A collection of spoiler-free reviews of the books and articles I read. I read a lot, and particularly enjoy 20th century history, graphic novels and graphic memoirs, contemporary literary fiction and the occasional bit of fantasy and horror.
I also share a list of the books I abandon without finishing, although I try not to be too negative. Books I hate might well be books other people love, and there’s enough hate on the internet without me adding to the pile.
It took me ages to finish Stork Mountain, but only because I have lost my reading habit this year. The library closed for months on end and I have been glued to my phone reading the news, opinion pieces, and other periodicals that are available online. Reading books takes discipline, and my mind has been all over the place this year.
Stork Mountain is a beautiful novel, set in a village in Bulgaria close to the borders with both Greece and Turkey. It’s a novel about identity, belonging and place, and the narrative is rich with folklore – both real and imagined – tracing the history of the land and the author / protagonist’s relationship with his country of origin. I found the folklore quite dense at times and had to check maps and Wikipedia lots to understand the geography and politics of the region, so it wasn’t quite as immersive a read as I had hoped it might be, but that’s just my personal experience as I am unfamiliar with the region. I would love to read Penkov’s short story collection East of the West next.
Photos of the California / Oregon / Washington state wildfires and the surreal orange skies, as if 2020 didn’t feel enough like a horror film. The lead image is particularly powerful. This year started with fire, and looks like it will end with it too. I really feel for the affected communities and hope that the fires can be extinguished as soon as possible.
I have been reading a lot about botany and mycology this month, and found this article on Victorians, botany and pteridomania – obsessive fern hunting and collecting – interesting:
Botany was, after all, one of the few avenues open to women who wanted to experience adventure for themselves; it was popular and widespread enough to be deemed an acceptable outdoors activity for the ladies. Indeed, women could even engage into fern hunting unchaperoned, since it was considered an entirely wholesome, healthy, and moral activity.
For the first time in over a year, I didn’t finish any physical books this month. It wasn’t because I didn’t have anything to read – I am currently reading and really enjoying ‘Stork Mountain’ by Miroslav Penkov – but just because I ended up reading a lot of essays and periodicals online instead, as well as far too much news and opinion on my phone. I’m trying not to be upset with myself for this, as I’m still reading, it’s just my reading list is mostly digital at the moment. Here is a small selection of what I’ve been reading.
I didn’t realise how menacing The Natashas would be until I was about half way through, engrossed in the split narratives, and very much committed to seeing it through. I tend to save reading reviews for after I’ve read books, so as to avoid spoilers and form my own opinions about what I read. As such, I went by the synopsis and thought I was signing up for a bit of Murakami style surrealism mixed in with the parallel, real world narratives of Béatrice, a French jazz singer, and Céser, a Mexican bit part actor in Paris. I thought it’d be odd, maybe a little bit dark in the style of David Lynch – but not quite as horror filled as it is.
The Natashas is written like a play which both suits and sets the mood for the novel, and I really enjoyed Yelena Moskovich’s writing style and approach to storytelling. As a filmmaker, the detailed scenes really appealed to me. I wasn’t expecting it to be as violent or as graphic as it is though, or for it to be such a deep dive into the dark worlds of sex trafficking, exploitation and objectification. It’s a very good book, just very dark, and not quite what I was expecting. I’ve got Moskovich’s ‘Virtuoso’ on my TBR list, so I look forward to reading that when the mood strikes me.
One small issue I have is that the publisher and/or editor has chosen to refer to ‘Ukraine’ as ‘the Ukraine’ throughout the book. I find this curious given that the author was born in Soviet Ukraine and so I would have thought she and/or the publisher would have strong views on the use of the definitive article given Russia’s views on Ukraine and Ukrainian independence. At one point in the novel a character explores how women from Eastern Europe are all seen as the same, no matter which country they come from. To Americans, they’re all called ‘Natasha’ and they’re all Russian. The use of the definitive article to describe Ukraine is jarring when the novel itself offers up such a damning critique of objectification, and the loss of individual agency and identity.