Apologies in advance, and I hope I can be forgiven for the end-of-the-year review dump. I’ve had bits and pieces to say about the books I read but it never felt well-formed enough to tell others about them. So, here we go, a review dump of some of the fiction I read this year.
A Good Neighborhood | Therese Anne Fowler
We’ve all been reading long enough to know that a book titled A Good Neighborhood is not actually about a good neighborhood. It’s about the type of neighborhoods well-meaning but ill-advised people refer to as being good. Well, this story is just about one neighborhood, but all the trappings are there.
There is a family at the center of it all, and then of course another family that is at the other center, and those two circles form the Venn diagram of the neighborhood and how everyone knows each other. To save everyone the trouble—it turns out, this place isn’t a good neighborhood.
There was some lyricism to it, I will credit the author that much. The second-person(?) narrative was an interesting choice; personally I didn’t appreciate it. Exactly what you think is going to happen does happen and you’re not left feeling very good about it. There isn’t even that good-bad feeling where the situation is terrible but at least you learned something from experiencing it as a work of fiction.
The short of it is that I did not enjoy this book. It was trying to be something it was not and could never be. 1/10 do not recommend.
Dietland | Sarai Walker
Sarai Walker created a lovely underground world and this book was about so much more than just diet culture, or anti-diet culture. There were layers, and they were surprising. This was a book where the extra stuff really jumps out and for me, that was fun. It’s like when ordinary people become spies and we have to suspend our disbelief to get through the rest of the story, but also we’re glad we did because what if ordinary people could become spies?!
It’s not perfect, but it’s weird so that kept me interested enough to keep reading. It blends a few ideas. There were times where I was convinced I had skipped chapters or was reading the wrong book or something. But then the main character would come back and I could figure it out again. There are details upon details. It can get easy to get lost in them and think the story is going in that direction—because why else would we read 5 pages describing very specific porn, or meticulous meals—and then there is another turn and we’re back on the original course.
Again, it’s not perfect, but it has something to say. It doesn’t always do it convincingly, but it’s not hemming-and-hawing about it.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead | Olga Tokarczuk
I really liked this book. The mystery isn’t super mysterious, but it’s still fun to go on the journey. The story is pro-animal and anti-hunting with a middle-aged woman at its center. The language is fun to get lost in as well. Admittedly I listened to the audiobook, read in English by Polish actress Beata Pozniak, and perhaps things were lost in the translation. But the energy provided by the narration surely made up for it.
The main character, Mrs. D, makes up nicknames for her neighbors and most of the other characters we meet. What a fun detail that actually helped me follow the relationships between everyone. I too make up nicknames for my neighbors, acquaintances,
and people I just sort of see in the neighborhood. She’s a cranky lady, except I
think she’s really just standing up for what she believes in all of the time. People don’t like it, of course. People never like it when others stand up for something, especially women, and double especially older women.
This book was made into a movie—Spoor (2017)—that is gorgeous in the Polish tradition. I recommend both equally. The classic “the book was better” holds true, but they inform each other and happily coexist. I would like more books from Olga Tokarczuk, and about animals and middle-aged women.
Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See | Juliann Garey
This was a rollercoaster, but without the highs. It’s well written and the structure serves a purpose, even though it can be difficult to follow at times. The story follows the main character through different points of his life—three important timelines specifically—and the story just unfolds as the character is thinking about these moments. This works somewhere between a device and a crutch.
I didn’t really care about the main character too much, though that may say more about me than the writing or the character. Sometimes people blow up their lives and there are perfectly good reasons. Struggling with bipolar disorder is probably one of those perfectly good reasons, but I couldn’t get behind him. I couldn’t root for him to get through it and make it better. But again, this could say more about me than the character or the writing. It also took me a couple chapters to realize all the jumps in time were still about the main character.
As a first novel, I say bravo. It was well crafted and it knew what it was doing. It was good enough to finish, but I don’t think it’s fine enough to recommend to friends.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous | Ocean Vuong
This is gorgeously written. It’s lyrical; it is easy to get lost in the prose and the beauty of the sentence construction. It’s beautiful and raw. Having said that, I would not be able to tell you what this novel was about. Yes, it is a letter written from a son to a mother. Remembering that as reading had me taken aback briefly. There were descriptions of things I would just never tell my mother, and I wonder if that was sort of the point. Does all of that description and rawness further highlight the closeness of him to his mother? Maybe it does. But is it truly appropriate to detail all of those things to your mother? Maybe it’s just my mother. Who knows.
This is worth the read for the language. This falls under the “well told” category of “good story, well told.” It’s the rolling-hills equivalent of literature—they’re nice to look at, and you’ll get a good workout going up and down, but they don’t really go anywhere.
Detransition, Baby | Torrey Peters
There are so many feelings in this book. It’s a must-read for anyone in the LGBTQIA+ community, and a should read for everyone else. It’s certainly not a perfect book, but it covers so many things in so many ways and yet still feels personal and intimate.
There is, however, one comment made by the protagonist that has stuck in my craw since I’ve read it. It doesn’t discredit the entire book, but it has been a thing for me. Detransition, Baby mostly follows Ames through his transition and then destransition, marking time by the imminent arrival of a child he conceived without realizing he could do so. So many feelings and issues of gender, sexuality, representation, and everything in between come up and there are so many internal contradictions and turn-arounds that it feels real. We can often think we feel a certain way about something until confronted with that thing and then we realize, oh no, I feel differently. Hmmm. But the one piece that I carry around with me is a piece where the main character makes a statement about how if it really were true that so many cis-women were opting out of having children, there would be a line out the door for hysterectomies. It was a statement that was paralleling vasectomies and hysterectomies and equally viable methods of preventing pregnancies. And it just rubbed me the wrong way because if you’ve ever casually asked your healthcare provider for a hysterectomy because you don’t want children, you know how much the uterus is considered a little more, umm, protected, than the vas deferens and how the lack of interest is not what’s making the line for a hysterectomy short.
Truly though, that’s the biggest negative of the book. At times it felt like it was trying a little too hard to cover every queer experience it could. But also, hey, why not try to cover as many queer experiences as possible because there aren’t enough of them in the world already.
The Idiot | Elif Batuman
Oh I liked this so much but I don’t know why. I admit to wondering “did I miss something? What is this story about” at times through the novel, but it was still delightful to read. It felt like true coming-of-age as the 18-year-old protagonist experiences her first year at college and her first love. It wasn’t overly mushy love; it was unrequited for a long while and even denied and perhaps even an afterthought. There were adventures wrapped up within the story that could have been the point, but were the backdrop. The summer away in Hungary is exquisite and would have most college freshman reeling, but for Seline it was old hat and not extraordinary at all, and in a way, isn’t that what being an idiot is about?
She’s the idiot. Of course she is, because she thinks she has things figured out but who ever does? And then she also knows when she has no idea what’s going on but doesn’t want to let on. At the end maybe she’s wasted a whole year of her life learning things she may never need since she decides to change her major.
I was less interested in the plot than I simply enjoyed reading the words. There was a balance of simplicity and complexity. I was pulled into the world so completely throughout. I was transported to my own freshman year with the same thoughts and doubts, though without the Russian language class. I was also dropped into the European country-side with her, swimming and watching children and being as awkward as an 18-year-old can be. Which is a lot actually. Because I guess we’re all idiots then.
Another Place You’ve Never Been | Rebecca Kauffman
Ugh, the device of splitting up timelines rears its ugly head again. It feels unmotivated here, used to create a false sense of mystery. I’m an outlier with my opinion on this one. I nearly skipped the review all together because I cannot really remember what it was about. I had to look up the cover to jog my memory and be like “oh yeah, I did read that.” There were fish and the [SPOILER ALERT] dad dies and that’s really all I remember. The main character travels a bit between towns in the Northeast and or Midwest. In the opening, we’re introduced to the dad and his girlfriend and he never refers to his daughter by her name until I think the very end and it feels contrived. The only reason to hide her name is for a reveal and it was cheap.
I didn’t care for the whole of it. Apparently Kauffman is a short story writer and her short stories are lovely. Perhaps as a group of short stories that tie together with a central character, this can be better received. This wasn’t for me, 2/10, do not recommend though I did actually finish it so it must not have been the worst.
She Who Became the Sun | Shelley Parker-Chain
I wanted to like this so much more than I did. I’m new to historical fiction, so that could have been a hurdle I struggled with. The writing was lovely. The story was exciting. I had expectations and this didn’t meet them. I now question why my expectations were so high or specific.
The writing is exquisite. There were moments that pulled me out of the narrative, however. The setting was so perfect and then the language was often plain, edging on modern I wasn’t sure where we were anymore. Of course I just have no idea how a monk in the 1360s spoke, so it could be very realistic for monks to curse at each other over and over.
It was a good book, it was nice, it was also absolutely brutal. It covers a lot of things that haven’t been covered before, and I especially appreciated the range of thoughts and emotions pulled in to the genderqueer characters and storylines. I even get excited when thinking about its themes and central ideas, but I admit that I wasn’t always excited or enthralled when reading it. I think with tempered expectations, this is a very fine read.