Last week I read There, There, by Tommy Orange, and listen to the marriage, by John Jay Osborn. And I can’t say that I loved either of them although both are well-written books that I would still recommend depending on what you’re looking for in a book.

I wanted to love There, There, and really it is a phenomenal book, it’s just also a very sad and unsatisfying book. I rarely think I should have read a book faster, but I had some trouble keeping track of all the characters and their relationships with each other and maybe you should just read this in like 1-2 sittings (as noted on the book jacket, this novel is “relentlessly paced” so I think you could pretty easily get through it in a day if you happen to have the leisure time). Essentially, this is the story of twelve Native Americans each attending the Big Oakland Powwow for various reasons (some are there to commit crimes, some to seek redemption, some to connect with their culture). We get lots of back story on most of the characters, which was really fascinating. I found the stories of Jacquie Redfeather and her half-sister Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield particularly fascinating — their story opens with them taking part as children in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz, which I knew pretty much nothing about. I found the ending of the novel unsatisfying, and I think anyone who likes things wrapped up in bows at the end of a book will as well — several characters are very much left hanging.

I also couldn’t help thinking about The Book Thief while reading the Prologue, which painful sets out the genocide committed by white settlers against Native Americans, another sort of holocaust.

listen to the marriage is a very different novel — whereas There, There ranges through decades and around the lives of twelve people, listen to the marriage is a sort of bottle novel. Almost everything in the entire novel happens via conversation inside the marriage counselor’s office. This is the story of Gretchen, Steve, and their marriage counselor Sandy, and how the three of them attempt to rebuild Gretchen and Steve’s marriage. This is another book that can’t be put down: there’s almost a sense that you’re trapped in the room with the three of them for the duration of the novel. Osborn (who wrote The Paper Chase!) kind of bashes you over the head with this concept, which I didn’t think was totally necessary:

“You and me, our story?” Gretchen said. “It’s what is going on right now, in this room. This is where it happens. This is what counts. If you’re not here, in the room, you don’t count.”

But at the same time, I did enjoy this book and thought it was a really interesting picture of marriage and counseling.

Currently reading: Still The Interestings, Men We Reap, and A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers (didn’t get much reading done this weekend sadly).

I think I’m kind of late to the party on this one since it’s already been made into a movie and apparently the movie came out like…six years ago?? Can one spoil a book that came out 13 years ago and has been around as a movie for more than 5?

Anyway, the book thief is a YA novel set before/during WWII in Hitler’s Germany, outside Munich. The characters are pretty much all German, which is interesting — I feel like maybe it’s the books I’ve read, but there seem to be SO MANY books about the brave and faultless British during WWII, but not so many about average Germans. Not that WWII is like, hurting for books written about it. But, it was interesting to see the story from the point of view of two tweens/teens in Germany who are sort of old enough to understand a bit of what’s going on, but young enough to not have much say.

The main character, Liesel, is the book thief and the novel opens with her being taken to live with foster parents because her parents are communists and although it is never stated, it is clear that the German state has decided her parents don’t get to have their kids any more because of their views. Liesel’s father has already been gone a long time. Tragedy strikes on the train ride to her foster home, which seems only right in any novel about the Holocaust – death was simply everywhere during that period.

Speaking of death, the novel is in fact narrated by Death, which is an interesting choice that sort of let’s the novel be both first and third person — we know what’s going on in everyone’s head, but we also get the angst from Death first hand. Yeah, Death is pretty angsty in this novel.

I hesitate to give away too much of the plot of the novel, honestly I read it in about a day a half, so you can definitely get through it pretty quickly. It’s really just a coming of age story about Liesel learning to deal with all the loss in her life. I felt like, maybe because it’s a YA novel, it sort bashes you over the head with the central idea — the power of words. Liesel learns to read over the course of the novel, and as one might expect she steals a number of books, and words change her life, but words are also how Hitler changed the world.

I didn’t LOVE this book, although maybe because it came highly recommended to me, my expectations were too high? It certainly is a fast read, not exactly a fun one (set during WWII in Hitler’s Germany will do that…) although not exactly not a fun one?

I’ve also finished Listen to the Marriage and There, There, so those posts are coming.

Currently reading: The Interestings, Men We Reap, and A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers

I did finish a few more books in February (not on pace to read 100 this year, but 7 in February wasn’t bad), but I’ve been bad about updating here. Perhaps because I didn’t really love any of them (strong endorsement to keep reading, I know!).

I did finally finish Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb. Unless you really love nature writing, you can probably skip this one. Unlike Spineless, there isn’t too much memoir here, the book is certainly based on his trips around the country and the UK meeting people working to help beavers, but it’s not his story. Really, the whole book reads like a series of articles profiling various “Beaver Believers” and telling you about their work.

Also, SPOILER, I did not find much in here about the surprising or secret life of beavers. I kind of assume that was the sexy subtitle that was supposed to just grab people’s attention? Beavers are pretty much what you thought they were – great engineers, with a tendency for some destruction that is displeasing to many in populated areas. I did learn about the importance of beavers — they are a keystone species, because their dams help store water and create healthy streams, their presence can both assist with droughts and support many other species.

I found the historical parts towards the beginning the most interesting, although rather depressing since it’s all about you know, people killing a ton of beavers so they could make warm hats. I will say I learned that beaver hats did not look at all the way I thought they might — people used beaver because of how dense their fur is and how well it keeps in warmth, they didn’t walk around with like a giant beaver on their heads. This makes much more sense, but still an impressive number of beavers were killed.

Current reading: Keep and eye out for discussion of Book Thief coming soon — still finishing up There, There. Not sure what’s up after that… I have quite a few stacks :/

So I really meant to be focusing on The Morning News Tournament of Books short list… but I already have so many other books on my ‘to read’ list, that hasn’t totally been happening. I did just get There, There out of the library which is both highly recommended by many and a tournament book, so there’s that. And I have The Mars Room on my shelf and I really want to read it… But it’s starting to seem unlikely that I will read all or most of the books before the tournament starts (although I have finished 6 of 18).

Anyway, instead last week I read Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. This initially went on my list in January after I read The New Yorker’s profile of Rooney and they just made her work sound amazing. Reflecting, I did like this book and I would recommend it to others, although I will say it took me a few tries to get into it. I think I picked it up three times and the first two made it through about twenty pages, and then ready pretty much the rest of the book in one sitting.

The novel tells the story of Frances, a college student in Dublin who is also a talented writer and sort of enmeshed in the literary scene in Dublin. Her former girlfriend/current best friend Bobbi is also a student in Dublin and they perform Frances’ poems together. This leads them to meet Melissa who photographs them, writes a profile of them, and becomes sort of an older friend. This isn’t exactly a coming of age story, and honestly I’m not completely sure Frances really changes much at all, but the prior drama of the novel comes from her relationship with Melissa’s husband, Nick. There’s also lots of other drama for Frances, parent drama, health scares, her relationship with Bobbi.

This book made me feel pretty old. It’s been a while since college and well, I really was never like this. Not that Frances is entirely this free-spirited character, if anything she feels very real because she’s struggling to deal with the responsibilities and stresses of becoming an adult. I didn’t exactly identify with her, but I started to really like her. Her musings which fill the book are sometimes a bit over the top, but seemed sort of correct to me in terms of portraying a twenty year old:

Was I kind to others? It was hard to nail down an answer. I worried that if I did turn out to have a personality, it would be one of the unkind ones. Did I only worry about this question because as a woman I felt required to put the needs of others before my own? Was “kindness” just another term for submission in the face of the conflict? These were the kind of things I wrote about in my diary as a teenager: as a feminist I have the right not to love anyone.

When I first finished the book, I wasn’t sure if I liked it, and even now I find the ending a bit dissatisfying. There’s a moment when things have happened and it sort of feels like the end, old relationships have fallen apart, the sadness has been dealt with, new relationships have formed. But the book doesn’t end there, it goes just a little further to leave you in a place where you suddenly feel like you’re back in the middle of a story, and you’re wondering what’s next for Frances. I know a lot of people need books that tie every single thing up in a bow. I definitely fight not to be that person because I feel like those books don’t challenge you as a reader. But if you know you’re that kind of person, you might not love this book. Otherwise, this is actually a pretty light read.

Currently reading: Kind of slogging through Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and just started The Book Thief (although There, There or The Mars Room might end up getting finished first).

So I was actually totally lying last week when I said I hadn’t read any of the Morning News Tournament of Books 2019 books other than Washington Black and The Golden State… I think this slipped my mind because when I looked at the shortlist, none of the books I LOVED last year were on it. I’ve actually already read Call Me Zebra, The Overstory, and The Parking Lot Attendant. So, as it happens Census, by Jesse Ball, is the sixth book I’ve read from the short list, which I actually feel pretty good about. Am I going to get the other 12 read before the tournament starts? Um. Unlikely…

Okay, so. Census is a really interesting book. It’s a really different book. It’s a really weird book. Sometimes this totally works for me, see Fever Dream and Supernatural Enhancements. This didn’t really work for me. Somehow it took me forever to read, but I also feel like I wasn’t that into it so I definitely missed things. I think you really have to be willing to read this book slowly, and to be willing to read a book that will give you no answers.

Summarizing Census is rather difficult. But essentially, the plot is that a father is dying and he’s decided that the thing to do is join the census and travel with his son, who has Down Syndrome, conducting the census. But, the world that they are traveling in doesn’t exactly seem to be our world, it’s hard to say if it’s post apocalyptic or if it’s just different. But this guy isn’t like a US census worker. What he is, is never fully explained. The census is described a bit more, here’s a piece:

Not, where were your parents born – but, what is the meaning of a national boundary? When your parents crossed such a thing to come here – how did it change them? Why did they do it? Who were those people who left the place that they came from – fearful, hopeful, full of a joy long since extinguished, perhaps replaced with fresh joy, perhaps not – who were they, and how, in all the wild mystery of the earth and its citizens, could they  have come to be the people now crushed by age, waiting fitfully in the waters of death’s first sleep?

So… yeah. Not what I was thinking when I heard the dad conducts the census.

At the start of the book there’s a note from Ball that he had a younger brother with Down Syndrome who he loved, and who passed away, and he always wanted to write a book about him. Rather than write a typically book (ie, a grief memoir), he decided to write a “hollow” book (as he puts it) with his brother at the center. I like grief memoirs for the most part, I identify with grief memoirs, and so that’s probably my favorite thing about this book. But, to me the book did feel a bit hollow, and nothing really filled it up. There’s no world building here.

Some of the book is beautiful and thought provoking (okay most of it probably is, if you’re really willing to sit with this book):

As we drove that night, I told my son about the loneliness that sometimes afflicts people who are alone. Meanwhile, I explained, some other people are just as alone, but never become lonely. How can that be?

There is a lot of this type of musing. Some of it made me muse, some of it made me think WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON IN THIS BOOK??? So… basically if you like books that challenge you, books that are essentially the opposite of everything you find in typical book, you might like this one. I think I failed at reading Census. But part of me feels like it was very much me and not the book’s fault. At the same time, I won’t be recommending this to anyone.

I also read the exact opposite this week, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions. Which, being a historical sort of mystery novel (nothing that mysterious ever happens, but I guess crimes get solved), has a plot which completely lets you in. It’s the third book in Amy Stewart’s Constance Kopp series, which I have written about before.

Currently reading: Conversations with Friends.

So I technically returned from vacation late Wednesday, but it’s taken me until now to kind of get back to east coast time and to sit down and let you know what all I read on vacation.

In case you don’t follow it, The Morning New Tournament of Books (The Rooster) released the short list of books that will be in the tournament for 2019, so I’ve begun trying to read at least half of them before the tournament starts. I’m still smarting over the fact that An American Marriage didn’t make it into the tournament, but I’m putting that aside since it means that I have read literally none of the 16 books in this year’s tournament.

So, first up on vacation was Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. I took this one on vacation because it sounded like it might not be too heavy, which since the main character is a slave, should tell you how heavy a lot of the books in the tournament are this year… Washington Black (Wash) is an eleven year old boy who is a slave on a Barbados plantation. The master is cruel, but it turns out that his brother is an abolitionist and a scientist. He ‘borrows’ Wash from his brother to be his assistant with getting a flying machine to work — and in the process teaches him to read, a little about science, and discovers that Wash has a gift for drawing.

The book is not exactly light hearted, but it really is an adventure story that spans the globe — after a man is killed, a price is on Wash’s head, and he and the brother travel to America, to the Arctic, and ultimately London and Morocco also play a role.

Wash is a fabulous narrator, and completely sucks you into his world, and he’s apparently telling the story later so he has a little more insight than one expects from an eleven year old:

I could not have described him so then, but [the master’s cousin] was merely a man of his class, nothing more. His great passions were not passions but distractions; one day was but a bridge to the next. He took in the world with a mild dissatisfaction, for the world was of little consequence.

I think I mostly bookmarked that as a note of how to not live your life, but what an interesting comment on an Englishman at the time that the sun had not yet begun to set on the British Empire.

On a similar note, Wash considers the life of a slave hunter:

He was a wretched man… He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents, all his obvious facility for learning, twisting every new fact and arranging it into senseless cruelty. … he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery.

How easy it is, to waste a life.

How true. Both of the quotes I’ve picked focus on the white men in the story, which isn’t quite right, although a lot of this novel is focused on how each of these men are different, and yet how each fails to see Wash’s full humanity. Wash really comes into his own in the end however, and stops being an eleven year old who is completely controlled by the world he lives in.

I read this entire book in one sitting, so I can definitely recommend it. It reminds me a bit of The Underground Railroad, because the flying machine and some of the science give it a bit of a sense of the fantastical (most slaves did not escape slavery in this exciting manner, they lived and died as slaves) although there’s no magical realism here.

Next I read The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling which I also enjoyed. The story is set in California and takes place over ten days. The main character, Daphne is a young mother to Honey a 16 month old. She works for an Islamic Institute affiliated with a university in San Francisco. Although she herself is not Muslim, she speaks Turkish and is married to a Turkish man, who was intimidated into giving up his green card and through a ‘click of the mouse’ error has so far been unable to get another — resulting in their 8 month separation. Daphne basically has a nervous breakdown on Day 1, and spends the next ten days in a fictional high desert town where she meets secessionist activists (who want the northern part of California to leave the Southern part) and an elderly woman named Alice who is trying to visit the camp where her long dead husband worked during WWII.

I spent a good chunk of the book identifying with Daphne while also being kind of annoyed with her for not pulling up out of her tailspin, until I kind of admitted that, this is what tailspins are like. If you could just realize, oh my behavior is irrational, sure you can right yourself, and at time Daphne tries, but really, when you are just at your breaking point, you break.

The book jacket told me that “more than anything, this is a story about motherhood,” but I (who read almost everything as a story about motherhood) really felt there was more here than that. Maybe because it delves so much into the unrest of the world we currently live in — state’s rights and authoritarianism, racism and discrimination against the ‘other.’  I strongly recommend this one, and it’s another pretty quick read.

A rounded out the week with non-fiction – Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper. I would say the downside of this book is that I’m not exactly sure what the thesis was. It’s not exactly a memoir, it’s more of a collection of essays. But parts of it were very powerful. Parts of it were also kind of hilarious, in talking about her love of the Babysitter’s Club books growing up she writes, “They fought sometimes, but always made up. And in the end, no matter what, they rode for each other.” Not how I, an extremely white person, who also grew up reading the books ever thought about it.

The chapter White-Girl Tears was one of the more powerful parts for me:

White-lady tears might seem not to be a big deal, but they are actually quite dangerous. When white women signal through their tears that they feel unsafe, misunderstood, or attacked, the whole world rises in their defense. The mythic nature of white female vulnerability compels protective impulses to arise in all men, regardless of race.

I am definitely the beneficiary of being a very non-threatening looking white woman. I try hard not to forget this, and to be honest I have at times been quite grateful for it. Although this book also makes the point that this, the power of white-lady tears really stems from patriarchy, the idea that white women need to be protected. And when you lean into that power, are you really leaning into power?

This was one of many, many books written about rage in the last few years, and it’s the first one I read, so I kind of feel like I need to read This Will Be My Undoing before I can definitely recommend this one.

I also read Expecting Better, which is  a great evidence based pregnancy book. But, if you’re not pregnant, you’re probably not that interested. If you are though, skip What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Read this and Like A Mother. Then call it a day, there aren’t any other good books out there.

Currently reading: Conversations with Friends and The Interestings.

So, this is very delayed – last week I read Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward and Can You Ever Forgive Me: Memoires of Literary Forger by Lee Israel.  First up, Can You Ever Forgive Me (which was recently made into a movie) the true account of how Lee Israel during the 90’s forged and sold letters purporting to be from Noel Coward, Dorthy Parker, and several others. Israel is actually pretty likeable in print, although you get the sense you might not really want her as an officemate. The story itself is more of a short story than a memoir — I think it clocks in at 126 pages, and the font is not small. This might be one instance where you’re fine just seeing the movie or don’t get much out of reading the book and seeing the movie. I enjoyed the movie more than I expected to, so I requested the book from my library back in November. I’m still trying to figure out what the heck the person who had it out before me was doing for 6 weeks with the book — using it as a primer on how to become a literary forger???

I really liked Salvage the Bones — although that feels a bit strange to say since the book is about Katrina. I recently had the amazing opportunity to meet Jesmyn Ward and hear her read some of Sing Unburied Sing (and get my copy signed !). And that prompted me to decide it was high time I read the rest of her books.

Salvage the Bones is set in Bois Savage, Mississippi and begins about two weeks before Hurricane Katrina strikes. The main character is Esh, a fifteen year old girl, and her three brothers (Randall, Skeetah, and Junior) all play main roles as well. Their mother died giving birth to Junior, and their father isn’t great — although he takes storm preparedness pretty seriously so that’s good, although, against a category 5 hurricane, it doesn’t really end up being quite enough… Their lost mother is definitely a presence in the story (although not a ghostly presence as with Sing Unburied Sing):

When [Esh’s grandmother] died, Mam told me that she had gone away, and then I wondered where she went. Because everyone else was crying, I clung like a monkey to Mama, my legs and arms wrapped around her softness, and I cried, loved running through me like a hard, blinding summer rain. And then Mama died, and there was no one left for me to hold on to.

I miss her so badly I have to swallow salt, imagine it running like lemon juice into the fresh cut that is my chest, feel it sting.

I checked, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that Esh is pregnant because that fact is included in the book flap summary. So there’s a fair amount of pre-storm drama – and I worried over this motherless soon-to-be mother especially knowing Katrina was coming. The storm doesn’t actually show up until page 215. There’s a lot of sort of dread in reading most of the book because you the reader have a sense of what’s coming and the characters very much do not. Hurricanes, they are somewhat used to. But not Katrina.

There is a lot of sadness in this book, and that sadness is beautifully conveyed. But, I will say that while the end was hardly happy, it was redeeming enough that you didn’t finish this book feeling nearly as bad as I expected to going in.

Read Salvage the Bones, skip Can You Ever Forgive Me.

Currently reading: Eloquent Rage and The Interestings.