What I've Read - Winter 2019
I’ve always been a voracious reader. And given all the time I spend on planes/trains/buses these days - and let’s be honest, with my current *slightly* smaller social pool - I have been reading like crazy.
You’re supposed to write what you know, and write what you like to read, and because I really enjoy reading book recommendations from others - I’ve decided to start my own series: What I’ve Read. So now, instead of shoving the books I loved into the arms of the nearest human (aka my husband), I can shove them into the world of the internet instead.
There are quite a few books on this first post, as this is a round-up of the last 6+ months.
A Gentleman in Moscow
Her Body and Other Parties
The Girl Who Smiled Beads
The Heart’s Invisible Furies
The Great Believers
I Enthusiastically Recommend:
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Count is one of my favorite fiction characters in recent memory. I was a little hesitant to read this book, because I remember not enjoying the author’s previous novel, The Rules of Civility (to be honest, I don’t remember why, I just know I didn’t). But this book was such a treat to read. Wealthy Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to a lifetime house arrest at the Interpol Hotel in Moscow, for a poem deemed incendiary by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s. But despite being confined, he manages to create an entire world within the four walls of the hotel.
There’s Russian history, heartbreak, philosophy, humor, adventure, all told through a vibrant cast of character that weave in and out of the hotel over 30 years. The writing is so rich in detail, the stories so artfully told, that I couldn’t put it down. If you are feeling overwhelmed and disheartened with world these days - read this. This book is the salve you need.
**It also got my dad’s seal of approval!**
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
This was one of those books that I knew, just knew, a few pages in that it’d be one of the most important books I’d read on refugees and immigration. It follows the journey of Saeed and Nadia, two people embarking on a love story while their unnamed city spirals into civil war. It’s their journey as two refugees, but the author also includes multiple short vignettes, all relating in some way to immigration, to represent that Saeed and Nadia’s story is universal.
Hamid’s writing is my favorite style of writing, lush and evocative, the type where I wanted to read every other sentence out loud to savor the words. There are some fantastical elements in the plot, specifically around proverbial doors and where they lead, and I thought this magical realism was used sparingly and effectively.
At a time when all over the world, some want to lump all immigrants in a negative way, this book is a stark reminder of why people flee their country and home, what they sacrifice along the way, and the humanity that should connect us all.
“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
- Exit West
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Full disclosure: I actually listened to the audio version of this book. I don’t technically count that as reading (a controversial opinion, I know), but I wanted to include it anyway because I thought this book was fascinating. Harai has such an interesting, engaging way at describing history. But it’s more than just history he is describing: it’s systems, religions, art, psychology and geography, evolutions and revolutions, and the invisible myths humans have created and believed.
It’s a book that really makes you think about the way you, personally, view the world. And if you want to be a good conversationalist, read this book. I honestly think that after reading Sapiens, you could have a conversation on literally any topic. The fact that the author constantly references Harry Potter is just icing on the cake.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
I’ll say, right off the bat, that this book of short stories may not be for everyone. It’s beautifully dark and twisted, Gothic and supernatural, and confronts issues affecting women in a way I’ve never experienced in a book before - especially the different types of violence imposed on the female body. Physical violence, emotional violence, the violence we as women inflict on ourselves.
There’s a story about women, instead of dying, simply fading away until they vanish, a story about a woman who is haunted by part of her surgically removed stomach, a retold campfire classic about a woman with a mysterious green ribbon around her neck. I like some of the stories more than others, but all told, the writing continued to haunt my mind well after I finished the book.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya
Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when she fled Rwanda with her 15-year old sister, and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries before being granted asylum in America.
I had the hardest time trying to write this review out of all of them, because I feel like I wouldn’t be able to convey the importance and tragic beauty of this book. You can feel Clemantine’s confusion, anger, and hope throughout the pages, as she is forced to flee from country to country at such a young age, and then later reflects on and heals from the experience as she is resettled in the US. I kept thinking of my own niece, who is turning six this month, and the whole book broke my heart.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
For five years, Raunaq had been trying and failing to get me to watch The Godfather. I was just never interested. But: he should have just handed me the book, because I could not put the thing down. I blew through the 500+ page novel in a week. There’s probably not a lot to say here that you don’t already know. All the classic quotes, all the classic scenes, the action, the drama, the Don, the Family, the offer you can’t refuse - it’s all there.
I was constantly told that this was one of the very few occasions that the movie is better than the book. I think if you are a fan of the movie, you should read the book! The movie is funnier (“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli” is not in the written version, for example) and almost glorifies being a gangster, while the book is dark, goes deeper into the characters and has all that “silent dialogue” that can’t translate on-screen.
A few caveats: Be prepared - there is a huge section of the book that is oddly dedicated to the story of Lucy Mancini, and a tangent on the life of Johnny Fontane. There’s also are quite a few disturbing scenes of domestic abuse and violence, and I cringed through some very sexist and racist remarks. I get that it’s the Italian mafia in the 40s, but still, hard to read.
“Italians have a little joke, that the world is so hard a man must have two fathers to look after him, and that's why they have godfathers.”
- The Godfather
Becoming by Michelle Obama
I’m fairly certain 90% of my female friends were reading this at some point in January. In fact, all of my college girlfriends got together via Google Hangouts once we all finished and had our first (of I hope many) virtual book club. I couldn’t not include Michelle’s beautiful memoir on this list.
Michelle Obama’s book is honest, open, and intelligent. She shaped the book with stories from her childhood, about her parents and siblings, experiences being a black women at Ivy League colleges, motherhood and marriage, and being thrust into a world she didn’t necessarily want to be in. I really loved reading about her and Barack’s young relationship, and how she really strove to live life with kindness and empathy. This goes without saying, but I miss the Obamas with every fiber of my being.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
For some reason, I expected this book to read more like historical fiction, documenting The Troubles between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland through the 20th century. Which it is not. It’s ever-present in the background throughout the story (and the story arcs through decades) but it’s more about the lives of a small cast of characters as history, religion, human rights, epidemics and social movements swell around them. I was hooked by the first paragraph, with absolutely no idea where this book was taking me.
I can’t remember the last time I felt so conflicted, so angered, so heart-broken, and so deeply immersed in a character who I ultimately ended up loving. Oh, Cyril Avery. The way that Cyril responds to the cruelty and hardship he endures throughout the novel is one of the most human things I’ve ever read. Every character in this book, though, is brilliantly crafted. The writing is unexpectedly funny, even savagely so, and I found myself laughing through tears more than once.
“Maybe there were no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.”
-The Heart’s Invisible Furies
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
When I started to seriously entertain thoughts on writing a novel, a couple people recommended I read this book first. It felt a little ironic, considering I have actually never read any book by Stephen King, and besides the movie versions of The Shining and Carrie, am not even that familiar with this work. The man certainly has opinions, a few which felt a little pretentious, until I remembered that he has published 58 novels and probably knows a thing or two about writing.
It is part memoir, part writing guide. The first section talks about his personal life and history with writing, and the second is quite literally a guide to writing a book. He talks about plot, detail, sentence structure, character development, conversations - and asserts that if you are truly a writer, you can write a novel in three months. Ok, Stephen.
But the one thing that has really stuck with me was this: “You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.” And that is what I’ve focused on doing the last six months: reading a lot, writing a lot, and learning - a lot - about myself.
There were a few books that I didn’t enjoy or really struggled through: Less, Pachinko, and The Great Believers. They are all widely-popular, best-sellers, and one even won a Pulitzer - and I really wanted to like them. They just didn’t do it for me, for one reason or another. Maybe I’ll include these reviews in my next post.
If you made it all the way through, congrats! Hopefully you found a new book on this list. I have a bunch of books on my Goodreads to-read list, but here are the ones I’m most excited about in the coming months: Bad Blood, Educated, Killing Commendatore, Tin Man, Normal People, and Homo Deus.
Any recommendations on great books you’ve read recently? Send ‘em if you got ‘em!