The halfway point: reflecting on my best and worst reads

As we are over half way through the year, I thought I would share my best and worst reads for the year so far.

These last 6 months I have finally been able to get back into reading for pleasure and I’ve managed to get through a whopping 39 books! Last year alone, I barely managed 20 due to being in the final year of my degree.

It has been pretty hard to pick my best and worst reads because I have read so many good books so far, but alas, I will pick out of those I have read.

My best read: Hot Milk by Deboarh Levy (★★★★★)

You know you’ve found your next favourite book when you purposefully slow down whilst your reading so each page can last a bit longer. I found myself doing this the whole time when I was reading this because I just didn’t want to finish.

The story is remarkably simple, yet completely mesmerizing. Sofia, an aimless twenty five year old, takes her Mother to Spain in search of cures for her many ailments. Along the way she has intense, romantic relationships and begins to unravel a lot about herself and the past.

Throughout this journey she ultimately realises that she has been putting her life on hold to try and save her mother. It’s a tale of the inverted mother-daughter relationship, set in one hot and heavy summer in Spain. The prose is beautiful and everything I could ever want in a book – I found myself re-reading lines and passages just to be able to take in the language over and over again. It’s poetic in places and a true marker of the beauty in literary fiction.

Most importantly, it reminded me why I have always loved fiction. It’s a fantastic example of the power of words and how they can convey the intensity of emotion to readers. Types of emotions that when read and re-experienced, then become universal.

Although the book is rather short and sweet, it left me with a lingering aftermath. Long after I had finished the final page I could still feel the novel’s presence in the way I perceived my surroundings and my view of the world. That’s when you know you’ve just read an amazing book, right?

My worst read: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (★★★)

By far not my worst rated book, but that’s a different story. I would say this has been my worst reading experience of the year and one I truly didn’t enjoy. I had to push myself to keep reading as I thought it would get better and I wanted to like it.

Most Booker Prize nominee’s have the potential to divide readers and this is an excellent example of that. I had read both raving and negative reviews and of course, wanted to try it for myself. Big books have never put me off, neither have descriptive books or books with lots of inner monologue, but this just took it to the extreme.

The book is composed of a few sentences that span over 1000 pages. It has been given credit for originality and reworking the novel, when in reality, I just think it ruined what could have been an enjoyable and thought provoking reading experience. It follows the mindset of an Ohioan housewife who shares her thoughts and anxieties about the world around her.

There’s a lot of criticism of Donald Trump, worries about climate change, nuclear weapons and is a deep reflection of contemporary America and this element makes the book different, relevant and appealing. However the abandonment of any structure and chapters made it impossible to read for me. I struggled for months to finish it and I would have rated it more if it had been half the size or structured differently.

I don’t think its lack of structure makes it original or prize worthy, but rather takes away from what could have been an incredibly poignant and accessible critique of contemporary society. I say it is my worst read in terms of when I think about the reading experience I had with the book. In comparison to the one above, it felt like a chore, which reading shouldn’t!

What have been your best and worst reads so far? Let me know!

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Book Review: Hot Milk

Deborah Levy is an author I have wanted to try for a long time, I heard about Hot Milk from listening to a Penguin Books podcast. It was one of those books that I wanted to last for as long as possible. I was disappointed when it ended but immediately felt I could read it again! Not many books do that, so I figured it must be something special.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She’s frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and Rose travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant, Dr. Gomez—their very last chance—in the hope that he might cure Rose’s unpredictable limb paralysis, but Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Rose’s illness becomes increasingly baffling…”

Review

Title: Hot Milk

Author: Deborah Levy

Genres: Fiction, literary fiction

My rating:  ★★★★★ 

Do not be under any illusions, this is a simple story at first glance, but one which will leave an impact forever. The plot is neat and unassuming, told by a young anthropology graduate as she takes her mother to Spain in search for treatments to cure her various ailments.

Sofia, who is half Greek, half English, for me was an instantly likable protagonist. She’s 25, struggling to know what to do with her life and feels guilty for telling superiors she works in a Coffee House, sleeping above the storage room. She has little savings and a first class degree she doesn’t know what to do with. However, the way she sees the world and the way Levy describes it was enough to take my breath away. Whether it’s the influence of an anthropological background or just the way her mind works, Sofia sees the beautify in everyday life and her surroundings.

Partly, in going to Spain with her mother, Rose, Sofia is prolonging the realities of getting her life started. In between intense, romantic affairs, she has a yearning to complete her academic career but at the same time, likes to blissfully float through life.

“All summer, I had been moon-walking in the digital Milky Way. It’s calm there. But I am not calm. My mind is like the edge of their faintly glowing paths running across the screen, I have been making footprints in the dust and glitter of the virtual universe. It never occurred to me that, like the medusa, technology stares back and that its gaze might have petrified me, made me fearful to come down, down to Earth, where all the hard stuff happens, down to the check-out tills and the barcodes and the too many words for profit and the not enough words for pain.”

p.216

Sofia has always put her life on the line to help her mother, who she is practically a full time career for. She has abandoned her PhD and is living her life aimlessly. The novel begins with the smashing of her beloved laptop screen, which she tells readers, has the entirety of her life on it. Her mother frequently criticizes her and fails to see her merits, thus their relationship is fraught and laced with tension.

Levy creates an inversion of the typical mother-daughter relationship, as Sofia is the mother, caring and nurturing, and Rose abandons her daughter in more ways than one. It’s a portrayal of the mother-daughter bond, but unlike many others.

The title, Hot Milk, feels like it is drawing upon this “interior life” (Erica Wagner, The Guardian, 2016) of that relationship. ‘Hot Milk’ may be symbolic of the life force bond as breast milk (often hot) is the nurturer of new life and physical connection between mother and daughter. However, it could also relate to Sofia’s life as a barista, importantly, when foaming milk to make artisan coffee, the milk must be “hot” but never boiling – as this will create acidity, ruining the taste of the coffee. Hot milk therefore, could be symbolic of the importance of clarity – be that in relationships, life or other meanings. Furthermore, breast feeding is continually depicted with Sofia’s step mother feeding her sister, it feels apt that Levy draws upon these images to make poignant anecdotes on the mother-daughter relationship.

Another key bit of symbolism are the use of the ‘medusa’s’ – the local term for jellyfish. Sofia likes to frequent the sea near their rented apartment and often gets stung by jellyfish – she does this so often that she actually takes the life guard who treats these stings, for a lover. The significance of drawing upon the medusa didn’t come to me at first, but now it seems more significant. The medusa stings are likely to represent her fraught relationship with her mother, as the stings are something she endures again and again, eventually barely feeling any pain. We always tend to do more for those we love, even if they hurt us, don’t we?

Additionally, Rose’s condition eventually eats Sofia alive as she realises she cannot permanently put her life on hold, the frequent stings are a reminder of this power her mother has over her and the pain she has inflicted. Finally, there is also the sexual element, her stings are drawn upon as being a point of pleasure in sexual encounters. The sting in itself, could represent the sudden pang of sexual desire.

Levy creates a prose which is poetic and will change the way you view your own surroundings long after reading the final page. It makes the reading experience effortless and lyrical – in some passages, it reads like pure poetry.

This book had everything I could possibly want in a reading experience. The prose is beautiful, the protagonist intriguing, and the story simple yet alluring. It deals with a number of themes but essentially feels like a coming of age novel. It’s above all, a story that documents an individual’s self discovery and a, “powerful novel of interior life,” the reader truly becomes a fly on the wall in Sofia’s small, but intricate world.

Every so often everyone comes across a special book which has a lingering impact on them – and for me, this is one of those. During the reading process, I felt the density and beauty of the language sink into me as I became invested in Sofia’s life. The description made me want to see life in a different way and appreciate my surroundings with new vigor. I feel like Levy could make even a blank wall seem appealing!

Hours after finishing, I could still feel the novel’s presence, it made the perception of my own world more acute, and I found myself evaluating how everyday things truly look. I feel like this novel and its impact will always be at the back of my subconscious, luring me in and waiting to be read again.

My favourite quote: “I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?” (p.202)