1. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, 308 pages, Feb 1
Loved this one. Memory and family and '70s psychology and animal liberation. “Language does this to our memories -- simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”
2. This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman, 222 pages, Feb 2
A “golden boy” forwards a sex video an eighth-grader crushing on him sends him, and everything is ruined. I’m not sure how I feel about this, particularly the ending, since it’s all him-centric (until the end where she’s fine?) and I’m not sure where the judgment falls. Or I suppose there’s not any and that’s the point, but I don’t like that either.
3. Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer, 309 pages, Feb 3
Autistic Maxon and bald Sunny are living a perfect suburban fake life. He goes to space to start a moon colony of robots but a meteor hits the spaceship. Meanwhile her mother is dying, she’s taking her autistic son off medication, and she’s refusing to wear the wig anymore. General theme, I guess, is be wonderful and weird and yourself. The sex scenes were surprisingly hot.
4. The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov, 253 pages, Feb 4 [for Cambridge’s February book club], reread
Technician Harlan lives in Eternity, which is where the Eternals who manage Reality (century by century) live. They make carefully plotted Changes that are intended to better the human race by altering reality in the future Centuries. Very man-centric (as per most Asimov), though the woman turns out not to be completely useless.
“...and we and we try to plot out all the infinite possibilities of the might-have-beens and pick out a might-have-been that is better than what is and decide where in Time we can make a tiny little change to twist the is to the might-be and we have a new is and look for a new might-be, forever, and forever…”
5. Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, 299 pages, finished Feb 5
More explicitly political than the TV show, but also less interesting and not especially well-written.
6. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, 335 pages, finished Feb 7
Good, but weird, and difficult to read since obviously I don’t speak Spanish. Not one I super loved, but I’m glad I read it.
7. Zone One by Colson Whitehead, 259 pages, Finished Feb 8
I’m kind of tired of zombies, but this was less about the zombies and less about survival and more about human psychology and culture (and trying to rebuild), which I liked. He really writes very beautifully and strikingly, and I plan to check out more of what he's written. I liked all the nonsense with the provisional governor soliciting sponsors, whose products were the only ones one was permitted to use (no looting), which is not something I'd encountered before but seems spot-on.
8. Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler, 274 pages, finished Feb 9
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Rebecca feels her life took a wrong turn when she married Joe and ended up stuck with his three daughters and his family party-planning business after his death, so tries to get back her old life (meeting up with her high school boyfriend, reading more intellectual things, etc.) before she realizes that this life is pretty good. There’s a lot more bittersweet in there. I was not completely enthralled the entire time, but if I’d known it was going to end the way it did I might have been more at peace. “Look...face it...there is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you’ve got.”
9. Arcadia by Lauren Groff, 289 pages, finished Feb 10
About Bit, who grew up in a hippie commune that later sort of fell apart, and the lives he and the other now-grown children try to make in the "real" world. I liked the first half better than the last half (I have a soft spot for communes), but the best part was the language and how it was written, with such joys as:
“Ike tries to answer, but his mind jitters off like a lizard when he thinks, and he is left with a handful of tail-thought.”
10. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, 243 pages, finished Feb 11
Short stories, with a bit of the magical about them. One of them was about a bunch of horses who were reincarnated presidents and kept arguing about whether they were in heaven or hell or what.
11. The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, 241 pages, finished Feb 12
An older woman living alone is surprised by a ‘government carer’ who appears and seems to solve all her problems. It was beautiful and well-done, but I am kind of indignant on behalf of the character, whom I feel that the author betrayed.
“...and afterwards in conversation -- just a few days later -- Ruth realized he’d forgotten all about it, and she was furious at the way she fell in love with small things that turned out to be meaningless.”
12. Room by Emma Donoghue, 321 pages, Feb 13
From the point of view of a kid born to a woman who had been kidnapped and kept prisoner for years, about their life in the shed where he spent his whole life to that point. I thought, from hearing so much about it, that this was going to be a lot more traumatic and grittier than it was, but I really liked it. This is probably the thing I've read from the point of view of a child which I think is most authentic and interesting and properly done. I also love a lot of what the mother has to say to people in the latter half of the book.
13. One of Ours by Willa Cather, 371 pages, finished Feb 16
I was surprised how much I liked the writing, but the story really makes me deeply uncomfortable. Here, this young man is too sensitive for life and wants more than this provincial life (basically), so then he goes off to war and finally finds likeminded fellows and blooms (uh, seriously?), and then dies and his mother is glad of it because he would have been disillusioned by the world afterward. Meh.
“He was a jolly, easy-going father, indeed, for a boy who was not thin-skinned.” (I feel like this is the saddest line ever, much in the vein of Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes, never worn.")
“[...]a broad yellow beam shone out into the choked air, and down it millions of snowflakes hurried like armies, an unceasing progression, moving as close as they could without forming a solid mass.[...] There was a solemnity about a storm of such magnitude; it gave one a feeling of infinity. The myriads of white particles that crossed the rays of lamplight seemed to have a quiet purpose, to be hurrying toward a definite end.”
14. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman, 240 pages, finished Feb 17
I saw this reviewed as a description of the kind of guy who’s enlightened, not an asshole, but who wastes women’s fertile years and never settles down with them, etc. Which I guess it is; it’s the most reasonable indictment (if it is one) of the Millennials I’ve seen thus far. I find it vaguely anxiety-inducing to identify terribly closely with some of these thoughts and scenes (some from the male and some from the female perspective).
“Contrary to what these women seemed to think, he was not indifferent to their happiness. And yet he seemed, in spite of himself, to provoke it.”
15. See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid, 182, finished 2/19
So I actually didn’t especially like this, though I had expected to. The “lyricism” etc. turned out to be just thoughts going in circles, and while bits of it were intriguing, I didn’t really like the effect. Or the characters.
16. Lexicon by Max Barry, 388 pages, finished Feb 20
I really liked this. Poets using words to control/persuade people, the bareword, all the drama, the psychology, the shielding, the plotting. Tied in to Tower of Babel mythology. I especially liked the news stories (cover stories) about the events in the book.
17. Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin, 343 pages, finished Feb 22
About an intesex kid being raised as a guy (he apparently was never informed there were other options, but he does identify as a guy, so there's that) who is raped by his best friend and winds up pregnant, just as he's starting his first serious relationship and while his dad is running for office. Lots of secrecy and shame and confusion. I think it's a good book to exist and for kids to have access to, but I imagine it's a kind of triggering read for people who have similar experiences or thought patterns. He ends up in a good place, but there's a lot of blame-taking and gender essentialism and suicide ideation stuff in the middle. It's told from several characters' perspectives (him, the girlfriend, his little brother, his mom, the doctor).
18. Love is Power, or Something Like That by A. Igoni Barrett, 199 pages, Feb 22
Short stories about family and such set in Nigeria. I liked “My Smelling Mouth Problem,” “Trophy,” and “The Little Girl with Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh” best.
19. Tampa by Alissa Nutting, 263 pages, Feb 22
Very much a gender-reversed Lolita (a 24-year-old woman becomes a teacher specifically so she'll have access to the specific type of 14-year-old boy she's attracted to -- quite the sociopath) except much more sexually explicit.
20. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, 217 pages, Feb 24
Actually pretty good. A young man marries instead of pursuing the not-yet-divorced (and with pressure, presumed never to be) cousin of his fiancee, regrets it and keeps trying to set up an affair, but she finally leaves and he doubles down on his life and such. Very duty-driven, and then at the end, about the change in New York society in a very short generation.
“He reviewed his friends’ marriages -- the supposedly happy ones -- and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.”
21. The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty, 109 pages, Feb 24
Laurel comes home to be with her father when he gets eye surgery, from which he never recovers. The funeral, complete with everyone from the town, the new (younger) wife Fay who is terrible, and a couple days reliving the past in the old house.
22. Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan, 280 pages, Feb 26
Memoir about parenting (and a lot of ruminating about the difference between fathering and mothering and what doing either says about you and your gender that I'm not really personally sold on) by a transgender woman who transitioned while her children were fairly young.
“But then, this is one of the fundamental contradictions of parenthood -- the unending necessity to teach your children lessons that you yourself still have not learned.”
“Is this one of those moments you always remember because it’s so adorable? Or because it was the first clue you had that your child would someday grow up to shoot the president?”
23. Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank, 257 pages, Feb 26
History of virginity, what it's meant (physically, socially) at various points in time. I was pleased to learn that it has at some times been much more a thing of power, like the vestal virgins and women who went into convents in order not to marry and thus to retain legal personhood.
"This isn't to say that virginity is relative and therefore irrelevant. To the contrary, we have more than two and a half millennia of written history that make it abundantly clear that virginity is relative and therefore immensely relevant."
24. Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell, 290 pages, Feb 27
A father vanishes without giving any indication of why, which gives way to some family drama.
"Aoife has to resist the urge to grind her teeth, to throw something at the wall. Why is it that twenty-four hours in the company of your family is capable of reducing you to a teenager? Is this retrogression cumulative? Will she continue to lose a decade a day?"
"He feels, he realizes, jealous of himself, as if he is looking back at the scene from a distance."
25. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, 247 pages, Feb 27
Lovely even if I don’t agree with the faith.
“In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable -- which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us. Maybe I should have said we are like planets. But then I would have lost some of the point of saying that we are like civilizations. The planets may all have been sloughed from the same star, but still the historical dimension is missing from that simile, and it is true that we all do live in the ruins of the lives of other generations, so there is a seeming continuity which is important because it deceives us.”
26. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, 336 pages [audiobook, though], finished Feb 27
A precocious girl contemplates burning down her apartment as sort of a protest against her parents and the world, while the concierge in her building persists in hiding that she's actually a very cultured woman.
27. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout [Pulitzer], 270 pages, Feb 28
A series of short stories set in one small town.
“[She] felt she had figured something out too late, and that must be the way of life, to get something figured out when it was too late.”
“Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as ‘big bursts’ and ‘little bursts.’ Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well.”
“[...] she had the sensation that she had been seen. And she had not even known she’d felt invisible.”
“I don’t know why I did it. But today I can recognize that events back then were part of a life-long pattern in which thinking and doing have either come together or failed to come together -- I think, I reach a conclusion, I turn the conclusion into a decision, and then I discover that acting on the decision is something else entirely, and that doing so may proceed from the decision, but then again it may not. Often enough in my life I have done things I had decided not to do. Something -- whatever that may be -- goes into action; ‘it’ goes to the woman I don’t want to see anymore, ‘it’ makes the remark to the boss that costs me my head, ‘it’ keeps on smoking although I have decided to quit and then quits smoking just when I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a smoker and always will be. I don’t mean to say that thinking and reaching decisions have no influence on behavior. But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behavior, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions.”