I don’t have a ton to say about either of these books — both were fine, I think both are unlikely to end up in anyone’s Christmas stocking (my Christmas shopping is basically me perusing the books I read over the year and then giving my favorites to people I think will also enjoy them).

Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pearce, is actually a delightful romp through WWII London with narrator Emmy a twenty-something woman who longs to be a war correspondent but ends up accidentally working at a Women’s magazine typing up advice columns written by a woman who isn’t great at giving advice and is horrified by the immorality of the problems writers are sending in. Hijinks ensue – Emmy just can’t help herself. The war certainly dampens things a bit, but basically this is a slightly cheerier, funnier version of Everyone Brave is Forgiven. Really, other than the war, the central problems of the book don’t create a lot of tension — you can smell Emmy’s happy ending coming for the entire book. But, I couldn’t help but enjoy Emmy, who has a Jolly Good Time and generally shows Hitler what’s what with her Stiff Upper Lip. There is a lot of hilarious capitalization in the book. Although I didn’t buy this one, I don’t regret reading it and I was rather happy to hear that a sequel is in the works.

From the Corner of the Oval, by Beck Dorey-Stein, is a rather different book, although it also centers on a twenty-something (later a thirty-something) woman trying to find her footing in the world.  I really wanted to like this book, I kept waiting to like it. I absolutely identified with Dorey-Stein in many ways, being you know, also a thirty-something woman trying to find my footing in the world. But I mean. YOU ARE TEN FEET FROM OBAMA AND ALL YOU CAN THINK ABOUT ARE BOYS??? Really, because Dorey-Stein was a stenographer, not say, ambassador to the UN, this is a very personal memoir and doesn’t touch as much on the substance of Obama’s policies or decisions made in the administration. I mean, she certainly makes it sound like everyone had a good time.

I just kind of didn’t care about her continued inability to not cheat on her boyfriend, or the fact that the guy she was cheating with was a jerk. And I also just can’t really feel bad for someone, no matter how confused they are, who gets to travel the world with the president. She may not know what she wants, but having White House on her resume opens so many doors. Like say, writing a successful memoir despite being like 34? I didn’t hate this book, at times I enjoyed it, I think it could have been shorter.

Currently reading: Still only about 250 pages into She Has Her Mother’s Laugh. It is a dense freaking book. But, with 94 books under my belt for the year, I have the time.

Oh man. October was a bad month for reading books. Which was due in part to the fact that I am DEDICATED to reading all of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer (it’s the book you would want to have with you in a situation where you had to defend yourself with books) which is kind of good because although it’s slow going, I’m really enjoying the book and it’s good to mix things up and read 600 page books about science sometimes.

But, reading has also been down because civic engagement has been up! Which is also good, but it’s so freaking depressing. I’ve had some good experiences knocking on door and phone banking. Some great conversations that have given me so much hope. But, ug. I’ve also had some terrible interactions. There are so many people in America who think that everything that keeps me up at night is fine (war in Yemen, global climate change, women’s bodily autonomy, families torn apart at our border). And there are so many people who just don’t seem to care at all about other people (literally, all anyone wants to talk about is property taxes). Case and point, I was walking around in a neighborhood about 10 minutes from my house today, knocking doors, being super friendly!, and carved into the sidewalk on one block, a swastika. It just really, really upset me. Because who just lets that sit there? Who doesn’t do anything about having a symbol of such powerful hatred carved into their sidewalk? I mean, Pittsburgh tragedy ringing any bells?? I’m not Jewish. I’m powerfully white. Like, I accept that I have many privileges because I’m that sweet looking white girl, and also my skin could burn your eyes in winter. Possibly also summer. But the idea that there are people out there who think it’s cool to put swastikas on things, and the idea that there are people who just don’t care that there’s a swastika on their sidewalk? Well, frankly it makes me seriously consider a long winter of solitude with book and no human interaction…

So, rant over, back to books for now. My last October read was This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us by Edgar Cantero. This is Cantero’s third book in English, and you may recall that I’ve read the other two and LOVED Meddling Kids and liked The Supernatural Enhancements, and I’m going to say I actually really really liked This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us. Yeah, it’s a very refined rating system I have going.

Cantero’s third novel is another pretty big departure, you know how some authors really have a style or write like fifty books about the same character (whether openly or not), yeah, Cantero isn’t like that, other than maybe his focus on the supernatural, although that’s less at play in this book.  First, he wrote The Supernatural Enhancements which is VERY supernaturally focused and told entirely via letters, journal entries, transcripts, etc. Then he wrote Meddling Kids which is very obviously based on the Scooby-Doo Gang, but a sort of, what if one of their cases really WAS a ghost/supernatural thing. And now, his third novel is the story of A.Z. Kimrean, private eyes. And yes, the grammar is confusing because A.Z. is actually Adrian and Zoey who both inhabit the same body. A.Z. isn’t mentally ill, rather, they are chimeric twins — so sort of like Siamese twins but they only have one of everything (but say the left leg belongs to Zoey, the right leg belongs to Adrian). Adrian is all left brain, logical, and Zoey is all right brain creative.

Honestly, this book is enjoyable because Adrian and Zoey are interesting characters and the plot isn’t much better than your average PI novel, but it does zip along pretty well. There’s also some fun genre bashing:

“Femme fatale? It’s an archetype: the devious, beautiful woman with a dark past and compromising knowledge, playing other characters like chess pawns and getting the hero into trouble. That’s who you are now. Innocent but dangerous.”

“But I don’t want to cause you trouble.”

“Oh, please – trouble is necessary. It’s what moves the plot forward. And your presence is a breath of fresh air; this case oozes testosterone. Drug cartel, undercover cops – this would be a sausage factory without you girl. Don’t worry about us, you’re doing great. You do you.”

Essentially, A.Z. is called in to try to stop a gang war — there’s a undercover cop imbedding in a gang, the police want to take out the ringleaders, but fear that a gang war will just result in lots of bloodshed and new gangs rising up, negating all the work they’ve put in. The gang leader’s son has been killed and the police want A.Z. to figure out who it was/convince the gang leader that it wasn’t the fault of the rival gang. Yeah, it’s not the best plot ever. But it’s a fun book!

And for a book written by a man with like 1.5 female characters, this book actually said some interesting things about women (and well, a lot of interesting things about gender). Primarily this is through the eleven year old girl who is smarter than everyone else in her family (her dad is the gang leader):

“I used to be everyone’s favorite; the staff, the bodyguards, everyone complimented me. . . . I’m supposed to be proud of all the new things going on in my body, but if I talk tampons, everyone’s embarrassed. I cuddle with my friends, everyone stares; I bump against my PE teacher, he jolts like I’m toxic. Everyone’s all happy I’m turning into a woman but freaked out I’m not a child anymore. Like I’m in the gray area, and anything can happen.”

It’s been a while since I was an eleven year old girl, and Cantero never was (as far as I’m aware), but this says such interesting and terrible things about how society sees girls and women. Zoey actually turns out to be pretty great with pre-teen girls telling her, “You will take the reigns. You will write your own story.”

Currently reading: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh and From the Corner of the Oval

Just finished Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen, and before that was Circe by Madeline Miller. I enjoyed both, although particularly with Bury What We Cannot Take maybe enjoyed is the wrong word….

Circe tells the story of Circe, a rather minor character in The Odyssey if I’m recalling my junior high reading assignments correctly… I’ve heard some criticism that this book required a little too much knowledge of Greek mythology, but I’m no expert and I still found it to be a fast and compelling read. Circe is a goddess, a child of a Titan (Helios a sun god) and an Oceanid nymph, and she’s little loved or appreciated in her family because she’s not as beautiful or as beautiful sounding as they are (she has a human voice).

The novel begins with Circe’s unhappy childhood, and follows her through the centuries — about halfway through she meets Odysseus. I found her incredibly compelling, despite being a goddess, she’s sort of the post of the #metoo era, a woman who is willing to call the men in power (or not in power) who have harmed her to account. Many powerfully sad things happen to her, and there was a bit of a sense of doom for me for much of the book, but the end is pretty happy.

Bury What We Cannot Take also has a somewhat happy ending, although the book itself looking back, is basically about the worst few weeks in a family’s life. I thought this novel would be more about, the years and decades of a family after escaping communist China, but it was really about that very initial period of their escape. The main characters of the story are nine-year-old San San and her older brother Ah Liam. As the story opens, they are well-to-do children with a father who is stuck abroad working in Hong Kong because the borders of China have been closed.  The two are both young enough to be completely taken in by the communist party’s message and in fact the wheels of the plot are set in motion by Ah Liam turning their grandmother in as a counter-revolutionary after witnessing her smash a picture of Chairman Mao.

I don’t know that the Chinese government would like this book, and it doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture of the communist party — several minor characters are killed by the party for trying to leave China. At the beginning of the book, after Ah Liam has turned his grandmother in, grandmother and mother are able to get exit visas for three members of the family — but not all four. As a result, most of the book switches back and forth between Ah Liam and their mother in Hong Kong and San San, still stuck in China. San San’s resourcefulness, her sheer capability was what made me enjoy this book. It’s terrible, because you see her realize that her family lied to her about why they were leaving and you see her decide that the only person she can trust and rely on is herself. But, she’s pretty good at taking care of herself it turns out, and I found her adventures much more interesting than Ah Liam’s struggles with his communist education and the beliefs of the rest of his family.

Bury What We Cannot Take is another book from the amazing list 46 Books By Women of Color To Read in 2018 – if you’re looking for what to read next, start here.

Currently reading: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh and still working through So You Want to Talk About Race

 

Okay, apologies for my rather long absence, I just took an amazing vacation to the Pacific Northwest and spent a week hiking the Columbia River Gorge, Crater Lake, and the Redwoods. Highly recommend it. I did read while I was gone, of course, but I let myself continue on the path of reading let’s say… less stressful books.

First up, because I think it was my favorite of the bunch, Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart. This is actually the first book in a series, so I’m looking forward to maybe reading the next few over the holidays. This novel is based on the true story of Constance Kopp, a thirty-something unmarried woman living out in the county in New Jersey with her two also unmarried sisters. Her quiet country life is interrupted when a local thug drives his automobile into the buggy she and her sisters are ridding in. Kopp tries to exact payment to repair the buggy, which incites the thug into a rage that propels the rest of the story as he terrorizes the family and Kopp suddenly finds herself learning to shoot a gun and taking part in sting operations with the local sheriff (“I got a revolver to protect us, and I soon had use for it.”). This book is a great time, and I BOUGHT IT AT POWELL’S! Yep, before I took off into the wilderness, I stopped at THE Powell’s and bought a few books. It was amazing, every book lover must go. I actually found a bunch of great independent book stores on my travels — Dudley’s Bookshop Café in Bend, OR was great and made great chai.

I also read Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan and The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson. Both were kind of, I know this book is going to be escapist-y, and I’m fine with it. I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians a lot, and reading the book definitely made me want to see the movie. It is a silly book, but the characters are well-drawn and the book is pretty hard to put down.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays is about 28 year old Miranda who inherits a bookstore when her uncle dies. Somehow, this does not fill her with joy. Although, in her defense, the bookstore isn’t doing that well. But um, if anyone wants to leave me a bookstore, I will have NO angst about leaving my current job to go and run a bookstore. Much of the book involves Miranda figuring out a scavenger hunt left to her by her uncle, which turns out to be leading her towards understanding family secrets. Many of the clues are quotes from books (books which are in the bookstore and then have the next clue), I particularly liked the one from Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (so now I’m sort of debating reading that):

Whatever happened, I knew I would survive it. I knew above all, that I’d go on working. Surviving meant being born over and over. It wasn’t easy and it was always painful. But there wasn’t any other choice except death.

I’ve felt many things similar to this in the past year, so I’m pretty such the context is different in Fear of Flying, but I related. The good days are when I feel like I can survive anything. Anyway, this is not an amazing book, but it is a fun book if you like books and bookstores.

Currently reading: Circe and still working on a lot of other things…

 

 

So, I’ve still be in a bit of a slump reading-wise. I just want to be home, under a blanket, not required to interact with any other humans, but somehow this has translated into rewatching a lot of The Office instead of reading… I have read the second book in The Broken Earth trilogy, The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin and I’ve started on the third book, The Stone Sky. More on the third book when I get back from vacation… (where I will likely read many books).

Mostly this week I was slogging through Everything Happens for R9780399592065eason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler. Slogging not because the book is long or bad, but because it is yet another grief memoir. I have never read a book about grief that I regretted reading. And yet, after my Mom died, I told myself, enough. Time to try living. Because reading about grief can be life affirming and helpful, but it can also just plunge you further into that pit.

Boweler’s book is about her life in the immediate aftermath of her diagnoses with a type of colon cancer (at 35). Her cancer is basically incurable, but responds well to immunotherapy, so that she continues to have cancer, but continues to live, in this weird middle space. She happens to be a strong Christian and a Duke professor (you might have heard of her first book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel) This books is lovely (talking about mail she received after writing for the NY Times, “These letters sing with unspeakable love in the face of the Great Separation. Don’t go, don’t go, you anchor my life“). And at times, funny:

The chemotherapy drugs are cracked up so high that my feet are tender. I’ve been plagued with lockjaw and cold hypersensitivity, so that every time I touch anything cool it feels like I am being zapped with electricity. I am so forgetful about this that [my husband] hangs a sign on the freezer with a picture of MC Hammer that reads: GIRL, U CAN’T TOUCH THIS.

And also:

[I tell my friend] where all the diaries are kept that I would rather not leave for posterity. The diary of twelve year old Kate will be allowed to remain, because it is a daily account of what a boy named Colin was doing and I convinced that if Colin committed a crime in 1992 and is later put on trial, my diary is so thorough that it would either convict or exonerate him.

It’s a little disingenuous of me to highlight the funny parts of this book, because I wept over it.  At only 166 pages, it took me days to read because I could only read it during the day. It is a sad book, a book about loss, and fear and making peace with terrible things that just shouldn’t happen.

I had this one on my ‘to read’ list for a long time, and finally decided to pick it up, but it was kind of the wrong time for me. I love lots of grief memoirs, but they just are pulling me back into feeling worse I think.

So, currently reading: The Stone Sky, and taking Crazy Rich Asians and The Bookshop of Yesterdays on vacation with me.

Hello friends, still not having the best weeks of my life. I’ve never really been a big reader of thrillers, but I seem to be gravitating to them this year (Fever Dream, White Tears, The Haunting) and they certainly do take your mind off of things — I can see why

so many people unwind with thrillers and mysteries.

This week is was The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero. I read it because I LOVED Meddling Kids by Cantero. The book is told in snippets of diary entries, letters, telegrams, transcripts, descriptions of video tape, post cards, and a dream journal. You will either hate this or love it I think. At first, I didn’t really like it, and it made it hard for me to get into the story, but then I stared to enjoy it. There’s also a lot of cryptography – which the book actually does a cool job of explaining how they work. The end was super weird.

THERE WILL BE SOME SPOILERS BELOW! YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO READ THEM! PART OF THIS BOOK’S CHARM IS THE UNEXPECTED TWISTS!!

Essentially, this is the story of “A.” who writes most of the letters, diary entries, and dream journal entries that are in the book, and his “friend?” Niamh as they live the classic horror trope – inheriting a huge, allegedly haunted, house from a second cousin A. didn’t know, and the cousin belonged to some sort of secret society and killed himself. A. and Niamh are trying to unpack the mysteries of the house and figure out what the second cousin was into.

As they live in the house A. begins to have odd dreams which are incredibly powerful (and horrifying), additionally there is clearly a ghost in the bathroom. Cantero likes to play with, is this supernatural, is it not supernatural in his books — and seems to like to come down on the side of, supernatural things are really happening, but perhaps not as many you thought. There does turn out to be a secret society, and it is super interesting and super weird (it involves an all seeing eye, al la Lord of the Rings, and crystal balls that can transmit memories/dreams). Then things take two additional twists! I didn’t really care for either of them. I think the most common criticism I saw of this book on Goodreads was that the end was sort of jarring, and kind of didn’t fit with the rest of the book, and I will agree with that.

But, I still recommend this because I find the format interesting, I like the cryptography, and I wasn’t too frustrated by all of that. Cantero does tie things up pretty neatly, not everything makes sense, but what’s left hanging isn’t to frustrating. Apparently he is thinking about a sequel or sequels, although apparently he’s just got tons of ideas for novels and isn’t sure when he’ll write it. Oh, and also he wrote this book himself in both English and Spanish. So, he’s not an overachiever or anything.

Oh, also as a reader I loved this:

A.: [Y]ou must know how it works. An artifact containing … raw feelings, unprocessed sights and sounds and pains that the brain interprets – is that too crazy?

Dr. Belknap: No. It has existed for thousands of years. It’s called a book.

Currently reading: Everything Happens For a Reason And Other Lies I’ve Loved and Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, and off to the library to get the next book in The Broken Earth trilogy.

So my September reading has been a little slow, it’s not been the best few weeks and I let myself do some re-reading and possibly watched the BBC 5 hour Pride and Prejudice mini-series multiple times. Until I started challenging myself to read a certain number of books a year and arbitrarily decided re-reads wouldn’t count, I definitely re-read a few books many, many times. It’s an odd mix —  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, all the Harry Potter books, the Outlander books, The Thurber Carnival, perhaps most embarrassingly, the Gracelin O’Malley books. Oh geeze. If you like historical romance like Outlander, you will like those books.  So, I let myself re-read some books.

But, never fear, I also read three new books – Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neal Hurston, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes
and The Position by Meg Wolitzer.

You should read Barracoon, it is very short, and I think it’s a helpful reminder that slavery both wasn’t that long ago and that slavery was a choice, made by white people. Literally, Cudjo Lewis became a slave because a couple white guys made a bet that even though it was at that point illegal to import slaves from Africa, they could get away with it:

[Tim Meaher] bet ‘any amount of money that we would import a cargo in less than two years, and no one be hanged for it.’ It was Meaher’s dream to own land and become wealthy and to use slave labor to do it. He believed it was his birthright.

It is a very depressing, but very short book. I think if I’d been feeling less sad, I would have read this book too quickly, I’m actually glad I read it over a few sittings. The book doesn’t actually talk too much about Lewis’ time as a slave, I think at least a third of the book is his stories about his family and growing up in his village in Africa, and then a good chunk is about the decades he spent in America after he was free.

Insomniac City is a very different book, although also sad, and also a memoir. Bill Hayes was Oliver Sach’s partner for many years and book is about Hayes love of New York City and his life there, but it is also about Sach’s illness and death. And I knew that was coming for the entire book, so the whole thing made me sad. Hayes is actually pretty upbeat though. I’ve read a lot of memoirs, a lot about grief and death this year, and I actually though Hayes’ postscript made the most sense in terms of “what is the point of all this?” The point of life is to be alive. And so, we live. Sadly, I got the second most comforting thing of the year from Hope Never Dies, although I think Biden actually wrote something along these lines – it will never make sense that someone is dead, that they are gone, that they aren’t here. You just learn to live with that feeling. So, those two pieces are kind of my philosophy for moving through grief and trying to live your life: it’s not going to make sense, just focus on being alive yourself. And alive is a pretty low bar. Like, when people start talking about living your best life, about not wasting time, ug, that stresses me out. Just be alive. That’s the point.

That doesn’t really tell you much about the book. Basically if you like New York, Oliver Sachs, or memoirs, you will enjoy this book. Hayes is also a photographer and there are many interesting pictures of New Yorkers. The book actually reminded me a bit of the Humans of New York.

I won’t say too much about The Position. I continue to enjoy Meg Wolitzer, this wasn’t my favorite of her books. It was a little different than others I’ve read by her because there were significant male characters who got to narrate.  Basically, this is a book about the four adult children of a couple that in the 70’s (when their children were children) wrote a very famous book about sex. The book is sort of a, where are they now, how did this impact everyone story set as they are considering re-releasing the book in a 25th anniversary edition. The four adult children were all interesting characters, I was invested in them, I found the sad stuff that happened in the book a little much for my current emotional state.

Currently reading: So You Want to Talk About Race and The Supernatural Enhancements, still waiting on many hold books from the library 😦

Also, should I read Bob Woodward’s new book? I feel like I should because you know, everyone is going to. But, ug. I kind of don’t want to – I read Michael Wolff’s book and I feel like my time could have been better spent. But hey, maybe you were hoping I would summarize it for you?