Another month of winter, another month of lockdown, and my reading year got off to a bang with a wide variety: a reread of an old favourite, a collection of poetry, some YA, some contemporary fiction, my first ever romance novel, and more. Here’s what I read in January:
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
I don’t know too much about Japanese culture and I felt as though something was lost in translation for me in parts—moments that I got the impression were supposed to be funny, or emotional, or so on, but that didn’t hold the same weight for me. Obviously this is a me problem and not a book problem, but of course it affected my enjoyment of the book. However, the observations on identity and gender norms were universal, and the book itself a sharp and fresh story with interesting characters, although overall I found it somewhat disjointed (perhaps because of the fact that it’s a novella that was later expanded).
Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez
I absolutely loved this book. Camila, la Furia, is a powerhouse of a character, full of drive and talent not only to succeed at football but also to carve her own path despite the expectations of her family, gender, and culture. The story flies—I read most of it in one sitting, completely enthralled. It’s a rich and complex coming of age story, delving into the weight of the double standards to which Camila is held as a woman, daughter, and sportsperson, and her dual desires for her first love, fútbol, and her other first love, Diego, but it’s also enormously fun to read. The setting is also fantastically rendered, giving you a sense of Rosario from all sides in sight, sound, and more. I wish some of the minor characters had been developed a bit more fully, as they don’t seem as fully-realised compared to the depth of Camila’s character, but this is only a minor gripe. I’m sure the book has drawn parallels to another work about a female soccer player who rebels against expectations from her gender and her family and who dreams of playing football in America. While there are definite similarities, Furia is entirely distinct, although its protagonist shares Jess Bhamra’s passion and it will probably hold a place in my heart for just as long.
I feel like sometimes authors write young characters as though they are all on the cusp of adulthood, even when they’re much younger. Not that there aren’t precocious 13-year-olds, but they’re not *all* precocious. This book fell into this trap at the beginning—every preteen talks more like a 17-year-old than someone just taking their first foray out of childhood. I also found it to have a very slow start, plot-wise. A lot of great worldbuilding, but not a lot going on in it. Then, about halfway through, it grabbed hold of me and refused to let go. It helped that by this point the characters were a bit older—each part of the novel is a year later, so the 15-year-old versions of the characters felt a lot more true than the 13-year-old versions. And the plot picked up (with the mermaids on the cover finally appearing, although only briefly, which was a bit unfortunate as that was one of the reasons I originally put the novel on my to-read list). In the end, despite the slow start, I really enjoyed this book. It was a really loving homage to classic children’s fantasy tropes, updated for contemporary minds and older readers.
Ravishing the Heiress by Sherry Thomas
For someone who used to read as much fanfiction as I did, I’m surprised I’ve never read a proper romance novel before. But, like I’m sure many people did, I binge watched Bridgerton and then immediately asked a friend for romance novel recs. She sent this one my way and it delivered. So many excellent tropes, and oh, the pining. Fun to read and well-written with some great character development.
She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh (audiobook; read by the author)
I feel like a lot of writing about Dolly is a little bit samey-same—she’s a genius and a philanthropist! She’s a feminist who loves to joke about her plastic surgery! The gays love her and so do the conservatives!—but that doesn’t mean I don’t love every word of it. Smarsh is an excellent cultural critic with a working class rural background that juxtoposes well with Dolly’s, and her analysis of Dolly’s position in culture and the canon is thoughtful and from a place of love that makes it a fitting tribute to a woman like Dolly.
Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain (audiobook; read by the author)
I listened to this on audiobook because it is read by the author and I miss hearing Anthony Bourdain’s voice. I don’t think a celebrity death has ever hit me as hard; he feels like a friend I never met. The essays in this book are strong reminders as to why. It’s not Kitchen Confidential, but it doesn’t have to be. Bourdain had plenty of stories to tell, plenty of thoughts to share. His snark wasn’t an act, it was a passion. He was angry because he cared. As often as he skewers a chef he feels is cooking with gimmicks or shallowness, he offers heartfelt and more sentimental takes on the contemporary food world he had such an influence on. He wasn’t afraid to turn the lens on himself either, looking at his own role as TV host and cooking competition judge in light of his thoughts on Food Network or cooking show chefs.
Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Kurlansky (audiobook; read by Richard Dreyfuss)
In Ibram X Kendi’s exceptional book How to Be an Antiracist, he explains that the opposite of racism is not non-racism but antiracism, or actively working against racism. Similarly, this book explains that non-violence is not simply the absence of violence but an active choice of resistance to violence. It is a political tactic and a deliberate practice rather than simply a state of being. Kurlansky outlines instances in which nonviolence has influenced the direction of history, as well as positing cases in which nonviolence could have been an effective tactic. While I don’t feel the evidence presented was thorough enough to convince that, say, World War II could have seen effective nonviolent tactics put into practice against the Nazis, the overall message is strong and the “25 lessons” he introduces are both insightful and thought-provoking.
Can’t Even: How Millenials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen
This is an extremely good and infuriating book that made me want to scream in frustration and recommend it to everyone I know. It goes far beyond Petersen’s original article that went viral a couple of years ago—I mean, obviously, because it’s a book, but I mean it doesn’t just rehash the same thesis but instead delves so much deeper into the nature and history of work that has created a burnout culture uniquely of our generation. While the shittiness of work and the systemic conditions that cause burnout are felt by all ages, the way we as millennials experience it definitely reflects the times we’ve grown up in. It’s more intersectional as well, looking at how different backgrounds and societal positions lead to different experiences with and of burnout. I wrote about my own experience with burnout when I first read Petersen’s original article, but it’s something I continue to struggle with two years later, and so I found this book infinitely relatable.
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane (audiobook; read by the author)
The power of language and the power of nature are two of my favourite topics, and Robert Macfarlane is a master at writing about both. Each chapter discusses an aspect of the natural world, the words used to describe it, and the work of another nature writer who inspires Macfarlane’s own work. Between each chapter is a glossary of related words and their origins, offering links between languages and a connection between language and place. Listening to the author read them on the audiobook is a near-meditative experience.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (reread, audiobook; read by the author)
This is my favourite book on writing. Obviously in part it’s because King is one of my favourite authors, but I think it’s just such a frank, honest look at the process, both pragmatic and optimistic in the way writing so often is. I’ve read it several times before but this was my first time listening to it on audiobook, which I really enjoyed.
The Historians: Poems by Eavan Boland
This is a beautiful, powerful collection. Tender yet strong, the poems in The Historians explore themes of womanhood and history, interweaving and divided them in the way they are interwoven but often divided in history. Boland’s writing is careful, with each word perfectly placed, gently and thoughtfully. I am sad that I am only discovering Eavan Boland’s work now that she is gone, but I am excited that I have so much of her work to explore.