Book Review Roundup: Summer Edition (July-August)

Hi again! As promised, here’s part two of my summer book review roundup. This group includes a wider range of genres and topics that I didn’t get to cover last time, from realist fiction to personal essay; lyric essay to fictional satire; and from travel writing to immigrant narratives. I’m curious to hear which ones readers are interested in picking up after reading this review. Let me know what’s on your library list in the comments below!

Nine Island by Jane Alison (Catapult, 2016)

This book has got it all for me: writing about writing. Leading women. Metamorphosis. Ovid. Translation. A cat. A duck. The alphabet. A bean-shaped pool and a hurricane. Venice (or rather, Venetian islands). A book that’s yet to be finished.

I wish I had taken this with me to the beach earlier this month—it’s the perfect beach read if you’re into having your heart restarted after a prolonged numbness.

Night Thoughts by Wallace Shawn (Haymarket, 2017)

What begins as a series of notes and passing thoughts on itemized existential anxieties quickly becomes a careful questioning of the meaning of success and civilization. What does it mean to be on the lucky side of history, even up to the days of our self-inflicted demise?

Night Thoughts is a short, intellectual essay that strips social and national disputes of their names in order to force us to rebuild our own thinking of the meaning of civilization without bias, racism, privilege, or prejudice. Without the terms “Islamic State” and “Marxism,” which social revolutions and actions are the ones rooted in collective liberation, and which ones are only invested in revenge and punishment of the oppressor? From the very fundamental basics of logic and moral thought, Shawn helps us relearn and resensitize ourselves to the tragedies of humanity alongside our greatest accomplishments.

Ultimately, Shawn presents us with the crisis to end the existence of humanity, and asks us how we can change ourselves when we are confronted with the wounds we inflict on the unlucky, the poor and underprivileged, the colonized and the oppressed. In recalibrating our moral compass, will we be able to steer ourselves away from extinction and towards a common, collective good before it’s too late?

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (Viking, 2021)

If I had to entice readers with a “this meets that” comparison, it would be something like Normal People meets NW meets Moonlight = 💔

Open Water is a lyrical wavelength of a novel that follows the meeting of two young Black people in South East London, and how their budding relationship is challenged in the midst of living as a minority in your own skin every second of every day.

Having read NW for my last graduate school class, I could see on the page just how much Nelson feels indebted to Smith’s portrait work of being Black in London–so much so that the male narrator references NW in a beautiful homage to the parallel line that can be drawn from Smith’s NW London to his SE London. Like Smith’s NW, there were so many references to music and poetry that I had to find a play each song and read the prose while its musical backbone played in the background. I would love to reread this via audiobook next time so I can just hear and sit with the poetry and rhythm of this writing.

What a beautiful book–I can’t gush about this enough. If this debut novelist can include mention of essays by Teju Cole and describe the thick atmosphere of sound and music with vibrance and care, then you can, too. You don’t need a blockbuster story arc to feel seen by readers from all over. Here’s hope to all the ambitious writers who want their stories told.

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (Little, Brown & Co., 2020)

This is the first collection of Asian American immigrant stories I’ve read that didn’t focus on exoticizing the traumatic narratives of refugees in America. Rather, it shares character studies of the men and women who fled Laos and their children who never had to endure it, yet who face cruel and unkind setbacks as a result of systemic racial barriers that were set in place before they were born.

How to Pronounce Knife reminded me to consider how I have painted exoticism in my own stories, and how the more deeply cutting stories are the ones that sit close to bone of everything we want to say when we no longer have to correct ourselves in double-speak to a white audience. Thammavongsa reminds us all that it’s not our job to make ourselves readable to a white audience–it is our job to disprove that within ourselves.

Favorite stories: “Picking Worms”, “Randy Travis”, “Chick-A-Chee!”

The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead (Anchor Books, 2003)

While the narrative style of this short book was confusing at times, I was also intent on determining who was speaking and how they were sharing their brief stories with the reader. Ultimately, I have come to understand this book as a medley (one of no doubt many musical & poetic terms that older reviews have described this book as) of voices we tend to overhear, absorb, and personally inhabit in our own journey through this particular city.

Here you will find a multitude of stories being told through different formal perspectives (yes, I’m talking first, second, and third), whose narrative shifts with every sentence almost as if you have bumped shoulders with someone on the subway or on the street and now the story belongs to them for another handful of words. I also feel like this would be a great read for the attention-deficit reader with little time to invest in a deep dive of character study, or the curious observer who is content with overhearing and occasionally becoming immersed and invested with overheard first-lines, in media res dialogue, and parting remarks of whole scenes we will never fully have context of. You can catch a glimpse of various iterations of the life cycle from birth to breakup to death in the span of a few burroughs.

What manifests from this cacophonous narrative style is a shared, collective culture, a mutual understanding of life in the city that feels somehow embedded in us all, from stranger to native, traveler to transplant. There are many ways to capture the essence of a city in its entirety–and many do not do this well. It all depends on what voices emerge when you learn how to pay attention to them all.

Cobble Hill by Cecily von Ziegesar (Atria, 2020)

An easy read during uneasy times. I usually don’t resort to reading commercial lit, but I’m exhausted from the other work I’ve been invested in of late. Sometimes it’s helpful to recharge with a quirky romp of a novel.

When a famous British writer moves into a quaint Brooklyn neighborhood to write his next novel, all the resident families come together in odd and unspoken ways to repair their own domestic messes. I should have expected nothing less from the woman who penned Gossip Girl, but what did interest me with this book was its ability to handle several narrators and their own drama arcs simultaneously to sustain the spice and keep me hooked. I mean, that’s what good TV and drama writers do, right? Ultimately, the mini-storms of family, relationship drama, and neighborhood missed connections have to collide at some point, and in an explosive way. I won’t spoil anything, but I will leave you, dear reader, with four key words: Weed. Booze. Bonfire Night.

Grab a glass of wine and sit in the waning summer sunshine–it’s bonfire time.

For part one of my summer 2021 roundup, click here.