February was a good month for reading. I read Sapiens, Homodeus and Utopia for Realists one after another and it sent me into a tailspin of existential crises about what really matters, what we can change and what I should do with my life. It’s been a lot. But this is, primarily, why I read so many books: to make me think. I can’t really complain when a few great books make me do just that!
I read nine books in February, only four of which made me deeply evaluate my life choices so far. Doing great.
How to be a Person in the World – Heather Havrilesky
I love giving advice. It is one of my most treasured hobbies. To that end, I like to read advice columns, to get inspiration for how to respond to problems your friends might present and just to be nosy about what’s going on in other people’s lives. I’d read a few of Havrilesky’s columns on the Cut (published as the Ask Polly feature) and decided to order her book.
While I enjoyed reading a few columns at a time on the website, reading column after column made it clear how similar they were. Some of the advice was good, some was just okay, and lots centred around the idea of “listen to your inner voice be yourself trust yourself,” which, while not strictly ‘bad’ advice, seems a little vague when your family refuses to stop fat-shaming you. If you’re looking for a book of advice columns, I’d recommend Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (a collection of responses from her Dear Sugar column) instead.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
So many people had encouraged me to read this book and I had read many (no spoiler) reviews, all of which essentially summarised this book as ‘slightly unusual woman learns how to make friends.’
In fact, the reason I had put off reading was that I thought it wouldn’t be… edgy enough for me, really. I am used to reading novels about difficult, dark, complicated subjects and I thought that reading a book about a mildly strange woman making her way in the world probably wouldn’t grab me.
Now, before I get into my actual review, let me start by saying that this book was gripping – I tore through it, even though I can’t quite put my finger on why. It is a compelling story, there’s a reason it’s a bestseller, if you read it you will probably get into it.
That being said.
I actually struggle to deal with how weirdly this book has been marketed. Like, it fundamentally altered the experience for me. Words that I have seen used to describe this book: positive, uplifting, joyful.
Guys, maybe it’s just me, but this is not a positive, joyful, uplifting book. Its central themes are not, as author Gail Honeyman states in a Q&A at the end of the book, kindness and friendship. This is a book about trauma, abuse and mental health. This is a dark book, full of horrific stories, and I am honestly a little shocked that ‘joyful’ is a word that anyone would use to describe it. Yes, Eleanor ends the book in a better place than she started, but that bar was so low that it was basically underground. The kind of trauma Eleanor has faced is not the kind that will be sorted with a few therapy sessions and a thoughtful colleague. This level of trauma would take years of strenuous therapeutic work to overcome, and even then, I’m sure Eleanor would grapple with the ramifications of her childhood for the rest of her life.
This is a compelling book, but its exploration of trauma, abuse, recovery, family and mental health felt lacking, themes that are, I feel very strongly, actually what this book is about. I thought that Raymond was a very kind character and I am glad Eleanor was able to let a few people in and start to address her experiences. But primarily this book made me sad, a feeling which was surpassed only by my confusion at it being referred to as “delightful.”
If the reviews suggest anything, it’s that I have had a very a-typical experience of this book. You might have loved it and thought the descriptions were bang on. If you did, please let me know, because I want to discuss it with you!
Penny Red – Laurie Penny
Two of Penny’s later books were on my best of 2018 list, which should tell you how I feel about her writing. Penny Red, a collection of essays from her early days of political journalism, was the final political book of hers I hadn’t read. The essays mainly chronicle the demonstrations protesting the Tory cuts to welfare and health services back in 2010, though there a few in there about gender, Christmas and consumerism. Her later books focus a lot more on wider political and social issues rather than keeping a sharp focus on British politics. I liked this book, but I could tell it was her first book, and after reading her later work I maybe didn’t need to go back to complete the set. But she is a brilliant writer and activist and I always enjoy her essays so it was a hardly a bad way to spend a few hours.
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
I loved this book. There are not many 720 page books that I don’t feel are too long, but this is one of them. 720 pages somehow manages to not feel long enough.
A Little Life follows four friends – Willem, Jude, JB and Malcolm – from their immediate post-college life into their fifties, though the novel focuses far more on Jude and Willem as the story progresses. Novels that span decades are always my favourites. While the books starts by showing the four men establishing themselves in New York, almost of all them in artistic professions, it ends up taking a much darker turn as you learn more about Jude’s painful, traumatic past.
It is was interesting reading this book just after reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, as they address some similar themes: abuse, trauma and the difficultly of forming relationships when you believe, deep down, that you are not worthy of love and care. While I found Eleanor Oliphant’s exploration of these themes lacking, A Little Life fares much better. Yes, it is full of awful, awful stories about sexual and physical abuse, but the novel spends 720 pages exploring the ramifications of this horrific childhood. Many people think the abuse scenes are too extensive and graphic (Jude suffers unfathomable abuse at the hands of an astonishing number of people), and, while I agree they are both extensive and graphic, I can’t say it feels sensationalised because pretty much the whole novel is devoted to strenuously examining the impact this has on Jude throughout his life and showing that, in cases of trauma like this, they are no easy answers, no real solutions and that he cannot be ‘fixed,’ he can only be treated now with the love, kindness and understanding that eluded him as a child.
I also thought this novel showed a lot of touching love between men (both sexual and non-sexual) in a way that you rarely see represented very often. Just adult men kissing each other, holding each others’ hands and telling each other ‘I love you’ as a gesture of friendship and (platonic and romantic) love when one of them is in distress or pain.
It’s obviously not a ‘perfect’ book, nothing is. I would have liked to have heard more about JB and Malcolm’s later life; I’m sad about how much they faded into the background. There are a lot of characters to keep up with. It is wholly depressing when you think of the story devoid of the emotional element – lots of terrible, terrible things happen and lots of people die and it can feel unrelenting. But overall, I thought this was an extremely moving book, doing what Eleanor Oliphant and so many other books have tried to do: address the long-term realities of abuse and trauma in a way that is heartfelt, honest, realistic and respectful. When you spend over seven hundred pages with a group of characters, you can’t help but get invested. I mean, you’ve followed basically their whole lives, and even though these people are imaginary the truth is that there are plenty of Judes and Willems and JBs out there, so you’re feeling for them too. A sad, shocking, heartbreaking, brilliant, thoughtful, moving book. I loved it.
Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
I’m trying to prioritise reading the most egregious oversights on my ‘to-read’ list. You know, those books that everyone read and you didn’t and you still want to read it but it feels like you’ve missed the boat? Sapiens was probably the top of that list, alongside Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which I still haven’t got to.
I found this book endlessly thought-provoking. It is a book about Homo sapiens, which is the scientific name for us. It follows us from our pre-sapiens forms (who were still humans!), through the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution and the Scientific Revolution to present day, where Harari examines the (potential) future of humankind as we strive to turn ourselves into gods in a bid to truly become the Earth’s most dominant species (even if we don’t realise that that’s what we’re doing).
Lots of history books can be too specific or too bogged down in the details, two things that Sapiens avoids. This is a macro look at human history, letting us step back from our tunnel vision on recent decades to see how human behaviour has shaped individuals, communities and empires for thousands of years. I thought Harari’s conclusions about the use of stories to organise in large groups and his discussions about animal rights and the role happiness plays in the choices we make and the societies we build were particularly interesting.
I knew some of this stuff already, but seeing the big picture painted of how basically all the things that underpin our societies are big shared myths was enlightening. Money is a construct, human rights are a construct, laws are a construct, borders are a construct – and yet somehow, the power of trust and storytelling has allowed these distinctly human creations to shape history. Mad.
Sapiens was, for me, really great brain food. It presented a whole host of ideas to chew on and sparked a lot of interesting discussions amongst me and friends about history, economics, sociology and the benefits and pitfalls of popular science books. It is critically important to remember that this book is primarily made up of assumptions and theories rather than absolute truth – not that any books are the absolute truth because all research is imperfect – and not to take it as gospel. Despite being distinctly non-fiction, Sapiens reads like a story, which is part of what makes it so compelling but also contributes to it feeling like fact. The narrative is so strongly and carefully crafted, spanning thousands of years, that it feels like it all works too perfectly to be wrong or incomplete, but the truth is that this is just one man trying to shed some light on our vast and complex history. This book is much better read and discussed with an understanding of its inherent limitations – the limitations that affect all popular science books and, well, almost everything – and used as a springboard for interesting discussions and diving deeper into parts of our history, rather than taking it as unquestionable fact.
Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari
I read these two books back to back, which was a mistake. They were published two years apart, meaning that just as you were starting to forget all the amazing things you learned in Sapiens, Homo Deus came along to freshen your memory and offer up some new food for thought.
The memory freshening part was the problem for me; they were too similar. Again, it probably would have worked well with a two-year gap, but not reading the two in quick succession. I enjoyed the final third of Homo Deus, where Harari gets into the meat of what the future of humanity might look like and talks about Dataism, but the bulk of the book is a slightly shortened version of Sapiens, with a few different details and ideas thrown in. It is still an excellent book, but I wouldn’t read the two together.
Utopia for Realists – Rutger Bregman
After being suitably convinced by Sapiens and Homo Deus that humanity is doomed to screw itself time and time again in the relentless pursuit of things we don’t actually want – an idea that inspired this post on the reality of fighting climate change – I decided to switch gears and find some optimism.
Utopia for Realists explains that the ‘utopian’ ideals of free money (universal basic income) and less/no work are not far-fetched dreams but real options that have been tested and explored at various points in recent history. It is fascinating how many small scale experiments have been done that show the efficacy of a basic income and yet how little we know about them. Bregman also explains that UBI was looking like a real possibility under the Nixon administration, only to be finally shot down due to a statistical error.
I liked this book. It was refreshing to see someone present these options as real possibilities, rather some far off perfect dream. Thinking of meaningful, progressive social changes as impossible is what makes them impossible.
Bregman also made some gut-wrenching claims about the work most of us do now being ‘bullshit’ – savage. But it’s not really our fault; the more efficient the economy becomes, the less we should need to work. Instead, we’ve created lots of jobs to fill the void of meaningful paid work, after lots of important jobs have become obsolete in the age of efficiency. That leaves many of us doing jobs that are, in a deep sense, unnecessary.
He also explains how we’ve screwed up our incentives, with the highest paychecks going to jobs in business, finance and technology rather than research, education and healthcare. This leads smart people to take jobs that give them financial security and takes them out of meaningful industries. It gave me a lot to think about regarding my career long-term.
A Place for Us – Fatima Farheen Mirza
A Place for Us follows a first-generation immigrant family of Indian-American Muslims through the decades in California. Anyone who’s read one of my book blogs before will know how much I love family stories than span decades and generations, though this one fell a little flat for me.
It was just a very… quiet book. It was supposed to be this epic story of tension, family relationships and love but all the drama was very muted. The huge drama that led their son, Amar, to be essentially disowned – not a spoiler, the book starts with this – is very tame, the kind of things that almost all teenagers try. His ‘affair’ with a girl in the community causes enormous upset, even though it consists only of talking and writing letters. I know there are cultural differences – and the book includes some discussion of how Islam might be experienced by modern, Muslim teenagers – but it just seemed so, so minor, definitely not the kind of things that would result in a family being fractured.
I guess the problem was that we spent a lot of time with these characters, from birth to adulthood, and got to know them as the author created them for us. Then each family member seemed to describe (in their internal monologue) people who were totally different from the characters we’d been introduced to. The father, Rafiq, is feared, abrasive and temperamental in the minds of his kids, but the section he narrates is full of love, understanding, forgiveness and patience. It doesn’t really make sense.
The prose is gentle and dreamlike, which had the effect of making me a little drowsy. I like family narratives, but this one sort of missed the mark. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko does it much better.
Don’t Call Us Dead – Danez Smith
This is an amazing collection of poetry, about being a black man, a gay man and a man with HIV, and the intersection of all those things. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t always feel like I ‘get’ poetry, but this was great and I found it very, very moving. My favourite poem is the first one in the collection, summer, somewhere, about the heaven where murdered black boys go. It is beautiful and chilling in equal measure.
This was a great month for books and re-affirmed my love for reading non-fiction. I get through novels faster but nothing makes me think like a great book about the world. The only book definitely on the roster for March so far is The Clockwork Orange, as my brother is playing the main character in a play of this novel at the beginning of April and I want to know what’s going on!
If you have any book recommendations, please leave them in the comments. I’d love to hear them!