I recently saw Helen Phillips on a panel where writers discussed the architecture of their books. She spoke about how her slim novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat was, at one point, 350 pages long. It is just about half that now and, rather than cut it down, I think I understand that she rewrote it from the ground up in order to work toward the book that so many of us have now read. This is all to say that years of grueling effort went into this book and yet, I read it in an afternoon, as time must have been passing around me, as time does, but I was unaware.


This book is engrossing and transporting from page one, in a way that feels effortless. It’s structure is perfect, every word choice is ideal, the little word games that pepper the text are both charming and moving, and the tone is a carefully calibrated mix of suspense, foreboding, humor, satire and romance. So, what Phillips has done is put so much hard work and effort into the book as to make her hard work and effort invisible. I don’t know if all writers strive for this effect, but I certainly do. I read The Beautiful Bureaucrat with both admiration and envy.

I don’t want to say too much else except that this is a book in which the fact that two of of the very limited cast of characters are named “The Person with Bad Breath” and “Trishiffany” coexists with one of the most wrenching, moving final scenes in recent memory. This book deserves all the hype it is getting and more.

Abby Sher’s Amen, Amen, Amen is among my favorite memoirs. I don’t read a lot of them, i guess, but I’ve read enough to know a few issues I often have with them. Because lives can be repetitive, so can memoirs. I read one recently in which the writer was, I think, too diligent about giving the reader the blow by blow of what happened to her over the course of the story. It was quite a remarkable story, and really interesting in the big picture, but I wished for a good third of it to have been omitted in favor of a quick summary. I find, too, that memoirs tend toward epiphany sometimes and, this too, may be because we do have epiphanies in real life. But, in writing, it is hard for them not to feel imposed on the story. Along the same lines, I often feel like memoirs are too romantic, or self-mythologizing. It’s not necessarily more self-centered to write a memoir than to write any other kind of book, but at times, they take a more self-consciously writerly tone than their stories warrant, which is what makes them skew romantic.


I realize it is strange to start this post talking about all the things that this book didn’t do, but I think of it this way because, given the nature of what Sher was writing about here, she easily could have done them. As a pre-teen, Abby’s favorite aunt and father passed away in quick, sudden succession. From there, her OCD spiraled out, becoming all-consuming. She prayed constantly, kissed special items or words hundreds of time, collected sharp litter from the ground. Later, she developed anorexia and engaged in self-injurious practices like cutting and pounding (pounding–something I’d never heard of). Her relationships with her mother, certain friends, and certain boyfriends were intense and obsessive. She drank way too much. These are all repetitive behaviors and yet the book never felt bogged down in an “and this happened” kind of structure. I think because the narration was so honest and focused, and the writing so, so good, every word felt necessary. Each episode included in the book was there for a reason in the larger scope of the story, not included simply because it happened.

I think Sher avoided epiphany, too, because it was clear from the beginning of the book what sparked her self-injurious behaviors. She structured it so that it was no mystery to the reader that she was living with mental illness, and her behaviors were triggered in earnest because of these early, traumatic instances of loss.

Sher did not romanticize herself or her behaviors, but she also did not paint herself as tragic or cloying. She struck the right balance so the reader was able to see her as the people in her life might–funny, loving, vivacious, but also prone to collecting piles of garbage, to retreating for increasingly long periods of time into closets to pray, to convincing herself that she caused death and destruction everywhere she went (and also places she didn’t). It wasn’t hard to understand why her husband practically proposed to her and checked her into a treatment facility in one breath.

The book ends in a hopeful, healthier place, but one that in no way suggests that Sher’s struggles are resolved. It also includes a list of therapists, treatments centers, doctors and resources for anyone who recognizes any of her behaviors in themselves or a loved one. After reading the book and getting to know this sweet, kind person, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to any reader that, in the end, she wrote this beautiful book in part to help others.

I had The Round House by Louise Erdrich on my bookshelf for about nine months before I remembered it was there. I read it in just a few hours once I picked it up, though. I’m not sure why I don’t site Erdrich as one of my favorite writers when people ask, because she is–I’m reminded every time I read one of her books. She is able to nail both breathtaking sentences, memorable characters and suspenseful, engaging plots all at the same time.

round house

The Round House is about a thirteen year old boy named Joe, his family, and friends as they navigate a terrible crime–a vicious, brutal rape–committed against his mother. (That’s not a spoiler–it happens right away!). There’s the matter of who did it to figure out, and then how to prosecute or avenge the crime once the mystery is solved. There’s the why–both the personal and political. Speaking of politics, there are plenty–national, local, historical, sexual. There’s tradition and religion; some of the most interesting religion is in the person of a young, super-fit, aggressive and enigmatic priest. Read the rest of this entry »

Joan Silber does it again.


Fools is what people call a cycle of stories, somehow more than your average linked collection, but still segmented enough to not quite be a novel. The first story lends the book its title and gives way to all the stories that come after. “Fools,” about a group of early twentieth century downtown anarchists, stands on its own as a unique, daring, touching narrative. It is thrilling, though, to continue on reading to see how the progeny of those anarchists–how the children of those that work in the hotels they will run one day, how the nonprofit development officer who meets the French lover of one of those children–spin out into a vast world of personalities, dramas and social movements.

How did she do it? Oh, I really wonder. This is one of those books that will fade into my memory as if it is actual memory, as if I knew these people once, as if, maybe, I even did what they did. I swear I remember, once, being on a cold, blustery Staten Island beach. Was I?

You’ll notice there’s a gigantic gap between this entry and my last; it isn’t because I haven’t been reading, though! For most of the summer, I’ve been working through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. I will post about them, I’m sure, once the fourth comes out next month and I can write about the quartet as a whole. I also had to intersperse some middle grade and YA novels in there for work. But, I am happy to report that I’ve returned to recreational reading with one of the biggest books of the last year or two, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.


When I first started hearing about this book, I wanted to read it. When I continued to hear about it, I thought, oh wait, it’s a best seller, so maybe not. Because, you know, I’m a snob. But a little while ago, I picked it up in a bookstore and read the first couple of pages and was hooked. I didn’t buy it then because I had too much Ferrante to tackle, but filed it away as a treat I’d buy myself soon. After I finished teaching my book club camp, I did go right out and buy it, planning to read it yesterday at the beach. But, I got called to babysit on Saturday and, after the little one went to bed, I needed a bit of unwinding. As exhausted as I was when I finally got home, I stayed up to finish it.

So, it’s heartening that this novel is so popular because it is really, really good. It gives me faith in people’s taste! As the first sentence tells the reader, the book revolves around the death of a child, a teenager named Lydia. Her family, outsiders in their 1970s, small Midwestern college town for a few reasons, the biggest of which is that James, the father, is Chinese-American, while the mother, Marilyn, is white. Their two surviving children, Nath and Hannah, struggle with their identifies, their status in town, their particular family dynamics and how they’ve been altered with Lydia’s death. What I thought was most impressive, and what made the book so successful, was the fluidity of the point of view. The book dips into each of the five characters’ perspectives, giving the reader various insights into the story’s central mystery–what happened to Lydia–that the rest of the characters don’t have, as well as a closeness and compassion for each member of the Lee family that none of them can possibly have for each other. Ng doesn’t rely on chapter divisions or even hard returns to leave one character’s story for another’s. She writes with such confidence and elegance that what would come across as messy–as rule-breaking–in someone else’s hands is completely believable in hers. It took me a while to even realize what had been happening; I was so convinced by it that I didn’t stop to question.

My other favorite aspect of the book is how Ng weaves one of Nath’s particular interests into the background of the book–there but never particularly important–until, in the second to last paragraph of the book, she releases all the potential she’d been building into one of the best flash forwards I’ve ever read (second only to the one I will never stop talking about and referencing, in Jennifer Egan’s story/chapter “Safari.”) I cried a little when telling my husband about it the day after I finished it, because the sentiment and meaning behind it was sad and beautiful, but also because it was so perfect structurally. It’s like crying in front of a chapel in the Vatican–the divine engineering!

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas spans about five decades, telling the story of a woman named Eileen Leary (nee Tumulty), her husband Ed, and their son, Connell. In many ways, I am in a unique position to love this book. It starts off in Irish Woodside, Queens, mere blocks from where I live in a dramatically changed, multi-ethnic neighborhood today. It was thrilling to read about the history of my area, so carefully and thoughtfully observed. Later, the action moves a few subway stops further into Queens, into Jackson Heights, a section of the city I also know very well. Even later, the characters make a huge conceptual, though slight geographic, move to the Westchester town where I attended grad school. I could picture every street named, the window of the bridal shop that opened during the course of the book. A few days after finishing the book, I walked down Court Street in Brooklyn past a church that was named often in the book, the site of one of Eileen’s major realizations. Many books are set in New York City, but not in MY New York City (Alice McDermott’s books excepted!).


In most ways, though, I am not poised to love this book any more than anyone else, simply because it is so good I can’t make too many claims on it. If you don’t know much about the book, I would implore you not to read about it before diving into the book itself–I am not going to write about the plot here. I knew just a shred about it before starting it, but I think my experience would have been better had I not known what to anticipate. This is especially important with this book because Thomas’s pacing is just masterful. The book is about something long before that thing actually starts to happen (sorry to be vague!) and much of the story’s power is in its sequencing, its slow dawning, its close observation. It makes the most of the distance between the reader and the characters–in some ways, the reader gets to see the characters’ situation more clearly than they do, but in other ways, they know–or some of them know–what is going on long before the reader. It is an incredible act of balancing and calibrating.

The pacing can also be really brave–for such a long book, there are major life events that are compressed to mere sentences. One example, which I will give away, is that after a long, difficult and despairing period of trying to get pregnant, Eileen conceives, carries, gives birth to and nurtures baby Connell, all in about three lines. By contrast, late in the book, she takes two pages to inventory every scrap contained in her husband’s wallet. This all goes back to serve that amazing balancing act Thomas executes in this book.

Another act of bravery on the writer’s part is in allowing one of Eileen’s attributes to be–among many other wonderful ones–bitter, unsubtle racism. It makes total sense for the character and for her circumstances, but I think a lot of writers wouldn’t let her go there. (There’s never a time when her racism could be confused for the writers, by the way). The times when she checks herself, or comes around completely, are hard won and believable, too.

The book ends twice. Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Connell starts to have his own chapters, so it is fitting that Eileen and Connell each get their own separate endings. Eileen’s is touching, a bit sentimental in a good way and brings the story somewhat full-circle. It is hard to describe Connell’s ending without giving away everything I want you to read for yourself, but I found it absolutely devastating, chilling and truly horrifying, yet also, impossibly, hopeful and beautiful.

I finished this book a few weeks ago and I don’t think I’m lying when I say that I’ve thought about it everyday since. It’s truly incredible.

I met a friend at a bar and we both had the book with us!

I met a friend at a bar and we both had the book with us!

It may appear, based on the evidence exhibited on this blog, that I haven’t been reading very much. In a way that’s true; I’ve been reading a little less than usual. Is it because I’ve been focusing–narcissistically–on MY BOOK? Maybe. (Do I ever pretend to be anonymous on this blog? I don’t know–sort of!–but oh well. I’d rather you buy my book than not know who I am!) Is it because I’ve been teaching so many children that my reading time has devolved into decompress-in-front-of-food-travel-shows time? More likely.


One book I actually have read lately is The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac by Sharma Shields. It is a long, wild novel that spans decades and spins out from the moment little 9-year-old Eli Roebuck’s mom abandons him to head into the woods with her lover, a Sasquatch named, improbably, Mr. Krantz. Many chapters have Eli at their heart, but others follow the stories of the women in his life–his two wives, his two daughters, his mother. When I saw Sharma read, she called the novel “messy,” then revised it to “feral.” I definitely don’t think it is messy. If I picture the trajectory of the book in my head, it looks sort of like a frayed rope. There is a solid, traceable center, made up of braided stories. Each is recognizably separate but also serves the whole. Coming off of those strands, are smaller threads–the complications of each sort of sub-story. It’s a brave and exciting way to structure a book.

I tend to have the same problem when I read a lot of books with supernatural elements in them: I think that they aren’t REALLY supernatural. I take the alternate world as a metaphor or the super tall hairy monster as the projection of a traumatized child. But some books really are science fiction, or speculative, or have fantastical elements to them. This book is one of them. For a good long while, i was convinced that there wasn’t really a Sasquatch, even though the reader immediately gets the good look at him that most of the characters never do. It wasn’t until a succession of other supernatural beings and phenomena showed up that I understood–no, he really IS a Sasquatch. Whose problem is this? Certainly not Sharma’s. One benefit that my skepticism had, though, is I feel like I spent a little extra time considering Eli’s psyche, and a little extra time empathizing with all the characters who thought that Eli was delusional, because I thought he was, too.

Though complicated and multi-faceted, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac is also a quick, fun read. Sharma is from Spokane, and wove the Northwest landscape through the novel in a way that this East Coast reader found fascinating, too. Pick it up!

This book has gotten a lot of attention (including being a finalist for the National Book Award) and, now that I’ve finally read it, I see why. It’s a fairly substantial novel yet I read it in a day–it is one of those books that inspires that kind of dedicated binge reading with its story, which sets up several lines of narrative tension. It was also a pretty easy read, sort of pop-y and weirdly fun for the (post-apocalyptic / mass-death) subject matter.


Station Eleven kicks off in our world, in a theater, at a production of King Lear through the eyes of a paramedic in training named Jeevan. By the end of the chapter, there is a shockingly direct revelation that the book is not at all what it has seemed up until that point. From there on, the narration jumps between characters and time periods, following a pandemic that kills most of earth’s population and causes the collapse of civilization, sometimes stretching back decades before that opening scene, sometimes filing in parts of the intervening years. We see Jeevan at various points in the future, and while I would have liked to spend even more time with him throughout the book, I thought he was a really interesting choice as a lens for the beginning of the end.

The main characters are all connected, in some way, to that King Lear performance. This was both neat and slightly undermining of a mystery in the book. The true identity of a nefarious character, known as the Prophet, is unknown to the book’s characters and maybe also is supposed to be to the reader, but, I found it almost immediately obvious, which made the information’s slow revelation a bit tedious. A plot point that had, for me, the opposite problem was one involving the childhood friend of a central character, a famous actor, who published an unauthorized collection of letters he sent her. I felt like, and still feel like, I missed something important in terms of why this whole thread is in the book. The last aspect of the book I felt a bit unconvinced by was the emphasis on a set of sci-fi graphic novels, created by one character and treasured by two others. I liked the device of the books except for their content, which spoke too directly to the post-civiliization circumstances of the book. Their plot had almost no resonance with the broader story because the parallel was so clear that there was no use even thinking about it.

The use of science fiction as a device overall, though, was more successful. While I’m not a big Star Trek fan myself, I grew up with a lot of Star Trek because of my parents and brother, so I got a kick out of the many Trek-related quotes and allusions. A mantra in the book, “Survival is insufficient,” comes from Star Trek (not even the old Star Trek!) and is pretty compelling, I thought.

Despite the handful of misgivings I described above, I definitely recommend this book. It is an absorbing and entertaining read, with clear, strong writing.

I downloaded Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men as part of a Kindle promotion ages ago and then forgot about it. The other day, I noticed it sitting there unread and opened it up. And I actually really loved it.


I say it that way, with a bit of surprise, because if I got super analytical about it, there are certain aspects of the book that I shouldn’t have liked. For one, the narrator occasionally directly addresses the reader–“Dear Reader”-style–which was, on the surface, sort of annoying. But the narrator, Mia, is a poet and a reader, and references books like Middlemarch, Jane Austin’s entire oeuvre (nearly), and The Golden Bowl, so the antiquated literary convention made thematic sense. There’s also an entire mystery in the book that, I think, goes unsolved. Did I miss something? No, I don’t think so. It was maybe not supposed to matter, in the end, who Mia’s strange email stalker, Mr. Nobody, was–or maybe he was just that, a nobody email stalker. But, man, I wanted to know! Was that part of the point? Maybe.  Read the rest of this entry »

I saw Rebecca Scherm read at the Sackett Street Reading Series at BookCourt and promptly picked up her first novel, Unbecoming. It’s an absorbing read that, although it is literally about antique and jewelry heists, I was surprised to read described as a book about antique and jewelry heists. It is a book about Grace, the protagonist–the rest of it is just the plot.


The readers gets to know Grace in a close, intimate and uncomfortable way over the course of the fairly long novel, from her childhood–when she begins to suspect that she’s a “bad apple”–through her teenagerhood, spent almost entirely in the family home of her boyfriend, a boy named Riley whose family she worships, into her brief stint in New York as a college student, through the downward spiral that comes next. Structurally, the book is interesting in that this all doesn’t happen in a linear fashion, until the end when the narration becomes fairly straightforward. Before that, chunks of the book happen in the far past, in the more recent past, and in the present. This structure both diminishes suspense early on and builds it later.  Read the rest of this entry »


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