Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for January, 2018…
Origin (Robert Langdon #5), by Dan Brown – Always fun to see what the first read of the year is going to be. Brown’s latest is a romp through Spain, focused on the theme of science, religion, and the battle over who gets to definitively answer humanity’s biggest questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Brown delivers all the expected tangents into architecture, art history, literature, science history and anything else that happens to interest him (so that’s everything) but I was a little bummed there weren’t more references to the Mickey Mouse watch and Langdon’s swimming hobby.
Period Piece: The Cambridge Childhood of Darwin’s Granddaughter, by Gwen Raverat – I just recently became aware of Raverat, and she is a really fascinating character. As the subtitle confirms, she is the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and she grew up in Victorian-era Cambridge. She was also a pioneering woodcut artist whose book illustrations carried a distinctive style, and she was one of the few women to become a successful artist in her own right. Period Piece is illustrated with Raverat’s own wood engravings, which add great life and levity to the text, and she’s also a charming and engaging writer who looks back at her childhood with humor and fun. I would normally hesitate to make predictions in early January – but I think Period Piece is going to be in my top ten books for 2018. Just watch.
Letters to a Young Muslim, by Omar Saif Ghobash – Ghobash is (was?) the UAE’s Ambassador to Russia, and Letters to a Young Muslim is comprised of letters to his son Saif about everything from the roles of men and women in Islam and society, to extremism, to making up your own mind about matters of faith instead of placing blind trust in authorities who may deceive. It was a beautiful and thoughtful book that reminded me a bit of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (also letters, or one long letter, from a father to his young son).
Slightly Foxed No. 2, ed. Gail Pikris – I’m on a mission to read my way through the back issues of Slightly Foxed. This is going to take some time, since they’re currently on issue 56. But I’m loving the quest, because each journal is such a treasure. Issue number 2 wasn’t my favorite – the heady novelty of issue number 1 has worn off but I didn’t think the journal had quite hit its stride yet, and the last piece, “A Subscriber in California Writes,” rubbed me the wrong way. But it’s always a treat to spend time curled up on the couch with Slightly Foxed‘s lovely cream pages.
Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell – As I mentioned, I’m on a mission to read more classic novels this year, since they’re on my shelves and I’m craving their comfort. I decided to start with a visit to Gaskell’s Cranford, a relatively short but lovely volume about the residents of an English village in the Victorian era. The narrator, Mary Smith, is something of an outsider – more financially privileged than most of the residents of Cranford, but loving, protective and affectionate towards them – while never condescending. Cranford is mostly a series of vignettes or interludes in the life of the village, as either observed by or told to Mary. Aside from the fact that an alarming number of people die, it’s quite warm and fuzzy. I’ve actually tried to read Cranford before and couldn’t get into it, and I’m not sure why – perhaps the time wasn’t quite right? This time, I couldn’t put it down, loved every moment spent with Mary, Miss Matty, Miss Pole, Lady Glenmire and all the rest, and was genuinely sad when it ended.
The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, by Azar Nafisi – I think this is Nafisi’s latest (right?) and it’s basically the same format as Reading Lolita in Tehran, but focusing specifically on American literature and Nafisi’s immigrant experience. Nafisi discusses three novels she considers as representative of the American experience – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbit, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – and devotes an epilogue to James Baldwin. I enjoyed The Republic of Imagination, but didn’t love it. I didn’t agree with Nafisi’s choices of the three books representing America – which is fine; as the writer, it’s her prerogative to choose, of course – and I found the narrative a bit disjointed and some of the connections she was drawing to be a bit tenuous. A fun read, but if you’re looking to read Nafisi’s work – no question she writes gorgeously – go for Reading Lolita in Tehran instead.
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I just loved this short but sweet collection of “suggestions” Adichie put together in response to a friend’s question about how to raise her newborn daughter as a feminist. Adichie opens by wryly noting how easy it is to dispense parenting advice when you don’t have children of your own (she has since welcomed a baby daughter) and then goes on to deliver 63 pages of absolute gold. My favorite piece of advice was to encourage her to love books, because of course! Books!
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid – I was prompted to pick this one up despite all the hype, when I saw that President Obama had included it on his list of the best books he read in 2017. I’m always a little nervous about hype, and generally magical realism doesn’t speak to me, but if President Obama says it’s good I’m willing to trust him. Of course he was quite right – Exit West was enthralling and felt very relevant to today’s world, as it spoke to the global refugee crisis to which we are currently bearing witness. I flew through it and just loved both of the main characters – fierce Nadia and sensitive Saeed – and their journey, which binds them together even as they are emotionally drawing apart. Lovely and luminous.
The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay – Read on my BFF’s recommendation, The Witches of New York was definitely more successful than the last book she recommended to me (which I hated so much I actually found myself folding laundry in order to avoid reading, which NEVER happens). Anyway, I really enjoyed this one. You’re Beatrice Dunn. You’re a witch, and you’re not to be trifled with. This is the advice given to young Beatrice, shopgirl and communer-with-spirits, by her very slightly older witchy mentors, Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom. Eleanor and Adelaide are the proprietresses of “Tea and Sympathy,” a small tea shop specializing in herbal remedies and palmistry in Gilded Age New York. But as charming as the shop is, there is evil afoot and it is targeting their new employee. So – this was the perfect combination of Rebecca’s and my reading tastes, because she can’t resist witches and I can’t resist Gilded Age New York. It was a little slow in parts, there was some brutality just for shock value (not my cup of tea) and not every plot point was tied up as neatly as I’d have liked, but I did enjoy it very much.
Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan – Amina Khokar has just started middle school and she has a lot on her plate. Painfully shy, Amina clings to her best friend Soojin, but Soojin seems to be pulling away – about to become a U.S. citizen, she’s considering changing her name to Melanie, and she’s hanging around with Emily, a popular girl who made both Amina and Soojin’s life miserable in elementary school. Life at home isn’t much calmer. Amina’s brother Mustafa is on a collision course with their parents over basketball, and then her father’s much-older brother arrives from Pakistan for an extended visit to the family. Amina’s parents are stressed out by the effort to impress their visitor, and Amina is worried about the Q’uran reciting competition that her dad signed her up for in order to show her uncle what good young Muslims he is raising. But all of her worries seem small when her mosque is vandalized, which devastates Amina, Mustafa and the whole community. Amina will learn who her real friends are as she and her faith community work to put the pieces back together. This was a lovely story – luminous and sweet. I wanted to gather Amina, Soojin and Emily up and give them all huge hugs. But the biggest hug for Amina.
Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly – I had this one out from the library and was looking forward to reading it, when my friend Susan started it too – and suddenly a book I wanted to read just because became a fun topic for discussion and debate. Susan and I could talk Austen for hours, and we narrowly avoided just plopping down at a table in the office café and bantering about Darcy, Knightley and everyone else for all of last Friday. Kelly’s premise is fascinating: she says that far from being prim comedies of manners, Austen’s books are actually cleverly disguised political propaganda about the hot-button issues of her day: slavery, enclosure, aristocratic morals, the misadventures of the British East India Company, and more. Some of her theories were fascinating (Persuasion as a metaphor for imperial fall, and also dinosaurs!) but others seemed completely bonkers (I’m sorry, but Harriet Smith is not Jane Fairfax’s illegitimate half-sister. NO.). My one complaint was the imaginative introductions at the beginning of the book and of each chapter, which were completely unnecessary, and I skipped over most of them. The more academic parts, though, were well worth reading – even the kooky ones.
Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan – Salt Houses explores the life, movements, dramas and loves of a Palestinian family starting in 1965, with the wedding of their patriarch and matriarch, and extending to 2014. Along the way, the reader lives through wars, displacements, and the smaller – almost petty – tribulations of family life in the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s a beautifully written book, with luminous prose… but… it didn’t really speak to me. This is entirely ME, and not the book. Family sagas are not my thing, and vignettes are also not my thing, and a family saga written entirely in vignettes (a scene in 1965, then we jump ahead for one scene in 1967, and then one scene in 1977, etc.) is pretty much a guaranteed miss as far as I’m concerned. I’ve heard wonderful things about the book and I can see why people loved it, but it wasn’t for me. If you like linked short stories (which this really was), multi-generational family sagas, or both, Salt Houses will appeal. If you don’t, you may want to look for something else.
Twelve books in January! As you can see, my resolution to read fewer books in 2018 – aiming for a pace of one a week – is… not going well. But I can’t complain, because what a month of reading. 50% of my books this month were by people of color, and I love to see a good percentage like that. There were also some highlights. Exit West was really wonderful. I liked it while I was reading (blowing through) it, but it stayed with me quite a long while afterward and I didn’t realize until it was back at the library how much it had moved me. Cranford was a delight, and so was Period Piece. If every month of 2018 is as good (for reading, anyway) as January was, I will have very little to complain about, even if I don’t meet my goals of slower, more deliberative reading and more classics.