The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos

Title: The Green Shore
Author: Natalie Bakopoulos, whom I was lucky enough to have had as a workshop leader once upon a time
Release Date: 2012
Genre: Highbrow historial
Describe it in a sentence: 
A politically connected family in Athens experiences the military coup differently
TV/movie character who would like it: Anyone living through the Trump presidency

It’s going to be challenging for me to resist turning this post into a self-centered piece of nostalgia. Look, there I go, right now.

But how can’t I? When I hear Natalie’s name I think of the summer I spent in Greece after my junior year in college at a writing workshop. Now I sit, confined to the house due to a raging pandemic, and I’m reading her book. I would hate to be Cassandra; I’d hate to know the future. In fact I’d like to have the opposite. Be an animal, trapped in the present. I would’ve enjoyed that summer instead of worrying about the future, one I never would’ve been able to predict anyway.

That summer Natalie taught me about writing fiction. I was too starstruck, at the time, to read her book. She was effortlessly cool, boundlessly generosity. I accepted her cigarettes and smoked on the patio and stared at the sea. Whatever choices could get me back to that moment, over and over, that’s the life I wanted. Though my life has indeed changed (see: pandemic), those desires haven’t.

That summer Natalie seemed to me someone who knew Greece, who’d internalized it. After reading The Green Shore, which she wrote and researched while living in Athens, I realize how much she had internalized it. This book was the result clearly of being steeped in history, of a dark era in Athens: The military junta, which spanned from 1967 to 1974 and ended n part because of a shocking act of police violence at an Athens university.

Me (left) in Greece. I miss it!

Ultimately I’m happy to have waited to read The Green Shore. The novel came into my life at just the right time. The relevant time. It’s a book about people living through massive political upheaval—emphasis on the living. With guilt and with anguish, they kept living. Because the toppling only affects people at certain points. The rest of us keep living.

It’s something I’ve thought about constantly the last four years. The pandemic is arguably the first time that we’ve all been affected by the Trump presidency at once. But others have been affected. It was easy, as we were living, to forget about them.

The characters in The Green Shore are Greek, so they don’t live quite as restfully as we comfortable Americans. They’re always fighting against the power; being sent to island prisons or locking themselves in universities. Protest is more a part of daily life and ethos in Greece; I admire it. In fact, I think the characters in this book would be on the streets now, as I write this, demanding that Nevada hurries up. Or at least Sophie would be—before she left for Paris.

The book follows a politically active family dealing with the decade-long military junta. The mother, Eleni, is a doctor. Her eldest, Sophie, has to leave Greece after following in her political poet uncle’s footsteps and protesting vehemently. Her son scurries goes off to America at the first opportunity (and I hate to say it, definitely becomes someone who loves the Orange One). Her youngest, Anna, had a journey that I was particularly transfixed by—she morphs from a quiet girl to a firebrand, and I bought it.

Reading the historical events had me Googling through the entire book. One of the details struck me. I knew that Greek islands were used as prisons for political prisoners, but actually reading of the reality of those islands was striking. The Greek islands retain a reputation of being a vacation bliss, with the intellectual aura as old as the Odyssey. It’s the seat of the good life, the place where the Mediterranean diet gives people unusually long life expectancies (hey there, Ikaria).

But they’ve also been used as prisons—adjacent to where people are vacationing. And they’ve been used as essentially holding pens for migrants, the ones who survive and aren’t drowned in the Mediterranean. The Green Shore forced me to interrogate my somewhat rosy picture of Greece after visiting for vacations. The islands, through another slant, are not beautiful—they’re barren, isolated. A place cut off from the world, where terrors can take place without witnesses. A testament to exile.

Makronisos, an island used as a prison during the Greek Civil War (and other times). Today, it’s uninhabited.

So yes, I went down those grim paths, got stung by a few thorns. But there were roses too. The relationships between characters were carefully drawn. I enjoyed that Eleni defied stereotypes of the Greek mother—she was hands off, allowing her kids to make their own decisions in the world (sometimes too hands off). Also interesting to see how she negotiated (and excused) having a boyfriend that leaned conservative for years. Reminded me of the few women I know who disagree with their boyfriends’ political leanings (and yes, I wonder how they do it).

While The Green Shore is a special book to me because of my connection to Greece and Natalie, this would’ve been a memorable read regardless. Historical fiction that’s grounded in eternally relevant dynamics and lyrical language. Sign! Me! Up!

Buy The Green Shore.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Title: Love Medicine
Author: Louise Erdrich, living goddess, who published her debut novel at age 29
Release Date: 2020
Genre: Instant classic
Describe it in a sentence: 
The intertwining lives of two Ojibwe families on a reservation in North Dakota, narrated by different family members
TV/movie character who would like it: Bear with me, but Noah and Helen of The Affair—a show about marital infidelity told through each character’s perspective.

It’s not every day that you read a book that reminds you of everything a book can be. Most of the time the books I read are confirmations of what I already know.

To put it bluntly, Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich’s first novel and the first one I read by Louise Erdrich, exploded the novel. Actually, I’m self-conscious of writing sentences down now, having seen all that Erdrich in her mid-twenties could do. I found myself nodding along the way you do when you see the truth repackaged in a new way.

Love Medicine is the start of a trilogy that follows the same families. It’s a polyphonic book, narrated by different characters, all of whom feel the repercussions of the others decisions. The novel breaks with form, retreading the same events through different lenses. Later Erdrich said she wrote her first novel this way because she didn’t know how to structure an entire book leaning on only one voice.

Louise Erdrich gives me Carla Gugino in The Haunting of Hill House vibes

That surprises me, that this is an accident. Because the book seems masterful—far from a first-time novelist relying on gimmick. Sometimes it was hard to follow, but I decided to trust the characters; eventually, the story would come into focus. And it did (though families trees will help).

Take even the degree of differences between each narrator. The cadence of the sentences alters depending on who is telling the story. Language and syntax becomes a vessel for character—the unapologetic, matter-of-factness of Lulu Lamartine, mother of eight sons to different men; Lyman Lamartine as he watches his luck come and go in quick sentences. Characters seamlessly process the magical alongside the real, living in a reality that is abundant in possibility, if limited in opportunity.

It feels a bit silly, for that reason, to go into the plot details. You should let the Kashpaws, Lamartines, and co. tell it yourself. But this is the deal: In the opening scene, June Morrissey, a Chippewa woman, dies after an encounter in a remote mining town. She walks into the snow, and it feels, according to Erdirch’s narration, like going home. Or maybe it doesn’t feel like coming home—maybe it is. After reading Love Medicine, you may take indeed sentence—“The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home”—literally.

Later on, a character beautifully remarks on the thin boundary between life and death: “Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart’s position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won’t ever come by such a bargain again.”

Erdrich describes June’s death as a kind of home-going. Appropriate, because the entire book is concerned with home, with the reservation these people were born on, and live their lives on—bumping into the same people, the same ceilings of opportunity. Even when the characters aren’t home, they’re thinking of it.

Anyway, June’s character is refined via the narrative engine of the book: A love triangle between Nector Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine, both Chippewas, and Marie Lazarre, a white 14-year-old who—after escaping a convent—meets Nector in a field. The drama begins when they’re teenagers, and never ends, only evolve.

A wonderful family tree, credit to this blogger

And how could it end? Lulu, Marie, and Nector have no choice but to live through their connections as they change. Marie’s adopted grandson, one of the “strays” she takes in, comments on her relationship with Nector (who, by that point, is losing his mind to dementia but is lowkey carrying out an affair with Lulu). They’re both seniors, but are just as firey with each other—defying his expectation that older people are somehow more docile, somehow feel less.

“You see I thought love got easier over, the years so it didn’t hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash. She loved him. She was jealous. She mourned him like the dead. And he just smiled into the air, trapped in the seams of his mind,” Lipsha said.

This novel is about what happens when people live in close proximity, and simply never leave. There’s a fishbowl quality to it, like a long social experiment: What happens when you cordon people off into one geographic region, and watch their lives play out?

I looked up many a map while reading

Then again, what the outside world holds might not be any better. Characters are ruined by war. By emotionally meaningless, but physically destructive, encounters with men. By poverty, injustice, and racism. On the reservation, you get the sense that at least characters are understood by one another. Because the world outside the reservation holds the people who made the concept of a reservation necessary at all.

Erdrich’s book is teeming with insight into life on a North Dakota reservation in the 20th century, and with plain ‘ol wisdom, including gems like this: “The greatest wisdom doesn’t know itself. The richest plan is not to have one.”

I’m so happy I read it—and so happy I let the powers of the aisle work their magic. The art of the wander.

moi in the library

While I loved it, Love Medicine came into my life completely by chance. Erdrich’s name was on that hazy list of authors whose work I hadn’t gotten to yet. During my first trip to the library stacks post-quarantine, I was overwhelmed with choice and possibility. It felt like staring at a timetable in an airport and instead of dreaming of boarding a plane to all those destinations, actually going to those destinations. Books are the closest thing I get to travel these days, and the emotional experience of this book was honestly akin to some of the immersive rushes I’ve had while walking alone down an foreign city’s street, seeing the familiar refracted through a new light.

Luckily, I happened to pick her first book, and the first in the trilogy. Now, I fully intend to dive into the Erdrich extended universe, which includes an array of stories—including one dystopia that looks delectable.

Have you read other books by Louise Erdrich? Let me know! I need help guiding my next read.

Buy Love Medicine

The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Cool trend defy-ing coover

Title: The Roommate
Author: Rosie Danan, debut author! Go Rosie!
Release Date: 2020
Genre: Rom-com with the lights dimmed and the softcore music playing
Describe it in a sentence: 
A buttoned up WASP blows up her life and moves to L.A., where she learns her fetching new roommate is a…….porn star!
TV/movie character who would like it: Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex Girlfriend

Hello, friends, writers, readers, countrymen. It’s been a long time since I picked up my place in this blog. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been reading–I have been! A lot! What else is a person to do in a pandemic, aside from read, worry, take temperature, drink wine, and repeat? If you have an answer, let me know. (You can check out my full list of 2020 reads here).

Anyway, I wanted to add blogging and reviewing to my list of activities, hopefully to knock the anxiety-related ones off a pedastal.

An exceptionally long wind-up to my saying that The Roommate is one of many rom-coms and romances that have provided me with solace and companionship this year as my own romantic prospects have dwindled. These books, with their twists and turns really just currents leading me to a guaranteed happy endings, have been more than comfort food. They’ve been escape pods to a universe where things keep getting better, not worse. They’re full of people like Josh and Clara, the characters in The Roommate, who are flawed, yes, but undeniably decent.

The book’s premise is what drew me to The Roommate, ever since I heard about it a few months ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it what draws everyone to The Roommate, actually. It’s provocative: What would it be like to date an adult performer? What would it be like to date as an adult performer?

I found the book’s cheery and wholesome tone to be at odds, occasionally, with the subject matter: I wanted more humor, more sharp prodding at the underlying tension between the characters and their positions on the Great American Pyramd. More Clara freaking out at watching Josh have sex with other women (or at least…broach the topic of jealousy at all!) MORE SEX. But more on that later.

Right, so, the premise: Clara Wheaton is a wealthy WASP from a family with Connecticut pedigree (as in, there are university buildings named after them). In a real Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex Girlfriend move, she moves across the country to chase down her childhood crush, Everett Bloom, who has a spare room in L.A. Right after she arrives, Everett announces he’s moving, leaving Clara to live with the dimpled stranger he met off Craigslist (Note: I don’t know if he’s supposed to have dimples, but he has them in my head).

Josh, in my head

Enter: Josh Darling, the porn star with a sheen of Midwestern wholesomeness and a heart of gold. (I pictured him as Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights). When Clara learns that her roommate is an adult performer, and holds her breath in so tightly that eventually all of her tightly buttoned up cardigans start to pop.

Until she met Josh, Clara hadn’t given much thought to her own pleasure. Suddenly, it’s all she can think about. They’re both buzzing around at home, constantly horny and yearning, yet unable to give in to each other for different reasons (reminds me of quarantine, TBH).

Finally, these two hyperactive 20-somethings decide to funnel all that energy not into leaping into bed but into…forming a company to teach women to harness their pleasure (and ostensibly give men a GPS to find the clitoris). Their company, Shameless, comes together in rom com-level warp speed, skipping past all the questions I had about logistics. I wanted to know what the product was, its specific pricing, and how they intended to be profitable, okay!

For a book abut embracing pleasure the two characters sure do a good job of denying themselves pleasure constantly. Part of this is for the same reason that allows rom-coms (or most of them) to work: None of This Would Happen If You Just Talked To Each Other Honestly. Lots of miscommunications. But ultimately, they’re able to function despite constantly thudding into a wall of lust.

Here’s the thing.

As someone who has been in a dangerously complicated romanic entanglement with a roommate, I can speak on ths.

The situation is IS A LOT MORE AGONIZING IN REAL LIFE than t’s depicted as being in The Roommate. I needed more torture and high-temperature than I got in The Roommate. Especially given their different positions in life.

Clara has real season 1 of Mad Men energy

This might be a good segue for me to say that I didn’t quite buy them as a couple, Josh and Clara. OR, I would’ve bought them, if Josh and Clara had spent more time actually working out their relationship. Namely, he’s a porn star; she’s an Uptown Girl. I needed them to talk about those things. Not sing the equivalent of a Billy Joel song about it and walk into the sunset.

There’s a place where Danan should’ve slowed down and simmered: The couple’s main conflict at the end. Clara publicly denies that Josh is her boyfriend, because she’s ashamed, because he’s a porn star. Eventually, the conversation gets buttoned up—but without the soul-level excavation of societal programming, gender roles, etc. that’s necessary for them to meet on an even playing field of mutual understanding.

I wanted them to talk about finances, and class, and perception, and privilege, and shame—and how all those filtered into pleasure/female pleasure, their favorite topic of conversation. Talk about why Clara never felt that pleasure was something that should be on her checklist (marrying well, instead, was). And why Josh turned to porn instead of a PhD in art history, when he was aimless (he doesn’t have a trust fund).

Then, once they get together as a couple, I wanted to see them deal with bridging those gaps. That, to me, is the fun. Not only the getting together. The working out, too. An example of a romance novel that does the “working out” bit excellently and convincingly For Real by Alexis Hall. The couple, both men, are about 15 years apart—and their age and wealth gap are grappled with throughout the novel. Since they “get together” (ie sleep together) much sooner than Josh and Clara in The Roommate, this couple has time to, well, talk. Their heads aren’t always buzzing with desire.

The premise of The Roommate book is fascinating, as I stated. Inherent to Josh and Clara’s relationship is a lot to figure out, and a lot to teach each other. I wanted to watch them start the process, at least, of figuring out how this relationship would work in the real world—and maybe I would’ve bought them as a couple more. And bought the scene of Clara’s Greenwich parents having Thanksgiving with Josh (THAT is a conversation I needed to see, especially given her need for their approval!)

Do I sound like a fun sucker? I’m sorry if so. The book was a romp and an optimistic page-turner. I appreciated the characters’ definition of “love” as a kind of freedom to be yourself, and be wholly accepted. I totally recommend it for a feminist take on the porn industry, and a rosy portrayal of what could be in adult entertainment.

The Roommate is a worthy read—after all, it’s always a joy to watch women unravel into puddles of pleasure after reigning themselves in for so long. Sort of like Sandy from Grease, though I could never tell if she wanted to be a Greaser or if she was just changing for Danny.

Josh and Clara in his Corvette

Whether Clara changed for Josh or because of Josh (and I think it’s the latter), I’m happy it happened. Another woman who learns to exhale, sink into her body, and enjoy her life. Even if she and Josh don’t work out (WHICH I KNOW isn’t the point of the book), I think she’ll remember that lesson in Greenwich.

Buy The Roommate

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

download (13)Title: Ask Again, Yes
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Release Date: May 28, 2019
Genre: Literary suburban drama
Describe it in a sentence: 
Two neighboring families are forever united by a shocking incident, and forced to keep colliding through a love story.
TV/movie character who would like it: Such a throw-back but I think Ruth of Six Feet Under would appreciate the morbid humor in the characters’ situation,

If you end a book in tears, then you know it worked. It moved ya. This moved me. Bow down, because Mary Beth Keane is a FICTION MASTER. She sets up this impossible situation and boom, lets the cards fall in this remarkable way.

Right, so the Stanhopes and the Gleesons live on the same New Jersey block in the 70s. The dudes in the family had worked for the NYPD at the same time then migrated to the ‘burbs together. The Gleeson house is bursting with lots of joy and daughters. But there’s a strangeness to the Stanhope house. One that the Gleesons don’t go near. Except for Kate, the youngest Gleeson daughter. She can’t stay away from the Stanhope son — and so bruushes with the Stanhope strangeness.

Actually, I’m just going to tease what the event is, because no one should be deprived of a Twist (people who don’t believe in spoilers, get @ me — plot is a thrill experienced without risk and please let us experience our hairpin turns at full velocity!!). Just know that it is really not so great. And the characters have to live with this forevah. Or as long as their lives go on.

Especially Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, whose relationship clinks with their families’ baggage. Hear that? That’s the sound of people who can’t escape their family (it’s a relatable sound).

Ask Again, Yes is a story about family, obviously. How we’re in this long-term relationship with the people that brought us into the world, and who we came into the world alongside. Even estrangement is a kind of relationship. When it comes to a family member, there’s no such thing as a restless absence. There’s a void. A roar. Sometimes the thought of Peter, so lonely, makes me want to reach through the pages and wrap him up in a bear hug.

It’s a story of forgiveness. Of mental health — and what happens when a woman’s wellness is completely ignored, when unhappiness is left to fester. Of neglect and then the process of accepting care after years without it.

I found the ending sentence to be an actual punch in the gut and a hug at the same time. Keane is a helluva story-teller. I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who thinks of life as a voyage, and wants to travel on another person’s.

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

61467918_1847418322025053_4237299821543809294_n(1)Title: The Turn of the Key
Author: Ruth Ware
Release Date: August 19
Genre: true psychological thriller, in the sense that you don’t know if she’s actually seeing ghosts or if she’s actually just cray! 
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman takes a “perfect” job nannying for a wealth family in a Scottish highlands “smart” mansion — soon, the house starts playing tricks on her (or the kids? or the ghosts? or her mind?)
TV/movie character who would like it: The governess in The Turn of the Screw, who would feel a real solidarity with our girl Rowan.

Summer, as you and I know, is the season for tearing through books. I want books that leave pages shredded in their wake. I want the desire to read to be near-violent. Everything else pales the the book. I’d safely put The Turn of the Key in that category. I finished the book in a day — and told a lot of people about the book during said day. The Turn of the Key is my first Ruth Ware book, though I doubt it’ll be my last. You could wring out the pages and it’d drip Britishness. WE LOVE A GOOD BRITISH READ.

Anyhoo, let’s do the quick “summary” part. The book begins with a young woman writing to a lawyer from prison. She claims she’s been wrongfully convicted for murdering one of the girls she was nannying. She was typecast as murderer. It adhered to the tropey worst nightmare “troubled nanny” story you occasionally see on the news or an Adele Slimani novel. But in this case, the story wasn’t true.

Rowan’s here to salvage her reputation, and maybe get out of prison along the way. She knows her story isn’t perfect. There are phenomena she can’t explain. What were the noises coming from the attic in the house? Why had this family gone through so many nannies? What was the force that ejected people from the house? She knows her story has holes. But she’s hoping she can explain enough of the space around those holes to redeem herself

As someone who grew up babysitting, Rowan’s story was harrowing. She shows up for her first day of nannying in a house like the one in the movie Smart House – each room has cameras and a Siri-equivalent. So yah, she’s being spied on by her type-a employer who reminded me of Gwyneth Paltrow. Then, on her second day of work, the parents DIP OUT for an undisclosed period of time, leaving her with the four daughters (!) one of whom is straight out of a horror movie. She has that limp stare like the kid in a movie poster. Unsurprisingly things get……..out of hand. It doesn’t help that Rowan is kept up at night by terrifying noises. Maybe the same lingering Victorian ghosts that drove out the other nannies.

So, what HAPPENED during those weeks in Heatherbrae House? The book is driven by those big “wtf” questions that you’ll be desperate to answer. In some ways I found the ultimate conclusions somewhat predictable but I also enjoyed the journey there.

If you like any of the following things — Scotland, mysteries, mischievous children, time-hopping books, smart houses, women like the women in Big Little Lies, the book The Turn of the Screw — then point yourself toward Ruth Ware’s latest book.

Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland

51mAzWVBwOL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgTitle: Fake Like Me
Author: Barbara Bourland
Release Date: June 2019
Genre: Intellectual thriller
Describe it in a sentence: 
After an unnamed painter (wow, I’m just realizing she’s unnamed because she felt so real to me) her latest project in a fire, she travels to the compound of a famous group of painters to repaint; while there, she discovers their secrets. 
TV/movie character who would like it: The artists in Velvet Buzzsaw, a far more satirical take on the art world

I’ve been thinking a lot about scammers. How can’t I, when they’re everywhere? Anna Delvey isn’t sorry for cheating rich, vacuous New Yorkers. Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were caught in the great scam that is the American “meritocracy.” Last summer there was the great Social Creatures by Tara Isabella Burton; I recently read a great book called Duped by Abby Elin about what it’s like to date a fraud. All of this is to say — I’m fascinated by the subject. 

But whatever else I read, Fake Like Me blows it out of the water. What a thoughtful, philosophical dive into what it means to be a woman, to be an artist, to be a woman artist! After the first-person protagonist’s paintings burn down, she decides to commit what she calls fraud: She’s going to recreate the massive oil paintings, which had taken her three years to paint, over the course of a summer.

In comparison to the other shit that goes down in the novel, though, her intentions are just sweet! Simply adorable! She’s a scammer with the best intentions: Personal ambition. She’s not hurting anyone unlike some of the oooother characters (you know who I’m looking at, you genetically blessed but cruel bunch!)

After pulling some strings, she scores studio space at the upstate commune that belongs to “Park City,” a collective of five artists who hit it big after art school. The most famous, Carey Logan, was known for alarming life-like sculptures of the human body. Two years prior, Carey walked into the lake near Park City and took her own life. None of the remaining artist have ever been the same.

Carey’s the elephant in every room. Think Rebecca of Rebecca, but of its own kind of torture for the artist. Especially since she had always looked up to Carey. Both had pulled themselves up from rough, working class backgrounds; both worked incredibly hard. When the artist starts sleeping with Carey’s ex, Tyler, the lines between her and Carey become thinner.

Bourland clearly knows what she’s writing about. She goes into such detail about the labor required to create art. That art comes from some collision of originality and actual sweat — the skill required to pull a vision into the real world. Every time the artist took measurements about cutting a canvas or paying 22,000 in oil paints my brain jolted. Art is rock ‘n roll, man. I also loved the snippets of dinner party conversation — artists talking about other people’s projects. The way that vast quantities of money are attached to esoteric ideas…the economy of the art world is fascinating. (And also so concerning. This stuff isn’t going to museums! It’s going to the Monopoly Man!)

To add another layer to this book about art, Bourland herself is so obviously an artist. Sentences, all carefully wrought, add up to shape this incredibly complicated character study of many compromised people. I’d recommend slowing down while reading the book. As a notorious speed reader, I found that treating this book more literary and less thriller was rewarding. It deals in ideas as much as plot. So when you get to the end, if you’ve been following the ideas, it’ll have been far more rewarding.

I REALLY recommend this book to people looking for guilt-free page-turners. You’ll underline the shit out of it. I’ll leave you with this brilliant passage of the weight of the seven “virtues” on women. How these concepts police women, but they’re really just traps:

D6pIb_eXYAcIz2_.jpgThe forced perspective of humility. The delirium of purity. The weight of chastity. The rage of temperance. The shame of modesty. The regret of prudence.

The REGRET OF PRUDENCE. *head explosion emoji.* The rim of sadness around all of those nights spend in, spent prudently make sense now.

A Year In Books

I read 102 books in 2018, or at least that’s what my Goodreads count added up to. That’s not including the half-devoured books — books with a chapter to go piled up next to my bed (it’s a bad habit), books I only tasted for work so I had a feeling for prose, books I decided not to give my hours to anymore.

It’s hard for me to describe just HOW instrumental books have been this year, and all my life. Sometimes I mistake books for my life. Like, some of my best memories of 2018 have been reading. In the week between Christmas and New Years, I spent an hour a day reading next to the Christmas tree. I deliberately forced myself to put down my work and dive into my novel. Reading a novel is useful leisure time. The world expands, gets fuller with each word. What other activity can compare?

2018 was full of changes. Most of them hard. I’ll say: Books kept me stable. When life was too much, I got to live someone else’s. Of course, there’s always a balance between choosing the books I really, really want to read for fun and the books I have to read for work (the chic books of 2018, etc). Sometimes I ache for the days of my past when I read eclectically and according to whims. But then I pinch myself and say: I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS MY JOB!! I can’t believe I get to INTERVIEW AUTHORS for work! It’s a dream, through and through. So I ended up “keeping up” with the books of 2018, big time. Plugged into the discourse.

So, without further ado: Here are some of the highlights, and what I thought.

Nonfiction

  • Ninety-nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown: We’re allowed to write biographies with such narrative freedom? Brown interweaves biographical details about Princess Margaret with gossip, imaginative musings, and my favorite of them all — a recounting of the time Margaret commissioned a plane to fly around some old poet’s house (I don’t remember who!!) in a variety of different forms, from haiku to sonnet. WHO DOES THAT?! Craig Brown does, my friends. A must read for anyone who loves snark and The Crown. Though admittedly, as an American, some of these British customs were blisteringly foreign to me (aka royalty in general!!)
  • Going Clear by Lawrence Wright: I thought Scientology was scary before I read this book. Now I know it’s much scarier than scary.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer: In order to explain how two fundamentalist Mormon men decided to murder their sister in law and her baby — and justify it as being a directive from God — Krakauer brilliantly situates the crime within the framework of Mormonism. I learned so much about this American-grown religion. This should be taught in high schools!
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou: Make this a movie, now.
  • Vanishing Twins by Leah Dieterich: Will be pressing this lyrical, freakin’ BRILLIANT memoir about love, commitment, marriage, preserving a sense of self in a relationship, into everyone’s hands, forever.
  • Future Perfect by Victoria Loustalot: Victoria, like me, is prone to hoping that psychics are real. The main difference: She writes a book about her experience with psychics, I just putz around and go to psychics.
  • The Ghost Photographer by Julie Rieger: Rieger, a top executive at 20th Century Fox, documents her journey into the world of spirits and ghost encounters, which began after her mother passed away. It’s rare to read a book written with such humor and warmth and complete lack of pretension. When Julie writes about the “other realm,” you want to believe her. This book inspired me to start my own exploratory journey. For a taste, check out my juicy interview with her.
  • Eurydice Street by Sofka Zinovieff: I struggled to read this book for a selfish reason: Zinovieff so perfectly captured the rhythm and quirks of Greece that my heart actually hurt, I missed it so much. Did I look up plane tickets while reading it? Did I consider abandoning my life to move there? Won’t answer, but you can guess.
  • Calypso by David Sedaris: We are not worthy of his humor. Thank you for sharing your family with us, Dave.
  • I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell: WHY DIDN’T THIS BOOK MAKE YEAR END LISTS?! In fact, the fact that it didn’t makes me doubt year-end lists even more than I already do; the subjectiveness and myopia that goes into each one. O’Farrell describes her 17 “brushes with death” with real even-keeled attitude, even though it’s freakin’ terrifying. The book sent me into an existential crisis. It also made me seize my own seconds.
  • Unwifeable by Mandy Stadtmiller: Grateful that Mandy shared such an intimate account of her difficult childhood, her rollicking 30s as a newly single woman documenting her dating life for the NY Post, and her addiction problems. She manages to do it all with such humor. I’d know – she was a hoot to talk to.
  • Small Fry by Lisa Brennan Jobs: You should read this book. But a warning: You won’t ever want to use your iPhone again.
  • Dead Girls by Alice Bolin: Threw the book across the room bc Alice Bolin’s brain was so electrifying that I couldn’t process it.
  • And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: If you are a woman or know women, read this book about motherhood (and childbirth – one of the most shocking hours of my life was spent reading O’Connell’s meticulous description of her difficult childbirth). Was so floored I had to interviewinterview her.
  • Stealing the Show by Joy Press: Takeaway: The women who revolutionized TV also revolutionized culture.

Fiction

  • The Ensemble by Aja Gable: Best friendship novel of 2018. There, I said it.
  • The Incendiaries by RO Kwon: Read it twice. Liked it even more the second time. One must respect sentences like this, sentences that have been wrested and fused together like each was some deliberate piece of art. The prose is a puzzle — Kwon has worked on it for TEN YEARS to make sure it all fit together.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I loved the characters in this sprawling, epic novel so much I considered going to Japan to visit their graves (yes, I know they are fictional)
  • The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Dying film star Evelyn Hugo promises to tell her life story to a journalist; readers around the world cannot shut book until they find out which of her husbands was her favorite (it’s not who you think it’ll be)
  • The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: Read this because it won the National Book Award. I can imagine Nunez in a one-bedroom apartment writing away, not letting the hype get to her. I met a Great Dane the other day and couldn’t stop thinking about the narrator in this book, as if she were real. Loneliness is not a glamorous topic for a book, but man, is it a pillar in so many lives. The Beatles asked where all the lonely people come from; read this book to learn.
  • The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides: Took this thriller (out in January) on vacation. The ending was gasp-worthy.
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: What a GORGEOUS gem of a book. What a narrator to admire, with pluck and heroism and the perfect amount of social climber instinct to make for an adventure. The book ended with a quote that will haunt me forever: “In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.”
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer: Thank god he won the Pulitzer and someone recognized that humor is a form of brilliance.
  • Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: As always, when I’m reading Flynn, I wonder what she would be like at a dinner party. And if I could sit across from her, knowing that she was capable of coming up with these twisted women, and wonder if she would interpret my mannerisms and verbal ticks as some kind of dark language of the subconscious.
  • Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: A. perfect. novel. THE PERFECT NOVEL. I will read it, and reread it. And then go read The Giant’s House, her book which I read WAY too young and led me by the hand into the gorgeous possibilities of adult fiction.
  • The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer: All hail Lee Miller, the model turned war photographer at the heart of this fascinating work of historical fiction. She’s my new role model.
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: Sometimes you read a book and are reminded of how unbelievably smart humans can be; Ghost Wall is one of those. Moss essentially captures the entire pattern of human history in 180 pages describing an experimental archaeology trip to Northumbria. Just go with it.
  • Golden Child by Claire Adam: Read this for your book club. Get prepared to argue.
  • The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins: A magical, Gaiman-esque book about a library that contains all the knowledge of the universe and none of the universe’s rules. Haven’t lost myself in a book like this since I was 7 and reading Harry Potter, maybe.
  • NOS4A2 by Joe Hill: A real thought I had while reading this: “Wow! I love books with plot!!!!!” Joe Hill is funny and witty and scary as all hell. What are you doing? Go buy one of his books!
  • Elevation by Stephen King: Since I loved his son’s book so much, I decided to read some Stephen King. Sorry! I like Joe Hill more!!!
  • The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh: Best feminist dystopia yet.
  • The Falconer by Dana Czapnik: Oh, to be 18, oh to think in long-winded spools of philosophy, oh to be idealistic, oh to have unrequited crushes. I ached.
  • The Arrangement by Sonya Lalli: As she nears 30, a woman contemplates actually going through with an arranged marriage. I liked the way Lalli weighed two different approaches to marriage and didn’t say that one was necessarily better than the others.
  • The Witch Elm by Tana French: Considering what a mess Toby was, I’m surprised I enjoyed spending 600 pages in his head.
  • Melmoth by Sarah Perry: This book was full of fascinating modern explorations of mythology. Melmoth is a woman who bears witness to the most evil of humanity. Perry cleverly interweaves linear narrative with primary documents about Melmoth encounters. This is the kind of haunting story that would’ve terrified me as a kid. Melmoth, hissing over your shoulder.
  • My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: What a fresh new voice. Really dark but also really witty, satirical, clever. Hard to distill the tone of this book. Which is why it is better read than described.
  • The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: Written in the ’70s. A crazed outsider comes to this quiet New Hampshire town and makes everyone start giving away their belongings in an auction to support the town’s police squad. Prescient read.
  • Dare Me by Megan Abbott: cheerleaders don’t talk like this in real life
  • Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott: Now THIS Abbott I loved loved loved.
  • Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: I see both sides of the argument about this book. Kingsolver (like Meg Wolitzer in the female persuasion) definitely doesn’t look at the world’s changes as a young person would, but also, how could she?
  • That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: REBECCA, you gotta wake up!! That’s what you’ll be thinking throughout Alam’s book about a privileged white woman raising her nanny’s black son, written in close third-person.
  • Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah: Bina Shah told me in an interview that for her, growing up in Pakistan, The Handmaid’s Tale reflected much of her reality. She created a feminist dystopia rooted in her own soil.
  • Strike Your Heart by Amelie Nothomb: Finished this book over the course of a train ride. It sunk its talons in me and BAM, I knew I was reading a dark gem.
  • Crudo by Olivia Laing: The only book I’ve read that captures the whirr and terror of the present day.
  • Praise Song for the Butterflies by Berenice L. McFadden: Maybe the most important book I read in 2018. It’s hard to believe this practice is real, but it is: The main character is sold as a ritual slave to help balance her family’s “luck.”
  • Open Me by Lisa Locascio: A girl’s sexual awakening IS fodder for a novel!!! I love books that respect young girls as independent, important people!
  •  How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran: ^^repeat the above, just add a TON of sentences so funny I laughed out loud. Real talk? This wry, kind-hearted book about a precocious 19-year-old forging her way in the male-dominated world of ’90s music journalism while nursing a crush for a rock star in was, quite simply, the reading highlight of my year. I swooned through every passage of young love. Caitlin Moran remembers those years!
  • The Pisces by Melissa Broder: Underlined so much of this; all of the narrator’s ramblings about the kind of love that sets you on fire; the kind of emotionally vivid life that feels realer than the calmer, but inevitably duller, life of stable. With that in mind, it’s understandable why our protagonist embarks on an all-consuming romance with a merman. It’s something else.
  • Putney by Sofka Zinovieff: In this book, Zinovieff nimbly unpacks a terribly thorny topic: The affair between a young girl and her older family friend, and how memories change over the years.
  • Severence by Ling Ma: Part end of world account; part workplace comedy; all brilliant.
  • If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: WAAHHH y u have to be so sad!
  • Rough Animals by Rae Delbianco: A gritty western about characters who don’t live on the edge — they live outside society, on ranches, in open fields, where the rules are of their own making. Rae herself is SO inspiring.
  • The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo: Truly, I wish I could change the fates of these characters.
  • Hey Ladies: Buy this for your friends.
  • Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton: Congratulated myself every time I recognized one of the shiny, spectacular New York locales Burton’s two characters, locked in a twisted friendship, visited. Tara and I spoke about why Social Creature is the perfect book for the summer of cons.
  • The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang: In the year 2018, we got a sexy, sexyYyyYy book about a woman on the autism spectrum finding love with the male prostitute she tried to help teach her how to have sex.  Love. Hoang spoke to Refinery29 about her own autism diagnosis.
  • Kudos by Rachel Cusk: One day, in the far future, Rachel Cusk will be considered a Queen of the English Language.
  • Transit by Rachel Cusk: See above.
  • Florida by Lauren Groff: Read the “Midnight Zone” three times and I still haven’t stopped thinking about its implications — that danger is all around us, that we are the danger.
  • The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton: Beauty is a prison!! Dhonielle Clayton’s new YA series examines appearances like my favorite series The Uglies did, but especially how women are expected to be slaves to beauty. And the characters in these books are slaves – that dawning realization shook me.
  • The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory: Quite simply, the book raised my expectations for romantic relationships — so I had to talk to her about them.
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi: A star is born. I had the pleasure of speaking to Tomi RIGHT before she became a straight up celeb.
  • You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: She creates characters who are so easy to judge and skewer – but you know she’d judge and skewer you just as ruthlessly. Speaking to Sittenfeld was naturally a life highlight.
  • The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: I would’ve read a whole novel about Cory, but that’s it.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller: If you had to create My Ideal Book in a lab, it would be this: Literary but fast-moving feminist myth retelling. A feminist odyssey for the ages. 
  • Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: God, just read this book. Unexpected. Off kilter. Sentences so gleaming I think of them today.
  • Awayland by Ramona Ausubel: Beautiful short stories! Off-kilter, imaginative, unforgettable.
  • Emergency Contact by Mary HK Choi: First of all, Mary is BRILLIANT and one of my favorite interviews. She got me so inspired to commit myself to pursuing my dreams. Anyway — her debut book captured the way we communicate now, through small bubbles sent over phones. More importantly, she emphasizes how falling in love over texts is a perfectly valid and understandable path today. It’s almost an epistolary age.
  • 99% Mine by Sally Hawkins: SWOOOON! Big, capable men fixing up houses is SUCH a type; it is clearly such a type of mine, too (and the main character’s)
  • The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: SWOON, except for the part about being stuck in an elevator. Since I adored Jasmine’s books so much this year, I spoke to her about them.
  • Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao: A life composed of unimaginable tribulations, strung together in close proximity. The book follows two best friends in their journeys out of their tiny Indian village; one by running away, one by marriage. Girls Burn Brighter honors women’s resilience, but also highlights the unfair structures that cause them to need that resilience in the first place.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: An American Marriage twisted me up, as it was supposed to.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Finally got around to reading the YA sensation. Now will foist this incendiary book about police violence, code switching, growing up amid hate and fighting it with love, upon everyone.
  • The Book of M by Peng Shepherd: Was downright stunned by this magnificently plotted end-of-the-world novel, perfect for fans of Station Eleven.
  • What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan: The kind of book you wish you could intervene in, help the characters out. Sure, they’re in an expensive high-rise Hong Kong apartment. BUT ARE THEY HAPPY?!

The Books I Read On Vacation, Ranked By How Quickly I Devoured Them

Do you know what happens to a human brain when it detached from the suction of work? It puts its proverbial arms behind its proverbial head. It looks around at the blue sky above it and the blue, not quite the same shade but close, sea ahead of it. It is happy.

After breathing the crisp air of an open schedule for a few moments, the little anxieties about unchecked emails, unfinished stories, life paths, regrets start poking through the sand like hermit crabs. The only way to vanquish the hermit crabs, which are rapidly gathering and taking out their snippers, is to put your feet up on the chaise lounge and methodically go the stack of books you brought.

Then when you finish the stack of books, you will inevitably face a moment of irrational panic. Can I really read on a kindle on the beach? The answer is yes, you can, you will.

All right, that ^ ^ is one reading of how I spent my two (!!) weeks of vacation. Yes, I ate, adventured, and hung out with friends and family. But mostly, I read. Here’s the list, in order of how quickly I read them:

  1. The Seven Husband of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  2. You by Carolyn Kepnes
  3. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (bought in a bookstore on a Greek island, thank you bookstore)
  4. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  5. Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer
  6. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.

So, as you can see, the trip was divided between fiction by women and batshit nonfiction about extremist religion by men. That is one of my favorite divisions. Also, NOW I GET WHAT Y’ALL WERE TALKING ABOUT WHEN YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT PACHINKO. IT IS SO GOOD. I WANT TO MAKE A PILGRIMAGE TO JAPAN AND VISIT FICTIONAL CHARACTERS’ GRAVES.

That is all.

 

My Week in Cult Books

Before I left for vacation, I wrote a book round-up for Refinery29 about cult books. Usually I write these round-ups and say to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to read one of these books one day?’ But for some reason, with this particular list, I was seized with the urge to actually read them. So I did. For the second half of my trip, I read two books about extreme religion in the United States: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer and Going Clear by Lawrence Wright. One was about Mormonism, the other about Scientology. And both absolutely blew my mind.

Side note: WHY did I avoid nonfiction for so long?! These books were revelations and great beach reads! I kept spewing religion facts to my friends on the beach. I’m sure they loooOooooOoved it (probably not).

Anyhoo, these books both venture into the heart of two American-bred religions. Under the Banner of Heaven looks in the murder of a woman and her infant daughter by her brothers-in-law, who were convinced they were receiving commands from God. From there, Krakauer explains how the history of Mormonism culminated in this one blood-soaked moment. The book is SO well written.

Under the Banner of Heaven is enormous in its sweep – it looks at the formation of Mormonism, how polygamy became a “thing,” what Joseph Smith was talking about when he talked about finding gold in the mountain, the difference between fundamentalist mormons and Mormons. A LOT of Krakauer’s statements are explosive.

But they don’t compare to the Scientology book. Since Scientologists are so litigious maybe I should say that Lawrence Wright was a devious crook for writing this book, and all the pages are falsity-riddled!

^but that is not the case. The book is…well. It’s wild. Each page was more horrifying and enthralling than the next. A religion based on the ravings of a sci-fi writer? A sci-fi writer who essentially let his wife work to death in a Scientology death camp? A religion that has children sign “billion year contracts” and leave their parents so they can work in secretive postings/build Tom Cruise elaborate dwellings? Wright exposes Scientology for the dangerous organization it is, and Tom Cruise for the megalomaniac he is, too. I can’t get over some of the images I read — especially the cruel and unusual punishments Scientology doled out to its Sea Org members.

But what I REALLY can’t get over is how, in both of these books, people are entirely trapped in their beliefs — beliefs that other people might seem strange. Especially the people who are born into these structures. What beliefs have I inherited that might be potentially dangerous? What shapes our reality? What happens when our reality turns out to be the manifestation of someone else’s ravings?

Both of these books are MUST READS. Now I’m off to go find more nonfiction…

Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb

IMG_3255.JPGTitle: Strike Your Heart
Author: Amelie Nothomb
Genre: 
Literary fiction, but distilled to its purest and most glistening sentences
Describe it in a sentence: 
Girl grows up unloved by her mother, and her whole life is shaped around that vacuum.
TV/movie character who would like it: Camille Preaker of Sharp Objects. Like Diane in Strike Your Heart, she grew up around the absence of her mother’s love. It makes Diane tough. It makes Camille hard.

Truth be told, I was drawn to this book because it was so short. 137 pages! 137 pages means you can read it in a day, and guess what? I did. I left the office during lunch to find out what happened What Happened Next in the little tale about Marie & Diane (definitely not about Jack & Diane).

The book is about a ridiculously beautiful woman, Marie, who thinks her life is going to be much grander than it turns out to be. When she’s 19, her fling with the hunk of her small French village becomes the last romantic relationship of her life: She gets pregnant, and there go her dreams of leaving, of getting what she wants forevermore. I imagine Marie had the same hopes of mobility as Colette’s Claudine (“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there”), but instead she turned out like every other townie. Marie is extremely jealous of her first born daughter, Diane. Diane is representative of everything that had been taken from Marie. Her beauty, her youth, her freedom. Diane grows up knowing, knowing, knowing that she’s unloved – she sees it in the way her mother treats her other two siblings. But it doesn’t break Diane. It gives her the drive her mother didn’t have to leave their town and pursue a career. While at medical school, Diane’s “vacuum,” the place where motherly love should be but isn’t, lead her into some dark corners.

OK, that’s the general plot outline. This book is also about a woman and the things women do to each other. The impossible expectation of motherhood. The traps of the patriarchy. The scars our mothers give us, whether intentional or unintentional. And of course: Jealousy. Extreme jealousy. Frankly, as a member of a generation known for scrolling through snapshots of other people’s lives on Instagram just to take self-induced jealousy steam baths, Nothomb’s novel was cathartic — it took jealousy’s toxic fumes seriously.

giphy (9).gif

If you want a positive & whimsical tale set in France, watch Amelie instead.

Strike Your Heart simply told, yes, but psychologically complex. Something that strikes you immediately about Nothomb’s writing (which is translated from French): She’s telling you the truth. There’s no unreliable narrator here. Nothomb tells and her characters show; everything is sifted through an utterly clear narrator. After reading a string of books with first-person narrators, this felt like drinking cold water. Crisp, refreshing.

Diane is an unforgettable character. So bold, so severe. She reminds me, actually, of Diane in Megan Abbott’s recent Give Me Your Hand. Both are striking blond women who a) reject men’s many advances, b) dream of STEM careers, and c) have crappy relationships with their mothers. Only Nothomb’s Diane is good. And Abbott’s is…well — you’ll see when you read it. And you should!