand, classics of Nigerian literature. They’re pretty short (only about 200 pages each), so I might be able to pound through them over Christmas.
What I’m avoiding:
I bought a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow at the end of August, and after reading the first twenty pages or so I can already tell this will be a slog. I’m allowing myself to read other things at the same time, because if I don’t it will become another Infinite Jest, and I’d rather not grind my reading to a halt for however long it takes me to wade through.
Meanwhile, in the non-fiction department, I have Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. I can’t even tell you what this book is about, other than that it intimidates me. I’ve heard it’s super good, and my curiosity is at top pique, but at the same time… who knows how long it will really take me.