contemporary literature

2017 Reading List #1: Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

Happy New Year! Though we’re already 2 days into 2017, I’m still enjoying my free time of winter break and using it to soak up as much reading/viewing as possible (while balancing my time productively in preparation for a new semester, of course).

My first completed reading project is one I’d been itching to start since receiving it for my birthday—Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. I quickly fell in love with Smith’s writing when I read White Teeth in 2015 and have been slowly accumulating her other works. Swing Time, though, is the only other novel I’ve read by her, having also read The Book of Other People, a short story collection she edited in 2016.

Though Swing Time is a hefty novel that rounds out at 453 pages, it’s quick-moving and easy to read. The story follows an unnamed narrator through her youth, growing up biracial in North London, to her young adulthood as an assistant to an international pop star. Because the story is written by Smith, it’s riddled with complex issues like friendship, identity, feminism, family, and cultural appropriation. Smith’s characteristic ability to address these topics in a true-to-life way is what makes her writing so compelling.

Though I wasn’t quite as charmed by Swing Time as I was by White Teeth—though in fairness the scope of White Teeth is much broader and more complicated—Smith undeniably deserved her place on so many of the “best of” fiction lists at the end of 2016.

Since one of my reading goals in 2017 is to read two novels by Smith, I’ll definitely read On Beauty before the year ends, and I having a feeling The Autograph Man might find its way onto my reading list too.

2016 Reading List

 

Below is my complete reading list for 2016. Titles in bold are those I particularly enjoyed.

  1. 01/03: Brooklyn, Colm Toíbín
  2. 01/05: The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare
  3. 01/06: Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
  4. 01/10: Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
  5. 01/11: The Man Who Had All the Luck, Arthur Miller
  6. 01/12: All My Sons, Arthur Miller
  7. 01/13: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
  8. 01/13: Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
  9. 01/17: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  10. 01/31: The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole
  11. 02/09: Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith
  12. 02/16: After You, Jojo Moyes
  13. 02/17: The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
  14. 02/18: Collected Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay
  15. 02/20: Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare
  16. 02/24: The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams
  17. 02/27: A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, Adrienne Rich
  18. 03/02: Biloxi Blues, Neil Simon
  19. 03/08: ‘Night, Mother, Marsha Norman
  20. 03/09: The Lonesome West, Martin McDonagh
  21. 03/11: Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
  22. 04/10: Cannery Row, John Steinbeck
  23. 05/01: Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
  24. 05/22: Voyager, Diana Gabaldon
  25. 05/24: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  26. 05/27: Finding Fraser, KC Dyer
  27. 06/01: The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov
  28. 06/07: The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  29. 06/13: Definitely Dead, Charlaine Harris
  30. 06/15: An Enemy of the People, Arthur Miller
  31. 06/17: The Crucible, Arthur Miller
  32. 06/18: A View From the Bridge, Arthur Miller
  33. 06/24: Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, James Runcie
  34. 06/26: Luckiest Girl Alive, Jessica Knoll
  35. 07/03: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
  36. 07/03: In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda
  37. 07/04: The Seagull, Anton Chekhov
  38. 07/06: Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
  39. 07/12: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis
  40. 07/12: The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance
  41. 07/24: Light in August, William Faulkner
  42. 07/28: After the Fall, Arthur Miller
  43. 07/30: Incident at Vichy, Arthur Miller
  44. 07/31: The Price, Arthur Miller
  45. 08/01: The Creation of the World and Other Business, Arthur Miller
  46. 08/01: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne
  47. 08/04: Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway
  48. 08/07: At Fault, Kate Chopin
  49. 08/22: The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer
  50. 08/23: Sidney Chambers and the Perils of Night, James Runcie
  51. 08/28: Bayou Folk, Kate Chopin
  52. 08/31: Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay
  53. 09/03: You’ll Grow Out of It, Jessi Klein
  54. 09/04: The Archbishop’s Ceiling, Arthur Miller
  55. 09/06: The American Clock, Arthur Miller
  56. 09/14: Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
  57. 10/03: Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  58. 10/03: Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide, J.K. Rowling
  59. 10/05: Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship, and Dangerous Hobbies, J.K. Rowling
  60. 10/06: Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics, and Pesky Poltergeists, J.K. Rowling
  61. 10/21: The Girls, Emma Cline
  62. 10/22: The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
  63. 10/22: The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith
  64. 10/25: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Issa Rae
  65. 10/27: A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness
  66. 10/30: The Widow, Fiona Barton
  67. 10/31: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
  68. 11/05: Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty
  69. 11/06: Playing for Time, Arthur Miller
  70. 11/09: The World’s Wife, Carol Ann Duffy
  71. 11/19: Dark Sparkler, Amber Tamblyn
  72. 11/23: State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
  73. 11/25: The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, Arthur Miller
  74. 11/26: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  75. 11/26: The Last Yankee, Arthur Miller
  76. 11/27: Broken Glass, Arthur Miller
  77. 11/28: Carry This Book, Abbi Jacobson
  78. 11/29: Mr Peters’ Connections, Arthur Miller
  79. 11/30: Resurrection Blues, Arthur Miller
  80. 12/03: Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler
  81. 12/06: Paris for One and Other Stories, Jojo Moyes
  82. 12/09: Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling
  83. 12/12: The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
  84. 12/14: Three Tall Women, Edward Albee
  85. 12/15: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, August Wilson
  86. 12/18: Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen
  87. 12/21: Camino Real, Tennessee Williams
  88. 12/26: The Autumn Garden, Lillian Hellman
  89. 12/27: Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
  90. 12/27: A Hatful of Rain, Michael Gazzo
  91. 12/28: Talking as Fast as I Can, Lauren Graham
  92. 12/29: Cravings, Chrissy Teigen

2016 Reading List #61: The Girls, by Emma Cline

I’ve been interested in reading The Girls since it was featured on every summer reading list in the past months, but my skepticism about contemporary literature made me hesitant to invest. In the end, I don’t really feel better or worse off for having read The Girls. But hey, sometimes a little ambivalence is better than hatred.

The Girls is a fictionalized retelling of a young girl involved with a group meant to resemble the Manson Family of the late 1960s. Evie Boyd is entranced by several girls who live on a ranch with Russell, our Charles Manson character, and quickly tries to enmesh herself in their culture.

The story is really set in the present-day, starring adult Evie, and though we know from early on that she wasn’t involved in the murder the group is famous for, we don’t really know how she avoided it. In 1969, Evie is a girl desperate to grow up and be given attention and love, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see her agreeing to some pretty terrible things if it means earning respect from her superiors.

Though I was immediately intrigued by the framework of this novel, I was never quite dazzled by the actual thing. Cline’s novel is a strong debut, but I felt a bit removed for the entire reading experience. The novel’s concluding chapters are chilling, but those 30 pages were the only time I was truly invested. Cline’s habit of writing in sentence fragments was also bothersome to me—though, to be fair, that might have more to do with my failed ability to turn off the English-teaching part of my brain during pleasure reading.

In hindsight, I can see why others would like The Girls, but it wasn’t something I’d add to my list of favorites. At least I can know rest happily knowing I gave it a fair shot and came out none the worse.

2016 Reading List #21: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Though I definitely should’ve been spending my time more productively, I spent most of today reading the final half of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. If you can’t allow a little literary indulgence on spring break, when can you?

This book has been of interest to me for a long time, but I’ve never been able to find my own copy at a used bookstore, which is my primary resource for book-buying. My roommate brought me his copy after winter break, so I finally decided to let myself enjoy some recreational reading after feeling too committed to my thesis project to dive in earlier in the semester.

Thankfully, it was worth the wait. I saw the 2010 film adaptation and so I knew the general premise of the novel before beginning: in a reimagined late-twentieth century Britain, Kathy tells the story of her growing up with friends Ruth and Tommy. This isn’t any normal coming-of-age story, though; Kathy and her friends are clones, produced to fulfill their lives as organ donors for British citizens so terminal illness is no longer a death sentence.

Despite the sci-fi nature of a clone story, this is a very human narrative full of endearing characters. I was misty-eyed more than once throughout my reading experience, and it’s obvious why this has been such a lauded book.

This was my first time reading Ishiguro, but I’ll happily return to him soon, especially since I already have a copy of his Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Remains of the Day. For now, I’ll probably start another reading project, though my impending thesis defense will likely slow my reading progress. A future in which I will no longer have to write research papers is sounding sweeter and sweeter…

Book #45: The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

In short, today has been a whirlwind. I’ve been up since around 5:00 AM and drove 8 hours back home from Chautauqua, NY with my mom and roommate, Ryan, after visiting Ryan during the final days of his summer internship (after I write this, I’ll be working on an “end of summer” blog post with more details on our trip — Stay tuned!).

We arrived home about an hour ago and I’m doing my best to remain alert and productive, even if my body is saying it would rather lounge and watch Netflix for the rest of the day. Since we’re already unpacked with a load of laundry in the washer, the next thing on the to do list I could think to cross off was this, updating my blog, so here we are!

Wednesday night, as I attempted to get to bed early before our drive up to New York the next morning, I (of course) found myself unable to fall asleep, which at least gave me to opportunity to finish my last reading project of the summer: Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. 

I seem to be working my way through Eugenides’s three novels in reverse order from least to most entertaining, or at least I hope that’s the case. I’ve only heard good things about his Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, and though it’s on my tentative reading list for the year, I knew I wouldn’t have time to finish it before the semester starts on Monday, so I went with a shorter option. I read his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, last summer, and was completely underwhelmed. You can only read about the problems of rich white academics for so long, ya know?

With The Virgin Suicides, though, I felt more optimistic, mostly because I watched the film adaptation (which was Sofia Copolla’s directorial debut) in recent years and really enjoyed it. I was also vaguely curious if the movie/book would be applicable to my Manic Pixie Dream Girl thesis project, so it seemed like a worthwhile read.

I’m a little torn on whether I’d really recommend this novel. It’s written from an odd perspective; the narrator is never really identified, speaking only through a collective “we” that seems to represent the boys who grew up admiring the Lisbon girls for whom the book is named. It’s no secret that the five sisters will all commit suicide at some point before the end of the novel (hence its title), and it opens with the unsuccessful suicide attempt of the youngest Lisbon, thirteen-year-old Cecilia. I should also note here that, despite its focus on teenage suicide, The Virgin Suicides isn’t really a hugely dark or tragic book, so don’t be turned off just by the subject matter.

After reading some fifty pages of the novel, I decided to rewatch the movie because I was into the story and thought it would be fun to see it again as I was reading. This maybe wasn’t the greatest decision. I didn’t find the film as charming the second time around, and so much of its narration is verbatim from the novel that it made reading seem less urgent. I know the movie is generally well-liked, but I was bummed to realize I wasn’t as in love with it as I’d remembered.

So, should you read it? Eh. Maybe. My recommendation is this: if for some reason you’re interested in this novel and haven’t seen the big screen adaptation, go for it. If you like the novel, you’ll like the movie. If you’ve already seen the movie, make your own decision, but know that the adaptation is very faithful (apart from a slight change toward the end of the novel which relates to one of the girls’ suicides).

Book #41: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

Being productive is a wonderful feeling. Just moments ago, I finished reading Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, marking the first book I’ve read toward the upcoming semester’s reading list. I’m happy to report that I made a good decision in starting with a smart, funny, thoroughly entertaining novel.

White Teeth was already on my tentative reading list for 2015, so the fact that it ended up being an assigned text for a World Lit class I’m taking this fall worked nicely with my life plans. I went into reading White Teeth with very little knowledge of what it was about; I knew this was Smith’s first novel, took place primarily between the 1970s and 1990s in London, and was apparently funny. All good things, I suppose.

Turns out, the book is divided into four sections that shift focus among a pretty large ensemble of characters. We start with Archibald and Samad, friends since they served together in World War II, and then quickly branch out to meet their families over the course of several years. The book is full of culture clash, featuring characters of various racial, cultural, religious, and economical, and sexual backgrounds. Needless to say, this book leaves readers with a lot to think about.

Despite the complexity of the characters and story, White Teeth is an easy-to-read, funny book. Smith is able to write in a way that is eloquent and thought-provoking without ever being unapproachable. To me, this is an incredible and rare talent that makes me all the more interested in reading more of Smith’s works.

___________________________

Side note: another of the things I knew related to this book before reading it was that there’s an English miniseries adaptation of the novel. I did a presentation on adaptation for a class last fall, and the book I read on the subject had lots of discussion with Smith about her perceptions of the visual adaptation of her work. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to watch it yet, but I have high hopes of doing so sometime soon.

The Last Moments of Summer: how I’m spending my time before resuming real life

Once August begins, the dread of the finality of summer starts to really set in. Though my classes don’t begin until August 25, I’m spending the weeks leading up to that date starting my new position as a graduate assistant and attending a new grad student orientation. It’s starting to sink in that I’m reaching another new milestone in my life: grad school. It’s scary and exciting, but before reality sets in, I’m trying to cram as much entertainment into my final minutes of summer as possible. Here’s what I’ve been/will be up to while I’m still swimming in free time.

TV — I’m completely thrilled (and quite sad) to announce that, as of Saturday night, I’ve completed all eleven seasons of “Cheers”! I started 2014 with season four, but that still rang in at just over 200 episodes, so I’m quite proud of myself. The obvious transition would be to watch “Frasier” next, but my plan is to wait until 2015 to begin that endeavor. Completing two major projects in the TV canon (“Seinfeld” and “Cheers”) is more than I ever really expected of this summer, so I’m fine to move onto smaller projects.

Most of my other TV projects are just keeping up with shows that are currently airing. As far as that list goes, I’m only really keeping up with three summer shows: “True Blood” (only three episodes left!), “Masters of Sex,” and “Drunk History.” If you aren’t watching “Drunk History,” take my word for it and set 30 minutes aside to watch an episode on Comedy Central or check out their videos on YouTube. I promise you, you won’t regret it.

I’m also quite interested in two shows that are about to premiere: “Outlander” and “The Knick.”  I watched the pilot of “Outlander” this morning, and I was very entertained, so I will certainly be tuning in as the series progresses. If you’re interested, Starz is offering the pilot episode for free on YouTube, so go check it out. I’m hoping that these two will keep me entertained in the lull between summer TV and fall premiere dates.

On that same note, I just today started watching season one of “The Fall” on Netflix. I’d read about the show a long time ago, but at a friend’s recommendation, I decided to give it ago today, and I’m totally hooked. At this time last year I watched “Top of the Lake,” and “The Fall” has a very similar air about it; the story centers on a series of murders in Belfast, Northern Ireland. There’s not much mystery, as viewers are aware of the killer’s identity right from the beginning, but there’s certainly enough intrigue to keep you hooked. The show starts Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan and a handful of people you’ll recognize from “Game of Thrones.” And there are great Irish accents! What’s not to like?

Movies — In lieu of beginning a new TV project, I’ve decided to work on my movie-watching, particularly because I’d like to be as close as possible to my goal of seeing 125 new (to me) movies this year. I’ve been quite busy on this front; I’ve crossed off three more movies from the AFI Top 100 List — The Godfather, American Graffiti, and The Godfather Part II — so I’m halfway to my goal of watching 10 films from that list this year.

The only recent film I’ve seen in theaters was Begin Again, which was a surprisingly delightful movie that I’d definitely recommend. It’s got a great end-of-summer vibe as well, which just adds to the joys of watching it in August. We also rented the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself via On Demand, and it was as sweet, sad, funny portrayal of the man who changed the way the American public relates to film. If you’re a documentary fan or film buff, this is a must-see.

All my other viewings have been Netflix or Redbox offerings. Unfortunately, there have been several that I’ve not been too thrilled with, but as far as I’m concerned, the chance to clear one title from my Netflix list is more than worth it. Some of my favorites have been the heartbreaking 2012 documentary Bully, the star-studded 90s teen comedy Can’t Hardly Wait, and the quirky The Grand Budapest HotelWes Anderson’s newest feature. I’m hoping to watch at least one movie in the coming weeks, so hopefully I’ll happen upon a few more cinematic gems before my quest is finished.

Books — In an attempt to alleviate what I expect will be a very trying semester, I’ve decided to get a bit ahead on some of my reading assignments. My first project has been Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations, a 1991 novel that plays on the title of an Edgar Allan Poe short story and Bach Goldberg Variations. The blurb on the back of the book sounded promising enough, but I’m finding it a bit difficult to keep myself motivated to read. Much like The Marriage Plot, this book is full of information on scientific endeavors that do not interest me in the least. It’s quite frustrating to think I’m reading a novel and then be faced with the task of wading through pages and pages of scientific jargon that means absolutely nothing to me (needless to say, I’ve been skimming on occasion). I’m experiencing a lot of stops and starts with the book; every time I think the story is getting more interesting, I’m again in the middle of a lot of genetics gibberish. Hooray. It should also be noted that the book is about 640 pages long, so this is quite a trying project for me. Let’s just hope I can maintain my strength and continue to power through.

Basically, this is my life for the next week or so before I’m slowly forced to let go of the majority of my free time. But until that moment comes, I’m looking forward to appreciating every last ounce of my time and spending it doing something entertaining.

Cheers!