2016 Reading In Review

Lots of travel and (f)unemployment means that (according to Goodreads) I read 44 books this year from my goal of 24. For the curious, my full list is here. There were good books, okay books, books I read for book club meetings I never went to. Here are four of the best I read in 2016:

Best FictionHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing is gripping, beautiful, and sad. The story of two branches of a family, one sister sold into slavery, the other sold as wife to a British slaver in Ghana. In a series of stories and vignettes, Gyasi traces their descendants in both America and Ghana.

 

Best Nonfiction: The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr (alternate title: The Heretics)

Why do people believe things that have been disproven? Journalist Will Storr sets out to find why, even in the face of contrary evidence, some people will believe something that seems ridiculous. Everyone knows someone (or is someone) who firmly believes something that has little to no evidence – or even contradictory evidence.

Best Memoir: Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

I laughed, I cried, I read it again. Brosh is like me – a young person with variable mental health trying to cope with life. Some of the stories are repeats of blog posts, but it’s all fantastic. Her depiction of depression is spot-on.

Best Biography: Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang

Cixi wasn’t even the Emperor’s favorite concubine, but she was the only one who gave birth to a son. She leveraged her position when the Emperor died to rule a country that considered women to be property at best. Cixi brought China into modernity but ultimately ended her life with a mixed legacy. A fascinating look at a powerful, clever woman.

 

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Book Review: Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

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Stars: Three

I did not enjoy Gordon’s memoir as much as I hoped. Gordon is an artist, a feminist, and a musician who lived through a formative period in modern American art and music. She name drops connections from modern art, the New York art scene from the 70s and 80s, and musicians from the No Wave and punk movements. I have no frame of reference for most of these things, and frequently she just assumes that the reader knows who she is talking about and moves on. Despite her great writing style, I struggled to connect.

I think my main problem with Gordon’s memoir is that it is tinged with regret and lingering anger over the breakup with her longtime husband and music partner, Thurston Moore. A lot of sections, particularly in the series of essays about their albums and tours and specific songs, where she talks about how she “should have known” or how Moore treated her badly are incredibly bitter and difficult to read. Her perspective of the albums and the band’s history is affected by the breakup. The focus on their failed relationship inhibits more than enhances the narrative.

Also, can we talk about the title? I know it’s meant to reflect what the music magazines were calling her (“What’s it like to be a girl in a band?”), but for a woman who is so invested in feminism, it’s an odd choice.

I really wanted to like Girl in a Band. I wanted it to be another on my list of great feminist memoirs. But it falls short.

Review: Alfred & Emily

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Read: Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing

Stars: Three

Drinking: Pumpkin Spice Chai, Twinings

Alfred & Emily reminded me a lot of Atonement.  In the first half, Lessing creates an alternate history for her parents in which World War I never occurs.  Instead, England slips into a long period of peace, in which Alfred and Emily never marry, although they are friends. Alfred is a farmer with a kind wife and two sons.  Emily is a successful nurse, then hostess, and finally supporter of education.  The strange alternate world that Lessing creates is almost more interesting than their lives – a Serbian rebellion and a longing for the young men of England to “have a good war” are just two of the details that appear.  It is an interested, but not necessarily satisfying, story.

The second half is a series of essays about Lessing’s real parents, damaged by the first world war and jaded by the realities of living in Southern Africa. Emily, the socialite nurse, becomes a clingy, desperate mother.  Alfred is a farmer, but not the idyllic British farmer. Farming in Rhodesia is difficult, they have no training, and Alfred’s wounds from the war have made him very ill.  Both spend most of their lives wishing for the time before the war.  Alfred wishes he could have died with his comrades at Passchendale.

The best essay is not about Lessing’s parents, but about her brother, Harry.  Harry was on a ship in the Pacific that was sunk by the Japanese, but he survived to be an old man living in South Africa.  The entire second half of the book – their parent’s lives since World War I – can be summed up by Harry’s comment about his life after the ship sank” You see, Tigs, it’s most of my life: I simply haven’t been here at all.”  Alfred and Emily hadn’t been those people who survived Passchendale or had a lover shot down over the Channel. Those people were gone.  Lessing comes to terms with the absence of the people her parents really were through the alternate history she created for them, where ultimately, they are perhaps happier.

I enjoyed the book, but I’m not sure it really achieved Lessing’s goal.  I think that perhaps if she had used a different format – a short introduction to her parent’s lives, followed by the alternate history – it would  have been more effective.  The essay format does highlight the regrets of her parents and how the war affected them, but it is piecemeal.