When the calendar ticked over to September I had to restrain myself from binging all the atmospheric dark/magical books I’d been saving for autumn. I’ve read one (which is featured below) but the rest I’m keeping for when it’s a bit colder. As with perfume, it turns out my book choices are seasonal.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
“Kneeling before me, he lays his head on my lap and says, ‘I’m going to ruin you.”
I bought this book for Our Bonkers Vanessa when it was first released with quite a stir at the start of lockdown. Its narrator is Vanessa, who is thirty-two at the height of the Me Too movement. Her old schoolteacher has been accused of sexual abuse and the present day plot is interspersed with the story of how, at fifteen, she was groomed by the same teacher. Back then she was an extremely promising student who had gained a scholarship to a private boarding school In the present, she’s working as a hotel concierge and getting through the days in a haze of drink and drugs. She is desperately clinging on to the idea that the ‘relationship’ she had with fortysomething Strane was a romance and not what we see in the re-telling – serious abuse.
I had thought the book would show Vanessa coming to terms with the truth. However this is more of an exploration of the dynamics between the predator and the victim. It shows the extreme manipulation that leads to the victim feeling responsible and protective towards their abuser, no matter what it costs them. This was handled incredibly well and I’ve never felt anger towards a character the way I did towards Strane. If you are very plot-driven or not interested in the subject, you may find it slow. 4.25/5
I didn’t get the satisfaction of Vanessa accepting the reality of what he did to her and speaking out. It ends pretty abruptly, as she is just beginning to face what really happened. However, I still found it compelling and didn’t feel cheated in any way.
The Surrender Experiment by Michael A. Singer
“Each of us actually believes that things should be the way we want them, instead of being the natural result of all the forces of creation.”
I read Singer’s The Untethered Soul at a tough time in my life and it really helped. The Surrender Experiment is more of a memoir exemplifying what living by the principles in that book can look like. Singer has a spiritual awakening in 1972 at the age of 22 and lives the rest of his life surrendering to whatever life brings him. We watch as events flow in such a way that the perfect people and opportunities arise at exactly the right time for the next forty years. This involves him inadvertently becoming a tech multimillionaire (though he ploughs the money back into his spiritual organisation). It is an amazing testament to his dedication to his spiritual path but it is also near impossible to relate to. It’s hard not to feel that he was at least in part, unbelievably lucky and highly predisposed to be able to access a transcendental meditative state. For decades everything falls into place perfectly just by him accepting whatever comes along and not acting on his personal preferences or fears. It’s not until the 2000s that he is tested and even then he never really struggles. Maybe I’m just jealous. 3/5
The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa
“He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world”
This gentle Japanese novel is about a housekeeper who goes to care for an elderly Maths genius whose short-term memory only lasts for eighty minutes. He has notes all over his suit which act as reminders and numbers soothe his anxiety. At first the two of them don’t gel but when her young son starts to come to the house after school, a bond begins to form between the three of them. There was more Maths than I could follow – or wanted to – and a fair bit about baseball. However, overall it’s a short, sweet book about a chosen family. 3/5
Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri
‘Through the lens of hair texture, Dabiri leads us on a historical and cultural investigation of the global history of racism.’
Emma Dabiri is an academic who writes for The Guardian. This is her first book which focuses on the personal and political aspects of Black hair. Dabiri is the daughter of a white Irish mother and a Nigerian father. She grew up in Ireland in a time and place with few other Black people. She was implicitly and explicitly made aware that she was unlucky to be mixed race yet not born with the ‘good hair’ that normally comes with. Her mother first took her to England to get her hair relaxed at the age of 12. The harsh chemicals would cause her scalp to burn and scab over but this made her happy because it meant the process had worked. She now embraces her type 4 coils but this book is much more than a memoir. It goes back into the history of hair-styling in Africa, the effect slavery had on hair grooming, the emergence of relaxing in America and modern day cultural appropriation.
I’ve decided not rate my enjoyment of anti-racism works as it just doesn’t sit right.
The Golem and The Djinni by Helene Wecker
“On a cloudless night, inky dark, with only a rind of a moon above, the Golem and the Jinni went walking together along the Prince Street rooftops.”
This book had my name written all over it: mythical creatures, a historical setting and lyrical writing. A golem – a woman made of clay using Kabbalistic magic – is adrift in the Jewish quarter of New York City, 1899. At the same time, a djinni made of fire is released from a flask in the Little Syria district across the city. The golem, Chava, is taken in by an understanding rabbi while Ahmad is given a job by a local tinsmith. When their paths cross they recognise that the other is also different from the people around them. They strike up an unlikely friendship, with Ahmad being angry at his confinement to human form while Chava has a strong sense of responsibility towards others (whose needs she can sense).
The characters are beautifully rendered and the atmosphere of NYC at the turn of the 19th century is wonderful. If I had to criticise it, it is slow-paced and the two main characters don’t meet until over a third of the way into the book. However, I was in no rush. It won’t be for everyone but it was just my kind of novel. 4.5/5
Are there any books you’re looking forward to reading this autumn?
14 responses to “August/September Reading Diary”
Thank you for these reviews. A selection of very different books. The Golem and the Djinni really appeals to me and I am glad you brought it to my attention as I hadn’t heard about it. Supernatural with a very human heart.
Jillie, supernatural with a very human heart is spot on! Hope you love it as much as I did.
I will reread some old Donna Tartt The Secret History and at the moment I am working through an all age fantasy called Sumpflochsaga, I think it’s just avaliable in German by a writer called Halo Summer. Very nicely written. Just finished Kate Mosse Labyrinth, but found it a bit too far fetched with some illogical glitches
Oh, I just saw the Halo Summer saga is called the Amuylet Saga in english
Tanja, I feel intimidated by Donna Tartt but so many people rate her books.
Thanks for the fantasy series tip. Lots of German speakers read the blog.
The Secret History is an all-time fave of mine – please don’t be intimidated. Darkish subject matter, admittedly, but gripping and twisty turny!
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Okay thanks for the encouragement V.
Ooh, am pleased you enjoyed My Dark Namesake! It was the same kind of discomfiting yet compelling read as Lolita, and I agree with your take on it and would give it a similar rating. I have lent my book to someone who was in a less extreme version of that situation.
You can definitely have too much maths and baseball, haha. The premise of that book sounds sweet.
And if I just surrendered to life, I would be quickly submerged beneath a mountain of malfunctioning appliances and structural defects on the house!
I’m happy we both felt similarly about MDV. I have heard people complain about the lack of plot which is fair but I found the dynamics fascinating.
Honestly V, Singer surrenders to a woman building on his land without permission and it works out fine. I’m trying to set more boundaries not less!
I loved the Golem and the Djinni, I think I read it some years ago when we were travelling in Oman, also in the desert which fitted the Djinni! Corona stress is back with a vengeance here, we are keeping everything we have crossed for our business to be allowed to stay open. No lockdown fortunately, but strict measures. This results in easy reading, I finished the whole Clare Ferguson/Russ van Alstyne series (nice, especially as it is situated in the Adirondacks), the latest Gamache (one of the better ones, although I enjoyed all of them), and the Moutains Wild, a mystery by Sarah Stewart Taylor (Sweeney st George). All recommended if you need/like easy mystery/detectives which aren’t gory or very violent.
I’m sorry this is affecting your business. I hope things don’t continue to get worse. It’s a similar story here.
How wonderful to have read The Golem and the Djinni in the desert!
Thanks for the recs. I know a lot of people love a cosy murder mystery.
I’m sure I’ve read the Golem and the Djinni but can’t really remember it.
Don’t touch my hair sounds like exactly the thing I need to read. If nothing else, I’ve learned even more in 2019/20 how privileged my life has been. It was something I took for granted and often used to my advantage. Thanks for the push to read this.
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This year has been a wake up call for many of us. I’d recommend a broader book on the subject such as Me and White Supremacy or How To Be An Anti Racist.
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