What I read in: January 2019

What I read in: January 2019

I’m giving writing about books another go. I want to be good at reviewing books via the written word rather than relying on verbal ramblings and flailing hand gestures. What better way than to write a monthly post reviewing all the books I read that month?

In January I read seven books, all of which I enjoyed. It was a good month for reading. I’m starting next month with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a book about a million people have told me to read. Fingers crossed it lives up to the hype!

Drop the Ball – Tiffany Dufu

The tagline for this book is, ‘expect less from yourself and flourish in work and life.’ I’m always down to hear about new ways to do more by doing less. Many reviews have criticised this synopsis, saying that it’s really about how to do less at home so you can do more at work, which is a fair assessment of what the book is actually about.

This book is really about seeing your partner as an equal partner and building a life where, primarily, you both feel supported in your career. Though I’m still young, I feel like lucky that these are problems that have never surfaced in my own relationship (though we don’t have kids yet, which was the point where things started to crack for Dufu), in part due to having a stellar example from my own two working parent family, where both my parents had serious professional ambitions, personal goals and the desire to be an active, equal parent. Maybe this book could be for you what my parents are for me.

Dufu is fearsome, with an energy for coffee dates, networking and 4.30am alarms that I don’t think I’d ever want to have. This book is as much her memoir as a guide, and she candidly and insightfully addresses the role of race and gender (she’s black) in her experiences at work, at school, in life and in her marriage. She is the most type-A of the type-A and the principle that guides her and her husband’s life decisions is “does this advance women and girls and/or Sub-Saharan Africa,” which is a level of big picture thinking I’m sure most relationships don’t operate at.

She’s built a wonderful career and a happy family, though I’m reminded of Laurie Penny’s work on feminism and capitalism in Unspeakable Things and Bitch Doctrine, explaining that ‘having it all’ still only means having a spouse, children and corporate career, even though many women who ‘have it all’ are like, “okay, I have it all, but I’m really, really, really tired.”

This book isn’t perfect. Dufu’s main issue – which she understands and discusses openly – is asking for help. As soon as she asks for her husband to pitch in, he immediately leaps to his feet and helps to streamline their home life. I’m sure many women don’t have spouses who’d respond as positively, which is most of the battle. She also holds herself to a standard that is unnecessary for any human – she stresses that she’s a failure as a mother because her son’s hair is a little too long. What?

There’s great stuff in here about being a working mother, being a woman in business, gender roles in relationships and being a black couple in America. But many of Dufu’s issues at home are sorted by remembering that not all cupcakes need to be home-baked and that, if she asks for help, she has plenty of help available.

See, this is why I don’t write about books. I’ve written five hundred words about the first book. I’ll try to keep it concise (yeah right).

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

This book, oh my God. I was so moved by this book. It’s an established classic, so it’s no surprise that it’s good, but the way it manages to deal with a myriad of heart wrenching subjects (rape, racism, domestic violence, sexism, homophobia etc) and still be full of hope is masterful.

You follow Celie from her painful adolescence as a poor, uneducated, black girl in Georgia through the ensuing decades, hearing about her relationships, her friendships and her finding her voice, her confidence and her family as she writes to God and, later, her sister Nettie. This is a book about finding joy in spite of pain and it is wonderful.

(100 words. Much better.)

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

This is a weird, twisted book. It’s very good, though. Yeong-hye is a young Korean woman who decides, following a dream, to stop eating meat. This reverberates through her entire family, impacting her husband, her sister and her sister’s husband is strange and powerful ways.

The book is told in three parts, each more warped than the last. Again, this is a weird book, but it’s very good.

A Spark of Light – Jodi Picoult

I love Jodi Picoult. I’ll fight on you this. I tore through her books when I was a teenager and still have soft spot for them now. She is a classic example of when books by women get pigeonholed as “women’s fiction,” implying these books are trivial, twee or unliterary.

Picoult writes deeply emotive, character-based stories exploring truly challenging moral conundrums. She has written novels about school shootings, suicide pacts, wrongful birth suits, sexual abuse, abortion, racism, domestic violence, autism – you name it, she’s done it. And she’s done it well.

A Spark of Light tells the story of a hostage situation in an abortion clinic. It’s not my favourite of her books, but I enjoyed it for the same reasons I love most of her books: emotion-based stories, compelling characters and interesting questions. This book is really about the abortion debate, told through the (differing) lives and beliefs of the group of people in Mississippi who happen to be in the clinic when the shooter walks in. There’s so much empathy in her books, which is really what we all need more of when untangling contentious issues.

The Song Of Achilles – Madeline Miller

I read this for the book club that some of my university friends and I have started together. We’re discussing it this weekend so I’m sure my thoughts will be more complex after that, but for now, some simple impressions.

This is the story of the Iliad, told by Achilles’ companion, Patroclus. I enjoyed this book; the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was very moving (though Achilles could be a total dick sometimes, if not to Patroclus) and I know very, very little about Greek mythology so the story was almost a total surprise.

Watching the kings try to create a strategy for the Trojan war and still have it take over a decade and result in the deaths of thousands of men seems like somewhat of a cautionary tale for when too many men are involved in something, but whatever. It’s a fun, easy-to-read intro to Greek mythology, full of plenty of good visuals of golden hair and brazen shoulders, so there’s little to complain about.

I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell

This inventive memoir chronicles O’Farrell’s life through her seventeen brushes with death. This poor woman has had more than her fair share of medical mishaps and close calls. Lots of the cover quotes said it was uplifting, but I found it more sad and stressful than uplifting – I mean, she has nearly died so many times. Maybe for some that’s a celebration of life but for me, the fragility of life is more nerve-wracking than relaxing.

This makes it sounds like I didn’t like the book. I did, I liked it a lot. Some of the essays were more compelling than others, some were downright terrifying and many were moving. The cover is beautiful. The conclusions were poignant. Though don’t read with this if you suffer with a compulsive fear of death because it makes it far too close for comfort.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts – Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

A Billion Wicked Thoughts is all about what the Internet can tell us about sexual relationships. It’s hard to gather accurate information about sexual preferences, because when people have to self-report they, uh, lie. A lot. But your search history tells the truth.

This book is filled with fascinating insights into human desire, from the perspective of men and women of many sexualities (though there is a focus on heterosexuals), exploring both the visual and psychological cues that get people excited. There’s a lot of sex, porn and data. There’s also a lot of psychology in this book, which I enjoyed.

This book plays into a lot of evolutionary stuff (e.g. women like strong men who can provide for their babies, men like sexy women who look like they have strong genetic material), which I can go either way on, depending on the quality of the data and the nuance applied to the conclusions. As with most things, it’s probably unspeakably complicated and a mix of biology and socialisiation, but there’s good data in here and the explanations are thorough and well considered.

Two things that stood out to me:

  • How many romance novels, especially from centuries past, considered non-consensual encounters to be normal sex. Honestly, it’s shocking.
  • That the authors interpret the fact that men’s top search is for youth (using different terminology, obviously) to be an indicator of men looking for reproductively viable young women, rather than anything more sinister, even though it was very much the younger the better and the data didn’t include any information on searches below sixteen. Gave me the creeps.

This non-fiction book is super interesting, though does manage to make sex all about data and science which might not be what gets you off (literarily, of course).

That’s what I read in January, some great stories and awesome food for thought. Next month I’m planning to read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman, A Place for Us – Fatima Farheen Mirza, How to Be a Person in the World – Heather Havrilesky and A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara.

If you have any other recommendations, please leave them in the comments!  

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