February 10, 2015

January Reading Recap

This year, I've decided to revive my "monthly reads" tag. Each month I'll post a recap of books finished the previous month. If you're interested in more frequent updates on my reading progress, you can follow me on Goodreads.

TELL THE WOLVES I'M HOME by Carol Rifka Brunt: When June is 14, her beloved uncle dies of AIDS, and her whole world changes. Uncle Finn had been her best friend, and she thought the two of them knew everything about each other. But after Finn's death, she's contacted by his boyfriend, a man she didn't know existed. June's moody older sister has information she might share, and at times June thinks they can use these events to find a way back to their former closeness. The relationship with her sister remains strained, though, and June forms a new friendship with Finn's secret boyfriend through their shared grief. The more she learns about him, the more she realizes how much she didn't understand about her favorite person, and her entire family.

This is a great, unusual family story. I was consistently impressed by the way it's such a character-focused book, with plot events that are often fairly mundane, and yet the story is gripping and full of mystery. I admire Brunt's handling of both the difficult material and the young narrator in this debut novel, and I eagerly await whatever she publishes next.

→ Reading CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC by Claudia Rankine challenged me on multiple levels. The material examines issues of race in America and the daily experience of going through life as a black person. Whether Rankine is writing about the thoughtlessly racist statements made by friends and strangers or the tragedy of racially motivated killings, her words hit hard, provoking both discomfort and thought.

I wrote at length about this important collection of prose poetry in a separate post.

→ I have mixed feelings about MR. FOX by Helen Oyeyemi. It's beautifully written, and parts fascinated me, but much of it left me baffled, and it didn't fully come together as a story.

The main narrative concerns the tumultuous relationship between a writer, St. John Fox, and his muse, Mary Foxe. At the beginning, she challenges him over the fact that he kills off the women in all of his stories. This leads to some sort of magical literary battle in which the two of them are forced into a series of short stories. These stories appear within the book, taking a variety of forms and set in a wide range of times and places, and they always started off intriguing but often underwhelmed me by the end. The stories interact with and comment on the outer storyline to a certain extent, though much is left unexplained. Toward the end, I became truly interested in the characters of the main plot, but I wanted to get to that point sooner.

After I finished the novel, I learned that it takes inspiration from the story of Bluebeard and related tales, and then I learned that I didn't know a single thing about Bluebeard, who I'd always assumed was another pirate. Acquainting myself with the folktale didn't substantially change my feelings about the novel, but it did add another layer to my understanding. Oyeyemi is a talented and ambitious writer, and though I didn't connect with this particular project, I'll continue following her work.

I preferred her most recent novel, BOY, SNOW, BIRD, which is also a loose fairy tale retelling. That book, despite some odd detours, is primarily a straightforward story about a family. Many descriptions of it give too much away, but I wrote a spoiler-free review last year.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund ponders the changes that come with writing and time and the reality of What Goes Into A First Draft: "One of the reasons I'm not the biggest planner before writing a novel is things change. I always have rough ideas and things I write toward, but I've found that things often don't become truly clear until you're deep into a story."


Anonymous said...

Wow, yeah, it's a funny thing about stories that play the literary (or cultural, or whatever) allusion game -- they're a vastly different experience for audiences with different frames of reference and there's not a darned thing the author can do about that. Reading your review of Mr. Fox, I saw the title of the novel and immediately hypothesized that it was a reference to the Grimm's fairy tale of that name; the first sentence of your description confirmed that hypothesis. (Why do I remember the name "Mr. Fox" so particularly, and why is that my primary association with a fairly generic and overly-weighted-with-connotations name? I don't know, but I do, just like I remember Bluebeard or Cinderella. I don't think there are any actual fox associations in the version of the story I've read.)

Christopher Gronlund said...

Citizen: An American Lyric is on my to-by-bought to-be-read pile after your write up. I've been on a poetry reading kick so far this year, and it sounds like a good read.

As always, thanks for mentioning my blog!

Lisa Eckstein said...

desiree: In my reading up on Bluebeard, I saw mention of similarities to a tale called Mister Fox, but I missed looking it up. Now that I have, I'm realizing even more details of the book were references I didn't get. It definitely would have made for a very different reading experience if I'd had some familiarity with these folktales, but somehow I had a complete gap in this area.

Christopher: Glad to hear you're planning to read Citizen. It's highly worthwhile. And once again, congrats on finishing your first draft!

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