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14th May
2014
written by Steph
Despite my genuine desire to keep some semblance of regular content flowing on this site, I’ve obviously been having a tough time of it. I have actually been reading books, though not as many as I would like, and not all of them great. I think I partially feel pressure to write reviews/musings of the same caliber/scope/tone as I used to, when the reality is that even when I manage to squeeze in time for reading amidst all of this traveling, I don’t then tend to have too much time to ruminate over everything I have read. I feel pressured to write something meaningful and insightful about every book that I finish (or make substantial progress on before abandoning) here as that’s what I’ve always done, but perhaps that’s been the wrong tack to take. Perhaps I should just return to the original purpose of the posts I used to write here when I didn’t think anyone else out there was reading, which was simply to document whatever thoughts I might have about whatever it is I might have read, without fear of these thoughts being incoherent or not highbrow enough to worth documenting. I’m glad I’ve been able to track my reading through my GoodReads profile (are we friends on GoodReads? If not, we should be!), but I’d like something a bit more than what I read, when I read it, and a somewhat arbitrary star rating. So once, again, I’m going to start fresh and, much like Thomas at My Porch with his Bits & Bobs posts, will simply say whatever comes to mind about the few books I’ve read since I last updated. [But before I do, I have to say how pleased I am that The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara made it to the final round of the Tournament of Books! Obviously I didn't predicted that at all, but it was really gratifying to see a book that I really felt so strongly about find such ardent support with so many readers. The kind of literary anthropology with dashes of science/academia + a tropical locale is right in my wheelhouse, but the thing I really responded to most strongly was the absolutely gorgeous writing. Was one of those books that was really just a pleasure to soak in every word, even when the subject matter became, ahem, difficult. I guess I shouldn’t have sold the book short, but obviously I am ecstatic to be proven so wrong in this instance. Let it never be said that I am not an arbiter of good taste!] Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi Oh dear. My first novel by this author and I’m afraid it really put the “Oy” in Oyeyemi as far as I’m concerned. I’ve actually been looking forward to reading something by her for ages as so many bloggers I respect (like Eva and Jenny) have had nothing but bountiful love and rapture for her smart, unorthodox fiction. Maybe this just wasn’t a great choice for me given that Mr. Fox reads more like a series of fragmented short stories (which, even when they are whole and fully formed and mean to stand independently, are not really my jam) than it does a novel, but I just did not connect with this book at all. It actually made me feel like something of a dullard as I spent most of the novel not actually having any idea what was happening, and now that so much time has past, I can’t actually remember if I had an “aha!” lightbulb moment or not (I think I did…), but suffice to say that nothing about the story has stuck with me at all. This one made my brain feel like a sieve and the only thing that I do remember is that I legitimately did enjoy Oyeyemi’s way with words, as her prose is deft but light, and had a real playfulness to it. I just wanted her to be using those words to tell pretty much any other story. I read to the bitter end, but I think that was less because I was enjoying the book and more because I kept thinking eventually everything would come together and be made clear. But either that didn’t happen or it did but wasn’t all that rewarding for me. I would be inclined to try Oyeyemi again, but I’d probably want something a little more linear or, at the very least, less experimental. Any fans of hers have any recommendations for me on how to proceed? Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple This, on the other hand, I absolutely adored! It was quirky and funny and more than a little harebrained, but it all worked in the most delightful way. I loved the “mixed medium” approach in which the story was told through emails and diary entries and news articles, etc., I liked that the characters were all odd and slightly elevated, like this was all taking place in a hyper reality, but no one really felt like a caricature. I liked that there were moments of darkness and black humor, but at the end of the day, the story at the center is one that is soft and sweet, about a little girl looking for her mother. The plot is ridiculous and unbelievable, certainly absurd, and I suppose it’s not surprising that this came from a former “Arrested Development” writer. Nor should it really be a shock that, as a fan of that show, I responded so well to this. I know that I have (had?) a copy of Semple’s first novel, This One is Mine, before we left Nashville and when we are back home this summer, I will have to see if I still do because clearly I need to read that. Call me a fan girl, because this was a joy to read. Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose I read and reviewed this one for BookPage and I liked it well enough, but not, perhaps, as much as I thought I would. Certainly plenty of stuff happens (as in, there is a lot of plot in this novel), much of it salacious and high stakes, and yet I kind of found it a bit of a slog to keep going with it. Could just be my “travel brain” that has shrunk my attention span to that of a flea, but I felt many times that I could have put it down and not picked it up again and been totally fine with that. It’s one of those books where you (mostly) know right from the start exactly what will happen, so the book is more about showing you how—not what—things happened. I like Paris, but tend to find books about WWII tiresome, so I’m sure that didn’t help matters. I did like Prose’s prose (ha!), and there were a few quotes about cities and photography that really resonated with me and that I highlighted/shared with others. Like Oyeyemi above, I would read something else by Prose, but only if it were on subject material I found inherently interesting from the get-go. You can read my in-depth review of the book here. Also, be sure to check out my interview with Prose! Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead Another BookPage title, I went into this one with a fairly open-mind, although a tad bit dubious since all I really knew about it is that it centered around the world of ballet. Which is to say, very much not my world. But, wouldn’t you know, Shipstead made me a believer, with her gorgeous writing, complicated characters, and tight plotting and pacing. This was one of those books that I had a hard time putting down and I’d end each chapter/section promising myself I’d read “just a little bit more”. It is about dance, yes, but it’s also about finding one’s passion in life, whether it be a person or a purpose, and I think it is successful as a highbrow literary soap opera. There’s plenty of drama, but it’s smart about its story and never gets too outlandish, even if it has plenty of juicy bits. Shipstead definitely struck me as a shrewd writer with a keen mind, so I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for her first novel, Seating Arrangements, and give that a try at some point. I really liked how she took an inherently feminine/romantic topic, but then added a whole lot of steel and bite to it. Read my in-depth review of Astonish Me over at BookPage. I also got to interview Shipstead about the book, and I think her answers make for an interesting read too!

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So, two excellent books, one adequate one, and one I wanted to love but largely frustrated me. I suppose on the balance that’s not a terrible mix, but it would be nice if I could spend my limited reading time more on the former and less on the latter. Sometimes I find I get into these ruts where no matter which books I try during that time, they all fail to grip me and wind up being quite lackluster experiences. In the past two weeks I’ve picked up and put down the latest Zadie Smith book, NW, (which I thought would get me into the mood for our impending visit to London… next week!) and also the much lauded, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, two books I was certain I would like and which have both left me uncertain whether I want to continue with either. I’m not digging the stream-of-consciousness vibe of NW, and the Offill is far more fragmented and jumbled than I had anticipated as well. I’m determined to keep poking around until I find something that excites and entertains me, but right now, it seems like the hunt continues!

6 Comments

  1. 05/14/2014

    yay, more Steph on books!

    I haven’t finished MR FOX (the fragmentary thing put me off a bit, too) but I loved BOY SNOW BIRD — so you might pick that one up. I do love the topics that Oyeyemi digs into in her novels, which goes a long way with getting me through feeling confused at times (she’s definitely smarter than me).

    NW was very hard for me to get into, but once I did I dug it.

    I didn’t assign DEPT because the style was hard for me to get into also, but it’s getting so much acclaim that I’ve been thinking of picking it back up again as well.

    I’m about to send out my August email, so maybe you’ll see something that sets you back on course for good reading??

    xo T

  2. I crazy sick loved The People in the Trees, too. I wouldn’t have read it if not for its presence in the Tournament of Books, and once I had, I couldn’t believe that it ever lost a match. It’s one of the best and most exciting books I’ve read in years.

    When I am recommending Helen Oyeyemi to people, I never ever start them on Mr. Fox — it’s just so confusing! (I love it but it is confusing.) There’s an extent to which, with Helen Oyeyemi, you have to be content with not knowing exactly what’s going on. But her most recent book, Boy, Snow, Bird is probably the most structured and coherent of her books in that way. It’s gorgeously written, too. I thought it was superb. (My sentimental favorite is White Is for Witching, because it’s got a haunted house in it. I recommend that one a lot too.)

  3. kay
    05/15/2014

    I love reading your thoughts like this, too – and I am so glad you enjoyed Bernadette! It was a favorite the year I read it and I have been recommending it ever since.

    Astonish me sounds good. I love stories of dance and ballerinas and the like, and your impressions lead to me to believe I would probably enjoy this one. I already had the author’s Seating Arrangements on my wishlist, so I’ll be adding this one too!

    I am also looking forward to hearing your thoughts on The Engagements, after adding it our own bookshelf recently!

  4. 05/16/2014

    @Trisha: I’m so glad to hear your thoughts on Oyeyemi’s newest book! I had heard good things about it, obviously, but given my experiences with FOX, I wasn’t sure if it was more of the same; glad to hear that it is not!
    I was super disappointed by how stream-of-consciousnessy NW was, though I only made it a few chapters in before putting it down because I just didn’t care. I fear I will never love anything by Smith as much as I loved WHITE TEETH, but I guess I’m ok with that. I feel like DEPT is a book I could read pretty quickly but not get much out of, so I’m going to save it and try it again… some day!
     
    @Jenny: I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed PEOPLE that much! It really was one of my very favorite books that I read last year, and I was bummed that it didn’t get much attention from bloggers (not that I’ve been great at keeping up with book bloggers) or the press. It’s good to see the ToB may have helped it find a larger (appreciative) audience!
    And you are one of the people I knew had loved Oyeyemi and MR FOX, so I am glad to hear that you think it is worth me trying something else by here. I do love a good haunted house story, but perhaps to be slightly safe I should try BOY, SNOW, BIRD next instead (especially given Trisha’s feedback above).
     
    @Kay: Glad you enjoyed these reviewlets, Kay! Bernadette was such a good book—definitely one that I wanted to recommend to EVERYONE as soon as I finished it! And I think you’d enjoy the Shipstead a lot too. If you do get to SEATING ARRANGEMENTS soon, I’ll be very curious to hear your thoughts! Not sure when I’ll finish ENGAGEMENTS—it’s multiple storylines, each one a bit like a short story, so I keep dipping in and out, so it could be a while… 😉

  5. I’ve not enjoyed either of the Oyeyemi I’ve tried either. I found White is for Witching and Mr Fox confusing and lacking in emotion. I’ve decided that she’s not for me, but if you come back raving about another of hers maybe I’ll give her another try.

    I also loved Bernadette – glad you loved it too!

  6. 05/22/2014

    I think all of us would like to give authors meaningful in depth reviews but when time is short I think doing three or four book reviews in one post with short, pithy sentences is better than nothing at all

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