March 2018


Oh gosh. This book guys. This is a great book. I have definitely become the kind of person that forces books into other people’s hands — I used to hate lending books around, but then I cleaned out my parents house and donated more than four Toyota Corolla’s worth of books (yes, I filled my car with books four times, I traded another few bags at my local used book store turning books I didn’t want into fewer books that I did want, and ultimately donated another few bags to the library after the Savers near me went out of business, possibly due to my many book donations…).  And I realized two things –(1) it may be possible to have too many books and (2) man I wish I had kept those books and opened my own used book store.  Since I gave up my easiest chance to become a used bookstore owner, I probably don’t need to hold tight to every single book I own (it is a lot), I should share the great ones.

Sadly I took The Animators out of the library (okay not that sadly, I have a lot of books already…) but suffice it to say that someone is getting this book for their birthday/Christmas/Arbor Day/whatever.

The basics, this is a book about two women (Sharon and Mel) who work together as an artistic partnership and create adult cartoons.  It is sort of a coming of age, although it mostly covers the two-ish years after they begin to be a little bit famous.  You get a sort of short story (the prologue) that sets up their meeting in college, and then the book opens with them finishing their first big project to modest acclaim and winning a grant to make their next project. It is told from Sharon’s point of view.

I thought this book would be about how once you make something great, there can be a real question about whether you’ll ever make another great thing. And it sort of was, but there were also a lot of twists on that. It was kind of, to me at least, a story about feeling very lost, and then coming out on the other side, in your 30’s and realizing that you’re not clueless, that you have some advice to give to the 20 year olds following you, but maybe you’re never going to have quite the clarity you want.

SPOILERS! SPOILERS ARE COMING! IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT THE PLOT OF THIS BOOK BEFORE YOU READ IT! ABORT! ABORT! LOOK AWAY NOW! OKAY YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

I marked so many passages of this book because I loved them. I will say, it was kind of a hilarious moment for me in that Mel’s mom dies on page 38. Oh geez, of course. Although I found myself relating a lot of Mel’s thoughts and Sharon’s observations, though not all of it.

There is a second death in this book, and even though I have warned you, I feel bad revealing exactly who it is. But I found the discussion of that death very realistic as well — it is so hard that everyone else goes on living when someone you love has died.  Nothing stops the way it should, you have to go back to work. You have to keep being alive, but suddenly you’re just different. I also really identified with Sharon’s resentment that the person she loves “now exists only in my head. . . It is idealized [name], cheap, ill-made. And that cuts most of all. In my heart of hearts, I know how much she would have hated that.” She hates that this complete person has become “a series of anecdotes.” It is so difficult to integrate that someone is gone, and to figure out how they can be gone, and to figure out what your relationship is with this new gone person.

There’s a lot about Sharon’s past as well (her past ends up being the focus of their new project) — she grew up in Kentucky, as sort of an odd duck and got a scholarship to an elite school. I enjoyed the scene where, after she’s won this scholarship, the local librarian says to her:

“‘This place,’ she said, ‘is a bucket of sand crabs. One tried to climb out, the others’ll reach up and pull him back down. Climb out of here. Don’t you dare come back.'”

I love this image, although fortunately this isn’t a simplistic, get out of hick town narrative. There ends up being a lot of complexity about Sharon’s relationship to where she’s from and who that makes her.

There are additionally just some beautifully written sentences in this book –

“And it is during lovemaking, sometimes rowdy enough to be called fucking and sometimes gentle enough to be called prayer, that we loosen our holds on ourselves enough to confess that this has never happened before, to either one of us, maybe not to anyone else ever, and we hope against hope, with gritted teeth, that there will be no end.”

This book lost, immediately, in the first round of The Morning New Tournament of Books this year. But, as one of the commenters said when people were kind of raining on Fever Dreams (which won, and I get it, because it is powerful if not delightful), we all won the tournament of books because we made all these new book friends, which for me includes my new book friend The Animators.  (This is almost enough to make me not bitter than Manhattan Beach, Sing Unburied Sing, and The Animators all got knocked out. Almost. BUT CAN YOU BELIEVE LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE WAS NOT EVEN PART OF THE COMPETITION??).

Currently reading: When They Call You a Terrorist and weighing whether to start another non-fiction or go pick up Pachinko from the library.

This past week I read The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman and Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. I didn’t necessarily intend them as a set, but both are about magical sisters. Both happen to be books by authors that I’m fond of — Sisterland was the only Sittenfeld book that I hadn’t read although there’s a lot of Hoffman that I  haven’t gotten to yet.  I loved Hoffman’s Faithful and definitely recommend that to you, and you may recall that I read Practical Magic last year (The Rules of Magic is a prequel).

Sittenfeld has only written five novels so far, previously I’d read Eligible, American Wife, and Man of My Dreams, and last year I finally read Prep.  I really loved Eligible (a modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice) and I loved American Wife. Sisterland, like Man of My Dreams, was okay. Didn’t care for Prep — I felt like it went nowhere and I wasn’t really invested in the main character.  Sisterland is about twins who both have some psychic abilities — the main character doesn’t want to have ‘senses’ as she calls them, and her twin sister becomes briefly famous predicting a major earthquake will occur in St. Louis and she makes her living as a medium/psychic. The novel deals with the two sister’s lives coming up on the predicted earthquake, while frequently flashing back telling the story of the women’s past up to the present moment. I didn’t love how this book ended, but after about 150 pages it became hard to put down. I was invested in the doesn’t want to be psychic twin and her life took some crazy turns.

The Rules of Magic has a very different feel — this is a world where magic is unquestionable real, whereas you could sort of read Sisterland either way. I want to say that if you liked Practical Magic, you’ll like this, but I think that’s only true if what you liked about Practical Magic was the feel, the flow, the style of the book.  This seemed very much of the same world to me, but this novel doesn’t touch much on Sally and Gillian don’t appear until almost the very end, so if it was those characters that you loved, you may not be satisfied. Basically, this is a coming of age novel for the aunts who appear in Practical Magic, you learn about how they grew up, discovered their magic, lost and found love, and ended up being the aunts of Practical Magic. It is a fairly sad book (so is Sisterland) in terms of plot, but the magic keeps it feeling sort of not so sad despite all the sad things that happen.

Currently reading: Haven’t started the next book yet, but have Spineless, When they Call You a Terrorist, The Animators, and Eat the Apple out of the library right now. (I know, only four library books??) And I keep meaning to start Future Home of the Living God so… who knows what’s next.

Also, where I work we tend to be very focused on quarters, so I’ve just about wrapped up a quarter of this year, and I’m on track (actually ahead of schedule) to read 100 books, here’s the completely Q1 list :

Books Read in 2018

January
1. The Power – Naomi Alderman
2. Lab Girl – Hope Jahren
3. How To Fall In Love With Anyone – Mandy Len Catron
4. The Awkward Age – Francesca Segal
5. From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death – Caitlin Doughty
6. The End We Start From – Megan Hunter
7. Where the Past Begins – Amy Tan
8. Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan

February
9. Before We Were Yours – Lisa Wingate
10. Our Lady of the Prairie – Thisbe Nissen
11. Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
12. A Distant View of Everything – Alexander McCall Smith
13. The Last Girlfriend on Earth – Simon Rich
14. The Double Comfort Safari Club -Alexander McCall Smith
15. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House – Michael Wolff
16. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder – Caroline Fraser
17. The Largese of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson
18. The Owl Killers – Karen Maitland

March
19. The Saturday Big Tent Wedding – Alexander McCall Smith
20. Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures – Ben Mezrich
21. The Bride Wore Size 12 – Meg Cabot
22. My Dream of You – Nuala O’Faolain
23. How to Stop Time – Matt Haig
24. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection – Alexander McCall Smith
25. Sing Unburied Sing – Jesmyn Ward
26. Fever Dreams – Samanta Schweblin
27. The Rules of Magic -Alice Hoffman
28. Sisterland – Curtis Sittenfeld

Current favorites of the year: Little Fires Everywhere and Manhattan Beach.

This past week had me reading Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward and Fever Dreams by Samanta Schweblin. Fever Dreams wasn’t on my list until it beat Lincoln in the Bardo in The Morning News Tournament of Books. I read the entire book in one sitting in about an hour, which is partially because I’m a fast reader, and partially because you cannot put this book down or even really pause while reading it because, for me at least, you’re desperately trying to figure out what the heck is going on. The book never really tells you what the heck is going on. So, if you want to read a kind of terrifying, wonderfully written book, that in the end leaves you with lots of questions – this is the book for you. I’m very impressed with the translator (it was originally written in Spanish), because while I’m sure something was lost in the translation, I really couldn’t tell. The book is gripping. It kind of made me think of the documentary Koyaanisqatsi- Life out of Balance although Fever Dreams tells a specific story and Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t really tell a story at all so much as create a similar terror inside you at what we’re doing to the planet…

The more I think about, the more I am forced to tell you that I didn’t like Fever Dream and I’m not sure I would recommend it to you. It doesn’t exactly feel like a book to me. It was more of an immersive experience. So I guess I don’t want to not recommend it to you because it is an amazingly written book, it’s just going to leave you thinking AHHHAH and WHAT??? I realize I have provided you with no summary of the plot of this book and I guess that because I still can’t really tell you what it was about… And I don’t want to ruin anything for you if you do pick this up.

I will recommend Sing Unburied Sing which is one of those books that’s gone on my “to read” list and come off and then gone on again as I read different reviews. Once again it was the Tournament of Books that convinced me to bump this up the list. I thought this book would be creepier and more sort of fantastical, al la Beloved (although in deference to Beloved, I read it in high school when I loved sci-fi but didn’t really get supernatural realism or genre bending), but I found it to be painfully real.

Sing is narrated by Jojo a 13 year old boy, his mother Leonie, and a ghost Richie. Yeah, okay, so the book is a bit supernatural… Despite the ghosts that populate the book, this book feels true, it says important things about how people face life and death. I don’t know how much of the plot to describe to you, basically the book covers Jojo’s father getting out of prison and Jojo, Leonie, and his little sister go to pick him, also accidentally pick up Richie the ghost, and then they go back home.

SPOILERS:

I found Mam’s death scene kind of realistic, which is maybe odd because there are multiple ghosts and supernatural stuff that happens, but for me at least, it captured the emotion of being with someone as they die, especially in a situation where you’re letting them go and you don’t want to. Also, while I don’t believe in ghosts, my Dad repeatedly told my mom at the end that her parents were with her, that her family had come to take her home, so I think a lot of people will identify with the idea that Mam’s son comes to fight for her and to take her home.

Sing is a beautifully written book. I returned the book to the library today, pretty much immediately after finishing it, because I didn’t want to be preventing anyone else from reading it. I kind of regret this and would like to re-read the end of the book, so I may actually end up buying this one.
Also read – The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection – Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve written about this series a few times, so I’ll spare you the same thoughts. Managed to resist getting the next book in The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series out of the library today, instead taking out The Animators and When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.

Currently reading: The Rules of Magic (and then on to my new library books and my older library books…).

My recent reads both involve time travel without any actual time travel — How to Stop Time by Matt Haig and My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain. My Dream of You is a more straight forward story within a story type of time travel — the main character is considering writing a book about a love story which occurred in Ireland during the famine so the book takes place both in the early 2000’s and we get excerpts of her book set in the 1860’s.  How to Stop Time involves traveling through time by just continuing to be alive — the main character is over 400 years old.

I didn’t love My Dream of You.  I did grow attached to the main character, but the story itself is sort meandering as she deals with the death of a dear friend and the more remote deaths of her parents by like, being in Ireland, researching her story, and thinking back on her life. I did identify with her constant thoughts about what to make of the rest of her life, but there’s no real answer to that. The book ended suddenly to me, I was invested in her getting somewhere, but the book ends just with her leaving Ireland and deciding she isn’t going to finish her book. I wanted more of a resolution of her relationships with her friends and family outside of Ireland, and heck, even her relatives in Ireland it was like….so it just ends like this??

I really liked How to Stop Time — it was fun, and it gave me most of the resolution I was looking for.  The story is all about Tom Hazard who is born in 1581 and stops aging normally in his early teens.  We are told early on that unlike us regular humans (mayflies), he is an “alba” short for albatross and ages at about 1/15th the rate of the rest of us.  Although Tom doesn’t travel in time and has lived his life linearly, the reader jumps back and forth from Tom’s past to the present in London (which appears to be set around the actual present). There’s a bit of gimmicky-ness — he works for Shakespeare, sails with Cook, dines in the same place as Charlie Chaplin, has a conversation with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but that didn’t really bother me.  Essentially we learn that Tom’s early life was difficult (they killed witches in 1581, guys who don’t age = witches, sons of witches, demon, Satan, etc.), and that he had a daughter who, like him, stopped aging normally, so the story arc is learning more about his past and who he is, while in the present he’s still trying to deal with who he is while also hoping the find his daughter.

I thought some of what the book said about love was a bit simplistic, but what it said about time, I found quite beautiful although I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of it — Tom who has so much time, still feels trapped by it. There’s kind of a random passage that I think captures a lot of the spirit of the book:

And, just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do? If I could be kind without fear of being fucked over? If I could love without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that taste tomorrow? If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?

I definitely recommend How to Stop Time.  Unlike most books, which I get out the library, I actually bought this one, and while it is not one of the rare books I will immediately be reading again (looking at you Station Eleven), I will definitely be forcing my copy upon people telling them they must read it.

Currently reading: Sing Unburied Sing and I’m going to give Fever Dreams a shot although the reviews make me think that it’s an amazing book that I’m not going to like.. If you love books and you’re not following The Morning News Tournament of Books (The Rooster) you MUST. Much thanks to my friend Jaclyn for turning me on to it, and I knew I would love it because THEIR 2015 WINNER WAS STATION ELEVEN. Have I mentioned that you should read Station Eleven? Although I will say the tournament this year has been crazy! Manhattan Beach and Lincoln in the Bardo were knocked out!

I finished one more book in February, The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland (book 18 for the year, so still on pace to read 100), and I’ve read two so far in March – The Saturday Big Tent Wedding by Alexander McCall Smith and Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich.

I won’t say much about The Saturday Big Tent Wedding, because I’ve already written a few times about how I enjoy McCall Smith’s style (and ability to publish so many books per year!) and how these are wonderful escape books, yet don’t completely feel like just reading for pleasure (books with no real redeeming value beyond enjoyment like say, everything by Meg Cabot — not saying I don’t love it, just saying some books give you more than just pleasure).  I like to read books that give me an escape, plus a little something else. But, hey sometimes I also just want the escape — that’s definitely where I am right now, having picked up The Bride Wore a Size 12 (a Meg Cabot mystery romance type book), Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (actually hoping this will be a bit more than just an escape), and the next book in The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series in my last trip to the library.

I think I’ll give Woolly a half-hearted recommendation.  The book is, as the lengthy title suggests, about the scientists working to revive woolly mammoths from extinction.  The main scientists in the book are attempting to do this using genetic engineering – so taking elephant cells, using CRISPR to swap in woolly mammoth genes (woolly mammoths died out recently enough that we have some of their DNA as opposed to say dinosaurs, when you find a fossil you cannot make Jurassic Park happen because the DNA has all degraded and disappeared entirely), turn this into an embryo, and grow a woolly mammoth in a man-made womb.  If you can point out all the science I got wrong in that sentence, Woolly is not for you.  It is extremely pop-science-y — they are making it into a movie and that makes perfect sense because this is not a science book, it is a story about scientists.  I know basically nothing about science (took Rocks for Jocks in college to fulfill my requirement) and even I wanted a little more science.

The book did make me very curious about whether woolly mammoths could help fight climate change — one of the arguments for bringing back mammoths is that their weight churns permafrost, actually lowering its temperature and keeping it from melting — if the permafrost in the artic starts melting significantly (which…it pretty much is going to as far as I understand unless this woolly mammoth thing really pans out) it will be the largest source of greenhouse gas on the planet.  I’ll plug The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert here, which is still pop science, but which I liked much more.  It’s not as uplifting as Woolly, basically Kolbert suggests that yes, the ways humans live on the planet is causing a massive die-off, but hey, the earth has been through mass die-offs before so give it 65 million years and just want to see the next speciation event! Whenever I’m sad about how awful people are, I kind of think, well, we won’t be here forever — wonder what awesome stuff will come after us??

The Owl Killers is fiction set in the middle ages/medieval England.  It’s kind of a cross between The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, Catherine Called Birdy, and Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks.  Which is to say it involves a priest who doesn’t keep his vows, a rebellious well-born teen girl, and a whole lot of suffering plagues and famines etc.  The basic premise is that a bunch of women have come from continental Europe to form a beguinage, a community of women who aren’t nuns but live together in sort of a commune situation raising kids and crops and helping their neighbors and do take vows of celibacy while they live there.  Nuns who can leave any time they want? This is a real thing that did happen in continental Europe, but apparently never really took off in England, so the novel is kind of an exploration of what would it have looked like for women to come and try to set this up?  Answer: the men do not care for it.  These women are witches etc.  But it is more complicated than that, and the book itself is pretty hard to put down.  It’s told from the point of view of several different women, all of whom at one point or another you’re really rooting for.  If you enjoy Geraldine Brooks, you will like this.

Currently reading: The Bride Wore a Size 12 (I HAVE NO SHAME!) and My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain. Open to any recommendations of additional books that will get you through the dreary months of winter when you just don’t want to be sad any more.