Reading Indie Newsletter

I’ve decided to start a Substack newsletter called “Reading Indie” as a place to record my bookish thoughts and experiences. I’ll be focusing on independent press books and books in translation. I’m hoping to write once a week, maybe less often during busy periods at work. I’ve had a great time with this blog, but I also feel like it’s time to start something new and heading into a new year is the perfect time to do it.

My newsletters will be similar to blog posts: thoughts on my reading, recommendations, etc. All newsletters are free, and you can subscribe to have them sent to your email, or you can read them anytime online (and comment if you want!). See you over there!

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Ferrante Fever

I finally got around to reading the second Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novel, after reading the first three years ago. I bought the second, The Story of a New Name, immediately after finishing the first, My Brilliant Friend, but then it sat on my shelf. Story of my life, of course. I don’t do particularly well with series; I’ll read the first and even if I like it, I’m on to something entirely new, with a vague intention of getting back to the second in the series eventually, which rarely happens. (I have read all of the Julia Spencer-Fleming books — oops, except for the most recent one published this year — and not because they are amazing so much but because they are… I’m not sure why I’ve read all those actually. They are solid, enjoyable, but I may not get to the last one.)

I liked My Brilliant Friend but didn’t fall in love with it. I remember reading most of it on a plane coming home from Ireland, and it kept me good company. The books are absorbing, and I remember the ending vividly. My Brilliant Friend seemed kind of plainly written? I liked reading about two friends, and I liked getting a glimpse of life in Naples in the mid-20th century. It was fine.

I also read Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment back in 2014. I got the ebook version from Emily Books (R.I.P.). I miss Emily Books! I didn’t always love their selections and I prefer to read books in print, but they introduced me to so many interesting authors I wouldn’t have read or possibly even heard about otherwise. (I know they still exist in conjunction with Coffee House Press, but I mean their monthly subscription service.) I wasn’t sure what to make of Days of Abandonment. I don’t remember it well. I remember the anger and the intensity and not much else. I think I might respond to it differently now.

I also — and I’m not sure why I did this but I have no regrets — read The Ferrante Letters last year, a book by four writers/scholars — Sarah Chihiya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards — that is basically a group read of the Neapolitan novels. This is obviously a book to read after finishing the series, but I didn’t feel the need to finish it first, and I got a lot out of the book anyway. In The Ferrante Letters, the authors exchange letters about the novels that are a mix of criticism and personal response, and then they each contribute a more formal critical essay on the series. I love books about books and books that take a personal approach to criticism, and this one was extremely good. It didn’t really matter to me that I hadn’t read most of the primary texts. I would get more out of the criticism were I to reread it now…but I won’t.

As for Story of a New Name, I was enthralled. I’ve finally caught Ferrante fever! I’m not exactly sure why it happened with this book and not the others, although at least one person told me this was the best book in the series, so maybe it’s just better than the others (perhaps this is why I don’t finish series, since often someone tells me what I’m reading is the best one and then I don’t want to continue?). I was so caught up in the character of Elena. I truly felt what it was like for her to have academic success but to doubt her abilities, to go back and forth in her feelings for Lila, to be obsessed with someone who isn’t obsessed back and who then falls in love with someone else. To want to leave your family and home town but to feel desperately afraid of what it takes to do it. To lose interest in the studying that will, possibly, open up future opportunities because hanging out with friends is too much fun. To lie to one’s mother to hang out with a boy. To move to a new place and become — or almost become — someone else. I could go on.

The book is so melodramatic! The emotions are over-the-top, the actions and speeches are large, the family drama never-ending. But this is what it can be like when you’re in your late teens and early twenties, as these characters are, I suppose. It all feels very…overdetermined? Let me be clear that I liked this quality very much. Of course Lila paints and papers over a large photograph of herself and turns it into a masterpiece of modern art! Of course Elena throws Lila’s writing into a river! Of course those particular things happen on a beach! Of course…well, I don’t want to get further into spoiler territory. There are many obvious symbols, many actions with weighty meaning, many stereotypical steps that Elena takes toward becoming a writer. It all feels so fraught and important and, unlike a soap opera, I guess, utterly believable and real.

This is not the sort of book I usually fall in love with, but it’s just what I needed toward the end of a strange semester and strange year. Whatever instinct it was that made me wait three years to get to this book was right.


Filed under Books

Fall 2020 Reading

I’m going to do a quick update on my fall reading, since the last time I wrote here was August. Summers and winter break are my best blogging times, it seems, and here I am again, nearing the end of the semester, with a little more time on my hands. Just a little, though.

I read quite a lot this fall. As the election loomed and COVID got worse and worse, I found myself beginning to reread more and more. I read Drifts by Kate Zambreno in May and loved it so much I reread it in August. It was lovely to dive back into a book with a voice and atmosphere I found comforting. I reread Zadie Smith’s Intimations, the second time through on audio instead of the ebook galley I first read. It’s a fabulous audiobook! Smith reads the book herself and in a couple places she does accents and even sings. It’s marvelous.

A little later in the fall I reread Elisa Gabbert’s The Word Pretty, which is an essay collection I think any avid reader would like. Then I reread Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know, partly because I loved it very much, and partly in preparation for reading the next book in her planned trilogy of memoirs, The Cost of Living (which I would like to reread at some point!). I heard recently that the third book will be coming out next year, and I’m eagerly looking forward to it.

Here are a few other books that were meaningful to me:

  • Marie NDiaye’s That Time of Year (translated by Jordan Stump). This was spooky and weird in the best way. I’m generally not much of a horror reader, but this fits the genre and I loved it.
  • Brian Dillon’s Essayism. I love essays and books about essays, and this was both very smart about the genre and gorgeously written (I might want to reread this one day). The essays are personal as well as critical — the best mode.
  • Moyra Davey’s Index Cards. This was personal essays with a lot of material about art, literature, and film.
  • Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole (translated by David Boyd). This is another book that could be called literary horror. It’s short, weird, and haunting.
  • Rachel Zucker’s MOTHERs. This book isn’t easily available, which is unfortunate, because I LOVED IT. I would tell everyone I know who likes the kind of books I like to read this if I could. It’s a book about Zucker’s relationship with her mother and also her relationships with her literary “mothers,” those who taught her to write and influenced her writing. It’s intense and complicated, and one I definitely plan to reread.
  • Kate Zambreno’s Appendix Project. I have read four Zambreno books this year (one of them twice). Obviously, she’s a central writer for me. Appendix Project is sort of a companion to her Book of Mutter. It’s about a lot of things including what it was like to write Book of Mutter and what she omitted from it and why. Zambreno has a new book coming out this spring — a sort of response to Herve Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life — and I can’t wait.
  • Renee Gladman’s Calamities. This is another essay collection. It’s based on her day-to-day life but touches on writing, language, identity.

Right now I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, the second in her Neapolitan series. I love it so much! I thought the first book was fine, back when I read it in 2017, but this second one has really gripped me.

I hope your fall has been full of wonderful reading!


Filed under Books

10 Great Indie Press Releases for Summer (Book Riot)

This post originally appeared on Book Riot.

It’s time for some great new books from independent presses! Below you will find ten new books from ten different publishers. The list includes novels, short story collections, memoirs, and essay collections. The authors come from countries all around the world, including South Korea, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, Liberia, and the United States.

Don’t forget that August is Women in Translation Month! If you are celebrating (and why wouldn’t you be??) and are looking for recommendations, five of the books below are translated books by women. You will find great discussion and many more recommendations on the #WomenInTranslation twitter feed run by Meytal Radzinski, Women in Translation Month founder.

Now on to the books. Check out the list to find some great new reads and maybe a new favorite independent press!


This collection of short stories combines realism and horror to explore fraught relationships. Many of the stories are about families, especially women struggling with lovers and husbands or examining their feelings about their children. One woman watches her husband quit his job, supposedly to become a carpenter, and then become obsessed with noisy upstairs neighbors to a bizarre degree. Another learns disturbing information about her fiancé after meeting his friends. A mother agonizes over memories of her daughter a year after losing her in a terrible fire. Another story is told from the perspective of a person who has drowned. The stories’ characters and settings are varied, but together they form an eerie, disturbing, fascinating whole.


This Is One Way to Dance cover


I feel a special connection to this essay collection because many of the pieces discuss living in Rochester, New York, which is where I grew up. This book also impressed me with its insightful, personal exploration of race, culture, family, and writing. Shah writes about joyful dancing at weddings and about moving around the country following jobs and then returning home again. She writes about food, travel, studying creative writing, and what it was like to grow up in a small Gujarati community in a predominantly white suburb. Her essays are sometimes like prose poems and other times more focused on narrative. They are warm, wide-ranging, and a pleasure to read.


A Fish Growing Lungs cover


A Fish Growing Lungs is a linked essay collection about Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn’s diagnosis of Bipolar I at 18 and her later realization that this diagnosis was a mistake. Sawchyn writes about her experiences with mental illness and drug use. She explores relationships with doctors, struggles with medications, and complicated inheritances from both sides of her family. She also writes about her slow movement toward a more stable place. The essays are often inventive in form, searching for new ways to describe inner states. Their range of tones and subjects—she also writes about music and friendship among other things—keep the book lively and varied. This is a powerful, nuanced, honest take on struggle and growth.



Mercy by Marcia Trahan cover


Marcia Trahan found herself watching true crime television shows with an obsession that made her wonder why she needed them so badly. This memoir is an account of that obsession and her exploration into a series of difficult medical encounters that left her feeling violated. After battling thyroid cancer and dangerous blood clots, she knew that doctors were there to help her and that they had saved her life, but she felt a level of anger toward them that didn’t make logical sense. The only thing that soothed her were those violent true crime shows. Trahan’s journey toward understanding how these threads connect makes for fascinating reading. Mercy is a sensitive, wise look at the unexpected ways our bodies and minds make sense of trauma.

Disaster Tourist Yun Ko-eun cover


This is a novel about work, feminism, travel, and disasters. Yona’s job is to create travel packages for people who want to tour disaster zones: sites of earthquakes, tsunamis, sinkholes, etc. Yona has done her job effectively for years, but now her boss is sexually harassing her and her work is getting undermined and ignored. She’s worried about losing her job. Her boss suggests that she take a “vacation,” which is really just a working trip to the island of Mui to assess its value as a tourist destination. Once she arrives there, things start to go very wrong. This is a quick, enjoyable read that deals with serious questions about the value of work, of workers, and of humanity.


The Bitch Pilar Quintana cover


Set in the Colombian jungle, this novel tells the story of Damaris, a woman in her 40s who adopts a puppy to ease her loneliness. Her relationship with her husband is uneasy and they were never able to have children, so she hopes the puppy will provide some companionship. As the puppy grows and becomes aware of the wider world, however, it runs away, and its relationship with Damaris is never the same. The Bitch is a short novel but it beautifully captures the eerie, wild setting near both the jungle and the ocean. The characters are unforgettable, both the people Damaris interacts with in the surrounding towns, and Damaris herself with her combination of loneliness and hope. This is a gorgeous heartbreak of a novel.


Grove by Esther Kinsky cover


Grove is a novel for lovers of contemplative fiction that explores ideas and emotions and for those who love travel and nature writing. The protagonist is mourning the recent loss of “M” while living in a small town near Rome. In later sections she travels through other parts of Italy, thinks about the loss of her father, and remembers childhood visits to the region. The narrator’s descriptions of the Italian landscape are saturated with grief and thoughts about death—she visits many cemeteries—even as they are beautifully evocative. She captures a version of Italy that brims with details of modern life while also holding deeply personal meaning.


Pass with Care Cooper Lee Bombadier cover


Pass with Care is a memoir in essays about Cooper Lee Bombadier’s experiences as a trans man. The pieces describe what masculinity means to him and how he moved toward his transition. He writes about what it’s like to be mistaken for a cis man and his complicated feelings toward younger generations of LGBTQ+ people. His life is fascinating to read about: he was a part of the queer scene in 1990s San Francisco, is an artist and performer, worked as a construction worker and security guard, and has lived in many different places and among many types of people. These essays are personal, honest, and sensitive, and full of valuable insights into gender and masculinity.


Book of Anna Carmen Boullosa cover


Anna Karenina is the jumping-off point of this novel in which Anna’s children, Anya and Sergei, are characters in the real world (or at least in the “real world” of this novel). It takes place in 1905 right at the beginning of revolution. Characters include working-class activists as well as the upper class Karenins. We watch protests simmering at the same time as Anya and Sergei deal with the legacy of their mother and the Tsar’s request that they give him her portrait. Tolstoy himself haunts their dreams. The novel is clever and entertaining, with vivid characters and an absorbing story and even a short fairytale-like book written by Anna herself. It’s bursting with energy and life.


The Dragons, The Giant, The Women cover


At the age of 5, Wayétu Moore’s life in Liberia was upended when her country was plunged into civil war, and her family had to flee. Her father promised her that they would soon see her mother, who was studying in the United States, but in the meantime, they had to walk for weeks until they reached a town in which they could hide. They remained there until a rebel soldier smuggled them across the border. Moore’s memoir tells this harrowing story and then moves to the time after they reach the United States, when she and her family have to adjust to an entirely new way of life. The book is a powerful look at the migrant experience and how its effects reverberate decades into the future.


Looking for more books from independent presses? Check out my May indie press round-up and this list of 30 great small press books we can’t wait to read.


Filed under Books

Keeping Track of Books and Reading

I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a post on how I keep track of the books I own and have read. I’ve developed a system over the last decade or so that more or less works to my satisfaction, helping me keep track of what I read when, giving me reading stats, keeping track of books I want to read.

I will admit that I feel conflicted about tracking my reading so closely, in the same way that I sometimes feel conflicted about my reliance on numbers and counting with my cycling. Sometimes I get the urge to just read or just ride and not think so much about how many books I’ve read in a month or a year or whether I’m going to reach my yearly mileage goal on the bike. I have those feelings and then I dismiss them because I love numbers and counting too much to give them up.

My way of keeping track of what I’ve read and what books I own is with LibraryThing. I cataloged my books back in 2010 and have logged every book I’ve acquired since then. Now, this catalog doesn’t include every book that is in my house because I never logged my husband’s or my son’s books. But the catalog contains all the books that I’ve bought for myself (or was given or sent), and if I read a book my husband bought, I’ll add that. I haven’t added books I read with my son because … that’s too much work.

In my LibraryThing catalog, I have a whole bunch of “collections,” the main one being “Your [My] Library.” Books in this collection are print books that I actually own. Turns out I currently have 2,087 of these! Some books I’ve read that don’t fall into this category go into the “Read but unowned” collection. This includes print books I get from the library and those I read and then give away. It also includes ebooks and audiobooks I don’t own, i.e. ones I get from the library or as review copies that have expired. I have separate collections for ebooks and audiobooks I own. I could probably add these to the “Your Library” section, but I kind of like keeping that to print only.

I have a “To Read” collection so I know which books I own but haven’t yet read (it’s a lot). I also have collections for books I’ve read each year starting in 2010, so, for the last 10 years at least, I know what I read when.

The other main part of my LibraryThing account is the tags I give each book. My tagging system was hard to settle on because too many tags are confusing and make logging each book difficult. Too few and I don’t have the information I want. I’m pretty happy with the system I ended up with, which is good, because I’m not changing it! Basically, I tag genre, publication date, author gender, author nationality, and year I acquired the book. I tag books as “Translation,” “From library,” and “From publisher.” I mark books as “POC” for writers of color.

A tricky part was settling on a system for logging the publication date without having too many tags, and I settled on a mixed format where I start with full centuries getting one tag, i.e. “Published in 1500-1599” (because I don’t have many books from that century) and then half centuries starting in the 18th Century (“Published in 1800-1849”), and then decades starting in the 20th (“Published in 1910s”). It’s also tricky to figure out how to tag author nationalities. I wanted only one nationality tag per author so I could make my year-end numbers add up (maybe not a great reason), but when an author has lived in multiple places, it’s hard to figure out where to place them. I basically just … use my best judgment and pick one.

That’s mostly it for how I use LibraryThing. I like how I can search on my phone for books I own when I’m out shopping (it helps that my reading taste is different from my husband’s so he’s unlikely to own what I’m considering buying). I also like how I can easily see reading stats for each year. In each year’s “collection” I can see the tags for the books I read that year to find out author gender and nationality distribution, how many books in translation I read, how many books from which publication dates, etc. It’s how I put together year-in-review posts like this one. (I do wish the site allowed me to search more than one tag at once: that would allow me to search specifically for women in translation, for example, which I don’t think I can currently do.)

But then there’s Goodreads! I use Goodreads in two ways, the first of which is to track what I’m reading currently. I do this because the social media aspect of Goodreads is fun: I get comments on what I read sometimes, I see what others are reading, I see which people I follow have read the book I’m currently reading and what they think of it. I can tweet what I’m reading or have read from the site, and that can lead to fun conversations on Twitter.

I post reviews sometimes (mainly the mini reviews I write for Book Riot), but only when I feel like it. I’ve rated books on Goodreads in the past, but currently I only rate my absolute favorite books because rating is hard and feels unsatisfying without an explanation, which I don’t always have the energy to give. I looked back on old ratings and felt silly about them, so I stopped.

The other way I use Goodreads is to keep track of books I am interested in reading but don’t yet own. I currently have 945 books on this list! I started it in 2010 as well — I was in an organizing mood that year I suppose. Whenever I acquire a book from this list I take it off my Goodreads list and add it to LibraryThing. That way I know what I’m interested in reading but don’t yet own, which is very useful when shopping in bookstores. Occasionally I look through this list and take books off because they no longer interest me, but mostly I keep the list intact because I like knowing that at one point I was interested in reading something. And I also think that perhaps someday I will circle back to that book and find it interesting again.

It seems a little weird that I have my TBR list split across two sites — owned but unread on LibraryThing and unowned but want to read on Goodreads. But I did this (sort of intentionally?) because I want the books I own, unread or not, on LibraryThing because that site is better for cataloging books. And I want books I’m interested in but don’t own on Goodreads because their app is better so it’s easier to use while shopping. Their app makes it easy to find information about particular books as well — publication date and publisher as well as which Goodreads friends have read them and (maybe) what they thought.

So that’s how I (try to) keep some order in my reading life. It takes time to log my reading, but with a system in place, it’s not that much time, and it’s a task I enjoy. One of the things I do when I can’t sleep is look through my Goodreads TBR list and try to remember what the books are about and where I heard of them (I wish the Goodreads app made it easy to enter this information). LibraryThing isn’t really a social site, but if any of you are on Goodreads and we aren’t friends, feel free to add me!

Anybody else want to describe their system??


Filed under Books

Women in Translation Month Updates

I sat down to write this post last Tuesday, planning to write on The Book of Anna, but then we got a tornado warning and lost power, and here I am, four days later, with the power back only just this morning. It’s been a good week for reading, but everything else has been complicated and unpleasant.

Still, I now have three books to write about for Women in Translation month instead of one! Here are some brief thoughts:

Book of Anna Carmen Boullosa coverThe Book of Anna by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee, is weird, experimental, and meta while also being very readable and a lot of fun, a favorite combination of literary qualities. It’s sort of based on Anna Karenina, or maybe more like a spin-off of the novel. It takes place in 1905 and Anna’s two children, Sergei and Anya, are main characters, both of them dealing in different ways with the legacy of Anna’s death. There are also working-class characters caring for the Karenins as well as protesters and activists trying to get the Tsar to improve their lives. The country is on the brink of revolution.

Sergei and Anna are both characters from a novel and real people living in real life (or at least the “real life” of Boullosa’s novel). They struggle with what their existence means. Tolstoy appears in their dreams, disapproving of their decisions. Later in the book, we get some of Anna Karenina’s own writing, a work that’s briefly alluded to in Tolstoy’s novel. It’s all very fun: he mixing of fiction and “reality,” the glimpses into the beginnings of revolution, and the plot that involves the fate of Anna’s portrait, a plot that brings the novel to a satisfying close.

The Years by Annie Ernaux coverThe Years by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison Strayer, was my next book. (The cover here is from the U.S. edition but I actually read the British Fitzcarraldo version, which I bought in Rome a year ago…sad sigh of regret since I was supposed to go to Rome again this year but couldn’t.) This is my second Ernaux novel this year, after reading A Girl’s Story this spring. I love her writing! The Years is a sort of autobiography, except that Ernaux never uses “I,” but instead tells the story using “we” and “us,” as though speaking for her generation. She starts with her earliest years as a child in World War II, moves through her schooling in the 50s and 60s, into married life, raising children, getting divorced, figuring out new ways to live. All along, she writes political and cultural history, bringing in elections, protests, technology, music, television. She uses photographs as starting points to remember who she was and what she experienced at different points along the way. She writes about memory and writing itself, interrogating the very project she’s undertaken. The book isn’t that long, but Ernaux manages to tell her own story and the story of her world in a way that feels full and rich, capturing the vast changes that took place over 60+ years.

A Girl’s Story, if you’re interested in reading more Ernaux, focuses on the summer of 1958 when Ernaux was 18 and left home to become a sort of camp counselor. It’s similar to The Years in tone and style, but focuses on a shorter period and looks closely at her early sexual experiences. It, also, is about time, writing, and memory, and is perhaps even more meditative and philosophical than The Years.

Celestial Bodies coverLastly, I read Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn booth. This won the Man Booker International Prize last year. It’s the first novel written in Arabic to win this prize and the first book by a female Omani writer to be translated into English. It’s a family saga, complete with a family tree in the beginning. There are lots of characters, and I found the family tree useful, but it’s not a long book (a long family saga is not really my thing) and it’s not hard to keep track of everyone. It’s set in the small Omani village of al-Awafi and tells the story of three sisters and their fates, bringing in stories of their extended families and their slaves/servants. The sisters’ lives are defined by marriage, two of them following social expectations placed on them, and one rebelling. Each of them tries in their different ways to reconcile their own desires with the roles given to them. Also important is Abdallah, husband of one of the sisters. Most of the novel is in third person, switching from perspective to perspective, but his sections are told in the first person. They describe a life shaped by a cruel father and thwarted love.

The characters around the main ones — their parents, grandparents, in-laws, children, servants — are given their own stories, their moments in the spotlight, so we get a full picture of village life. This is another story of cultural change, as the generations approach love, marriage, and village vs. city life in different ways. Slave families are freed. Children move to the city. Couples divorce. So much changes, but each generation is defined by its struggle to shape their lives around love. It’s an absorbing novel as well as, for international readers, a valuable glimpse into Omani life.

I’m not sure what I’ll read next for Women in Translation Month; at the moment I’m reading Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know because it’s exactly what I’m in the mood for, but after that I think I’ll return to a work in translation. Which one it will be, who knows!

1 Comment

Filed under Books

The Booker Prize Longlist is Here!

A few years ago I spent a lot of time in August and September reading through the Booker longlist with a group of online friends as a shadow panel. We read, discussed, and picked our winner, and it was a ton of fun, especially our discussions. We all got tired of the endeavor eventually, but it was great fun for a couple years.

These days, I and other book twitter friends are more excited about the Booker International Prize, as those lists tend to be more surprising and varied and just generally more interesting. It’s still fun to follow the main prize, though. Here are the books, along with a few thoughts about them.

  • The New Wilderness by Diane Cook. I hadn’t heard of this but it’s now on my TBR.
  • This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I was vaguely aware of this book — it’s published by Graywolf and I pay attention to what they publish, but this hadn’t looked at this one closely. It’s described as “A searing novel about the obstacles facing women in Zimbabwe, by one of the country’s most notable authors.”
  • Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. I put this on my list. The publisher says it’s for fans of Jenny Offill and Deborah Levy, and if that’s true, I will like it.
  • Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze. I hadn’t heard of this one either. It doesn’t look like it’s available in the U.S.?
  • The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel. I read the first book in this trilogy and I admired it but I wasn’t inspired to read further. Hilary Mantel is great, yes, but I’m tired of seeing the same names on this list!
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann. Not a fan. I read Transatlantic and it was fine but not terribly exciting. I’ve also heard McCann has some #metoo problems, so I’m avoiding him.
  • The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. Wasn’t aware of this one. Here’s the description: “A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.”
  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. I listened to this on audio and it was great. Rick read and liked it as well. It’s an engaging story about parenting and nannies and race and white people who royally mess things up.
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor. I read this one a month or so ago and loved it. More thoughts here.
  • Redhead by The Side of The Road by Anne Tyler. Why Anne Tyler?? I don’t get it. She’s a solid novelist, and I’ve read maybe two of her books and they were fine, but they aren’t terribly exciting. She’s been longlisted for the Booker twice and I just don’t think her books are interesting enough for a major prize.
  • Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. Sounds interesting: “Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland.”
  • Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward. I don’t know what to make of this one. I love philosophical novels, but this one involves an ant crawling into someone’s eye and getting stuck there? Intriguing and also gross?
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang. I have this one on audio and hope to read it soon. I’ve heard amazing things.

Any plans to read any of these?


Filed under Books

Transformational Books, Updated

Back in 2012 I made a list of “transformational books,” which I defined as books that “have changed my idea of what it’s possible to write about and how it’s possible to write.” These are books “that excite me and make me want to share them. People who love (some of) these books are people whose taste I’m likely to trust.” That was eight years ago, so I thought it would be fun to see what books I want to add to the list after eight more years of reading.

First, some of the books on my first list strike me as strange choices now. Was I really that influenced by William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience or Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key? Looking back on it now, I’d say no. There are others on there I haven’t thought about much over the last eight years (The Quest for CorvoAmerican Primitive). But it’s a long list and most of the rest really did stay with me as books that have changed how I think.

So here are some books I’d like to add. Perhaps in 2028 I’ll take another look back and assess. My previous list was looking back at my whole adult reading life, and this list is only from the last eight years, so I may end up questioning even more of my decisions since they are more recent. Having many years of perspective is useful, but I’m not going to wait around for time to pass! 

A couple quick observations about how this list is different from my previous one: for one, this list is markedly less white. I used to read mostly white authors and I no longer do, and obviously that makes a difference. I also have more books in translation here than I did last time. Reading books in translation is a newer passion.

These are roughly in the order I read them. I looked through my LibraryThing catalog year by year to remind myself of what I’ve read. 

  • Phillip Lopate, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
  • Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother
  • Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments
  • Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
  • Eula Biss, On Immunity
  • Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation
  • James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
  • Fran Ross, Oreo
  • Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock
  • Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
  • Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 1
  • Lina Meruane, Seeing Red
  • Marie NDiaye, Ladivine
  • Maggie Nelson, The Red Parts
  • Myriam Gurba, Mean
  • Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays
  • Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions
  • Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am
  • Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House
  • Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport
  • Anne Boyer, The Undying
  • Kate Zambreno, Drifts
  • Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

5 Great New Nonfiction Books (Book Riot)

Here’s my latest post on Book Riot:

I’ve been on the hunt for great new nonfiction, particularly books that mix genres in some way. I especially love books that use memoir as a starting point to explore the larger world. The books I’ve found below combine memoir with history, travel, philosophy, literary criticism, politics, religion, and more. Through these books, you can learn about lighthouses, harvesting, race theory, rereading, and the cultural importance of Toni Morrison. Check out the list and see if one of these books catches your eye!


This is a book about lighthouses but also about travel, isolation, time, history, and collecting. Jazmina Barrera takes readers on a tour of the lighthouses she has visited, charting their history, traditions, technologies, and future. She contemplates famous literary depictions of lighthouses and what it’s like to be a lighthouse keeper. The book describes Barrera’s travels and the nature of her obsession, and also contemplates the many things lighthouses signify and represent. It’s a meditative mix of ideas, emotions, and observations. Barrera’s writing is clear and evocative, and the book’s meandering form is a perfect way to capture the dangerous spaces where sea and land meet.


Four friends who love Toni Morrison collaborated on this mix of memoir and literary criticism. The friends come from various backgrounds: three are Black, one white; one is gay; one an immigrant. The book uses secrets from the authors’ lives—some large, some small—as a springboard for each author to dive into personal stories that they relate to one of Morrison’s novels. The novels help illuminate their lives and their lives illuminate the novels. The authors effectively balance memoir and criticism to keep their work accessible to those who haven’t read all or even any of Morrison’s work. The result is a moving, memorable tribute to the power of Morrison’s writing.


Love to read about books? Unfinished Business is one of the best meditations on books and reading I’ve ever come across. Vivian Gornick uses books to chart how she has changed over the years. She rereads some of her favorites, including works by D.H. Lawrence, Colette, Marguerite Duras, Doris Lessing, Natalia Ginzburg, and others, and contemplates the new meanings the books have accumulated. She writes about her life with warmth and verve, and her stories will fascinate whether you know anything about Gornick or not. Her insights into literature are rich and feel honest and hard-earned. Gornick is a captivating writer: her energetic prose style combined with sharp intelligence years of wisdom make for a wonderful read.


Marie Mutsuki Mockett grew up in California, but her family has owned a farm in Nebraska for generations. Her family’s harvester invited her to join his team as they travel from Texas north, following the ripening wheat. She wants to understand cultural differences between her secular, multi-cultural, organic-food-loving coastal friends and the white, evangelical, GMO-advocates among Midwestern farmers and harvesters. American Harvest is the story of her travels and an account of the conversations, church services, and harvesting sessions she experienced along the way. It’s a moving account of what it’s like to be a person of color traveling through the Midwest and a thoughtful, compassionate attempt to understand and bridge deep-rooted cultural divides.


This book combines memoir and philosophy to make an argument about what it means to be Black. Wilderson writes about growing up in Minneapolis, studying with Edward Said, living in Berkeley and South Africa, and a lot more. The book begins with a harrowing description of Wilderson’s mental health breakdown. As he tells his story, Wilderson argues that subjugating Black people is fundamental to the way non-Black people form their identity and their understanding of themselves as human. He argues that anti-Blackness is baked into our civilization and the only honest response to the situation is to acknowledge it. It’s a challenging argument that, combined with Wilderson’s absorbing memoir, makes for a powerful read.

1 Comment

Filed under Books

Preparing for Women in Translation Month

That Time of Year Marie NDiayeWomen in Translation month is August. Do you know what you’re reading for it yet? Women in Translation month was founded by Meytal Radzinski (who blogs and tweets) as a way to address the gender imbalance in the books that get translated. It’s been going on since 2014 and, from what I can see, gets more and more attention each year, and deservedly so. It’s fun to see what people are reading, learn about new authors, and read some great books.

So now I’m going to think about what I might read this August. Here are some possibilities:

  1. That Time of Year by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump. This one comes out in September, but I’m lucky enough to have an advanced copy on my shelves right now.
  2. The Cheffe by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump. Yes, I like NDiaye a lot. I’ve read three of her books so far and found each one strange, eerie, and fascinating.
  3. Love by Hanne Orstavik, translated by Martin Aitken. I know nothing about this author or book, but I’ve heard some stellar recommendations. I picked it up on a recent book-buying spree (back when browsing in bookstores was a thing!).
  4. River by Esther Kinsky, translated by Iain Galbraith. I’m currently reading Grove by Esther Kinsky and finding it absorbing and meditative.
  5. Exposition by Nathalie Leger, translated by Natasha Lehrer. This is another book that isn’t out yet and that I have an advanced copy of (sorry!), but I might also pick up her book Suite for Barbara Loden, which is available. These are published by Dorothy Project, a very small publisher — two books a year — that I love.
  6. Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth. This one won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize and is the first novel by an Omani women to be translated into English.
  7. The Book of Anna by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee. I read Boullosa’s novel Before a few years back and found it strange and wonderful. The Book of Anna sort of plays around with the story of Anna Karenina.
  8. Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Jenny McPhee. Natalia Ginzburg is a writer I’ve long thought I’d love, but, except for one essay, I haven’t read her. You know those writers you’re always planning to read? It’s nice to finally get around to them.

I won’t be reading all these books in August, but I think these make a pretty good pile to choose from. If you have plans for Women in Translation month, I’d love to hear them!


Filed under Books

Real Life, by Brandon Taylor

Real Life Brandon Taylor coverReal Life by Brandon Taylor really got to me. It’s an academic novel, first of all, which I love. In this case, the main character, Wallace, is in graduate school for Biochemistry. He spends as much time as he can in the lab working on experiments with nematodes, experiments that don’t always go well. Colleagues in the lab don’t always treat him well and his relationship with her supervisor is uneasy. That right there is enough to make me want to keep reading — trouble in graduate school makes me tense.

It’s also a novel that takes its time explaining the characters’ feelings. The story takes place over one weekend, Friday evening through Sunday evening, and the characters have some EMOTIONS. I love a book that takes its time capturing every nuance of encounters and conversations.

Wallace has a group of friends,  but he still feels like an outsider. He comes from a poor family in Alabama and had a difficult childhood, so he is wary of his more privileged classmates. Wallace is also the only Black student in his cohort, and one of the very few people of color where he’s studying, so he has had to deal with racism of varying levels of overtness.

He overcomes his impulse to isolate himself and hangs out with his friends on a late-summer Friday night, and the plot proceeds from there. I won’t get into the details of what happens, but Wallace, who is gay, finds himself in an unexpected relationship that challenges his isolated, closed-off tendencies. He’s trying to figure out whether he can be vulnerable. He’s also trying to figure out whether he wants to stay in grad school any longer.

The novel was painful to read, but in a good way. Wallace is such a sympathetic figure (if sometimes infuriating — but realistically, understandably!) that it is hard to see him suffer. The racism he experienced was painful, his insecurities are painful, his struggles in grad school are painful, but Taylor captures all this with such care that it’s a pleasure to read. It’s also a very literary novel, with nods to Virginia Woolf and shades of Jane Austen. There’s just so much to love.


Filed under Books

June Reading

I read nine books in June, a good number for me. The books include six in print, one ebook, and two audio books. Seven of the books were nonfiction, and of the fiction, one was a collection of short stories, so only one novel! That’s unusual. I read a lot of nonfiction, but generally it’s maybe half nonfiction/half fiction. I wrote a round-up of nonfiction for Book Riot, which will be published sometime soonish, so that partly explains it, and I also came across a couple essays collections that sounded appealing, and I finished the month with those.

My favorite was Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno, which I wrote about in my previous post. So good! Here is a list of all the books:

  1. American Harvest by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. This is a memoir/travel book about a summer Mutsuki Mockett spent traveling with wheat harvesters. She writes about the coastal/midwest cultural divide, religion, race, and farms. I wrote about it some here.
  2. The Toni Morrison Book Club by Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix Williams. Some thoughts are here. My first audiobook.
  3. Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña Paris, translated by Christina Macsweeney. This one is available in October. It’s my one novel of the month. I read an ebook version to write a review for Foreword Reviews, so more thoughts later, but I liked it. It’s about a young man unable/unwilling to leave his bed as he thinks about the year his mother abandoned his family.
  4. Afropessimism by Frank Wilderson. This book is part memoir, part argument about anti-Black racism. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the overarching argument (and would love to read reviews from Black and non-Black POC reviewers — I’ll have to look around and see what I find), but the ideas are fascinating and provoking, and the memoir part makes for absorbing reading.
  5. Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno: thoughts here.
  6. Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Mallory Ortberg, who now goes by Daniel M. Lavery. This was my second audiobook. I had mixed feelings about this one. It’s partly a memoir about Lavery’s gender transition, and that part I liked a lot. His thoughts as he slowly made the decision to transition were fascinating, especially his accounts of people’s reactions. Then there was other material that’s sort of imaginative takes on various literary and cultural figures and those I didn’t always like. Sometimes they made me laugh out loud; other times they just puzzled me.
  7. Bluebeard’s First Wife by Ha Seong-nan, translated by Janet Hong. This is a short story collection set in South Korea. These stories are dark! I loved them. They vary, but many of them are about women struggling with husbands/fiancés and children.
  8. This is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah. An essay collection about growing up the daughter of Gujarati immigrants, about living in Rochester, N.Y. (my hometown!), about writing, race, attending weddings, moving around the country chasing jobs. It’s warm and thoughtful.
  9. A Fish Growing Lungs by Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn. Another essay collection, this time about being diagnosed as Bipolar and then learning later that this diagnosis was a mistake. She describes her struggles with mental illness and drug use and writes about finding her way toward a more stable place. It’s an interesting look at the world of mental health treatment and at the slow process of growing up and figuring out the person she wants to be.

Finally, my review of the really great short novel The Bitch by Pilar Quintana, translated by Lisa Dillman, is up at Foreword Reviews.

Here’s to a great July! Oh, wait, it’s 2020. Here’s to surviving July!

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter and Drifts

Book of Mutter coverAfter falling in love with Drifts by Kate Zambreno, I picked up her 2017 Book of Mutter, a nonfiction book about many things but especially the death of her mother. It’s a gorgeous book as an object as well as a piece of writing. She worked on it over the course of 13 years, struggling with it until finally she found a way forward (she describes trying to find a publisher for it in Drifts). I kept thinking about genre as I read; Book of Mutter and Drifts feel similar to me in a lot of ways because even though one is a novel and one is nonfiction, many of the details overlap and the voice and consciousness described feel similar.

But Drifts is longer, wordier, more detailed, while Book of Mutter is suggestive and about silence as much as speaking. Drifts is about dailiness, getting through time, what the narrator does with her days. Book of Mutter works more through juxtaposing ideas and putting original writing up against quotation and letting readers make connections. There’s lots of white space in Book of Mutter; it can be a quick read, except that you will want to pause after each page to reread and think.

Page from Book of MutterI’m not sure that genre matters much here, at least not in the way we usually think about fiction vs. nonfiction. Drifts feels more novelistic in its attention to daily life and its narrator who is more present and perhaps more coherent as a character than the speaker in Book of Mutter. Book of Mutter is more poetic in its suggestiveness and in the way the text is arranged on the page where what is on the page is a matter of the writer’s choice rather than font and margins. But these things aside, the “truth” of each book doesn’t feel important. Is the nonfiction book more true to life than the novel? As a reader, I don’t care. Both are an attempt to capture consciousness on the page and whose consciousness it is and whether it reflects a person who exists in the world doesn’t matter, at least not to me. What matters is that the mind on the page is one I want to spend time with.

Both books are about time and memory. Both wander and repeat, taking up one subject, moving to another and another, coming back to the first and adding to it. They are about ideas, not events. In both, the speaker/narrator makes sense of her life through artists and philosophers. In Book of Mutter, artists Henry Darger and Louise Bourgeois and writers Roland Barthes and Virginia Woolf are especially important. Both books are about family relationships, the narrator in both trying to understand her parents and how they shaped her. In Book of Mutter the mother figure is mysterious, aloof, complicated, and Zambreno uses photographs, family stories, and memories to try to see her as a person and to sort out the love and anger she feels towards her. She’s haunted by a half-sister the family never fully acknowledged and negotiating a changing relationship with her father now that her mother is gone.

Both are beautiful, haunting books, ones I will happily read again. I’ve now read three Zambreno books this year (these two plus Screen Tests), which means I’ve read five of her books total (including Green Girl and Heroines). That leaves The Appendix Project and O Fallen Angel if I want to read all of them, which I do. I would kind of like to read them in order of publication to see how they develop and compare, especially since it’s been a while since I read Green Girl and Heroines. We’ll see. I do know that Zambreno has become one of my favorite contemporary writers.

1 Comment

Filed under Books

Pandemic Cycling

I’m still riding! In fact, this year is turning out to be a good one for cycling, even if the reasons for that are bad. The pandemic has given me more riding time. I would happily take less riding time in exchange for no pandemic, but since that’s not an option, I’m very, very grateful for every ride. In the beginning of the COVID lock down, I would cry my way through rides. They were an excellent way of processing emotion and letting out anger. I could be by myself, talk to myself, and even yell at the world if I felt like it. As I’ve gotten more used to the new state of things, my rides are less about emotional release and more about getting out of the house, seeing something besides my yard, and, of course, staying in shape.

The downside of pandemic cycling is that every ride is solo. I’d gotten used to riding with Rick while Cormac was in school and once a week riding with a group of friends from the local bike shop. Now, riding with a group feels too dangerous (although I see plenty of groups out on the road — and I don’t approve), and with Cormac home all the time, Rick and I have to take turns. I miss my riding friends and I miss having someone to draft on and push me to ride harder, but still, solo riding is much, much better than no riding.

This week I rode 200 miles! I know that some people can do that in a day, but for many cyclists, that’s a lot of miles, and it sure left me exhausted. My typical weekly number is maybe 50-120 depending on the time of year, so this was a stretch. And my legs hurt. I’ve ridden something like 2,550 miles so far this year and have a goal of 5,000. Who knows what this fall will look like, but right now I’m on track to surpass that goal by a lot.

People have talked about trying new things during their pandemic stuck-at-home time, but my response has been to rely more heavily on the things I was already doing. This includes jigsaw puzzles (an excellent pastime when one needs to hang out with a very chatty child), piano playing (Cormac is taking lessons and I’m working on remembering everything I learned from my lessons decades ago), and, obviously, reading and cycling. Add childcare and work into the mix and I’ve been able to keep myself busy. This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped fretfully reading Twitter for the latest news, but these things have helped keep anxiety at bay, and I’m grateful.


Filed under Books

Scheduled Reading

As I wrote a couple weeks ago (I think? Time has no meaning), I’m reading just as much as ever, and more or less the same things I used to. I have a harder time dragging myself away from my Twitter news feed because so much is happening, but I have a little more time in general, so it evens out to as much reading as usual.

I do feel, though, that I want to cut back on the planned/scheduled reading I’ve been doing over the last year so I have more time to read at whim. I’ve been doing a round-up of independent press books for Book Riot for over a year now, which has meant once a month I post about 5-6 newly-released books that I liked from small and independent presses. I’ve loved researching forthcoming books from small presses (Edelweiss is a weirdly-organized website that probably makes more sense to bookstore and library people but I spend a ton of time there and find it invaluable). I’ve discovered so many great presses and wonderful books this way. Last year almost 75% of the books I read were from small presses and so far this year 65% are. I don’t want this to change! A big part of my small-press reading is books in translation, and I don’t want that to change either. I think putting the work in to find lesser-known books (lesser-known because they don’t have huge marketing budgets behind them) is well worth it.

But as someone who reads around 6-8 books a month, this schedule hasn’t left a lot of room for other reading — books from major presses and older books in particular. I don’t want to stop doing these round-ups entirely, but I’m planning on posting them less regularly, probably whenever I just happen to have enough new books read for a column. I do like reading structure and there can be something soothing about knowing exactly what I need to read next and why. But it can also be suffocating and that’s what I’ve been feeling lately. We’ll see how this new plan works!


Filed under Books

Currently Reading: 5/31/2020

First, I had a lot of fun listening in on the Best Translated Book Award winner announcements on Friday. I wouldn’t normally be able to participate, as the announcements are done in-person in New York City (okay, maybe I could swing it since NYC isn’t far, but it would be complicated), but since we are using Zoom for everything right now, anyone who wanted could join in. It was great to see 100 or so people who love translated literature, including people I interact with on Twitter regularly. I have mostly avoided online literary events because more staring at a computer screen just doesn’t appeal, but I’m glad I made an exception.

The winners, by the way, are EEG by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, for fiction and Time by Etel Adnan, translated by Sarah Riggs, for poetry. I haven’t read either, but EEG in particular appeals. The long lists are here if you are interested; the Best Translated Book Award always puts together diverse lists that are great resources for further reading.

As for what I’m reading currently, first is The Toni Morrison Book Club on audio. It’s perhaps a strange choice for me since I have read only one Morrison novel (not good, I know…) and any book involving literary criticism is perhaps not best on audio. But this one is working out great so far. It’s not really literary criticism, although there is some mixed in; it’s more a group memoir using Morrison’s novels as starting points to discuss life and culture. Four authors (Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix Williams) collaborated on the project and each author has a couple chapters discussing one of the novels and its personal significance. Each author has a “secret,” some tidbit of information that operates as a springboard into the books, and another author writes about that secret by way of introducing each section.

I’m halfway through and enjoying it; it doesn’t matter a whole lot that I haven’t read all the books, since the authors give all the information necessary to understand their points. Their personal stories are engaging and interesting. The book reminds me of The Ferrante Letters, which I read last year, another mix of memoir and literary criticism written by a group of four people. Anybody know of any similar books?

The other book I’m reading is American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. The subtitle gives the basics: it’s about Midwestern agriculture, Christianity, and various American subcultures. Mockett gets invited to join a group of wheat harvesters as they make their way north from Texas following the ripening harvest. For many years her family has owned a farm in Nebraska, and she recently inherited it. She’s not entirely unfamiliar with the world of farming, but she grew up in California and fits into stereotypes of coastal residents pretty closely: she doesn’t believe in God, values intellect over faith, wants to buy organic food, is more comfortable working with her mind than with her hands. Southern and Midwestern farmers and harvesters are a different group entirely, and much of the book is about Mockett coming to understand their values and especially their faith.

She also describes the history of American farm land and the current state of farming as a way to make a living. She visits different types of churches and recounts conversations with the harvesters about Jesus, evolution, sexuality. Mockett is half-Japanese, so she writes about what it’s like to be a person of mixed race in an area that’s largely white.

I think this book is best for people not familiar with Christianity and its various denominations, as Mockett herself was not. She devotes a lot of energy to figuring out some of the basics, so readers in a similar situation might enjoy that process. As someone with a lot of experience in various kinds of protestant churches, I am finding this less compelling, although it’s good to imagine what it’s like to be so unfamiliar with theology and the Bible and to be seeing it very much from the outside. Her descriptions of churches and Christian subcultures sure does bring me back to my past in ways that aren’t always fun. As someone who is an atheist, a bookish type, and very happy to live on (okay, near) the east coast, I’m valuing this reminder of how other kinds of people live and think.


Filed under Books

Indie Press Round-Up: May New Releases (Book Riot)

Here is my latest indie press round-up published at Book Riot:

For this month’s independent press round-up, I’m happy to recommend five novels from around the world, including three in translation. These novels span the globe: they will take you to Spain, Guadeloupe, Mali, Paris, North Korea, New York City, and Appalachia. They are set in boarding schools, small towns, Caribbean Islands, and busy cities.

Most of us aren’t traveling much during these pandemic times, so reading is one way to explore new places. If you’re looking to do some armchair traveling, you might find something here that appeals. These are also good books if you simply want an enjoyable, engrossing read. Check them out and support some great independent presses along the way!


This novel will appeal to those who like boarding school stories and anyone who enjoys eerie tales with a Gothic atmosphere. It’s set at Wybrany College, a school for middle and high school kids whose parents want them kept safe from the dangerous city. Something is not right at this school. It’s obsessively closed off from the outside world. The kids are divided into regular and “special” students, those who are on a scholarship, and boundaries between the two are carefully enforced. Both students and adults jostle for power and status. A little way into the novel, the point of view shifts from the students to a substitute teacher. His diary entries slowly uncover the school’s secrets (and are also an amusing look education). Four by Four is an absorbing and immersive tale that deftly explores class divisions, abuses of power, and the ugliness that can lurk under a seemingly-serene surface.


Here is a new novel by the winner of the 2018 New Academy Prize, also known as the Alternative Nobel. It tells the story of twins born and raised in Guadeloupe. They have an extremely close bond and struggle with their feelings for each other. Ivana is content to live peacefully and accept the world around her, while Ivan struggles to find a community where he feels he belongs. Eventually they travel to Mali to live with their father and then make their way to Paris. Ivan and Ivana’s differing personalities send them down divergent paths, but their bond never wavers, even as it threatens to destroy them. Told by a charming, lively third-person narrator, the novel evokes its various settings beautifully and takes a penetrating, wide-ranging look at the effects of racism, colonialism, and inequality.


Friend is both a good read and a rare inside look into North Korean culture. It tells the story of a judge who rules on divorce cases. A woman comes to him seeking a divorce and the judge begins to look into her and her family’s lives. As he uncovers their stories, we learn about his own marital troubles as well as those of other people around them. We see how various characters met and fell in love and what made their marriages falter. It’s a sympathetic portrait of people unhappy in love and how that unhappiness affects those around them. Paek Nam-nyong explores what people owe themselves, their families, and the state, as well as what it means to be a friend. Friend is an absorbing novel of ideas with characters who vividly bring those ideas to life.


The Prettiest Star is a novel about a virus. In 1980, Brian Jackson left his southern Ohio small town for New York City in search of a new life. He loved the freedom and excitement he found there. But then AIDS hit, and he lost his lover and contracted the disease himself. Now, in 1986, he heads back home to reconnect with his family and escape a city in mourning. Back home, however, everything is complicated. His family tries to keep his gayness and his disease a secret, not even telling his sister and grandmother the truth. Then the town begins to wonder what’s going on. The novel is told in alternating points of view, switching from Brian to his sister and then to his mother, so we get a full picture of the family and the town. The novel captures family dynamics and small-town life in absorbing detail. It’s a heartbreaking novel of the pain caused by homophobia and an empathetic look at suffering and disease.


The Distance From Four Points is a novel about returning home. Robin Besher’s husband has died and left her with nothing but decrepit rental properties in the small Appalachian town of Four Points where she grew up. Her only choice is to move back with her teen-aged daughter. She has a past she is ashamed of, however, and all she wants to do is fix up the properties and make enough money to return to the much-fancier town where she lived with her husband. This requires that she figure out how to deal with tenants and care for falling-apart rental units with basically no money. Against her wishes, she keeps running into people she once knew, and her plans to leave falter. Robin is a sympathetic character as she is forced to learn new skills and confront her past. Her story is utterly engrossing, and the novel is a moving examination of home and belonging.


Filed under Books

Reading Notes, 5/23/2020

My school year has ended, leaving me with a little more time and the feeling that I’d like to write about my reading more, so I’m back to this blog. I’ve found reading to be a welcome escape from pandemic worries. I do feel at times like I can’t focus on a book, but often when I give it a try anyway, focusing on something besides the news clears my head and makes me feel better. So I’ve been reading a lot, even more than usual. I already teach a lot online, so switching all my classes to that format was relatively easy (and I didn’t bother myself to try new things) and left me with no commute and more reading time. My son is home, of course, and needs/wants attention, but he’s also good at getting lost in imaginary worlds and playing by himself. He’s also getting to the point where he reads on his own, so we read quietly together sometimes. At the moment, he’s taking a piano lesson — virtually, of course.

Right now I’m reading Drifts by Kate Zambreno, my second Zambreno book this year after finishing Screen Tests. I think I may try to read them all. I love how her books are about consciousness, about writing and reading, about art and time. I’ve read enough Zambreno to know that although Drifts is a novel, it’s heavily based on her life, and I like recognizing details from her writing I’ve seen elsewhere in nonfiction. I just read a passage that mentions “autofiction” somewhat skeptically, but surely this novel fits into that category. I’ve described this book as autofiction where nothing happens — precisely the kind of book I like — but I don’t want to forget the “fiction” part of that term. The main character isn’t Zambreno. But probably it kind of is. I like writing where it doesn’t matter whether it’s fictional or not.

The main character lives in New York City and is trying to write a novel. She wanders, thinks, reads, observes, obsesses, works, and writes. She tries to capture days as they pass, tries to describe living in time. She writes a lot about her neighbors, people she sees on the streets, her dog and stray animals she encounters. It’s meandering and absorbing and a book to sink into.

Screen Tests was a mix of fiction and non — another book where the distinction doesn’t matter a whole lot. The first part is a series of short stories, although they draw heavily on Zambreno’s life as Drifts does, and the second part is essays. I loved many of these pieces (especially the essays). Others seemed slight or on topics I don’t know much about — she writes a lot about films and actresses, hence the book’s title — but I still found the book as a whole meditative and calming in its exploration of thinking and consciousness. Perhaps books about consciousness and interiority are what I need because they are the opposite of my news feed on twitter and don’t make me panic.

On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera (translated by Christina Macsweeney) is a book in a similar vein as the Zambreno books, not in terms of content, but in the way it’s meditative and about ideas and I found it soothing. It’s about … well, lighthouses, real and literary ones. It’s part travelogue as Barrera visits lighthouses around the world, part memoir, part literary history, part a contemplation on time, isolation, and collecting. It makes good company, as Barrera’s voice is calm and thoughtful, wandering into some difficult subjects (lighthouse keepers have difficult lives) and then wandering off somewhere else. Lighthouses have not been a particular interest of mine, exactly, but I still loved reading about them and even more about the emotions, ideas, and human history they evoke.


Filed under Books

Indie Press Round-Up: April New Releases (Book Riot)

My latest Indie Press Round-Up at Book Riot:

The world—and the book world as a part of that—is in major flux right now, but authors are still publishing great books and independent presses are still doing their great work. Perhaps now is an especially good time to support them?

This month I have four brand new small press books and one book published last year. These titles include memoirs and novels by authors from Canada, Argentina, and the U.S., with two books in translation. You’ll find family sagas, meditative accounts of personal experience, explorations of gender and sexuality, and a dive into the dark places of the human mind. I hope you find a book here you love!


A Girl’s Story is an account of 18-year-old Annie Ernaux in 1958 when she leaves home for the first time to work as a camp counselor. Coming from a poor family, she feels like an outsider, but she is determined to experience new things and life fully. Most of all, she is determined to fall in love. What actually happens are complicated sexual encounters that leave her enamored but also the laughing stock of her peers. Ernaux examines not only what happened in the couple years after these events but also how she feels about the experience from the vantage point of 50 years later. The book is a beautiful contemplation of desire, memory, time, and the self. It’s also the story of how Ernaux emerged from this difficult period as a young woman ready to become a writer.


This is a perfect book for fans of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (in fact, Maggie Nelson blurbed this book). It’s also great for anyone who loves genre-bending nonfiction, books that challenge gender norms, and books that narrate the body in frank and open ways. Emerson Whitney writes about childhood struggles with poverty, complex family relationships, and coming to terms with being gender-nonconforming. Whitney’s portrayal of their relationship with their mother and grandmother are particularly nuanced and memorable. Mixed in with this personal material are philosophical discussions of gender, self, and identity, drawing on writers such as Judith Butler and Donna Haraway. Whitney weaves these various strands into a powerful, ground-breaking account of growing up and figuring out one’s relationship to oneself and the world.


This book is a memoir written in the form of letters to Richard Wagamese’s estranged son Joshua. It’s meant to help Joshua understand the complicated life that Wagamese has led and also to fulfill Wagamese’s duty as an Ojibwe father to teach his son traditional wisdom. He describes early memories of being removed from his family and living in foster care and with an adoptive family. These moves shake his sense of security and cultural identity. As he gets older, he runs away from home and lives an itinerant life, sometimes getting by on the streets, sometimes in jail. He drinks heavily. Eventually he meets people who begin to teach him Native wisdom, and he struggles to change his life. Moving back and forth between the past and present, between struggle and insight, he weaves narrative and teaching into a powerful, inspiring whole.


Reproduction won the 2019 Giller Prize, a Canadian award for fiction. This novel is a family saga set in Toronto, covering multiple generations of complicated, troubled people. At the novel’s heart is Felicia, a 17-year-old student from an unnamed Caribbean island. She meets Edgar, who comes from a wealthy German family, while the two of them visit their mothers in the hospital. Felicia ends up becoming a caretaker for Edgar’s mother, and she and Edgar develop a relationship. Later we meet their son Army, who is obsessed with making money. Other characters enter the story as the decades go on, the younger generation grappling with the actions and secrets of the older one. Williams brings the characters’ struggles and flaws to life with compassion and intelligence, and the novel deftly explores themes of inheritance, race, money, sex, and love.


Die, My Love was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and was released in the U.S. last year. It was recently longlisted for the 2020 Best Translated Book Award as well. It’s narrated (with occasional point of view shifts) by a woman struggling with depression (possibly postpartum) and perhaps other mental illness. She lives with her husband and baby son in the French countryside. We don’t learn much about her except that she’s an immigrant. She feels isolated from her husband and struggles to care for her son. She lashes out, sometimes violently, and seeks an outlet in an affair with a neighbor. We get deep into her mind, seeing the world from her troubled perspective. She’s an unsparing narrator, telling her every anguished thought and action. Harwicz’s writing is astonishing. Through her unforgettable narrator she paints the world in vivid and frightening color.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Reading Round-Up

My reading pace has been slow lately (thank you, American politics!), but I have finished a few books I can tell you about. I thought I’d write briefly about my recent reading to catch myself up a bit:

  • The Caregiver by Samuel Park: I picked this one up at the library, kind of on a whim. It was an interesting story about a girl and her mother who get caught up with a rebel group in Brazil in the 1970s, and also about the girl’s life years later in California, where she is working as a caregiver. I didn’t love this book, but I liked it — it’s one of those books that had some good sections, some interesting characters, interesting settings, but that didn’t add up to something great. The story behind the book is sad: the author died last year of stomach cancer at 41. One of the main characters in the novel has stomach cancer too.
  • Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom: this one comes out in January. I loved it. It’s about race, feminism, and culture, and it’s so smart, so insightful, so relevant to our current times. I hope it gets a lot of attention when it’s finally published. I recommend it for anyone who likes essays and/or who likes to think about race and culture.
  • Through the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-Fleming: this is the most-recently published book in the Rev. Clare Ferguson/Russ Van Alstyne series. I’m not sure what’s going on with the series, since this book was published in 2013 and it ends with uncertainty about some of the side characters. I hope another installment comes out at some point. This series is fun — it’s not breaking new ground in the mystery genre or anything, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
  • Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli: this is a quick read but a devastating one. Luiselli writes about her work as a translator conducting interviews with Latin-American children facing deportation. The children often don’t know how to answer the forty questions that make up the interview, and their difficulties providing answers reveal their impossible situation and even more so the injustices of U.S. immigration policy and foreign policy generally. It’s a powerful read and a good entry into learning about the subject.
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo: this is essential reading for white people. DiAngelo herself is white, and it seems right that a white person is doing some of the work of getting white people to think about racism in its various insidious forms. The book is aimed particularly at people who think of themselves as progressive (so, me) but who get defensive when challenged about race or faced with evidence of the bias all white people have because of how we have been socialized (probably me too, although I try not to be this way). I learned a lot from this book.
  • Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft: this is a long book where things happen but without an overarching story to unify it; instead, it’s unified by theme: it’s a meditation on travel and the body. I was mesmerized by it and didn’t miss the forward momentum that plot offers. There are stories embedded within the book, and in between and around these stories are the narrator’s thoughts on her travels. It’s a weird book, but I read it happily.


Filed under Books