August Reading List

It’s September, but my August was bloated with reading, and to review a piece of literature, I need time. I need to think about it, let it fester, sink down into the floor of my brain and wait for its debris to rise to the surface. Out of the many books I read in August, here are some of my favorites, and their respective mini-review-things.

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Severance - Ling Ma

Ling Ma’s work: a lamplight against a grainy cream motel wall, illuminating the mildew, copse of peeled paint, revealing the termite-gnawed realm underneath. Ma’s sardonic, quietly brutal satire is somehow gorgeous and heart-gashing while also pointed, never allowing us to forget our complicity, or worse, active participation in apocalypse, in the ruin of consumerism at its most hypocritical and abundant. Excess is everywhere, defines American values. This novel bites at you - but not brashly. In a sort of polluted-lungs, shuddering way, because there’s nothing implausible about any of it.

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Dept. of Speculation - Jenny Offill

This modest, brief bashing of a novel left me spellbound, really. It’ll split something in you and open up a gash you never recognized. Written in such astounding, brilliant fragments, Offill weaves contemplations, allusions, ironies, satire and every so often a stunning needle-sting of a paragraph into an inimitable work of literature. Wowza, I can unabashedly say. What a writer.

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Putney - Sofka Zinovieff

Putney: trauma endures. Trauma transcends time, growth, memory. Trauma cannot reconcile horror with survival and so it congeals into us beautified narratives, ones we can somehow live with. So we don’t ever need to look too closely. So don’t ever need to reach our hands in and flesh out the ravines our brains put away. Until we cannot linger in the outside world any longer and suddenly, terribly, we remember not the story we’ve assembled but reality of what happened. A novel told through three distinct perspectives: victim, friend of the victim, and perpetrator. But those easy paradigms are subverted and slashed every which way. There is no easy way to tell a story like this, and Putney knows that very well - the knotted, fragmented past is tugged forward even if we try to shove it behind us, and we cannot help but be affected, all of us. Humanizing monstrous men without excusing their actions, without justifying them: a precarious (and necessary, maybe?) feat. Putney pulls it off.

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The Seas - Samantha Hunt

Underrated, haunting, magnificent. Samantha Hunt burrows into your skin, clings to the walls of your gut, saturates your bloodstream. Alchemy: she conjures blood into seawater. Everything knowable suddenly dissolves, loses familiarity and swims out of reach. This novel will pool inside your throat, swollen, blue-bodied, until you have to drain it from your system to keep from dry drowning. It won’t ever really go away, though - just leave you sorer than you were.

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Motherhood - Sheila Heti

Reading Sheila Heti is an odyssey, for lack of a better word. Truly, looping and circling and treading, you push your arms through the most scrum-thick, unseeable depths and find your way back up to the surface, sunlight on your skin. You are bogged down and buoyed again. Motherhood is kind of a manifesto, but not really - a self-reckoning, really, that American society as a whole desperately needs to have. A reckoning with motherhood as a reality and a theoretical experience, in all the contradictions and complexities. A direct refute to the notion that womanhood = motherhood, by any means. No, womanhood = many, endless things. Epitomizes why I cannot tolerate older adults asking me about having kids, despite the fact that I am eighteen years old. And when I say that I really don’t think I’ll ever have children, nearly everyone responds, oh, you’re so young, you’ll probably change your mind. Are teenage boys reduced to their potential fatherhood?? Anyways, read this masterpiece, share it, and know that Heti doesn’t undervalue or ridicule motherhood or the decision to not engage in it. That she allows and makes room for all expressions of womanhood - which we culturally seem to struggle with.

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Tonight I’m Someone Else: Essays - Chelsea Hodson

Slash to your throat. A stinging, crystalline amalgam of achings and love-hurts and the weirdnesses of personhood. Hodson is a remarkable writer. She expresses and makes the most alienating of feelings palpable. Her prose dazzling, biting without ever feeling over-indulgent or gooey. I love this collection so much.

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Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

So. Good. Really, Hamid will devastate and reinvigorate you. You cannot escape this novel, you cannot forget about it, you cannot nullify how beautiful and frightening it is. Exit West is at its heart about what a “refugee” really is, what that word actually means. How we culturally tend to flatten the word and simplify real human beings into the alienated, indistinguishable “other” is broken down in this novel. You simply cannot feel detached from this book. How complicated and sometimes everlasting the feeling of exile can be. Hamid writes human beings, though, not so much characters. You fall in love with these people and their relationships, you imbibe the suppleness of their flaws and still you love them. Really, Exit West is electric, and so very alive.

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh

Unlikable women! How intolerable we find them, particularly in our literature. The protagonist of this novel is hilarious and brazenly, deeply flawed, just like any other human being. Satire that drips with sardonic, gutting irony, and a contempt that rings clear in her (the narrator’s) experience of early 2000s New York City. The flighty psychiatrist that will prescribe her anything and everything, the scathing descriptions of the pretense and ridiculousness of the city’s art world, a distaste for mostly everything - and yet. And yet Moshfegh’s narrator still stays in the city. She still engages in the consumerism and materialism she detests her fellow New Yorkers for. She still lives amongst the thoughtlessness, the boredom and boorishness and pretense and sheer lack of originality she indicts, which is to me the most true thing about this book. There is cynicism but never a suffocating amount of it: still, in her existential dread and pill-dependent disaffection, tenderness carries on, cannot be suppressed, and feelings are still felt. The sheer privilege of the “hibernation” she takes, as a beautiful, educated, young white woman with a weighty trust fund is not lost on her. But still, even in the privilege and irony of it, there’s something so honest here. In an age of excess, of noisiness, of constant stimulation, to cut one’s cords from the rest of the world, to quite literally unplug oneself from the pulse of a city and its fervor, from the rest of the human world, is understandable. Is desirable. To find rebirth there, to find blankness, emptiness - a need many of us have that we don’t quite know how to touch. I liked this novel because of how, awfully, I felt the same “unlikable” and selfish feelings of the narrator. Of how I knew her too well for my own liking.