Category Archives: Books

Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State

The Golden State coverThere’s so much I loved about Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State. What stands out to me most is its portrayal of motherhood, but I also loved the picture of the northern Californian landscape and culture we get in the book, the portrayal of university life in the book’s beginning, and the poignancy and political commentary in the situation with the protagonist and her husband. I also really liked the novel’s voice — it was sharp, funny, smart, and communicated a world of feeling in an understated way.

The protagonist, Daphne, works at an unnamed San Francisco university (Berkeley) and cares for her toddler-aged daughter. Her husband is stuck in Turkey, unable to return to the U.S. because he got screwed over by a nasty border officer, so Daphne has to care for her daughter alone. This part sent waves of anxiety through me, both at the knowledge that our government routinely separates families in this way, and at the thought of having to care for a young child as a single parent. Kiesling describes perfectly what it’s like to get through a very long day with a child who demands your attention but is also kind of boring, as young children are. The predicament with her husband is unsettling; he is simply stuck in Turkey with his family until the very, very slow bureaucratic wheels turn and his request to return to the U.S. is considered. Daphne is considering joining her husband in Turkey, but isn’t sure what she wants to do.

Instead, what she does is leave work suddenly one day, pick up her daughter, and drive hours up north to a mobile home her grandparents have left her in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. She thinks there’s a chance she’ll have some time and space up there to figure out how to deal with her situation. She does have some of that, but she also learns about the movement underway in that part of California to secede from the state and form the “State of Jefferson” (mainly in order to avoid taxes). She gets involved in the lives of her neighbors and an elderly woman she happens to meet in a restaurant.

I loved how the novel is politically timely, both in terms of domestic and international issues that connect in important ways, but also about experiences and situations that can happen at any time to any one — being separated from family, struggling with work, struggling with children that one deeply loves but that are hard to take care of day after day. The novel is in first person, and Daphne makes a wonderful companion, someone whose voice I was happy to have in my head for the few days it took me to read this.

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I Am, I Am, I Am

I Am I Am I Am cover I finished reading I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell on a plane, and it made me tear up, which is not ideal, when one is on a plane among strangers. Perhaps planes make me a little extra weepy because I hardly ever cry over books, but this book really did move me, especially the last chapter, which I won’t get into here. The book’s subtitle is “Seventeen Brushes with Death,” and that’s exactly what it is: essays about seventeen times O’Farrell faced death, sometimes very immediately and dangerously, sometimes in a more distanced but still real and frightening way. O’Farrell has lived a pretty exciting life, with lots of travel and serious illness, and she has a certain recklessness that leads her into trouble sometimes. But still it seems to me like seventeen brushes with death is a particularly unfortunate record. O’Farrell writes about these experiences simply, in a straightforward manner without much direct philosophizing about life and death. But she still manages to be evocative and to inspire reflection even as she sticks to the story at hand. The experiences build on one another, later stories inspiring memories of earlier ones, hospital experiences contrasting with one another, childhood dangers helping us understand adult ones. The essays are not in chronological order, but they still add up to a full sense of the person that O’Farrell is. The book is labeled a memoir, and it feels like one, even as the individual essays can stand alone as well. The last chapter is the most wrenching, and it brings the book together beautifully. I just loved it.

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Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux is a wonderful look at Louisa May Alcott’s novel, including its context, history, meaning, contemporary significance, and more. I loved Little Women and read it multiple times as a kid and teenager (and should read it again as an adult), so Rioux’s book was particularly fun for me, although I think anyone who is interested in literary history would get a lot out of it even if they weren’t an Alcott fan. It’s not a terribly long book — less than 300 pages — but it packs a ton in. Rioux gives a biographical sketch of the Alcott family in the first section, and then moves on to the writing and reception of the novel; adaptations of the story, including theater and film versions; academic and critical debates about interpretations of the novel, particularly about its relationship to feminism; its influence on literature and on culture more broadly; and its place in culture today.

I particularly liked Rioux’s discussions about why Little Women isn’t taught often in literature courses — she argues convincingly that it should be — and I loved her chapter, “Can Boys Read Little Women?” where she talks about the gendered treatment of the novel and also the many boys who have read and loved the book. She gets into how concerns about boys not reading have led teachers to assign books aimed at boys and to assume that girls will be able to read the “boys'” books just fine. This leaves little room  for boys to learn to see the world from a girl’s perspective and even less room for encouraging anyone to read a book like Little Women.

Rioux covers a lot of ground, and she covers it very well: this is an entertaining, informative, elegant look at one of the most influential books in American literary history.

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Catching Up

Things have felt busy since the last time I posted here: we went camping for a few days at Lake George in New York, and then I was busy with summer classes (online ones, but still). But I have been steadily reading and have found some books I’ve really loved. Here are some very, very brief thoughts about what I’ve been reading lately:

  • The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu: I’ve been in the mood for novels that are plotty but solidly literary fiction at the same time, and this was perfect. I read it while camping, which was also perfect. It’s about a group of five girls who get lost on an overnight trip and something happens. We get this story along with the lives of the girls as adults, and it was fun to watch the consequences play out.
  • Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley: This book made me laugh. I actually wanted it to be deeper and meatier, but still, it was fun, and I always appreciate a breezy but smart voice. These are personal essays — yes, about someone living in New York City, which I’m a little tired of, but still, I enjoyed it.
  • Katalin Street by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix: This is by far the most serious book I’ve read recently, and I struggled with it now and then, although I appreciated it at the same time. It’s the story of how World War II affects three families living next to each other in Budapest. It took me a while to figure out that one character is speaking as a ghost, but once I figured that out, I thought her story was moving. It’s a grim read, but it’s powerful in the way it illustrates the ravages of war.
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Braithwaite Oyinkan: What do you do if you love your sister, but she keeps killing the men she dates? This is a real problem for the narrator who loves but doesn’t understand her beautiful, flirtatious, fun-loving sister who has lived without consequences her whole life and doesn’t see why having to kill off a few inconvenient people is a big deal. I loved this novel; it was odd and amusing and moving all at once, a thoroughly enjoyable unconventional crime novel.
  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori: I loved this last book too. It tells the story of Keiko, a 36-year-old woman who has worked at a convenience store for the last 18 years. She’s happy there — she has trouble functioning in environments that are less structured than the store is — but the people around her don’t understand why she doesn’t want a career and/or a family. I liked being in Keiko’s mind and seeing the world through her eyes. Watching her try to navigate a world that doesn’t know what to make of her was hard at times but I enjoyed rooting for her.

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Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything

I loved this memoir so much! It’s O’Connell’s account of being pregnant, giving birth, and getting through the early years of being a parent, and so much of it either matched or echoed my own experience. I sighed and winced and laughed my way through it. The first section — which does not match my experience at all — is about her unexpected discovery that she’s pregnant and the decision she and her fiancé had to make about whether to go forward with the pregnancy. Then she describes her childbirth experience, and what a harrowing account it is! My own birth story is much shorter and simpler than hers is, but I still related to so many of her feelings and worries. My favorite part was her description of what it’s like to have an infant, particularly how it’s possible to have post-partum depression and not fully realize it, even while being fully aware that post-partum depression is a thing one should look out for. So many little details resonated with me, like the way she made a point of doing the dishes every day so she could listen to podcasts and get a break from the world of babies. And how hard it is to leave an infant in daycare but how absolutely necessary it is to do so to keep oneself sane — and to keep one’s job.

I loved how honest O’Connell is about how hard it is to be a new parent — how wonderful, yes, but also how hard. I think there’s a little more space these days for women to be open about the difficulties of motherhood, but there’s still not nearly enough. I felt relief reading about O’Connell’s struggles, which tells me there aren’t enough voices out there telling these kinds of stories.

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The Recovering, by Leslie Jamison

Recovering Leslie Jamison cover The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison had a lot of good things about it, although I had a lot of questions at the same time. It’s part memoir, part discussion of addiction in literature and society, and Jamison moves back and forth between the two throughout the book. I found the personal story compelling: Jamison’s narrative is not that dramatic, as she herself acknowledges, at least compared to what many addiction narratives are like, but she makes it interesting because she’s a good storyteller. I like her writing and her voice; I’m happy to listen to her tell personal stories no matter what they are.

Many sections of the literary/cultural discussion of addiction were interesting, but these began to feel repetitive after a while, and towards the end, I began to skim through these. She brings back authors again and again, and I know she has different points to make about them each time, but it still felt like too much. The book is around 450 pages, and it began to feel too long. It doesn’t help that we learn she wrote her dissertation (or is writing, I’m not sure) on the topic of recovery narratives, and the historical material in this book came from that research. There nothing necessarily wrong with this, but these sections felt significantly less interesting to me than the personal ones. At one point she drops an essay that didn’t get picked up by a magazine into the book, and I think presenting the material this way to the reader is a mistake.

She does have fascinating ideas on the problem of how to make addiction and recovery narratives interesting. Addiction stories are so often the same, more or less; they have the same structure even if the details vary. This is part of the point of Alcoholics Anonymous, the telling of one’s story and listening to the stories of others to understand that they are fundamentally the same. But this doesn’t always make for originality and uniqueness, if those are one’s goals. Jamison was trained to value the new and different, and AA taught her the value of the familiar, and even of the cliche. Other questions are about whether one loses creativity in sobriety (no one doesn’t, is her answer) and whether narratives of recovery can be interesting. The answer to this one varies, but her own story of recovery is interesting, her attempts to find joy and excitement in what seem at first to be the horribly mundane details of everyday life.

The other question this book brings up is one of privilege: Jamison’s experience of addiction as a white woman is very different from a white man’s, on the one hand, and from men and women of color, on the other. She addresses this directly: she writes about how a certain kind of artistic drunkenness is tolerated and even admired in men, while it is not in women, and also about how people of color are vilified and imprisoned for their addictions. I found her discussion of her own privilege satisfying, but it seems a fair question to me whether this is the addiction story we want to spend 450 pages reading about. I can see why some readers might want to focus on other kinds of stories from different types of people.

But, obviously, this book offers so much to think about. Jamison is a weirdly provocative writer, as I know some people felt her previous book The Empathy Exams was troublingly self-absorbed, although I loved it. I guess I like self-absorbed writers as long as they write well and are interesting. And, as Jamison does, as long as they recognize their own self-absorption in some way. You can’t like personal essays and memoirs without being able to tolerate a large degree of self-absorption, and I do love those genres.

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The Library by Stuart Kells + current reading

The LIbrary Stuart Kells coverStuart Kells’s The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders was a quick, fun, quirky look at libraries. At 220 or so pages, it’s not comprehensive by any means, but it’s packed with interesting information. It has a loosely historical structure, but it mostly proceeds thematically and skips around in time to make interesting connections among libraries and librarians throughout history. Its chapters are short and focus on topics like library disasters, rapacious book collectors, libraries in fiction, changes over time in how books are stored and displayed, and a lot more. It has chapters on the Morgan library and the Folger library, on the development of the codex and how the printing press changed libraries. In between each main chapter is a short piece telling a story or exploring a topic about books or reading (for example, “Books in Bed” and “Library Fauna.”) This isn’t the book for you if you want an in-depth look at the subject, but it’s perfect for those of us who love libraries and want an entertaining introduction to libraries past and present. The book is great as a celebration of the importance of libraries and all the good stories associated with them.

Now I’m in the middle of two books, first, LaBrava by Elmore Leonard for my mystery book group, and second, Leslie Jamison’s book about addiction, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath. The Leonard is fast-paced and kind of fun but not really my thing. The second IS my thing, and I’m enjoying it very much. It’s a mix of Jamison’s own experience with addiction and a cultural and sociological look at the subject. It’s a longish book, but thoroughly absorbing.

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