Every year I set myself a reading target – this year I am aiming for 24. In this regularly-updated post I’ll add each book I read as I finish it with a small review for anyone looking for some reading recommendations (or who wants to know what to avoid!).
I am determined to have read as many books by female authors as male by the end of the year and discovering brilliant authors like Meg Wolitzer is the exact reason why. The Interestings is effectively an ensemble story, following the lives of a group of teens who meet at a summer camp for the artistically gifted. This group of friends nickname themselves The Interestings, and the novel examines how their lives unravel from this golden era of their youth.
It’s already a great premise but Wolitzer’s very human characters and her incredibly impressive plotting of the story are what makes this novel so great. It sounds extremely dizzying to move backwards and forwards in time in a group of people’s lives, taking each important event from different perspectives. But Wolitzer makes it look easy – and makes it easy for the reader. Her manipulation of time is masterful. The depiction of changing interpersonal relationships over decades reminded me of Ann Pratchett’s brilliant Commonwealth, which was one of my favourite reads last year. Like Elizabeth Day’s The Party, this book also holds at its heart a message on the corruptive influence of privilege and jealousy, although it handles it more subtly here.
I did have a few niggles. I felt that a major plot point that changes the course of the novel doesn’t have satisfying resolution. Although, perhaps that is intentional as this type of incident is rarely satisfactorily resolved in real life (couldn’t really make it more specific than that without giving it away). Also, while it is a good thing that Wolitzer’s characters are realistically flawed, I did struggle with the fact that they sometimes stray into being unlikable. However, these really are minor quibbles with a brilliant novel that I am very happy to have read. Wolitzer is one of those authors that I’ll return to just to give myself a treat.
Enders’ objective in writing Gut: the inside story of the body’s most under-rated organ is clear – to increase the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the digestive system. Her book details our inner workings, from the mouth to the…other end, explaining the impressive and integrate workings that are vital to our daily survival.
This is one of those non-fiction books that is rich in interesting facts on a subject matter that you really should know more about. Some of these facts, should be general knowledge but aren’t (apparently I didn’t realise where my stomach actually was). Some, you probably wouldn’t know the answer to unless you studied biology, like why our stomach rumbles and why we crave sweet food after a meal. Finally, some are facts that very few people know because research into the area is still in its nascent stages (hence the aim of the book). For example, Enders makes a compelling case that there is a strong connection between gut health and mental health, which many studies are now exploring.
However, Enders goes beyond raising awareness to practical measures (very German of her) – from advice for cleanliness, to foods you can eat to encourage good bacteria in your gut, to an actual recipe for sauerkraut. Enders’ passion for the subject matter is compelling, and by the end of the book I was convinced that gut health is something that a. everyone should take more seriously and b. there should be more funding for medical research for. Safe to say she succeeded in her objective, I am a gut convert.
Welcome to the only review of this book that won’t have an electricity-based pun. Alderman’s dystopian novel (I guess maybe not dystopian depending on your point of view), depicts a future where women develop the ability to generate electric pulses, which slowly tips gender power struggles in their favour. Up front – the only part of this book that I didn’t like is that it is stated at the beginning and end of the book that this story is historical fiction from a male author in the future. I understand that this is a reference to The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 before that, and it does allow Alderman to show the end result of a future run by women. But it was the only part of this book that didn’t feel convincing or compelling.
However, that aside, this novel is brilliant because it is works on two levels. Firstly, it is an extremely entertaining work of speculative fiction. Alderman’s depiction of how “the power” would change religion, politics, and every other aspect of human society, is as compelling as it is believable. This is helped by a careful selection of characters that the reader follows throughout the novel, each in a very different circumstance and therefore giving us a number of vantage points to watch how the world changes.
Secondly, like all the best dystopian novels, The Power works as a critique of our world. On this second level, the electricity is just a catalyst that enables the change in gender dynamics. The transition from a patriarchy to a matriarchy is what demonstrates how unbalanced the world is now. Women and girls who are belittled, controlled, raped, and systematically oppressed are literally given power, and many of them exact justices on the men that made them victims. In many ways this makes The Power the antithesis to The Handmaid’s Tale, in the same way that Brave New World was the antithesis to 1984. But in this case Alderman is using the other side of the coin to Atwood (who advised on this novel) to also show the gender imbalance that exists in our society.
What I enjoyed most about this book was that Alderman captures both the cataclysmic changes that would take place (for example the liberation and retribution of sex slaves in Moldova, and a female revolution in Saudi Arabia) but also the subtle ones that would undoubtedly accompany those (as many of the female characters take on younger, multiple lovers and a female news anchor’s co-host is replaced with a younger man). It’s in these details that Alderman creates a convincing future and makes her point that gender imbalance exists from top to bottom. As multiple characters express throughout the book, we already know what a world run by men looks like – many women already live dystopian lives. The Power points this out by showing us the mirror image of how things would be if power was tipped the other way.
I’ve wanted to read Educated since my girlfriend raved about it at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, she selfishly lent it to my cousin and we only got the book back in December. It was worth the wait.
Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up in a family of what is probably best described as extremist-Mormans, or End of Days fanatics, in the isolated mountains of Idaho. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. Quite a few people had described it to me as a a cult, so I was anticipating the Mansons. In actuality, while Westover’s childhood couldn’t be described as normal and some aspects shocking – the home schooling (or lack there of), preparation for the end of days, not having birth certificates, not knowing what the holocaust is – she makes it clear that from her point of view it seemed ordinary. More than anything this demonstrates the power a family has over a person. Westover’s writing is unflinchingly honest in showing that, for her, it was everyone else who seemed strange, wrong or immoral.
The first half of the book explores the environment in which she grew up in and, as much as it is about strange ideas, in my mind it is more of an account of abuse and neglect. The second half is a story of discovery as she becomes “educated”. Being walked through a person’s real-life awakening is quite a cathartic experience for the reader. But as Westover herself begins to become aware of the flaws her family – which she hypotheses stems from her father’s struggle with mental illness – the abuse of the first half is brought into sharper focus by the contrast of worlds. Westover’s book is a conflict between two immense forces – the empowerment of education and a person’s responsibility to their family. It’s a unique and compulsive read.
Analysis of reading in 2019
I read some brilliant books in 2019 but after much deliberation my top five were:
- Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
- Conversation with Friends by Sally Rooney
- The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle
- Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Commiserations especially to The Power, The Interestings and Educated (all reviewed above!)
For the first time ever I read as many (in fact, more) books by female authors than male. Given that my top three books of the year are by female authors, this was clearly worthwhile and I look forward to picking up more by Sally Rooney and Meg Wolitzer in particular.
Another way my reading year is different from my typical line up is that I read far more contemporary books, when I usually hang out around the “modern classics”. With the exception of six books, all of the authors I read are still alive. For this, I credit my girlfriend – for making some great suggestions, not for keeping the authors alive…
I read more non-fiction than I remembered (7) but fiction still dominated (17). In my very unscientific break down of genres I read (if I had to put each book into just one category), the top for this year was still what I call “lost men”. Also known as “man in crisis” this is not a genre yet recognised by mainstream bookstores but a surprising number of the books I read could be placed there. This is closely followed by sci-fi (4), memoir (3), fictional memoir (3), music (2), historical fiction (2). The rest is made up of a mix of horror, mystery, politics, graphic novel, and straight up science. A broad range that I’m happy with.
Next year I’d like to read books by more authors of colour because looking back, while I improved on my gender diversity, I can’t ignore the fact that it was a complete white wash. Look out for more book reviews in 2020.
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Click here for reviews of books 1 – 5 (Including Killing Commendatore, Slaughterhouse 5, Conversations with Friends, Authority and This is Memorial Device)
Click here for reviews of books 6 – 10 (Including Murphy, The Party, Soviet Milk, Rabbit, Run and The Tango Singer)
Click here for reviews of books 11 – 15 (Including The Haunting of Hill House, Why Woman Have Better Sex Under Socialism, Less, The Falconer and Sleepless Nights)
Click here for reviews of books 16 – 20 (Including The Goldfinch, You Would Have Missed Me, The Black Cloud, At the All-Night Café and Sabrina)