The way I read makes me feel like a book-hater
I did some light reading this summer and recently finished another book, so I’m going to do a book review dump woot let’s do this.
I feel like the quality of my book-reading experiences has been generally dampened if too much of the main premise or conflict of the story is revealed, so I’m going to try not to say too much about either in my reviews. I wouldn’t consider this good advice for doing book reviews: I just actively avoid stories that I know will “sit heavy on the soul” for fear of it taking up mental headspace, so if I dive in headfirst I’ll become invested enough such that it’s too late to back out. This is obviously a double-edged sword because if I don’t know anything about a book before reading it, how am I supposed to know if I’ll like it?
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Found this sitting on a precariously stacked pile of books on the tiny stairs of Westsider Books in New York and picked it up because the name was semi-recognizable. It’s got the 1984-vibe but none of the long-winded doom-spelling vibes that Orwell writes with (I mean that Brave New World reads more like a story and less like an ominous prophecy). The main character isn’t exactly likable, but in some ways, I could understand where he was coming from. The whole thing is, of course, disturbing and unhappy, but I don’t think I expected much more after getting 4 pages in.
I think I was in 10th grade when I read 1984 as a part of assigned school reading, and I’m not sure if it was because I had exclusively been reading YA fantasy at the time or if it was because we were forced to read on a regular schedule for class, but I was honestly so bored all the time. The major problem that I had with 1984 was that the main character felt so…pathetic. I understand now that there is obviously a point to having problematic unreliable narrators, but I just felt this overwhelming disgust all the time while reading it. Reading Brave New World, the feeling hasn’t quite disappeared (in fairness, it probably shouldn’t), but I still have the urge to know what happens next, so I think that’s what kept me around.
Despite it being kind of a grim read, I had a somewhat unprecedented sense of appreciation after finishing it. Now, I wasn’t doing any 5-paragraph rhetorical analysis, but I read some stuff about Huxley afterward, and it turns out that (like many other classics), Brave New World was pretty poorly-received when it was first published. One of the complaints I specifically remember reading was that it was overly gruesome and macabre. When I read that I honestly couldn’t say I disagreed, but I couldn’t stop thinking, doesn’t it take guts to write some crazy shit like that? Many scenes, taken out of context from the story as a whole, could be construed as too much, but if Huxley was going to portray the seriousness of the dystopian future he envisioned, I think it’s fair to say that he needed some of the more distressing elements. For someone whose favorite movie genre is rom-com, this was a very weird opinion for me to develop and to realize that I had developed.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
I think I also got this from Westsider Books at a later point in the summer and was pretty delighted with myself for finding it. Ishiguro’s cadence of writing feels a little hard to get into at first because I always feel like he’s trying to use every sentence very intentionally in order to sound profound, while in reality, he’s just trying to lay out the scene. Once you’re in the thick of the plot, though, I think the stylistic choices are actually quite good at making the reader feel invested.
The biggest impression I get from reading Ishiguro is that he spends around two-thirds of the book doing setup and doing a lot of hinting, then dumps the entirety of the metaphorical punchline in the last one-third. This is good in some ways because the foreshadowing is spread across the pages relatively thinly, so reading through it doesn’t trigger any massive alarms, but if you can’t wait that long for the resolution, it can be a bit frustrating. In my experience, once I gave up on my hopes that my questions would be answered immediately, I started to appreciate the sense of subtlety the plot is laid out with.
I don’t have much to say about the actual message Never Let Me Go was written to send other than that it’s good, but I will comment that Ishiguro writes existence very well. By this, I mean that life often doesn’t occur at its extremes; joy and despair don’t always need to be present. Ishiguro’s characters have emotion, but behind it all is this sort of veiled impression that they’re also just…existing. They just tolerate life as it is presented to them, and I found that sense of complacency so unsettling to read.
Beartown, Fredrik Backman
I picked this book as a part of MIT’s first Mysterious Book Exchange and was glad to finally have the motivation to read something of Backman’s. When A Man Called Ove suddenly became popular a few years ago, I put it on a to-read list and forgot about it promptly. This summer, though, I actively searched for a book by Backman when I was bookstore-hopping, but alas it was not meant to be (until now).
I have a number of nit complaints about Backman’s writing, but he makes up for it with really, truly excellent plot. The person who recommended this book told me that she herself had been drawn to it because someone had written that “somehow this book manages to capture so much of the world in such a small town”. I have to say that I agree.
One of the pitfalls I think that many well-written books fall into the trap of is acting as if the societal issue they address is the only one that exists in their mini-universe. Even if authors address other societal issues, it’s always in relation to theirs or bears some significance in a similar way. Beartown tells us that there are a lot of important things in life and that we should think about if, when, and how we let go of one for another. It also captures the sense of characters’ divided priorities. In most storylines, there are good characters and there are bad ones. In Beartown there’s good and there’s evil, but it’s the people in between that make the story.
I also attempted to read a lot of books that for some reason or another never continued or finished. Out of those, however, I do have the intent to finish these ones:
- Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
- The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
- Red Rising, Pierce Brown
As a suggestion for New Yorkers who like to read physical copies of books, might I recommend used bookstores Westsider Books, Codex, Mercer Street Books & Records, and East Village Books. I also had a lot of fun perusing Argosy, which is mostly an old and rare bookstore but has many prints and antique-store vibes.