Okay, before we get started, I read a lot this month mainly because I was unwell a lot. Have been wondering if these monthly lists are two long and I should be breaking them up. Let me know if you have thoughts on this.
Now onto the books:
The End of the World — Again: Why the Apocalypse Meme Replicates in Media, Science, and Culture, Barry Vacker
This is a semi-academic book which, as the title suggests, tries to account for the popularity of apocalyptic memes – that is, doom-and-gloom predictions that the end of the world is nigh. The answer:
1. Because we can wipe the slate clean and start over
2. Out of some instinct to fast forward to the end
3. To know what’s coming
Vacker points to the failure of philosophy to provide a metameme that accounts for our new scientific understanding of our place on the fringes of the universe. The result is an ever more ardent clinging to religion and superstition. That’s the part I liked.
The part I didn’t like so much was his use of Baudrillard – a very cool philosopher whose work I want to read more, because I’m convinced that the Kardashians are exactly what he’s talking about (having read only a summar of his work) – to rant about people staring at their screens (booooring!) and reinforce some kind of authenticity that the contemporary world is apparently lacking.
In Big Trouble, Laura Lippman
The Sugar House, Laura Lippman
In a Strange City, Laura Lippman
No Good Turn, Laura Lippman
As you can see, I binged on the Tess Monaghan series this month. I liked all of these but I had to google the first two before writing this, which just goes to show. What impresses me about Lippman is how the cast of characters remains vaguely the same but the mise en scene as it were shifts quite a lot in each book, so that one is exploring an entirely different area or theme – Texas (which is a state bordering Maryland weirdly), Baltimore politics, Poe and antique collecting, and crime among youth African-Americans. With regard to the latter, I was a little uncomfortable with how white people, on both the good and bad sides, were both the evil and the saviours behind the scene of black people’s deeds, but Lippman mitigates this somewhat with self-reflection on the part of the white saviour at least.
Daisy Jones and the Six
This came highly recommended. I didn’t love it initially, but it grew on me.
I did like the format of each character offering their own perspective on the events. What I loved: three women – the manic pixie dream girl, the one of the guys, the Madonna – and sultry sidekicks. They could have been chicks who hated other women and defined themselves according to men. But no. They were that, but supported other women. This is becoming one of those must-haves in novels for me.
Anna of Kleves, Alison Weir
I love Weir’s take on events, but I’m getting rather tired of unwanted pregnancies as a plot point.
While a lot of attention has been paid to Holbein’s over flattering portrait of Anna, which may or may not have disappointed King Henry when he saw her in person, Weir focuses on Anna’s reaction to him.
Her take on their relationship is different from the usual one, which claims that Anna inspired disgust in him. Instead, Weir proposes a more nuanced reading of their relationship, which accounts for Henry’s growing illness and perhaps that somehow (believably) she was not to his taste. Apart from Katherine of Aragon, Henry seemed to get on best with English women, whom he had courted himself.
While I liked the parts which were grounded in historical fact, I found some of the fictionalised parts quite trying.
Sleepwalking, Meg Wolitzer
Along with Curtis Sittenfled and Megan Abbott, Wolitzer is my third newly discovered favourite authors. This is her debut novel, and I loved it.
Like Sally Rooney territory, Wolitzer’s subject are three precocious girls who march to their own drum beats. Each of the “death girls” as they are called are obsessed with a different (death-obsessed) poet. This is right up my street; I like to think that had I grown up in an American high school I would have been a goth (though I probably would have been the coolish nerd aka Andrea in Beverly Hills 90212). Let’s just say I’m an aspirational goth.
I tend to be a little impatient with these too cool for school types, but Wolitzer saves her novel my not taking them too seriously.
Children of Jocasta, Natalie Haynes
The thing I have always wondered about the Oedipus myth is how could he sleep with his mother. The answer, Haynes provides, is that she was much younger than his father.
This book is a repudiation of superstition, a pragmatic explanation of where the myths came from even as it brings the characters in the myths alive.
Also, while Antigone has been recuperated as a heroine recently, especially in feminist work, Haynes focuses on Ismene.
This book has been all over the interwebs – a young adult novel about a teenage black girl who witnesses a friend being shot by the police. I did not love love it initially because many of the issues the book deals with are not new to me but it does a great job of putting them across in a simple and engaging way.
However, weeks after reading it, the characters and plot points have stayed with me, so I guess it did find its mark. The part I liked the most was how it shows a black community which has its flaws but also where families and neighbors are loving.
Wonder, R.J. Palacio
This book was reccomended to me by my teenager niece and her friend. I asked about it while driving somewhere with them and they started telling me so enthusiastically even though I had just been trying to be polite.
I felt I should read it for my niece. I resisted because I knew it was going to be sad and it’s a kids book
I loved it.
I did cry a lot. It touched a nerve because my kids may be in a new school next year and while they do not have any disabilities, some of the cruelties inflicted in this book could be on just about anyone.
It has a happy, quite scripted for the screenplay-type ending though, so rest assured you’ll come away on a positive note.
Queenie, Candace Carty Williams
Loved. Read my review here.
“What are you reading?” asked Mimi
“A book about the brain. Some people think that men have different brains from women.”
“Yeah, but this book says that’s nonsense.”
“We already knew that.”
Yeah we did. But the book shows the lengths that different fields of knowledge – including science/ have gone to prove otherwise. Apart from definitively showing how the evidence for gender differences in the brain is almost non-existent, there is lots of interesting info about, well, the brain.
For example, just after we bought Nene his coveted Nintendo Switch, I came upon this: “30 minutes a day of playing Super Mario over a period of 2 months also proved to be a brain changing experience, with increases in gray matter volume in the hippocampus as well as the frontal areas of the brain”
Also this: Hits to self esteem are registered in the brain as strongly as as physical pain. It made me wonder: is this why we seek romantic love? We need that unconditional anchor to our self esteem. Maybe this is why the love meme is so attractive – the idea of being chosen as an adult.
I ended up falling sick and not finishing this, but I intend to pick it up again once my brain is back to normal.
The Uninvited Guests, Sadie Jones
This is a really well written Downton-Abbeyesque Edwardian novel. Except that there’s a paranormal element. This novel proved to me – as if I needed proof, but the fact is, no matter how many fantasy novels I struggle through, I still keep hoping I’ll get into them – that I am not cut out for anything fantasy or paranormal related. Harry Potter was an anomaly.
I ended up speed-reading towards the end, just to know what happened so I could give it up. I later came back and read it through, but nope, no more paranormal for me.
The Forest of Enchantment, Chitra Banerjee Divakurani
Hmmm, okay, so I don’t like fantasy, but I love mythology. Heh.
In the Preface, the author notes how many people wrote to her after The Palace of Illusions asking when she was writing her next book and she promised one on Sita very soon. Then, she found it was harder than she thought to write a Sitayan and it was ages before the book came out.
I didn’t write to her inquiring, but I was one of those Palace of Illusions fans waiting for the Sita book. And it just about lived up to my high expectations.
Sita has been the subject of much feminist criticism – though there is a famous essay by Madhu Kishwar about how Sita holds feminist potential – so this book can be seen as part of the enterprise to rescue Sita. The underlying argument is a fictional articulation of Kishwar’s thesis – that Sita was a strong woman and a rebel in her own way, in her own context.
Apart from rescuing Sita, however, Divakurani also rescues Ram. I did not have a very favourable impression of Ram with his obsessions with abstract ideals of right and wrong (although for a long time I myself was obsessed with these). However, Divakurani humanises him and makes him, well, hot. If that is not a feat – for those of us who grew up on the Doordarshan version of Ram – then what is?
She provides a modern interpretation of the rakshasas and asuras as tribals. Not surprisingly, she provides a sympathetic reading of the Suparnakha story, but she also offers us a Kaikeyi we can admire. Unfortunately, she chooses to blame the hunchback for the whole Bharat-first debacle, when the physically disabled were often blamed in ancient times for all misfortunes because physical deformity was equated with moral baseness.
My one problem were the explicit meditations on the nature of love – though I guess the point was/is to reestablish the Ramayana as a love story – but overall enjoyed this one.