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Joan Didion Getty 1.jpg

The Pajiba January 2022 Book Recommendations Superpost!

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | January 31, 2022 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | January 31, 2022 |

Joan Didion Getty 1.jpg

Welcome to 2022, fellow book lovers. Another year, another set of reading goals. I’m back to my usual resolution of 100 books over the next twelve months, and I’m also planning to focus more on reading some classic literature that I’ve been meaning to get to over the decades. No pressure or anything. I still want reading to be my break from the world, my safe port in a storm, especially since things outside continue to be, to put it mildly, tough. Consider these monthly posts your own chance to hit the pause button. Don’t forget to include your own books of the month in the comments!

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Joan Didion, who passed away in December of last year, wrote what many consider to be a bible of grief. The Year of Magical Thinking detailed Didion’s life following the passing of her beloved husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. The clarity and detail that Didion’s work has been praised for over several decades was shown in full force with this book. Seeing one of the great near-clinical documenters of America of the latter half of the 20th century turn her own life into a report felt urgent to many. Alas, she ended up repeating the experience when her only child died in 2010. Blue Nights explores the passing of her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, as well as Didion’s own ageing and her mental torment as she examines her life as a mother.

Didon vividly recalls Quintana’s life, from the phone call they received from the hospital informing them that there was a beautiful baby girl waiting to be adopted to her wedding day and everything in-between. Didion has never been one for sentimentality and that remains true here but now she recalls her memories of her daughter’s youth with a kind of guilt-laden slant. As the book continues, Didion focuses more on herself as an elderly woman who can no longer be who she used to be. Blue Nights is more about regret than grief: Didion wonders if she was a good enough mother for Quintana, she doubts her own memories and body as time passes. She’s working more to evoke her emotions than describe them. It’s a whisper of pain but no less a potent one.

Violin by Anne Rice

Following the passing of Anne Rice last December, I, a dedicated follower of the undisputed vampire queen of 20th-century literature, thought it was time to fill in a few of the gaps in my knowledge of her bibliography. Violin, a stand-alone ghost story, was one example of this, and a fascinating one at that. Triana is mourning the passing of her beloved husband when she begins to hear beautiful violin music. A ghostly figure appears across the street from her New Orleans home, and soon the unnerving apparition will not leave her alone. His music is a healing salve as well as a cruel reminder of what she has lost, and it threatens to send her into madness.

Violin isn’t plot-heavy, which won’t surprise anyone familiar with Rice’s work. However, even by her standards, this is a curious one. Check out the Goodreads reviews and you’ll find a pretty solid split between people who think it’s a masterpiece and those who consider it the worst thing Rice ever wrote. My sympathies fall more with the former than the latter. What Violin is, rather than a traditional ghost story, is an agonizing howl of grief. It’s always been easy to draw autobiographical parallels between Rice and her work, but you really get the sense with this novel that writing it was an act of catharsis. Here, the supernatural themes she was so iconic for feel like a deliberate afterthought, a Trojan horse of sorts to hook readers as she lets them descend into the all-consuming force of Triana’s pain. It’s sometimes tough to read but I appreciated the sheer nerve of it. Violin probably isn’t a book for entry-level Anne Rice readers but for completionists and purveyors of literary grief, it’s a must.

Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda

Food is such an important part of our lives for many obvious reasons but also as a cultural crutch. It’s a way we bind ourselves to our families, our communities, and our pasts. It reveals so much about us and how we move through life. So, what happens when you want to make that journey but physically can’t eat anything other than blood? That is the conundrum of Lydia, the vampire at the heart of Claire Kohda’s great debut novel.

As a Japanese-English young woman with Malaysian ancestry, Lydia has always wanted to try the food of her families, but all she can digest is the pig’s blood her mother would get from a no-questions-asked butcher. Now, however, she’s on her own, as her mother is in a home and Lydia is trying to strike it out solo as an artist in London, which includes an unpaid internship with a snobby gallery.

I’m a great lover of vampire novels and was delighted that this one lived up to the hype I’d seen from other book bloggers. This is a novel that’s more Otessa Moshfegh than Anne Rice, the story of a very modern young woman dealing with sadness and societal gloom who just happens to be a vampire. Lydia is directionless in a similar manner to many of our current era of literary heroines but here, her inability to form connections is rooted in her otherness, not only as a vampire but as an Asian woman. How do you tie yourself to a world that is so fleeting as a woman who will potentially live for centuries? Lydia is desperate to latch onto something tangible in her life. She watches YouTube videos of people showing what they eat in a day since she can’t. A lot of this stuff reads as a study of disordered eating, especially as Lydia obsesses over food while trying to starve herself of blood to destroy her ‘demon’ side. As a more introspective novel than an action-packed one, Woman, Eating is primarily focused on Lydia’s internal turmoil, but it still covers a wide array of ideas that suggest Kohda has a bright future ahead of her. More vampire novels like this, please!

(Woman, Eating will be released on April 2nd. I received an advanced copy via Edelweiss.)

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

Sure, why not let subtlety go out the window in 2022 and read lots of dystopian fiction? It’ll be fine. Lydia Millet’s not-so-distant future of societal disintegration unfolds through the eyes of the younger generation. A group of kids and teens, the offspring of wealthy liberals having a reunion of sorts, decide to take advantage of their summer of freedom. No rules, no curfews, and plenty of opportunities to run riot. It all seems too easy, especially with all their parents seemingly too drunk or sexed-up to notice. Then the weather changes and things take a dark turn, forcing the kids to survive in ways that they’re possibly prepared for.

Millet’s approach to the theme of the impending apocalypse as evidence of an irreparable generational rift is not one that’s aiming for subtlety. The children’s bible of the title is given to one of the younger kids, who uses it as a guide of sorts as the chaos unfolds. For him, however, it’s not evidence of the wrath of God but of nature’s decimation. The parallels are bluntly direct at times, including a Noah’s Ark-esque scene involving animals and impending floods. It will surely irritate some readers but it makes sense from the perspective of our current crisis being so blatantly obvious and the people in charge treating it like a vague existential concept. These are children who are painfully cognizant of their lot in life and how any hopes of a bright future have been snuffed out by their elders’ ineptitude. The book is much funnier than my synopsis makes it sound but it ultimately takes a more melancholy approach to the concept. I’m not sure it entirely succeeds since it often seems more focused on those parallels with the Old Testament, but as a parable of generational conflict, it’s worth your time.

I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman

Yup, another dystopian saga. I would say now is not a great time to be reading dystopian novels so ceaselessly bleak as this one but when is a great time to do so? The protagonist of this brutal tale is an unnamed woman, the youngest of forty others who are being kept in a cage underground for reasons that have never been explained to them. Armed guards, all men, silently watch on. Food is delivered and sleep demanded. Those who try to escape or kill themselves are punished. It’s a monotonous life with no answers or hope. And then one day, things change.

To say anymore would be to rob I Who Have Never Known Men of its potency. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that this is a hopeless novel but the way it unfolds to reveal this consistently surprised me. The protagonist is a young woman who grows up with zero knowledge of our most mundane and basic realities. She doesn’t know what stairs are, or sex, or a period, since she has never had one before and her fellow captors refuse to inform her of things that they believe she’ll never need to know about. She’s never felt rain or seen dirt. She doesn’t remember anything from her life before this prison. To see a narrative told from such a perspective, one of simultaneous naivety and weariness, is undeniably haunting, as is her later journey of discovery. The visceral nature of this, never vulgar but raw in its simplicity, may prove frustrating for some. It’s introspective and often opaque to the point of exhaustion, but never pointlessly. If you’re interested in this story, try to go into it as blind as possible but with full awareness that answers are not to be found.

Romance in Marseille by Claude McKay

One of the leading authors of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille wasn’t published for the masses until 2020. Before that, it remained an academic curiosity tucked away in his archives. I’m glad this one was given the chance to be read as a novel and not a research note, because it’s a truly fascinating and ahead-of-its-time piece of work.

Lafala, the protagonist, is a West African traveler who stows away on a freighter after a messy break-up with his sex worker lover in Marseille. Discovered by the crew, he is locked in a freezing cold toilet for the entire journey, which causes his legs to become frostbitten. He wins a lofty financial settlement from the shipping company and returns to Marseille to drink, party, and live the life of a monied man among the sailors, bohemians, pimps, and radicals of the port city.

I was struck by how sharp and messy this book was, layered with characters and complications that part of your brain is convinced could never have actually been written about so honestly in the 1930s, when McKay started the novel. The ensemble is full of disabled characters, queer couples, radical left-wingers, and sex workers, all of whom get moments to shine in 130 or so pages. These intersections merge and raise questions about identity and marginalized life in the face of a cishet white able-bodied supremacy. It’s not explicit but for a book that’s close to a hundred years old, it’s certainly pushing against a lot of boundaries. Some moments are so eye-opening in the way they detail a simple moment or interaction that Romance in Marseille often felt like it could have been written now. And then there are parts that are painfully of their time, such as the lawyer character whose entire characterization comes down to ‘greedy Jew.’ It’s hard to fully judge McKay’s intentions with this book since it’s a shortened version of an unedited manuscript that has been pieced together by the publisher and academics. So, speaking about it as a comprehensive piece of work feels fault. It’s still something of a curiosity but one that I’m thankful we’re able to engage with.