Yes, this experiment is probably unsurprising for those who know me well, but I just can’t keep such a list to myself. Therefore, instead of blabbering to anyone who will listen, I’ve ordered my thoughts a little for those who are actually interested. For this first post: here is what I read this May, in order and with ratings out of ten (because ratings out of five is seriously not specific enough, Goodreads).
- Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Elena Ferrante
7 / 10
One can’t say anything too new about Ferrante these days, so I’ll keep it brief and say that if I didn’t quite enjoy her, I wouldn’t have reached book three of the series. However, I am as confused as the next reader as to exactly why she (or Knausgaard [whom I prefer], or any other autofictional author) is so compulsively readable. I’ll keep rolling with it.
- Play it as it Lays – Joan Didion
9 / 10
Didion is classic. Enough said. Well, almost: if glam, bitter pithiness could kill, anyone who had ever read this book would be dead (and Brett Easton Ellis would never have written Less than Zero).
- Adrift – Steven Callahan
7 / 10
My obsession with survival narratives continues, here with Steven Callahan, a man who survived a devastating 76 days alone at sea. Callahan is a certified badass on many levels; he designed and built his sailboat himself (yes, the one that crashed, but still), and wrecked in an attempt to sail across the Atlantic completely alone. Callahan (minimally) illustrated this book himself, showcasing his innovative solutions to those problems that might arise if you happen to be trapped in a rubber raft in the middle of the Atlantic for a couple of months. Like: what to do when your fish spear breaks, or: how to plug up a hole in the rubber raft, or: how to survive shark encounters without being reduced to a puddle of chum (or tears). Callahan isn’t excessively poetic in his description of the experience – but then again, who in this situation would have the inclination and willpower to keep a detailed journal, as he did, let alone wax poetic on “a view of heaven from a seat in hell”. In any case, this is one for the excessively curious survival nut, a solid read.
- Blackass – A. Igoni Barrett
4 / 10
This was by far the biggest disappointment in the bunch. I had been anticipating Barrett’s debut novel for months, as I take a special interest in African lit (contemporary, colonial, neocolonial, classic… if you want to chat or argue about what qualifies as any of these things in African lit, get in touch). I had read some intriguing interviews with Barrett and was piqued by the premise of this novel (a black man in Nigeria wakes up one morning and is suddenly… a white man). However, Blackass showed the seams of inexperience – and how. It plods along as Barrett struggles to manipulate the timeline at a rate that keeps things interesting; the dialogue is unoriginal; Barrett’s insertion of himself (or herself…) into the plot was too little, too late. While this latter was perhaps a worthwhile experiment and could have succeeded (if the book were about twice as long and about four times better written), it was not executed with much purpose. I enjoyed the descriptions of Lagos, and the frank look at race relations in Nigeria… but really, this is just fishing. The book dragged. Clearly I trust LitHub too much (though that won’t stop me from hunting down a few others from this list: http://lithub.com/25-new-books-by-african-writers-you-should-read/).
- Manifesto – Anonymous
5 / 10
Ever wonder what it might have been like if Holden Caulfield had kept a diary into his adulthood, instead of narrating Catcher in the Rye as a teen? Ever wonder how miserable it might be to experience homelessness, substance abuse, depression and disaffection? Don’t even have to wonder? Then this book is for you. Intriguingly, Manifesto is entirely devoid of identifying factors except the very last page, directing one to a website listing distributers (http://www.dedrabbit.com/). The cover is a completely blank white field, and the text begins -gasp- at the top of the first page. Anyone who is human has had the thoughts this unnamed narrator has. What sets him apart (and it is a him, or so he says) is that he was willing to endure the realities of living on the street and waking up to the police kicking him off of a park bench. All this presumably in pursuit of his own utopic idea of how extraordinary life could be if he were to avoid its pitfalls – its pitfalls, however, include seemingly everything in the world. It seems fair to say that the unrealistic expectation of a uniformly magical and gratifying existence might be a trademark of the addict. Yet saying so to our narrator, even residing in plain old reality, squarely places one in the enemy camp: you are the Square, the Phony. The discomfort resulting from complicity in a less-than-perfect world recalls the ideologies of childhood. The straightforward, bleak, nonlinear narration of this work is refreshingly honest writing; however, 200 pages of it is definitely a slog.
- Bad Behavior – Mary Gaitskill
6 / 10
I wish I hadn’t heard so much about this collection beforehand over the years (re: how ‘dark’ and ‘cold’ it was, its sexual depravity, the entire plot of ‘Secretary,’ etc.) and therefore could have enjoyed it as a work unto itself. Overall, I found only three or so of these nine stories very memorable – and I don’t necessarily think that is only due to my projections and expectations. However, Gaitskill’s style is a lovely one for fans of the understated, sarcastic, or gritty – so, despite my middling rating on this one, I’ll definitely be reading more of her stuff.
- Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – William Finnegan
9 / 10
This spur-of-the-moment buy was a total surprise pleasure. I found myself reading this book when I should have been eating… or running, working, showering… the true mark of a good one. Full disclosure: I had never heard of Finnegan before the publication of this book, although he is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer at the New Yorker. This won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2015, and it’s easy to see why. Finnegan’s journalistic prowess serves his account well, as he avoids sentimental, memoirish pitfalls in favor of understated reflections, a vivid barrage of experiences arranged with surfing, rather than ego, as the focal point. This is not necessarily a book that presents a clear picture of its author, as Finnegan’s self-portrayals are modest and balanced. For each of his triumphs (in relationships, in the ocean, in writing), he presents one or more corresponding failures that, one suspects, still stung upon the time of writing. Nor is it a chronologically balanced overview of a singular life. Nor is it a catalogue of Finnegan’s career trajectory and publications. But this unassuming style is what leaves room for the meat of the work: fistfights! romance! travel! adventure! It is Finnegan, explaining, as much for himself as for anyone else, what this unrelenting obsession has meant to him over the years. Finnegan’s love of surf is as contagious as his life and travels are exceptional.
Next month’s list: I take a crack at Luanda, the life of a mass murderer, and a (somewhat) lesser-read Maggie Nelson. Peace and solidarity, all.