Wrapping Up 2019 Recommendations

As usual, when I look back at the list of things I read this year, many of my favorites are already represented here. Some of them are things I already wrote about (A Sky Painted Gold, The Great Believers), while Rebecca and Anna have covered others (My Sister, the Serial Killer, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Bedlam Stacks). But before we move on to the shiny new world of the 20s, I wanted to highlight a few more books that never quite made it to the blog this year, but that have stuck with me over the year. So, four quick ones:

1. There There by Tommy Orange. I read this right at the beginning of the year, and in my memory it was a very delicate book, sometimes closer to poetry than prose. It tells a modern-day story of urban Indians–Native Americans who live not on reservations, but in Oakland. Different narrators connect and overlap, representing different tribes and generations, painting a vibrant, layered portrait of this community. Did you know that in the 70s a group of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz for more than a year? It’s embarrassing that I had no idea about this.

2. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. Okay guys, this one is rough. This is a memoir by a woman who lost her whole family–husband, kids, parents–in the 2004 tsunami. Deraniyagala is unflinching in describing her grief and her process of, I wouldn’t say healing, but of survival. Not for the faint of heart, but this book is really something.

3. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. Earlier in the year I mentioned how much I adored the show Derry Girls, which is set in Northern Ireland in the early 90s. In fact, I was so charmed by the show I decided I should read a bit more about the Troubles, which is how a took a sharp tonal turn away from the comedy of Derry Girls to this non-fiction book. Say Nothing ended up on all the major Best of 2019 lists and it is deserved. This is a gripping story that covers generations of conflict while reading like a thriller, not a history book. My main take-away? Gerry Adams is probably a sociopath.

4. Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Let’s end on something that is not quite such a downer! This is basically a fictional oral history of a band a lot like Fleetwood Mac. If you’ve ever imaged what it might have been like to be a 70s L.A. rocker, this is the book for you. It’s also a super quick read–I read it on one airplane flight and it was perfect for that.

Here’s wishing us all a 2020 of good reading!

The Great Believers

The Great Believers by [Makkai, Rebecca]

I struggle with literary fiction. I read it, but I often feel like there is a disconnect with how the rest of the world, and reviewers in particular, see these novels and how I react to them. Over and over I read a book that the reviews call “funny” or “charming” or “romantic” and come away wondering about their definition of those words, because I found it painfully sad or extremity upsetting. It certainly could be that I am very delicate, or that I have skewed my assessment by reading lots and lots of YA books and romances. It’s not that I require a happy ending and simple black-and-white story in everything I read, but if I dread reading a book because it is making me so unhappy to watch characters suffer, well, it doesn’t matter how well constructed the sentences are. I’m going to stop reading it. I want books to teach me and make me feel things and show me the truth of the human experience! But I also have to get out of bed every day and be a functioning person, and depressing books don’t always help with that. All of this is to say: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is the best book I read this year and I recommend it only with extreme caution.

The story runs in two times and two places in parallel–Chicago in the early 1980s and Paris in the recent past. In Chicago we are following Yale, a gay man trying to tackle a professional challenge and be a supportive partner and friend, all while AIDS has begun crashing through his community like a giant snowball gathering steam and size as it rolls down a hill. Decades later in Paris, Fiona, the little sister of one of Yale’s friends, is trying to track down her estranged daughter, lost for years in a cult. The story moves back and forth between these characters, only slowly revealing all the connections between them and how the trauma of the AIDS epidemic continues to ripple through lives.

The book is gorgeous. Yale and Fiona both leap off the page as real people–complicated, not always great decision-makers, but loving. And in the Chicago chapter especially, the sense of place is so strong that I could almost feel that horrible icy wind blowing off Lake Michigan. But I also struggled to read it sometimes, because a felt such a sense of dread about what was going to happen. I swung between not being able to put it down, and wanting to put the book in the freezer because I was so upset for these characters. And I want anyone reading it to know going in: this is not going to be a book about miraculous survival and reunion. I cried and cried. There are parts I would like to go back and reread because I know I raced through them, but I can’t bring myself to do it. But this wasn’t a story that made me think, “Well, what’s the point of anything then?” Which is sometimes my reaction at the end of a fancy literary novel.

I completely understand if, after looking at the headlines of the day, all you want to do is read something light and fluffy and warm and comforting. I have done more than my share of that lately, and I don’t want to a recommend a book that could upset someone at a time when they can least handle it. Reading isn’t your job, there is no course credit here–read the books you enjoy. But if you are in a place to be challenged and to be sad and to feel, The Great Believers is a wonderful book. For me, this is a literary fiction novel that speaks to the fact that there is a point and that we are all here together to find it.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Heartbreaking but beautiful

You might also like: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann is another gorgeous book that moves about in time to tell interwoven stories, although on a big bigger scale, and The Three Junes by Julia Glass is always a favorite of mine. Then there is The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin–I read this earlier in the year and almost reviewed it here, before deciding that the book started much stronger than it ended. It’s the story of four siblings who visit a fortune teller who tells them each the exact date she says they are going to die. Whether they believe it or not, that information affects how each of them move forward, and the book follows each sibling in succession. I adored the first story–the youngest son moves to San Francisco to live as an out gay man–and liked each of the next three less and less. But other people liked this book a lot, and that first story is gorgeous.

Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World

Over the past few weeks, as I have been telling people how much I liked this historical biography of a Roman empress, I have gotten some very skeptical responses. And I get it–it doesn’t sound like the kind of book you might pick up for a casual read on a Saturday afternoon. But I promise, Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon is fascinating and compelling and funny and sad. Even though I knew Agrippina was not going to get a happy ending, I was still reading along as fast as I could, desperate to know what happened to this incredible woman who lived 2000 years ago.

The basic facts: Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus, and spent decades at the center of the imperial family and of Roman politics–she was Caligula’s sister, Claudius’s wife, and Nero’s mother. Her life was shot through with tragedy (imperial family disputes had a tendency to get bloody) but also with glory and ambition. Historical information about her is limited, since Roman writers only occasionally even bothered to mention women, so a lot of the book is Southon explaining what sources do mention Agrippina, and what we can assume in places where the historical record is silent. Southon (who is also lots of fun on Twitter @nuclearteeth) also does a really excellent job of both making sure that we remember that Agrippina was a real person with fears and loves and emotions, while also making it clear that Agripppina lived in an entirely different culture and time. For example, when discussing Agrippina’s first marriage, Southon talks about how disturbing she finds it that the 13-year-old bride was married to a man more than twice her age, but also makes the point that we really have no way of knowing how a Roman princess would have thought about this.

Southon is also really funny, and that’s what really makes this book stand apart. Yes, it’s a very detailed, academic history book that is rigorous in the treatment of its primary sources. But it’s also like hearing a snarky friend gossip about people you know. She calls Caligula “subtle as a brick,” says that Agrippina’s first husband was “a dick,” and is entertainingly exasperated with the Roman habit of giving everyone some variation of the same four names. It makes the book so readable, and helps bring the historical figures to life.

One final note: in the UK, where this was initially published, the title was Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore which is way more fun! I guess us Americans can’t handle that level of excitement in our history.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Tragic, yet funny.

You might also like:  For some more educational history enhanced by dry humor, check out A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, or any of Sarah Vowell’s historical books–I particularly like Assassination Vacation and Unfamiliar Fishes.

A Sky Painted Gold

A Sky Painted Gold

I recently took a trip that involved many, many hours on a plane. I usually use flights like this to catch up on movies I never got around to seeing, but this time none of the movies really called to me, so I watched that Zac Efron as Ted Bundy thing (he was good, the movie is not worth your time) and then decided to just read instead. Over my many flights I read Daisy Jones and the Six (fun, quick, perfect vacation read, a fiction version of an oral history of a 70s rock band), One Day in December (perfectly nice rom com story set in London), and most of the latest Elizabeth Gilbert City of Girls (so far, pretty fun, but I’m still finishing up so no promises). But the book that I want to tell you about is a YA coming-of-age story called a A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood. I have no idea where I heard about this book–a copy was on my Kindle but my library doesn’t have it, so I must have bought it? On someone’s recommendation? I don’t remember any of this, but it was exactly the kind of book I like and I was so glad it was there waiting for me.

Without giving too much away, Lou is a teenage girl who lives with her big, wild family on the coast in Cornwall between the World Wars. She has dreams, but leaving home and living a life outside her village seems impossible. She stumbles into a friendship with some local aristocrats and gets sucked into their Bright Young Things circle of fun, but what will happen when they ultimately go off to their city lives and she is left behind in Cornwall? This description makes her sound like an ugly duckling among swans, but I think one of the smartest things the book does is acknowledge those optics, while never making Lou seem dumb or lesser than some of the more glittering characters.

The book contains many, many things I like, including:

  • Detailed descriptions of elegant clothing
  • English village life
  • Characters enjoying lots of cocktails
  • A little bit of romance
  • Sympathetic parents, so the main story isn’t about how her parents just don’t understand

Overall, A Sky Painted Gold is a fairly traditional story, nothing terribly surprising is happening here, but it’s got a modern air about it. It was like rereading an old favorite from childhood, but without discovering any weird racist or sexist things that you’d forgotten about but that now make you cringe.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dreamy, romantic interwar England coming-of-age.

You might also like: I’ve definitely recommended all these before, but A Sky Painted Gold fits so well into a set of books I love that includes Cold Comfort Farm, I Capture the Castle, and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets.

Unmarriageable

Unmarriageable: A Novel by [Kamal, Soniah]

I think it’s safe to say that we here at Biblio-therapy are connoisseurs of all formats of Jane Austen tributes/adaptions/updates. In the past we’ve raved about the Lizzie Bennett Diaries and Longbourn, and I quite enjoyed Eligible, the most recent modern-day version of the story I’d read. The latest entry into the Pride and Prejudice but with X catalog is Unmarriagable,  which initially struck me as just a relocation of the classic but ultimately turned out to have a little more going on underneath.

This telling of the story takes place in Pakistan in 2000-2001, and positions the Bennetts as a family that slid from the upper-middle class after some business disasters. They’re now trying to maintain respectability in a small, backwater city. The two oldest girls teach at the English language high school in town, while their mother clings to her old status through the connections of family and friends. The author sticks very, very closely to the original–essentially every character and plot point has a direct translation to the new setting. This made the book feel a bit rote as I read through the very familiar beats: now we’re at the first ball, now it’s the first proposal, now Lizzie (Alys in this version) is traveling with her aunt, etc. But it was fun to see how names and clothes and celebrations were adapted to twentieth-century Pakistan, and I found myself doing a lot of Googling to make sure I could accurately picture the shawl a character was wearing, or the food they were eating.

So it was an enjoyable read, but I wasn’t sure if I initially felt it was adding anything new to the genre (at this point, I think retellings of Jane Austen is its own genre). However, as the book went along, it became clear that the author was using this story and setting as a vehicle to explore colonialism and culture. Alys teaches literature at the English school, which mostly consists of teaching her Pakistani students classics of English literature. But is this their culture? British colonization of India resulted in generations of Pakistanis who speak English and were raised on English classics, so these are their stories as much as anyone else’s. But how can Alys and her students also see themselves and their lives and cultures reflected in the cannon? Unmarriagable doesn’t necessarily have answers to these big questions, but watching Alys try to work them out for herself forces the reader to face them, as well.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Elizabeth Bennett in Pakistan!

You might also like: Other than the many other Pride and Prejudice-adjacent materials I’ve already mentioned, I’m going to recommend two widely different books. First, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon is a charming YA story about teenagers whose parents may have planned for them to marry and how they choose to deal with that in present-day San Francisco. Second, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is literally 1,000 pages long and reading it felt like entering a long-term relationship, but it is a classic story of love and class and gender in 1950s India.

More Fleabag

A few weeks ago I recommended some TV that I thought the Biblio-therapy readers would enjoy, since books have been a bit disappointing of late. (I did recently enjoy Normal People by Sally Rooney, but basically everyone else in the world has written a glowing review of it.) One of the shows I talked about was Fleabag, and I mentioned that the second season would be coming to Amazon soon. I have to admit that I was a little wary of this new season–the first season was such a beautifully complete story that I couldn’t imagine how a second season could measure up. But, you guys, Season 2 is BETTER. I don’t want to give away too much, but there are wonderful things happening with characters and with the narrative structure, and it was just a sort of a perfect season of TV. Everyone should watch it. Seriously, please go watch it, because I really need someone to talk about it with.

Awesome New(ish) TV By and About Women

Do other people fall into reading ruts where you’re reading all the time and finishing lots of books, but nothing really excites you or even sticks in your memory? Over the past couple of months I’ve read all sorts of things, including some with quite a bit of buzz (The Woman in the Window, The Immortalists), but have been pretty uninspired by all of them.  But I have been watching lots of great TV, across the full range of steaming services I apparently now have to pay for. I have particularly enjoyed several short series that show some realities of being a woman that I haven’t often seen on TV before. So here are Kinsey’s official recommendations for your spring TV viewing. They’re all short enough to knock out in a single evening, although they are all also at least a little raunchy and maybe things you don’t want to watch with your mom or your kids. Although, I don’t know your life or your mom or your kids, you do you.

Derry Girls (Netflix) is a comedy about a group of friends who go to a Catholic girls school in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.  It captures the intricate social strata of high school girls perfectly, and the family interactions have a completely non-saccharine ring of truth to them, while also being very funny. There’s a scene where someone drops a glass on the kitchen floor and a character’s mom acts like a nuclear spill has occurred and makes everyone stand on chairs–I loved it so much I had to rewind and watch that bit again. But as funny as the show is, the Troubles in Northern Ireland are always hovering on the edges, never letting anyone completely forget that they are living their lives in a battle zone. Also, there is amazing 90s music for my fellow Gen Xers, and Northern Irish accents that required me to have subtitles on to understand everything going on.

Shrill (Hulu) Lindy West’s memoir didn’t originally strike me as good source material for a fictional show, but the first season absolutely charmed me. Aidy Bryant (who I didn’t know before because I hate Saturday Night Live and never watch it) is amazing as a woman trying to navigate life as an entry-level journalist with a meddling mom and a terrible non-boyfriend. I guess you would say that her weight is the hook of the show, but it’s not like every episode is about how hard it is to be fat. Very early on she decides she is going to stop obsessing and just live her damn life, and most of the episodes are about her doing just that. Within the first five minutes of episode one I started googling to try to figure out where to buy her cute clothes and the infuriating answer is that they had to custom make basically everything because plus-size clothes are so awful. So enjoy the show, but know going in that you will not be able to buy those dresses.

Fleabag (Amazon) When I started writing this I initially thought, “Oh, I have three women-centered comedies to recommend!” But Fleabag might stretch the definition of comedy, so be warned. It follows a young London woman though encounters with men, her father and stepmother (played by the marvelous Olivia Coleman as possibly the worst woman in the world), and her sister. The main character is clearly on the verge of falling apart after a tragedy that is only slowly revealed in the show, and her relationships with her family make me want to use words like “searing” and “blistering.” Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the star and creator, and she is so observant and specific about the absurdity of life that the show is funny, while also pressing on some very painful areas of the psyche. Season 1 has been out for a couple of years, but I was finally inspired to watch it because Season 2 just showed to raves in the UK, and will be coming to Amazon in May. So now is a good time to get on this dark, dark train.