When I last updated my reading activity, I was roaring through Nathan Hill’s The Nix. The image of Scotty comes to mind: “I’m givin’ her all she’s got, Captain!” (Confession: I actually had to Google that Star Trek reference). I plowed through the novel and then regretted doing so because it ended too soon. And we’re talking about a 620 page book!
What are you currently reading?
So … I’m still working on Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick and The Odyssey by Homer. Yeah, it’s been a while. I don’t know why since I’m enjoying them both.
Shelf Discovery is a book about young adult books (a favorite genre of mine). It’s based on Skurnick’s Fine Lines column that ran in Jezebel. The book is divided into categories – Danger Girls, Read ‘Em and Weep, Girls Gone Wild, etc. She writes short reviews (she calls the “Book Reports”) about novels that fall into each category, often contrasting her responses as a child/teen and an adult. I’m enjoying how this book feels like a conversation between the author and me. Among the many novels she discusses, I read and reread quite a few in childhood and adulthood, respectively. This makes it especially fun to see where Skurnick and I converge and diverge in our assessments.
One of my favorite write-ups so far is the one about The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, a book I loved as a kid and still love now. Her review touches on the significance of language in the novel and how it ties into a key theme. My least favorite so far is her take on Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Then again, though I felt bad for her, I didn’t especially like Harriet or think of her as someone to emulate. She seemed to see other people as objects to be observed and deconstructed for her own pleasure or interest. That seems a bit sociopathic to me.
The Odyssey is, you know, Odysseus’ long and winding journey home. It’s intense and moving. Hmmm, maybe that’s why I’m having a hard time reading more than a book or two at a time…
What did you recently finished reading?
The Nix is one of my favorite reads of 2016 (if not my favorite full stop). It’s abundant – in size (620 pages), breadth (spans decades), and empathy for others. When I think of the novel, I think of Ian Maclaren’s words: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The Nix is about individual battles but also larger-scale social and political battles and how these get mixed up with the personal in ways that are very difficult to untangle. At the story’s center are a mother (Faye) and the son she abandoned when he was a child (Samuel). The two are thrust back together after Faye is accused of attacking a politician.
Each of their stories unfolds through flashbacks and memories, exploring the traumas they carry, both related and unrelated to the other, which drive their choices and actions. Subplots woven through this central narrative include a man who channels his sense of impotence into obsessive gaming, the one area where he feels he can succeed; a college student of Samuel’s who will stop at nothing to get out of doing her Hamlet paper; two 1960s activists with surprising “where are they now?” stories; and a father with a hidden past.
The eponymous nix is a Norwegian spirit that turns our greatest love or longing against us, which is really about paradox and tragedy (as the ancient Greeks thought of it). The story shows how radically different reality can be from representation. It gives readers the tools to empathize with characters we like and, more importantly, those we don’t like. Given the world today, we need this novel desperately right now. Which is why I hope you’ll forgive the book review cliché I’m about to drop: This book is important!
The Revolving Door of Life is book 10 in the 44 Scotland Street series about a group of loosely connected Edinburgh residents. I’ve loved all the novels for how kind and gentle they are. They’re not plot-driven, though I do care what happens to these characters who have come to feel like friends. The novels are about the relationships among the characters. They often debate ideas, which makes the novel feel like a conversation that models how to debate with respect and what it looks like when we don’t.
One thing that stood out to me with this novel: It’s saturated with insider references and allusions to Scottish history, literature, and art. Though I’m sure I miss many of those references and allusions – I’d imagine reading the novel very differently if I were Scottish and an Edinburgh native – I love that he makes it so specific. It makes me grapple with difference and confront the complex ways the past creates the present but also connect to human longings that transcend place and time. Reading the novel inspired me to look up The Scotsman (where the first 44 Scotland Street book began as a serial!) and to learn more about important Scottish figures mentioned in the book. How can I not love novels that inspire more research, learning, and connection?!
What do you think you’ll read next?
Ah, the eternal question. Today, I downloaded The House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton on my Nook. It seems like an impulse buy (then again, it was only 99 cents). On the other hand, I’ve been meaning to read this for so long. It may very well be next.
What’s on your reading list this week? Anything to recommend?