Pop Song by Larissa Pham (DNFd at 25%)

Pop Song by Larissa Pham: 9781646220267 | Books

Something about the tone and writing style of this book just categorically did not work for me. I felt like the writing was straining for a level of insight or profundity that it simply didn’t have and couldn’t achieve. I also disliked how confused the essays felt; each one had so many ideas and incorporated so many sources that I struggled to parse out what point Pham was actually trying to make.

The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin (DNFd at 53%)

The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin | Penguin Random House Canada

I was SO excited to read this. First, the cover is GORGEOUS. Second, the synopsis convinced me I’d love this–I mean, just tell me this doesn’t sound amazing,

This wry and visceral debut novel follows a young Turkish-American woman who, rather than grieving her father’s untimely death, seeks treatment for a stubborn headache and grows obsessed with a centuries-old theory of medicine.

Twenty-year-old Sibel thought she had concrete plans for the summer. She would care for her grandmother in Istanbul, visit her father’s grave, and study for the MCAT. Instead, she finds herself watching Turkish soap operas and self-diagnosing her own possible chronic illness with the four humors theory of ancient medicine.
Also on Sibel’s mind: her blond American boyfriend who accompanies her to Turkey; her energetic but distraught younger sister; and her devoted grandmother, who, Sibel comes to learn, carries a harrowing secret.
Delving into her family’s history, the narrative weaves through periods of political unrest in Turkey, from military coups to the Gezi Park protests. Told with pathos and humor, Sibel’s search for strange and unusual cures is disrupted as she begins to see how she might heal herself through the care of others, including her own family and its long-fractured relationships.

I really gave this a fair shot–I read 200 pages–but unfortunately the execution let this down for me. The protagonist felt too disaffected, her narrative tone so dry and distanced that I struggled to connect with her as a character. The plot, too, felt a little aimless for my taste. It didn’t feel like there was any momentum in this novel to keep me engaged. I can definitely see people liking this novel though, so if it sounds like the kind of novel you’d like I’d still recommend you give it a shot.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (DNFd at 16%)

A Memory Called Empire: Martine, Arkady: 9781250186430: Books -

I wanted to like this so badly, but I just hated the writing. I swear to god it felt like every other word in this novel was italicized. I want you to imagine what that does to a reading experience. Also I hated the character development; it didn’t make any sense to me and was all tell and no show (there was a moment when the protagonist was like hmm I like this character, she is funny! when that character had literally said nothing even remotely close to funny). That sort of lazy description irritates me so much; don’t tell me something about a character that that character has not shown me in the writing.

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki (DNFd at 11%)

Light From Uncommon Stars, Book by Ryka Aoki (Hardcover) |

Again, a matter of writing. This is a debut novel, and it showed. This novel has such a cool premise, but the writing just could not bring that premise to life. It was so simplistic to the point that it flattened all the novel’s characters, making them all feel very samey (which was all the more noticeable as a problem because the characters range in terms of age, background, experience, etc.).

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente (DNFd at 43%)

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

Another novel I gave a fair shot–also 200 pages–before I DNFd it. Radiance isn’t the kind of novel I usually gravitate towards; it has a lot of moving parts, incorporating text from interviews, scripts, diaries, etc. And where many of the books I’ve mentioned in this post let me down writing-wise, my issue with Radiance was not its writing. My issue was that the more stylistic, flashy elements of this book took over the focus on character. Or rather, that the focus was never really on the characters to begin with. After 200 pages, I got tired of navigating this expansive world with very little engagement in the characters populating it.

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I’m not sure why this book didn’t work for me like The Lonely City did. From what I’d read of its synopsis, Everybody seemed like it was poised to be a new favourite–a series of essays exploring the body and its relation to politics and liberation? Yes please. It sounded so good, and it’s not that it was bad, exactly, it just didn’t leave any kind of impression on me. I think this is partly because I didn’t care all that much about the principal figure of this book, Wilhelm Reich. Laing explores so many people’s lives in Everybody–Susan Sontag, Nina Simone, Malcolm X, Andrea Dworkin–but her focus always goes back to Reich, and I just wasn’t all that drawn to him as a subject of analysis.

Another thing is that these essays felt a little scattered in their focus. The Lonely City worked so well for me because each of its chapters was dedicated to a historical figure, and as such devoted the time to properly exploring that figure’s life. That’s not to say that Everybody needed to be written like The Lonely City, but just that the latter’s format worked so much better than the former’s. The essays in Everybody often flitted from one figure to another, trying to ground them all under the same set of themes. But though I appreciated Laing’s attempts to draw on the commonalities between these figures, I would’ve liked more on fewer figures rather than a little on many figures.

Thanks so much to W. W. Norton & Company for providing me with an e-ARC of this in exchange for an honest review!

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Jessica J. Lee is such a beautiful writer, and Two Trees Make a Forest is such a gentle book.

I’m not typically one for nature writing; I have a hard time visualizing descriptions of the natural world, partly because I don’t have the vocabulary to understand it and partly because I just find it hard to conceptualize vast landscapes in general. If you’re like me, then this book will be perfect for you. Because yes, Two Trees Make a Forest is a book about the natural world–of Taiwan, specifically–but it is also a book about family and memory and narrative, and that is what really undergirds Jessica J. Lee’s writing here.

I call this book “gentle” because it strikes me as the perfect word to describe the atmosphere that Jessica J. Lee creates through her writing. I listened to this on audiobook, which Lee narrates herself, and it felt like just that: gentle. Lee has the most calm, soothing voice–you can really hear the pathos behind her narration–and each section of the book is interspersed with these wind chime sounds that tie the book together in such a lovely way.

What I especially loved about this book is how deftly Jessica J. Lee weaves her family’s history along with her exploration of the natural landscape of Taiwan. This is not, strictly speaking, just a book about nature in Taiwan. It’s about Lee’s family history, particularly that of her grandparents’, and her own relationship to that history. In exploring that history, she touches on so many topics that resonated with me: the death of her grandfather and how she felt like she didn’t truly know him before he died, her discovery of a narrative of himself that he had started writing before he died, her attempt to find some remaining family ties in Taiwan. And through it all, Lee stresses the significance of language: how it shapes, how it obfuscates, how it transmutes. Like I said, I have a hard time visualizing descriptions of natural landscapes, but this was not at all the case with Lee’s book: her descriptions are resonant and fresh, as alive and dynamic as the natural world that she is describing.

Two Trees Make a Forest is a deeply personal and moving book, and definitely one of my favourite non-fiction reads of the year.

(Thank you so much to Hamish Hamilton for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!)