February Reading Recap

The Artist's Wife 1933 by Henry Lamb 1883-1960
“The Artist’s Wife” by Henry Lamb. 1933. Courtesy of the Tate Modern Museum.

I’m a little embarrassed to say that my goal of writing about every book I read this year crumbled about a month and a half into 2019. Instead of trying to catch up with everything I’ve missed (which was the original plan. Yikes), I’m going to write up a brief recap of everything I read in February and the beginning of this month. I might delve a little deeper into a few of them in separate posts, but until then–this foothold:

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel–winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction–is the most well-crafted book I’ve read this year. As a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, Shamsie builds her novel around the play’s central plot device: the repatriation of a body. We don’t know who it will be, or how the events will unfold, but we have five locations and five narrators leading the reader to one of the best endings in fiction I’ve read in many years.

Shamsie breathes life into fully formed characters–molding them from the bones of an ancient narrative that carries just as much weight today as it did thousands of years ago. The five perspectives of Shamsie’s characters create a complex image of Muslim identity in the West, and, in turn, render, discover, and reject the notion of “home” as events unfold. Her retelling shows us that these constructions of identity remain the same, whether they rest on nationality, ethnicity, or religion.

“Mr. Salary” by Sally Rooney

I’ve made it known far and wide that I love Sally Rooney’s work. The way she renders emotion and the minutiae of relationships with inimitable precision will earn her a place among the greatest writers of my generation. Her short story, “Mr Salary,”–first published in Granta in 2016–functions as a skeleton for her first novel Conversations With Friends. More than anything else, I was intrigued to see the matter of her brilliant first novel as it was in its earliest iterations.

The Friend Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel is not one I would have read of my own accord. It appeared on several “best of” lists at the end of last year, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a sucker for those. I actively try to read books I’ve never heard of or ones I would not normally read. When it comes to literature, I am easily persuaded.

In this instance, I wish I’d spent time reading something else. The Friend wasn’t a bad book, but it lost focus early on. Ostensibly, this novel is about the narrator’s loss of a close friend who has committed suicide. After his death, she ends up taking ownership of the friend’s Great Dane. Had the narrative focused on the loss of the friend and the narrator’s subsequent care of the dog, the book might have made a better case for itself. Even better if it had focused on one of those two things more than the other. In my opinion, the narrator’s exploits with the dog are the book’s strongest elements.

Unfortunately, Nunez ends up weaving three distinct narrative threads–the narrator’s contemplation of the friend’s death, the narrator’s reflection on man’s relationship with animals, and the narrator’s thoughts on the changing nature of those who become writers–much to the books detriment. To her credit, Nunez moves between these three elements fairly well, but it’s too much to tackle in a book that’s just over 200 pages.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

This was my go-to gym read during the early weeks of February. Kwan transports readers to the wealthiest places on earth in this novel, which is not something I would typically care to read about, but I heard a lot of positive things, and I was looking for something light to read. Nothing about the main romantic plot line is original in any way, which is fine. The novel’s appeal, I thought, stemmed from its intimate knowledge of how the ultra-wealthy of Southeast Asia live their lives. More than that, it was entertaining and funny–a solidly enjoyable read.

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

I loved the first installment of Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series, so this was a highly anticipated follow-up for me. The Vanishing Stair showcases Johnson’s great technical ability as a writer, but it lacked some of the first book’s polished shine. And as with so many second books in a trilogy, the plot of this one spends a lot of time setting things up for the final installment. Johnson did do a great job of lacing a lot of dark elements throughout the book without them becoming overwhelming, and overall, I think it was well done.

Cherry by Nico Walker

Much has been made of the fact that the author of this book is currently serving an eleven year sentence for bank robbery. Buzzfeed’s profile of Walker, published in 2013, details his horrific experiences in Iraq and his descent into PTSD. Obviously, a lot of autobiographical content went into Cherry, but it is ultimately fiction–brilliant, fucked-up, devastating, earth-shattering fiction.

The novel’s narrator is a dirtbag, but he’s likable–more and more so as the novel progresses. The book’s latter half, from the section called “Cherry” forward, is so gut-wrenchingly well-written that I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Walker had never before written fiction because what he’s produced says more about the futility and stupidity of war, and the pain of drug addiction, than any book I’ve read.

Cherry is now nominated for the PEN Hemingway Award, and it was (allegedly) Hemingway (though it probably wasn’t) who said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit a typewriter and bleed.” And that’s what Walker did.

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman

I was really looking forward to this book, but it fell far short of my expectations. Sarah Weinman published an article in 2014 linking Sally Horner’s kidnapping to Vladimir Nabokov’s classic controversial novel, Lolita. She adapted her article into this book, which was a huge mistake. There’s simply not enough information for a manuscript of this length. What you end up with is a lot of filler and very little substance.

I have no particular feelings about Lolita other than that–on a technical level–it is brilliant and deserves “classic” status. I did not know that Nabokov actively opposed the discussion of real life influences on his fiction, and I don’t really care that he felt that way because fiction is not real life and vice versa.

Weinman draws a lot from the fact that Nabokov briefly mentions Sally Horner’s kidnapping in the book (which makes it obvious that he knew about her, so I don’t understand why she felt the need to justify her argument with tenuous evidence?) to support her claim that Nabokov could not have written the book had he not mined Horner’s case for inspiration. I understand the concept of wanting to tell Sally’s story and return agency to a life that was filled with horror and tragedy, but to what end? Do we vilify Nabokov for writing his book? Weinman toes a weird line between respect and condemnation when writing about the Nabokovs, and it was unclear what she wanted the purpose of this book to be other than as a means for readers to bear witness to Sally Horner’s life.

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

I just watched both seasons of The Crown and thought this would be a fun book to read in tandem. It is meant to be funny but I didn’t find it so because of my age and deeply ingrained American-ness. As a whole, it gives readers a fairly comprehensive look at an improbable life. She was kind of an asshole, but also a bit of a legend. A little tragic, and almost entirely ridiculous.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong has an upcoming collection that Jia Tolentino–one of my favorite humans–recommended. I thought it would be prudent to read his debut collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds to learn more about his work. Some of his poems are very good. In general, specific lines and images stand out as exemplary elements rather than whole poems taking on the quality of greatness. He draws on visions of water and night and dreamscapes to build his poems, and it becomes repetitive by the end. I can only imagine he’s developed over time. I liked this collection enough to be optimistic about his new one.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I read that Sally Rooney, Lisa McInerney, Harriett Gilbert, and a bevy of other writers/readers whose opinions I respect loved this book. It’s a slim novel, but it packs a lot of commentary about alienation, solitude, capitalism, and societal obligation into just 160 pages. The narrator–a thirty-six-year old convenience store worker named Keiko–is neurologically atypical in some undefined way. For eighteen years, she’s remained a part-time worker at this store because she’s found within its aquarium-like environment a microcosm of “normalcy” where she becomes a cog in a well-oiled machine.

A lot of Keiko’s observations are astute and genuinely funny, but I felt a little something might have been lost in translation, particularly as it pertains to the style of Murata’s sentences. Overall, it was really enjoyable and only slightly unnerving.

From Woolf to O’Hara: Four Authors for Your Anxiety Addled Brain

This article appears on paperbackparis.com:

There are several authors whose work I keep returning to in times of acute anxiety, which is more often than I care to admit these days.

When I’m not thinking about nuclear annihilation, escalating racial tension, hurricanes and natural disasters striking with alarming frequency, and our broken capitalist system, I find myself facing smaller anxieties—the very stuff of my personality. The only reprieve is a set routine that keeps me grounded.

But when faced with simple tasks that enter the wrong side of my wormy brain, I find that I can’t breathe properly; my blood pressure rises; I have to walk around briskly to catch ahold of myself.

Sometimes I think about those larger cataclysms in order to keep my mind off of the smaller ones—the nagging bits of daily life that keep me pinioned to solitude. Little heartbreaks aren’t so bad when I think about the state I live in—and the entire East Coast—being swallowed by the ocean. When I’m feeling especially blue about my crippling social dysfunction, I think about the planes that land at the Air Force Base near my house during odd hours, which 1) make me think of nuclear war, but 2) are actually carrying the bodies of dead soldiers.

Then I think of my parents firmly telling me to pull myself together because people like us have shit to do. My world, after all, was not as tough as theirs.

It’s a lot of give and take.

Many of us have brains that bend towards bleakness naturally, and these unsettling times don’t help. When the above-mentioned periods of recursive, claustrophobic thinking become overwhelming, I turn to the authors who have worked through their own fear, paranoia, and anxiety to construct great essays and pieces of fiction. It’s also helpful to explore the work of writer’s whose concision is so pointed it rearranges the brain’s neurons into an organized stream. Literature has, and always will be, the only real solace we have.

Here are just a few of the authors I’ve been reading:

1. Virginia Woolf

Creative Commons

Much can be said about this giant of the literary canon. Virginia Woolf‘s work is characterized by vibrant prose and the methodical exploration of her character’s lives. Her sentences are so complex, so nuanced, they seem sturdy and tenuous simultaneously. The goal is to show the mind as it is through stream of consciousness, drawing attention to the myriad thoughts that flicker through people on a daily basis. The plot plays second fiddle to her characters’ minds. After all, it doesn’t matter that Mrs. Dalloway is buying the flowers herself; it matters that she is stepping out in search of something.

“You look, eat, smile, are bored, pleased, annoyed — that is all I know. Yet this shadow which has sat by me for an hour or two, this mask from which peep two eyes, has power to drive me back, to pinion me down among all those other faces, to shut me in a hot room; to send me dashing like a moth from candle to candle.” —from The Waves

Woolf’s particular style of writing mirrors the frenzy and passion of an anxious mind because it takes into account every sensory input, every stray thought. Her 1931 novel, The Waves, is a particular favorite of mine. It’s experimentation yields an array of emotion and imagery that soothes my brain to the point where my only functioning thoughts are completely wrapped up in her prose.

2. Lorrie Moore

Credit: Linda Nylind / (Pictured: Lorrie Moore)

Lorrie Moore‘s short stories are so good, they make me blush with envy every time I open one of her collections. When one of my high school English teachers had our class read “How” from her collection Self-Help, it was the end all, be all for me. At that time, I’d only experienced the systematic breakdown of one romance and a whole lot of unrequited pining. These were teenage heartbreaks, of course, but they meant a lot at the time.

At seventeen, “How” felt like the greatest series of truths about love ever put down on paper. That feeling hasn’t faded.

It resonates, perhaps, because the little anxieties Moore highlights in the story are the same ones that keep one from acting like a normal human being in public…which tends to preclude romance. Reading about people who have the same modes of thinking–people who keep love and affection at bay because of their neuroses–casts feelings of solitude in the face of love into perspective, making them slightly less daunting.

“Wake up one morning with a man you had thought you’d spend your life with, and realize, a rock in your gut, that you don’t even like him. Spend a weepy afternoon in his bathroom, not coming out when he knocks. You can no longer trust your affections. People and places you think you love may be people and places you hate.” —from “How”

3. Junot Díaz

Junot Diaz

My obsession with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is no secret. From time to time, I’ll grab it off my bookshelf just to read sections out loud, reminding myself just how powerful the narrative is. These days, I’ve been listening to the Audible narration by Lin—Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo. I’m unashamed to say I’ve listened to it three whole times in the past two months. Driving around and listening to this story of an overweight Dominican nerd who falls in love at the drop of a hat but who has no chance of ever being loved in return hits close to home.

“— Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.

— But your yourself sucks!

— It is, lamentably, all I have.” — from Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz‘s narrative speaks to a deeper cultural anxiety. Despite being Dominican on paper–a product of the great Dominican diaspora–Oscar is ostracized for his nerdiness, his unattractiveness, and his complete lack of sexual acuity. (I mean, same here, obviously. That’s why I sit inside and read books all day.) One of the narrator’s friends tells Oscar, “Tu no eres Dominicano.” “You are not Dominican.”

And all he can say is, “Soy Dominicano. Dominicano soy,” hoping people can suspend their disbelief enough to see it.

The concept of feeling “other” is nothing new for most people. We all have those moments of exclusion. But to get rejected from your culture for not being enough of this or that, or lacking some specific quality is a different kind of pain. In addition to feeling uneasy in the world because of the way your brain works, you also have no tribe.

It’s some dark shit to think about, but the novel’s beauty, humor, and complete boundlessness make it all feel less painful.

4. Frank O’Hara

Pictured: Frank O’Hara

I’ve talked about my love for Frank O’Hara in the past, and nothing has changed. I still read from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara every day, opening the book at random to catch just a little bit of calm before moving on with my day. His great capacity for crafting the smallest details of life into pieces of beauty (with a touch of cheeky humor) make for some amazing poems.

 ” I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it” —from “Having a Coke with You”

To this day, “Having a Coke With You” is the only poem I’ve read that sounds exactly like my brain does when I’m half in love and want to show that person everything I’m obsessed with. Unfiltered enthusiasm is the hallmark of my affection after all.

Reading these poems makes human contact seem less elusive…As if maybe the anxiety-ridden can experience love after all.

On “The Boy in the Smoke” by Maureen Johnson

Image result for the boy in the smokeMy friends, if you haven’t already started reading Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, now is the time. I know I’m late to the game myself, but the long reigning “Queen of Teen” has delivered a well-written, suspenseful, page-turning series; It’s best to start reading now before some production company decides to make a film adaptation.

I was only aware of the three major installments of the series before I started reading. (I have yet to read the third novel.) But I found out that Johnson published a prequel novella for National Book Day in 2014. Naturally, I had to get my hands on it. I don’t know about you, but if a writer produces supplemental material for a series I love, I have to read it.

When I realized it was about Stephen Dene’s childhood and relationship with his family, I was thrilled. The Madness Underneath left me feeling some kind of way, so the novella partially placated my sense of loss. Since I have a ton of other books to get through before I can read The Shadow Cabinet, it also served as an excellent hold over until I can get to that last book.

In just over eighty pages, Johnson paints a deft, astonishingly complete portrait of Stephen’s life as a teenager (which makes me think she’d be an amazing short story writer.) His relationship with his sister is the only thing that matters to him. But after his parents cut off contact with her, sending money in exchange for silence, they see less and less of each other.

After her death, he continues to go through the motions of his life at Eton with everyone avoiding any mention of tragedy. Indeed, as far as his parents are concerned, his sister never existed at all. No use airing dirty laundry, as they say.

Plagued by a deep sense of loss and time wasted, Stephen is driven to despair, attempting suicide by hanging. Yet, he doesn’t succeed. He’s saved by a ghost–a student who threw himself in the river over unrequited love from another boy and has been stuck in the boat house ever since.

Thus begins the start of everything. Before Callum, Boo, and Rory, there was just Stephen, tasked with assembling a team of fellow ghost seers. Having Stephen’s backstory makes his romance with Rory all the more poignant in retrospect. Only time will tell how the rest of their story will play out.

On “Suite Scarlett” by Maureen Johnson

scarlett
courtesy of goodreads.com

Like I said earlier: the craze continues. This time, with a novel that is more similar in tone to The Bermudez Triangle, though not quite as edgy. I imagine this would have been the perfect summer break book for me when I was younger. It has all the right ingredients:

  1. Teenage siblings brought up in an unusual environment (i.e. a hotel in New York City).
  2. An off beat hotel guest who shakes things up.
  3. A complicated love interest.
  4. Money problems.
  5. The streets of NYC in the summer.

All good things. Johnson kept Suite Scarlett light and fun–perfect for a teenager on his or her summer vacation. While I thought the novel got off to a slow start, the author quickly showed just how talented she is at designing characters and developing their interpersonal relationships, especially the dynamic between the Martin siblings.

And–while almost all YA novels contain a love interest at their core–Scarlett’s relationship (or lack of one) with Eric introduces a complexity that many lack. Oftentimes, boy and girl fall in love and run along happily ever after, but Johnson consciously introduces a three year age gap that changes everything for them.

Personally, I was so done with Eric after his and Scarlett’s rendezvous on the Empire State Building. But, first love is a bitch to be reckoned with. The complications that arise knowing that Eric will go to NYU and almost inevitably change makes their doomed romance relatable to many a young person out there. I would like to have read this book when I was 14/15 and half in love with a senior boy who I wouldn’t stop bugging. Unfortunately, I had no concept of “cool.” Yes, I was an embarrassment to myself.

Furthermore, I love resourceful teenagers in a sort of masochistic way. I sure as hell wasn’t witty, sharp, cunning, or helpful when I was Scarlett’s age. I just existed and did school related things sometimes and read a ton of books. It was a fun day when my mom realized that reading a lot does not translate into academic intelligence. Good times.

Though Suite Scarlett isn’t on the same par as Johnson’s Shades of London series, it is definitely worth a read for young people around 14 or 15. It’s fun, relatable, and contains all of the author’s trademark humor.

YA Galore for the (not so) cold winter months

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Stock image

Good morning, readers –

I’m about a quarter of the way through The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin, and I’ve just started reading Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan, so look out for those reviews in the next few days.

I’m starting a new job on Monday, so there might be a short period in which I won’t be posting as much. Once I adjust to my new hours and the workload, I should be good to go. Until then, I’ll try to get these two reviews out to tide you over until then.

If you’re desperate for some great recommendations, book news, and author spotlights, be sure to check out paperbackparis.com. Many of my reviews appear there, along with great feedback from other avid readers like you.

Once I’m done with the books I’m reading, you should prepare yourselves for a slew of Young Adult book reviews. I’ll be reading a lot of Maureen Johnson, Leigh Bardugo, Sarah J. Maas, Jennifer Niven, and many others, so get in touch with your inner teenager, friends.

Let me know if there are any books that I should add to my list!

As ever,

LR

Winter reading and other news

books
Stock photo from Pexels

Dear readers,

My posts on this account have been few and far between lately, and most of that is due to the plague that struck my house a few weeks ago. It really wasn’t that bad, but instead of reading, I spent most of my time watching The Big Fat Quiz of Everything on YouTube. Who says I don’t have life?

Anyway, the few reviews I have posted lately are ones that appear on paperbackparis.com, which is run by a colleague of mine. Please, please, please check it out if you have the time. There’s some really good stuff on there, including book news, TBRs from our staff writers, and listicles that we curate for you good people.

These days, I’m getting back in the swing of things. I’m really trying to get on top of my reading list, but I know The Romanovs by Simon Sebag-Montefiore is going to take me ages. It’s coming up next after I finish Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth and The Guineveres by Sarah Domet.

Unfortunately, I’m getting sidetracked again these days because I’m in the process of interviewing for a new job, which sucks the energy out of me. Seriously, the anxiety I have about it is enough to narcotize the most ambitious person.

BUT, don’t fret! You will be hearing a lot more from me in the coming weeks because I have a pile of NetGalley proofs to dig into as well. I have a heap of great stuff in there, like Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, and The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian.

And, I don’t know what it is, but I’ve fallen back into my YA craze from a few months ago. I have tons of Maureen Johnson, Jenny Han, and Jennifer Niven coming up, so stay tuned!