What I read in February

Another good reading month—I’ll probably have good reading months until the lockdown is over, or at least until the weather is better. Maybe it’s coming, the sunrise is before 7.30am now and the sunset is after 6.15pm, but for now apart from my daily walk I’m still spending a lot of my time inside and so I’m still getting a lot of reading in. It doesn’t help (in a good way) that I have so many books I’m excited about on hold via Libby and so every time a new one comes in I can’t wait to read it. So for now we’re two months in and I’ve already reached nearly half of my reading goal for the year, and I’m not complaining. This is what I’ve read:

Fiction

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood:

I thought this book was going to be one thing—a smart and funny look at the life you live when you are Extremely Online—and it was that thing, but it was also so much more. I didn’t read too much about the novel before starting it; it didn’t matter what it was about because I think Patricia Lockwood’s writing is just incredible and I would have picked it up no matter what, but because I didn’t look into it at all I didn’t realise how absolutely devastating it was also going to be. It’s a novel of two halves and a work in part of autofiction, and those things work in tandem to create the gut punch that is this book.

It’s an interesting one because for some bits of it you do, yourself, have to be Extremely Online to understand the references (or at least Semi Online as I would expect most people know about the blinking white guy gif). I loved that the protagonist got her internet fame as a part of Weird Twitter rather than something more overtly profound (“Can a dog have twins,” the protagonist’s initial viral moment is goofy and charming and very different than the piece that first brought online fame to Lockwood herself).

It’ll also be interesting to see how books like this and Fake Accounts fare in a few years once the memes they reference are no longer part of the zeitgeist, but honestly in the case of No One is Talking About This I don’t think it’ll matter because the deeper themes of the book are forever universal. It’s a story about a form of escapism that many of us turn to to varying degrees, abutting something that cannot be escaped by entering ‘the portal,’ and the ways we cope with, manage, and reflect on grief, mixed with equally poignant, powerful, and often funny reflections on art, familial love, and care.

It’s difficult to categorise this book. It’s not rare to read a book that is both funny and sad, but it’s much more uncommon to read a book that is both so funny and so sad that you find yourself laughing out loud even as tears are streaming down your face (“bitch if this even happens while you were looking at Jason Momoa pics” is what did it for me). A truly marvellous read. I don’t care that it’s only February; I won’t hesitate to venture that this will be one of my favourite books of the year.

The City We Became by NK Jemisin:

What a strange and incredible book. Things personified as things they shouldn’t be (or generally aren’t known to be) is one of my favourite niche genres and this novel is the ultimate. This book is a tapestry, a love letter, a multiverse of New Yorks and the people that are its heart and spirit, written by someone who brings it to life with all the love and cynicism and art and fantasy and innovation it deserves. I haven’t been to NYC in four years but on every page I felt like I was there. If I had to gripe, I’d say that some of the characters felt better fleshed out than others—while he was the first introduced I never got as strong a sense of Manny as I did Brooklyn or Bronca, and I felt we hardly knew Queens compared to the others, but I hope that will be remedied in future novels. A new favourite; I cannot wait for the next book in the trilogy. 

If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane:

Oh what a fun book! First of all, fake dating, yes, of course, one of the best romance tropes ever. Laurie is a great protagonist with a fully realised life, a realistic career (and finances to match—not, “oh, I am an amateur flower arranger and my budget is 1.6 million”), and strong female friendships. Jamie is lovely and charming. Their motivations are tropey; their characters and thoughts are not. The only bit that falls flat to me is the late third-act drama—the external conflict is good but the internal is a bit sudden and forced after the wonderful slow burn of the majority of the book, and the resolution as well, but honestly it was such a delight to read I didn’t even really care.

Luster by Raven Leilani:

t’s strange; for as much as we get into the protagonist’s head and as many details as we learn about her, I don’t feel like I “know” her at all. There’s a distance between the reader and the character and I feel that wall only really starts to break down in the final scene or two. Maybe that’s the point. That said, I really like the writing style—it’s so descriptive but not poetic; it’s cold and sharp and really fits the plot and shapes the tone of the book. I don’t know if this will become a “favourite” but it’s one I’ll be thinking about for a while, I think.

Remote Control by Nnedi Okonofor:

I like the way that Okorafor can draw readers in to her stories and characters so quickly; you feel an instant tug that pulls you into the work. This novella is short but impactful, science fiction meets afrofuturism meets folklore. The worldbuilding was stronger than the plot for me, and the ending a bit too abrupt and ambiguous, but overall it was a fascinating, carefully-crafted piece.

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong:

There are just a few too many stories in this story. Individually, or in small combinations, I would be all about all of them. Romeo and Juliet retelling? Love it. 1920s Shanghai rival gangs? Hell yeah. Supernatural elements? Biowarfare? Stolen identity? Plus a few more minor plots that, had they been their own stories rather than stuffed into this one, I would’ve loved to explore. But together I unfortunately felt that it wasn’t greater than the sum of its parts, with each element suffering for being torn this way and that in service of the others.

Juliette Cai is an intelligent, cunning, powerful character. I loved her. In contrast, Roma Montagov is fairly boring—in a way, this mirrors and flips the way that Romeo is a far more fully realised character than Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, but it doesn’t make for a romance with much passion or depth. If Roma is uninteresting, the side characters felt like nonentities—I realise that this is intended to be a series and so perhaps they will be explored more in future books, but any scene that didn’t focus on Juliette was much less interesting than those that did.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam:

This book made me feel claustrophobic. It’s vaguely sinister in parts and overly mundane in others, and that’s what makes it unsettling (although I could’ve done without the extremely long description, early on, of everything Amanda bought at the grocery store). What makes it disquieting is the uncertainty—like the characters, we are never quite sure what (if anything!) has happened, and this discomfort fills us with a delightfully dreadful sense of unheimlich. It’s definitely a character-driven book and I see from other reviews that it is going to be adapted into a film, which could possibly be a better vehicle for it as in a few moments where I felt it fell a little flat I think a strongly-acted interpretation could rectify it, but I hope that an adaptation will be able to capture the quiet uncanny nature of its tone.

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler:

This didn’t do it for me. For a character who had so many constant thoughts about everything all the time, the unnamed protagonist had very little to say. It’s a mostly-plotless story about an Extremely Online person, written for other people who are Extremely Online—there were oblique references to real-life tweets that I, an unfortunately Extremely Online person, understood, but it meant that the pithy comments that I’m sure some found revelatory didn’t feel original to me because I’ve seen similar enough insights on Twitter near-constantly in the post-2016 election era. The climax (helpfully labeled as such) fell completely flat for me; I would have preferred a completely plotless, stream-of-consciousness book (and indeed, I don’t mind this sort of book at all) than one that tried to inject sudden drama into the third act and then immediately abandoned it. There were moments that sparkled, and because of those fleetingly witty sentences and scenes, I don’t want to dismiss it entirely, but I can’t say it’s one that will stick with me much beyond writing this review.

Nonfiction (all listened to on audiobook)

Eat a Peach by David Chang:

I really like David Chang’s work even though I’ve never gotten a chance to eat his food. I’ve always enjoyed his appearances on various food-related shows, and especially his own show Ugly Delicious (I will recommend the kids’ menu and fried rice episodes to anyone I know). So it’s no surprise I enjoyed this memoir. Chang is known for his strong opinions, but it’s not bluster; he backs them up with a lot of thought and insight from his own life and work. He’s also known for his anger, and he covers that in this memoir in a way that is at times contrite and at times reticent—I feel like this is one of the main flaws of the book. Obviously everyone wants to make themselves look as good as possible in their own story, but there are moments when attempts to… not gloss over, but explain away his own, well-documented (by himself and others) incidents of rage made me occasionally question the authenticity of the rest of his words. Still, for the most part, this is candid and genuine look at not only the food world but of identity, mental illness, struggle, triumph, and all the emotion and work that goes into a plate of food and the restaurants where it is served.

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff:

I had to listen to this book in small sections because, as you might expect, it’s not an easy listen. It’s an extremely well-organised and thorough book, painting a picture of so many aspects of 9/11 with a wide variety of first-person recollections. The line that struck me hardest of all was near the very end, when a woman who lost her husband commented that as terrible as the day was, she didn’t want to go to sleep, didn’t want the day to end, because as long as she was awake it was still a day she shared with him. It’s hard to give this book a review because it is truly just the memories of people who shared a tragedy; you can’t really make a judgment on the quality of that.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach:

This is not my favourite of Mary Roach’s books, but it’s nothing against the book and more that the other works of hers I’ve read are just so good. But in comparison it does come off as a small bit of a disappointment, not quite as enthralling or as hilariously bizarre and yet educative as Bonk or Stiff or others. Still, it’s a both informative and entertaining look at something that is an ever-present part of our lives and yet not, perhaps, something we consider very often. The audiobook is a very solid listen.

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler:

I was just reading an article the other day about antivaxxers and other folks who talk speak ignorantly about the “chemicals” in things often still have no trouble taking strange supplements they consider healthful or injecting themselves with botulism aka botox, demonstrating that their concerns are less-than-science-based. I’m obviously not calling antivaxxers Nazis (although certainly some of them are as we see from the overlap in the fringe wellness community with white supremacy), but I saw definite parallels in this book that examines how a group obsessed with purity was at the same time pumping itself full of all manner of narcotics. It’s not something I ever really thought about before listening to this on audiobook, but Ohler’s thesis is fairly well supported (although the evidence seems to slot a bit too neatly into some conclusions, making me wonder what was discarded, but that’s always the way with any work of pop science/history) and he effectively connects the use of drugs to instances and actions throughout the war. An intriguing and entertaining book.

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