A compilation of my mini-reading-reviews from winter, spring, and summer 2019. These were originally separate blog posts on my old site but I’ve compiled them here.
Spoilers for everything.
Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered (novel, 1981): Wry, delightful murder mystery, surprisingly queer for 1981: the narrator is left deliberately ungendered, and a plot point that initially seems like “bury your gays” becomes “your gays fake their own death to steal the identity of a wealthy expatriate art snob.”
Toni Morrison, Sula (novel, 1973): This novel is the sort of masterpiece whose dimensions are so varied that by the end of your first read, you know you’ve only seen one color in an expansive prism. Morrison layers more into a paragraph than other writers do in a whole book, and I’ll need to read Sula at least one more time to be able to say anything useful about it.
Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (novel, 1894): Even grimmer than advertised.
Nicola Griffith, Hild (novel, 2013): Hild has become my gold standard for well-researched historical fiction, as I feel like I’ve completed a course in seventh-century farming practices, psychology, and religious politics just by reading it. It’s hard to believe that Nicola Griffith does not actually know what retting smells like, or has never skimmed cream from milk with her forearm.
Molly Gloss, Wild Life (novel, 2000): Like Hild, Wild Life is fastidiously historical, only Gloss’s greater faithfulness is to psychology than the minutiae of daily life. Her protagonist is an early twentieth-century feminist who has fought so hard for her independence she’s become stuck in that fighting pose, and must relearn the intimate joy of dependence, via Sasquatches.
Nora Samaran, Turn This World Inside Out (nonfiction, 2019): My good friend Morgan gave me this book as a gift, and I’m deeply grateful for it. Samaran gives the clearest descriptions of gaslighting and the problem of oppressor-guilt I’ve ever read. I’ll definitely be teaching it in the future.
Nnedi Okorafor, Binti Trilogy (novella cycle, 2015-9): I enjoyed many elements in these books, but kept getting distracted by their uneven pacing and my questions about the politics of the wider universe through which their characters, human and nonhuman, moved.
Sarah Léon, Wanderer (novel, 2016): Literally a contemporary Sturm und Drang romance, to such an extent that by its conclusion I was screaming at the protagonist to take his literally tubercular boyfriend to the hospital (he didn’t).
Damian Le Bas, The Stopping Places (memoir, 2018): This memoir follows a young Roma man’s pilgrimage to famous “stopping places” in British Gypsy/Roma history and his own youth. The former tend to be more interesting reading than the latter, since Le Bas’s personal journey is less eventful than the history he chronicles.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (novel, 1859): Though I have had the final sentence to this novel memorized since age fifteen, I still found myself racing breathlessly through it and tearing up at the absurdly melodramatic conclusion. Dickens was good at his job.
P.G. Wodehouse, novels: Thank You, Jeeves (1934), Joy in the Morning (1947), The Mating Season (1949): P.G. Wodehouse knows language is a silly thing, so his books would be funny even if they weren’t intricate send-ups of the useless rich, which they are. I read all of these novels in an audiobook version narrated by Jonathan Cecil, a brilliant narrator who was either inspired by or the inspiration for the Jeeves and Wooster TV series, since his mannerisms resemble Fry and Laurie’s versions of the characters too closely to be coincidental.
Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire (novel, 2019): Flawless space opera, and the closest contemporary analogue to Le Guin’s Hainish cycle I’ve ever read.
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, How to Lose the Time War (novella, 2019): I wanted very badly to love this book, as I love El-Mohtar’s short stories, and Time War has all my favorite elements—competent lady spies! slow-burn queer romance! time travel! people randomly obsessed with Keats!—but I found the prose purple, the worldbuilding thin, and the romance flat.
Christopher Isherwood, Down There on a Visit (novel, 1962): Like his more famous The Berlin Stories, this novel is a set of excruciatingly honest portraits of people who cannot be honest with themselves, and who are paralyzed by a rising fascism they feel powerless to fight.
Tove Jansson, short story collections: Art in Nature (1978), Letters from Klara (1991): When I was in England I bought all the Tove Jansson collections that are unavailable in the US, and I’m happy I did. She remains my favorite short story writer, a precise chronicler of human interaction whose honesty never becomes contempt and whose sympathy, never exoneration.
Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black (novel, 2005): Mantel’s gently ironic compassion for her middle-class characters gives this book a remarkably light touch given the darkness of her subject—a medium haunted by the ghosts of her rapists.
Sarah Moss, The Ghost Wall (novella, 2018): In her brief, chilling tale of archeological students “re-creating” Bronze Age British life, Moss shows how abuse traps women into justifying their abusers, and how men use the supposed testimony of history to excuse their crimes.
Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness (novel, 1964): In such a short book, Taylor manages to craft at least ten memorably-individual characters whose reality makes their dull, bourgeois conflicts surprisingly compelling.
E. M. Forster, A Room With a View (novel, 1908): Forster earnestly, and apparently deliberately, tries to de-objectify his book’s female love interest by inhabiting her perspective, but unfortunately she’s so shallow that the book’s p.o.v. keeps bobbing beyond her surface and floating elsewhere—usually into men.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home (novel, 1985): More anthropological scrapbook than novel, Always Coming Home is Le Guin’s best effort at imagining the good life (not a utopia, she doesn’t believe in those), and at least in my case, she succeeded: I found the book’s quiet agricultural society, which values craft and caretaking and has no concept of currency or teleology, very attractive.
Lara Elena Donnelly, Amberlough (novel, 2017): I love the movie Cabaret, and this novel is more or less a fantasy Cabaret, only Michael York’s character is dating the M.C., who is played by RuPaul, and everyone is a spy.
Mary Renault, The Mask of Apollo (novel, 1966): Fifth-century tragic actor Nikertaros pinballs around the Mediterranean, pining after Sicilian prince Dion and bumping into every major figure from your first-year Classics course—but Renault is the kind of teacher you want, pumping blood into Platonic debates about the value of art and spicing all of her history liberally with sex.
Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (novel, 2012): This is the kind of melodrama I am absolute garbage for, and no matter how many times it happened, I could never get enough of Patroclus turning to the camera to say, “My moody bae will only die after he kills Hector, so thank goodness he has no reason to kill Hector!”
Richard Powers, The Overstory (novel, 2018): When reading novels about nature, I can usually tell whether or not a writer has actually spent time outside among the things they’re describing. Powers has. His forests are not static photographs, but the sweet rot of poplar duff and the leathery sheen of hepatica leaves beneath the snow. It’s a pity he’s unwilling to spend as much time exploring the guts of his characters as he is his trees. That the plot of a 2018 Booker nominee should revolve around the hero-motivating death of a manic pixie dream girl, a disabled immigrant driven by self-loathing, and the variously-inappropriate lusts of several middle-aged men for much younger women, is a profound failure of imagination. But he does the trees well.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (novel, 2009): The blurb on the back of Wolf Hall calls it a “non-frothy historical novel,” damning this intricate, erudite brick of a book with the faint praise of not knowing quite how to classify it. I don’t, either. But I loved it anyway. Wolf Hall is plotless in the way history is: it’s about the minute, everyday shifts in loyalties that assume world-changing importance only when you pull back and consider them from a distance. Watching Thomas Cromwell try to survive Henry VIII’s court is like watching a man clear individual fingers of quicksand while his torso slowly sinks.
Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (novel, 2002): An unapologetically frothy Victorian thriller: lavish, sexy, and unafraid of a Dickensian plot twist (or six). When J and I read this novel back-to-back, we referred to it as “the sauce,” and reading is does feel like ladling ganache directly into your mouth.
Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night (novel, 1935): Gaudy Night is a mystery whose stakes—the reputation of an Oxford women’s college—I can appreciate. It’s also one of the best romances I’ve ever read (though my tastes are, I admit, very particular). The book’s middle-aged lovers respect one another’s intelligence and spend much of their time discussing principles whose dictates they must satisfy before they can get together. That satisfaction happens via the mystery plot, but also through a delightful series of very British conversations whose emotional swordplay is visible only through the faint ripples it leaves on the surface of the dialogue.
Louise Erdrich, Four Souls (novel, 2001): Erdrich’s short novel is told by three characters whose personalities are so distinct their speech feels like transcription. Undergirding them all is Erdrich’s wry compassion for human stupidity, though compassion should not be mistaken for forgiveness. Four Souls is also a historical novel set between WWI and WWII. Erdrich’s casual erudition about the grungy workings of everyday life in the upper midwest is breathtaking, from noting how newly-quartersawn oak weeps sap to detailing which animals’ bones are best for whittling beads.