Books 2017: Five Stars

So here's the thing. I don't typically write a lot about books I give five stars to (which denotes amazingness), because I'm busy being, you know, amazed. Also, I am heartily sick of my own reviewing voice at the moment. See everyone next year?

The Convulsion Factory by Brian Hodge. Synopsis from GoodreadsThematic collection of 12 stories based around the theme of urban decay.

In all honesty, I had another look at this last night and almost decided to leave it off this post. I actually did find it quite amazing, but there's a lot of taboo and fetish-y sex stuff, and I'm not sure exactly who I would wholeheartedly recommend it to. All of the stories are extremely dark, in a way that serves the theme rather than just for shock value; I also found a strong compassion, though, for the disenfranchised and anyone who feels lost, including sympathetic portrayals of the transgender community. There was a tender recognition of the yearning for human connection. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Synopsis from Goodreads: 100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens. 
How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come? 
In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come? 
Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power ... and our future.

"I do not love mankind". That was the first line of a book I loved - The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken. Yuval Noah Harari also does not love mankind, which added a really interesting flavour to the history here. Anyone with a high-level knowledge of human history might find this too glib, but for me it was a fascinating survey with some intriguing curve balls. It's fair to assume that this was so amazing to me because it's so far from anything I could ever write. 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Synopsis from Goodreads: In a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. Thoughtfully exploring personal and historical events, from his time at Howard University to the Civil War, the author poignantly asks and attempts to answer difficult questions that plague modern society. In this short memoir, the "Atlantic" writer explains that the tragic examples of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and those killed in South Carolina are the results of a systematically constructed and maintained assault to black people--a structure that includes slavery, mass incarceration, and police brutality as part of its foundation. From his passionate and deliberate breakdown of the concept of race itself to the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, Coates powerfully sums up the terrible history of the subjugation of black people in the United States. A timely work, this title will resonate with all teens--those who have experienced racism as well as those who have followed the recent news coverage on violence against people of color.

Not a comfortable read for a privileged person. Should probably be required reading for all of us, though.

This is the poem from which the title is taken:

Between the World and Me 
Richard Wright

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
    suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
    oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
    themselves between the world and me....
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
    upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
    finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
    a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
    and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
    butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
    drained gin-flask, and a whore's lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
    lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
    surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull....
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
    for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
    icy walls of fear--
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
    grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
    poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
    darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
    into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
    my flesh.
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
    cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
    upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
    my life be burned....
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
    into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
    black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
    they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
    me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
    my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
    baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
    sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
    yellow surprise at the sun.... 

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Synopsis from Goodreads: Unburdened by the material necessities of the more fortunate, the denizens of Cannery Row discover rewards unknown in more traditional society. Henry the painter sorts through junk lots for pieces of wood to incorporate into the boat he is building, while the girls from Dora Flood’s bordello venture out now and then to enjoy a bit of sunshine. Lee Chong stocks his grocery with almost anything a man could want, and Doc, a young marine biologist who ministers to sick puppies and unhappy souls, unexpectedly finds true love.
Cannery Row is just a few blocks long, but the story it harbors is suffused with warmth, understanding, and a great fund of human values.
First published in 1945, Cannery Row focuses on the acceptance of life as it is—both the exuberance of community and the loneliness of the individual. John Steinbeck draws on his memories of the real inhabitants of Monterey, California, and interweaves their stories in this world where only the fittest survive—creating what is at once one of his most humorous and poignant works. In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck returns to the setting of Tortilla Flat to create another evocative portrait of life as it is lived by those who unabashedly put the highest value on the intangibles—human warmth, camaraderie, and love.

Here is another thing. It's pretty rare for me to be poleaxed and ecstatic about a book that is termed a classic. I read them. I often admire them. But I don't worship them and adore them and reach for them in a crisis the way I do with books I really truly love, which are most often genre fiction. I don't know if that's a lack of sophistication on my part (as Eleanor Shellstrop says in The Good Place, "goodbye modern architecture that I was too trashy to appreciate") but whenever I read one of those pieces where a public figure names their ten favourite books, I always sneakily wonder if they padded it to make themselves sound smarter. There are exceptions, of course - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn springs immediately to mind. I'm pretty comfortable with my possibly low-brow literary appreciation at this point, but I keep reading the classics because even if they don't set my mind on fire, it's worth seeing what other people find worthy. Anyway. I read Cannery Row and was completely, almost shockingly, smitten. What a vivid and visceral sense of place and character. If I had one slight quibble, it might be the sense that poverty and squalor were perhaps ever-so-slightly romanticized, but what the hell do I know? I felt like I was walking down the street, feeling the sun and smelling the smells and hearing the voices of the people. I was helpless with laughter over the frog hunt. The earnestness of the flophouse philosophers planning the party for Doc was heartbreaking. I felt like this completely captured that place in that time. It was wonderful.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. Synopsis from Goodreads: Blending literature and memoir, Ann Patchett, author of State of  Wonder, Run, and Bel Canto, examines her deepest commitments—to writing, family, friends, dogs, books, and her husband—creating a resonant portrait of a life in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
As she shares stories of the people, places, ideals, and art to which she has remained indelibly committed, Ann Patchett brings into focus the large experiences and small moments that have shaped her as a daughter, wife, and writer. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage takes us into the very real world of Ann Patchett’s life. Stretching from her childhood to the present day, from a disastrous early marriage to a later happy one, it covers a multitude of topics, including relationships with family and friends, and charts the hard work and joy of writing, and the unexpected thrill of opening a bookstore

I saw this as an ebook from the library so grabbed it because I generally read everything by Ann Patchett that I can get my hands on, and was stupidly halfway through the introduction before I realized that it WAS, in fact, a book of essays. ("Why is she banging on about non-fiction so much? Oh. Wait"). I actually read her non-fiction book Truth and Beauty about her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy before I read her fiction, and I liked the non-fiction book but not nearly as much as I adore her fiction, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I never am with her - often I read the plot synopsis and it doesn't sound particularly captivating at all. Because with Ann Patchett, it's never what she's writing, but how she writes about it. It's dreamy without being imprecise. It's exuberant without being saccharine. It's romantic and yet clear-eyed. I loved this book - her wry, intelligent, compassionate voice comes through so clearly in everything. It's wide-ranging in subject and I read it over a few days, finishing it at 3:30 a.m. one insomnia-ridden night. I was sad when it was over. It's important to note, I think, that it contains the phrase "little old nun toes". You're welcome. 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. Synopsis from Goodreads: Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. 
In his long-awaited return, John Green, the acclaimed, award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity in this brilliant novel of love, resilience, and the power of lifelong friendship.

It's almost boring at this point, how predictably, ludicrously wonderful every goddamned John Green book is. Oh, another teenager with an issue, rendered in wholly realistic, compassionate, convincing detail. More heartwarming relationships and a search/quest and coming of age stuff and superlatively witty banter that many people say is unrealistic because 'teenagers don't really talk like that'. Look, haters, I hang out with four fourteen-year-old girls on the regular. They talk like that. 

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Synopsis from Goodreads: In this graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father.
Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the Fun Home. It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.

I never thought I'd be five-starring a graphic novel, but oh, I don't even know how to articulate how much I loved this. I often feel like graphic novels cheat the reader on really fantastic writing - a picture, a few words, some in bold or a bigger font - but that is so emphatically not the case here. This is so funny, twisted, sad, sensitive, insightful, kind, bittersweet, gracious and wonderful. The way she finds resonance between her life and her father's, between literature and her family's circumstances, the way themes and phrases echo and reverberate is completely masterful, and then there's incredibly detailed and wonderful art that echoes it all. I laughed out loud. I cried real tears. I am now going to search out every single thing she has done and devour it. 


StephLove said…
Noah got Turtles All the Way Down for Christmas, so chances are good I will read it.

You know I feel the same about Fun House.
Nicole said…
Oooh Ann Patchett, love her!

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