I doubt there is a one of you who hasn’t heard about Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro. The book, and the writer, are EVERYWHERE and that is such a good thing! Julia is the founder of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and thus has been cultivating a devoted fan club of hundreds (thousands?) of writers for a decade now. I can personally attest to her talent and generosity as an instructor–I sat around her kitchen table for three workshops before she sent me off to my MFA program. Nearly ten years later, she still enthusiastically plugs everything I publish or edit or do on the internet, as she does with so many of her former students. Anyone who was ever a recipient of her wisdom and support would obviously want to turn it back to her and luckily, it seems like the whole world has been doing just that to get this book, her first published effort, a crazy amount of buzz.

cutting teeth

About a “mommy group” who head to a Long Island beach house for a weekend of passive aggression, outright aggression, and all-around upheaval, the novel is told from multiple points of view. Often, this structure bums me out because I have a favorite character and feel like I don’t get to hear from him or her enough, or I feel like the structure is trying to turn a story collection into a more marketable novel. Neither was the case here–the action and arc of the book would have been incomplete without the exact pieces Julia put into play. There was only one character, Nicole, who launches the book, that I wanted more of–the rest of them were best taken in small doses! Read the rest of this entry »

When the second book of this trilogy, The Year of the Flood, came out a couple of years ago, I received it as a gift and started reading. By the time I realized that I should have read Oryx and Crake first, I had read enough that I didn’t want to stop. (Only a few pages, mind you). So I did read the whole thing and I enjoyed it, although now that I’ve read it again with the appropriate background–I read Oryx and Crake on the beach in Tulum–I see how much I missed the first time around. I followed it right up with the last book in the series, MaddAddam.

trilogy

The three books are what the term “speculative fiction” was coined to describe–they happen in the nearish future and project forward from what is going on in our world now. The extreme technologies and crazy animal splices (rakunks and liobams), the insidious pharmaceuticals and enforced class divides don’t exist quite yet, but there is logical reason to believe that they all could, and soon. (There are also irregularly capitalized made-up proper nouns all over the place–the same thing that I hate in George Saunders’s speculative work–“CorpsSeCorps,” “HappiCuppa”….)

The overall effect of the three books is chronological although there is overlap between the first two in which the reader gets to see some concurrent events. Read the rest of this entry »

I won’t say that this is the best book of all time, because I can’t quite substantiate that, but holy shit is The Flamethrowers AMAZING. I mean, I loved it so much. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it and can’t wait to read it again. I’m also trying to keep composure and wait until I calm down some before I write Rachel Kushner a slew of fan letters. I don’t want to worry her.

flamethrowers

In some ways, this is a book about a young woman growing up a tiny, tiny bit. That’s something we’ve all read before (except maybe she even changes less than in other protagonists change over the course of their narratives). In other ways, this is a book about a million things I’ve never read about before at all. Reno (not her real name) is in her very early twenties and, influenced by Land Art and a love of motorcycles, sets off at the start of the book to race across salt flats and then to photograph the line her motorcycle makes in the salt. Wow, right? She works as a China Girl, a woman whose photo serves as the color standard for a film. There are passages about Brazilian rubber workers, the Red Brigade, World War I flamethrowers… so much that was new to me. And then the book went deep into the late seventies Soho art scene. It was so cool how the real history mixed with Kushner’s invention. Her fictional artists and gallerists mix with art historical figures; narratively, there’s no way to tell if John Dogg or John Chamberlain was the fiction. (I won’t erase that because I think it makes my point–I just googled and John Dogg is actually real and I just didn’t know about him). I loved that although Robert Smithson and Dan Flavin exist in the world of the book, Donald Judd doesn’t and because he doesn’t, one of the main characters, Sandro, gets to make Judd-esque art.  Read the rest of this entry »

I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying by Matthew Salesses was the second book I read on the beach in Mexico. It is a novel, but comprised of about a hundred and ten tiny chapters that could–and some that at one time were–be read as flash fiction. It is about an unnamed Asian-American man who inherits his previously-unknown five year old son, when the child’s white mother, a one-night stand, dies. The narrator takes on this child with trepidation but not a lot of hesitation, and begins to raise him with the help of his girlfriend, referred to as “the Wifely Woman.” There is also the “Asian girl” and the “white girl”–two women he has on the side, and his friend, Randy, the only person in the whole book that gets a name.

Race is, in large part, what the book is about. The narrator was picked up by the boy’s mother, years ago, when she came on to him with a ridiculous pick up line about “going yellow.” (I read in an interview that this happened to Salesses himself and he stuttered awkwardly and moved away, but then started thinking about who the man would be who would lean in to that situation). So the boy is half-white, but being raised now by two Asian-Americans–the narrator is of Korean descent while the Wifely Woman is of Chinese descent, a fact that disappoints the narrator’s mother. There’s a sweet scene where the narrator introduces the boy to Korean food. In one of the scenes I thought was most interesting, the Asian girl infiltrates the narrator’s other life and is upset most, he thinks, by the fact that the Wifely Woman is also Asian (and prettier). These sort of issues, raised by an Asian-American man, don’t get a lot of cultural play so it was gratifying to read about them being dealt with so specifically. Read the rest of this entry »

I just spent a week on the beach and so, of course, arrived in Mexico armed with seven books. The first one I pulled out was the one I’ve been recognizing in the hands of many subway riders over the last few months: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I’d been reluctant to read it for a while because I conflated it with Chris Beha’s What Ever Happened to Sophie Wilder? because of the semi-similar titles and the fact that, I think, they came out around the same time. When it clicked that they were different books, I purchased it just in time for the trip.

bernadette

It was truly the ideal beach read. Lots of reviews of this book mention it being laugh-out-loud funny and although I never laughed out loud (do I ever? I only remember once, in To Kill a Mockingbird, at the line: “Pass the damn ham.”) I was entertained totally and completely throughout the entire book. It starts off with the dead-on, progressive-school report card (the grades one can achieve at the Galer School are Surpasses Excellence, Achieves Excellence, or Working Toward Excellence) for an eighth grader named Bee, the sort-of narrator of the novel. I say “sort-of narrator” because while some of the book is in Bee’s voice, most of it is not, and is instead a compilation of emails, letters, Artforum articles, intervention-transcriptions, and other kinds of written ephemera. I was a little worried for a while that the form was going to wind up being arbitrary, but even before Semple revealed why it wasn’t, I’d given up that fear to the fun of the book. There was a reason for all of it and although it was a little far-fetched, it worked well-enough to justify the invention. Read the rest of this entry »

You may notice that there was an uncharacteristically gap between my last post and this one. I was reading Americanah during most of that time–it is super long–but I was reading slowly. It’s been a busy few weeks!

At the beginning of that time, I went to an event put on by the Aspen Institute featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I saw her speak once before and I recommend it if  you have the opportunity. She’s charming, hilarious and crazy-smart. There are a few talking points she hits in most of the interviews and articles that I’ve heard and read, such as not having been black until she moved to the United States, that I think are really important to contemplate.

americanah

When I read Adichie’s last novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, I was obsessed with it–the story, the structure, the writing, the surprises, the devastating plot turns, and creative “reveal” at the end. I was prepared to feel the same way about this novel, but I actually didn’t, in the end. I keep writing sentences about why and none of them are quite accurate. I wanted it to be more focused, but in many ways it was extremely focused. Perhaps it was that it was thematically focused but hit some of the same or similar points more times than I felt like it needed to–not harder, but too often or for too long. Read the rest of this entry »

Barbara and I have worked together for a few years. For a while, we worked at two different jobs together. Given how our weird world operates, though, we only see each other a few times a year. So I was delighted two weeks ago when I got to assist her with some large classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and have lunch afterward. I was EXTRA delighted when she handed be a copy of her very newly released book, Painting Your Way Out of a Corner: The Art of Getting Unstuck. 

barry

A few lucky people get to experience Barbara’s teaching in person. She’s a museum educator, teaching artist, and runs her own workshops, Art for Self-Discovery. She is the kind of alchemist who can transform an entire classroom of writhing toddlers into productive artists, magically on (developmentally-appropriate, creative) task. With a slightly older age group, she can help students learn historically accurate information through open-ended conversations about visual art. In her adult workshops, she can make the most up-tight executive feel comfortable with a paint brush. Her book brings her encouraging, exploratory style of teaching and nurturing to those who may not be able to take a class with her in person.  Read the rest of this entry »

I decided I wanted to read everything that Jesmyn Ward ever wrote after hearing her Other People podcast. I acquired two of her three books–Salvage the Bones and Men We Reaped–as Christmas gifts and started my Ward-intake with her memoir, Men We Reaped.

men we reaped

 

Between the year 2000 and the year 2004, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men who were important to her–her very dear younger brother, her cousin (who was, more importantly, her sister’s boyfriend), and three friends. These five young African-American men, all from her poor rural Mississippi community, died in ways that seem, on the surface, to be unrelated. Some of them seem to have been accidents rather than directly related to gun violence or drugs. But over the course of the book, Ward weaves together their stories with the broader stories of her own family and those like them, going back generations, to show that the same institutional racism, poverty, and crushing lack of opportunity played a large part in all five men’s deaths, as well as the deaths of many before and after them.  She shows, through personal, poetic storytelling, that despite all of the love these men were given by those around them, despite their individual, unique and giving personalities, despite their own, personal specialness, they were part of a much bigger system they weren’t ever going to be able to escape.   Read the rest of this entry »

Although I’ve heard of him quite a bit afterward, when I saw Kevin Barry read a few months ago, his name was new to me. I was at his reading because he had been paired with Craig Finn from The Hold Steady, and I have a friend who wanted very much to see Craig Finn in conversation, regardless of his conversational partner. We were both pretty blown away by Kevin Barry. He’s Irish and the accent in combination with his animated reading style, more akin to storytelling than anything, was enticing. His banter with Craig Finn was great. It was kind of amazing how a guy from Ireland could nail Brooklyn so quickly. He said things like, “Isn’t everyone from Brooklyn moving upstate now?” and “In Berlin, we knew it was over when the Americans arrived.” We chatted after the event and I bought the book. As I’ll mention in all the blog posts I’ll write until forever, I was still reading Ulysses at the time, so I didn’t get to read Barry’s collection, Dark Lies the Island, until now.

dark lies the island

I really liked the collection but also felt that I could only get so far with it and that, weirdly, was because of the language barrier. Barry makes heavy, wonderful use of the vernacular, something I appreciated but didn’t totally understand. Read the rest of this entry »

This linked short story collection is the kind of book that gives me hope for the future. Subtle, slim, quiet, and about interpersonal relationships, incremental inner growth, and not much more, it is exactly the kind of book I like and the kind of book I would love to see proliferate. The title–Remember How I Told You I Love You?–has shades of Maile Meloy to it, no? That can’t be a bad thing!

linden

The first story starts like this:

Karen meets her in the fall of freshman year. She has another roommate at the time, a scowling brunette named Julie, assigned by the college. That relationship isn’t going well. Julie brings home cups of macaroni and ketchup from the dining hall and leaves them on the windowsill in the room. Karen throws away the cups because Julie doesn’t, and she keeps finding noodles on the floor.

If you know me, and know me well enough to know anything about my freshman year of college, you will know why this resonates. Suffice it to say that I experienced this phenomenon but tenfold, involving baked potatoes, literal spilled milk, and OE forties. One of my dearest friends in the whole world, on the other hand, is the roommate that wasn’t bringing home a baked potato every day and hiding it somewhere in the room–I still talk to her nearly daily FIFTEEN YEARS after we first met. So I truly appreciate a book that delves into, and places so much importance on, the friendships women form in college.

The two women at the heart of that first story weave through the rest of the book, as do characters that are peripheral to that first one, some of them emerging as the protagonists of other stories. The style that carries through all the stories is spare, economical and unsentimental. Even when characters are dealing with loss or behaving badly, the prose is clear and consistent.

I had some serious reading disappointments in 2013, but I’m on a role in 2014–I’ve really loved everything I’ve read so far! Let’s hope the streak continues.

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