Category Archives: 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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

Four by Four Sara Mesa coverFOUR BY FOUR BY SARA MESA, TRANSLATED BY KATIE WHITTEMORE (OPEN LETTER, MAY 5)

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.

THE WONDROUS AND TRAGIC LIFE OF IVAN AND IVANA BY MARYSE CONDÉ, TRANSLATED BY RICHARD PHILCOX (WORLD EDITIONS, MAY 5)

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 by Paek Nam-nyong coverFRIEND: A NOVEL FROM NORTH KOREA BY PAEK NAM-NYONG, TRANSLATED BY IMMANUEL KIM (COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, MAY 5)

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 BY CARTER SICKELS (HUB CITY PRESS, MAY 19)

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.

Distance From Four Points coverTHE DISTANCE FROM FOUR POINTS BY MARGO ORLANDO LITTELL (UNIVERSITY OF NEW ORLEANS PRESS, MAY 28)

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.

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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.

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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 Annie Ernaux coverA GIRL’S STORY BY ANNIE ERNAUX, TRANSLATED BY ALISON STRAYER (SEVEN STORIES PRESS)

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.

Heaven Emerson Whitney coverHEAVEN BY EMERSON WHITNEY (MCSWEENEY’S PUBLISHING)

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.

For Joshua Richard Wagamese coverFOR JOSHUA: AN OJIBWE FATHER TEACHES HIS SON BY RICHARD WAGAMESE (MILKWEED EDITIONS)

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 Ian Williams coverREPRODUCTION BY IAN WILLIAMS (EUROPA EDITIONS)

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 Ariana Harwicz coverDIE, MY LOVE BY ARIANA HARWICZ, TRANSLATED BY SARAH MOSES AND CAROLINA ORLOFF (CHARCO PRESS)

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.

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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.

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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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There There by Tommy Orange

There There Tommy Orange coverI finished There There by Tommy Orange last night and what a great book it is! It tells the story of a group of Native Americans living in or heading to Oakland, California. You hear early on about a big Oakland Powwow that’s going to happen soon, and the novel moves steadily toward that event. Along the way we meet a range of people: 12 characters of various ages and experiences, each of whom takes a turn being the focus of the story. There are children trying to figure out what it means to be Native, grown-ups dealing with alcoholism and destructive marriages, parents and grandparents worried about or estranged from their children and grandchildren, young people trying to pull their lives together, or feeling pressure from their parents to do so.

I found each of these stories compelling, and as I figured out what was likely to happen at the Powwow, the book became hard to put down. I cared about every one of Orange’s characters. So many of them were struggling with what it means to be Native American — some are mixed race and are uncertain how they feel about being a mix of white and Native. Some don’t know much about their heritage, don’t know what tribe they are from, for example, and some feel awkward claiming Native heritage, particularly if they look “white.” One character learns Native dances by watching YouTube. We see these characters struggle with uncertainty about identity but also how that identity has shaped their lives in profound ways. It’s very moving.

This book is getting a lot of attention right now, and I can see why. I hope it continues to do well and that we get many more novels from Tommy Orange.

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Jane and Dorothy

Jane and Dorothy coverJane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility: The Lives of Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth by Marian Veveers was an interesting and enjoyable read. I think it’s best meant for casual fans of Austen and/or Dorothy Wordsworth (probably the former?) rather than for experts or those who have read in-depth biographies of these figures before. But, then, I’ve read biographies of both these writers and I still enjoyed this book, even though it didn’t have information I hadn’t read elsewhere. It’s relatively short for a biography of two writers — just over 300 pages, so for me, it was a quick review of these writers’ lives, plus some compelling points about how the two lives illuminate each other.

As you can tell from the title, Veveers works with the sense and sensibility opposition, in this case Austen being the one more reliant on sense and Wordsworth the one full of sensibility. Veveers complicates this opposition nicely, showing the moments Austen was driven by sensibility and Wordsworth ruled by sense, and she situates the ideas about logic and emotion briefly but effectively in the context of the beginnings of romanticism.

I particularly liked how Veveers uses these two women’s lives to show what life was like for women of their class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: they both came from privileged but precarious backgrounds and both struggled with money and status their whole lives, even though they reacted to the situation differently, Dorothy choosing to live unconventionally with mixed results and Jane dutifully but often unhappily following family members from house to house as was expected of her. Neither woman married, of course, and Veveers explains well what this meant: they were dependent on family members and not considered high priority enough for anyone to send much money or educational opportunity their way. Both women struggled to find time and solitude enough to devote to their writing.

After reading this and Sharp by Michelle Dean, I’ve decided I like group biographies and also biographies that aren’t particularly thorough, as these two aren’t. I don’t need to know — and will certainly forget — all the details that go into more comprehensive works.

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We Begin Our Ascent, by Joe Mungo Reed

We Begin Our Ascent coverI enjoyed this book so much! It’s perfect for me: a smart, thoughtful, well-written novel about cycling. I’m not sure what non-cycling readers will make of it: I can’t tell because an important part of the experience for me was reading great writing about what it’s like to ride and race, but my guess is they will find much to like in it too.

The novel (to be published on June 19th) tells the story of Sol, a rider in the Tour de France. It takes place over the course of a few days, with flashbacks to how he met his wife Liz, the birth of his infant son, the story of how he got into cycling, and what his years of training were like. Liz is a scientist trying to get some good results in the lab, and one thing I particularly liked about this book is how Reed makes connections between their two careers, both of them involving long hours of tedious work for an uncertain payoff. In both cases, people outside their respective fields don’t understand what they do. Nobody understands why Sol doesn’t try to win stages of the Tour — that’s not his job, which is to help their star climber win — and nobody really gets why Liz puts in such long hours for results that probably won’t revolutionize anything. Reed gets deeply into the nature of work, its meaning, its frustrations, its rituals and intricacies.

Reed’s descriptions of racing are fabulous. Of course, I have no idea what it’s like to ride in the Tour, but I’ve raced and ridden in a pack (the peloton, or the main group of riders), and he captures what it’s like to work together with your competitors, to navigate the elaborate etiquette of cycling: when you should help others (because that means you will be helped too) and when you should break from the pack and try to make a go of it by yourself, when it’s your turn to win the race and when you need to blow yourself up early so a stronger teammate can save crucial energy until the very end. I particularly loved how Reed uses the plural “we” to describe riding in the pack , as though it were a creature of its own, taking on different shapes as the race proceeds. The racing sequences got my heart rate up with the suspense, and I could feel the riders’ exhaustion as they pedaled toward the finish line with nothing left to give.

The novel is also about family life and what it’s like to be a professional couple with a brand new baby. I had to laugh at Sol and Liz’s confidence before the baby was born that they knew how their new life was going to be. The novel takes them in places they never expected to go, both personally and professionally.

Every cyclist who likes to read should pick this book up for sure, but it has a lot to offer for anyone interested in work, family, competition, and ambition, and for anyone who wants an absorbing, thought-provoking, exciting read.

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Sharp, by Michelle Dean

Michelle Dean Sharp coverMichelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion seems like the perfect book for me — I like reading about women’s history, women writers, literary history, and criticism, and I’m a fan of many of the writers she discusses. Her ten main subjects are Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. Dean’s writing is lively and interesting, and she manages to be satisfyingly thorough in a relatively short book by focusing on the women’s writing careers rather than telling their whole biography, although you do get a sense of the shape of their lives. She points out connections among the women — similarities among their lives and the ways they knew each other — and although I found these less compelling than I expected, it didn’t matter because their stories as individuals were enough.

I kept thinking as I read about the fact that all Dean’s examples are white women. She does discuss Zora Neale Hurston briefly, but she’s not one of her featured subjects. She addresses the whiteness of the book briefly in her introduction, saying that because of racism women of color weren’t able to achieve the public status as critics that her chosen white women did. Her project is to look at women with successful careers as critics, and during her time period (basically the entire 20th century), whiteness was a requirement.

This argument makes a certain amount of sense, and I don’t believe it’s helpful to say that authors should have taken on different projects than they did, but, but, but … I would have liked to see more discussion of the racism that made this situation possible, and whether this changed at all as the century went on, at the very least. But even more so I wonder whether taking on a project that focuses on white people only is really a good idea. I can see shifting the terms of the project slightly to include Hurston (and maybe someone like Audre Lorde?) or perhaps extending it further into the 21st century to include Roxane Gay, for example. It’s easy for me to say, as someone who did not write this book, that her project should have been broader, but, as a reader, I can say that I felt the near-total exclusion of voices of color to be unsettling.

So I guess it’s not the perfect book for me, in the end, but I did love reading about Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and Janet Malcolm, and seeing them in a different context than I’d seen them in before. And I liked learning more about the other writers whom I’m not so familiar with. I learned a lot about what it was like to be a critic in the 20th century and how tough it was to be an ambitious woman with talent. Things have changed for sure in the early part of the 21st century, but they have not changed nearly enough.

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