conversations with friends by sally rooney

rooney’s debut novel, but not my first book of hers. like so many others, i discovered “normal people” first, and liked it enough to seek out other works.

“conversations with friends” tried hard at being sincere, and mostly succeeded. what it didn’t do is make me empathise with any of the characters. i felt like a distant observer belonging to a different species reading through a field report.

the story revolves around frances, the narrator, and her relationships with people around. she’s young, confused, and arrogant (the way most young people are), thus all relationships end up incredibly messy. though, is there any other type way of interacting with people? we are messy creatures in the end.

p.s. here goes the usual gripe with cover blurbs. me and some newspapers have wildly different definitions of “funny”. i saw nothing funny in this novel.

tokyo ueno station by yu miri

“tokyo ueno station” is one of those books that i would have never found if not for someone’s recommendation.

this is a sad story about a life filled with loneliness and many misfortunes. the main character didn’t get a single break from the universe.

on the macro level, the book sheds light on classism in japanese society, attitude towards homeless people, and hardships of working class. themes that i haven’t yet encountered in my exploration of japanese literature.

the house of spirits by isabel allende

until recently, when i thought of latin american literature, it was gabriel garcia marques, jorje amadu, borges, julio cortasar, and mario vargas llosa who came to mind. do you notice the trend? all of them are men. but it’s not like the rich and incredibly versatile field of latin american literature doesn’t have any women writers. i just didn’t know about any of them.

if you are like me, then let me offer you The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende. this book is one of magical realism masterpieces deeply rooted in the joys and sorrows of everyday life. the novel’s events take place in unnamed country in south america, in the first half of XX century – far from us both in time and space. yet, you will feel empathy and kinship with the incredible women who are in the centre of the story – nivea, clara, and alba.

a word of warning: the book covers quite heavy topics and has brief graphic descriptions of acts of misogyny, violence, civil war, classism, and racism.

defekt by nino cipri

“defekt” is the sequel to “finna”, so don’t read it standalone. it doesn’t expand on the plot, but on the world. we get completely new characters dealing with immediate aftermath of events that took place in “finna”.

while this is a solid character study and commentary on how people find identity in the modern ‘western’ society, it didn’t land as well with me as “finna” did (for reference, “finna” got 4/5 rating, and “defekt” 3/5).

the midnight bargain by c. l. polk

first book this year that i put aside unfinished, bowing out after four chapters.

the midnignt bargain is set in the vaguely victorian world where magic exists and women are banned from it. the protagonist is a debutante under pressure to get married well. surprise-surprise, she doesn’t want to be a wife, but wants to pursue a magical career instead.

i liked the fabula when i heard it (for the life of me, can’t remember when and where exactly), but the execution left me cold. four chapters out of twenty two, 82 pages out 369, 22%. that’s enough of a chance for a book that hasn’t been recommended by someone trusted.

why i dropped the book? the writing felt repetitive, implementation of fantasy jane austen world didn’t grab me, and attempts to ratchet up the tension of the plot were too obvious for my taste. moreover, the protagonist’s outrage about gender discrimination felt too on the nose.

i won’t recommend this book. for good romance you’d be better of rereading Austen, for good fantasy – the list is endless.

pachinko by min jin lee

i was peeved at the publisher’s decision to put a major spoiler on the back-of-the-cover blurb, so no spoilers in this opinion.

pachinko is a family saga of three generations – classic approach. what makes it different is the setting, so unusual for anglophone readers – korea and japan. mostly japan. i think this is the first fiction book where i get to see this country through the eyes of a non-japanese person. and let me tell you, it’s not a flattering view, which has been a surprise in itself.

i absolutely recommend this book if you are:

  • not scared by books longer than 350 pages (don’t worry, this is a page-turner)
  • want to learn about moving from Korea to Japan in 30’s of of previous century
  • want to get curious about that historic period (i totally went on a wikipedia rabbit hole afterwards)
  • and just want read astonishingly well-written book.

five out of five from me.

strange heart beating by eli goldstone

i picked Eli Goldstone’s novel after reading an intriguing review in the Guardian (my main source of the news, books included). however, this time my opinion differs from the reviewer’s.

“strange heart beating” reads easily – no stumbling over an awkward turn of the phrase, or struggling with the imagery offered by the author. it’s a polished text and yet, the substance was a bit lacking for my taste. i was left questioning what had been the point of the story.

the protagonist starts off as a fresh widower, mourning his wife. in search of closure, he travels to her home country, and just waffles there. first third of the book generously spreads all sorts of plot hooks all over the place, yet none of them lead anywhere. the wife was drowned by a swan, her death being one more weird death in the family history. i expected anything but the following recount of hapless englishman travelling to the middle of latvian nowhere, and doing nothing there.

one detail that really rubbed me the wrong way was the name of the deceased wife. she was first introduced as Leda, and then it was revealed that her birth name was Leila, and that’s my problem with it. if you give a classic arabic name to someone from latvia, please be so kind to at least hint to the reason why.

dune by frank herbert

i had read dune first in russian, back in high school. and that’s why reading it now in english felt as if for the first time – i did not remember anything except sand worms. i should thank upcoming movie’s trailer for the reminder to re-read the book.

it was a good book to read in winter. desert descriptions warmed me up like a cup of tea.

while dune was a pleasant read, and a fine exhibit of space sci-fi, i do not plan on reading any other works of frank herbert. if his most lauded novel has such clear signs of its time, i don’t want to spend time on lesser works. and even without this caution, the online chorus of people advising the same is quite convincing (and reminds me of the fandom opinion on star wars prequels).

midnight library by matt haig

midnight library was voted as book of the year (2020) on goodreads, but it was on my to-read list regardless – matt haig is one of the writers whose new books i buy immediately. among other talents, he is scarily good at writing depression, drawing on his personal experience.

funnily enough, the plot reminded me of жалобная книга by max frei, published back in 2003.

upon finishing the novel i was full with emotions in a really good way. that’s what an uplifting book can do to you.

five out of five, hands down.

ulysses by james joyce

i have had ulysses on my to-read list for so long, i can’t remember why it caught my interest in the first place.

over the last ten years i have tried to actually read it at least four times. first in translation, then in original. most of the attempts ended around page 300-350. lack of plot and hostility of the text didn’t make it easy, but determination to conquer it only grew with time.

when reading ‘infinity jest’ last year, i tracked progress every day in a spreadsheet. seeing the neat columns of numbers helped me to get over the hump to the point when ij gets actually interesting. so i used the same trick when gearing up for the fourth ulysses crusade.

don’t waste your time on this book, unless you are forced to. the novel lives up to its reputation – plotless, dense, experimental prose. at times i felt like joyce actively hated his readers, while still wanting to show off what he can do to english language.

and yet, i enjoyed it (one of my friends called it stockholm syndrome). juxtaposition of country fate themes with bloom’s haphazard, filthy thoughts and small deeds was a surprise; serves me well for not doing any research on the book (though that was intentional – didn’t want any spoilers). now i get why it was banned so widely. before reading i presumed it was for political reasons.

ulysses gave modern literature inner monologue and tangled netting of allusions. without it we would still have all that, but in a parallel universe way.

ulysses update number four

i did it!!!

Ulysses is for sure the most difficult thing i’ve ever read. War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and other Russian classics have nothing on this monster of a novel.

i now know how ultramarathoners feel after the run.

a more coherent book opinion will come later. it will take several days, if not weeks to digest everything.

we are okay by nina lacour

“we are okay” is a skilfully written and edited book. some details did resonate, but overall it’s not for me. some young-adult fiction reads well regardless of reader’s age, and some doesn’t.

however, i don’t regret time spent on this book. mostly because it wasn’t a long read by any means.

agency by william gibson

this is is an acutely time-sensitive book; a reader would get most out of it if they read it right now or at least within couple of years after publication. there are so many time signifiers from our reality, anchoring the plot firmly in 2016-2017. to name a few: pussy riot; lock her up; brexit; n95 mask; notre dame fire.

the protagonist left the impression that she was just a vessel for Eunice and the object of the plot. i think it was intentional, to contrast Eunice’s will for agency with an average human being caught unawares.

considering rarity of new gibson books, i am happy to have anything new from him. but in the overall line up, i don’t expect “agency” to be among the classics. i’m afraid, it won’t age well.

to summarise, if you are already familiar with gibson and like his books, go and read “agency”, bump it up in your reading queue. but if you are lukewarm on the entire sci-fi thing, then pick something else.

brooklyn follies by paul auster

Sometimes I like to buy random books, without checking who is the author and what is the goodreads rating. Usually I judge just by a paragraph or two in the middle of the book and the cover (yes, i know, i know).

Brooklyn Follies was bought exactly like that.

Oh well. It’s not like I regret reading it, but upon few months passing I can’t say this book gave me anything of value. It’s decently written, its assortment of characters suitably eccentric, as is expected of New York dwellers. And that’s it. I have nothing else to say. The plot seemed bland to me.

Truly, I don’t really get why this book got re-published.

stonemouth by iain banks

The story is tight, sometimes claustrophobic, and would be a great candidate for a chamber theatre adaptation. Small town with its set in stone rules and rulers; love story interrupted by an unnamed tragedy and family feud; everyone has some kind of history with each other. Action takes off immediately, carrying the reader through an intense weekend and plenty of flashbacks from main character’s past.

Maybe it’s just me, but in this book Banks made Scotland feel exotic and mysterious, whereas in his other novels the country was just a location, blurry backdrop to the story.

I would not recommend to start with Stonemouth if one is not familiar with Banks, but it’s a good option for the third book, right after The Crow Road and The Wasp Factory.

Side note of bragging: I have this book in hardcover, signed first edition, making it one of the valued exhibits of my library.

infinite jest by david foster wallace

This book belongs to the doorstopper Club, along with Ulysses and Don Quixote. In hard cover, its thousand plus pages can cause serious injuries if used as a weapon.

David Foster Wallace wasn’t on my radar until this summer. I stumbled upon yet another list of greatest books, and Infinite Jest was pretty up high. The title caught my attention. It evoked memories of Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, which I read back in high school.

Considering the length, I decided to stick to a reading plan – the goal was to read the book by the end of the year, which left me with 22 weeks starting in August. I did basic calculations of number of pages to read each week, and then kept track. Turns out, it took me only 14 weeks.

The plot is both simple and multi-faceted. Two governments are looking for the mysterious Entertainment, tennis academy students are busy surviving and being obnoxiously self-involved, a group of addicts recover from their various addictions. So, don’t expect a riveting page-turner. Instead, come for the joy of abundance of beautifully crafted sentences. Wallace bends and spins English language like a Valenciennes lacemaker.

It’s no doubt that Infinite Jest deserves its place in the lists of modern American classics. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s a must-read, but it certainly adds colour to your inner world.