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I’ve been tearing through books in the last few days waiting for this baby to arrive: We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge, For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu, and Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt. I really liked all of them, but want to start with Mr. Splitfoot.
I’ve read the last three chapters of Mr. Splitfoot three times now, not because I needed to in order to understand them, but because they contain so much magic that I want to absorb more and more of it. The novel alternates between the first person perspective of present-day Cora and the third-person perspective of Cora’s aunt, only six years her senior, Ruth. Ruth, who grew up in an upstate group foster home run by a religious fanatic, became something of a spiritualist with her “sister,” a boy from the home named Nat, and under the guidance of a strange man named Mr. Bell, took their show on the road. Years later, she arrives at a pregnant Cora’s door, unwilling to speak, and urges her along on a cross-state journey, on foot, destination unknown. The writing is some of the sharpest and most specific I’ve read. The way Hunt weaves themes through the narrative–particularly questions of how the living relate to the dead–is both subtle and truly masterful. The book’s ending would be the definition of surprising yet inevitable if it weren’t, more than anything, so transcendent. The way various images from the earlier in the book are pulled through the text to emerge at the end completely blew my mind. Mr. Splitfoot has been reviewed a bunch but I don’t think it is has gotten the attention it deserves. It is seriously one of the most stunning books I’ve read in ages and I want everyone to know it! It was also the most perfect book to read the week of my due date, since it traces the course of Cora’s pregnancy–I want to say more about that but don’t want to ruin anything!
The book I read before Mr. Splitfoot was For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu. I’d never heard of the book or the writer, but the novel was passed along to me by my mother-in-law, who’d gotten it from my sister-in-law. About a Chinese-Canadian child who grows into a young adult over the course of the book, the protagonist Peter, though born male, has always felt as if he were a girl. (But, not really identified that way, hence my use here of male pronouns–tricky but, I think, true to the book). Surrounded by three sisters who in many ways accept him as one of them, but prized for his male-ness and dissuaded from expressing his true gender identity by his traditional father, Peter eventually finds his way to a career as a chef and moves, on his own, to Montreal. Over the course of the book, Peter struggles with the alienation and confusion his gender identity brings him, largely unaware that there are other transgender people out there. He doesn’t find a community or a language for his identity, until near the end of the book when he meets a group of privileged white young people who, despite their insufferability, introduce him into a twenty-first century understanding of gender fluidity and politics. The novel ends on an optimistic note, but is pretty dark throughout, not only in terms of Peter’s story but also that of it his sisters, all of whom struggle with demons to rival their siblings. I liked this book, but also wished it were set a little earlier, perhaps–the characters’ economic means went a ways to explain Peter’s lack of media consumption, but it was hard for me fully to believe he wouldn’t have been able to seek out or just run across a little bit more clarity or community for himself.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge has been on my radar for about two years, ever since I read with Kaitlyn just after my book came out but before hers did. I was intrigued by her reading and yet somehow didn’t manage to read her novel until now. I guess I’m glad I waited because I got to read it now for the first time and it is so, so good. About an African American family who, though they’re not deaf, are fluent in ASL and so are tapped to move to a bizarre scientific institute, run and staffed currently and historically by white people, to raise a chimpanzee named Charlie as their son and try to teach him to communicate, the novel tackles issues of race in a head-on and original way. Structurally, the book is pretty wild–it dips into the points of view of all the different members of the Freeman family, while being rooted in the perspective of their oldest daughter, a young teenager named Charlotte, as well as moves decades further back in time to tell the story of Nymphodora, a woman whose own story intersects with the Freemans’ in surprising ways. Explicitly political in its dealings with race, gender, sexuality, family, religion and history without being at all didactic, I thought this book was fantastic.
Oh my, I get worse and worse at this. I think the trend will continue, unfortunately, and I feel bad about it because without being diligent with this blog, I really do lose track of what it is that I’ve read since my last post. I can only come up with a few titles. I think that’s because I’ve forgotten some at the moment, but also think that I’ve actually been reading less. Part of that is election trauma; my attention span isn’t what it used to be because I often devolve into panic and send more money to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU during times I’d otherwise be reading. Also, because I’m going to have a baby in March, I have been doing a bit of pregnancy-related reading and it is less comfortable to curl up with a book than it used to be! But–I have the time now and might not like, ever again, so I better step it up.
So let’s see. In addition to some baby books, in late fall I tackled Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run, and loved it just as much as a huge Springsteen fan who grew up in New Jersey should. I found his writing really affecting; there is no one else in the entire world I would forgive such an abundant use of ellipses and capitalization, but because it was Bruce, it just added to the charm. I was so taken with his deconstruction of his own masculinity and the mythology that surrounds it, as well as his confrontation of his own whiteness and the whiteness of the majority of his audience, often juxtaposing his experience with that of his dear departed bandmate Clarence Clemons. Especially in this current political climate, reading someone like Bruce investigating his privilege was really moving. Much has been made of the way he laid bare his struggles with depression and his father, and these were bold important parts of the book, too. I also loved reading the respectful, profound way he wrote about his wife and children. I am not quite sure how anyone could not be a fan of Bruce, but even if one hypothetically was not, I don’t think that would preclude them from enjoying this book.
To prepare for what turned out to be an all-too-prescient Halloween costume as a pregnant handmaid, I re-read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Talk about an important, timely book. Holy shit. I guess I recommend reading it again and firing up those NARAL and Planned Parenthood donations.
I read Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful, brief Another Brooklyn, and enjoyed it. About a foursome of girls growing up friends in Bushwick, as well as the protagonist’s family and their intersections with place, Islam, mental illness and much more, I really enjoyed it.
Currently, I’m finishing LaRose by Louise Erdrich. My husband observed that it is taking me a very long time to read it, which is true as compared with my normal speed. As with many (all?) books by this author, it is a very intense story, dealing with death, ancestry, addiction, mental illness, and incredible pain. It is also funny, precise, carefully observed, and spectacularly written. For all of the reasons I mention above, I just have to consume it in smaller doses than usual.
Next up? Either Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad or Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman. In 2017, I can’t wait for new books by Morgan Parker, Hossannah Asuncion, Melissa Febos, Julia Fierro, Lauren Grodstein, and so many others! What did you love in 2016 and what are you looking forward to in 2017?
I’ve been dipping in and out of Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women for six weeks or so. With more than forty of the under-recognized fiction writer’s very intense short stories collected within it, the book is a lot to plow through all at once. Now that I’ve finished it, though, I have to confess that I need to read it again. Because I was reading only a few stories at a time, and reading other books in between–The Hopeful by Tracy O’Neill and In My Humble Opinion by Soraya Roberts (about My So-Called Life!) among them–I didn’t connect the stories as much as I should have as early as I should have. Not putting together that many of the stories have the same protagonist, a woman whose life resembles the author’s in many ways, I missed out on a lot.
This is not to say that I was missing out on the stories’ individual brilliance–I wasn’t. And while there are some story fragments or slightly lesser works among these 400 or so pages, most stories really are genius. Berlin had a knack for picking just the right detail, for being unsentimental in the face of tragedy, and for landing an ending. I know some people are a bit critical of some of her “twist” endings, but I loved every one. In fact, near the end of the book, there’s a story called “Here It Is Saturday” about a creative writing class in a prison, that made me truly gasp out loud at the end. That’s a thing people say but don’t usually really do and I did. I can’t really explain why, because what was so awe-inspiring was the way that every narrative choice made in the story built up to the last line. If anything had been different, it might not have worked, but Berlin made all the right choices, and did it ever. You really have to read the story to understand. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been reading so much lately! I’m going to list everything I can, working backwards. I am almost positive I am missing something, but I can always fill you in later. This list is actually missing five other books I had to read for work, middle grade and YA novels that account for a bit of a gap in adult reading in July.
Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz: I have a relatively new membership to Emily Books, which sends subscribers a “weird book by a woman” every month. This is my genre, so I’m pretty psyched about it. Tender Points is a personal essay with a fragmented structure and poetic cross genre feel. About the writer’s struggle with fibromyalgia, a disease that largely affects women, as well as rape, both her own, her friends’ and broader rape culture, Berkowitz has a very specific, moving yet unsentimental, take on the female body. Placed in literary, historical, medical, artistic and personal context, her narrative is both particular and universal.
Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam: in which a dude from Oberlin excels at writing about the friendship between two Vassar girls. I blew through this book and really enjoyed it. It is entirely about the interpersonal relationship between two friends–everything else that happens or exists in the world of the book is to inform that central dynamic–and I think this book proves that one doesn’t need more than that. (Subtext of this paragraph is me wordlessly shouting at every agent/editor/etc. who thinks nothing happens in my stories).
Problems by Jade Sharma: This is the first Emily Book I read and the first one they published on their new imprint with Coffee House Press. I knocked it out in a day, and appreciated a lot about the pace and honesty of the narrative.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: This book is a total marvel. I can’t even imagine how Ozeki wrote it–it seems too complicated, too ingenious, too thoroughly brilliant to have come out of a human mind. A woman in remote Canada finds a Japanese school girl’s diary on the beach and their lives become intertwined, though they never meet. World War II, the tsunami, the dot com bubble, suicide, Buddhist nuns, a lost cat, Alzeheimer’s, and more–it sounds like a lot but everything is just in its place and utterly perfect. A book that defies description and should be read immediately.
The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe: This book is a historical fiction best seller-type, not the kind of book I would usually read, but it is by a woman who was a year ahead of me at Vassar, and since I was headed to the beach for a few days with my Vassar besties, we all decided to read it and discuss. It actually was great. About the first African American woman to attend Vassar in the 1890s–she “passed” and was eventually outed by her deceitful roommate–the story was fascinating in a way that would appeal to lots of readers. The details about turn-of-the-last-century Vassar are probably interesting in general, but were extremely thrilling for us to read about. Some of the traditions maintained a hundred years later, some had disappeared over the years. It was fascinating to read the historical notes at the end and see where Tanabe had taken liberties (the central romance of the book, for instance–not real! The deceitful roommate’s deceit was real, but nothing else about her was) both from a historical standpoint, but also from a narrative one. It was obvious that had she written it just how it happened, the story wouldn’t have had the same page-turner qualities. It took a bit to get used to the style–sort of wordy, Edith Wharton-y, and overly-described–but once I accepted it, it made sense for the book and I really liked it!
Some Possible Solutions by Helen Phillips: These short stories by Helen Phillips are not to be missed. I loved every one of them. She is a writer all her own. Her stories always follow their own logic, and it is a logic no one else could have come up with. Speculative fiction isn’t necessarily my thing, but it is when she does it. I can only hope that she continues to publish books at the rate she is–her novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat came out just a year ago or so.
Hello friends! I feel kind of liberated by this new reading round-up style of blogging I’ve adopted, but I also feel like a jerk because the whole reason I started writing about the books I read was to become a better writer by forcing myself to dissect and understand other peoples’ writing. Have I given up on that? Writing gets me down, because it is hard and lonely and often thankless and every time I am faced with a blank page I just know I’ll never have another idea, but, I mean, I shouldn’t give up trying to improve. I should go back to using this blog to procrastinate from my own fiction writing, at the very least. But, for now, the round-up persists.
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor
This book was wild. It was so structurally and thematically unusual that I never really got a handle on what was going on. If I’d been reading it on a Kindle instead of on paper in my hands, I don’t think I would have known at any given point if I was at the beginning, middle or end of the story. And–weirdly enough–this isn’t a bad thing! It was exhilarating to read a book that felt unlike any other.
About a translator, Cantor’s writing on translation was incredible. There was a particular part of the book that discussed why the translation task at hand was impossible, why what the writer had done in Italian was so specific to the language it was composed in that it could not be reproduced, that blew my mind. I’ve been thinking about those passages for two months and probably will continue to do so.
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
I was really into Claire Vaye Watkins’s first book, a story collection called Battleborn. Part of the reason I liked that book better than Watkins’s novel is that I like short stories better; another part of the reason is that they were told, as I remember, in more straightforward language. I thought she was a beautiful, thoughtful writer then, and I still do, but in Gold Fame Citrus, I was often very conscious of the writing as something separate from the story. This is a way, I think, of saying it felt overwritten, like she used too many words to say what needed to be said. The writing of the small child in the book, though, was really interesting–the baby was unique and her own entity. It was easy to see why she was both compelling and horrifying to the adults in the book. The experimental forays–an illustrated field guide, a few chapters that existed entirely separately from the main characters and action–didn’t entirely win me over. Despite finding this book extremely intense, sad and harrowing, because it is speculative–so different from what I write that it feels like a vacation–I feel compelled to recommend it as beach reading. You may hate me for that.
Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta
Here was an experimental structure I really liked. This book made use of all kinds of narrative tools like reproduced (fictional) blog posts on characters’ directorial careers that I thought worked really well. Part of the reason they did not feel gimmicky is that they allowed for all kinds of irony to play out. The reader knew more about the character writing the blog post than the theoretical readers of that blog post, but also less, because the reader never got to see the films being referenced. The women writing those blog posts were alternately withholding information, inventing stories and telling the truth–shaping their own narratives–but weren’t privy to other characters’ thoughts about them. Some of the movies referenced in the book were real and others weren’t. Some of the ways the several separate narratives converged were predicable–in a good way–and others weren’t. As the novel began to near its end, I found myself completely unable to imagine who of the many possible characters Spiotta was going to let have the last word. I swear to you that I gasped out loud when I found out.
I really tanked it with my book blogging this year. I’d like to say I was too busy writing fiction to be writing about other people’s fiction, but that’s not true. Luckily, even though I haven’t written about anything since The Beautiful Bureaucrats by Helen Phillips, it doesn’t mean I have read anything since then.
A huge part of my reading year was comprised of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels. So many essays and articles have been written about them that I don’t have a lot of original thoughts to add, but writing about them, as always, helps me process them. After a friend at work mentioned that he was having a little trouble getting into the series, I wrote him an impassioned argument for persevering, an argument I basically wrote into being. (And which totally missed that he was midway through the second book at the time I was extolling the virtues of the first.) The gist of the treatise had to do with the experiential aspect of the novels. Part of the first one was a slog to read because it was a slog for Elena, the protagonist, to live. The reader aches for more intellectual fulfillment right along with the character who is earning that interminable series of school marks. What becomes exciting or terrifying or frustrating for her is the same for the reader. It is a visceral text. What the books illuminate about feminism, politics, power, class, motherhood, the lives of artists and much more has been elucidated elsewhere; I’ll leave that to others since this is a year end post rather than a Ferrante post. I should have written one of those in September. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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?