Book reviews: Spring 2017

I set a goal to read 50 books this year, and 3 months in, I’m already 7 behind. I read a lot for work and a hell of a lot of articles/internet too, so it’s work to really carve out my book reading time. But of course, some of what I’ve read this season will be with me long after the internet has moved onto the next fad.

Here’s the round up:

Swing Time, Zadie Smith

I have this romantic idea that I should try to read a big, meaty novel every summer and over Christmas. Theoretically, I’m supposed to have more time and headspace then. I’ve only managed this once, in 2015 when I read A Little Life (Summer) and Fates and Furies (Christmas), both of which were excellent. Last Christmas, I spent a few days with Zadie Smith’s wonderful ‘Swing Time’. The latest in a series of “serious books” about female friendship, it focuses on the unnamed narrator and her best friend Tracy. It traces their lives from childhood to adulthood via dance, a pop star and an African aid project. Smith is one of my favourite writers and this didn’t disappoint.

All this has nothing to do with me, by Monica Sabolo

This packed more punch than I expected. It’s the story of a failed relationship, told alongside a collection of artefacts that defined that relationship. It goes further to examine the romantic past of the protagonist’s family. Usually, these conceits (it’s a story with pictures!) can be a little gimmicky, but in this case, the images supplemented the story well. What let it down was the execution - the images were grainy and poor quality. It’s a quick read though, and a worthy addition to the world of “I can’t understand why he dumped me” books.

Trauma is really strange, by Steve Haines, illustrations by Sophie Standing

I guess you’d call this a comic? It’s a very short, illustrated pamphlet about trauma, what it does to the body and how to overcome it. It manages to be both informative and quirky, particularly with the cat and mouse metaphors. It wears its scientific research very lightly and would be a good introduction to someone just starting to figure out what trauma means for them. Also, I should read more/some/any graphic novels.

The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing

Fascinating study into the concept of loneliness. It’s part memoir, part character study of various artists. She writes beautifully (start with this) and it manages to be both emotionally resonant and intellectually stimulating.  I loved the memoiristic parts most. For a topic as alienating, abstract and personal as loneliness, it was the author’s willingness to talk about her own experience that guided me through this. Plus, it echoes my own experience moving to New York, a city where I knew almost no-one and built a life quite deliberately, piece by piece, and then packed it all up to come home. My copy is heavily annotated which is perhaps the best compliment you can give a writer.

Citizen, by Claudia Rankine

I’ve been meaning to read more poetry and started with this hybrid collection of poetry and short prose pieces on the broad topic of race. I read it in one gulp, which is the best way to do it I think. It’s distinctly rattling to go through each of the topics (Serena Williams, Obama, Trayvon Martin, Hurricane Katrina) in her relentless and sparse style. It’s visually stunning too, so do get a print copy rather than a kindle version. Here’s a section excerpted in the NYT mag to get you started. 

How To Murder Your Life, by Cat Marnell

As soon as I read this excerpt in NY Mag, I marched myself to the bookstore planning to get and devour this in one sitting. It was too intense (& I was too tired) for that, but I still really enjoyed it. Over the last few years, a particular kind of female self destruction has gotten much more popular and yet it’s still daring for a women to talk about drug use/abortion/any of life’s various messiness in real, visceral terms. There have been a couple of vaguely infantilising reviews calling on her to “do better because we all know she can”. But, that misunderstands the book’s goal. Part of what makes this work is the author’s resistance to stick within the same old narrative structure.  Her stories (and their resolutions) are messy and chaotic. There’s no “I’m cured” revelation. Though, there’s a big ethical question at the book’s centre- should we fund someone in addiction because the stories they tell are entertaining?

It’s a nuanced question, but I really enjoyed this. My one critique is that she skipped the most interesting section - going to rehab in Thailand - in favour of dramatising the downfall even more. But I’m hoping that’s what book 2 is for. This profile of her is also great.

Now, We Make The Beast Beautiful, by Sarah Wilson

I loved this. I’ve been a fan of Sarah’s since I discovered her blog a few years ago. She’s a wonderfully clear writer with buckets of empathy and a curious mind, forever looking for answers to the question: how we can make life better, sweeter? This is a beautiful, carefully constructed story of her struggles with anxiety. She’s gently didactic as she guides us through her own story, the best scientific research and myriad of things (big and small) that she does to feel better. It’s written in that same direct tone the internet has made so popular, and you can hear her Australian turn of phrase throughout. It’s an endearing read, and a helpful one for anyone who ever gets anxious (which is basically everyone, I think).

My one gripe? I couldn’t get a print copy in Ireland, and it’s a little awkwardly laid out in eBook but that’s a minor thing. (Coming soon: a rant about how much I hate the kindle)