May 2019

The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, was (probably) my last read from this year’s Tournament of Books. And, it was one of my favorites of the 18 books that made the cut for this year’s Tournament — it was a weird collection this year, I still love talking about books (and reading other people talking about books), so I loved it, but I’m kind of hoping the summer reads are more enjoyable.

The Mars Room tells the story of Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences after killing someone who I think it is fair to call her stalker. There are some flashbacks to her life as a dancer/stripper, which is where she met her stalker, leading up to the climax. Most of Romy’s story is told from prison, as she is both looking back on how she got here, dealing with the reality of life in prison, and dealing with additional terrible things that happen. I don’t want to spoil it, but the new horrible things that happen were the most upsetting part of the book for me — although, you should know going in, you will be swept into this book and it’s pretty intense.

In addition to Romy, we also get some chapters from the perspective of Gordon who teaches the GED class at the prison. He’s a hybrid insider/outsider because he’s not really part of the prison and he leads this whole separate life, but obviously also works there. Romy is actually pretty well educated, she graduated from high school and she’s not thrilled when Gordon gives her books she read when she was 14 (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, To Kill a Mockingbird — which for the record I would definitely re-read). Gordon is a pretty interesting character in his own right — he’s living in a cabin in the woods while working at the prison and thinking about his life both with comparisons to Thoreau (and his “retreat” from society) and Ted Kaczynski (who really retreated from society…). There are excerpts from Kaczynski’s journals which are terrifying and fascinating.

Additionally, we do get a little bit from Romy’s victim’s perspective, which I think was one of the novel’s strongest points for me — for most of the book you’re (or I was) 100% with Romy. And getting the other side of the story, that he’s both her stalker and her victim, she’s both his victim and his murderer. Don’t get me wrong, stalking and murder, both bad, but you really see where everyone was coming from on that particular night.

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt of the novel that was published in The New Yorker, as well as an interview with the author about that section. Strongly recommend you pick this one up.

I also read Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis which is the story of 17 year old Luisa who leaves her home in Mexico to travel with a boy two years older than her to Oaxaca, Mexico (the coast), sort of in search of dwarfs who have recently escaped a Soviet circus while touring Mexico. On the book flap, it also notes that “her father has set out to find his missing daughter” although that doesn’t really happen until like 20 pages from the end of the novel when he shows up and summarizes what he’s been up to while Luisa was thinking and drinking on the beach.

This novel reminded me a little too much of Call Me Zebra, which I did not care for, because so much of it is in Luisa’s head and I just never really got into it. I think I would have actually preferred to read the novel of her father’s adventure finding her (maybe I’m just old and I have an easier time identifying with the parent than the 17 year old making odd decisions). Also, man. The dwarfs really didn’t come into it much at all. Perhaps I was too fascinated by that weirdness and that wasn’t really the author’s point. The majority of the book is just Luisa at the beach:

But this is what beach holidays are about, you know, soothing monotony rather than variation, each day at the beach is meant to be the same, that’s what makes it relaxing, it’s the monotony that helps you unwind.

Ultimately, I thought Aridjis wrapping things up very neatly around her themes (the ocean’s power and ship wrecks and how these analogize to human life). But, that said, this took me forever to read for a 200 page book, so it’s not at the top of my recommendation list.

Currently reading: The Great Believers, and I think I have… seven books on hold at the library that will probably all come in at the same time.

I read this book, written by Penelope Fitzgerald, entirely because it was mentioned in the Tournament of Books commentary last year:

[A book that casts a spell] that comes to mind for me is Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald. It works a different kind of magic than what I believe Judge Muhammad is referring to in The Idiot—but the lingering effect is something akin to that, I think. It’s an elegantly crafted jewelry box of a book: Nearly every line is sure-footed and masterful. It evokes an entire, vanished world and characters that have remained with me. I read it last summer over several days at the beach and savored it….

9780544361515.jpgI’m not sure I found this book to be magical, but certainly it does evoke a vanished world and the characters have stayed with me. Although the book is very slim, it packs power in its sparse story line.

I will be honest, I totally forgot when I got this out of the library why I had requested it and what it was about, so I briefly thought this was some kind of science fiction book with sentient boats based on the opening (for the record, I would read that book too):

‘Are we to gather that Dreadnought is asking us all to do something dishonest?” Richard asked.

Dreadnought nodded, glad to have been understood so easily.

“Just as a means of making a sale. It seems the only way round my problem. If all present wouldn’t mind agreeing not to mention my main leak, or rather not to raise the question of my main leak, unless direct inquires are made.”

“Do you in point of fact want us to say that Dreadnought doesn’t leak?” asked Richard patiently.

“That would be putting it too strongly.”

Really, this is the story of a group of people who live on houseboats on the Thames and a few weeks of their lives. Richard is ex-navy and as a result cannot give up the habit of referring to the owners by the names of their boats. This leads to the funniest part of the book, because Maurice having noted this, changes his boat’s name to The Maurice.

The rest of the book, not so funny — Richard is in a slightly unhappy marriage as his wife does not appreciate living the boat life as much as he does. Nenna’s husband also doesn’t want to live on a boat, and so she and her daughters are kind of making it work, and he’s left their family. There’s not really too much to the plot for 90% of the book, although things do come to a bit of a madcap “tragi-farce” ending.

If you enjoy being swept up in the characters and the day-to-day, you’ll enjoy this book.

Also recently read The Happiest Baby on the Block — I’ll have to let you know later if that one pans out as useful…

Currently reading: How to Raise a Boy and The Great Believers (finished The Mars Room)

Although this book, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence, edited by Michele Filgate, came out in time for Mother’s Day, I don’t know that it would have been a great gift for your mother. It is very much as advertised, essays about what the authors don’t discuss with their mothers — not all bad, and some of them have lovely relationships with their mothers, but all pretty intense essays.

For me, reading this collection was a form of Mother’s Day self-care. A reminder that relationships with mothers and motherhood are complicated, and that I’m not alone in not celebrating Mother’s Day and having no desire to do so even when I become a mother. I could definitely see how for others, reading this would not be an act of self-care. Most of the authors have come to a place of acceptance, or at least a place where they can put their feelings into words. And I too have come to a place where everything isn’t so raw; my Mom has been gone for nearly a year and a half, I’ve gotten through all the first holidays, and she was sick for years. Do I still have regrets? Did I still cry when people at work casually asked what everyone was doing for Mother’s Day? Sure. But somehow, for me, this book was like spending time with people who get it.

The book is a collection of fifteen essays, and the intro makes clear that what the editor was going for here was talking more about how complicated mothers can be, breaking you silence about what your relationship is with your mother, because you aren’t alone:

For even a brief instant of time, every single human being has a mother. That mother-and-child connection is a complicated one. Yes we live in a society where we have holidays that assume a happy relationship. Every year when Mother’s Day rolls around, I brace myself for the onslaught of Facebook posts paying tribute to the strong, loving women who shaped their offspring. … There’s a huge swath of people who are reminded on this day of what is lacking in their lives – for some, it’s the intense grief that comes with losing a mother too soon or never knowing her. For others, it’s the realization that their mother, although alive, doesn’t know how to mother them.

I also thought the various essays did a lovely job of acknowledging what a difficult thing it is to be a mother. Society puts so much on mothers, we want them to be everything, so that even when they are wonderful, they can still fail to be everything:

We were talking about the impossible position [mothers] are placed in, the ways in which they are our models; we were talking about what little space moms have to also need and also want. … There is a gaping hole perhaps for all of us, where our mother does not match up with “mother” as we believe it’s meant to mean and all it’s meant to give us. What I cannot tell [my mother] is all that I would tell her if I could find a way to not still be sad and angry about that.

There is a lot of what I would call child abuse and child neglect and mental illness in these essays. Some of these people were horribly abused by their mothers. Others, have beautiful relationships with their mothers, which read together is kind of a perfect balance:

When [my mother] arrived in the hospital after my daughter was born, I sat there on the starched sheets holding my baby, and she held me, and I cried uncontrollably — because I could finally understand how much she loved me, and I could hardly stand the grace of it.

For those with terrible relationships with their mother, some of the happier essays might be more difficult to read, but even though for me, that passage above hurts to read (my mother won’t be meeting her grandchildren, we won’t have this moment), inside the whole collection, it works so well to tell all these very different stories. What you don’t talk about with your mother is different for everyone. For some, it’s something unspeakably hard, her cruelty or her inability to love as you should have been loved, but for others, the love was there, and things were still complicated. You were still separate people, and there were (or are) things you didn’t talk about.

Strong recommend, if you’re in the right place.

Currently reading: Totally skipped over to The Mars Room last night, and put everything else aside for the moment.

Recently finished both Women Talking by Miriam Toews and Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (translated from Danish).  The two don’t have a ton in common, but there is a tight focus on women figuring out their options.

Women Talking is an intense book. It’s based on the true events which happened in the Manitoba Colony of Mennonites in Bolivia; men in the colony were spraying a veterinary sedative on entire families and then raping women and girls. This happened for YEARS to at least 130 victims. Towes’ novel envisions the conversations between some of the women when they are briefly alone in the colony (most of the men have gone to the city to bail out the perpetrators).

The women in the novel are illiterate, and so they appoint a man they trust (somewhat) to record their meeting. This is kind of an interesting choice by Towes, because it means that the entire novel about how all these women feel, is conveyed to the reader through a first person man’s perspective. I didn’t necessarily dislike this, but it struck me as an interesting choice — ultimately we learn more about why one of the women asked the man to write the record for them (but I won’t spoil that), and that makes things make a bit more sense.

Interestingly, the novel is not a response to the #MeToo movement, but was actually written before that really became a national conversation — particularly because at one point one woman does actually say that “Not all men” were involved. It is a very philosophical book though, the entire novel is just two days of the women talking (as advertised) about forgiveness, about how society should work, about love and how they can show love for their children and their community.  They are trying to figure out whether they should do nothing, leave, or stay and fight (which isn’t really an option since they’re pacifists, although they discuss their anger).

Not a happy book, but a powerful one that I was glad I read.

On a very different end of the spectrum, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal tells the story of Sonja a woman over 40 living in Copenhagen and making a living translating crime novels from Swedish. Not a ton happens in this novel, Sonja is trying to learn to drive, most of the action such as it is focuses on her driving lessons. She’s trying to repair her relationship with her sister, she’s thinking a lot about where she came from. My number one complaint was that the book just sort of seemed to stop.

It is a prettily written novel, and I enjoyed the slightly odd discussion of the movie Contact – like, really the part where Jodie Foster is on the beach with the alien is quoted fairly extensively. Overall, don’t quite recommend this one, although always a little hard to say that with a translation since you don’t know quite what’s been lost.

Currently reading: American Spy, How to Raise a Boy




Oh man, I am very behind on blogging. I finished The House of Broken Angels, by Luis Alberto Urrea, back in April, and while I didn’t love it, I definitely do recommend it. It’s a beautifully expansive story although it primary takes place over the course of two days — covering the funeral of a family matriarch and the next day, the birthday party of her dying son who is the family patriarch. But you travel back in time with various narrators, particularly the dying patriarch Big Angel, learning much more about their lives.

This is very much the story of a big family, some characters get just a little time on stage, while the relationship between Big Angel and his wife and Big Angel and his brother (Little Angel) take center stage. (Which makes sense, because the author is loosely basing this novel on his life and he’s the little brother). There were moments where I really really wished that the author had included a family tree, although I read that this was intentional on his part, that he tried to be clear about everyone’s relationships, but he wanted the readers to put some effort in to keep track of everyone. And really, the slight confusion (who is this again??) fits well with the tone of the book — this is a big, messy family reunion, of course it feels a little nuts!

The book isn’t all about death, and really isn’t too much of a downer, but of course all the passages I marked were about death 🙂

And Big Angel was thinking: These children are so stupid; they think they are the first to discover the world.

I marked this one because I often feel this way in a sense; we are all figuring life and death and meaning and purpose out in our own time, and it feels new! Really, I think everyone has to make these discoveries for themselves, every time. Which is depressing right, there’s all this knowledge acquired, and yet, it is so hard for older people to pass it on — you just have to live your life and realize they were right (or maybe wrong) later when you get there yourself.

This book also does a beautifully heartbreaking job of really seeing female caregiving:

Big Angel was asleep when Perla [his wife] finally came int the room. Her days seemed endless. So much work to do, so much organizing, so much praying. She felt like she was carrying the tumors sometimes. But she dared not acknowledge that terrible thought. She did not deserve self-pity, she told herself. There would be time for that soon enough.

“All these things.” He opened his eyes and stared at [his daughter]. “I used to wash you,” he said. “When you were my baby.” She busied herself with the bottle of no-tears baby shampoo. “I used to be your father. Now I am your baby.” He sobbed. Only once. She blinked fast and put shampoo in her palm. “It’s okay,” she said. “Everything’s okay.” He closed his eyes and let her wash his hair.

It is so hard to take care of your parents, and I think (although not somethings I’ve experienced yet) must be so hard to have your kids take care of you. I really felt like Urrea captured this dynamic and a true way, without making it sickeningly sweet or maudlin.

Big Angel spends a lot of time thinking about death, and this one piece hit me:

Big Angel sighed. Rubbed his face. Thought about how much he’d miss rubbing his face. Everything was precious to him suddenly. Sighing. What a wonderful thing it was to sign. Geraniums. Why did he have to leave geraniums behind?

This is how I feel about death right now. I’m not done yet! I don’t want to leave geraniums behind. It also reminded me of this Terry Gross interview, who doesn’t love Terry Gross?

Also recently read: Women Talking and Mirror, Shoulder, Signal.

Currently reading: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About

I probably went into Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje, with all the wrong expectations — a novel set in London, shortly after WWII, written by the guy who wrote The English Patient? I was expecting something more along the lines of Everyone Brave is Forgiven of All the Light We Cannot See. And this book is nothing like those books. It not exactly experimental, but the tone and the structure makes you do a lot more work than either of those novels.

Warlight is narrated by Nathaniel from later in life, but the whole first section of the book involves him and his sister Rachel in the years shortly after WWII after their parents leave them with “the Moth” while they (allegedly) go to work in Asia. Several of the characters love nicknames, so the Moth and his friend the Darter are rarely referred to by their real names, and instead become these sort of semi-mysterious figures that care for Rachel and Nathaniel while their parents are away. The whole first section reminded me a bit of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (which I also didn’t love) — they are both sort of meandering tales of young men engaging in menial work in London.

The novel never exactly became a page turner for me, but as we shift away from teenage Nathaniel, we learn more about his mother’s mysterious past, the Moth, the Darter, and what everyone was up to during the war years. I really did appreciate the complex picture of WWII the book draws, much less the Brits holding their own honorably, defending the free world, much more, war makes everyone’s hands dirty. One woman explains the little thought of backwaters of the war:

When you threw your support behind the Partisans to crush the Germans, we were all — Croats, Serbs, Hungarians, Italians– categorized by you as Fascists, and German sympathizers. Ordinary people were now criminals of war. Some of us had been your allies, now we were the enemy. A shift of wind in London, some political whisper, so everything changed. Our villages were turned into ground. There’s no evidence of them now. People were lined up in front of common graves, bound with wire so they couldn’t run. Old feuds now an excuse for murder. Other villages also erased.

That said, Warlight just wasn’t really for me. I never really regret reading books from The Tournament of Books, and I’ve read so many over the past couple years that I LOVED from their lists, and maybe it’s good that I read this one that I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up, but meh, certainly not going to re-read it.

Currently reading: Just finished Women Talking and started Mirror, Shoulder, Signal.