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?!

Baby’s First Tana French

download (31)Title: The Witch Elm
Author: Tana French
Genre: 
Psychological crime
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young Irish man’s life is upended after he sustains a brain injury during a robbery, then is sent swirling further when a skull is dug up in his family’s Dublin estate. 
TV/movie character who would like it: Stella Gibson in The Fall. She’d appreciate Toby’s journey because she probably knew he’d been deceiving himself all along. She’s smart like that.

The Witch Elm was 500-page dream I didn’t want to wake up from. So often first person is deployed to approximately 30% of its full potential (yes, this is a scientific blog). The Witch Elm, conversely, featured was masterful, deceptive first-person that wanted to make you feel really comfortable, only so French could spin you around and make you dizzy.

This first-person was like a couch. You sink into it. You take Toby’s perception of the world at face value, for a while. Then it turns out the couch has rotted at the bottom. It’s not even a couch at all, but a bunch of pillows balanced over a void. If you think about it too much or lean in too hard, then it’ll collapse and you’ll be floating in a universe askew.

In a phrase: I loved it. I love Tana French! And so does Stephen King, by the way — in case my word doesn’t quite convey the authority as King King’s does.

What did I like about The Witch Elm? So much. I liked that it was a crime novel concerned with pressing existential concerns — most fundamentally, who are we? Are we separated from our brains? If our minds are injured, is our “self,” or the self we know as our “self,” lost? How much of our selves are constructed by memories, selected carefully and constructed into fortresses of personality? If all of that psychic construction is shattered in a moment, what kind of Frankenstein self takes its place?

If this sounds lofty for a crime novel, that’s because it’s a dense, lofty book. Yet French manages to carry along the scenes with such pace and wit that it doesn’t feel dense, just exhilarating. There are some pages-long sequences in which Toby is poring over the past with his two cousins. All their dynamics are so raw, unspoken. There is underbrush to their conversation we’re only just beginning to sense. And yet the conversation itself travels quickly, hops along. She balances depth with sheer pleasure so well.

I don’t want to give any major plot points away. But the book is about a young Dubliner whose life changes when he’s gravely injured in a robbery. He moves out to the country to take care of his ailing uncle. While there, they make a discovery about hidden remains in the backyard. But that only happens at like, page 200! A lot of this book is about Toby and his crisis. Which to me was a very interesting crisis. I understand why someone looking for a standard crime novel might get tired of his circuitous thoughts and hospital descriptions.

However, if you’re looking for a genre-defying book that is as thought-provoking as it is engrossing, I recommend The Witch Elm wholeheartedly.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

91vWDBRqMqL (1)Title: My Sister, the Serial Killer
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genre: 
Feminist satirical slasher (perhaps the best niche genre)
Describe it in a sentence: 
A Nigerian woman’s extremely beautiful younger sister lures men into her web then slaughters them, leaving the woman to clean up her messes. 
TV/movie character who would like it: Oh, this one is easy – the women in Killing Eve would eat this book UP. Eve probably reads serial killer fiction just for fun, because she’s an obsessive person and can’t leave work at home. Villanelle probably read the book and smirked at Ayoola’s sloppiness. Amateur.

I’ll admit it. I was compelled to read My Sister, the Serial Killer entirely because of the title and the cover. Clearly, the individuals at Doubleday marketing this book knew how to draw me, a millennial 20-something, into its pages. That girl! She just IS the epitome of cool. She looks at a nearby act of violence with an unreadable Mona Lisa smile. Whereas I would be screaming and calling for the police/Oprah to save me, she seems confident that she’ll be all right. How come? And then the title! Her sister — the serial killer? What! Clearly, the narrator has either an obsession or a reluctant amount of affection for her sister. I needed to know more.

The novel is structured around one hell of a conundrum. Korede is a Nigerian woman whose life has been defined by responsibility. She’s a nurse. She’s always doing the right thing. She’s meticulous AF. All of these traits come in handy when it comes to cleaning up her younger sister Ayoola’s messes, of which there are many. Ayoola is strikingly beautiful, frivolous, lacking in foresight — and in empathy. She gets a TON of attention from men and has grown to loathe them for it. It seems like Ayoola thinks of men as pitiable cockroaches not in control of their instincts. She has to kill them. Normally, Korede is able to separate herself from Ayoola’s victims. Then, Ayoola starts sidling up to a doctor at Korede’s hospital — and suddenly, Korede’s conscious is flaring up. Can she let Ayoola rack up another victim? Korede’s split between loyalties and laws.

Obviously, there’s a rational way to refute the entire premise of this book. Many of you might be thinking, Korede’s crazy! Why is she protecting her serial killer sister?! That is a good question. Obviously, Braithwaite comes up with a plot device that sort of explains it. But it’s never wholly explained. Korede often wants to sabotage her sister. She wants to sell her out. Ultimately, I liked how open-ended and morally ambiguous all the characters are. Here’s a woman who abides by the rules in every way, then uses that instinct to create a system of rules that protects her own rule-breaking sister — just because she loves her sister more than she loves a corrupt, patriarchal society. Humph!! *insert thoughtful emoji here.*

My Sister, the Serial Killer falls squarely into the category of Cathartic Reads. If you’re a woman in America today, you might be turning to food, reality TV, foot massages, long baths, or shutting off all electronics for the duration of the weekend in order to cope with the sad fact that many men do not care about your pain. For some reason, this week, more than many that have come before in the duration of the MeToo movement, has sent me hurtling back into past relationships with men. I’ve been rereading minor instances of dismissal and condescension for what they are — symptoms of an ingrained lack of regard for my experiences and expertise when it came to verbalizing that experience. Ayoola dealt with this in her own way.

This is a book about female rage, about revenge, about sticking it to the man (literally). It’s also about the knottiness of sisterhood, those knots that are tied just by the fact that you grow up in the same circumstances and thus will be bound to each other forever. Even if Korede turned Ayoola in, she’d still be her sister. She’d be the sister who betrayed her own sister. (For a book about siblings betraying other siblings, check out Astrid Holleeder’s electrifying memoir Judas, about her decision to testify against her crime lord brother.).

My Sister, the Serial Killer book balances gory plot with thoughtful implications. If only ALL books could be this fun and this thought-provoking!

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…

Literary Names I Might Steal For My Future Daughters

Let’s be clear: I never want my future children, should I have them, to feel like they have to grow into an impossible mold. I want them to grow into themselves, not, say, into a literary icon. That said, why not use a pleasing combination of sounds and syllables that just so happens to have an epic connotation? I like all these first names. I like their legacies. If I should have a daughter I’d want her to have these books on her side.

  1. Luna, Harry Potter
  2. Ramona, Ramona
  3. Zelie, Children of Blood and Bone
  4. Calypso, The Odyssey
  5. Denver, Beloved
  6. Lisbeth, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  7. Astrid, Crazy Rich Asians
  8. Matilda, Matilda
  9. Lara Jean Song Covey, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
  10. Jane, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, why not
  11. Oryx, Oryx and Crake
  12. Katherine Clifton, The English Patient
  13. Serena, The Trumpet of the Swan
  14. Hero, Much Ado About Nothing
  15. Camille, Sharp Objects
  16. Portia, The Merchant of Venice
  17. Natalia, War and Peace
  18. Arya, A Song of Ice and Fire
  19. Daisy, The Great Gatsby 
  20. Jo, Little Women
  21. Madeline, Madeline series
  22. Tacy, Betsy Tacy
  23. Zora, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  24. Lyra, His Dark Materials

Yes, yes, you’ve got me — in addition to collecting favorite books I also collect a) paint chips b) baby names and c) pretty words. This is a collection of b) and c).

Maybe next up I’ll match books with colors….

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.

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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!

These Short Poems Have Been Saving Me

Lately I’ve had to call on words for little shots of strength. Some use tequila; I use poems short enough to memorize. Their lines float around in my head, counteracting the insidious words that are less productive, less kind.

Yes, I’m talking about the kind of life & soul rebuilding that comes at the end of one life phase and the start of another. Me, right now — I’m on a ship in new waters. Before, I’d been on a really nice boat. The kind that you’d point at if you were on the shores and say wow, how’d she get so lucky to score a place on that very plush Axelrodian yacht? It had beautiful interiors. But it was not going to any of the islands I wanted to visit; I was locked away in my suite and never could feel the wind flapping around my face. Now I’m in a scrappier sailboat, jumping from island to island. It’s rugged. The wind is temperamental, sending me off course occasionally. My hair has never been crazier, and I’ve never been happier.

By this I mean to say, I’m in the uncharted territory that comes after a break-up. So I’ve been navigating by constellations, and by poems I can call on for spiritual guidance. I don’t always know what they mean; I just know they speak to a part of me that does.

“Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert

 

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
^has there ever been a poem that better captures the bittersweet fondness that crusts over the end of a relationship? That you can’t call it failing, really? Just the end of something that might have once been good? “Coming to the end of OUR triumph.” It’s taught me not to beat myself up so much. It wasn’t a failure, really.
“Rain” by Raymond Carver

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.

This poem, too, teaches me to be kind to myself. It’s all been wonderful, this life — I’d make every choice again.

“may my heart” by ee cummings

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

And this little poem reminds me not to let my heart freeze over.

What are your favorite short poems?

Things That Happened Before The Earthquake by Chiara Barzini

IMG_3210.JPGTitle: Things That Happened Before the Earthquake
Author:
 Chiara Barzini
Genre:
Literary coming-of-age
Describe it in a sentence:
Girl and her family move from Italy to Los Angeles; girl has way too much freedom
TV/movie character who would like it: Effy Stonem of Skins would really identify with Eugenia. When she went out to bars, she would speak to strange men with an Italian accent and congratulate herself on being so mysterious and mischievous.

I stuffed this book in my tote bag for the commute home along with three other books. Usually, I skim through the first few pages and see what sticks. But immediately after beginning Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, I was pulled into the vortex and had to say goodbye to the rom-com and dystopian I’d brought along, too. That’s how strong Eugenia’s voice is, how true her perspective. Oh, I thought. This 16 year old and I are going to be hanging out for a while. Let’s go back to remembering 16: Thinking you’re self-sufficient but really just wanting someone to pay attention to you; thinking you’re the shit but also wanting someone to cook you dinner and pet your head. Eugenia is in that place where she’s able to see her parents’ flaws, but also yearns for them to revert to being Parents in the archetypal sense – not people. It’s such a precious and precarious moment.

Anyway, I’m side-tracking here. The story is about an Italian girl who moves to Los Angeles so her father can make a movie. Eugenia’s parents, Serena and Ettore, are capital e Eccentric. They let their two kids roam free range around ’90s L.A. while they scrap together a movie, risking all financial security (and possibly breaking some laws) to do so. Eugenia, lonely, wanders around the school and her city and encounters many characters. Each encounter leaves an impression and teachers her something, maybe, but it’ll take her years to figure out what. That’s something I admire about Barzini. Everything’s filtered through Eugenia’s perspective. There are no easy answers. People she meets aren’t reduced to teaching moments; rather, they’re people who push into the clay of her becoming, for better or for worse.

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another great part of this book are its tremendous descriptions of pasta. i ate a lot of pasta as a result. 

I also love that Eugenia can be an asshole. She messes up! A lot! She breaks rules! She stirs shit! When she’s on vacation on what’s essentially a desert rock off Sicily, she gives a makeover to a local woman and fires up rumors of witchcraft. She’s the 16 year old I always wished I was. Even if that 16 year old made objectively terrible and dangerous decisions. Instead, I stayed home with a book and left the adventures to the Eugenias of the world.

Some of the best books I’ve read this year have been first-person coming-of-age stories about teenage girls (Open Me and How to be Famous). They remind me of my younger self. The girl who was just opening up. Who was scared, but also so goddamn excited. I love their arrogant brashness. They see something we (and by we I mean OLD PPL) don’t. They see hypocrisy. But as an old person, I also see the danger that Eugenia constantly put herself in, and was worried.

Oh to be 17! Oh to be on the cusp of it all! There’s a great story in Lauren Groff’s recent collection, Florida, about a teenager attending the tail end of a party full of adults, simmering in anger and resent and love triangles. She feels pity for them. She’s just starting, and she knows it.

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As you’ll find out after reading this book, she’s wrong! They do. 

How To Talk About Talking About Books

My college days are behind me. A year behind me, to be precise, though sometimes I still trip on campus’s uneven stone pavement and I remember the lecture hall chairs’ stiff backs and my professors’ stiff upper lips and I wonder, what’s a year, anyway? Some years are fuller than others. My four years of college filled me up, and I’ll be running on that mileage for ages.

Luckily for me, many of my friends are little walking universities, in the sense that they don’t let my mind fall asleep. Otherwise, who knows: I might turn on Bravo one day and never turn it off. We all wrestle with temptation.

Today, a friend texted me out of the blue asking whether I could send her a critical essay I wrote in college. The specifications were broad. She just wanted any essay in which I responded to a work of literature with precise language. I sent her a short paper on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

My friend, C., is many wonderful things, but perhaps my favorite thing about her is that she is a Capital R Reader. The first time I spoke to her about books, we were on a beach in Greece. We began playing “What Have You Read?” ping-pong, my favorite mental sparring game. I found we had the same taste. I also found myself desperately out of my league. C’s one of those readers who makes me want to be a better (and more voracious) reader.

Both now out of college, C. and I love reading — and yet we have no outlet with which we can intellectually analyze books. I frequently recommend books to people, or gush about them. I say things like, “I missed my train stop, this book was so good!” Or, “I couldn’t get out of bed because I was devastated when it ended!”

But what about the part of my brain which could X-Ray into the book’s machinations and the author’s manipulations? Read for craft, as well as general effect? What about the endless exercises in close-reading and poring through the part to understand the whole?

When reading literature in college, I often fought against the tyranny of close-reading. As an intuitive, emotional person, I would always trust my first instinct first. I was more interested in the general impression of the book. Whether I was moved. Whether I liked it. Now, out of college, I find myself pulled to the opposite camp. It’s not enough to know that I liked it. I want to know why, and speak to the book until it speaks back.

In college, I was reading books that I didn’t always want to be reading. I was relieved when I found a book that I liked at all, so I savored it. Now, I read a lot of books that I enjoy because the syllabus is of my own choosing. I pop books like candy. Sure, it’s better than TV, but how much depth am I plumbing from each book? Is it a hearty mental exercise if I’m skimming sentences?

My goal is to begin writing pieces for each book I read. More than reviews, really, but something between a reaction and an analysis. Something voice-driven, but also data-driven. A mash-up between my conflicting desires when reading books: To understand the language, and to feel the narrative.

I’m sure C. and I will be alright, so long as we continue to read, converse, and keep an aura of undergraduate naivety about us.