Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Recent Reads

Between 1) a Golden Week trip to Hawaii that consisted of little more than eating and laying around in beautiful surroundings reading books and 2) the occasional long train ride, I’ve managed to work my way the quite a few novels and non-fiction works recently. Here are a few mini-reviews.

Seraphina, Rachel Hartman (2012). Oh, I adored this. I supposed technically it’s “young adult,” but it’s quite dark, with beautiful writing and very well-drawn characters, including (hooray!) a complicated female lead who’s quite prickly. I guess it’s kind of about dragons, but it’s really not. Just read it, if you have any interest whatsoever in good stories and / or fantasy.

Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, Shereen el Feki (2013). I came to this book seeking a more in-depth discussion of sexuality in the Arab world, given that what I read in the mainstream media (and even more leftist media) tends to paint a very negative picture of a world full of misogyny and rigid, unchanging attitudes toward any and all sex that takes place outside of marriage (and even the sex that takes place within marriage). And while el Feki’s book is fascinating and well-researched (and written from the unique perspective of a woman who has one foot in both Euro-American and Arab culture), I came away feeling pretty depressed. Things are changing, yes, but very slowly, and in some places not at all.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick (2010). Given the recent leadership change and the very recent “sea of fire” saber-rattling from North Korea, I decided to learn a bit more about my next door neighbor. Demick’s book is a wrenching account of ordinary people’s lives in an extraordinary place, based on extensive interviews (mostly conducted with refugees in South Korea) and her own experiences studying and traveling in the region. If it weren’t so tragic it could just be appreciated as brilliant science fiction. Horrifying but strangely uplifting at the same time.

Last Night’s Scandal, Loretta Chase. I needed a good beach read, and this was it. It’s got earls and ladies and a crumbling Scottish castle and sex. Lots of sex. Sometimes in rainy graveyards.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green. I was wary of this one at first, as it seemed to be populated with kids who were just a little too clever and eloquent. But it won me over quickly with its utterly unsentimental portrayal of teenagers with cancer who are nonetheless determined to fall in love and experience all the usual joys and heartaches of adolescence. Again, technially “young adult” but doesn’t really feel that way.

Kindred, Octavia Butler (1979). Not quite finished yet, but damn, this is a rough read. Also unputdownable. I am well aware that I will never, ever come close to knowing what the horrors of slavery were like, but this book brings them closer than just about anything I’ve read before. At one point in the story, after many depictions of almost every kind of brutality imaginable, a character in the 19th century finds a book from the 20th about the history of slavery and scoffs, “Are people still talking about this?” And you understand more clearly than ever exactly WHY.

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver (2012). Oh dear. I adore Barbara Kingsolver, have devoured almost everything she’s written. Thought The Lacuna was one of the best books in ages. But this one…I got more halfway through it and just never went back. It just felt a little too much like a recycling of a lot of her older work, and while I’ve always loved the imagery she creates, it seemed as though EVERY paragraph in this book ended with a little mini-poem of a sentence. Not my cup of tea.

Among Others, Jo Walton (2012). Okay, sorry, but…this thing beat out Embassytown for the Hugo? Seriously? I wanted to like it, I really did, especially given that it won the Hugo and it’s written by a woman, two things that rarely go together. But it was so bland. I almost feel like it was given an award simply because it was about a girl who loved sci-fi and fantasy and could rattle off book names and authors by the dozen. The story wasn’t compelling. Got to the end and thought, “That’s it?”.

The Giver Quartet, Lois Lowry (1993-2012). I remember teaching The Giver to junior high school students as part of my student teaching experience in college. It’s definitely young adult, but it’s well done, and the subsequent novels (Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son) examine questions that the first novel didn’t really have time for. Sort of My First Dystopian Fiction. Quick reads, and occasionally compelling.

Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson (2012). Amazing world-building and a refreshingly different setting for a sci-fi novel (a fictional Middle Eastern city that vaguely resembles Cairo). At some points it wobbled under its own weight, but it was so rich with place and character that I didn’t really care.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (2012). Classic murder mystery that I read in a day or two, but that still managed to defy expectations and make me think / squirm a bit.

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2 comments on “Recent Reads

  1. Here
    May 30, 2013

    If you’re interested in a fictional take on the Korea situation, you should check out Your Republic Is Calling You by Young-ha Kim. Kim uses that multiple-perspective stream-of-consciousness Ulysses type thing to look at North and South Korean societies through the eyes of a North Korean spy. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s definitely interesting if you enjoy the subject.

  2. gradland
    August 11, 2013

    Thanks for the recommendation, will definitely check it out!

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Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life

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