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Hilma af Klint, Group X, Nos. 1–3, Altarpiece, 1915
Hello, and here's my new 2019 thread. I've really enjoyed having this space as my own little sandbox to talk about reading and such, and hope to be a little more sociable this year. My introductory post is here if you want some more intel on me.
The image at the top is three paintings by Hilda af Klint, an early 20th-century abstract/mystical painter whose wonderful (and very popular and much talked-about) exhibit I just saw at the Guggenheim Museum at the end of December. I like art that uses color and color fields as a major component, and thought the show was a lot of fun. Among other things, the way she riffs on natural world imagery (she was a biological illustrator before setting off on this path) made me think about two books I love that do something similar but along different tracks: The Voynich Manuscript and the Codex Seraphinianus; also the chapter in Kevin Young's Bunk on the theosophists. So it was not only a very visually appealing show, but sparked a lot of ideas and conversation from my odd reading tastes.
My 2018 thread is here. I don't know how many books I read last year. I'm actually kind of opposed to the idea that reading more is better, and book count challenges/read harder challenges in general. For myself, that is, and in theory—it's certainly no business of mine what other people do, and if it works for you then that's a good thing. I will say that I'm not a fast reader and I don't have unlimited reading time, and blogging/reviewing have really influenced the way I read (slowly, and I'm a note taker). So all those are factors as well. I do like the idea of reading thematically but probably don't have the attention span necessary for that. So we'll see what 2019 holds.
My 2019 list:
Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent
The Devoted by Blair Hurley
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Fox 8: A Story by George Saunders
The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves by Eric R. Kandel
Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Díaz
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
Ida O'Keeffe: Escaping Georgia's Shadow by Sue Canterbury
Florida by Lauren Groff
The World Exists to Be Put on a Postcard: Artists' Postcards from 1960 to Now by Jeremy Cooper
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal, tr. Sam Taylor
Pretend I'm Dead by Jen Beagin
Darwin: An Exceptional Voyage by Fabien Groleau, illust. Jérémie Royer
Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America by James Poniewozik
The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri
Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another by Matt Taibbi
Moving Forward: A Story of Hope, Hard Work, and the Promise of America by Karine Jean-Pierre
Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin
Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag
The O. Henry Prize Stories#100th Anniversary Edition ed. Laura Furman
All That Is Left Is All That Matters by Mark Slouka
Fight No More by Lydia Millet
The Best American Essays 2019 ed. by Rebecca Solnit
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher
Driving in Cars with Homeless Men by Kate Wisel
Kitten Lady's Big Book of Little Kittens by Hannah Shaw
Grand Union by Zadie Smith
The World Doesn't Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott
Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell
Rag: Stories by Maryse Meijer
Sing to It: New Stories by Amy Hempel
Home Remedies: Stories by Xuan Juliana Wang
Suicide Woods: Stories by Benjamin Percy
Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Fly Already: Stories by Etgar Keret
Heathcliff Redux: A Novella and Stories by Lily Tuck
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks
Verge: Stories by Lidia Yuknavitch
Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfortable by the Faculty Of The Cummings School Of Veterinary Medicine At Tufts University
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel
My first book of the year was Ways to Hide in Winter, not sure on whose recommendation... maybe someone here? Interesting book, though. It was a humane and—in spite of some intense violence—gentle novel that explores the growing friendship between a young widow and a refugee from Uzbekistan, each side of the relationship framed by the the punishing load of secrets they both carry, all set against the winter landscape of rural Pennsylvania. But aside from its very deliberate thriller-like pacing as those secrets slowly unfurl, the book is more substantially concerned with exploring themes of guilt, forgiveness, loneliness, concealment, and the large and small ways people harm each other. This is one of those books that prove the point that reading fiction can make you a more compassionate person—it grapples with some hard issues of personal culpability and doesn't return pat answers (or any answers, really).
The writing here is low-key, appropriately atmospheric, and for the most part well done, though foreshadowing is some dicey business and needs to be done with a lighter touch. But overall the novel was moral in an un-preachy fashion that I appreciate in fiction, and St. Vincent kept it honest enough to keep me engaged.
Now I'm reading The Devoted because a friend sucked me in with a Goodreads recommendation. It's an odd one, but I'm still game for it.
Happy to be here! This is a very affable group.
Heh, definitely book-oriented, c'est moi. I grew up in a very bookish family—my dad was an anthropology professor, my mom a constant reader, and both of them had that coming-of-age-in-the-50s belief that books were the key to a good life. I never had a chance.
Finished The Devoted. This debut novel is an interesting exploration of faith, fidelity, and searching, and also the ways that religion wields power over both the faithful and the questioning. The protagonist, Nicole, has left the Catholic church in which she was raised for Buddhism—she's a convert, and has been studying under the same teacher for more than ten years. But the fact that she and her teacher also have a sexual relationship leads her to interrogate her own practices of faith and submission, particularly when held up to the reasons she broke from Catholicism. I liked the exploration of the issues here, and how Hurley framed the beauty and comfort to be found in both religions, although at times the controlling nature of both Nicole's family and her Buddhist master felt a little too cut-and-dried for the sake of easy comparison. Still, this was definitely worth reading—a thoughtful novel that isn't afraid to interrogate itself a bit.
Now on to Ghost Wall because my hold came in—I hit that sweet spot of putting a hold on an ebook that just came out before the ravening hordes clicked.
Happy reading ahead for 2019!
Just read Ghost Wall, a dark little tale: an Iron Age reenactment being carried out one summer in North England with two sets of players: an "experimental archeology" professor and three 20-something grad students in it for the class credit and a lark, and a family there to satisfy the father's obsession with the time period and a "pure" England. More than a tale of old ways vs. new, it's a class conflict story above all, town and gown in particular. The professor and his students are breezy and often sloppy, with the implication that they can afford to be, but for the bus driver father, and the wife and daughter he drags along in his wake, this is grimly serious business. That combination of class and cultural nostalgia as the driving force for dysfunction made me think of a less wan (and damp) Elmet, with a little Lord of the Flies thrown in. The abusive, obsessive father was drawn in too-broad strokes, I thought, but the 17-year-old narrator, Silvie, is complex and interesting, a terrific voice. The writing is nice throughout, and the story is uncomfortable and at the same time engaging.
And now, because a friend sent me her hard copy, Michelle Obama's Becoming. It has one of the most agreeable forewords to a memoir I've ever read, so I hope the rest is that pleasant.
I finished Michelle Obama's Becoming, which was—beyond any expectations—just lovely. Her voice comes through so clearly throughout, which is both good writing and, I suspect, great cowriting and/or editing, but whatever. It's good to hear from her again. There was a lot that was fun about it, from descriptions of what it's like inside the White House (she describes it as a bubble, which sounds about right—she couldn't open a window or go out on the balcony without clearance from the Secret Service) to talk about raising kids and her marriage—which, of course, she went into only as much as it suited her, but still. I'm always fascinated by portraits of other people's marriages and how they negotiate the rough stuff. And it was good to read an account of her husband's administration if only to affirm that no, it wasn't a dream. And a decent president could happen again. Sigh. Anyway, recommended for anyone, really. It was a buoying read.
Then I read George Saunders's Fox 8, which is a tiny little fable about wildlife in the big world. You have to be in the mood for dialect—it's written in fox-speak—and you have to be in the mood for Saunders' slightly dark whimsy. Otherwise it ain't gonna work. But I was open for it, plus the whole thing is about 50 pages, so I liked it.
I spent an entire flight from NYC to Seattle (headed to the American Library Association Midwinter conference) reading Eric Kandel's The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves, which is dry as dirt yet totally fascinating, and it kept me reading (glossing over the medical terms a little, but I think I still think I have a better picture of the brain's workings). It's a strange phenomenon: by all rights I should have abandoned it within the first 25 pages because he's not a very interesting writer. But I'm still reading, and eager to get back to it when I have a few minutes in between conference-going. Go figure.
Alternated that with Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfortable. Because that's my life's work these days.
So... a lot of not-very-uplifting nonfiction, yet I'm very into both books. Go figure.
I have an Iris Murdoch from the library cued up next (Under the Net), maybe for the flight back, as well as Marlon James's Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which looks totally fascinating. So that'll depend on whether I want a break from my nonfiction and what I'm in the mood for.
Also already picked up
>23 rhian_of_oz: Yeah, yeah, I know. I was thinking that I have a lot of new books in e-galley format, but the truth is those are often not the greatest when it comes to formatting and ease of reading. Not always, but I do love a hard copy—not least because I can pass it along to a friend. A few of the books I picked up I actually have in e, but I'd just as soon have the paperback. I can ship them home (or rather, to the office) from here—don't have to carry them in my suitcase. But still, I'm such a sucker for the hand-sell. The publishers here know me and will literally press books into my arms saying, "Lisa, you'll love this." And I just nod helplessly. They're usually right.
Curious what books you will come home with.
The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves was indeed dry as dust throughout—very small proportion of narrative to medical terms and descriptions of brain workings, and I think he made one joke about 20 pages from the end—but at the same time I found it fascinating and it held my attention all the way through. I will say Kandel's writing was very accessible, and none of it was hard to parse. I hope I retain at least a little of it, because there's a LOT of information there about brains, brain functions, genes, synapses, genetics, all that good stuff.
Now I'm reading Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, because a review somewhere (LA Review of Books I think) said it was both her best and her most philosophical book. It's quite entertaining and Iris Murdoch–y so far, at any rate.
I'll list the books I brought home from Seattle when they arrive at my office... because yes, I picked up so many that I had to ship them. Ah well, better than throwing my back out, I guess.
I’m really sorry to have missed you at the ALA conference. I have no professional connections to the ALA and was only able to go because I live in Seattle and LT was offering free tickets. I do, however, have 3 kids in NYC, so we got there pretty frequently ( or did when my husband’s health was better) and hope to again soon), so perhaps we can have a coffee and talk books in person at some point.
Finished Under the Net. I've heard this called Murdoch's best book, but this is only my second of hers and I liked The Sea, The Sea a bit better. I've also heard it described as her most philosophical book, and again I don't have enough to go on—nor do I have much of a grounding in philosophy—but I can at least see where that idea comes from. The book struck me as a kind of self-consciously intellectual overlay to a comedy of manners that has an overlying conceit of being not intellectual and not quite a comedy either, but of course it's very much both. Not to mention a huge nonsexual same-sex love story (the actual love interests were much more flimsy). And while I don't think there's such a thing as free indirect first-person speech, where the narrator is at the same time floating a little above his own head, if there were this would be it. There's always the feeling that Murdoch knows a lot more than she's letting on to the reader… which of course authors are supposed to, but the sense of it isn't usually quite so pervasive. Anyway, it was entertaining and oddly-paced enough to keep my attention. And there's a great dognapping scene that was worth the price of admission (not to mention a great dog).
Now I'm reading a super compelling poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, by Natalie Díaz. Good stuff, a lot of it knockout worthy so far.
When My Brother Was an Aztec was terrific. I don't read poetry with the same kind of critical filter that I do prose, but I really appreciate when a poem or collection knocks me sideways, and this one did. Compelling work about the Native American experience, addiction, love, and loss, with wonderful use of language and imagery. This was a library book but I'm tempted to buy a copy so I can go back to the well, because a lot of this was just brilliant.
Rough Magic: Riding the World's Loneliest Horse Race - Lara Prior-Palmer
The Light Years: A Memoir - Chris Rush
Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative - Jane Alison
The Parisian - Isabella Hammad
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna - Juliet Grames
Oval - Elvia Wilk
Dark Constellations - Pola Oloixarac
Floyd Harbor: Stories - Jel Mowdy
The Hotel Neversink - Adam O'Fallon Price
Costalegre - Courtney Maum
Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal - Yuval Taylor
Family of Origin - CJ Hauser
Interesting about Murdoch, who I've been curious about (but haven't read), and about the Diaz, with the entertaining cover.
I finished Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man, one of the collections I was reading last fall for LJ's Best Books 2018 award, and one of the books I was hottest to read all the way through. It's a super strong debut. Brinkley digs into the inner lives of urban men and boys of color in wonderfully nuanced, intelligent stories that deal with some big themes—masculinity, racism, class, anger, disappointment, fathers and sons, aging, the male gaze—without ever getting heavy handed. His characters are complex, often thorny, and always striving toward honesty with themselves—if not always with one another. These deep dives into hearts and minds are warm and emotionally astute, the city settings vivid, and the writing beautiful. Each one of the nine is a standout, but damn I loved “J’ouvert, 1996."
Now finishing up Deborah Eisenberg's Your Duck Is My Duck.
(Noticing your articles on the Library Joural news tab.)
Finished up Your Duck is My Duck, another collection from my Best Books reading, also a Story Prize finalist (as is A Lucky Man, which is why they're at the top of the pile, since I'll be covering that award ceremony in March). Deborah Eisenberg is a favorite short story writer of mine, and while this wasn't my top favorite collection of hers there was plenty here to like. Her wonderfully knotty plots and un-pin-downable relationships, and the language is, as ever, really unexpected and full of delights. Language and what it does/can do/can't do is a theme that runs through many of the stories here (and many of her stories in general, but it was thrown into particularly sharp focus in this collection). My favorites, “Cross Off and Move On" and "Recalculating," I had read in the NY Review of Books, and they felt to me to be the most fully realized of the bunch—the others had varying ratios of offbeat, marvelous writing to too much punctuation, a quirk of Eisenberg's that sometimes drives me nuts. But it's a neat collection, never boring, and definitely worth a read for anyone who likes a lot to chew on in their short fiction.
Now reading an older novel, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, which is the fault of a couple of my prime book enablers.
In other news, our kitten was spayed a week ago and kept shucking her cone of shame off, so the vet sent her home in pajamas. (Insert obligatory cat's pajamas joke here.) Of course she hated those too and wiggled out of them right away, but at least she was very cute in them. No damage done—she had her stitches out today and got a clean bill of health—but now we have about a million pictures of our little cat wearing yellow overalls.
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia was, yes, fabulous—thanks to all my good reading friends for that recommendation. I love a book where the writing is so strong it bleeds over into the day-to-day personal narrative in your head and makes it that much more vibrant and beautiful, and this book did just that. Really, really lovely. Beautiful images of the natural world and great, spiky, complex characterizations of the people.
Now, against my better judgment, I'm reading the 900+-page Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. A friend raved about it on Goodreads and I figured I'd give it the 25 page test to see if I really want to invest in something that ponderously huge. I have no idea where 25 pages is, though, since it's an ebook, but I read the intro and the first chapter and they're really engaging, so I'll go ahead. I have more air travel ahead of me this weekend, so that might be just the thing.
Good luck with the latest mighty tome.
Noting During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. I loved Frederic Douglas’s autobiography, a college era read for me. I don’t remember much anymore except how his way of telling won me over - his voice, perhaps. So I’ve been pondering this biography. A nice long audiobook, maybe.
>52 LadyoftheLodge: I do love them, inasmuch as we probably have too many. But they definitely give back.
>51 dchaikin: If you do decide to do the Douglass bio as an audiobook, Dan, I'd be interested to hear what you think. I just can't do audiobooks at all, but that one would be just the thing for a long drive, I think.
Loving the overalls!
And taking a hit for During the reign of the queen of Persia also. Wonder which I'll get to first.
As I mentioned a while back, I'm reading this Ida O'Keeffe: Escaping Georgia's Shadow for review, which isn't all that compelling other than the sheer fact of her existence—I didn't know Georgia had a sister who painted. It's a catalog to accompany an exhibit in I think Dallas this fall, essentially, and reads like wall text. Which isn't a terrible thing, but neither is it super fun. But it's interesting to learn about her and the actual text, minus art and footnotes, isn't very long. Then there's also another book I'm supposed to be reviewing in another few weeks, The World Exists to Be Put on a Postcard: Artists' Postcards from 1960 to Now—the LJ art book editor has my number.
And then for Bloom tomorrow I'm interviewing Jim Mustich, who wrote 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die--and who had that marvelous weird little mail order catalog, A Common Reader, which was like an analog Readerville precursor. I've been wanting to write about A Common Reader for a while now, and then when he published this book I figured that would be my opening, and he turned out to be really interested in the project, which made me SO happy. He actually lives up in Westchester so we're having lunch. I met him once about ten years ago—Readerville founder Karen Templer set us up when I was blogging for Readerville and he was editor of the Barnes & Noble review—and it'll be fun to catch up, find out more about A Common Reader and this crazy 1,000 Books book, and also just feel like my own projects haven't gotten lost in my day job.
Also finishing up Lauren Groff's Florida, which won The Story Prize a couple of weeks ago and was the only one of the three I hadn't yet finished. Also my least favorite of the three, but hey, that's what makes a horse race. I was secretly rooting for Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man.
My official review:
The draw of Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow is in its subtitle; most will be surprised to discover that Georgia O’Keeffe had a sister—an accomplished painter and printmaker herself—at all. This slim book essentially serves as a catalog supporting the artist’s first major retrospective, which premiered at the Dallas Museum of Art (where author Sue Canterbury is Associate Curator of American Art) and will continue on a national tour. The narrative, with contributions from several art historians, reads like museum wall text: resolutely on topic, focused on Ida’s artistic style and employment, notably a series of teaching jobs that may have prevented her from devoting more time to her art. Canterbury is faithful to her limited source material, offering the reader a life story that is clearly accurate but also somewhat dry. Save a flirtatious correspondence with Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia’s husband and supporter, Ida chiefly comes to life through the abundant and vivid reproductions of her art (and some charming photographs). Absent more personal context, she never quite escapes footnote status, but her work—and existence—will appeal to interested readers.
Florida was good but not knock-my-socks-off good, partly because the tone was so similar throughout—an explicit, existential dread that derives from being a woman, a mother, a wife, a Floridian, with guest appearances by snakes, hurricanes, and that SOB (apparently) Guy de Maupassant. The writing is strong, but I would have liked to see Groff use her powers to conjure up a little more variety within the collection, even a themed one. I will say, though, she does a damn good job writing about mother love for small boys.
Now reading another book for an LJ review, The World Exists to Be Put on a Postcard.
The World Exists to Be Put on a Postcard: Artists' Postcards from 1960 to Now is a good book to read if you're interested in late 20th-century/early 21st-century contemporary artists. It's a bit more scholarly than playful, and is actually super comprehensive about situating the artists it features within the context of the period they worked in, their galleries and dealers and shows, and their collaborations. So if you're interested in this particular slice of modern art history, you're in luck. I'm a former early-'80s art student and followed a lot of these artists, plus I love postcard/mail art/arte povera, so it was really interesting to see how the format intersected with what they were doing. But also being a former early-'80s art student, the type was really damn tiny for my old eyes. Well, that's what we have reading glasses for—and I liked this little mini–art history class.
I read The Cook, by Maylis de Kerangal, tr. Sam Taylor. This was a shortie, an atmospheric little translated novel about a young man with a lifelong love of cooking who approaches the profession from a bunch of oblique angles, unsure of where he wants to land. Form follows function here—the book itself flashes in and out of brilliantly illuminated scenes from his life, almost like sights glimpsed from a train window (and in fact the novel opens on a train, so that might not be so fanciful of an analogy). Told from the point of view of an unidentified close friend, it follows Paolo through the places he works, and then owns, during his early career as a cook or chef, and the episodic narration really gets at how intense—both wonderful and awful—working in a kitchen is at any level. Great food descriptions, too. Not sure how long de Kerangal could have sustained the story past the novella stage, but it works the way it is: a tasting menu, a series of amuse-bouches, rather than a banquet.
Now back to Frederick Douglass, since my library hold came back in.
Discovery Channels: James Mustich, A Common Reader, and 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.
This was a fun one to write and interview for—I consider A Common Reader to be a direct source of my life in books and writing, and it was fun to sit down with Mustich and talk about it, and tell him so—I think it's great for people to hear when something they've done has touched you, though he's got no lack of that when it comes to A Common Reader... that operation really played a big part in a lot of reading people's lives, I think.
I finally finished Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom thanks to a second library checkout and some recent time on a plane (Cleveland—very cool city). And it was absolutely worth those 912 pages for the comprehensive overview not only of Douglass's fascinating life but of the period and the very fraught courses of abolition and reconstruction (both of which are commonly defined to sound like contained processes, and both of which were anything but). Blight paints a thorough picture of the politics of the day—not simple, to say the least, but really worth taking the complex, deep dive. I'd venture to say that there's really no way to drive home the nationwide (and beyond) horror of slavery and the multiple ways it was embedded in the culture, economy, and political and personal life of the day without going into that kind of depth, and even if Blight waxed a little purple here and there, it was overall a very nuanced, empirical examination of a hugely knotty movement. I came out of this enormously well informed about so many facets of abolition—just the factions within the Abolitionist movement alone were eye-opening—and I highly recommend this. Plus for once I'm right on the literary prize trend—this just won a Pulitzer and a Bancroft (and a Christopher) prize.
nb: I would very much like to see someone take on a biographical novel about his German friend/supporter/colleague/(OK, let's just say it) groupie Ottilie Assing—what a fabulous character, ripe for some good fictionalizing.
Now reading Pretend I'm Dead, which is an odd, prickly book... a bit too sharp-edged to be misery porn, though it flirts with the concept. Also Darwin: An Exceptional Voyage, which is a marvelous graphic history, totally beguiling.
This week I whizzed through Jen Beagin's Pretend I'm Dead—an oddball, prickly little book, but well done—it flirts with being what I call misery porn, but is saved by its utter unpredictability at every step.
The narrator, Mona, is somewhat of an aimless hot mess in her early 20s, cleaning houses, taking photographs, collecting odds and ends (both human and inanimate), staying home alone a lot, and musing at length on everything that crosses her path, But she's not really a mope so much as dry and prickly, even as regards her neglected, abusive childhood. Beagin's decision to stick to the third person is a good one, I think, taking the sharpest edge of indulgence away from Mona's voice. But what kept me along for the ride was the fact that you never had any idea where it was going at any given moment—a refreshing place to be as a reader. Also, I'm always interested in personal takes on housecleaning, fictional or non-, and Mona's engagement with what she did was all about the act of cleaning itself, rather than any class or societal implications—so, obviously fictional, but kind of intriguing nonetheless.
This read more like something I would have been into in my 20s, a disaffected Denis-Johnsonish type narrative, but young and female, and in parts I found myself annoyed by its haplessness. But overall the novel was just so weird that it stayed in my good graces. Even the format—four extremely loosely linked long chapters—made sense as a way to narrate a clearly very episodic life. I have the sequel and will definitely give it a whirl as well.
I've just started a forthcoming book, James Poniewozik's Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America... two things I really don't like there! (That would be Trump and television—I'm fine on America, at least in theory.) I'm doing another panel like I did last May, interviewing authors for Library Journal's Day of Dialog event, and this year the books are all current event/hard news themed. And regardless of the TV/Trump subject, the book is so far very interesting.
>72 avidmom: It's a literary term a few friends and I use—think Otessa Mosfegh's Eileen. One friend also included Fiona Mozley's Elmet, which is fair game too, though I think it was more than that.
Lovely graphic history of an early period of Darwin's life. An unedited version of my LJ review:
Turning their attention again to a notable naturalist in Darwin: An Exceptional Voyage (Nobrow), French author Fabien Groleau and illustrator Jérémie Royer (Audubon, On the Wings of the World) tell the story of Charles Darwin’s first expedition in graphic format. Highly eye-pleasing, accessible artwork and engaging writing bring to life Darwin’s five-year journey aboard the H.M.S. Beagle and the discoveries that would eventually drive his theory of evolution, focusing on the young man’s development as a naturalist. This retelling stays close to Darwin’s experience, with narrative drawn from his journals; a notable thread throughout is his horror of slavery, shown without glossing over his Victorian dismay at the lives of “savages.”
Groleau and Royer take full advantage of all the storytelling techniques in their graphic toolbox, letting the reader share Darwin’s wonder and delight through skilfully cinematic treatment: wide pans of lush land- and seascapes share spreads with closeups of birds and butterflies; flashbacks and shifts in narrative viewpoint through inventive layouts give this chapter in Darwin’s history a novelistic feel.
Enjoyed all your other reviews here. The Darwin “graphic novel” bio has all of six copies on LT, but it sounds terrific. Not surprised by Groff’s limited range of style. I think she’s a talented author that need some kind of paradigm shift to write something especially great. Of course, she’s winning awards, so what do i know. I’ll pass on Florida for now. Good luck with the fracturing of America.
I think you'll enjoy the Douglass bio, though again I don't know who reads it or whether it'll be dead boring in audio format. A good thing about the book was being able to read in shorter bursts and come back to it, which is what took me forever.
The TV/Trump book is interesting--I've never spent much time on TV as the basis for cultural thesis, so this actually is kind of fun for me to see all the dots connected. And I'm surprised at how much about the shows I know, even the ones I've never seen... that kind of thing really enters your consciousness by osmosis. My husband is a great TV watcher and I've absorbed bits and pieces of a lot of things, even if I rarely sit down and watch anything all the way through, but also all that stuff in the 80s and 90s when I didn't even have a TV--somehow I know a lot more about it than I would have thought. Anyway, he makes a very logical argument for how TV has changed the culture and Trump is a product of that. But I haven't gotten to the political part, which may make the top of my head blow off. Stay tuned!
Still on a nonfiction roll for the current events nonfiction author panel I'm moderating at the end of the month. I just finished James Poniewozik's Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America, which was interesting for me because, in addition to looking at how Trump's career and political ascendance are interwoven with the ways that television has changed and also influenced American culture, it's also a sociological overview of TV itself. I haven't read much of that kind of thing, so I can't tell if it's going over old ground, but I found it absorbing—particularly as someone who basically stopped watching television in the late '70s, other than a run of The Sopranos in its last few seasons. At the same time I knew OF everything he mentioned—living proof of the fact that even if you don't watch the stuff, it creeps into your general cultural consciousness—and it was neat to see it all put together in a timeline and appraised as a thing. I'm guessing if you're a Cultural Studies person this might be old hat, but I'm not so it was an interesting read. And it made me dislike Trump even more, which I didn't think was even possible.
Now reading Dina Nayeri's The Ungrateful Refugee. At least drawn out air travel is good for something... Columbia, SC for the past few days for a library design event. Library Journal was hosting, so even though I wasn't doing a panel or speaking, it was a lot of on time. Interesting speakers, though, and toured some great libraries... I always like the LJ Design Institutes. Columbia's a nice town, too. The library and design folks gave us a tour for First Thursday, where they open up Main Street and have lots of live music, free admission to cultural stuff, and extended happy hours—plus you can walk down the street with a (plastic) glass of wine or beer. Very convivial, and pleasingly all-ages—not just the 25-35 crowd. But the trip home was a drag—the plane left late and sat on the tarmac for an hour, so we missed our connecting flight in DC and ended up having to get a voucher to stay at an airport hotel overnight and fly out early in the morning. "Airport hotel" makes it sound seedy—it was actually a very decent suite at a Doubletree—but we got in around midnight and had an 8 a.m. flight to NYC, so I didn't spend much more than six hours there. BUT I made it home uneventfully and got a nap in. I hate losing a Saturday, since it's basically my one free day of the week to do anything, but oh well.
Finished Dina Nayeri's The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You. And interesting blend of memoir, narrative, and rhetoric, this takes a hard look at the experience of refugees and the mythology around immigration. There are a lot of tools in Nayeri's toolbox here, and she makes use of them well. It's a little rough around the edges in parts, but this is also an early galley so I imagine there will be more editing before it pubs. And when she gets impassioned she really gets the job done beautifully.
Now reading Moving Forward, by Karine Jean-Pierre, the chief public affairs officer for moveon.org—doesn't even have a touchstone here yet. She says this is aimed at younger folks who may be considering a career in politics, but I'm enjoying it a lot. Her personality really shines through, and I'm looking forward to doing this panel with her on it.
I finished the book, by the way, and it was really enjoyable. Sometimes I wish I hadn't been such a late bloomer professionally, because I could have gone in a lot of interesting directions—politics being one of them. Not that I have any issues with what I'm doing now, but at almost 56 there are a lot of cool options that I'm just not going to have a chance to try out, and Jean-Pierre's enthusiasm for what she does made me a little wistful.
Now I'm on to the last of my four for the panel, Matt Taibbi's Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another. This one's not quite as upbeat, if you can't tell from the title...
I read Matt Taibbi's Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another in time for my author panel on Wednesday. The book is agreeably testy, basically focusing on the anxiety-industrial complex aspects of network and cable news, and how their main business model is to keep viewers in a state of high anxiety in order to make a 24-hour news cycle viable. The left comes off no better than the right here—the cover features Sean Hannity side-by-side with Rachel Maddow, which makes perfect sense if you think about it. Smart commentary, a little rambly in places—it's pulled from his online Substack newsletter—but the premise is good. I agree with it, anyway... this administration is anxiety-producing enough without feeding the cocaine rat of "Now This."
The panel itself was a lot of fun. I love doing these author things, and my four panelists were excellent—right on the money with good answers to all my questions, and I think the audience enjoyed it. My new favorite person in the world is Karine Jean-Pierre, who is just insanely personable and nice.
Also finished Jen Beagin's Vacuum in the Dark, which is a sequel to Pretend I'm Dead, which I also read. Interesting kind of push-me-pull-you thing going on there, and I imagine Beagin was aiming for a love/hate experience for her readers. The main character is equal parts alienating and relatable, as was the storyline(s) themselves. But I enjoyed it overall. I particularly like the two books' subtext of the ways we (especially women, I think, though it probably crosses gender lines) are defined by our relationship to cleaning. I spend... my god, a HUGE amount of my very limited free time just keeping my house from looking like shit, and I think about the whole time I'm vacuuming/mopping/dusting/putting crap where it goes—the unpaid labor aspect, the class aspect (because if I were more successful I'd have someone "come in" once a month), the woman's work aspect... so I particularly liked the books for their musings on that. Plus the cleaning tips, which were kind of awesome.
Caveat: Lots of raunchiness and bodily functions, so stay away if that bothers you.
Now reading Rebecca Solnit's Cinderella Liberator, which I got for my birthday.
She's also tremendously brave, given her actions on Saturday.
A friend gave me Cinderella Liberator for my birthday last week. It was a super short read, less than half my morning commute (which, granted, is long), but it was neat—a contemporary retelling of the Cinderella story by Solnit—kind of a Stories for Free Children (dating myself here) for the new century. If I had youngsters I would definitely read them this... guess I'll just hold out for grandchildren someday. In the meantime it was fun, though, and I love her use of Arthur Rackham's original—and totally timeless—illustrations.
Coming off a lot of political/current nonfiction and a brutal few of work weeks (two of them short ones, which in theory should be relaxing but the nature of my general work load means that always leaves me behind). I didn't even make it to BookExpo for the first time in something like ten years. Brutal, of course, encompassing work I love and travel and a new weekly column on library building projects and this really dynamic author panel... I just really wish I had the endurance of 15 years ago to ride the waves. I did write at least one really fun story, though. So I randomly picked Ted Chiang's Exhalation for my next read. The first story is engaging, so far.
And yeah, that Beagin cover is very funny. Good art direction, whoever is responsible.
I'm currently reading Ted Chiang's Exhalation, which I'm so far finding well done and (to someone who doesn't read tons of sf) innovative. I'm enjoying the philosophical flavor as well—that was a nice surprise.
I just read Ted Chiang's Exhalation, which I liked. He walks down the aisle between sf and philosophy and pulls in both sides for each story—so "What's Expected of Us" looks at the conundrum of free will through a sf/tech lens, and "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" is a take on AI and tech obsolescence that turns it into a philosophical/moral issue, bringing in not just the expected Uncanny Valley musings but also thoughts about agency, animal rights, parenthood, and consent. The collection reminded me of reading sf as an early teen, when the good thoughtful stuff (hello, Dangerous Visions) was new and sparked all sorts of deep thoughts... none of Chang's plots is particularly radical, but he approaches them in novel ways and writes well.
Every time I said I was reading this, people would tell me that his last collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, was the real killer, so I'll probably be librarying that one up one of these days. But now for something completely different, and I'm packing Red Clocks for my commute, a donation to my TBR pile and recommendation from a friend.
Read Leni Zumas's Red Clocks thanks to a friend's strong recommendation and physical handoff. I'd stayed away from it when it first came out because it seemed like a bit of a Social Issue Flavor of the Week novel, but I'm so glad it was literally put in my hands because it was great. Really lively, solid writing, without the heavy-handed message I was dreading. That sounds like faint praise, and I don't mean it that way—rather that the story was interesting and nuanced and moral-free (other than the obvious thought that no one should legislate what women do with their bodies), and in fact a lot of fun to read.
Now on to The Wolf and the Watchman, thanks to a few recommendations here. I have a train ride down to DC at the end of the week and a good historical thriller seems like just the thing.
I finished The Wolf and the Watchman, tempted by a few recommendations here, which was an extremely gruesome but very well crafted thriller. The late 18th-century Stockholm setting was terrific—dirty, drunken, mean, and politically fraught—and that's what hooked me in. The crime it hinges on, and some of the plot details, are pretty horrific—mutilation, torture, and more than your garden variety of fecal matter. Almost enough to put me off, and I've got a strong stomach, but in the end it was a twisty, well-written, and dark police procedural (with some medium-necessary flourishes that make me think a few of the characters are going to turn up in a future book), and that kept me reading. And the last sentence is worth the price of admission. This is most definitely not for the faint of heart, though.
Now on to The O. Henry Prize Stories 2019 100th Anniversary Edition, which I think I'm reviewing for LJ.
Invented Lives by Andrea Goldsmith
The Beadworkers: Stories by Beth Piatote
Here Until August by Josephine Rowe
The World Doesn't Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Thanks, Kay! I'll post information about the Festival on my Club Read and 75 Books threads and in the LT Gatherings & Meetups group, to see who else might like to join us. See you there!
Apologies for the thread hijack, Lisa. This free three day festival is one of the largest in the country, and Kay, myself and three other LTers met and had a great time there last year. I'd highly recommend it to all book lovers who can make it!
>107 AlisonY: Well, I figure I've given enough warning in my little capsule review to scare off anyone who'll be automatically revolted by the book's content. It was definitely an engrossing read, though (no pun intended).
>108 kidzdoc: You're not hijacking my thread, you're bringing conversation! Which I really like to see—otherwise it's just an echo chamber for my endless thoughts. I've always wanted to go to the Decatur Book Festival, but it's not library-centric enough for work to send me and I never have the chance to go under my own steam. It sounds like one of the better book fests, though. From all reports this year, BookExpo was a bit of a dud, and I'm glad I didn't go too far out of my way to get over there.
Do see Sotomayor talk if you can—she was at ALA and she was wonderful. Her auditorium talk was actually the first piece of reporting on the conference I wrote up, yesterday. It's still awaiting edits, but I'll post a link here once it's online. Pro tip: Sit either in the front or on one of the aisle seats, anywhere a Supreme Court justice who likes to walk through the crowd might reach. That's her public speaking MO, and it's delightful... her warmth and decency made me feel just the tiniest bit more positive about the justice system in this country, even if she's just 1/12 of one court (albeit an important one). She's a good person.
And... life goes on. Reading does, anyway. I finished The O. Henry Prize Stories#100th Anniversary Edition, which was fun—uneven in parts but never boring. I usually enjoy the O. Henry Prize Stories series. At least in the awards' current form, the work chosen is much less concerned with setting standards for a theoretical short story canon than showcasing a range of up-to-the-minute fiction and offering a snapshot of what interests contemporary writers at a given time. In this batch, the majority of the 20 featured stories build on how identity—social, racial, cultural, familial, sexual, and otherwise—forms and shifts... maybe that's all short stories, but the combination of varied cultures, eras, and experiences throws that area of exploration into slightly sharper relief. Standouts for me: Tessa Hadley's "Funny Little Snake," Sarah Hall's "Goodnight Nobody," Weike Wang's "Omakase," Caolinn Hughes's "Prime," Souvankham Thammavongsa's "Slingshot."
Now reading Mary Gabriel's Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art for my book club. This will be my second 900+ page book this year! But since it's mine, and not a library book (and since I don't think my book club is meeting again until August), I can dawdle a bit and leaven it with a little fiction and catch up on some New Yorkers/NYRBs in between chapters. This is very much up my alley, though, both time period and subject matter. Art ladies! I'm in.
Casting around for a way to break up the 900-plus page Ninth Street Women to get a little fiction into my brain, I had the idea to finish up some of the short story collections I read part but not all of for last year's LJ Best Books. First on my list was my favorite of the unfinished, Mark Slouka's All That Is Left Is All That Matters. And the last few stories didn't disappoint. It's a very elegiac collection, often melancholy but never sentimental, even as the characters contend with losses both small and enormous. Slouka is strong on the form, with a deft control of language and, in particular, plotting—each of his people, even the youngest, meets some form of great change head-on and has to shift their own inner map, either subtly or on a grand scale, and it's to his credit that all are different and seismic in their own ways. A recurring young protagonist, the son of Czech immigrants (as is the author), is particularly engaging as he grapples with his emerging awareness of family dynamics during late-1960s lakeside summers.
Notable stories for me were "Dominion," "The Hare's Mask," "August," and one, "Dog," was so deeply affecting and disturbing—yet beautiful, and really masterful—that it made me sob, and I can't remember the last time a short story did that (Read last fall, and I don't think I can ever read it again, either.) This is a lovely, very adult, body of work.
I figured I'd do the same as I did with the last short story collection, and pick up Lydia Millet's Fight No More where I left off last fall. But as soon as I started reading I a) remembered how much I had liked it and b) realized I didn't remember enough of the nuance of what I'd already read to do justice to it, so I started from the beginning. And I'm glad I did, because the linked short story format is really done justice here. While the stories center around the same general area of white, upper-middle-class (with some exceptions) Los Angeles, and are loosely gathered around the theme of home and family—the central character is a realtor—it's up to the reader to find deeper connections than what's apparent on the surface. Real estate/home is a bulwark against loss, and family is what you're born into but also what you build—also to shore against loss, not to mention against that family you're born into. Sometimes the characters can be a bit cut and dried—you pretty much know who you should root for and who are the bad guys from the beginning—but Millet's enormous compassion for the good ones buoys the book. The writing and dialogue are both terrific, and Millet does the hard-won release of dark humor very well. I'll be seeking out more of her work.
I just started The Best American Essays 2019, for review. Rebecca Solnit edited this batch, so I'm guessing they're going to be more political than human interest, though I know the editors have a mandate to mix it up a bit. The type in this galley is sadly small, so I'm hoping an e-galley shows up before I'm done. But good lighting makes up for inadequate vision for the most part (and maybe this will inspire me to get decent reading glasses—the prescription I currently have is all wrong and only good for writing/drawing). And still reading Ninth Street Women.
Also saw Toy Story 4 a couple of weekends ago and I dunno, I must have needed the release because I laughed my stupid head off. The henchmen!
I brought the kids to see Toy Story 4 last week, and it must have been OK as I stayed awake the whole way through which doesn't often happen when we go to the movies! It was a stroll down memory lane, as the doll in the antique shop was just like a couple of dolls I had when I was a kid.
>122 AlisonY: >123 valkyrdeath: It's a good film to see with someone who likes to geek out on filmmaking, because there's so much really well-accomplished behind-the-curtain work.
>123 valkyrdeath: Those were two of the best collections I've read in the past year. Interested to hear what you think when you get to them.
While working on that I had a brief envious moment of thinking that the NYT obit writer has it awfully good--a research staff, probably, and not a million other side projects when she needs to come up with an obituary on the fly--but I got over it.
I know, I know... it's a really cool job and you can't have it both ways. And at least they don't have me swabbing the toilets. Yet.
And as life would have it, my library hold of A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World just came in, so now I have three books going at once.
I finished Best American Essays 2019, which is a good snapshot of what writers—and a lot of us—are thinking about at the end of this very weird decade. Very good, complex work in this one. I would have liked to have seen a few more non-American voices included (the essays have to be published in North America in English, but that shouldn't exclude foreign-born folks), but on the other hand I was glad to see good Indigenous representation. And, of course—Rebecca Solnit is the guest editor—an abundance of women's voices. At least two of the essays, by J. Drew Lanham and Terese Marie Mailhot, impressed me enough that now I want to read their books (The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature and Heart Berries: A Memoir, respectively. A good collection, worth reading. Working on a review of this for LJ now.
Close to the end of A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, which I'm enjoying a lot.
Also still reading Ninth Street Women (with many breaks), and yesterday I took the day off and hit up an exhibit in Chelsea, "Painters of the East End," that had work from some of the women profiled in the book. Cool show, very small but beautifully chosen and hung. I'd had a date to see the show with friends last Friday and then had a work emergency, so I made it a point to take myself, and saw a few other things around the neighborhood while I was at it, including some excellent, very exuberant large sculptures. It was fun to take even a partial art day... it's been too long since I did that.
Today's my housekeeping day, since I ended up working all last weekend. I vacuumed the upstairs, but when I came down to do the rest of the house I found my husband asleep on the couch. And since he's been working a schedule that's probably more brutal than mine, I figured the decent thing to do would be to let him sleep and finish my book instead... a hardship, but you do such things for the people you love.
Ate up the last few chapters of A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, which was every bit as good as folks here have said—a good rollicking dystopian adventure story, fun characters, and great dogs (even the "bad" dog is cool). I could probably have done without the constant little bits of portentous foreshadowing sprinkled through the story, but they eased up as more of the action they pointed to got underway. I'm also really glad to see that people are honoring the author's wishes not to give spoilers—I very much liked being surprised by the plot twists. The ending was satisfying, and has a strong whiff of a sequel, which I will most definitely read.
I also thought the literary references were interesting choices—the sf/fantasy that Griz read wasn't too surprising, but there were also some nods to books that cross between science, literature, and faith. That was well played, I thought.
Now on to an upcoming (out in October) short story collection, Driving in Cars with Homeless Men.
I have now apparently gone through enough litters of kittens and homed enough stray cats that I'm considered enough of an expert to be asked to review Kitten Lady's Big Book of Little Kittens for LJ. The author, Hannah Shaw, has an adult book on kitten rescue that just came out, Tiny But Mighty: Kitten Lady's Guide to Saving the Most Vulnerable Felines, and this upcoming one is for the 4-8 set. Really adorable photos, and a sweet overview that doesn't seem to be more than a small kid could deal with. I'm sure lots of little would-be kitten fosters will be driving their parents nuts after reading this, but I'm all for it, and this was a fun book—way, way outside my usually traveled path.
>137 valkyrdeath: It isn't at all like the Ellison story—it's dystopian, set in a future in which most of mankind has died off, but that's the extent of any similarities. But the protagonist, Grizz, reads a lot of 20th-century science fiction and fantasy, so the title might very well be a subtle homage (the Ellison is never alluded to).
I thought Kate Wisel's Driving in Cars with Homeless Men was a terrific debut. Not for everyone though—along with the usual caveat for those of you who don't like short fiction (although the stories are strongly linked), there's a lot of alcohol and drug use, family and relationship dysfunction, and a fair amount of violence. That said, it's really stunning. The book follows four young women growing up in Boston, jumping around in time from childhood to young adulthood. They all hail from situations that now would be politely termed "underserved," but these girls are definitely underserved by the world at large, their families (which is to say mothers, as fathers are hardly in the picture)—everyone but each other, and they love each other fiercely while being unable to actually help each other in any way. I know "incandescent" is totally overused in reviews, but this collection absolutely burns with a hot blue flame—of rage, loyalty, and a kind of unrequited self-love, and the anger that comes with not having enough of what you need and too much of what you don't want. The writing is dense and beautiful, and the pacing is sharply self-aware—just when you think you've had too much of these young women's misery, some light and pleasure flares... although never too much, and never enough really. It's a rough ride, but a worthwhile one if you're up for it (it's not out until October, but that's... soon. Where did the summer go?)
>141 avaland: It is a great title, even more so for not only not being a title of one of the stories but, as far as I remember, not even a directly quoted line. It is something that happens, and—interestingly, given the book's general arc—one of the less bad decisions these young women make.
I finished the new Zadie Smith collection, Grand Union: Stories, and have mixed feelings about it. As I said above, she's so smart—and I think her work is best when she's showing off her brilliance as a creative writer and dialoguist (I'm sure there's an actual word for that but it escapes me at the moment), channeling other voices to weave strange and wonderful realities or provide a sharp, skewed commentary on the contemporary day. When the voice and characters are closer to her own I like the work less—there's an odd blurring of short story, memoir, and essay going on in a few of the pieces that didn't work for me, as much as I enjoy seeing the gears in her excellent brain turn. I have to review for LJ and that's going to be an interesting job... these are actual consumer reviews, not just "I liked it/I didn't" but "should you buy it for your library?" With some books, like the last one I reviewed for them (Driving in Cars with Homeless Men), there was very little distinction between the two. This will be more of a challenge because it's interesting and challenging and will appeal to Smith's fans, and just because I didn't love it doesn't mean I want to push people away from it.
Now I'm about to start another first collection, Rion Amilcar Scott's The World Doesn't Require You, which is getting super buzz so I have big hopes (as I always do when I start a book, honestly).
I read Rion Amilcar Scott's The World Doesn't Require You on a recent work trip that logged a good half as much travel time as time spent on the ground. It's a collection of short stories and one novella, set in Scott's invented town of Cross River, MD, site of the only successful slave uprising. The stories here are all deeply concerned with race and racism, and Scott pulls from an unusual toolbox to tell them—sf/fantasy, folklore, and some very dark social satire—to also take on religion, music hierarchies, sexism (particularly the idea of women's erasure by men), blackface/minstrelsy, and academia, which gets a whopping big twist of the knife. These are really smart, dark, and definitely challenging. They shift shape even within a single story—the novella is a bricolage of changing first-person narrative, email, essay drafts, and a syllabus—and while reading, they sometimes felt overly diffused. But there's no denying their power, and they've stuck in my head since I finished. This isn't an easy or outright entertaining book (though it certainly serves that purpose), but it's fascinating and worth reading.
Now reading Karen Russell's Orange World and Other Stories, a few of which I've already read elsewhere and enjoyed enough to reread this time around. Still fun stuff—she's smart and super accessible, an interesting change from my previous read.
And this dude who was unimpressed with us:
Finished Karen Russell's new book of short stories, Orange World. I called it "delightful" on another thread, and I think that's going to be my standing adjective for this collection, in all senses of the word. I love how you can see Russell's imagination at work, the "what if?" behind every story—whether it's (perhaps) a photograph she may have seen, or a news item, or a question in her own head, there's this wonderful authorial inquisitiveness bubbling under the surface of each one. Some are set in the past, some in the future; there's quite a bit of magical realism—not always my favorite trends in recent short fiction—but it's more on the allegorical tip and it works for me here. Altogether just a very enjoyable collection.
Now I have to read piecemeal in order to evaluate 16 more books in the next month for LJ's Best Books. I started on Black Light, which is kind of a dark horse that was longlisted for the National Book Awards... it's a little miserypornia-ish out of the gate, but we'll see. That's in print, and I have Kate Walbert's She Was Like That fired up on my iPad.
Garden of the Gods has is both really cool and beautiful...and also convenient. Never seen balanced rock. Sounds like a lot of travel, though. Welcome home. Hoping your rush for the Lj best list is enjoyable.
Case in point, I'm now doing some serious reading for the LJ Best Books short stories category, which means reading about five stories into each book. It's both fun, because I get to read a LOT of different authors, and frustrating, because I'm a bit of a completist and I really do believe in the integrity of the collection—the album vs. the singles. Although many of these collections aren't necessarily put together with that in mind—so I'm not necessarily missing out on that experience—but sometimes they are.
I read about halfway into Black Light, which I found more compelling as I went along—also a little extra interested because the author grew up in the same town my husband did, Lubbock, TX. It's definitely a strong debut, and I see why it was longlisted for the NBAs.
Also read half of Kate Walbert's She Was Like That, which I enjoyed—though I found myself a little played out on the general milieu of upper middle class high-maintenance women she writes about, even though the writing is strong and she hits her stories from a lot of different angles.
Now on to Instructions for a Funeral. The first story is full of dense paragraphs and long sentences and it was the end of a verrrry long day so I didn't get super far.
I need a good night's sleep, because I was up late last night putting finishing touches on and posting a new Bloom piece, an interview with Dina Nayeri, whose new book, The Ungrateful Refugee, is doing really well (and is very worth a read). I had asked her back in the spring, when she was on a panel I did for an LJ author event, if she wanted to do a Bloom Q&A, and that was a good call because the book is getting a lot of good buzz, including being a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. The piece is here; as always, please don't feel obligated. But she's a good interview, no real credit to me.
David Means's Instructions for a Funeral was good but dense and talky, more tell than show, and what I read felt more masculine than I was in the mood for. Now reading Elise Levine's This Wicked Tongue, which so far is coming from that school of short fiction where the author wants to always leave the reader slightly off balance and unsure of what's going on... and I'm not sure yet if I appreciate that or not. Stay tuned.
Do you mean Deborah Eisenberg? She's a favorite of mine—I did a profile of her for Bloom, and have followed her work for years. Her The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg is just the best thing... I gave my copy away to a friend and should probably re-buy someday.
This Wicked Tongue didn't quite do it for me—some good stuff but a bit too all over the place. Had to stop halfway, though, and move on. Now I'm one story into Carrianne Leung's That Time I Loved You, which is much more conventional storytelling (I like what I've read so far, though) and Philip Caputo's Hunter's Moon—well done and also very male so far, but I'm early in.
I'm supposed to be skipping around but I just read all of Maryse Meijer's Rag (it was short). It was really dark, visceral, often gruesome—all about the pull of blood and violence and how hard it can be to connect to another human being—but also kind of thrilling and very effectively written, without bells and whistles. I read straight through without blinking. Not for the faint of heart, but weirdly wonderful.
Anyway, I've read part or most of I'm reading Brian Evenson's Song for the Unraveling of the World, a short story collection of the kind of horror that I find very goofy—like scary campfire stories with a slightly grunge sensibility—and totally entertaining; That Time I Loved You by Carianne Leung—very good, not remarkable, but something I think would be well served by reading the entire collection so I'll be going back to it; and Amy Hempel's Sing to It, which is so good in the way that Amy Hempel is always so good but I'm not sure it it's up there with her best work. The last piece is a long story/novella and I'm still reading that one.
Now I'm reading Etgar Keret's Fly Already—light stories for dark subjects, something he's good at.
I'm in the home stretch of short story reading but I had to finish Amy Hempel's Sing to It because the last story was a novella, and it felt important to see how she pulled it off. And it was a good collection throughout in the way that Hempel is always so good, though not quite as strong as her earlier stuff that packed such a wallop. But I love her close, economical attention to language. In other authors that can feel like it's in the service of the writer (hi Lorrie Moore, whom I do like), but Hempel's craft always feels like it's for her readers. There's this milk of human kindness that just flows through her work that always wins me over.
I loved Fly Already—had to sadly stop halfway through because unless the second half just totally goes south for some reason I know it's going on the list, but I'll definitely finish because I it was such a pleasure. The stories are like koans, in a way—humorous and dark at the same time, commenting on something just outside the edges of the story, weirdly perceptive but always with a gentle touch.
Also enjoyed the half of Xuan Juliana Wang's Home Remedies I read. The stories, most set in China or about Chinese immigrants to the U.S., have an interesting, sometimes odd, cadence to them, but totally sidestep what I think of as the MFA story rhythm. I would like to read more of this one also.
Now I've read half of Jac Jemc's False Bingo, which fell into a slot with a lot of other stuff I've been seeing—odd stories exploring isolation, body horror, alienation of one sort or another, including writer from reader. Interesting but a little off-putting. I'll still probably finish because the stories are different enough from each other to keep me reading.
Also half of Edwidge Danticat's Everything Inside, which I thought was strong. She's such a good storyteller—not outside the box, but atmospheric and emotionally intelligent, and her timing is impeccable. Strong cultural conscience—Haitians in and out of Haiti, love, betrayal.
Now reading Ashley Wurzbacher's Happy Like This. I'm very early in but it hooked me right off.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine's Sabrina & Corina was excellent—lovely writing, solid, evocative. An interesting look at Latinx life, mostly sisters and mothers, that doesn't get the fiction treatment as often, and she never defaulted to clichés while doing it. And while this didn't affect my opinion of the book at all, her author photo is so gorgeous it hurts my eyeballs. Another on the pile to finish.
Benjam Percy's Suicide Woods was full of great, very specific writing, and scary, but I'm not sure if the plots of each quite deliver structurally all the way through. Maybe it's just that horror isn't my usual genre so my expectations are different? Anyway, well done and creepy as hell, and I'll finish this one too—I'm actually almost done because I skipped to the last, longest story at the Book Reviews editor's (my co-judge) suggestion. Which was super creepy and worth the time investment.
Julia Armfield's Salt Slow: tales of transmogrification and body alienation, and very well done. Very, very female, to me—I'd be interested in hearing from a guy who's read it. I'll finish.
Ayse Paptya Bucak's The Trojan War Museum was good, contemporary, and well written if not incredibly compelling.The first was the standout of what I read but I haven't gotten very far in and will continue with it because I'm interested in her story lines.
And that's it for Best Books judging! I'll link to the final article online in November, if it's not behind a paywall. It was a great long list as a whole, with some interesting through-themes—body horror/alienation being one. Maybe unsurprisingly, it's picked up more by the women authors in the group (although Brian Evenson's horror stories touch on it from a male viewpoint). At least two or three of the books had a character who pulled out her eyelashes. But I can kind of relate—not to the eyelashes thing, but the general concept: horror everywhere outside of us, that alienation from our own sense of self, and where does the line between the two end (or cross)? The other interesting allegorical trope that turned up in at least three of the books was dead birds falling out of the sky. Again, a good enough metaphor, but it started to get funny when it turned up so many times.
Now I've gone back to Home Remedies, since it's a library book. I'm liking it a lot—her voice is fresh and not standard fare. Also finishing up, slowly, Ninth Street Women. The book club I'm reading it for met yesterday and, surprise, none of us had finished. But it's a good account of the times, both cultural and political, and we all really liked it and intend to keep going.
Anyway, now that I'm done with the big push I can go back to some of the ones I liked and savor them.
Finished Home Remedies, which I liked a lot. The stories mainly center around Chinese young adults, some living in China and some immigrants, or first-generation living in America (or having returned to China, an interesting setup). But that's about where the similarities between the stories ends—they're all interesting, un-clichéd, and unpredictable, and there's enough intergenerational play to keep the stories from being too Millennial-centric. The writing is fresh, unpretentious and, again, often surprising. I absolutely didn't know what to expect from one page to the next, and the collection as a whole had a real sense of wisdom to it.
Home Remedies sounds terrific.
Yesterday I finished up Benjamin Percy's horror collection Suicide Woods—good creepy fun, very atmospheric in a specific descriptive way that just gets under your skin. Percy's strength is in the setup—characters, scenery, premise—and a little less so carrying the plot through, but he's good enough at the former to see every story to a satisfyingly scary end.
Finished Kali Fajardo-Anstine's Sabrina & Corina, which is a terrific debut collection. Fajardo-Anstine is writing about a very specific slice of American culture—Western Chicanas of indigenous ancestry, set mostly in Colorado—but she never reverts to type or falls into any sort of shorthand. These stories are about the many permutations of love and family, and the (mostly) mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts here are wonderful creations. There is so much heart in this collection, and so much good writing as well. Really nicely done all the way through—a pleasure.
I finished Etgar Keret's Fly Already, which I liked enormously. Like modern Zen koans, Keret's mostly pretty short stories add up to more than the sum of their parts. From “Goodeed,” an app connecting rich women with homeless men, to a future army that enlists high schoolers by offering Pokémon Go–type prizes, these are darkly funny pieces that gently but pointedly comment on how we live now.
Now reading something else for review that won't be out for a while, Lily Tuck's upcoming Heathcliff Redux and Other Stories. The first story, which is the title piece and a novella, starts out in 1960s Virginia horse country... an interesting and kind of unexpected choice from here in 2019.
I didn't love Heathcliff Redux. I see what Tuck was trying to do—the disconnect between what is felt in the crush of passion or privilege, and what is real—but it feels like she misses the mark. Possibly because with one novella and four short stories there wasn't enough room for her to really stretch, but I also feel like the title novella should have at least carried a whiff of the passion it references all over the place (passages from Wuthering Heights and its timeline of a doomed love affair), but it's more cool to the touch, whether by design or just in comparison to the Brontë.
Enjoyed The Testaments, found it entertaining, but I'm not sure it lived up to the power and that deep interior sense of dread of The Handmaid's Tale... though it's been so long since I read that one that I'm rereading it now, so we'll see. I was also kind of distracted in the beginning of the book by the question of why Atwood named a character Paula Saunders, who is in real life an author and married to George Saunders. It can't be coincidence—I briefly Googled and see that Atwood and George Saunders were both lecture speakers at Syracuse University in 2018, and they seem to have a high regard for each other. I'm assuming that if Atwood is going to use someone's name in such a prominent novel it's in fun, not as a dig, but I have to say as a little private joke in the heat of the novel it did throw me out of the action a bit.
On a brighter note, I enjoy the little insights into all these new short story collections, and your perspective on The Testaments. I’ll check out the LJ selections.
Finally finished my LJ review of Heathcliff Redux, a week late but that's not a big deal—they assign everything with some wiggle room, and at least my copy is clean when I submit it. It's so much harder to write about a book I didn't like, and communicate that while being fair to the book and/or the author's intent. And that in 200 words. I think I got it, finally.
I'm really glad I'm reading The Handmaid's Tale right after The Testaments. It's giving me a much stronger picture of why the first was so affecting and the second felt more like an engaging dystopian novel rather than a life-changer. More on that when I'm done with the former.
I'm sorry for the loss of your Harriet. I'm glad you recognize the value of the love and security you gave her, but of course that doesn't make up for the absence she leaves behind.
>187 markon: Probably easier to be patient when you already have a household full of animals. Plus not our first time at the rescue rodeo, so we were fine with just letting her be her for as long as it takes. Alvy needed years before you could pet him, and he turned into a real snuggler, so he was our inspiration.
Right now I've got a kitty in our spare room that I hope is a foster. I'd love to find her a home, and I think she'd be easy—she's very affectionate, cuddly, and quite pretty—but she doesn't seem to get how to use the litterbox. She'll do her business on things—a towel, or a wee-wee pad in a low litterbox—but irregularly also, which makes me wonder if she's got something wrong. I brought her in to the vet for testing and shots on Friday, and she's been in our second bedroom, but I'm thinking I might ask about bringing her in tomorrow with my dog (who needs an ultrasound because her UTI isn't going away). Not least because we have company coming for Thanksgiving through the weekend and I'm going to have to let her out into the rest of the house, and I really don't want her running up to the attic and pooping in a box of family photos or something.
Rereading that sentence, I guess we're officially crazy cat (and dog) people now.
To follow up The Testaments, I reread The Handmaid's Tale for the first time in probably 30 years, and it's still really chilling. The fact that the narrator has lived through this horrible cultural shift, and where she is in her levels of acceptance/horror with it all, makes the book so much more immediate than than the sequel. Plus the fact that I was closer to her age in the book when I read it (and, as the Great Wheel turns, now I'm closer to Aunt Lydia's). But it's still horrifying, because Atwood has set up a scenario between now and then that is believable, if not probable, and is perhaps even more so now.
But gee, even it runs out of steam a bit at the end, which I didn't remember. I'm not sure if it's that denouement, with its clever little jabs at academic symposia—though one thing that hadn't registered when I was in my 20s was that it was also a vehicle for showing how that kind of casual, jokey misogyny made its way so quickly back into normal discourse (or: had never disappeared from it outside the borders of Gilead). Or maybe the whole Jezebel's sequence was jarring enough to throw me out of that state of dread. Anyway, it's a hell of a book, even with my quibbles, and I'm glad I reread.
Now I'm reading Caitlin Horrocks's The Vexations, which I've been hot to read since it came out. I finally went into the library catalog and figured out that it wasn't part of the regular ebook interface, but was still in the old one, so I snapped it up and now I've got it and am enjoying it. The book—a novelization of the life of Erik Satie and Belle Époque Paris—hasn't gotten a lot of reviews, so we'll see if she can pull off the interest for 400+ pages.
I've got The Vexations on hold for a day or two to read Lidia Yuknavich's latest short story collection, Verge, for review. It's powerful stuff but maybe hitting the same note a bit too consistently... we'll see. But I'm really enjoying The Vexations and hope that I'll be able to get the ebook from the library again once my checkout expires, which it surely will before I finish. I didn't get a ton of reading in over the long weekend because we had company and I did the lion's share (OK, all) of the cooking, and we ended up catching a couple of movies too. Back to the grind this morning, though.
The stories in Verge were nearly all angry, visceral, violent. But while the tones and themes echoed all the way through, each piece surprised in its own way, and the writing was quite elegant. I was torn between exhaustion—all that body intensity and rage—and interest in what Yuknavich was up to. A dark read, without a lot of variation in mood, but propulsive and sometimes fascinating.
Sorry to hear about your puddy tat. Funny, mine is the same in that she's not keen on being picked up, despite being handled loads as a kitten. Annoyingly she likes the odd cuddle from my husband, despite him taking little to do with her. Must be the old 'treat her mean, keep her keen' working there.
>195 dchaikin: Thanks, Dan. I've become one of the go-to short story reviewers at LJ, which is a funny niche. But I enjoy it.
I read the book for the first time in 2018 if you want to read my thoughts about it on that thread. I didn't really write a review per se as much as I was commenting on a particular scene in the book but overall I thought it was an excellent book and definitely would recommend it. Let's see if >198 AlisonY: can read it soon rather than later!
Finished Caitlin Horrocks's The Vexations, which I quite liked. The pacing is slow but the writing is lovely, and the book as a whole is very sweet, if a bit shaggy at times. The characters, Erik Satie and his family and a few people in his orbit ("friends" isn't quite the word) are often obtuse even to themselves and able to connect only in small explosions of affection (except for younger brother Conrad, who is the steadfast rudder of everyone's lives). Still, they're sweet in spite of—or maybe because of—their essential sadnesses. Mothers and sons don't fare well here, although not for lack of love. The final part in sister Louise's voice, about how the dead brush against you softly like fur, is worth the price of admission alone—particularly the passage where she has a clerk in a department store take out all the fur coats and walks among them, just to commune: "Hello ghosts. You are so, so soft."
It's worth having Satie's music in your head when you open the book, even just the Gymnopédies—and if you think you're not familiar with them you're probably wrong. Give them a listen on YouTube. They're very nice and an effective soundtrack to the entire novel.
It's pretty Christmas-free in our house this year. No tree, no gifts, no special meal—I'm just happy to have shuffled to the end of the year and have the next week and a half off to catch up on sleep and see friends. We were going to do charitable giving for the holidays, as we usually do, but our dear cat Francis has to spend a couple of days at the emergency vet's for pancreatitis. We have pet insurance on him, but that won't come through for another month and a half at least, so... looks like Francis is our charitable giving this year. It's OK—he's worth it. It's sunny, headed up to the 40s, and decidedly a non-white Christmas—which, as primary household shoveler, is A-OK with me. I'm not very festive, I guess. But I got to see the kid before he headed upstate with his girlfriend to do their thing, and he's a joy. And I have lots of excellent holiday reading on my docket, and today we're going to go see a movie.
I have a couple of books I'm reading right now: The Sea Journal: Seafarers' Sketchbooks, which is a big fat art book of excerpts from diaries and log books and sketchbooks, just as armchair-explorer dreamy as you'd think. I reviewed it for LJ, as I did its predecessor, Explorers' Sketchbooks: the Art of Discovery and Adventure. Job perks!
I'm also reading a book that I put on hold for reasons I cannot for the life of me recall. I tend to put holds on library ebooks impulsively when I'm up too late the way people click on Amazon—same gratification, minus the "instant" part, since there's a wait... but that's actually kind of fun, and when the hold comes in it's like a surprise. Especially if I can't remember why I chose it in the first place, like this one: Spider in a Tree, which is historical fiction about the 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards, his family, and his slaves. So far it's well written, a bit sedate, and I have no idea where it's going. This seems like it was a pretty under-the-radar novel when it was published, and I must have read a review here or elsewhere on a "Best Books You've Never Heard Of" list. But it's an interesting subject and period, and I'll keep going.
Also rereading—or re-skimming—two books by Jen Beagin, Pretend I'm Dead and Vacuum in the Dark, because I'm doing a Q&A with her for Bloom and am working up my questions.
I'll also make time the book I had set aside for this little vacation, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse. I had picked it up at work a couple of months ago because I loved the cover, but I'd never heard of it otherwise—and suddenly it's on all these year-end Best-Of lists. So, win-win. It's not for everyone—kids/animals, hand lettering rather than set type, and I'm sure a fair amount of whimsy—but the illustrations are just gorgeous and it's wintery, which is enough for me. Plus I like moles, foxes, and horses.
(Edited to add: Oh, and boys.)
I think she and the dog are gossiping about us.
Unfortunately our sick cat, Francis, isn't improving as much as I'd like, so he may be back to the vet tomorrow. I'd take him today but that would mean back to the emergency vet, but while I think he got very good care there I'd rather he was with our regular vet, and he's eating a little—enough to hang in for another day, anyway. But I'm worried about him. He's always been one of those perfect-health cats and it's sad to see him so deflated (in more ways than one—he was also our fat boy).
So most of my "vacation" has been spent sitting with him in the spare bedroom, petting him, or else driving up to various vets. Getting a little reading in while I sit with him, at least—Spider in a Tree is slow and solemn but I'm enjoying it. I do like that intersection of historical fiction and tales of faith.
So I'd like a little less loss in 2020, please, and a bit less drama. I know the universe doesn't take requests, but hey—worth a try.
My last book finished in 2020 was The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, a lovely little book of affirmations that somehow manages to fall more to the side of earnestness and kindness than sentimentality. Mostly thanks to the beautiful gestural ink and watercolor illustrations and brush lettering. It's a really nice package, with a gentle animal-centric theme. This was a good note to end the year on.
Oh, I almost forgot—I finished Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfortable by the Faculty Of The Cummings School Of Veterinary Medicine At Tufts University while sitting up with my good old dog. It's solid advice, with some interesting facts about canine health I didn't know before. Recommended if you've got a senior pooch.
>213 RidgewayGirl: Aw, bless her. Old dogs are the sweetest. This book isn't going to tell you anything groundbreaking, but it's a good primer for what to expect and watch for. I think our old girl may be winding down—she's 14-1/2, lab-sized, and has had a full and lovely life... which doesn't make this any easier.