What I Read: January 2017

2017 is my year of reading books written by women. Here’s what I read in January:

Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth

Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth has been on my to-read list for quite some time, far before Shire’s involvement in Beyonce’s Lemonade. You may have seen the Somali writer and poet’s words in the news recently. In response to the Trump administration’s recent ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, protestors have quoted from her poem “Conversations About Home” (which is in this book): “No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark.”

These poems are about Africa, trauma, tradition, gender, displacement and precarity in all of its forms, and they are often uncomfortable. The common thread is Shire’s searing observations on the female body in Muslim culture — the prize of virginity, the things women must do to keep their husbands’ attentions and the othering of her body when juxtaposed against white women. But Shire’s narrator also seems to urge her female readers to view their femininity as a source of exceptional inner strength. My favorite poem is actually the last one, “In Love and In War”:

To my daughter I will say,

‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’.

This was actually the last book I read in January: I wanted something short to fill in the last few days, and I read this 38-page pamphlet of poetry in about an hour. If you don’t normally read poetry, try reading this pamphlet — I think you’ll find it extremely enlightening in today’s political climate.

Nayyirah Waheed’s Salt

I became a big fan of Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry when I followed her on Instagram, where she reposts a lot of the poems you find in Salt. I wanted to read the collection in full, and I’m so glad I did — Instagram screenshots of the poems don’t do the words justice. Most of the poems are often two lines and rely extensively on enjambment — line breaks in middle of sentences.

Waheed’s poetry touches on so many points all at once: the black woman experience, the magic of femininity, the fragility of masculinity, the power of the earth and the elements, and the importance of a resilient relationship with your own self. Waheed’s intended audience seems to be other black women and women of color, and I had to assess my own role as a white woman reading these poems. I think reading and supporting the work of women of color is crucial to working towards being truly intersectional, and I want to make an effort to understand their experiences more fully.

Each poem tells its own story, but it’s all extremely cohesive and breathtaking. I am in awe of how Waheed can turn simple words into such profound and complex ideas, and she makes most of the poetry I’ve read up until this point seem clunky and inarticulate. That’s how much I love Salt.

knowing your power

is what creates

humility,

not knowing your power

is what creates

insecurity.

— ego

It’s impossible for me to pick one favorite poem from Salt. Every single poem is beautiful, insightful and haunting. I will return to this poetry collection over and over again.

Suzanne Roberts’ Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail

In my mission to read more books about California written by women, I came across this delightful memoir. After she graduated from college in 1993, Roberts and two friends decided to hike the John Muir Trail from Mount Whitney to Yosemite Valley. Along the way, they run into all of the problems you think they’d have: tense group dynamics, bears, injuries, food shortages and weird dudes. In her travelogue, Roberts reflects on her thoughts about her future and often leans on Muir’s words and writings to contextualize her feelings.

The main thing I liked about this book is that it’s a testament to how powerful the human and nature relationship is, and that believing in that power can provide spiritual and emotional clarity. In the California context, it made me realize how important it is to preserve our natural heritage so that people can have those experiences. Roberts-as-her-character isn’t particularly sympathetic, but by the end you’re rooting for her to find her way. And it did make me want to attempt the same trip, even though I am definitely not a hiker. It’s a solid 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

Swing Time, which is named after a Fred Astaire movie, follows two British women and the course of their friendship: an unnamed narrator, who is an assistant to a pop star, and her childhood friend Tracey, who attempts to pursue a career as a dancer. Both women are biracial living in 1990s England, and dance is their common interest. As they grow up, their lives diverge and intersect. But the main thing to note about the plot is that it’s framed in the unnamed narrator’s firing and her explanation of how it happened, which is engulfed in her history with Tracey. You learn about all of the characters through the narrator’s lens, and because she’s not particularly likable nor introspective you stay at the surface-level.

Here’s my deal with Swing Time: Smith executes the plot flawlessly and everything comes full circle in a satisfying way. This joins My Brilliant Friend in the vein of real, complex female friendship dynamics. The ideas of black bodies in white spaces, class differences and political privilege come up over and over again in smart and nuanced ways — especially when mirrored against dance, which is arguably a social equalizer.

But although this book made a lot of best of 2016 lists and I did enjoy reading it, it’s not my favorite Smith novel. I read On Beauty in 2015, and that novel’s universe was more immersive with dramatic stakes that that felt higher — a refreshed, academic, American version of E.M. Forster’s Howards End. Smith also has some really good essays and short fiction, and I would recommend starting with those first.

What have you been reading lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

What I Read: October & November 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. I liked the three-sentence reviews I wrote for August and September, so I’m going to do that again. Here’s what I read in October and November:

Joan Didion’s Where I Was From.

Every time I read a Joan Didion book, I’m blown away by her genius and skill. In this nonfiction essay collection about California, Didion works through the disconnect between the myths of California’s beginnings and its present-day reality, and how that has affected the perception of California and its people. It’s the perfect example of writing that centers on something extremely personal and contributes to a bigger picture in a measured and articulate way.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my new favorite author, and I highly recommend her work. Americanah is a beautiful love story, but it’s also about a woman finding her identity and voice — all while painting a rich portrait of Africa you don’t see very often. This novel will make for an incredible movie, if done carefully and right.

Francesca Block’s Weetzie Bat.

This is a delightful young adult novel about a woman living in a Shangri-La version of Los Angeles, and I wish I would have discovered when I was a teenager. It’s whimsical and mystical in that you have to suspend your disbelief on some plot elements, but it’s extremely serious and honest in its themes, especially sexuality. Would recommend to a precocious teenage girl who loves LA.

Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child.

The Story of the Lost Child is an incredible end to an incredible series about two women from Naples and how their lives intersect and diverge. Believe all of the hype you’ve ever seen or heard about Elena Ferrante or the Neapolitan Novels. This series is one of my favorites, and I’m so glad I spread the four-book series out over the year — it was much more satisfying that way.

John Steinbeck’s The Harvest Gypsies.

This collection of newspaper articles describing California migrant camp life in the 1930s expanded my tiny bit of knowledge about the Dust Bowl. It adds some dimension to Steinbeck in that you can recognize inspiration for his novels, but it’s not necessary Steinbeck reading. If you really want to read Steinbeck, you’re better off reading or rereading The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden or Of Mice and Men.

Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another.

Okay, so — I picked up this book because I wanted to learn more about Martha Gellhorn and who she was as a war journalist. But the more I read, the more uncomfortable I was with the racist and classist language she uses to describe the people she meets and the places she goes in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. I finished the book, but I would not recommend it.

Kevin Starr’s California: A History.

I’m embarking on a California reading project (more on that later), and this was the first history book I picked up — I found it on several must-reads-about-California lists. California provides a really good overview of state’s history from the European exploration efforts to the Schwarzenegger era, but I will say it moves extremely fast. It’s a good starter book, and it’s definitely inspired me to read more about my state’s incredible history and culture.

What have you read lately? Tell me about it in the comments.

What I Read: August & September 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. I normally write a few paragraphs about each book, but to switch it up and challenge myself I’m only going to write three-sentence reviews. Let’s go — here’s what I read in August and September:

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.

This is an extremely poignant novel about a young half-Vietnamese man living in the 1970s United States as an undercover Communist agent, framed in the form of a confession. This book delves deep into the complexities of political identity and war, and made me think about how we blur the lines between history and mythmaking. Reading The Sympathizer taught me to seek out different perspectives of American historical events than the ones I’m conditioned to look for and believe.

William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life is probably one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Finnegan writes such poetic prose, and his storytelling was so engrossing that it made me care deeply about surfing and the sport’s place in people’s lives. The only downside of this book was that while reading it all I wanted to do was lay on a Hawaiian beach and watch the waves.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

This essay-in-the-form-of-a-book is required reading for every single human on this planet. Adichie’s candor makes me proud to be a woman and a feminist. After you read this short book, read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad is a good novel that is conceptually imaginative and engaging, but it is horrific and will make your heart hurt. This novel about a young slave running away for her freedom on an actualized underground railroad system is well-researched and well-written, and I learned a lot of historical events I didn’t know about. I gave this book five stars on Goodreads, but I’ll say it is not the best Colson Whitehead novel — try The Intuitionist or Zone One first.

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

This is another novel that will make your heart hurt, especially if you’re very passionate about animals. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves takes a closer look at who and what make a family, and also how we write our personal histories within larger histories. It only took me a few days to read because it’s extremely engrossing, so it’s a good pick if you’re looking for something quick.

Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn.

Battleborn is a collection of short stories set mostly in the hot Nevada desert. Watkins is the daughter of a Manson family member, and once she tells you that you can’t shake it from the book’s background. Watkins does an excellent job of straddling the line between fiction and nonfiction, and making the physical landscape and setting the most powerful player on the character roster.

Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Other Essays

Susan Sontag drops truth bombs. The best essays in this collection are “Against interpretation,” “On style,” Happenings: an art of radical juxtaposition” and “One culture and the new sensibility.” The only drawback to read Against Interpretation in 2016 is that a chunk of the essays center on movies or books or people I’d never heard of, which made it harder to truly grasp the gravity of Sontag’s arguments and follow along.

Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power’s The Career Code.

The Career Code is written by two awesome women who know a lot about fashion, editorial and running a business. It’s full of evergreen advice for young women who want to be professionals. None of the advice is particularly deep or earth-shattering, but I have a feeling I will revisit this book often.

Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type

I picked this book up because I want to be a better editor, and it helped me get acquainted with typographical terms and layout design. In today’s world, a journalist has to know more than just the writing (coding and layout included), and you have to seek out the resources to be better. Even if you’re not a journalist, this is a good The More You Know kind of reference book.

Alice Walker’s Revolutionary Petunias.

Alice Walker is a goddess and a national treasure. “Be nobody’s darling; / Be an outcast. / Take the contradictions / Of your life / And wrap around / You like a shawl, / To parry stones / To keep you warm.” struck me to my core. If you read Revolutionary Petunias and like Alice Walker, try Sandra Cisneros’s poems.

Ali Smith’s Artful.

I went into reading Artful thinking it was going to be a novel, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s more of a fictional criticism and essay hybrid. That sounds weird, but Smith is very inventive — and I am still in awe of her creativity and command of language. If you like books that defy genre, you’ll like it.

What have you read lately? Let’s chat in the comments.

What I Read: July 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here’s what I read in July:

Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition.

I first heard about The Corpse Exhibition at a literature lecture at my alma mater. I keep a small notebook in my purse at all times so that I can scribble down names, titles or phrases I like when I’m at a lecture like this, or just out and about. The Corpse Exhibition was one of those book titles, and was brought up as an example of literature about life during wartime — and most importantly, written from the Iraqi point of view.

The Corpse Exhibition is a collection of Blasim’s short fictional stories. I knew the 200-someodd page book wasn’t going to be an easy read, based on the context alone. I had to put it down after every few stories, because they all deal with some heavy shit. There is a lot to unpack in every story: extreme violence, family relationships, nationalism, philosophy and legacy.

What struck me the hardest in The Corpse Exhibition is how every story points back in some way to the precarity of the body. For some characters, the body is a gruesome reminder that life can be taken away at any moment. For others, the body is expressly a political tool. And sometimes there’s a disconnect between physicality and identity that leaves one adrift. I cannot imagine living like that.

For the people in these stories, the war is always looming — even if it’s not explicitly mentioned. It permeates every aspect of their life, which is very hard for most Americans to wrap their heads around. It’s so, so important that we make room for voices like Blasim’s, because we usually only get one side of the narrative. The people who live in the Middle East are also humans just like everyone else with stories to tell, and both politicians and mainstream media conveniently forget that.

Reading The Corpse Exhibition in today’s political climate is extremely timely, and I highly recommend it. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite story from this collection, because all of them are very good.

 

Joseph Conrad’s Victory: An Island Tale.

I am a Big Fan of Joan Didion, and because Victory: An Island Tale was at the top of her favorite books list, I wanted to check this out. Last month, I read a novel that Victory inspired — while that wasn’t one of my favorite books either, I thought that if Joan (we’re on first name basis around this blog) liked it I would too. Before this novel, I had not read any Conrad so I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Victory is a sizable novel that’s broken into three parts. The story centers on a European white dude named Axel Heyst, who is extremely cynical and tries to lead a life of detachment. Because of a series of events, Heyst ends up working for a coal company in Indonesia. While there, he meets a woman in a traveling musicians group who is being abused by the local hotel’s proprietor. Heyst takes her away to his own private island, and the hotelier exacts revenge.

I’m not 100 percent why Joan likes this novel or Conrad so much, because I thought it was was terribly inconsistent. I spent part of my reading time referencing summaries, because the story was hard to follow and had a lot of sidebars that I didn’t know what to do with. Conrad is supposedly known for his command of the English language, but I was not impressed. The ending, although very sad and predictable, was the only part of the book that I thought was good and lived up to this book’s “psychological thriller” label. And on top of all of that, Victory had a post-colonial setting with no real commentary on why that was important. Lena, Heyst’s lover, had no dimensionality and basically served as a plot device.

I’m glad that I read this book because I have a Conrad example in my knowledge fund, but I didn’t enjoy it. If anything, this book has taught me that it’s totally fine if your reading list deviates from what’s considered canon. In my experience, most of it isn’t that good anyway.

Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop

Goodreads recommended this book to me about a month ago. When I read the synopsis of this book, I was immediately on board for a book by a woman that talked about journalism. Halfway through the novel, I found out that Waugh was actually an English man and journalist who was fed up with the industry’s dubious practices. So it goes.

Anyways, this satirical novel is set in England in the 1930s. Because of a name mixup with his much more famous cousin, a writer named William Boot is sent to cover a political revolution and civil war in a fictional African nation. Everyone involved, from the men who run the newspaper he writes for to the fellow journalists Boot meets, is extremely incompetent. They don’t shy from bending the truth and trying to pull one over on the publication.

Scoop‘s plotline is pretty entertaining and engaging, but in 2016 it seems pretty dated. There is literally no money for journalists to use to write off unnecessary expenses, and the ethics and accountability is a little bit stronger in an age where everyone on Twitter will fact check you. Waugh wanted to showcase how much journalism’s ethics had slid by this newspaper boom of the early 1900s, but I wonder what he would think about today’s climate.

If you are a fan of British humor, you will probably like this book. I will put Brideshead Revisited on my list, but I’m not in a hurry to read it. If you’ve read Evelyn Waugh and like his work, I’d also recommend Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.

Emma Cline’s The Girls

The Girls has been getting a lot of good press lately in the literary world. I had read the Goodreads summary for it when I first heard of the book, and I was immediately intrigued.

The Girls is the story of a woman named Evie Boyd, who gets involved with a Charles Manson-like cult in 1960s Northern California. As an adult, Evie is pulled into retelling her part of the narrative. Teenage Evie is trying to navigate adolescence and her parent’s divorce, and is initially entranced by the woman who drew her to the group, Suzanne. Evie lives with one foot in her real life, and another in the world of the ranch the group is homesteading on. This novel deals in themes of adolescence, sexuality and liminality.

 

In particular, Cline does a really great job of meditating on the idea of orbiting. Evie feels a magnetic pull to the group, and its history becomes a part of her. Even though Evie doesn’t partake in the violence the group eventually commits, the story still unsettles her — as an adult she spends a lot of time, thinking about the what-ifs and where her life would be. Someone’s presence in your life can influence you in incredible ways, whether you realize it immediately or later down the road. Looking at someone’s story through this angle makes someone much more human, rather than someone who was casually connected to murder.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book, which is mostly my fault, is how liberally Cline borrows from the Manson story. Last fall, I listened to a superb podcast about Charles Manson’s Hollywood. I totally understand Cline’s fascination, but I knew exactly how the cult plot of The Girls was going to go. If you’re interested in The Girls, it’s better to know close to nothing about the Manson murders going into reading the novel. When you’re done, definitely check out the podcast.

What have you been reading lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

What I Read: June 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here’s what I read in June:

David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

I bought this 23-story fiction collection at The Last Bookstore approximately 1 million years ago, and finally pulled it out of my bookshelf at the beginning of the month. The only other DFW book I’ve read is Infinite Jest (which I need to reread soon), and I wanted to try some of his other fiction.

I expected Brief Interviews to be really good, but this book’s style and DFW’s command of the English language blew me away. I especially enjoyed reading the story series that the collection derives its name from, where an unnamed author interviews men with seriously warped minds  — but you don’t know what questions are being asked, which makes you reevaluate your expectations of the literature you read. The other short stories I thought were exceptional are “Adult World” and “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon.” I know a lot of people either adore or despise DFW, but you can’t deny that his work makes you think. I have yet to find another writer in the same vein of originality. I am also probably the only person in the world that enjoys doing this, but I like having to pause and look up a word that I don’t know. If you’re into experimental fiction or just want an intense brain exercise, this book is for you. 

V.S. Naipaul’s Guerrillas.

I was surfing the Internet one day and stumbled across a Brain Pickings article that detailed Joan Didion’s list of favorite books. I’d already read A Farewell to Arms and loved it, so I was pretty confident in how much I would like her list. I ordered Joseph Conrad’s Victory (more on that book in July) and Guerrillas, since I had read elsewhere (it might have been another one of her interviews but I can’t remember) that Guerrillas drew on Victory.

The story centers on an English woman named Jane, who comes to a Caribbean island to visit her South African boyfriend Peter. Peter works with Jimmy Ahmed, who is the leader of an agricultural commune Peter is sort of but not really helping to establish. The story doesn’t really follow a traditional narrative, but culminates in the island’s violent political upheaval. The ending of this novel is graphic and violent and I’m not going to discuss it here, but if the premise sounded interesting I’d advise against reading Guerrillas if sexual violence triggers you. 

My main takeaway from Guerrillas was that it’s a commentary on the emptiness of liberal values and the lasting effects of colonialism. Jane thinks she is intellectual and understands the island’s political situation clearly, but finds out throughout the course of the novel that she really understands nothing. You can have a lot of well-intentioned ideas about race and politics, but understanding the reality of a grim situation and the social forces at play are a completely different thing. The paradise isn’t real.

This book is also a testament to how important multicultural voices are, and that we can’t rely on the white canon to tell the stories we need to hear.  I would not count this as one of my favorite novels, but it helped to round out a genre I don’t usually read. If you’re looking for other books about postcolonialism, I would also suggest Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother.

 

Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays.

In a complete reversal of my David Foster Wallace experience, I’ve always loved Joan Didion’s essays but never read her fiction. Play It As It Lays is her second novel, and one that she’s brought up in her later nonfiction and interviews.

The novel centers on a young actress named Maria Wyeth, who is recovering from a nervous breakdown in a California psychiatric hospital. With the exception of a few chapters from the perspectives of her friend and ex-husband, Maria recounts what has brought her to the hospital — a toxic marriage, a haunting abortion and an alleged participation in her friend’s suicide. Maria is marooned from a world that was supposed to bring her success and happiness, and instead spends her days driving all across Southern California and up to Las Vegas.

 

I was unsurprised by the book’s premise, because Didion’s work often deals in themes of anxiety, unfulfilled potential and disconnect from reality. For someone who was deep in the Hollywood way of life and made a living from it, she has always been highly critical of what it can do to an outsider. I didn’t read a lot of criticism on Play It As It Lays, but I can imagine that Didion drew from her own experiences and the stories of the people around her. But as always, I am in awe of Didion’s prose and how she can say volumes in just a few words. If you read this and like it, read her nonfiction collections The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

 

Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

If you’ve been reading my monthly recaps, you know that I’ve been working through the Neapolitan novel cycle for a few months. The further I progress, the more this series lives up to the hype that initially drew me in. I was thinking about this book the other day, and realized that I probably haven’t committed to a series like this since middle school. That’s how good it is.

Save for a very quick flash-forward to the last time Elena Greco sees Lila Cerullo, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay picks up right where The Story of a New Name left off. This novel mostly focuses on Elena’s marriage and family life, with a few sidebars on Lila’s life after she leaves her husband. While Ferrante has woven several major themes throughout the series, this installation seems to pause on class structure and gender equality. It is so hard for these women to achieve any kind of success and enjoy it, because of the traditional gender roles they’re forced to conform to and the violence and political tension happening around them. Their friendship dramatically suffers because of their fragile personal lives, and in their selfishness Elena and Lila don’t seem to grasp that they’re dealing with some of the same issues. I’m interested to see how it plays out in the final book. 

I predict that in the next few decades, Ferrante’s work will be at the center of incredibly smart academic analysis about literature and gender studies, as well as popular culture. I wish that there were more Ferrantes in the world — or maybe I just haven’t discovered them yet. This series is so good that I haven’t intentionally looked up spoilers, because I want to be surprised at how it ends. If you still haven’t started My Brilliant Friend, get on it.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is another book I’ve had kicking around in my bookcase. I bought it in high school before I had access to Amazon, so all of my classic books came from the Barnes and Noble reprinted classics carousel. I’ve tried to read it a few times before, but got distracted by other books every time.

 

In Victorian-era England, Dorian Gray is a wealthy and beautiful young man. He’s also the muse of an artist, who paints Dorian’s portrait. Under the influence of another wealthy guy, Dorian finds himself worried about losing his youth. In a supernatural experience, he trades his soul so that he’ll stay the same but the portrait will age. After a tragic romance, Dorian indulges in every hedonistic vice he can find, including brothels and opium dens. Spoiler alert — in the end, the portrait can’t save him from dying.

I was extremely disappointed with this novel, so much so that I chided past-Zoë for spending $5 of her babysitting money on it. I read Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in high school and liked it, but didn’t find this novel particularly amusing. Dorian has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, so I didn’t find any room to sympathize with his benders. I knew going into reading The Picture of Dorian Gray that it’s supposed to be a philosophical discussion on the purpose of art, but I didn’t find it riveting.  I found myself flipping through pages wholly uninterested, because I don’t really care what a white British dude — however subversive he was — thinks about art. 

Have you read anything good lately? Tell me about it in the comments.

What I Read: May 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here’s what I read in May:

Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things.

I bought this book a few years ago for a class where it ended up getting replaced on the syllabus, but I figured I would read it eventually and stuck it in my bookshelf. While waiting for my next Amazon order to come, I plucked it out to tide me over. I didn’t know anything about it other than that it was postmodern literature. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it.

In The Country of Last Things is a quick read, clocking in a few pages shy of 200. The story revolves around a young woman named Anna Blume, who travels to an unnamed city to find her missing brother William, and tells her story through letters she writes to someone back home. There seems to have been some kind of political upheaval or natural disaster, and the entire culture has descended into chaos and violence. Anna is able to survive by looking through the garbage for stuff to sell to a system of dealers, which is extremely corrupt. In some ways, it reminded me of Invisible Man in that every good thing that happens to Anna is accompanied by an equally horrible thing, but that the people she meets along the way buoy her optimism towards finding her brother and getting out of the city.

Auster builds this narrative on the idea that one day our society will get to a place where we can’t make anything anymore, and that we’ll walk around as former ghosts of ourselves. Everyone in the novel lives in a constant state of precarity, with no protection from a government or any kind of social structure. It’s scary how real this situation could be. The novel also includes an interesting commentary about death and suicide — in the novel, there are two acceptable ways to kill yourself — as well as reproductivity, all with biopolitical underpinnings. You probably won’t like In The Country of Last Things unless you’re already into postmodern literature — it makes Orwellian and Huxley dystopias look like funhouses.  I’m not sure I’ll seek out any other Auster novels, but I’m glad I decided to finally read it.

Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton.

I have read two, now three of Lauren Groff’s novels, and count her as one of my favorite fiction writers. She has a knack for dreaming up fascinating universes within her novels, and creating compelling female characters that don’t take anybody’s shit. The Monsters of Templeton is no exception.

Groff found her inspiration in her hometown of Cooperstown, which you should read about. The story centers around a young woman named Willie, who comes home to Templeton in a crisis. When she arrives, she finds out from her mother that her father, who Willie thought was a freewheeling no-named hippie, is actually still living in Templeton and someone Willie knows. The town is also having its own crisis — Templeton’s version of the Loch Ness monster has turned up dead.

Although I liked Lauren Groff’s other novels better, The Monsters of Templeton is an engrossing and highly enjoyable read. Groff weaves Willie’s story and her geneological research with letters, testimonies and documents that concern both Willie’s family and the town’s history. The revelation of who Willie’s father is kind of weird, but the book isn’t really about that — it’s about Willie finding herself and accepting that her small town and its magic is part of who she is, which is something I can relate to. On another level, this novel is about how we make martyrs out of our historical figures, who were really people like us that make mistakes.

If you love ~~Victorian scandal~~, you will love this book. Once you read The Monsters of Templeton, get to reading Arcadia and Fates and Furies ASAP.

Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name

After reading My Brilliant Friend in March, I bought myself a first-class ticket on the Elena Ferrante train. Even though I thought My Brilliant Friend was great, The Story of a New Name, the second novel in the Neapolitan novel cycle, blew me even further away.

The Story of a New Name picks up right where My Brilliant Friend leaves off. Elena and Lila, who are still close friends, deviate even further in their paths — Elena becomes the first in her family to go to college, while Lila gets married as a teenager. Along the way they both experience betrayal, romance and the plights of growing up. The Napoli neighborhood and Italy they live in are swirling with violence and political strife, which nearly parallels what’s going on in their personal lives. Ferrante is so eloquent and writes with such intensity that it’s easy to get sucked into the story, even if it is just about two women.

The cover art suggests that this is a fluffy romance novel, but it’s anything but that. What I enjoy most about reading these books is that Ferrante explores the complexities of female friendship in a compelling way. Elena and Lila are inseparable in spirit but struggle to find separate identities that can coexist, something I came to understand the more I read. The person you love the most is also the one who can hurt you the most, and that idea comes up over and over again throughout the novel. The empathy you feel for both characters is very real, at least in my experience — these women are stuck within traditional gender roles, and trying to deviate from them has real consequences. I already bought the third novel, and can’t wait to crack it open.

Don DeLillo’s Zero K

I found out about Don DeLillo in college, where I ended up reading White Noise and Underworld on my own time.  Part of what brought me to reading Zero K was the awesome opportunity to see DeLillo at a publicity event for the novel earlier in the month. In the conversation part of the event, he talked about death as a cultural artifact, a suggestion that stuck in my brain the whole time I was reading Zero K.

The novel is focalized through a man named Jeffrey Lockhart, who lives a pretty directionless life. His billionaire father Ross invests in a movement called the Convergence, which promises to control death. Jeffrey’s stepmother Artis, who is dying from illness, elects to undergo a procedure that would preserve her body until biotechnology is able to come up with more effective treatments, and Ross invites Jeffrey to the remote compound to say goodbye to both him and Artis, and also to convince Jeffrey to take over his businesses. Throughout the novel, Jeffrey tries to grasp a better understanding of  what it means to be dead, and how death figures into the meaning of life. Zero K is simultaneously cold and hilarious at many moments, which is frightening but also very DeLillo-esque. 

The Convergence is creepy and cultish, and what makes it even more creepy and cultish is that it seems like something that could actually happen. This seems like something today’s billionaires would do instead of funneling their money into larger social issues, in defense of innovation and the temptation to let technology take over. Because of DeLillo’s comment at the event, this book made me think about the social construction of death and how we have a preoccupation with being able to cheat it. We come up with all of these rituals surrounding death, and the way we handle it contains multitudes about our values and belief systems. The death-as-artifact thing is also a class issue: the Convergence is seemingly only accessible to someone who is able to subsidize its mission, and that opens up other problems about who has the right to choose their own death. DeLillo is an incredible writer, and Zero K was nothing short of incredible.

Have you read anything good lately? Tell me about it in the comments.

What I Read: April 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here is what I read in April:

My Life On The Road, by Gloria Steinem: Gloria Steinem’s memoir had been on my reading list for awhile, because although I’ve read about her I wanted to learn more about who she is and what she stands for. All of the history classes I took glossed over the second-wave feminist movement (big shocker there), so I’ve been curious to learn more about her and why she’s so revered.

I also went into reading My Life On The Road a little guarded because of her recent Hillary Clinton comment, which made me wonder whether or not I wanted to bring this book into my life. After finishing her memoir, I still think she has great intentions and has done a lot of good for American society, especially women. As an itinerant organizer for the feminist movement, Steinem has spent most of her career traveling from place to place. The memoir centers around the lessons she’s learned and the people she’s met while living a nomadic life.

My Life On The Road is more of a collection of her traveling stories rather than a chronological telling of Steinem’s life, which felt disjointed most of the time. It was overwhelmingly apparent that Steinem, as a white woman, has been very privileged. While she repeatedly says she celebrates diverse women and points of view, she doesn’t do the best job explicitly reflecting on how her privileges have helped her be the person and public figure she is.

There were a few things about this memoir that I did like. Steinem is open about her personal experiences, and shares a lot of intimate moments from her life that I found to be very moving. I enjoyed reading about how she came to identify as a feminist, and why it was important for her to campaign on the behalf of women everywhere. It’s so important that we have a record of the women who are responsible for stirring up social change, and I’m proud of Steinem for taking up the cause.

I would recommend this memoir to someone who is already interested in feminism and has read a lot of other books about the movement. It is by no means the end-all, be-all of feminist thought, but Steinem has inspired me to seek out other intersectional voices — especially Alice Walker.

Confessions of an Art Addict, by Peggy Guggenheim: I had a brief Truman Capote obsession when I was in high school, and Peggy Guggenheim’s name came up repeatedly when I would do research. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Guggenheim was an art collector who championed artists like Jackson Pollock. When I found out she had written a memoir, I was intrigued to see what she had to say about modern art and why she loved it so much.

My initial perception was that she lived her best and most artistic life, and in some ways that was true. But her life was also particularly tragic. In addition to not having a great family life (her father died on the Titanic when she was young), she was married unhappily twice and worked in and around a male-dominated business. She acknowledges most of this, but she doesn’t give a lot of details or deep introspection about her life and what she did — for example, I was surprised to find out after I finished Confessions of an Art Addict that Guggenheim considered herself a nymphomaniac, which did not come up at all in the book.

This memoir is not particularly well-written either, and she doesn’t have anything that riveting to say about the art she collected. Guggenheim gives wonderful anecdotes about working with Pollock and other legendary artists, living around the globe and midwifing the birth of American modern art. But in spite of her unhappiness, she marched to the beat of her own drum and sought refuge in the art she collected. She was very passionate about being open with her collection, and was critical of how the art market has grown to be a game rather than cultural preservation. I can’t even fathom what else she would have been able to do for the art world if prices hadn’t astronomically risen. If you read this book and are as fascinated by Guggenheim’s life as I am, you’ll probably also like this documentary about Iris Apfel.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell: Way back in December when I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was so fascinated with the Star Wars mythology that I wanted to read The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This is the book that inspired George Lucas to lay out the Star Wars universe and build it around Campbell’s interpretation of monomyth and the hero cycle. The book basically lays out the archetypal hero’s journey with many, many comparative examples from mythologies around the world. The overall point is that all of these hero stories are incredibly similar, and that we as readers can learn a lot from that.

It took me three months to finish this 300-page book, which is my equivalent of forever and 100 years. I’ve read a lot of really dense literary theory, and I struggled to read it at the pace I’m accustomed to. It didn’t engross me, so I put it down several times to read fiction. I’ve read that people think The Hero with a Thousand Faces is life-changing, but I obviously didn’t have that experience. There were a few stories from different cultures that drew me in, but I’m surprised that so many people find its language and structure accessible.

I still found it to be really informative, and think that it should be required reading for literary studies students. I wish I would have discovered it as a literature student, or that it would have been some kind of seminar discussion text or summer reading assignment. It would have been a good resource to help me with understanding and analyzing stories I read for class, and given me a better idea of what comparative literary studies is. I don’t think I’ll read other Joseph Campbell books anytime soon, but I’m glad I got through it.

 

What have you been reading lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

What I Read: March 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here’s what I read in March:

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller: I hadn’t read this book in high school or college, so while filling a ThriftBooks binge I decided to give Catch-22 a go. I knew that it was a novel about World War II and that it’s often referenced alongside Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which I read one summer in high school and didn’t entirely understand.

Catch-22 is based on Heller’s actual experiences in the war, but it’s a satirical piece of fiction about an Air Force squadron based on an island off the Italian coast. The novel pulls different perspectives from different members of the squadron, but it’s focalized through one pilot named Yossarian. Yossarian and his fellow soldiers continually find themselves in incredibly dangerous missions that they are required to execute, and the number of missions they have to fly continues to rise and rise because of bureaucratic tension and power trips. Yossarian soon finds himself in what the military calls a Catch-22. (Now that I’ve read the book, I feel like the cultural usage of catch-22 means that most people who use the term either haven’t read the book or missed the point.)

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he would have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

As you can see by the passage above, this book also employs incredibly dark humor as a way of de-romanticizing war and dying for one’s country. At many moments, the dark humor intensifies the horror of men dying, men profiting from war, the body politics and emotional emptiness. In some ways it reminded me of the humor of Good Omens, and the premise and the soldiers’ collective experiences reminded me of this past season of the Serial podcast. While I’m glad I read Catch-22 and appreciated Heller’s choices in structure and language, reading it made me sad that someone could come up with a satire that doesn’t seem to be really all that far from the truth.

All The Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister: I found out about this book when I went to a live recording of Call Your Girlfriend, a podcast I listen to, and was so excited to read it I went home and immediately ordered it on Amazon. I devoured it in about four days over the course of my trip to Seattle. I’m so glad I bought a copy for myself, because it is a book I can feel myself returning to.

Throughout the book, Traister traces the history of the American single woman. In today’s culture, more and more women are waiting to get married or just not getting married at all. That has extensive social and political ramifications, and also says a lot about the social structures that make up our culture. However, this isn’t the first time that the American single woman has wielded this power. For the first part of the book, Traister explains how historically women could do other things besides marriage, and that resulted in incredible social change for abolition, education and more. This book is not screwing around — it has first-person accounts from women across all walks of life, extensive statistics and deeply reported historical background. One of my favorite parts was a quote at the end of the book:

But the growth of a massive population of women who are living outside those dependent circumstances puts new pressures on the government: to remake conditions in a way that will be more hospitable to female independence, to a citizenry now made up of plenty of women living economically, professionally, sexually, and socially liberated lives.

We have to rebuild not just our internalized assumptions about individual freedoms and life paths; we also must revise our social and economic structures to account for, acknowledge, and support women in the same way in which we have supported men for centuries.

I feel like I’ve finally found a book that has articulated and validated everything I feel about being a single woman in the United States, which is a powerful feeling. Traister has written a classic, and I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who is even remotely interested in social politics, history and feminism.

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante: All I have ever heard or read about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel cycle is that it is too good to put down, and that you’ll want to buy all four books at once. After reading the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, I can confirm that both of those things are 1000 percent true.

The entire series is about two women from Naples, named Elena and Lila, in the decades after World War II. My Brilliant Friend‘s timeline begins when they are both young girls, and ends when they are teenagers. They are best friends who repeatedly find their lives both intertwined and converging as they grow up in a poor neighborhood, and both look for ways to create identities outside their bubble. Elena narrates the first book as an older woman looking back at the past, giving the audience direct access to her private thoughts about her own youth as well as her perspective of Lila’s life.

What I loved about this book was how rich the story and characters are, in terms of detail and emotional depth. While there are moments that fall to the tropes of a romance novel, it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Both Elena and Lila are beautiful but deeply flawed characters, and Ferrante has given them rich personalities that make you simultaneously love and disdain both women. While it’s a book about friendship and growing up, it’s also a novel about love, violence, gender and class set during a time of incredible social change. It’s a contemporary cousin to something like Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights, which is also probably why I liked it.

I’m the kind of person who looks up the summary of the movie before she’s about to see it, and I refrained from looking anything up about this series because I wanted to see if it lived up to the hype. It does — the last half of My Brilliant Friend is dynamite, and I gasped at the ending. I have a few other books to read, but the next novel in this series is high on my to-read list.

What have you been reading lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

 

 

What I Read: February 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here is what I read in February:

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison: I bought this book from ThriftBooks a few months ago because I had heard the title and the author’s name multiple times in college classes. I walked into reading the book not knowing anything about it, which is unusual for me — I am also That Person who Googles movie plots before she goes into the movie theater. But just by the opening paragraph alone, I was hooked:

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

The story focuses on an unnamed black man  — which is a crucial detail — who realizes that his racially-divided society refuses to see him as a real human being. The entire novel is a series of flashbacks to very unfair and traumatizing events, beginning when he’s a college student in the South and ending as an older man in an underground hideout in New York. At the end of the novel, he realizes that writing about his story helps him to be a voice for the socially and politically invisible. 

What I loved the most about it was that for a book that was written in the 1950s, it felt incredibly contemporary. I loved that the narrative style was experimental, and that I could feel echoes of today’s social movements and the discussion surrounding minority rights, identity, racial inequality and micro-aggression. Sixty years later, the African-American community is still dealing with the same issues that this novel explores. I find that to be so disconcerting, but that’s why literature as a method of historical documentation and reference is so, so important.

If you’re interested in reading more African-American literature from the United States — and even if you aren’t — I recommend Invisible Man. And if you like it, read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (which also has an incredible opening) and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

Do you have recommendations for me? Leave them in the comments below.

What I Read: January 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year here. Here is what I read in January:

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow: As you may know, I loved the musical inspired by this biography of the Founding Father of the United States and the country’s first Treasury Secretary. Alexander Hamilton emerged from squalor in the Caribbean to become a Revolutionary War hero, a supreme law scholar and a history-changing public officer. In reading this huge book I now understand that Hamilton was a colorful and incredible human being who did so much to get the American government on its feet, and he certainly does not get the recognition today that he deserves. I loved that Chernow also gave part of the narrative to Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, who was responsible for preserving her husband’s legacy and just the ultimate badass. Hamilton, most definitely, did not throw away his shot

I don’t remember where I read this, but someone on the Internet said that what makes a biography exceptional is that it gives the audience a portrait of a person in a broader cultural context, helping us to think about the world we live in today and make new observations. While I expected to love it, I did not expect that I would sympathize with Hamilton so much and that I would mine so much insight about my own life from it. I highly recommend this biography to anyone. Chernow does a great job of explaining all of the history and what was happening, far better than what a textbook will tell you.

On The Road, by Jack Kerouac: I never had to read this novel for a literature class, so I decided to see what it was all about. Drawing from personal experiences, Kerouac wrote a story about the 1950s-era travels of him and his friends across the country and thinly disguised it as fiction. A lot of things happen in the novel that in 2016 seems unfathomable, mostly because the world we live in today has too many people and too much bureaucracy. Thinking about the country pre-freeways is hard to do. But part of the beauty of reading this novel now is that it presents some of the same crises about identity and purpose we still deal with today through culture. I can see why so many people thought it was disjointed or subversive when the novel was first published, because the world Kerouac creates in the novel seems to exist parallel to reality. 

In thinking about the book now as I’m writing my thoughts, I’m easily able to pull apart all of its aspects and come up with an answer for why it’s worth reading. While I was reading it, however, I was really underwhelmed and constantly wondering when this a-ha moment of why it’s the hallmark of the Beat Generation was going to come to me. If you decide to read this and feel sluggish at any point, know that the a-ha moment happens after you read it.

 

 

Do you have recommendations for me? Leave them in the comments below.