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[personal profile] alobear
This past weekend, I went on my fourth reading retreat, this time in Herefordshire. I requested a prescription of books by diverse authors, in my continuing attempt to read more widely, and I ended up reading five books (1,650 pages in all) that covered a range of styles, settings and themes. I mostly managed to keep to my plan of relaxing into my reading more, rather than keeping track of my progress quite so much. It helps that I've now broken the trend of reading more every time, so hopefully at the next retreat in January, I'll be able to relax even more. Now, on to the books!

The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour:
This was actually recommended by Anita Sarkeesian on a recent episode of Feminist Frequency Radio, and it fit my chosen theme, so I thought I'd give it a try. It tells the story of Zal (rhymed with 'fall'), an Iranian boy who is confined to a cage in his mother's aviary as a baby and grows to the age of ten thinking he is a bird. He is rescued and raised further by a child psychologist, who helps him find his place among humans. The novel is steeped in Persian myth and wrapped in Zal's obsession with an illusionist, combining ancient mystery and modern tragedy as the spectre of 9/11 looms over the narrative. What struck me as particularly sad was that Zal thinks he has to try to be normal to fit in, and to please his adopted father and his therapist, but he doesn't really want to be normal. But he can't really be a bird either, as he lacks the ability of flight, which is all he's ever really wanted. The relationships and Zal's struggle to find a place in the world are very well drawn, and the book is absorbing, but it lost me a bit towards the end and I didn't understand the significance of the 'last illusion' at all.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende:
This was one of my prescribed books for the weekend, a sprawling Chilean family saga. There are keen observations of people, a large cast and an omniscient narrator, so to begin with it reminded me a bit of Middlemarch, but with a hint of magic. And then there's a brutal rape by the male protagonist that's just dismissed as common practice and it all goes a bit awry. There's discussion of suffrage, charity and societal reforms to create more equality, but it's all presented as doomed to be unsuccessful. And, while the protagonist's behaviour towards other women is criticised by his wife (well, quite), he's never brought to justice and she doesn't really condemn him either. There are some great female characters, but women in general are horribly abused in the book and seen very much as disposable. It's quite unpleasant in places, but quite involving despite the rather remote narrative style. I really don't know how we're supposed to view Esteban, as he is a despicable human being in most ways, but he is also the main narrator, which is an interesting choice for a female author. Maybe it's just supposed to reflect life without judgement. It gets a bit too political towards the end and there's way too much foreshadowing, but it kept me interested throughout and I like the message at the end about breaking repeating cycles.

If You Come Softly & Behind You by Jacqueline Woodson:
These are companion novellas that came in one volume, so I'm treating them as one book. They are the first selection for a new book club I've joined (Life's Library, overseen by John Green and Rosiana Halse-Rojas), and tell the story of a white girl and a black boy meeting and falling in love at a fancy New York high school. The themes of racism and prejudice are not very subtle and a lot of it felt quite 'on-the-nose', especially in the first novella. Plus, as is now usual for me, I related much more to the parents and teachers than I did to the kids in the story. The blurb on the back of the book gave away the ending of the first novella, but I was quite pleased to have been spoilered, as otherwise I think I would have been quite enraged. I much preferred the multiple narrators of the second novella, reflecting on the events of the first and learning how to go on with their lives. I'm looking forward to the book club discussion to hear what other people have to say about it.

Happiness by Aminatta Forna:
This was by far my favourite book of the weekend - the author was prescribed but I picked a different book than the one suggested because of availability from the library. This tells the story of random meetings in London between an African psychiatrist and an American naturalist studying the habits of urban foxes. They unite to search for a child lost in the city, recruiting a group of street performers, street sweepers, hotel doormen and security guards to help them. It's very engaging right from the off and parts of London that are very familiar to me are described in detail to provide a very immersive setting. It's a compelling story with excellent characters, and a different view of London peopled by immigrant workers who have a fascinating perspective. It's quite sad in places, but has many layers of different emotions, and overall I found it a beautiful read. I will definitely be trying more books by this author.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid:
This book accompanied my journey home, which was very appropriate as it is all about migration. It tells the story of a young couple from an unnamed Middle Eastern city, who flee their country through a magic door that leads them on a journey through multiple countries in a search for a place to belong. It has heavy themes about immigration and the loss of a homeland, but it's a mostly quite light story. The progression of the couple's relationship is very well portrayed. External factors put stress on their interactions, and they have a vain hope that changing their external environment will allow them to come closer together again, but the book is very realistic in its presentation of how they gradually grow apart. I liked the separation and reconnection and then the open-endedness of the ultimate conclusion, but the narrative as a whole had too little direct action to be truly absorbing.

And that's my set! Lots more books still to read from my prescription and my exploration of various other authors, so I have a lot of great reading experiences still to come. Roll on January!

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