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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

April Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This 1987 fifth novel by American writer Toni Morrison is a story of love, violence, and unspeakable trauma. Set in postbellum Cincinnati, Sethe, a former slave, lives at 124 Bluestone Road with her daughter Denver, and soon Paul D, also a former slave and one of the few, along with Sethe, who managed to escape the bondage of slavery. One day, a mysterious girl arrives to their home, a tall, beautiful, young girl whose name, Beloved, is the same of the baby Sethe lost in her sojourn to the north. Suddenly, the household at 124 Bluestone Road is thrown into chaos. As the story unfolds, the histories of the characters, each a complicated, harrowing tale within itself, weave together and intertwine, revolving around this enigmatic Beloved, culminating in a frightful and revelatory denouement.

I had read this one last year for the first time; however, this being a novel which demands rereading, I had not nearly begun to scratch through the surface until this second time. This is a novel that is truly a masterpiece, one of content and form, one which reveals some of the darkest corners of American history, one which exposes a collective trauma that seeps into imaginations, pervades emotion, and binds to the love presumed to combat it. I wrote in my first review “it is an intimate, emotional, and profoundly poignant novel that captivated and moved me in ways I could never have anticipated”; after a second read, this statement applies a hundredfold. What Morrison has accomplished in this novel is unparalleled; it is captivating, challenging, beautiful, moving, treacherous, inspiring, and poetic, and even these descriptors fall far short of capturing what is contained within the book. It is easy to see why the novel won Morrison the Pulitzer in 1988. It is a book that I will continue to reread throughout my life, knowing each time I will find something new, something bewildering, affecting.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This 1868-1869 fourth novel by American writer Louisa May Alcott is the story of the March family: Meg, the ambitious, well-mannered, and sophisticated; Jo, the rebellious, literary, and adventurous; Beth, the reticent, delicate, and musical; Amy, the outspoken, artistic, and romantic–the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. March and the neighbors of the rambunctious, witty, and mischievous Teddy Laurence and his stalwart grandfather. Split into two parts, the novel follows each character as they grow from children to adults, as their lives intertwine, capturing each intimate instance, each adventure, every conundrum, achievement, hardship, and heartache. And spanning nearly five hundred pages, the novel is a beautiful, complex mosaic of some of the most unforgettable characters in popular literature.

It’s a renowned classic, the inspiration for innumerable film adaptations, and one of the most enjoyable, heartbreaking, and moving reading experiences I’ve had in a while. From the onset of the novel, I was lost in the pages, falling into Alcott’s beautiful world crafted with elegant description and tinged with the nostalgia of childhood. I quickly grew enamored with the cast of characters, each an interesting, unique person in themselves whose individual trajectories are as intricate as real life. And the relationships, friendships, and love inspired between the various characters, familial, platonic, and romantic, kept me absolutely captivated and unable to put the book down. Beyond the beautiful, the novel also captured the hardships of growing up, the pain caused by war, and even the awful consequences of depression. It is a novel with more layers than meet than eye, and one that I will continue to reopen, revisit, and re-fall back in love with over the course of my life.

Emerald City by Jennifer Egan

This 1993 debut by American novelist Jennifer Egan is a collection of eleven short stories, each an intimate portrait of life. A man on business/vacation with his family in China runs into a past foe; a young girl becomes enamored with a mysterious peer of hers; a couple discover the callousness of their professions; a photographer and stylist work a modeling gig in Nairobi; a young sister grapples with her mortally clumsy little brother; a group of old friends unearth an unsavory past; a woman remembers an old rival; a daughter discovers her father’s secret double life; a woman on vacation encounters a series of robberies; a wealthy wife contemplates her marriage and thinks of her old friend; a group of teenage girls have an acid-fueled adventure through the streets of San Francisco.

This was a fantastic collection of short stories, each an engrossing glimpse into a life riddled with modern problems, painted with a realism that shone from the pages. I was reminded of David Szalay’s All That Man Is which I read last year and was one of my favorites. Like Szalay’s, Egan’s contain a sort of intimacy that seizes the reader, mesmerizes, and provokes; and rendered in elegant prose, both accessible and engaging, her stories are short slices of life, authentic, empathetic, at times hilarious, at others heartbreaking. Each is a study in introspection, past triumphs and regrets, each revealing how events and memories of the past seep into the present, affecting the banal, quotidian details of life and the prospects of the future.

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

This 1796 novel by English novelist and playwright Matthew Lewis is at once a brutal portrait of psychological depravity and a scathing criticism of the Catholic Church. The novel follows Ambrosio, a man who, raised from birth by priests and educated in the convent, was destined to become an abbot. He is a man who has built his entire reputation on the moral superiority and pride instilled in him from religion. After being seduced by Matilda, a demon masquerading first as a man, then as a woman, Ambrosio breaks his vow of chastity which sends him spiraling into a descent of depravity fueled by his insatiable sexual urges. Crime after horrific crime ensues until Ambrosio is forced to face the consequences of his actions in a deathly denouement.

Upon publication, the novel was met with a contentious reception, deemed lewd, controversial, and even blasphemous, and that it was written when Lewis himself was only nineteen cemented his status as one of the scandalous writers of the Restoration. And the novel is truly a shocking experience, and completely enthralling. Lewis’s imagination spans from the psychological exploration of depravity to the occult inspiration of the supernatural to the hypocritical nature of one of the oldest religious institutions in history. And beyond that, Lewis’s prose itself is powerful, elaborate, and absolutely riveting. This novel consumed me and spat me back out, exhausted and with a new outlook on temptation, virtue, and immorality.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

This 2010 fourth novel by American writer Jennifer Egan is a web of thirteen interconnected stories each of which centers on a specific character out of a large cast who, in some estranged way, can be traced back to record label executive Bennie Salazar and/or his assistant Sasha. Set mostly around New York City and leaping back and forth from the seventies to the present, the novel, via each vignette, explores themes of self-destruction, time, and the burgeoning technological age which threatens the music industry. As a whole, the novel comprises a series of fragmented storylines that coalesce to form a mosaic capturing the complexities of the human condition.

The novel won Egan both the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010 and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize doubtless for its inventiveness of form and keen exploration of time and the flawed individual. Each chapter is written differently than the one before, and in some chapters, Egan subverts the conventional form of storytelling, narrating a story in a journalistic article, footnotes, and even a PowerPoint presentation. And with Egan’s signature prose–detailed description, accessible yet illuminative–imbued with numerous musical references, her novel was an incredibly entertaining and unexpectedly evocative read. It was an assignment for a class, and Egan herself actually made an appearance and spoke about the book which was truly an enlightening experience. I cannot wait to read more of her work. She’s truly one of the most significant contemporary American writers today.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

This 2001 final novel by German writer W.G. Sebald is story of one narrator and one Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian whose studies take him all over Europe during the 1960’s. The novel begins with the two first meeting on a train station platform where the narrator notices Austerlitz taking photos. The two begin a conversation, and quickly the narrator realizes that Austerlitz is a man of rare erudition and intellect. The rest of the novel unfolds in a series of reiterations of Austerlitz’s long, detailed, meandering diatribes that cover everything from history, art, philosophy, to war, time, and memory. With incredible descriptions, recurring motifs, and numerous photos conferring the meaning of the text, this is a truly unique and captivating novel.

Wow, I’m lost even trying to describe this one. It was one of most memorable reads of this year, most certainly. Almost a decade after its publication, the book received the National book Critics Circle Award and is even ranked 5th on The Guardian’s list of 100 best books of the 21st century. In one essay I read about the book, a critic called the book an embodiment of “archival consciousness” which I think is an apt description. The text is comprised of the musings of an erudite, which span from subject to subject with baffling detail, and which reveal the intersection between memory and knowledge. With sentences that lapse several pages, a lack of indentations, and words that fills the spaces between photos like water filling a container, Sebald’s ambitious novel calls to mind the work of Knausgaard, Bernhard, and Krasznahorkai. I wrote an essay on Austerlitz and in the process, diving below the surface of the text and exploring its various themes and details only revealed an ocean of possibility that I can’t wait to revisit time and time again. An absolute masterpiece.

Turbulence by David Szalay

This 2019 novel by Hungarian/English writer David Szalay is a collection of twelve interconnected lives linked together by various airplane trips occurring across the globe. From London to Madrid to Dakar to São Paulo to Toronto to Seattle to Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok to New Delhi to Kochi to Doha to Budapest and back to London again, each chapter captures a slice of each passengers life: a woman whose son is diagnosed with cancer; a pilot whose taxi driver kills a bicyclist en route to the airport; a journalist who has a one-night stand before interviewing an idol of hers; a writer whose granddaughter is born blind; and many more. Each vignette captures the turmoil, anguish, anxiety, and fear that binds even the most different of strangers together, at once revealing the beauty and heartache of humanity.

Szalay is quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary writers. Having read his All That Man Is, a novel of similar interconnected stories structure, which I absolutely loved and was certainly in my tops reads of the year, it was no surprise that Turbulence too was a fantastic read. Szalay’s ability to not only capture life with all its intimate detail–from the complexities, emotions, problems, to the quotidian, the everyday mundane, the errands, the work, the small details which bind humans together in tedium–but also capture the web of lives which comprise a universe of interconnectedness, lives which weave together into a mosaic that transcends space and time is truly incredible. For anyone keeping abreast of contemporary literature, Szalay is a must read. This one was thought-provoking, entertaining, and simply beautiful. I have a copy of his Spring which I cannot wait to read next.

Rag by Maryse Meijer

This book by American writer Maryse Meijer is a collection of fourteen short stories, each one a grotesque, gory, and unsettling portrait of the darker side of humanity. The collection opens with a young lady who has a miscarriage at a restaurant and the young worker who becomes infatuated with her; another captures the bizarre relationship between a dog euthanizer and his deaf brother; in another, a teenage boy’s obsession with his stepbrother drives him to commit unthinkable; another involves two jurors on a case deciding the verdict of a serial killer; and in another, a man trapped in the body of dog is tortured by a group of young girls. Each is a glimpse into the depraved, the violent, the taboo, and rendered in an intimate portrait that coaxes sympathy and understanding, Meijer’s stories are deeply disquieting and portray a side of humanity often overlooked in society.

It is a short collection of subversive and strangely poignant stories which at once intrigued and repulsed me. From the onset of the collection, I had anticipated a gory, horrific, anguish-inducing series of stories, ones which would elicit a more “shock-value” kind of reaction. But these wildly imaginative stories cut through to the core of humanity, painting the depraved desires, the bodily grotesque, and the fears that plague the common person from all walks of life. Some of these stories were deeply personal, and some were simply disturbing, but all were the work a brilliantly depraved mind. I will certainly look to read more of her work in the future.

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