twenty-two. meghan daum (ed.), selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed (picador, 2015).
any person who marries but rejects procreation is seen as unnatural. but a woman who confesses never to have felt the desire for a baby is considered a freak. women have always been raised to believe they would not be complete and could not be thought to have succeeded in life without the experience of motherhood. (did woolf believe that her husband’s life must also be judged a failure for reasons of childlessness? i doubt it.) that there could be something in the world that a woman could want more than children has been viewed as unacceptable. things may be marginally different now, but, even if there is something she wants more than children, that is no reason for a woman to remain childless. any normal woman, it is understood, wants — and should want — both. (sigrid nunez, “the most important thing,” 109-10)
when this collection was first announced, i immediately started making grabby hands for it, purely for selfish (heh) reasons, as i fall within the ranks of those who do not want and have never wanted or been fond of children. i was delighted when it was published, and, while i loved it, i admit to wanting more. i wanted more from people of color. i wanted more from younger people, people in their twenties and thirties. i wanted more from people who didn’t want children because they don’t like babies/children. i wanted more variety, which isn’t to say that the sixteen essays don’t have much variety — i just found myself wanting more. still, highly recommended.
twenty-three. michel faber, the book of strange new things (hogarth, 2014).
“you are …” said lover five, and paused to find the right word. “… man. only man. God is more big than you. you carry the word of God for a while, then the word become too heavy, heavy to carry, and you must rest.” she laid her hand on his thigh. “i understand.” (474)*
one of the things i found most impressive about the book of strange new things was that we were with peter the whole time, and yet his perspective didn’t get dull or boring. it added to the weirdness of the situation, of being on another planet, unable to communicate with earth except through this shoot, and it added a visceral sense of immediacy because, as he experienced everything for the first time, so did we. i liked how faber wrote about faith, even when peter was being so frustratingly narrow and pastor-first, husband-second — i found it frustrating in the ways that people [of faith] can be frustrating. i think that’s what struck me most about the book, how realistic it felt. like, even though it was mostly set on an alien planet with this unknowable corporation, the heart of the book was human and knowable and relatable. also, this is one helluva gorgeous book.
(edited: god, i was flipping through the book to find a quote, and pages 442-5 still reduce me to a sobbing mess. i don’t know why. there’s something about those pages that are a punch to the gut, this character’s desire to live, her faith that is so different from peter’s evangelistic faith in the rawness, the desperation, of it. in the face of that, peter’s faith comes across as privilege and indulgence.)
* a note: the oasans (the native population), can’t pronounce “s” and “t,” so, in the book, they’re written in special characters that i can’t mimic on my keyboard, so i’ve simply filled in the “s”es and “t”s.)
twenty-four. catie disabato, the ghost network (melville house, 2015).
“what does it matter if you’re not going?” (molly, 279)
i read this in less than twenty-four hours, starting in the late evening and finishing in the morning, pausing only to sleep. the ghost network is a fun, zippy ride that takes you around chicago, and there’s a mystery element to it (a pop star has gone missing!), with a weird sect, underground stations, and mysterious headquarters! there’s also plenty of sass and humor, and it’s just a lot of fun, a great way to pass a summer afternoon with some iced coffee and something sweet!
twenty-five. rebecca solnit, the faraway nearby (penguin, 2013).
something wonderful happens to you and you instantly look back over your life and see it as a series of fortunate events stretching off into the distance like mountain peaks. something terrible happens and your life has always been a litany of woe. the present rearranges the past. we never tell the whole story because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole milky way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are. (“apricots,” 246)
i. loved. this. i loved how solnit talks about stories, how the book is bookended by her mother’s alzheimer’s, and i was surprised by how personally it touched me. my grandmother passed away in 2012 from alzheimer’s, and the faraway nearby took me back to those months of her deterioration, to the ways my family rallied to care for her, and, eventually, to her death. it also made me think of backpacking through japan by myself the summer after my grandmother passed away — and maybe it’s odd to be talking about what the book made me think of, but i say good books take you places, which include retrospective explorations of your own memories. very thoughtful. loved it. can’t recommend it enough.
twenty-six. betty halbreich, i'll drink to that (penguin press, 2014).
if one buys a piece because of a label or a particular store and it is not becoming, that item is worth nothing. it can be the most wonderful dress in the world (and marked down to the best price!), but if it doesn’t fit, it might as well become a mop-up cloth. terribly costly mistakes like this are made all the time — and they come with a lot of guilt. (i know, because i have a dozen pairs of shoes in my closet that are so beautiful. only my feet don’t think so. i would like to wear them on my hands. then i could absolve myself of the guilt i feel at all the money i spent on the shoes themselves and on the shoemaker who tried to stretch them.) (136)
this was frothy fun. i don’t know quite how else to describe it. i find glimpses into the lives of the privileged and wealthy to be fascinating, and i liked halbreich and her frankness.
twenty-seven. kazuo ishiguro, an artist of the floating world (penguin, 2013) (originally, 1986).
“it’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a world when one doubts its very validity.” (mori-san, 161)
i am forever in awe of ishiguro’s ability to inhabit the first person. one of the things i loved about an artist of the floating world is how the dialogue read almost like it was in-translation — ishiguro captures the roundabout nature of the japanese language, the deference, even the differences between honorific speech and casual speech. he also captures the voice of an old japanese man, reminiscing back on his youth and his experiences during the war, as well as the generational and cultural/social changes in postwar japan. i make it sound like an artist of the floating world is a historical study, but that’s not it — i love ishiguro’s ability to weave questions about culture, art, memory into his narratives, and, with this particular book, i was very intrigued by how he wrote japan, not necessarily about japan, per se, but how the narrator’s voice is japanese. does that make sense? i feel like i’m not saying this clearly … an artist is great, though, even if i’m muddled up what i find so lovely about it, and i recommend it.
twenty-eight. george eliot, middlemarch (penguin classics, 2011).
in marriage, the certainty, ‘she will never love me much’, is easier to bear than the fear, ‘i shall love her no more.’ (“two temptations,” 652)
omg, i’m so sick of talking about middlemarch. i finished it. i enjoyed it enough to finish it. i’m glad i never to have to experience it again. the end.
twenty-nine. margaret atwood, the stone mattress (nan a. talese, 2014).
young naveena can scarcely believe her luck. her mouth’s half open, she’s biting the tips of her fingers, she’s holding her breath. she’s embedding us in amber, thinks tin. like ancient insects. preserving us forever. in amber beads, in amber words. right before our eyes. (“dark lady,” 107)
i loved this collection except for the last story, which i’m realizing i didn’t actually finish … oops. i’m still counting this, though. my favorite stories were the first three interrelated stories (“alphinland,” “revenant,” and “dark lady”) because i have a particular soft spot for interrelated stories (the book i’m writing is a collection of interrelated short stories) (how many times can i say “interrelated stories” in one sentence?), and these in particular were fun in how they offered different perspectives, different takeaways. there are nine stories in this collection, but they’re varied, and atwood is one smart, witty woman. love her.
(by the way, i hate deckle edges.)
thirty. amy rowland, the transcriptionist (algonquin, 2014) (via oyster books).
“whatever do you think you learn about people from a newspaper?”
“i suppose you learn things about humanity, but very little about individuals.” (chapter 12)
the funny thing about the transcriptionist is that i kept getting confused because i kept thinking it was set in the mid-twentieth century. i don’t know quite what it was, but the confusion was particularly strong in the beginning. maybe the descriptions or the fact that the narrator lived in dorm-like housing for women only with a curfew? either way, i never really fell in love with the transcriptionist, but i enjoyed reading it now and then when i was on the train. it was my subway read for a few months.
thirty-one. paul fischer, a kim jong-il production (flatiron books, 2015).
kim jong-il had invented the mass games in 1972, for his father’s sixtieth birthday, and it was one of the ways he hoped to demonstrate his virtues as an heir. the games were at the center of what came to be known as “succession art,” write historians heonik kwon and byung-ho chung, “considering that the central objective of the era’s artistic production was to sublimate kim il-sung’s authority in preparation or transforming his personal charisma into a historical, hereditary charisma” that could be passed on to kim jong-il. (128-9)
this was fun and interesting, and i liked it particularly because it focuses on a specific series of events (the kidnapping of a south korean star actress and star director by north korea because of kim jong-il’s obsession with film and desire to make a name for north korean cinema) and because it gives us a different look into north korea than other books about the country tend to give us. there’s less politicizing and more story-telling here, but i must admit that i found fischer’s writing to be a tad dramatic. he kept ending his chapters/sections with these cliffhanger-esque, reflective sentences, and, after a while, i found it a bit overdone. it’s still a lot of fun and interesting — recommended!
thirty-two. jonathan galassi, muse (knopf, 2015).
so people [at p&s] — those who lasted — relaxed and homed in on their work, endlessly complaining about the peremptory, ungrateful, self-involved authors whose writing they idolized. they were utterly mad, of course, but they did their level best to ignore one another’s foibles since they were the same as their own. and to many of them the cramped, filthy offices on union square were a mind-bending, topsy-turvy little heaven on earth. (18)
muse is one of those strange reads where i liked it but i’m also not sure how i felt about it. i’m interested to read galassi’s next fictional offering, though, so that’s a positive sign. i think my quasi-ambivalence comes from being familiar with a lot of the relationships/people in the novel, so some of the history and background read as a bit long for me because it was mentally redundant, though it wasn't narratively. which means that you don't have to know anything about publishing to read and enjoy the book -- i actually think that might be better? at the same time, though, i also admit to this being a case of the publishing geek side of my brain going into overdrive and trying to make connections subconsciously, which probably affected my reading of the book. regardless, i'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in a bit of publishing history! it was also a huge pleasure to hear galassi read and talk about the book.
thirty-three. yangsze choo, the ghost bride (harpercollins, 2013) (via oyster books).
(i made no highlights, therefore no quote)
this was interesting because i zipped through this in one night and enjoyed it … and then a friend of mine started reading it, and she reads slowly, so i would revisit it with her as she read … and we both ended up disliking it. the ghost bride had a whole lot of potential; it was set in a rich, layered, interesting world; and the main character was set up for an awesome adventure. instead, there was quite a bit of historical/cultural explanation, predictable turns, and damsel-in-distress moments — instead of the main character actively saving herself, she kept getting into binds and calling out for the hero to rescue her, which got old after the second time.
thirty-four. lily king, euphoria (atlantic monthly press, 2014) (via oyster books).
‘do you have a favorite part of all this?’ she [nell] asked.
favorite part? there was little at this point that didn’t make me want to run with my stones straight back into the river. i shook my head. ‘you first.’
she looked surprised, as if she hadn’t expected the question to come back at her. she narrowed her grey eyes. ‘it’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. suddenly it feels within your grasp. it’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. but at that moment the place feels entirely yours. it’s the briefest, purest euphoria.’ (chapter 5)
a few friends recommended this to me, and i am so glad i finally read it. i’ve never thought much about anthropology, not in the sense that i think little of the discipline but rather that i’ve never given it much thought, just kind of assumed people went off to hidden corners of the world and tried to observe cultures and societies from as objective a view as they could get. never once did i think of what that entailed, and euphoria did a wonderful job of exploring what anthropologists do, without resorting to exposition. king tells the story of three anthropologists whose lives become tangled up as they study different tribes with different approaches, and there’s a love triangle, too, but it doesn’t feel trite or cheesy. i actually quite enjoyed it because it fit seamlessly into the whole big picture of the novel. thanks for recommending this to me! and i pass the recommendation along!
(also, i loved the twist with the narrative voice in the first chapter. that was great.)
thirty-five. bill clegg, ninety days (little, brown, 2012) (via ibooks).
how many times had i been convinced there was a dark conspiracy of intricately placed people observing, entrapping, stalking, and circling? so many. now, with this kind, sober woman sitting next to me in the thicket of a challenging dinner party, i experience the flip side of this paranoia — the opposite of all that wild-minded dread, the feeling instead that there are forces conspiring on my behalf, placing people in my way at precisely the right moments to guide me on whatever path i should be on. (“shoulder to shoulder”)
i woke up a week or so ago, needing to reread ninety days. there’s so much rawness and vulnerability in this slim book (well, i assume it’s slim because it’s a fast read — i read it in a few hours — but i read it on ibooks, so i haven’t actually held the physical book in my hand) (D:), and i like clegg’s voice. a lot. he’s not a very fancy writer who gets caught up in beautiful sentences, but i like that. (i describe it as “clean.”) ninety days is about his struggle to get and stay clean, to get ninety days sober (the first milestone), and he talks frankly about his relapses, his temptations to relapse, the ugliness of addiction, about how it’s people who save you, how it’s community that keeps you going in the day-to-day, that it’s about being there for each other, with each other. that’s something we all need to be reminded of, i think — and there’s something very humbling about ninety days, too. it’s easy for us to think that we’re better than addicts because we aren’t addicted to a substance, but that’s not true — we’re all human; we’re all flawed; and we all fuck up. we all alienate and isolate and hurt the people who love us, and we all destroy relationships. we all need people and second and third and tenth and hundredth chances. who are we to judge?
thirty-six. megan whalen turner, the queen of attolia (greenwillow books, 2000).
“nahuseresh, if there is one thing a woman understands, it is the nature of gifts. they are bribes when threats will not avail.” (attolia, 298)
read this for the second time this year because i loved gen and attolia and wanted to read something light and fun. there’s a lot of heavy-handed plotting and politicizing in queen of attolia, but i love it, anyway. the romance kind of comes out of nowhere, too, but i love it, anyway. i love the characters, which means that i can overlook a lot of the other weaknesses because i’m that emotionally taken.
thirty-seven. bill clegg, did you ever have a family (scout press, forthcoming, 2015).
it is raining now. somewhere on upper main street a metal mailbox slams shut. she thinks she hears footsteps again, this time rushing away, but soon there is only the sound of raindrops tapping the fallen leaves, the parked cars, the gutters. she closes her eyes and listens. no one calls her name, there are no more footsteps behind her, but still she turns around before unlocking the door and stepping inside. she takes a long, late-day look at the town where she has lived her whole life, where there are no friends, no family, but where her feet are famous to the sidewalks. (46)
clegg’s debut novel has been getting a lot of praise, so i was a little nervous going into it because i didn’t want it to disappoint. the novel follows the aftermath of an accident at a wedding, and the chapters each focus on a different character (kind of like in claire messud’s the emperor’s children, but better). i loved how the book unfolds, introducing and delving into the different people who are somehow touched by this tragedy, whether directly or indirectly. it's done beautifully and poignantly in lovely, sparse language, and, while the different voices aren’t so markedly, dramatically different, they are varied in voice, tone, and color, which is no small feat. i can see where all the high praise is coming from and highly recommend this — it’ll be published on 2015 september 8, and i can’t wait for the book tour!
we are now in the second half of 2015! i'm happy to say that i am right where i need to be in my goal to read 75 books in 2015!
and, YEY, i caught up to my monthly reading recaps! sorry for the delays -- it's been a rough three months, but things are better now! thanks for reading!