Books: What I’ve Read This Winter

At the beginning of the year, I read that the fiction librarian at the Free Library read something like 300 books last year. That’s a pretty impressive number — nearly a book a day — and it inspired me to see my own reading goal for the year — 50 books. I’ve been keeping track on  a list and figured it might be worth it to do a quarterly review/round up of what I’ve read, both to keep track and to help it sink in better. So, here’s a quick list and review of the books I’ve read between January and March (there are 11, so I’m a little behind if I hope to make it to 50 by the end of the year):

January

Leaving the Sea: Stories; Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus is one of my favorite writers. The first thing I ever read by him was an essay in Harper’s magazine in 2005 and it was amazing. A little cranky, but amazing. His work is challenging, but not off-putting. The stories in Leaving the Sea feature characters (men) who find themselves in increasingly absurd situations, rejected by their loved ones or left floundering about in life. As the stories progress in the book, the style becomes more and more experimental. While the first two are fairly realistic, the last few are better described as explorations of the ways language works (or fails to work).

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir; Alan Cumming

I’m not really a memoirs person (which is weird to say, since there are three on this list), but this was a great read. Cumming recounts his fraught relationship with his abusive father, who tells him that he’s not his actual father. It’s a sad story, but it’s also a hopeful one, as he’s able to forgive his dad. Although memoirs aren’t really my thing, it was interesting to get to read the life experience of one of my favorite actors.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing; Marie Kando

Yeah, I’m counting this one. It was short and fluffy, but I read it twice. You can read a bit more about my experience with it here and here.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel; Haruki Murakami

Compared to 1Q84, his last novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki felt very lightweight. That’s not to say it was no good, it just felt so much simpler, as the plot wasn’t involved or twisty turny.  Tsukuru Tazaki was abandoned by his group of friends in college, and  years later sets out to find out why. I’d say it’s a light, worthwhile read, but the portrayal of women and the rape discussion in the book did make me feel a little weird, and those aren’t usually things I say  about Murakami.

The Unconsoled; Kazuo Ishiguro

I got to see Kazuo Ishiguro at the Free Library a couple of weeks ago, and in preparation for seeing him, I read the Unconsoled in January (and in February — it took me a long time to get through it). The novel is from 1995, right after the Remains of the Day. It’s a bit of a trip, but I’m not sure it was a trip that went anywhere. And that’s OK. The main character, Ryder, is a pianist who goes to a town to put on a concert. But, lots of stuff happens to him during his stay there, and it’s not clear why or how or what. . .  here’s an understatement: Ryder is one of the most unreliable narrators in existence. Apparently, I’m not the only person to struggle with the book, nor am I the only one to think it’s worth a read, even if it makes you tear your hair out.

Now I See You: A Memoir; Nicole C. Kear

Here’s another memoir, which I read for a book club I’m in. Kear has a retinal disorder that caused her to slowly lose her sight over a period of years. The book isn’t some sappy survivor story, but instead focuses on her  refusal to accept her worsening blindness or to tell others about it. Part of that involves living as much as she can before things go dark, part of it living in frustration as she can’t  do the things she once could.

February

How to be both: A novel; Ali Smith

I picked up How to Be Both at the London Review of Books bookshop when I was in England last September, but didn’t get around to reading it until February of this year (when I bought it in the UK, it hadn’t been published in the US yet).  The novel features two stories, one set in the modern day and the other set in the 15th century. Dual story aside, what makes the novel unique is that different versions of the book feature the stories in a different order. The copy I got had the 15th century story first, then the modern one. I have to wonder if that affected what I thought of it, as I found the story of the painter in the Renaissance to be harder to get into than the story of George, the girl in modern day who’s dealing with the loss of her mother.

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories; Moto Hagio

Whether A Drunken Dream and Other Stories belongs on this list depends on your thoughts about whether  manga/graphic novels count as a literary experience, or not. I say yes, so here it is. The book is a collection of short stories, created by Moto Hagio, who is is responsible for turning the shojo, or girl’s comics, from a genre that was mostly stories that men thought were relevant to girls, to a genre that fully explored the experience of being a girl. Some of the stories in the book, such as “Girl on Porch with Puppy” seem so simple at first, but are really deep. The collection was my first time reading shojo or any type of manga, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has no idea about it, but wants to.

March

The History of the Kings of Britain; Geoffrey of Monmouth

I love ancient history books. Not the stuff written today, but the stuff written hundreds or thousands of years ago, which we read today and have to think “hmm, was this real?” Herodotus’ Histories is an example, The History of the Kings of Britain is another. It spans early British history, from the time of Brutus, the great grandson of Aeneas, to a few hundred years after the death of Arthur (who, according to this version, didn’t die at the hands of Mordred). Merlin’s a character in the book, and there’s a whole section dedicated to his prophecies. Written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, in Latin, the book is apparently based on an older history books which is conveniently,  no longer available. Did this stuff really  happen? I guess it really doesn’t matter, but as someone who’s in the Arthurian legend, it was worth a read to see the more historically minded side of things.

How to Be a Woman; Caitlin Moran

I read How to Be a Woman a few years ago, when it first came out. After The History. . . I needed something a little light to read before jumping into the next book on this list, so I decided to re-read it. How to Be a Woman is both a memoir and an outline of Moran’s feminist views. That makes it sound really boring, when it’s anything but. It made me laugh a lot, while thinking about common women’s issues.

All the Light We Cannot See; Anthony Doerr

Try getting this one out from the library — you’ll be on the hold list for months. I was, so I ended up breaking down and buying it, so that I could read it in time for book club. It was totally worth it, as the book was great. It takes place during World War II, mostly in the occupied port city of Saint Malo. It’s kind of a love story, but not really. It’s a story about people making it through a terrible period in history, doing what they need to do, even, as is the case of the German boy who ends up fighting for the Nazis, they don’t necessarily agree with what is going on. Marie-Laure, one of the main characters, is a blind girl who’s left in the city of Saint Malo after her father is arrested by the Germans. Werner, a German orphan who proves to be incredibly gifted in science and mechanics, is the other main character.

There’s a lot that goes on in the book (as there should be, it’s over 500 pages long), but what stands out about it is the structure. Divided into several parts, each part is full of short, short chapters and each chapter jumps from one character to another. Although long, the way the book is structured makes it a quick read.

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