Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Reading Lately: Winter 2024

Reading Lately

On January first I woke up and something had happened to my brain. It turned back on! After spending a lot of the past year reading fast, short, catchy, and new books, I started craving slower literary fiction that would make me think. I am still sprinkling in plenty of memoir and mysteries, consciously avoiding the call of the New Titles shelf at the library and the "must reads" that publishers are trying to sell us. I've logged over 1,000 books since I started tracking my reading, so it's about time to start trusting myself to know what I like.

I read more than these eight titles during the first quarter of the year but these are my favorites:

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: This has been one of my favorite books since I first read it in 2015. I have been wanted to re-read my favorites to see if they stand the test of time, so I checked this out on audio. It turns out I had forgotten a lot about the plot of this book so it was just as enjoyable reading it the second time. The book is the story of Lotto and Mathilde's marriage, told from both of their perspectives. The characters in this book have so many secrets and are not likeable, but I'm of the belief that unlikeable characters does not equal a "bad" book. Groff's writing is absolutely beautiful and the characterization perfect. 

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: Everyone loves Olive and now I understand why. Told in interconnecting stories, this book is about a small town and its inhabitants, with Olive playing a role in most of the townspeople's lives. Grumpy and sometimes downright mean, she has a good heart hardened by a difficult past. She is one of the most real characters I've ever read. I'm looking forward to reading more by Strout.

Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet: Usually when I pick up books randomly they are a miss, but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. This is the story of Gil, who walks from New York to Arizona after a breakup. As it turns out, he's very rich and doesn't have to work for a living. He forms a relationship with the family next door, who he watches through their glass-walled living room. This sounds creepy, but it's not! Gil is such a nice man, and uses his privilege to volunteer and help others. This was a slow-ish read, but not boring. I think the world needs more novels about nice people.

North Woods by Daniel Mason: Another novel told in interconnecting stories, this is a book not about people, but the land. Mason follows one parcel of land in Western Massachusetts over hundreds of years, describing the evolution of a house and the people who occupy it. Most of the stories are completely captivating and original, but my favorite thing about this book is how Mason respects the reader's intelligence. He doesn't explain everything outright, but trusts that if you read closely, you pick up on the full story. This is my pick for the Pulitzer this year, I hope I'm right!

River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescure: This book is told in two timelines, one following 14-year-old Alva in 2007 Shanghai, and the other from 1985 moving forward, telling the story of Lu Fang, Alva's stepfather. Alva is mixed race: her unknown father is Chinese and her mother is white American. The coming of age story isn't unique in itself, but the setting is not something I knew a lot about which made the book compelling. There is a lot of history and secrets that are revealed as time goes on. I don't think this will win the Women's Prize, but I'm glad I was introduced to this book through its nomination on the longlist.

Survive the Savage Sea by Dougal Robertson: Continuing on my mission to read every lost at sea survival story ever written, I picked up this memoir written in the early 70s. When whales sink their boat, a husband and wife, their twin sons, and a young man who was helping them on their boat survive 37 days on the ocean. This was the first survival book I have read involving children (I think they were around 12) and that added a higher element of stress. Having hope for rescue and putting all your effort into survival seems like the common theme among all these books. Also, knowing what you are doing - I have no idea how someone can navigate and sail in a certain direction without any tools, but this guy did it and saved his family!

The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner: So many trigger warnings for this book about the author's life growing up in a polygamous cult in Mexico. With countless siblings and half-siblings, Wariner's family is in constant danger from abhorrent living conditions, frequent traveling, an abusive stepfather, and poverty. Wariner is sexually abused and describes the abuse exactly, which is sickening to read, so heads up if this is something that you want to avoid. I felt so much anger toward the adults in this situation who didn't act to stop these awful things. Eventually, Ruth escapes with her youngest siblings and raises them herself. This book reminded me of Educated by Tara Westover, where the beliefs of adults lead to their inability to protect their children, and ultimately lead to tragedy.

A Ghost in the Throat by Dorieann Ní Ghríofa: For some reason I thought this book was fiction when I picked it up, but it's actually a memoir. Combining the author's experience of motherhood with the life of an 18th-century female poet, this book has a hauntingly beautiful quality. Ní Ghríofa is a poet and this fact shines through in her writing. One reason why I personally enjoyed this so much is because I studied abroad in Ireland at University College Cork, which is the same university that the author attended. We are exactly the same age so I can only assume we were there at the same time - the mentions of places in Cork that I remember drew me back to this time.

Women's Prize Longlist 2024

I have never been too interested in literary prizes in the past, but after reading so many excellent blog posts and watching reading review videos I have caught the bug. Like many other readers, I had not heard of most of the books on the Women's Prize Longlist for 2024. It was fun to go through the list and identify the most intriguing ones to add to my TBR stack. I won't be reading all 16 books; more likely about half of them, because I'm not about forcing myself to read something I am not interested in. My library had several of them and I ordered Soldier Sailor and The Maiden from Blackwells since I couldn't find a way to access these titles otherwise. A few others (Ordinary Human Failings and 8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster) I reserved on audio.

So far I have finished River East, River West (loved-see above!) and am halfway through The Wren, The Wren. I am losing interest in this one: the writing is beautiful and unique, but it's not enough to un-bore me. I am not connecting with any of the characters and am really over the "messy millennial" trope. I am willing to overlook a lack of plot if the characters are well-drawn and fascinating, but I feel like I've read this story before. I have also started Brotherless Night, which is set amid the Sri Lankan civil war, and I think it's going to be a great read.

I love that so many of the longlist titles take place across the globe and are by new-to-me authors. I definitely will not finish most of these by the time the shortlist is announced on April 24. Are you reading any prize lists this year?