And here we are – the end of January! It's been a good month for reading.
The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown || 4/5
I've had this lecture series in my Audible account for at least a year, and its time came this New Year's Day. I walked for miles all day, listening to Brené Brown's soothing but competent voice for hours (she sounds like such a mom, in the best possible way). It's a brilliant introduction to her work on living with vulnerability and cultivating what she calls wholeheartedness. I took a lot of notes.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan || 3/5
I found this on the book exchange shelf at my local Tube station and read it in a day. A young couple, Edward and Florence, arrive in a small hotel in Dorset by Chesil Beach for their honeymoon. They haven't had sex with each other before, and as the couple approach the act with mixed feelings, they reflect on their individual upbringings and future together. The point of view flips in between the two characters, highlighting the weight of things unspoken between two people who love each other dearly, but whose 'companionable near-silence' has created no space for true intimacy. I found it a stunningly written book, but was unable to root for or even like either of the two.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki || 5/5
A re-read. Ruth Ozeki is one of my favourite authors, and this might be my favourite book of hers. The story is told between two women: a teenage girl named Nao who, having grown up in Sunnyvale, California, struggles to adapt to life in Japan after her family has to move back; and Ruth, an author with writer's block who finds Nao's diary washed up on the beach of a tiny Canadian island years later. Beautifully written, the story is packed with history and information about Japanese culture and Zen Buddhism (Nao's great-grandmother is a nun), as well as thoughtful meditations on time, suicide, conscience and the nature of stories. A single-paragraph review doesn't do this very special book justice, so I'll just say that I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone.
Lullaby by Leïla Slimani || 3/5 || full review
A short novel about a Parisian couple whose nanny murders the children. While I appreciated the glimpses into the lives of several quite different people, I struggled to feel empathy for any of them. The story gradually builds the suspense and sense of unease in a skilful way, but stumbles and falls towards the end, where it feels unfinished.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue || 4/5 || Instagram review
This one's been on my TBR for quite a while, and I'm glad I've kept it until now! Set in the mid-2000s, the story follows a young Cameroonian family struggling to stay in the United States. The husband, Jende, lands a job chauffeuring a Wall Street banker and his family, and soon his wife, Neni, is asked to help out as well. They seem to be doing okay, until the financial crisis hits. Behold the Dreamers is an engaging read that draws the reader into the worlds of two very different families. While it focusses on Jende and Neni, we learn plenty about their employers and their own battle with the American Dream. The book makes space for everyone without taking sides, explaining their actions but not excusing them. Another book I'd absolutely recommend.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney || 4/5
This is an odd book in that I absolutely loved reading it, while disliking each single character. The titular friends are Frances and Bobbi, two 21-year old ex-lovers-now-best-friends, and Melissa and Nick, a thirty-something couple they befriend when Melissa writes a profile about the girls. The story is told from the perspective of Frances who, as Bobbi gets closer with Melissa, starts an affair with Nick.
Frances speaks with a sharp self-awareness that is an absolute joy to read, although what is most interesting about her is everything she doesn't talk about – as she obsesses over Nick, she glosses over health and family matters like they don't touch her, and other characters frequently remark on how impossible it is to read her. But as intriguing as her background seems to be, she is infuriating in her passivity. Nick is an unbelievable dickhead, Melissa is unlikeable from the start, and Bobbi, who seems the most intelligent and aware of the group, does not get enough to say or do. When I saw that the book had two parts I hoped that the second part would contain the events from Bobbi's point of view, and I'm still a bit disappointed that's not the case. This novel is immensely readable and polished, with some memorable scenes that were quite hard to read at times, but I wish the characters had just been a bit more likeable.
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys || 4/5
Oh my god, this book is capital-S Sad. It follows Sasha, a woman staying in Paris after personal tragedy, trying to make it through; she walks the streets during the day and sits in bars and cafés at night, reminding herself not to cry in public.
Sasha's sadness is thick and heavy and difficult to carry as a reader, so despite its small extent this book took me the longest to read. Which works so well, as everybody who has ever been this kind of sad will know – how the days stretch and become one long, endless grey fog. I want to read more by Jean Rhys, but I think I need a break for a bit.