So far in 2013 I have read 31 books. That might seem like a lot to you, or it might seem like a shockingly small number. If I look on Goodreads I can see that some people have read over 100 books since the start of the year. Though I try not to dwell on this otherwise it all seems like a competition and I don’t have a competitive streak and would rather drink tea and take a nap.
My reading choices this year have been defined in quite a large way by my discovery of NetGalley. As you might know, I like writing book reviews, and often post them at Judging Covers or my Goodreads page. Being able to request and download titles onto my Kindle may eventually be my salvation from bankrupting myself and being buried alive under a mountain of books. If you’re a book reviewer, I would definitely suggest signing up to NetGalley. Don’t think you have to be some kind of big shot to be approved for titles – I only review as a hobby and have been approved for over 20 titles, and only rejected for 4.
Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani
Children of the Jacaranda Tree is at once beautiful and devastating. The plot follows a cast of characters bound together by family, circumstance, and experience. In the powerful opening chapter, an imprisoned woman is being taken to the hospital to give birth. To distract herself, she focuses on the sounds of the city she can hear outside of the van, and thinks about her parents. On returning to the prison, she is only allowed to nurse her child for a short while.
The remainder of Children of the Jacaranda Tree continues with a similar raw, emotional impact. A child sees his parents dragged away to prison as he sits eating breakfast. A young woman learns that she has been lied to about her father’s death, as she uncovers the darker parts of her country’s history. The narrative surges forward and trickles back as each story is told with Delijani’s beautiful, light prose. A perfect read for anyone who wants to think about the human side of history.
All The Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian
Nancy Kricorian’s third novel, All The Light There Was, is a difficult but incredibly worthwhile read. It tells the story of Maral Pegorian, living with her family in Nazi occupied Paris. Her parents and aunt had settled in France after surviving the Armenian Genocide, and now they are facing endless war and endless winter. This is a rather difficult book to read because of how vividly Kricorian describes the oppressive hardship, drudgery and fear of living through WWII, but this is also what makes it a great novel.
Much of the novel focuses on Maral’s love life – she grows up, falls in love, and then suffers crushing heartbreak more than once. This odd juxtaposition of love story and war story illustrates that life must continue with some trace of normality, no matter how hard it may be, even when you are living under a suffocating shroud of fear and uncertainty.
Kricorian is not breaking any fresh ground with her description of occupied Paris, but by framing it through the lens of the personal and cultural tragedies of an Armenian family, she is highlighting issues and events that are not regularly dealt with in the mainstream narrative that surrounds the war.
Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting
Let Alissa Nutting take your hand and lead you through her world of unclean jobs for women and girls. Her short story collection features women with a variety of odd jobs and life circumstances. Some stories are quite funny, some are bittersweet, and some seem innocuous before they reveal a devastating punch. The highlights of the collection, as they stand out in my mind, are Hellion, Ant Colony, Gardener, and She-Man.
In Hellion, a woman who has died finds herself in Hell. Her first observation is that her breasts, a slight A-cup in her living days, are suddenly much larger. She soon finds that they spray acid in self-defence when the men of Hell harass her. Unimpressed with the options for dating, she begins dating the Devil himself.
Ant Colony starts with the jarring idea, presented matter-of-factly, that as space on earth has depleted, humans have been required to host an organism within themselves. The protagonist of this story, a beautiful and vain actress, eschewed the options of barnacles or hosting aquatic life in the form of breast implants, chooses to have her bones hollowed out to turn her body into an ant colony.
In Gardener, a physically neglected middle-aged woman begins to fantasise about the gnome in her back garden, who she sees fornicating with the other garden ornaments every night. As she withdraws further from her husband emotionally and sexually, the gnome begins to take on a greater form in her mind and in life.
She-Man starts jovially and openly, with the line ‘Ginno doesn’t know I’m really a man, but other than that we’re completely honest with one another’ nestled within the first paragraph. Nutting holds the story tight and faintly amusing before it spirals out of control and unravels towards the end, finishing with a last paragraph so blisteringly final I had to read it twice to take in its whole impact.
Nutting takes no prisoners as she runs the gamut of human experience and inhuman awfulness, from white supremacy to abortion, from suicide to cannibalism, from a man who smokes the hair of corpses to a girl who is sent into an air-conditioning vent to confront the ghost of her mother. In this way, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls might not be for the faint-hearted and easily offended, but it is a worthwhile read that might make you laugh and smile just as often as it makes you grimace and gasp.
Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley
Peggy Riley’s debut novel starts strong and ends strong, though the middle sags in places and relies too heavily on laboured prose. Anyone with an interest in cult mentality, and of the human fallout of this kind of brainwashing, will be immediately interested in Amity & Sorrow.
The novel opens with a mysterious scene, two sisters in the back of a car, connected to one another by a strap around their wrists, while their mother drives with no destination other than ‘away’. The narrative reveals that they are escaping from a fire – the fire, as it will come to be known. After driving for four days, the mother crashes the car, and the trio find themselves on a farm somewhere in Oklahoma.
The tension and excitement that builds in the first few chapters swiftly dissipates as the novel settles into adjective-heavy descriptions of everyday life on this farm. The characterisation becomes boring and frustrating as Amaranth, Amity and Sorrow seem to go round in endless circles thinking about their former life. Any revelations about this former life, which involves Amaranth being the first of a religious preacher’s fifty wives, get lost within the flowery writing style.
It is worth trudging through the sagging middle of the novel to reach the end, though, which involves a runaway child, and a return to the temple that harbours secrets from the past. The ending is likely to be frustrating, stomach-turning, yet it offers the faintest glimmer of redemption for Amaranth and Amity, though not for Sorrow and her father.
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Alissa Nutting’s début novel Tampa made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Uncomfortable the point of involuntarily cringing, and having to put the book aside for a few hours in order to return to feeling normal again. Perhaps fortunately I read the Kindle version, as the UK cover of the book would likely have made everyone around me just as uncomfortable as I was.
Celeste Price is twenty-six, unnaturally beautiful by her own estimations, a middle-school teacher, and unflinchingly terrifying. She is the archetypal unreliable narrator, her own overwhelming desire for young boys creeping into the main focus of every moment of her life, with very last sentence of the novel betraying the possibility that her imagination and her reality might not exactly line up. Celeste is married to Ford, a thirty-one year old police officer. She concedes that a thirty-one year old husband is not particularly old for a woman in her mid-twenties, but points out that ‘thirty-one is roughly seventeen years past my window of sexual interest’.
The reasons that Celeste is a truly scary character go further than just her compulsion towards fourteen-year-old boys. On more than one occasion she imagines young boys killing her husband. She barely conceals her distaste for almost everyone around her, at one point casually saying “Aren’t people revolting in general?” She admits, in a semblance of selflessness, that one of her main motives for not having children is to avoid forcing ‘that transgression’ upon herself if she had a son. When she thinks that she might go to prison, it is the orange jumpsuits and unappealing food that worry her the most. Even the most basic sense of guilt over what she is doing is constantly missing, and she is so sure that she is doing nothing wrong that she interprets the scent of mint on a young boy’s breath as explicit consent.
As discomforting and disturbing as it may be, Tampa is also peppered with moments of dark humour. When a fellow teacher asks for a lift home, Celeste struggles to move her gym bag from the passenger seat without revealing the sex toy that she carries everywhere with her. She considers asking a fourteen-year-old to start using anti-ageing treatments, and complains that he acts in a way she considers juvenile. When she is placed under house arrest and a group of women protest outside her house, she sarcastically praises them for bringing their children along to ‘practice the valuable life skill of standing on the side of the road with indignation’.
This book won’t be for everyone, and trying to explain why you’re reading a book that is essentially about paedophilia could be tricky. Yet, anyone who might think that Tampa is glamourising, romanticising or mitigating Celeste’s molestation of under-age boys is missing the point entirely: the character that Nutting has created is pathetic, disgusting, and grotesque in her selfishness. With the exception of a few moments where a reader might feel something for Celeste bordering on sympathy, she remains predatory and manipulative throughout the novel.
I feel as though I’ve become more confident as a reviewer throughout the year – though whether I’ve become more competent as well isn’t really for me to judge. Since reading Tampa I have also read This Is a Voice From Your Past by Merril Joan Gerber, which I haven’t had time to review yet, and I’ve just been approved for Goat Mountain by David Vann.
Do you write book reviews? What have you been reading recently? Any thoughts on the books I’ve reviewed here?