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Category: reading

My 20 Books of Summer

I am once again joining Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, which she hosts at her blog. I’ve sworn off most reading challenges, but this one is a fun way to mark summer reading. There’s no pressure and you can choose whatever you want. Since I read 6-7 books a month anyway, it’s not about the volume for me so much as thinking about what to read in the stretch of the year where I know I have more time for all kinds of fiction.

The Man Booker longlist will come out in late July and that will create a bit of a crunch because I plan to read as much of it as I can, but I’m going to list 20 books anyway and see how far I get.

Translated Fiction

  • In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina: Yes, I’ve been reading this for ages. This is the summer, I swear it.
  • Compass by Mathias Énard: Énard’s most highly acclaimed novel and the one which most thoroughly engages with his interest in Orientalism.
  • Fox by Dubravka Ugrešić: This was on a bunch of awards lists and comes highly recommended.
  • Celestial Beauties by Jokha Alharthi: This just won the Man Booker International Prize. I bought it when it was longlisted but haven’t read it yet.
  • Valley of the Fallen by Carlos Rojas: A 1970s novel about Spain during Goya’s and Franco’s times. Recently translated by Edith Grossman and well reviewed but has not been talked about much.
  • Not to Read by Alejandro Zambra: A book of essays about reading, authors, and literature by the always-worthwhile Chilean writer.
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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for May: Her Cowboy Defender

I wasn’t sure I’d get this month’s book read, let alone post a review on it on time. But I’m just under the wire. This month’s challenge book is from an author with more than one novel on my TBR. Needless to say, I have lots of those available. I chose this Harlequin Intrigue release from 2012 because I’d really liked an earlier book by Connor and as a result I’d bought a few more. I wish I could say that it lived up to my hopes, but I can’t.

Piper Lowry is an accountant in Boston who finds her predictable life upended when her younger sister Tara is kidnapped and her twin, Pam, who is an FBI agent, winds up in a coma after an accident. The two events are related. Piper heads off to New Mexico to try and rescue her sister and meets rancher Cade McClain when she demands, at gunpoint, that he drive her to her rendezvous with the kidnappers. Cade is angry (who wouldn’t be?) but then won over by Piper’s story (yes, really) and decides to help her rescue Tara, who is conveniently being held at the ranch adjoining Cade’s.

The entire novel takes place in a 48-hour period and in that time and category page count Connor has to introduce characters and plot, work through several storylines, and bring about an HEA for Cade and Piper. It isn’t enough. The characters are strangers when they meet and they spend the first 24 hours organizing a rescue. Most of the narrative is taken up with introducing the characters and the plot, to the great detriment of the setting. This is technically set in New Mexico but there is nothing to make the reader realize that. The bulk of the story takes place on Cade’s ranch or adjacent to it, but we never even find out what he does on his ranch (except for a lot of paperwork). Is it a cattle ranch? Sheep? Alpacas? Llamas? Donkeys? (I’ve seen all of those in NM, I think.) Who knows. Not only do we not know what this huge ranch is for, apparently Cade can send off the ranch hands and the cook-housekeeper without missing a beat. Maybe he’s just growing sagebrush and cactus.

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The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

I read this weeks ago as part of the MBI longlist (it has since made the shortlist) and I thought it was excellent. I’ve put off reviewing it because I didn’t feel I could do it justice, but here we go.

Vásquez is an acclaimed novelist who has won prizes for his earlier books. This latest release is a long and complicated set of stories focusing on two political murders in his home country of Colombia. One occurred in the 1940s and the other nearly half a century earlier. Both politicians were Leftists who presented a threat not only to the ruling parties but to powerful Colombian elites. The character who becomes involved in understanding these historical events and the conspiracy theories to which they’ve given rise has the same name as the author, and shares many characteristics and experiences as the author, but is not exactly the author. Yes, we are in the world of autofiction, but this version is quite different, to my mind, from the kind of autofiction practiced by Rachel Cusk, Olivia Laing, or Edouard Louis.

Whereas those authors tend to look inward, Vásquez the character acts as the reader’s guide to the histories, showing at first the kind of skepticism a “rational” reader would, but then slowly recognizing the ways in which conspiracies can represent a way to make sense of official explanations that aren’t entirely convincing or satisfactory. We also learn quite a bit about Vásquez the person (the character Vásquez, that is), and he doesn’t hesitate to show us both his more and less admirable qualities. The result is a novel in which the reader swings from long discursive sections about political murders in 1948 and 1914 to poignant, heart-in-mouth descriptions of Vásquez’s wife’s pregnancy and the birth and infancy of their twin daughters.

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More social media trimming

Warning: navel-gazing ahead.

I thought about deleting my Goodreads account today. GR is the last social media platform I participate in, and I’ve been active there for the last couple of years. I returned to it when I started reading a lot of literary fiction again; I swore off the romance and related genre discussions quite a while ago, but the lit fic reviewers and groups didn’t seem to have the same kinds of recurring kerfuffles (NARRATOR: they do, just not as often). But they have their own idiosyncracies, like focusing to an obsessive degree not just on group reads of awards longlists and shortlists, but also choosing to spend lots of time and energy debating the worthiness of the books on those lists.

At first I found these discussions informative and mildly amusing. Having been buried in the romance genre for more than a decade, I hadn’t really paid attention to the proliferation of prizes in the lit fic world. But my goodness, they have not just multiplied but become much more prominent in terms of promotion through newspapers, magazines, and blogs. (#notallmedia, of course; the LRB, TLS, and NYRB don’t seem to care much about which books win prizes, but they’re in the minority.)

What isn’t different is the extent to which GR readers and reviewers depend on ARCs for their reading. Just as much as genre bloggers and reviewers, they try for Netgalley and Edelweiss, as well as obtaining ARCs directly from publishers. And there are a lot of small publishers in lit fic who are increasingly important to the health of the book industry in terms of innovation, creativity, and as incubators for new or new-to-English authors. This creates an intimacy between publishers and readers which is more similar to the relationship between authors and readers in romance than I’m comfortable with. One of the reasons I stopped reviewing romance novels and requesting ARCs was that I wanted to increase the distance between the author and/or publisher and me and decrease the distance between the book and me. I still don’t take ARCs, but when I review and discuss books at GR I know that authors and editors may be listening in. Which is absolutely their right, but it makes me think twice about what I post.

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March Reading

My reading last month was dominated by library holds and the Man Booker International Prize longlist. I reviewed most of them here, with one outstanding (in both ways) that I really have to write up. Here are brief summaries of each of them.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

This is a slim book about Luiselli’s experiences as a translator for unaccompanied minor children who were apprehended at the US-Mexico border and are trying to establish grounds to stay in the US. They are the lucky ones, because their cases have been taken up by lawyers who will work pro bono. But most of them don’t speak Spanish, so people like Luiselli are needed. The title refers to the 40 questions on the intake form, which has to be filled out for each child, even very young ones, and they cannot be assisted by their relatives or guardians. It’s a powerful book that explores not only the day to day experience of such work, but also the choices US and central American governments have made that have gotten us to where we are today. My full review is here.

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong

I read this because it was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. I would have liked to see it shortlisted, but it was not to be. The novel explores life in contemporary Korea from two perspectives: one is that of an older architect who is contemplating the effect of the professional and personal choices he has made in his life, and the effect of those choices in shaping contemporary South Korea. The second is from the point of view of a young artist who feels isolated and unable to pursue her personal and professional goals, despite having a good education and a middle-class background. Hwang is one of Korea’s foremost novelists and I found this spare, understated book quite compelling. My review is here.

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