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Books I’ve Enjoyed in 2018: A Mid-Year Report!

And so we’re already over halfway through this year! I’m not sure I like how quickly it seems to be going by. However, despite this busyness, I’ve still managed to find some time to discover some incredible reads. Here are my favourites so far!

The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

I’ve spent too much time trying to put my love for The Secret History into words. A clique of wealthy, eccentric Classics students murder one of their own — on the first page. The rest of the novel is narrated by an outsider who finds himself caught up in the group’s sticky and disturbing web, spending the narrative unfurling their remaining secrets and coping with his complicity. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The tale is intoxicating in its alluring mystery, but the narrator’s rambling monologues are laden with sarcasm, wit, and hilariously quirky and cringe-inducing anecdotes — every one of its pages is a giddy, playful delight to read. It’s written with this old-fashioned English whimsy (one of the characters is called Bunny!), and yet there is profanity, fluorescent leotards, and cocaine peppered throughout, a contrast that submerges the story in layers of beguilingly murky unknowability. Its characters are beautifully deep and real despite how one-dimensional and unlikable they could be — in spite of the legions of horrible things each commits, I found my heart aching with empathy and love for almost all of them by the novel’s end. It is this depth and the attachment it inspires that heightens the reader’s stakes in the events they all endure, the sadness they suffer, and the joy they sometimes stumble across, and ensures that its reading is an intensely emotionally fulfilling experience. And I haven’t even mentioned how evenly and interestingly the plot is spread out, and how it barrels along to the climax to end all climaxes, how practically delicious its aesthetics and imagery is, and just how interesting and enjoyable its structure and mysteries are! It is as delectably and immediately satisfying as bingeing a season of your favourite TV show, and with plenty of emotional grounding that will stay with you for a long, long time after.

A Visit From The Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)

A Visit From The Goon Squad is pretty much perfect. Its character-driven short stories are evocative of Lydia Davis’s, written with a beautiful attention to minute detail and a concise, minimalist approach to prose. Then, it connects all these tales in a variety of intensely moving and human manners and centres them on music, showing how the deep, inarticulable power of a good song can underscore our stories and connect us across time and space. The way in which various characters affect and appear in the lives of others across different chapters is exquisite in its everyday poignancy — its commentary on the importance and potential of human connection, and of how tiny a part of the world each of us really is, is beautiful. The references to the coolest of musicians, and how their art’s energies mirror and affect the larger life experiences of the characters, will resonate with anyone who has felt their heart soar and flutter while listening to their favourite song or dancing at their favourite band’s show. The book is written interestingly as well — one chapter is written solely using Powerpoint slides, and another in a kind of futuristic slang, elements which may sound gimmicky at first but which aid in selling the incredible strength of the character’s humanity and love. I really like how small some of the moments the book focuses on are, too, and how they manage to be funny and devastating and inconsequential and life-changing all at once — how evocative of real life it all feels. It will make you want to cry, and then make a beeline trip to your nearest record shop!

White Noise (Don DeLillo)

White Noise appears mundane at first. It’s about a middle-aged college professor called Jack, who lives in suburbia, goes grocery shopping, looks after his family, and who harbours the classic existential fears of death and unfulfilled purpose, for almost the entirety of its 350-or-so pages. However, the emotional response it evokes is anything but mundane. Don DeLillo masterfully applies black humour (fourteen-year-old Heinrich is the funniest parody of the pretentious, nihilistic teenager this side of Holden Caulfield!), powerful slow-burn plotting, noir-ish double personalities and unanswered mysteries, and austere prose in the most terrifying and incredible of ways. The novel’s prickly Midwestern setting, its use of technological and futuristic motifs that petrify in the realness of their constant surveillance and loneliness, and how the instant familiarity of the characters and their suburban sprawl viciously attacks the audience’s deepest-held fears and desires, buries itself deep under your skin and inspires the most visceral feelings of beautiful, mesmerising dread and anxiety short of a David Lynch movie. It will transfix you so much that you won’t even notice that it’s made you tremble with terror and admiration until you’ve shut the back cover.

A Cookbook with a Difference…

season taste

The cover of Season to Taste (or How to Eat Your Husband) is plain and unassuming, much like the central character, Lizzie Prain. However, her mundane life is experiencing an almighty upheaval. At first, I took the subtitle to be a metaphorical one, but I was quickly disavowed of that ridiculous notion. Lizzie is, in fact, devouring her one-time life partner, who, Monday last, she knocked on the head with a shovel and is currently storing in the freezer.

Definitely not for the faint of heart, Season to Taste flips between present day Lizzie preparing various parts of her husband Jacob with ingenuity (and a touch too much relish) and scenes from their life together. As the picture begins to build up, we see that she was always the dormant one in the relationship; sexually frustrated and isolated, Lizzie is considered useless by her husband. But does their life of failed dreams justify its brutal conclusion? Lizzie is not concerning herself with such philosophical questions, instead turning to the more practical matter of hiding the evidence. However, suspicions are starting to be voiced from several quarters and Lizzie is discovering that as hard as she tries to shut herself off, life just keeps seeping through the cracks…

This book seemed to me to be quintessentially English. Lizzie’s eminently practical solution to corpse disposal smacks of maintaining a stiff upper lip, and her out-of-character act of violence comes as a shock, even to her. The recipes given for consuming a hand, say, with crushed potatoes and mangetout, are your traditional English fare, which is perhaps what makes them so gruesome. I kept being reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Edible Woman, as Lizzie tries to forge a new life for herself through absorbing the hurtful elements of her past, absolving as she goes.

With very black humour and surprisingly delicate prose, Natalie Young paints a very human picture of seemingly inhuman crimes and their ramifications.