Today on the blog, Laura Waddell writes the latest article in our Spine series, a new regular book club feature for TYCI.
Welcome back to SPINE, a TYCI book column.
After the first column went out, I was utterly thrilled some of you came to chat to me on twitter about the books. Many of you told me you had also been put off by the misleading Elena Ferrante covers but had gone on to love the novels as much as I do. It’s a universal tale. One reader even made a book jacket to hide the cover, and was tempted to call in sick to work to keep reading. I cannot condone this, but I truly understand.
I work at a publisher, and we’re now well into the pre-Christmas book launch period. I’m surrounded by books but to actually read them I’ve been struggling for time – aren’t we all? I’ve been thinking about one of the most important things I learned during my English literature degree: to read everywhere there is a gap – on the underground, in a queue. It is my new reading mantra, or I would never find time for personal reading.
Here’s what I’ve been reading recently.
Hotel by Joanna Walsh
Hotel is part of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series, which has a curious line-up of titles including ‘Phone Box’ and ‘Remote Control,’ and promises to explore the depths within each topic. Joanna Walsh is a writer who has intrigued me for some time; she’s also behind the brillant #readwomen hashtag on Twitter (check it out).
I read Hotel IN a hotel in New York recently – deliberately packing it for that reason – and with other recent hotel stays on my mind. Hotels, it seems, often bring out personal reflection. “Hotels are where our desires go on holiday,” says Walsh, and a lot of other succinct, insightful points on the surreal nature of spaces where our needs are anticipated, satisfied, or disappointed. She describes hotel libraries, overwhelmingly, counter-productively unrelaxing spaces with books thumbed only through the first few pages, and pro-active anti-theft notices warning guests politely against taking the towels by listing their price. Hotel is partially a contemplative, intelligent personal essay, framed by the context of a dissolving marriage and a job reviewing hotels. It’s also playful with format, taking Freudian case studies and interweaving them with cultural references, or using hotel postcards as a starting point for discussion. My reading pace slows massively when I read non-fiction, but I really enjoyed Hotel – it’s an unique book full of unusual-but-rings-true observations.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Han Kang’s novel, translated from the South Korean by Deborah Smith, is one of the more unusual novels I’ve read recently. Essentially, the plot is this: a woman becomes a vegetarian much to the concern of her family (it’s still relatively rare in South Korea, I have learned); her cold, unhappy marriage continues to disintegrate; she becomes an object of sexual obsession to her artist-videographer brother-in-law; and eventually stops partaking in functioning, everyday life because she believes she is a tree. Yes, a tree. Quite the surreal premise, isn’t it? What struck me when reading this is the consistent brutality and lack of agency afforded her by the male characters (father, husband, brother-in-law) throughout, as she remains mostly silent and undecipherable, her story told by others. As a reaction to these controlling figures around her, I found myself rooting for her (no pun intended) whenever her desires to live as a tree made progress for the sheer wilfulness and independence in those moments, no matter how mentally or physically unhealthy her behaviour. Did I like it? Yes. But I’m still unpicking the questions of mental health, body, and gender within.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is Elena Ferrante’s third novel in the Neopolitan series. In my last column, I described why I love Elena Ferrante – the way in which she describes how the influence of class, money, education, and gender impacts the lives of two women is unlike anything I’ve ever read. In this third volume, Ferrante explores the women’s working lives, and demands of motherhood; how expectations based on youth or early success/failure contrast with reality; and continues to develop longstanding neighbourhood politics and familial ties. I don’t want to elaborate too much, as I myself am avoiding reviews or discussion of the last volume which I haven’t yet read – if it’s all new to you, start with the first one, My Brilliant Friend.
And that wraps up my recent reading. As always, please do come and talk to me in the comments or on twitter about these or other books!