five books I read this summer

Book Reviews / Friday, September 27th, 2019

Something that struck me about myself the other day was this: With music, I mostly listen to men’s voices. With books, I mostly listen to the voices of women. This summer I have spent a considerable amount of time reading some excellent female writers:

How to Be Both by Ali Smith (4.5/5)

This is a special one. Ali Smith intertwines two separate stories in this novel. One story is about George who is processing the loss of her mother in her own quirky ways, agonizing over every unkind word said between them, dancing her mother’s dance every morning to the music of the sixties because her mother can’t dance it herself anymore. The other story is about a Renaissance painter called Francesco del Cossa who is trying to find her way around grief, too, but also around forging her career as a painter, and the complicated friendship with her best friend Barto. The two paths cross when George’s mother takes her to Italy to see a beautiful painting by Francesco.

This book demands your full attention, with, for example, a sudden change to stream-of-consciousness-writing when the “second” story line is introduced, and can be quite unnerving in its little twists and turns but at the same time the characters are so endearing that you quickly forgive Smith for leading you on. I say “second” because the book does not have a first and second part – depending on which copy you pick up, it either starts with George’s story or with Francesco’s.

How to be both; the beginning and the end, male and female, artist and story-teller, lover and beloved, made and unmade. A perfect title to this masterpiece of inventive daring.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (5/5)

It’s astounding to think that this book was written in 1928, almost a hundred years ago. The sharp wit and keen eye of Virginia Woolf makes reading this feminist manifesto as enjoyable as it might be having a cup of tea with a good friend, talking about politics and culture. Intended only to be a university lecture, Woolf evolved her essay into this novella-sized oeuvre, explaining the structural disadvantages that women of her time were suffering by analysing the female writers that had come before her with a satirical and cheek-in-tongue style of writing. I’d read the book around the time that women all over the country were gearing up for the National Women’s Strike in Switzerland, and having all those recent conversations in mind while reading it was a stark reminder of how some lines of thoughts still prevail in our day and age.

Normal People by Sally Rooney (3.5/5)

I expected to love this book and I really wanted to love it but it has not succeeded in fulfilling my expectations. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, I simply expected something else from it. Maybe that’s exactly what Rooney wanted to say with this; let me explain.

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 and written by 28-year old Sally Rooney, the book tells the story of Connell and Marianne. Not only of their love, but also of their individual traumas and lives, of the cruel sides to their characters. While it’s true that I got hooked on the story and ploughed through it quite quickly because I wanted to know how it ends, the characters themselves remained hollow for me. Not only did I not care too much for them, I even disliked them for their inability to articulate their feelings and their apathy. There were also some issues with the layout of the story, for example the reason for Marianne’s difficult family situation is left unexplained and thus seems non-credible.

Ultimately, this book is not nice. Marianne and Connel’s self-destructive behaviour is not nice. It’s not a book to curl up to on a blustering Sunday afternoon. But I suspect that Sally Rooney did not want to write a nice novel. Hailed as the voice, the new writer of our generation, she did not write a nice book. It’s a depressing book, the same as there are a lot of depressed people around us. And it shows that what you expect from your life when you’re young and in love is not necessarily always what you will get.

The White Album by Joan Didion (3.5/5)

This book is a collection of essays on the end of an era, on the shift from the sixties to the seventies, making palpable the general paranoia that has been lingering like a bad afterthought to the Manson Family murders in August ’69. (Side note: If you recently went to see the new Tarantino movie ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ and want to know more about that time period, this is a perfect book to read.) Then: Where to begin with Didion’s style of writing. She is so very intelligent, it’s sometimes almost too exhausting to read her cleverness. Her opinions took me by surprise at turns, from what I’d known of her, I’d have thought her less conservative. Which then goes on to explain how she could be completely and utterly unimpressed by listening in on a rehearsal by The Doors early one evening, somewhere on Sunset Boulevard, and wrote about it in the way she did: As if it were uneventful, borderline boring. I think you could say that she didn’t seem too impressed by it all; the whole humdrum and peace-making and groovy-being of that generation, which, of course, made her a perfect chronicler for it. This book was not necessarily what I had expected but did not disappoint, nonetheless.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (4/5)

If you’re looking for an unpretentious book, with an above-average storyline set in the early 20th century and some lovely little plot twists along the way, this is the book for you. I haven’t had this much fun simply following a story for quite a while. It is told from Grace’s point of view, a young maid in a big and beautiful household, who gets swallowed up by its secrets and falls more and more under the spell of the family she serves. She’s especially drawn to the three children; Emmeline, Hannah and David, who are around her age but lead lives so very differently from hers. Told in hindsight by a very old Grace with her own little matters to solve before her time comes, Morton manages to unravel the threads of her story so precisely, you only fully come to understand and grasp the big and final twist when she shoves it right into your face.

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