Monthly Archives: August 2013

Cassandra at the Wedding

I found out about Dorothy Baker’s 1962 novel Cassandra at the Wedding from Emily Books, which makes ebook versions of print books, in this case, an NYRB Classic. I enjoyed the novel very much. As I got deeper into the book, I realized it was giving me something I’d been missing lately — an absorbing reading experience where the focus is not on plot but on character and emotion. Things happen in the book, big things, but not very many of them, and Baker kept me happily turning the pages (or swiping the screen) in between the plot points.

The novel is about twins, Cassandra and Judith, who have been very, very close for most of their lives, but as part of the growing-up process have recently been diverging. Judith sees this separation as necessary, and Cassandra does not. Cassandra heads home for Judith’s wedding, ready to resist it in any way she can. The tension in the novel is, of course, what will happen with the wedding, but even more so, what will happen with the sisters’ relationship. What makes the book particularly interesting, I think, is the two first person voices we encounter — first Cassandra, then Judith, then Cassandra at the end (which is something that could be a spoiler, except the Table of Contents reveals that much). Cassandra has an amusing voice — comedic and satirical — but we quickly learn not to trust it, as there is a lot she is hiding, from herself as well as from others. Judith’s more rational, sedate voice provides a contrast to Cassandra’s and offers firmer footing than Cassandra’s storytelling provides. The novel’s form thus nicely follows its subject matter, as we read about the complex interaction between these two women.

There’s lots to think about here, and I recommend it if this sounds like the sort of thing you like.


Filed under Books

In the Body of the World

I’m going to try an experiment and write really short reviews, say just a couple hundred words or so, and try to review more of the books I read and post more often. One thing that keeps me from posting, sometimes, is that I don’t have, or don’t want to take, the time to write long reviews, so I don’t write any at all. Perhaps removing that pressure will encourage me to post more.

I’ve had my eye on Eve Ensler’s memoir In the Body of the World at my library for a while, and something, I’m not sure what, made me pick it up last time I was there. Flipping through it at home, some of the language caught my eye, so I gave it a go, and read the first half in one sitting. I found that first half riveting. Then sitting down to read the second half didn’t go quite as well, and I’m not sure if the book changed, or if my mood changed.

The book is an account of Ensler’s (author most famously of The Vagina Monologues) struggles with cancer, although she tells also about her work for women’s rights around the world and especially in Africa. It’s a book about suffering, both her own suffering and that of the women she works with, and it’s also a book about alienation from one’s body (her body) and from the earth. She connects her own experiences to larger world events: her years of feeling disconnected from her body to our larger societal disconnect from environmental damage. In a way, it seems absurd to make the leap from one’s personal circumstances to what is happening on a global scale, but Ensler makes it meaningful and, in places, moving.

The writing in this book is, at its best, urgent and passionate. At its worst, it feels florid and overwrought. Perhaps that’s what went wrong with my reading of the second half. The entire book is very emotionally raw, and the book won’t work for you if that isn’t your thing. But it has a lot to say about living comfortably in one’s own body and how suffering shapes and changes you, and it mourns eloquently for the abuses brought on women throughout the world.


Filed under Books

Bookish podcasts

I’ve done a couple posts on bookish podcasts in the last couple years, the most recent one from April 2012, which you can find here. I’m always looking for new podcasts, though, and changing the ones I listen to regularly, so an update is in order. Here are the ones I’m enjoying currently:

  • Literary Disco. This is my favorite one of them all. I used to listen to a lot of author interviews, and I still listen to some, but the kind of podcast where the hosts discuss books they’ve read and liked or discuss bookish topics generally are the kind I now prefer, and Literary Disco is one of the latter. It has three hosts, and the chemistry among them is what makes it fun. They discuss a new book each episode — or in some cases short stories or essays, and they include poetry, YA books, and genre fiction — and also play games and discuss books from their shelves. It’s fun.
  • The Bookrageous Podcast. This is a discussion of books the three hosts are reading as well as of current topics in the book world. It’s a good source of information on new and forthcoming books, guaranteed to add to your TBR list. The chemistry among the hosts here is fun too.
  • Late Night Library. This one has interviews, most often with publishers, editors, agents, and other people in the book world. They also do a monthly podcast that is a discussion of a debut book. They focus on debut books and indie presses, and are a great source of information on publishing generally.
  • Books on the Nightstand. Another book discussion podcast. They have a bookish topic to discuss each episode, and they end with a segment called “Two books we can’t wait for you to read,” which is generally about new or forthcoming books, also guaranteed to add to your TBR pile.
  • Slate’s Audio Book Club. This podcast gets released monthly, and is an in-depth discussion of one book, hosted by various people from Slate. It’s the most intellectual, in-depth book discussion of the various podcasts I listen to, not in any overwhelming way, just very smart.
  • The Readers. This one’s from the UK, and is another book discussion podcast. It’s in a transition period right now, as one of the two hosts is taking an extended break and the new host hasn’t yet been announced, but it’s always been a good source of news about new books.
  • Book Fight. This one alternates between discussions of a book and answers to questions from listeners about writing and publishing. The two hosts are writers and teachers, and they run a literary magazine, so they have a lot of insight into the writing world. Their episodes are very rambly and have a very, um, aggressive tone to them, which should be no surprise given the title of the podcast. But the book discussions can be interesting and the episodes on writing are a good source of information.
  • The Longform Podcast. This is an author interview podcast, usually with writers or editors of long form journalism. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to be a journalist and the craft of nonfiction writing from this podcast.
  • Other People Podcast. This consists of author interviews, or occasionally interviews with people who work in publishing. The interviews generally don’t get deeply into the books, though, but instead are about the authors’ lives and experiences with writing.
  • The Bat Segundo Show. This podcast consists of author interviews, conducted by Ed Champion. The interviews here are very much about the book, in-depth discussions of themes, style, etc., and a good source of information on new books.
  • The Book Riot Podcast. This podcast focuses on book news — the stories that stand out in the book world each week and information on new releases.
  • KCRW’s Bookworm. Michael Silverblatt hosts this podcast, which interviews authors of recent books. It’s similar to the Bat Segundo Show in its focus on the book itself.
  • BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read. This is hosted by Harriet Gilbert and features two guests each episode, all of whom choose a book to discuss. The discussions are brief but interesting.

And then there are a few that I have on my radar but haven’t listened to much yet, including:

Lots to listen to here, yes? If you want even more, check out this discussion thread in the Books on the Nightstand discussion group on Goodreads.


Filed under Books

Two books: Rebecca Solnit and Amelie Nothomb

I recently finished two books, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Amélie Nothomb’s Life Form. The Solnit book is amazing. I’ve read one other Solnit book before, Wanderlust, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes walking or who simply likes interesting nonfiction that draws on multiple genres. A Field Guide to Getting Lost is just as good. It’s shorter than the other, more meditative and less about information, but it’s similarly smart and beautifully-written. The book isn’t presented as a series of essays, but that’s what it is, basically — essays that all touch on being lost or losing something in some way. She writes a lot about being lost in nature, but also about being emotionally lost, or what we lose when when we lose contact with nature, and also about voyagers’ and explorers’ stories of being lost. She writes about what is valuable about lostness: that it opens up the possibility for discovery, for finding things we never knew. The first essay is a contemplation of a quotation from a Socratic dialogue: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” All the essays in some way or other are about how being lost takes us into the unknown. Being lost is not a negative state: it can be a dangerous one, yes, but a productive one too. The essays range widely in their subjects; they contain personal writing as well as history, philosophy, nature writing, and other genres, but Solnit always brings everything together — finds her way back — in satisfying ways.

The other book, Nothomb’s Life Form, is a novella, and I was drawn to it in part because it uses the epistolary form, a favorite of mine. It’s not entirely made of letters, but much of the text is, and the rest is the main character’s analysis of those letters. That main character is named Amélie Nothomb, and while normally I find it annoying when authors give characters their own names, it didn’t bother me here because it was integral to the story. She receives a letter from a fan who is a soldier in the Iraq war, and the two begin corresponding regularly. This allows Nothomb to write about what it’s like to be an author who receives fan mail and why she writes back and why she chooses to write what she does to her correspondents. This particular correspondent is deeply unhappy in the war and has responded — as have other fellow soldiers — by aggressively overeating and becoming obese. There’s a twist at the novel’s end that I saw coming from far away and another aspect of the ending that just seemed bizarre, but it’s still an interesting meditation on how people respond to war and how art can and can’t improve their lives. I wasn’t sure I liked the way obesity becomes a metaphor for the wrongs of war; there’s always something a little disturbing when actual illnesses get transformed into metaphors and lose their realness. But Nothomb uses the epistolary form well, which to me means using it as a way to think about the act of letter-writing, and of writing generally, itself.


Filed under Books

Smithereens’ Bookish Questions

Smithereens very kindly tapped me for an award that involves answering some questions, and I thought I’d give them a shot:

  1. What’s your most recent favorite book? I can’t give just one, can I? So in the memoir category, it’s Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, general nonfiction is Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, literary fiction is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and mystery is All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming.
  2. Name a writer you would blindly follow and buy any new book of? Nicholson Baker. I don’t love every book he writes, but I’ve loved enough to make him a favorite author. Also, Geoff Dyer.
  3. What book would you like to re-read? At this very moment, I’d like to re-read Middlemarch, as a friend of mine is reading it for a book group, so it’s on my mind. In other moments, I think about re-reading a Jane Austen novel. Just about any one would do.
  4. What favorite book would you read to your 5 year-old child (or relative)?
    Uh, I’m not sure. What’s appropriate for five year-olds? I’m sure I’ll know by the time my own kid is five, but for now, we read board books he can chew on.
  5. Have you ever regretted posting something on your blog? I think occasionally about things I’ve written here that now seem a little silly (I’m not going to point them out to you, obviously), but overall, I don’t regret postings things here. Generally, what I post isn’t controversial enough to regret.
  6. How do you manage nasty comments on your blog? I don’t get nasty comments, thank goodness. The worst I’ve gotten is some slightly rude ones. But I have no problem deleting nasty comments were I to get them. This is my blog, and I decide what goes on here.
  7. Have you read and enjoyed Tolkien’s books? No. I read The Hobbit a long, long time ago, but that’s it, and it didn’t do much for me. I might feel differently were I to pick up The Lord of the Rings now, but I’m just not that interested. Now, if Cormac ever wants to read the novels, I’d be open to reading them with him. But that’s probably the only reason I’d ever do it.
  8. If someone offered you a free air ticket, which destination would you choose? Ireland. My one visit there made me want to see more. I’d love to do a very slow tour of the coast, see Dublin, and then hop over to Scotland and tour around there.
  9. What is the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten? I’m a very boring eater. The students in the Culinary Arts program at my school tried to offer me frogs’ legs recently, and I just couldn’t do it. You won’t catch me eating anything weird.
  10. What’s your favorite post on your own blog? I don’t really know … I don’t re-read my archives much to develop a favorite. So I’ll just say this one.
  11. What website do you visit for a 1mn break? I wish it were something interesting, but I’m afraid it’s just Facebook or Twitter, or maybe Feedly, my feed reader, or perhaps Goodreads, to see what my friends are reading.


Filed under Books


I think frequently about posting here. But when it comes time to decide what I’m going to do with my two free hours in the evening once Cormac has gone to bed, I almost always pick up a book. I’m sure you understand. I apologize for not commenting on posts, fellow bloggers, and for not answering comments here very well. I do read your blogs regularly, though! It’s easy to read your posts with my phone in one hand, and Cormac’s bottle in the other, but commenting is much more challenging.

Here he is, exploring the bookshelf:

Cormac 6 months 2

And here he is in his pack, which we bought for him a couple months ago. My goodness, does he get a lot of attention in that pack. He gets attention no matter what, but something about putting him in his pack, which is an elaborate affair, designed to carry baby plus cargo up and down mountains, or wherever we want to take him, makes him irresistible:

Cormac 6 months 3

And one more picture, just for fun:

Cormac 6 months

We are having a very good summer, complete with visits from friends, trips to see family, and vacation in Maine. Cormac traveled with us to Vermont, to Rochester, New York, back home, then to Bar Harbor, Maine, and back home again, and he did fabulously well. We are lucky to have a happy, even-tempered baby who can handle pretty much whatever we ask of him.

In my two hours in the evening, I’ve been able to read a fair amount. Lately, I’ve torn through books #5 and #6 in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne series. These aren’t great, great books, I don’t think, but they are a lot of fun and kind of addictive. I think I’ve read three in the series this year, which is unusual for me. I have one left, plus a new one coming out this fall. Spencer-Fleming knows how to keep dramatic tension going throughout a series. I don’t think I’d read these for the mysteries themselves — they are fine but nothing spectacular — but they are well worth reading for relationship between her two main characters.

I picked up my first Georgette Heyer novel in a while — my third ever, I think — and enjoyed it tremendously: it was The Talisman Ring, and I laughed my way through it. The other Heyer books I’ve read were entertaining, but not laugh-out-loud funny, but this one was hilarious. She has two heroines, a spirited, naive young woman, and an older, wiser, friendly but sharp-witted friend. The interplay between the two is where the fun lies.

I finally got around to reading fiction by Geoff Dyer, a favorite nonfiction writer of mine (especially Out of Sheer Rage). I picked up Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and thought it was fascinating. As the title suggests, the novel has two parts to it, and each part individually is fine, interesting, well-done, but it’s the connections between the two, and simply their presence together, that really make the book. The first half is celebratory, sensual, sexy — and also frivolous — and the second half is much weightier and darker. They are two perspectives on life and death, each of which would be incomplete without the other.

Other books I’ve enjoyed: This is Running For Your Life, by Michelle Orange, is a fabulous essay collection. The essays include film criticism — a topic that doesn’t interest me much, but which Orange makes compelling — cultural commentary and personal narrative, and what I admired most was Orange’s confidence, erudition, and intelligence. She writes in a personal, informal way, but the sentences are meaty nonetheless. The book asks you to slow down and take your time with it.

Also: Enon, by Paul Harding, a follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning novel Tinkers (very beautifully-written, a novel about place, as well as about character), Submergence, by J.M. Ledgard (another novel about place, although in an entirely different way — a very smart, thinky novel that weaves together various themes, including people’s relationship to the natural world), Blankets, by Craig Thompson (a graphic novel that looks huge but which reads quickly — a compelling coming-of-age story; the text and images work well together), Tampa, by Alissa Nutting (Wow. The subject matter is tough, but Nutting handles it perfectly. This is an intensely uncomfortable read — brave and incredibly well-written).

There have been other books, but these are the highlights. And now on to the fall semester….


Filed under Books