My reviewing pace can’t quite keep up with my reading pace—I would need a Time Turner to pull that off. So! In addition to long form reviews of books that are particularly noteworthy, I’ll be doing shorter round-up posts for everything else I’ve read in a given month. January is stacked. You can also catch up on the long reviews I wrote for Capital and Life After Life.
First, the All Star Award. This goes to the book that comes with my highest recommendation but, for whatever reason, I didn’t quite have time to review in full. This is the book I would frog march you to a bookstore to buy if you were here. That award goes to….
There Once Lived a Mother who Loved her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (trans. Anna Summers)
Petrushevskaya is relentless, disturbing, and captivating in this book, which collects three of her novellas: “The Time Is Night,” “Chocolates With Liqueur,” and “Among Friends.” These are brutal stories, mired in the cruelties and deprivations of ordinary Soviet citizens, but Petrushevskaya’s particular genius is to make your heart ache for characters you spend less than 100 pages with. These are impeccably written stories, perfectly realized and precisely executed. The only time you should put down the book is to take a shot of vodka to brace yourself for the next story. Superb.
Now, on to everyone else…
Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay
I regret not going to Gay’s Vancouver Writer’s Festival event in October, and for not reading Bad Feminist before now. I found Gay’s writing rigorous but approachable, and well worth reading.
Citizen was my first book of poetry this year. There’s a stunning line on nearly every page. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely meditates on post-9/11 America through the metaphor of drug-induced stupor. Recommended.
The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits
A satisfying experiment in form, though perhaps not for those who like their life writing in straightforward, chronological fashion.
There has been a lot of press about the “discovery” of Nell Zink by Jonathan Franzen. If you can make your way past that Franzen endorsement (some of you may be swallowing a great deal of bile in order to do so) you’ll be rewarded with Zink’s energetic and bold prose. Mislaid is the superior of the two books, retaining the go-for-broke spirit of The Wallcreeper but with a stronger plot. They’re not perfect books, but I appreciate that Zink makes every single sentence pop with style.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
This is where I reveal that I am a complete sucker for history books about shipwrecks, and Larson has written a good one. The sinking of the Lusitania offers a new angle from which to view the first World War, and Larson does his due diligence to analyze the sinking. His efforts to create a parallel narrative around a grieving Woodrow Wilson, suggesting this may have impacted his ability to respond more rapidly to the political consequences of the Lusitania sinking, are less compelling.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
This book is frequently billed as a “retelling” of Snow White, but that summary does a great disservice to the scope of the book. Far more interesting is Oyeyemi’s contemporary take on the narrative of passing, and the effects of revealing that double life. I found this novel suffered from some pacing problems (too much time spent table setting up front only to have the last third of the book plummet downhill to the finish), but everything evens out by the final pages.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
I’ve stopped and re-started this book several times since I purchased it last year, until I FINALLY sat down with it and let it wash over me, more or less in a day. Once I completely turned my attention over to the story I found myself gently pulled into its wake: a writer living on Vancouver Island discovers a teenage girl’s diary as beach flotsam and suspects it may be debris from the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan. Shenanigans ensue.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (trans. Lola Rogers)
This book is delightful, violent, and thrilling in equal measure. A schoolteacher finds herself inducted into the venerated but mysterious Rabbit Back Literature Society, incubator of Finland’s finest (fictional) literary talents. On the night of her induction, the Society’s founder and head mysteriously disappears. One part Finnish magic realism, one part truth-or-dare, and excellent start to finish. Finally, an author who demonstrates how to properly plot out rising action!
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Solnit has written a timely and essential book of criticism that blasts the sorry state of female rights and status. You may already be familiar with the titular essay, but the rest of Solnit’s work is just as sharp.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (trans. Megan Brackus)
This was an attempt to break out from my all-Murakami Japanese fiction rut. I was not entirely successful, but I think the fault is with me rather than with Yoshimoto: I should know better than to pin my hopes on star-crossed, dewy-skinned teenage lovers.
Fever At Dawn by Péter Gárdos (trans. Elizabeth Szász)
I received this as a free ARC from the lovely Kate, who generously shared some of her book buyer freebie bounty with me. The premise of the book is a corker: a Hungarian refugee recuperating from wartime injuries passes time in Sweden by sending out dozens of letters to female Hungarian refugees in hopes of finding a wife. And he succeeds! And it’s based on a true story! The writing, however, is fairly plain (even accounting for the wildcard of translation) and the story doesn’t feel as essential as it could be. Doomed to decorate a dentist’s waiting area, I’m afraid.
Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt
I love Patton Oswalt and really wanted this book to be better than it was. You won’t regret reading it, but there are probably stronger contenders for your reading time. If you’re looking for trademark Oswalt Anecdotes, you’ll find an abundance of them here, but they lose some of their zing on the page.
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin
Sorokin imagines a Russia of the near future, where the monarchy has returned and order is maintained through the service of loyal oprichniks, religious enforcers pulled headlong into the twenty-first century from the reign of Ivan the Terrible. This is not a book for the squeamish: there is a lot of violence on display here, but every instance is in service of the story. More disturbing is how accurate Sorokin’s projections may become.