Beginning a new reading year is a lot like starting a new notebook. At first you try to keep everything neat and tidy and perfect but by the second page you’re already scribbling and crossing things out. Following your reading goal for the first couple of weeks is easy. You may have the occasional “you are one book behind schedule” notice on Goodreads but that can be quickly amended. You feel in control for the time being, even though you just know it’s all going to crash and burn by the time November comes around. I went through my first ten books with relative ease (with the exception of one novel which genuinely even Sisyphus would have given up on). Since most blogs have snazzy collages plastered all over them I thought I’d make one of my first ten books. Look at me, I’m the next Zoella.
It’s an accidentally varied collection. Poetry, plays, novels, and non-fiction. I never realised how sporadic my tastes are. I started the year with Sam Riviere’s poetry collection Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (2015). Riviere is what I would call a post-internet poet. Even the title of his collection is quite talismanic of his style and observations. Very much a commenter on popular culture, the collection is structure around Kim Kardashian’s make-up regime with the titles of the each section being called Primer, Contour, Highlight, Powder, Blend, Shadow, Liner, and Gloss. The poems pendulate from self-reflection and introspection in the internet age to George Clooney’s sunglasses and pineapple ice-cream. Of all of the books on this list I have to say that this is the one that is still with me weeks after finishing it.
Lump all of the fiction books together and there seems to be a common thread of death and isolation. Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (2002), Mary Costello’s Academy Street (2014), and Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family (2015) all open with deaths of characters which ultimately serve the progression of each narrative. The Little Friend begins with the stark image of a nine-year-old boy hanging from a tree by his neck. Tartt then skips forward about a decade when the boy’s little sister is out to investigate who murdered her older brother. However, the novel completely runs out of steam around the 150-page mark but the narrative keeps on going for another 400 pages. Much like Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, I found that she is able construct these multi-layered and memorable characters but she just doesn’t know what to do with them. So her novels are filled with these buoys idly bobbing around waves of boredom. We’ll see if The Goldfinch makes me realise that I’m hopefully wrong about her.
Midway thorough Mary Costello’s Academy Street I kept repeating the same thing in my head. “This is just Tóibín’s Brooklyn“. Thankfully, I was wrong about that. It is the story of an Irish woman who decides to leave her life in Ireland and move to the titular Academy Street in New York. Her life is full of heartbreak however (obviously, this is an Irish novel) and her life in New York is not the brave new world that many women of her time were promised. It is a novel that relies solely on our protagonist, Tess Lohan. A character study in every respect, not only because of the extraordinary trials that Tess must face but because of its sheer breadth. The novel comes in at well below 200 pages yet Costello squeezes at least fifty years of Tess’ life onto every page. It is a testament to Costello that not a single part of the novel feels rushed or truncated, it is a glimpse into a tragic life.
Did You Ever Have A Family, the novel asks me. Did you ever have a plot, I retort. This novel begins with an entire family perishing in an house fire. Oh joy. Clegg abuses the narrative device of a series of numerous POVs in order to leave the reader utterly clueless and confused, even up to the last page. To be perfectly honest if the typeface of my copy wasn’t so large and the margins near chasms then I simply would not have bothered finishing this Eton mess of a novel. I recall this being longlisted for the Man Booker last year, huh, let another dud from that bleak selection.
Kafka’s The Trial (1925) and Nella Larsen’s novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) finish off my fiction for this round-up. The Trial is the story of a man who is arrested one day but both him and the reader never find out exactly why he is arrested. The novel is a typical Kakfa affair. Brooding and oppressive set pieces which instil both fear and confusion are rampant throughout the work but never become tiring or repetitive. The influence of Dostoyevsky is near palpable throughout The Trial with both Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground being obvious inspirations. It is a wonderful little novel with one of the bleakest endings out there, so prepare yourselves.
Quicksand and Passing I’ll review hand-in-hand as they are Nella Larsen’s only novels and both deal with very similar topics. Quicksand introduces us to Helga Crane, a mixed-race woman who decides to leave her teaching job due to her disgust at everything her college stands for. She wanders about the novel, moving from Chicago to Copenhagen to Harlem, commenting on her experience as a mixed-race woman in different societies and cultures. I have to admit that I utterly adored every word of this novel. I personally place it streets ahead of Passing even though that novel is far more critically acclaimed and read. Quicksand was my first “oh god I must read all of this right now” novel of the year. Passing is a novel about, well, passing. Mixed-race people passing as white people in everyday society. Irene and Clare are brought together one day, they used to be school-friends but haven’t seen each other for years. We follow Irene as she adapts to this new world of passing. Although this work is far more brutal than Quicksand and has a more obvious message, I felt that the narrative bored me in many parts. This is not a criticism of Larsen’s prose however, which is beautiful and minimal.
My only non-fiction book was Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics (2005). A book which claims to explore “the hidden side of everything”, it is a hodgepodge of economics and sociology rolled into a sort of humourous overview of popular culture. The book attempts to answer such questions as (and I’m directly quoting here) why do drug dealers still live with their moms and why do black parents give their children names that they know will affect their future employment opportunities? While there has been a lot of criticism of the book’s “findings” and its actual position as economics I must say that I really, really enjoyed it. So much so that when I finished it I immediately went onto The Book Depository and bought every single other book that Dubner and Levitt have written together. It’s strange, I hated economics in secondary school and I hated sociology when I did a semester of it at university. Maybe that’s just the power of Dubner and Levitt.
The two Shakespeare plays that I read, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1589-1592) and The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-1592) will be fully reviewed in my Year of Shakespeare round-up post here.
So there’s my first ever round-up. This has genuinely been longer than some assignments I’ve written for uni. As a treat for making it to the bottom on this rambling mess here, have some ABBA. Enjoy!