I didn’t have a chance to review any of the books I read in December because I was traveling, so I’m posting some mini-reviews of the more interesting books I read during my trip:
Lethal White by Robert Galbraith: I will only say here that I was disappointed with this entry in the series, which I had really been enjoying. For one thing, this book felt endless. The plot went on and on and in my opinion should have been heavily edited. I didn’t really care about the mystery because no sympathetic characters were established. Worse, the developing relationship between Robin and Cormoran just felt really problematic. Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) kind of leaves believability behind in the beginning of this book.
In the Distance with You by Carla Guelfenbein: I chose this book for two reasons. First, it’s a work of translated genre fiction, so it counted towards Read Harder 2018. The second is that it takes place in Santiago, Chile, so it was a nice book to read while I was actually there. It’s also a book about writing, which is always nice when well done. Guelfenbein’s novel tells the story of a novelist, the friend next door who finds her unconscious, and the young student who is studying her works. It’s marketed as a mystery/thriller, though I didn’t find that to be the case. I quite enjoyed this story of personal growth, relationships, family, and the art of writing. There was a surreal quality to some of the book that reminded me of Murakami, which made me wonder if it was related to translation. Certainly, a translated work is going to describe certain things, especially more abstract emotional qualities, in a way that is different from a work written in English
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell: I was a little skeptical of this book, even though I’m a big fan of O’Farrell. This book is basically a memoir but told in seventeen vignettes about near-death experiences. I worried this book would feel self-centered or self-important. But O’Farrell is really thoughtful about what it means to come close to death. She points out that we all have near death experiences; some we never realize, and some have life-changing impacts on our way of thinking. The book caused me to think a lot about my own near-death experience as a child. I was hit by a car while crossing a street at the age of 14. My injuries were severe, yet I was also incredibly lucky. The accident impacted me in many ways. For example, I experienced, temporarily, what it was like to be in a wheelchair and have to learn to walk again, and I’ve always felt that was an important experience to have. And then there’s the ever-present fear of crossing the street. But getting back to O’Farrell, I found each of the chapters in the book really meaningful, as she reflects on the impacts they have had on her life; and the clever result is that she tells a cohesive story about herself. The one part I struggled with was the last part where she writes about her daughter. I was sympathetic, but didn’t find it as moving. I think because O’Farrell can be thoughtful and analytical about her own struggles, but it’s probably harder to write about the struggles of her daughter.
If you are aware of these moments, they will alter you. You can try to forget them, to turn away from them, to shrug them off, but they will have infiltrated you, whether you like it or not. They will take up residence inside you and become part of who you are, like a heart stent or a pin that holds together a broken bone.
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter: I’d been meaning to read this all year, although in fairness you have to be in the right mood to read a book about the Holocaust. I was particularly interested in this one because it’s based on an actual family’s experiences, and it takes place in Poland, which is where my grandfather is from. Hunter’s “novel” does a nice job of explaining the horrors of the Holocaust and how it was carried out in Poland, which in many ways bore the brunt of Hitler’s antagonism. I hadn’t understood the complicated role of the Soviet Union in Poland, and this book helpfully explained what happened. As I was traveling through South America at the time, I was particularly interested (and continue to be) in the role that countries like Brazil and Argentina played in taking in Jewish refugees. This is one of those stories where you’d never believe it if it wasn’t true. My only criticism of this book is that the post-war part of the book seemed to go on and on. I get that the author wanted to emphasize the survival part of this terrible story, but I thought it could have been much more concise. I hate long endings that feel tacked on, and this one did. Though the author’s note at the end was fascinating and very helpful in understanding the context of this book, and it certainly made me want to explore my own family’s history.
Those were my December reads! I also finished up Jane Eyre, finally, and I loved Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdom (read mostly under a blanket while sick) and the second book in the Mary Poppins series, Mary Poppins Comes Back. If I see the new film I’ll be sure to compare the film and the book, but there’s a very good comparison in Vanity Fair, which is one of the only reviews of the film that even mentions the books. Agh.
Happy new year and hope you’re enjoying your first read of the year. Mine is The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. What’s yours?