I’ve been reading about 7 books per month this year (which is not on pace to hit 100 books, but isn’t terrible), in June I actually managed to read 9 (bringing me to 43 for the year so far)! But, I didn’t manage to blog about most of them, so here’s a quick round-up:

I’ve been reading a few from the Tournament of Book Summer long list, first up was Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken (this actually made the TOB short list for the summer, the other two I’ve read so far did not). This is a rather strange book. It’s not exactly magical realism, some reviewers say it’s ‘twee.’ The premise is that a woman (Bertha Truitt) is found, alive, in a cemetery with a candle-pin bowling ball and pin, and she goes on to build a bowling alley and introduce the town to candle-pin bowling. The novel actually spans a few generations, and you learn ON THE BOOK FLAP that Bertha dies in a freak accident. I really found the book less interesting once she died, I wasn’t that interested in most of the rest of the characters. I don’t regret reading this one, because I did sort of enjoy the ridiculousness of it, but I wouldn’t exactly recommend it unless you’re really interested in a long narrative centered around a family owned bowling alley.

I also read by  Nathan Englander from the TOB long list. This novel tells the story of Larry who, when the novel opens is no longer spiritually Jewish but his family is orthodox Jewish. His father has just died, and so because he’s the son, he’s supposed to say the Kaddish (Jewish prayer for the dead) every day for 11 months.  Larry isn’t going to do this, so instead to appease his orthodox Jewish sister, he finds a website called to recite the daily prayer for him. I’m not Jewish, I’m sort of Jewish adjacent because my husband’s family is Jewish, and in general what I know of Jewish rituals around death I really appreciate. I’m terrible though because since it isn’t my religion, I tend to use the things that are helpful to me, while not taking part in the things that aren’t, so I did sort of sympathize with Larry — he no longer feels connected to this religious practice, it’s just not how he wants to mourn his father. But of course, his sister is so sincerely upset that Larry is dooming their father’s soul.

The novel immediately takes a twist in part two, jumping ahead significantly, and I was actually kind of disappointed by this, I was really interested in the Larry/sister dynamic as they were grieving, and the book moves on from that pretty quickly. But, that said, overall I enjoyed the quirkiness of the novel from that point on. Also I’m fascinated by the fact that is real website, I wonder what their views are on this novel?

Finally from the TOB summer long list, I read If, Then by Kate Hope Day. This is one of my favorites of this entire year. I just really enjoyed the characters and found myself completely invested in each story. The novel takes place in Clearing, Oregon, which sits on the flanks of a ‘dormant’ volcano. There are three different stories of three neighbors on the same street – Cass, a PhD student who is taking a break from her program and has just had a baby, Ginny and Mark who are in a difficult marriage, and Samara mourning her mother’s recent death. As per the book flap (I’m a firm believer, if it’s on the book flap, it’s not a spoiler), their lives are upended when they start to see themselves in parallel realities, and as you read, you realize the characters all appear in each other’s stories, but you’re not reading three stories set in the same reality. It adds an interesting layer to the novel.

Maybe I liked this so much because it was really easy for me to identify with the characters – Samara’s grief over her mother’s death felt exactly right to me, often she can hear her mother’s voice, but sometimes it’s frustratingly silent (“But for once Ashmina’s voice is silent. She can’t think of a single thing her mother would say.”). And Cass, dealing with adjusting to motherhood and getting so much judgment from those who she certainly didn’t ask for advice (“Don’t take too much time off … I had a graduate student a few years ago. Very talented. Brilliant even. She took a year off to have a baby. Or maybe it was to take care of a sick baby… Doesn’t matter. The point is, the year turned into two years. And then I never heard from her again.” Thanks for that helpful person…).  I marked a lot of passages in this novel, and I really commend it to you as a book with enough heft, but can still be a great summer read.

Additionally read a few more books about birth/child rearing — The Big Book of Birth by Erica Lyon, Cribsheet: A Data Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting From Birth to Preschool by Emily Oster, and Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond by Nancy Bardacke.

The Big Book of Birth is actually pretty regular sized, and I thought it was a nice overview of labor and postpartum. Mindful Birthing is much more about whether you’d like to bring mindfulness and meditation into your labor prep and parenting — I’m personally pretty sold on this, but it’s not for everyone. This is not a super hippie book, but if you’re not interested in meditation at all, you won’t be interested in this book. I also really like Cribsheet, mostly because Oster’s main thrust is that you need to think about what’s right for your family and everyone needs to get as much sleep as they can — lots of horrible things people tell you (if you don’t breastfeed you’re dooming your child, sleep training is torture, etc etc etc) just isn’t borne out by data, or is more complicated, and it’s interesting to really dig in on these issues in an academic way.

Coming up in June round up part two: The Ash Family, Born A Crime, and Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Currently reading: Trust Exercise and Lost Children Archive

Well, my reading is going much better than my posting — I read seven book in May, and I’ve read 4 so far in June, but I haven’t managed to finish up posting on my May reading yet… The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai was definitely one of my favorite reads of the year so far, high recommend. It’s one of those rare books that you can’t put down, but it’s not just a page turner, it’s really giving you something more than that.

The novel tells two parallel stories — Yale, a homosexual man living in Chicago in the mid 80’s and early 90’s during the AIDS crisis and then Fiona (who lost her brother to AIDS and was friends with Yale and his whole circle during the crisis), who 30 years later is in Paris trying to track down her daughter. Fiona actually appears in both story lines, so you get an interesting picture of her as a young woman and then a mother/grandmother. At first I was a bit annoyed, each chapter flips back and forth, and I was really invested in Yale’s story in a way that I was not invested in Fiona’s later story — but as the novel went on, I was engrossed in both and ultimately ended up loving how having the later narrative wrapped up a lot of things from the earlier narrative with Yale.

Yale works in an art gallery affiliated with a university, and a big part of the story is his work getting a donation of art, which doesn’t sound particularly thrilling, but the way the characters are drawn here, you care about what they care about. Also, this provides Yale the opportunity to meet Nora, the possible donor, who was herself a painter around WWI and who knew all these artists who were killed during WWI — setting up an interesting juxtaposition with the AIDS crisis:

“Because you’ll understand: It was a ghost town. Some of those boys were dear friends. I’d studied next to them for two years. I’d run around with them, doing all the ridiculous things you do when you’re young.

It– you know what, it prepared me for being old. All my friends are dying, or they’re dead already, but I’ve been through it before.”

Yale hadn’t particularly thought about Nora having current friends. Somehow he’s always thought of friends as the people you met early and stayed bonded to forever. Maybe this was why his loneliness was hitting him so hard. He couldn’t imagine going out and selecting a brand-new cohort. How unimaginable that Nora had lived another seven decades, that she’s known the world this long without her first adult friends, her compatriots.

Despite how depressing this book could be (and I wept through a good portion of it), you’re so invested that it’s not like it just gets you down, and it is also just so beautiful. Towards the end Fiona and her daughter are together, but still having a difficult time relating to each other, and one of the men who’s survived (with HIV, but never developed full-blown AIDS and has now survived long enough to have better drugs to control his illness, but has seen so so many of his friends die young) explains to them:

“Everyone knows how short life is. Fiona and I know it especially. But no one ever talks about how long it is. And it’s–does that make sense? Every life is too short, even the long ones, but some people’s lives are too long as well. I mean– maybe that won’t make sense until you’re older.

If we could just be on earth at the same place and same time as everyone we loved, if we could be born together and die together, it would be so simple. And it’s not. But listen: You two are on the planet at the same time. You’re in the same place now. That’s a miracle. I just want to say that.”

It’s hard to even talk about this, because it feels so right to me, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything to add. If only right? If only we could just be born and die together, we’d never mourn anyone, we’d never have to be Nora and live on for seven decades missing our first friends. So we need to recognize when we’re with those we love, that it is a miracle.

Other recent reads that will be coming to this blog soon: Bowlaway, The Ash Family, Born a Crime, and

Currently reading: All baby/kid related at the moment, so probably won’t review – The Big Book of Birth and Cribsheet: A Data Driven Guide to Better More Relaxed Parenting

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)

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.


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