Book Reviews: What I Read in September 2016

Another month’s gone by! Check out the book reviews for what I read in September:

How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff

I feel pretty conflicted about How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff. A memoir of the year the author spent traveling around (through parts of Europe and Asia, spending a lot of time in Thailand), the book really lives up to its name. Juliff starts her big round-the-world trip off by nearly missing her flight to Croatia. Once she gets to the airport, she struggles at check-in because she doesn’t know what a “checked bag” is. When she finally gets past security, instead of dashing to her flight (she’s late, after all), she dawdles in the bookshop. From there, she has mishap after mishap, some of which are brought on by her complete lack of common sense, others of which (like nearly experiencing a tsunami in Thailand) are just due to bad luck or bad timing.

Yeah, so the book is basically what not to do when traveling 101. My main struggle with it was it didn’t feel that believable. “Really, you’re in your 20s, you live in London and you don’t know what checked luggage is?” That sort of thing. I get that the writer had lots of anxiety and that traveling around and breaking out of her shell was a struggle for her, but the whole “I didn’t realize” schtick gets old pretty quickly.

It was a quick read, and Juliff’s a pretty engaging writer, but after more than 300 pages of “oops!” I’d had enough. Small annoyances aside, the book did make me want to travel to Thailand. So I guess it didn’t entirely fail as a travel memoir, since it did incite some wanderlust.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Years ago, this guy I was going out with gave me a copy of the The Secret History by Donna Tartt, because I was a classics major. I broke up with the guy and never read the book.

Then, a few years ago, I read the Goldfinch and really liked it. So, I figured it was time to revisit the Secret History. Creepy ex boyfriend’s copy was long gone, so I picked one up at the library. I’m really glad I finally read it.

Set at a fictional liberal arts college in Vermont, the book is narrated by Richard, a transfer student from the West Coast. Since he studied ancient Greek at his old school, Richard decides to study it at his new college. The thing is, the classics students at Hampden are few (there are just five) and admission to the program is closely regulated by Julien, an eccentric professor.

Rumors swirl about the school about Julien and his students — that they worship the devil, for instance, but Richard is undeterred. He convinces Julien to accept him into the program and quickly becomes part of the group.

The Secret History is a murder mystery, but a murder mystery that’s been flipped. The murder opens the book, the next 500 or so pages are spent learning why the murder happened and the consequences of it.

More than a thriller, though, the novel takes a look at the effects of privilge on a group of young students. All five of the classics majors, save for Richard, come from cushy backgrounds. Most of them have inheritances to rely on and families to support them. No matter the consequences of their actions, there’s the sense that they will be fine.

Richard doesn’t have that same assurance. He’s cut off from his family (in part by choice, in part not). He has no financial cushion. Although he’s part of the action (he is there at the murder), he’s also outside of it, standing aside the narrator, retelling the story many years later.

When the major consequence of the murder happens, Richard is the one who stands to lose the most, since he lacks that familiar support. Yet, he’s the only who ends up pressing on with his studies, earning a degree. The novel is as much a commentary on the damage having too much wealth can do as it is on the damage of having a single professor be the sole influence over you in college.

book reviews

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

About a year ago, I saw Kazuo Ishiguro at the Free Library, when The Buried Giant had just come out. He mentioned that he had meant for The Remains of the Day to be a comedy, but few people saw it that way. I don’t know if his saying that influenced my reading of the book, but I did find it quite funny. And tragic. But also fairly funny.

James Stevens served as a butler for Lord Darlington for three decades. Now, Darlington is dead and the great house has been purchased by an American. Stevens, ever the proper butler, wonders often is he should be bantering with his new boss, since the boss is American, and don’t Americans like banter? His uncertainty and his attempts at banter are quite hilarious.

Around this time, Steven gets a letter from a former coworker, Miss Kenton, who was once a housekeeper there, but then got married and left. She seems unhappy in her letter, so Stevens gets the idea that he’ll drive out to her and see if she wants to come back and work at the house, which now has a limited staff.

Over the course of his multi-day drive across the country, he reminiscinces about his past at Darlington Hall. His remembrances about Miss Kenton are tinged with the suggestion that he was attracted to her, and she to him, but that his inaction was what led to her to go off and marry someone else. Stevens also begins to question his many decades of devotion to Darlington, who it is revealed in the flashbacks, might not have been such a great guy.

It’s not just Stevens’ love life that suffers because of his sense of propriety and his refusal to act in any way but as an exemplary butler. His relationship with his father also suffers. In one memory, Stevens leaves his father on his deathbed because he feels he needs to fufill  his duties for the day. His father dies and Stevens has no chance to say good-bye.

So, a funny book at times. But also a deeply heartbreaking book about a life lived under so much constraint that you might argue it wasn’t a life lived at all.

 

fates and furies book review

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies closely examines the marriage between Lancelot (“Lotto”), a successful playwright and former struggling actor and Mathilde, his wife. It’s divided into two parts, the first of which (Fates) focuses on Lancelot/Lotto. The second part (Fury) is all about Mathilde.

The pair meet in college and get married pretty quickly. Everyone thinks they’ll get divorced, but the years gone on and they don’t. It looks as though Mathilde is the quiet wife, supporting her husband while he pursues an acting career, standing by his side after he makes sit as a playwright. But there’s much more to it than that and the second part of the book rips off the facade of the first part, unveiling Mathilde and giving more of an explanation for the couple’s relationship. It’s not so much telling the story of a marriage from two different people’s point of view. It’s telling two different stories that happen to contain the same people and events that take place at the same time.

It’s not so much the story of Fates and Furies that made it such a good read. It’s Groff’s style. The words tumble on the page. We’re shown brief, terrible glimpses of the character’s past and future, all in one breath. It’s a beautifully written book, probably one of the most stylistically engaging novels I’ve read in a long time.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

One day, Yeong-Hye stops eating meat. She’s been having terrible dreams about murder and violence, so she gives up meat.

But it’s not as if she simply goes vegan. She stops eating most foods and wastes away. Her behavior changes too, unsettling her husband and family. At a family dinner one day, things reach a tipping point and Yeong-Hye ends up in the hospital.

Although Yeong-Hye is the title character, The Vegetarian is told from everyone’s perspective but hers. There are some brief descriptions of her violent dreams, from her own point of view, in the first part of the book, but otherwise, the action is narrated by her husband. The second part of the book is from the POV of her brother-in-law and the final part is from her sister’s point of view.

The Vegetarian is some sort of terrifying parable. When Yeong-Hye finally tries to assert herself, by first becoming vegetarian and by doing other considerably more shocking things later on, her family’s reaction is first to force her to eat meat and later to lock her up. No one gets what is going on with her. The response is either to abandon her, to take advantage of her or to have her actions call into question everything that a character once believed or thought important.

The premise of the novel might feel so strange and foreign to us that it can be easy to dismiss it. I think it’s more important not to try to define the “meaning” of the story or to really analyze what it all means, especially the ending. My first inclination was to think, oh clearly, this is a woman throwing off the shackles of society. But there’s more to it than that. Yeong-Hye isn’t just rejecting the expectations placed on her by society. She’s throwing off the expectation that she is even a human, and that is what ultimately terrifies her family and others around her.