January 2020 Books

Hello! Welcome to my first book review. I will be discussing books each month and categorizing them as ‘great,’ ‘good,’ or ‘mediocre.’ I am very excited about reading and writing these posts each month, especially in the seasonal months where I will seek to find the most quintessential books for that time of year.

This month has brought forth many new reads, as the new year usually does. I am very intrigued by the majority of these books, and none have actually fallen into the ‘mediocre’ slot for this month.

The Greats

Educated by Tara Westover

I received this memoir as a gift for Christmas, and it ended up being the first book I read for the new year. Wow. I found this book to be wonderfully compelling, with such powerful themes. I finished this book the same day I picked it up (don’t you love when it when that is the case?). Therefore, if there is no one that can physically pry the book from my hands, and I end up thinking about it for weeks afterwards, it is a great book.

Despite my first impression from the title, this is not a piece of bland nonfiction that teaches you about the actual education system in the United States, which is exactly why we are not to judge a book by its cover. Tara Westover writes this coming-of-age memoir about her childhood, her search for identity and voice, and her quest for her personal education. Born to a extremist Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho, Westover did not have a birth certificate, due to her family’s distrust in secular establishments. Thus, she never saw a nurse, doctor, or a teacher. Her teachings were conducted by her family about herbalism and fundamental religion. The family’s fear of mainstream society led to on-going violence, because there was no one to intervene.

This memoir is not shy of showcasing the good, the bad, and the ugly in her family. Westover writes with such wisdom, courage, and marvelousness that you will be utterly absorbed.

“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” 

Tara Westover, Educated

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje’s novel is a perfect blend of romance, mystery, and war-time attacks. His diction, character depth, and richness in the narrative are on an equal playing field, if not higher, than the works of the great Ernest Hemingway.

The English Patient is written in 1992, but set in an Italian villa in 1945. The book follows four dissimilar people brought together at the villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II. I have heard a great deal of criticism in the way Ondaatje wrote about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in that they felt unsettling and random. However, I believe there is credit due to the way the bombings were written about, because that follows the truth in the way the bombings happened. The narrator toys with time, for the structure of the book weaves together the past and present through thoughts and conversations. The text is poly-vocal, meaning that the narrator shifts with the point-of-view of the character. The story opens with a young nurse, Hana, working in the villa that is surrounded by German bombs hidden everywhere. Due to the unsafe environment, the nurses and patients have all left the villa, but Hana stays back with her patient, a man who was found in the destruction of a plane crash, in which his whole body had been burned unrecognizably and is painful everywhere to the touch. Hana and the patient grow close together, as she reads to him to pass the time, and he eventually tells her his life story. Through his shared memories, Hana is taken on a journey through her own mental and emotionally recovery. They both are learning to heal their scars together.

On top of all this, there are genuine moments of betrayal and mystery, as well as sensuality and forgiveness.

“Don’t we forgive everything of a lover? We forgive selfishness, desire, guile. As long as we are the motive for it.”

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Okay, I am simultaneously at a loss for words and could write about this book forever. Now, I believe most people have read this book or at least watched the movie, especially during all the hype surrounding it. If you have not read this book or watched the film, I recommend you do both immediately. Book first, movie second. I am including this novel in the January 2020 book review, because I read it a second time in January, so I felt that I should do it justice and write an honest review.

Chbosky writes a sweet, nostalgic, coming-of-age novel that parallels a modern Catcher in the Rye. The book is structured as a series of letters or a journal from the perspective of the protagonist, Charlie. Charlie is a freshman in the 1990s that is shy, observant, and an old soul. He hints at issues he’s faced in the past and how making friends is difficult for him. At his new high school, he is inspired by his English teacher that encourages him to read and write by giving him extra assignments. This was his first friend. Charlie then falls into an artsy, misfit crowd of seniors that accepts him and admires him. The book follows first dates, complicated relationships, high school experiments in identity, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The brutal honesty and raw emotion in this novel is beautiful and heart-wrenching. This book is like a warm hug filled with laughter and tears–a real rollercoaster of emotions that reflects the teenage years, and life in general, well. There is a shocking ending that might be triggering, but Chbosky veils the ending through the eyes of an innocent observer, so there is nothing graphic or grotesque depicted. You will find a piece of yourself in each character, as you become the wallflower to this story. This is a book you can read within a day, for it will not let you go. Once you finish reading, you’ll find yourself drawn back to it many times.

“So, I guess we are who we are for alot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.” 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Good

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Well, well, well. Where to start with the magnificent Picture of Dorian Gray? I will start by saying that I love this book, and I love this story. The reason for why it is in the ‘good’ category and not the ‘great’ is simply a personal opinion regarding diction and plot structure. I understand the importance of the exposition and rising actions in narratives; however, I felt that this novel had such a long beginning and was extremely longwinded to start. If you feel the same way as you begin reading, remember to power through, because the second half of the novel is amazing.

“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.” 

The story is set in London in the 19th century with the protagonist being a dazzlingly handsome man, Dorian Gray. (This is not a spoiler but is merely the basic plot!) Dorian Gray meets with his friend Basil to create a portrait of himself. This leads to Dorian Gray selling his soul for eternal beauty and youth. From this point on, Dorian’s life becomes a downward spiral into madness.

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” 

Ahhh! I love the themes, the symbolism, the gothic elements, and the climax, falling action, and denouement in this story. The novel depicts moral dilemmas and the ways human nature struggles to deal with them. Oscar Wilde has filled every page with such powerful quotations, such as the ones above. There is so much more I would love to say, but I will leave you with another quotation by Oscar Wilde regarding this novel: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry, what the world thinks me; Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine is a novel about a Japanese American family sent to an internment camp in the Utah desert for three years during World War II. This read is an honest, historical fiction that centers around a father, a mother, a daughter, and a son, all taking turns in narrating.

The novel is surrounded by racism, a stark contrast between the way of life of those achieving the “American Dream” and minorities that are not, and how assimilation results in a loss of identity. There is a lot of symbolism to look out for, such as the rosebush. The writing is in some ways simply somber and helpless, but there will be an occasional shocking action that is told in a nonchalant manner.

This book is beautifully written and showcases the severe and horrific conditions families experienced during the interment camps due to fear and racism, which make people do ungodly actions. This is a poignant and important read.

“Mostly though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin.” 

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Jazz is a 1992 novel by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning American author, Toni Morrison. The narrative takes place in Harlem during the 1920s, but travels back to the mid-19th-century American South. This story is about a love triangle with heated passion, jealousy, and murder. There is so much suffering shown as being a man and woman of African American decent in the 1800s-1900s. Morrison is a strong writer, and this book packs a powerful punch. The love triangle shows unhappy marriages, cheating, and betrayal, eliminating the idea of a protagonist and antagonist, hero versus villain. All the characters are painted with a sense of personal valor and honest cowardice that evokes a degree of empathy from the reader.

“the hopelessness that comes from knowing too little and feeling too much (so brittle, so dry he is in danger of the reverse: feeling nothing and knowing everything)”

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison writes this novel by sharing the perspective that everybody everywhere sees nothing but good things ahead, but beneath the illusion of peace is a darkness of racism looming.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

This novel is a contemporary work of psychological fiction following two “brown” girls that dance together (one having an actual talent for dancing) and how their friendship ends in their early twenties and what they accomplish afterwards. Their friendship was foundational to their identities, so even if it is gone, it will never be forgotten.

With a wide time frame, this novel acts as a memoir as the narrator is continuously writing down every memory shared. There is a growing focus on family dynamic, race, and class that intensifies as the girls grow older and become more aware of the social structures surrounding them. Something that impresses me is Smith’s way of taking the ordinary, a common moment or action, and analyzing, magnifying the deeper truths that always lie below.

“The past is always tense. The future is always perfect.”

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

M Train by Patti Smith

I would not classify this book as ‘mediocre,’ but I will say that I was a bit disappointed. Now, I don’t know if that is because my excitement and expectations were too high. William Shakespeare said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” That often rings true to my life. I have read other memoirs and novels by Patti Smith, and I have absolutely adored them. I think if I reread this novel, in a different moment in my life, it might resonate with me better.

Nevertheless, this memoir is beautifully written, earning Smith a Grammy Award nomination for Best Spoken Word Album. M Train focuses on a later portion of her life: the sixteen years she was not performing and taking a break from the spotlight. During this time, Smith experienced a great deal of personal losses and showcases her recovery from that emotional distress. Patti Smith is a wordsmith, and that is very clear in this memoir. However, I felt the narrative was a little flat, but nevertheless eloquently stated. The way she builds her scenery, memories, and contemplations into such a vivid form for the reader is staggering. Therefore, I think her language and authenticity during this period of solitude is what is most charming.

“Nothing can be truly replicated. Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.”

M Train by Patti Smith

So, that is all for January’s books! Congratulations if you have made it to the bottom of this elephantine post. I will be back with more books very soon!


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