What I Read in January: Gilead and All the Light We Cannot See

37. Wiener Dogs Reading Books - Scarlet reading Nova's Imaginary Girls by czilka

I have a confession to make, dear readers: I have been a bad, bad writer the last year.

I didn’t carve out time to read.

This is a huge mistake on my part. Reading is SO IMPORTANT for anyone who is seriously trying to be a writer. Regular reading is the second most important thing a writer can do to improve her craft (with regular writing being the most important, obviously). You want to read everything you can get your paws on. Reading good books shows you how other skilled writers tell their stories, helping you learn the tricks of the trade while(hopefully) inspiring you to do better work on my own projects. Reading bad books, on the other hand, shows you what not to do (I’m not naming any names *cough 50 shades cough*) and helps you improve your writing by learning from the mistakes of others.

I could ramble for days on the benefits of daily reading. I genuinely think it’s the best thing ever.

And yet I only managed to read 15 books in 2014. *facepalm*

double facepalm

I know, I’m the worst. But I’m vowing to work on it in 2015, so there’ll be no more shameful facepalming come 2016!

So far I’m off to a slow but acceptable start. I kicked off the new year by reading two fantastic titles that have inspired me to keep picking through my ever-growing book collection.

The first book completed in 2015 was Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead. 

gilead cover

I’d picked up Gilead in a discount pile at Barnes and Noble last summer, and, because I sucked at reading last year, never got around to it. I didn’t even think about it until its follow-up novel, Lila, came out last fall and everyone started raving about it. I read that Lila took place in the same universe as Gilead and Robinson’s other Gilead-based novel, Home, and my interest was piqued. I’d never heard of a literary fiction writer basing multiple novels in the same universe and recycling characters in a non-series format; I’d always associated that move with Sci-Fi and high fantasy genres, so a non-genre writer breaking with convention and doing work like this was very interesting to me.

Intrigued, I dusted (yes, dusted) off my copy of Gilead and started reading it before bed. And I am SO glad I did. It is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read, hands down.

An epistolary novel whose protagonist is a dying Congregationalist minister writing letters to his young son that he hopes will be read when his son is a man, it is a story that at its core is about living life and trying to live it right. As a non-religious person, there were admittedly parts when the prose dragged a bit, so the reading was a bit slower than it normally is for me. But even at its preachiest parts I never lost interest. This is VERY good, because by the time I came to the last page I found myself crying over the realization that I’d just read a near-perfect novel and I was just overwhelmed in general by the experience.

I mean, with passages this simplistically beautiful showing up on page after page, how could I NOT shed a couple of tears when the story ended?

gilead shot

“Well, I can imagine him beyond the world, looking back at me with an amazement of realization — ‘This is why we have lived this life!’ There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

 

After I wrapped up Gilead I shifted gears and moved on to one of 2014’s most praised releases, Anthony Doerr’s World War II bestseller All the Light We Cannot See.

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I am not a huge fan of stories set in World War II (they just aren’t my thing), so I started this book with the intention of looking at it from an industry perspective, much like how I approached the Twilight series and 50 Shades of Grey. I wanted to break it down and figure out why it caught on as well as it did and became such a big sensation. I figured even if I didn’t like the book’s content, at least I’d learn something useful about America’s current cultural zeitgeist.

Then I started reading it…and five hours later I finally came up for air, halfway done with the novel.

Needless to say, I was COMPLETELY wrong about not liking this book. It is genuinely fantastic. I fell in love with the two protagonists, a blind French girl and a math savant German boy, in a way that I never expected I would. And the plot is absolutely riveting; I can’t remember the last time I read half of a book in five hours. I literally couldn’t put it down. But what I loved about this book is that at its core is that it’s a story about people being good, even when the world around it is as evil and horrible as the world could be, and Doerr accomplished this so fully and so sincerely that I couldn’t help but have a little bit more faith in humanity once I came to that final page. I can honestly say that All the Light We Cannot See is a story that will stick with me for years to come.

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Review for The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.

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I recently received an advance copy of Gina B. Nahai’s latest novel, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., an epic saga that offers readers a unique glimpse into the Iranian Jewish community. It took Nahai seven years to write this novel, and man did her hard work pay off! I’ve been in a reading rut for a while now, starting books and putting them down after a couple chapters out of disinterest and boredom. Then I started The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., and had to force myself to put it down so I didn’t fall behind on my work!

The story begins with the modern day murder of Raphael’s Son, a bitter and cruel Madoff-like villain notorious for conducting a massive Ponzi scheme that preyed on Iranian Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles and who went to great effort to take down the remaining members of the Soleyman family. By the end of chapter one Raphael’s Son has had his throat cut as he sat in his Aston Martin at the gates of his mansion in the Holmby Hills, and his body has mysteriously disappeared before the police arrive at the scene.

The narrative then jumps back in time to 1950s Tehran. It introduces the Soleymans, a wealthy and well-respected Jewish family with two sons. Raphael, the eldest, is plagued by intestinal parasites and sleepwalking due to his translucent heart, an inherited trait in the Soleyman clan that causes his heart to glow white at night and attracts moths and ghosts to him as he wanders the streets of Tehran. Because of Raphael’s poor health, his father has decided to bestow the right of heir onto the younger Aaron instead. This causes Aaron and later his young widow Elizabeth to become embroiled in a longstanding feud with Raphael’s Wife, a.k.a. the Black Bitch of Beshehr, who impossibly claims that Raphael’s Son, born thirteen months after Raphael’s death, is the rightful heir to the Soleyman fortune.

The feud lasts for decades, starting in Tehran with Raphael’s Wife and then passed down from Wife to Son, bringing it thousands of miles to Los Angeles where Raphael’s Son and Elizabeth and her daughter Angela relocate after the Cultural Revolution. It evolves and expands as the years go by, resulting in murder, suicide, kidnapping, and general tragedy for everyone caught in its crossfire.

My favorite quote in the book. Did I mention the prose throughout is fantastic?

My favorite section in the book. Did I mention the prose throughout is fantastic?

A lyrical and delightfully intricate book from start to finish, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is a remarkable piece of storytelling that defies genre definition and narrative convention. Nahai masterfully combines the murder mystery narrative with the family saga narrative with the Iranian Jewish immigrant experience narrative, all while incorporating elements of magical realism that are beautifully fantastical yet still firmly grounded in a realistic narrative world.

Not satisfied stopping there, Nahai also weaves together the stories of this large cast of characters whose fates are forever intertwined, seamlessly jumping back and forth between time and place to create a complex narrative that is simultaneously cohesive and extremely engaging. Each character is exceptionally well developed, though the real standout of the story is Raphael’s Son. He is one of the most conflicting characters I’ve ever come across, repulsive and reprehensible in every way, and yet you can’t help but pity him as his story unfolds. You understand why he does the terrible things he does, and while you never quite get to the point where you forgive him, by the end you come to empathize with his plight.

A true pleasure to read, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is an absolutely stunning piece of literature and one of the best books I’ve read all year. It’s a genuine page turner that I dare you to put down once you start. Two big thumbs up!

Thoughts on Bridget Jones’s Diary

I read Bridget Jones’s Diary a few weeks back on a whim. I was getting burned out from reading about psychopaths and killers, so I wanted to shake things up a bit and read something that was happy for once. I know, it surprised me too. I wasn’t expecting much when I first picked it up, mostly because I’d had this pre-determined notion that it was a silly, girly book that no serious connoisseur of literature like myself could possibly like (yes, I’m sad to say I really was that obnoxious; I blame the hipster English major in me). But oh man, was I wrong! I absolutely loved it!

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Thoughts on Gone Girl

Last week, I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as part of my NaNoWriMo prepwork. It was a book that I’d been meaning to read for months now at the recommendation of a couple different friends, but just hadn’t been able to get past the first few chapters. But a little birdy told me that there was a female psychopath in it, and since my novel has a female psychopath in it I figured I’d give it a second try. Well, I did…and I *really* wish I hadn’t. Yes, that’s right, dear readers, I am going against the grain of pop culture’s current obsession with this book and saying this: I thought it sucked.

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Thoughts on Perfume

As you may recall, dear readers, I read Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel, Perfume, as part of my prep work for this year’s upcoming NaNoWriMo. I decided to start off my reading prep with Perfume for a few reasons, namely that I was somewhat familiar with the story from watching the movie version as a freshman in college, and that my father, who is a big fan of the book, had been telling me to read it for years (i.e., since I first watched the movie version as a freshman in college). More importantly, however, I thought that it would be the ideal story to kickstart my efforts to get into the mind of a genuinely evil character. Well, let me just say right off the bat, mission accomplished on that front. Continue reading

Thoughts on A Song Of Ice and Fire Series (thus far)

As you know, dear readers, this past August I started reading George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I did this for three reasons:

  1. It kept getting recommended to me by fellow book lovers.
  2. I wanted to get some insight into how HBO was handling the series’ adaptation from book to film.
  3. I wanted to know what was going to happen in the show.

Well, dear readers, I finished the series a few weeks ago, and I have many, many thoughts that I’d like to share with you, hopefully without spoiling anything too important.

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