On hiatus

Hello, good readers! As I’d mentioned a couple weeks ago, I’ve been extremely sick recently thanks no thanks to my endometriosis. This week I found out that the next step in my treatment will indeed be surgery!

On one hand, this is great news: it means I’ll hopefully be feeling better soon. On the other, it means I’m going to be very stressed, busy, and out of sorts for the next few weeks while I reshuffle responsibilities and recover. Oy.

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In light of that, I’m going to give myself a break and take some time off of blogging–probably about a month. Till then you can email me or find me on Twitter and Goodreads. (You didn’t think I’d stop spewing my opinions on the internet entirely, did you?)

In the meantime, may all your pre-orders arrive a few days early, may your library holds come due at a manageable pace, may all the covetable books be on sale, and may every story you read be magical. Ciao for now! ☺️

Friday Bookbag, 6.8.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I didn’t post last week, but my book acquisitions continued apace, so I’ve got an extra-full bookbag to go through this week. Black klansmen, chronic illness, family tragedies, queer coming of age, short stories, and MORE. Oh my! Let’s dive in.


Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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the premise: Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich turns her journalistic prowess towards aging, dieting, fitness fads, and preventive care as she argues that we over-prepare for death. Death is an inevitability, but our unhealthy obsession with postponing it need not be.

why I’m excited: Nickel and Dimed is one of my favorite books and health is one of my favorite topics, so this book is a slam dunk. I majored in public health in college, and one of my biggest takeaways from my coursework was that it’s important to clearly define what “health” means before we strive for it. Does health mean living the longest? Does it mean life without disability? (That raises uncomfortable questions for the already-disabled–like me–then, doesn’t it?) Does it mean a happy and fulfilling life, and if so, how do we define happiness and fulfillment? Health and aging are a minefield of biases, and while I’m sure I’ll find plenty to disagree with in Ehrenreich’s book, her sharp assertion that we need to care less about death and more about living is a refreshing one in today’s longevity-obsessed culture.

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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the premise: Niru is a successful, Harvard-bound American high school student with a secret: he’s gay, which is unacceptable to his conservative Nigerian parents. When his secret comes out (as secrets usually do), Niru’s world is turned upside-down, and he’s left to lean on his best friend Meredith–the daughter of Washington D.C. insiders–who is dealing with problems of her own.

why I’m excited: Honestly, where to start? Coming out stories, especially in literary fiction–I think genre fiction is slightly better about this–are so overwhelmingly white and homogenous that Iweala’s story of a Nigerian American high schooler coming of age as a gay man is already going to feel fresh to me. I’m interested in the Washington D.C. setting, and I’m curious about how much American politics is going to play into the plot. Most of all, I’m excited for Iweala’s writing, which is highly acclaimed. (He’s the author of Beasts of No Nation, a book that’s on my to-read list that was also adapted into a movie, which was also acclaimed). Lastly, it’s short. Bless authors who tell small stories with big punches–they’re perfect for readers with short attention spans, like yours truly.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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the premise: Two families, both alike in dignity…LaRose isn’t exactly a tragic romance, but it’s tragic. Landreaux Iron accidentally kills his neighbor’s son in a hunting accident, and decides to make amends through an ancient tradition: he gives the neighbors his own son–LaRose–to raise. The two families slowly begin to heal, but when a bitter man with a grudge stumbles into their lives and begins to raise hell, the fragile peace is upended.

why I’m excited: Erdrich’s Love Medicine is another one of my favorite books. (I also liked The Master Butchers Singing Club.) Her writing is like a dream: it doesn’t always make sense on the surface, but it always plumbs deeper truths underneath. The premise of this book is really intriguing to me–I can’t imagine how painful literally giving up a child would be–and I think Erdrich is exactly the right person to tell the story.

The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories by Louise Erdrich

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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the premise: Exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a collection of short fiction by Erdrich, whose career spans from the 1970s to the present. The Red Convertible contains several short stories that Erdrich later turned into longer works, most notably “Future Home of the Living God,” a story about human evolution and motherhood that was released as a novel last year.

why I’m excited: I decided to do an Erdrich deep-dive both because I love her work (she’s been a heavy influence on the way I think about fiction, and I can only hope my work is a fraction as good as hers) and because the recent revelations about Sherman Alexie have me wanting to think more deeply about my relationship to works by Native American writers. Erdrich is one of the greats, and I’m hoping to read more work by newer Native authors this year, too. (Rebecca Roanhorse comes to mind–her story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is chilling and she has a novel, Trail of Lightning, releasing this year.)

Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime by Ron Stallworth

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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the premise: Stallworth is a real-life law enforcement veteran who undertook an incredibly risky infiltration operation into the Ku Klux Klan beginning in 1978. Stallworth was the voice on the phone, and his white and Jewish coworkers showed up in person to rallies. The operation exposed white supremacists infiltrating the military, sabotaged cross burnings, and even fooled David Duke.

why I’m excited: I first heard of this story because of the trailer for Spike Lee’s upcoming adaptation of this memoir, which debuted at Cannes recently and was highly acclaimed. You should watch that trailer, because it’s amazing:

I couldn’t believe that this actually happened, but it did, and Stallworth has a hell of a story to tell. I can’t wait to dig into this one to get more of the facts before watching the film, which looks like it’s on the stylized side.

Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain by Abby Norman

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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the premise: Abby Norman went from college student and dancer to sudden dropout who was bedridden because of pain. Doctors assumed it was a UTI and sent her home with antibiotics; Norman knew something else was wrong, and embarked on a quest to figure out what. Norman was eventually diagnosed with endometriosis and now works as a science reporter. Ask Me About My Uterus is an exploration not just of her own story, but of medicine’s long history of dismissing women’s pain and suppressing women’s access to good treatment.

why I’m excited: I have endometriosis and am currently facing surgery to correct it. It’s a hell disease that’s taken a terrible toll on my life, and I’ve faced a lot of dismissal and misdiagnosis (though I’m lucky to be diagnosed at 23 when many others wait decades for diagnosis and treatment). Unsurprisingly, this book is personal for me, but I’m also academically interested in this book (as with Natural Causes, this has major public health implications). I almost squealed out loud when I saw this book available on my library’s new arrivals shelf and I can’t wait to read it.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: STRAYING by Molly McCloskey

Straying is a portrait of a marriage gone stale; it’s also the story of a daughter struggling to understand her mother, and the story of an American woman in Ireland who finds–metaphorically, at least–that she can’t go home again. (Straying‘s protagonist, Alice, is at the heart of all three threads–she’s the cheating wife, the disappointing daughter, and the wander-lost American, respectively.) Nothing is new or exciting about that plot, but Molly McCloskey’s sharp prose style elevates the experience somewhat, especially in the first third of the book, which captures the staticky, on-edge feeling of being in love with the wrong person perfectly. Unfortunately, the decay of Alice’s marriage is nowhere as insightful or interesting as its beginning, and while I understand that that’s likely a conscious choice on McCloskey’s part, the latter two-thirds still make for dry, abrasive reading. Straying starts with a spark and plenty of tinder, but it never catches fire.

You can read my full review below.


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Straying by Molly McCloskey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 20, 2018
  • length: 224 pages
  • cover price: $24.00

How do people do it, I used to wonder. Well, I learned. That sort of secret feels like an illness, the way the world slows to a crawl as though for your inspection. So much clarity and consequence–it was like enlightenment, it was like being in the truth, which is a funny thing to say about deceit.

Straying, page 1

I think that there are two iconic American dreams: one of coming to America and one of leaving it. Alice, Straying‘s narrator, decides to visit Ireland because she realizes that a full European tour is out of her budget; she ends up moving there in working in a pub for a summer, and though her experience isn’t glamorous at all I still felt my heart beating faster.

How romantic! I thought. I wish I could drop everything and move to Ireland.

And that was the last romantic, silly thought I had while reading this book, which is one of the dreariest I’ve experienced in some time.

Part of that dullness lies in Straying’s subject matter. I don’t like to ding authors for that in my reviews, since more than anything else, our preferences for what we like to read and write about are personal. I can’t develop a coherent rubric for why I love books about cults but am wary of mid-life crisis novels; it’s pure preference, and I had the sneaking suspicion throughout Straying that nearly everything I disliked about it was just that: preference.

McCloskey seems to evade (or at times, to stomp on) warm-fuzzies everywhere they might naturally pop up. In a nutshell, Straying is about how Alice moves to Ireland, falls in a sort-of love, falls out of it, embarks on an affair, works for NGOs in war zones, loses her mother, and feels a lot of things about homesickness. The novel is told out of order, partially in flashback to the ’80s and partially in the present day, so this is all established early (which is why I don’t consider them spoilers). The tension lies entirely in the sordid specifics, which unspool agonizingly slowly and pessimistically.

For example, instead of finding any sort of tourist’s joy in Ireland, Alice seems disenchanted immediately. The kindest, most loving thought she has about Eddie, her once-husband, is about his solidness–that he will someday be the kind of old man she likes. She loves her mother recklessly and yet lives almost her whole life away from her.

To me that’s all very realistic, very sad, and very, very boring.

But what do I know? Another major theme of the book is the recklessness of youth. I’m 23 and fully in my reckless phase, so it was probably inevitable that I would find this book as dry as sawdust. (When I initially picked it up, I thought more of it would focus on Alice’s younger self, but it’s mostly told from her late middle age.) I’m about to get married myself–of course I’m not going to want to be reminded of all the ways my life could go wrong. Of course I would find this book stolid. Of course I would find it unpleasantly hardened.

But there’s still a lot to like here. Every character feels almost disconcertingly three-dimensional, like I could access their backstories Magic Eye-style by crossing my eyes a bit. McCloskey has a knack for making observations about life that are so true and painful that they made my blood run cold. And Alice is a truly wonderful first-person narrator, prickly and vulnerable, someone we get a real sense of as a participant in the story instead of someone who is just a glorified third-person narrator.

Most of all, I loved how McCloskey writes about Ireland in the 1980s. While I was reading, Ireland’s grimy upstart-ness, its trauma and resilience, its falls and rebirths, and its smells and sights and geography were all as real to me as the Saint Paul, Minnesota streets outside my window.

While Straying wasn’t to my taste, it still felt like a conversation with someone very interesting; someone whom you want very much to like you and think of you as sophisticated. Maybe it wasn’t to my taste exactly because I didn’t feel like I measured up to the novel’s exacting gaze.

No one likes to be predictable. Everyone likes to think their story is the special one. Perhaps McCloskey’s refusal to write about someone special is, in itself, very special, even if it is far from enjoyable. It’s food for thought, anyway. ★★★☆☆


My copy of Straying came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Tell me your favorite library stories!

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m feeling deathly ill (again) and there’s a good chance of major surgery on my horizon, so I’m not the happiest of campers today. To combat my icky mood, I thought I’d throw a library love fest on the blog today!

I absolutely would not be able to run this blog without access to the Saint Paul Public Library system. I spent the early part of this year stony broke, and libraries were (and are) a safe, free place to sit and work. They give me access to new book and movie releases without me needing to break the bank. (They have a particularly cool “Lucky Day” system where extra copies of books and movies are available when the hold/wait time would otherwise be prohibitively long.) Their selection is enormous, their request system is easy to use, and every branch I’ve been to is beautiful, well-lit, comfortable, and full of great staff. Almost every book in my Friday Bookbag is a library book!

I can’t sing SPPL’s praises enough, but they’re far from the only libraries that have nurtured me over the years. Here are a few of my best library memories:

  • As a kid, calling my local library a “lie-bury” for an embarrassingly long time.
  • Checking out a book from the Grand Rapids, Minnesota library and sitting on a nearby sunny pier for hours, watching the baby Mississippi River go by.
  • Helping to found Remer, Minnesota’s Centennial Library with the help of other awesome volunteers. Remer is home to under 400 people and it’s located far from any other library system, so the need for a volunteer-run library was enormous. I moved away a long time ago, but it’s still going strong!
  • Most recently, taking my little brothers to the enormous (and amazing) Hennepin Central library in downtown Minneapolis. My 10-year-old brother went nuts for the children’s section and my 13-year-old brother was literally speechless at their well-stocked, ultra-cool teen center. I was so proud :’)

What are your favorite library memories? Big or small, I want to hear about them. School libraries, little free libraries, bookmobiles, book clubs, and swaps are all fair game. Spill the beans in the comments!

In Review: May 2018

InReview

In Review posts are a chance for me to catch my breath, note that I am actually making progress towards my reading goals, and give each month’s blog posts a little extra love.

May was chaotic! I returned more books to the library unread or partially read than I would have liked (RIP, The Italian Party, The Optimistic Decade, and All the Names They Used for God) and I’ve left a book review and a ballyhoo half-drafted but uncompleted for two weeks now. Summer always makes me feel lazy and sleepy, and May definitely felt like summer here in Minnesota.

I’m skipping Friday Bookbag today (I’ll catch you all up next week), so in the meantime, here’s my May in review for your skimming pleasure.


I read 3 books this month:

  • The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving (Goodreads)
  • The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (Goodreads)
  • The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg (Goodreads)

I reviewed 4 books this month:

I borrowed, bought, and received 10 books this month:

I got excited about 2 upcoming releases this month:

  • Starless by Jacqueline Carey, coming June 12th (Ballyhoo)
  • When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri, coming June 19th (Ballyhoo)

I have read 25 books so far in 2018!

Friday Bookbag, 5.25.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

In my bookbag this week, I’ve got a nonfiction opus about addiction and a short story collection from an exciting contemporary Russian voice. Let’s dive in!


 The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780316259613the premise: Acclaimed writer Leslie Jamison puts a new spin on the “addiction memoir” by blending personal narrative, literary criticism, history, and journalism. The Recovering probes at the stories we tell ourselves about addiction–paying special attention to the trope (and reality) of addicted artists–and she also uncovers the history and probably future of the recovery movement, complete with its fascinating intersections with class and race.

why I’m excited: Part of this book was excerpted in The New Yorker recently and I fell in love immediately with Jamison’s probing, piercing writing style. (The excerpt tackles the forgotten legacy of George Cain, a brilliant black writer whose work is inexplicably absent from the addiction canon.) I’m really excited for this one–I’m drafting this post on a Wednesday and I think I might curl up with it this afternoon. Stay tuned!

(Update: Yes, I did read it that afternoon–and it’s very, very good.)

Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781524732776the premise: Tatyana Tolstaya is a renowned author of fiction and political criticism in her native Russia, but her work rarely makes it to the U.S.–this, a short story collection, is her first book translated to English in over twenty years. As with all short story collections, I’m at a loss for how to summarize it–but I do know that Tolstaya is known for her compassion and whip-smart humor.

why I’m excited: I’m on a major short story collection kick right now, so I couldn’t resist this one when I spotted it on my library’s shelves. I love the flourishing of the form that’s happening right now, and I’m always seeking out works by international authors–especially translations. I know that when I think of Russian literature, I always think of the past (and I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve utterly failed to get beyond the first pages of any of those classics–too long and dense for me). It’s exciting to get the chance to read a contemporary Russian voice.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE MERRY SPINSTER by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Fairytales are often as repulsive as they are fascinating, and in The Merry Spinster, Daniel Mallory Ortberg dials up the intensity of both sensations up to 11. These short stories are all retellings of myth and legend (with a few Bible stories thrown in), and they’re the only retellings I’ve ever encountered that retain all the opacity, awe, and terror of the originals. Sometimes that opacity is a little much–I didn’t understand a word of one story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”–but usually it’s thrilling. I’m a fairytale nut and it sometimes feels like I’ve consumed every story under the sun already. Reading The Merry Spinster felt like uncovering a treasure trove of lost work from a favorite artist, something exactly in the style of the originals, but wonderfully new. Much of the praise of this book centers on Ortberg’s wit–and his wit is indeed brutally sharp–but what I liked best was his obvious understanding of what makes fairytales work. In the end, it’s not about wit, plot, or character, though those are nice–it’s about pure, raw, turbulent emotion, and luckily, The Merry Spinster has that quality in spades.

You can read my full review below.


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The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Henry Holt & Co. (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 13, 2018
  • length: 208 pages
  • list price: $17.00

Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with–if you’ve got them on hand. They don’t cost much more than their own upkeep, which you’re on the hook for regardless, so it’s not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible.

The Merry Spinster, page 1

I converted to Christianity just before Christmas, 2016. After years of atheism, it’s still something that feels mildly embarrassing to me, like I gave up somehow; I’ll admit that in many ways, I’m not very good at being a Christian, though at this point, God and I have reached the point of no return in our serious, if wary, relationship. (I relate strongly to this piece by Hanif Abdurraqib about why he still fasts for Ramadan despite being a less-than-fully-observant Muslim.)

I write all this because Daniel Mallory Ortberg has created something almost biblical with The Merry Spinster, not in the sense that it is remotely holy, but in the sense that it is polyphonic, inscrutable, and often terrifying. The love, loss, and vengeance in these stories is loud and in your face; it feels like it’s instructing you, though you don’t quite understand the lessons. And I mean these things in the most positive way possible.

The strongest story in the collection is the first one, “The Daughter Cells”; in this retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” the mermaid is more alien than girl. She goes to land not so much for the love of the prince but out of a bureaucratic desire to improve the efficiency of humans and a more personal one to gain the prince’s soul. In message, if not in tone, it reminded me of films and books like Annihilation and Contact; two species meet and harm each other entirely by accident. The thing is, those examples have hours and many pages to set up their premise; Ortberg achieves the same thing in a scant 25 pages. I’ve never read anything like it.

While in my opinion the collection doesn’t quite return to the heights of “The Daughter Cells” after that 25th page, most of the other stories are nearly as compelling. Ortberg does particularly interesting things with gender, playing with pronouns, names, and titles in intriguing and unsettling ways that meant a lot to me as a nonbinary person. (Ortberg has talked about how writing this book helped him come to terms with being trans.)

In particular, “The Thankless Child”–the second story in the collection and a loose retelling of “Cinderella” among other fables–provoked me to think harder and deeper. Its protagonist is named Paul, but she uses she/her pronouns. (It jarred me at first, but after all, so many “boys’ names” have been reclaimed as “girls’ names” anyway…why not Paul?) She lives in a desert hellscape where salt is currency, and her godmother is a supernatural and vengeful being who is jealous of Paul’s dead mother. Gender roles are fluid–couples fall into the “husband” and “wife” roles depending on their aptitudes, not their genders–and it fundamentally alters the Cinderella story in ways that surprised me. “Cinderella” is one of the most-retold stories imaginable (Ella Enchanted is my personal favorite retelling), yet Ortberg still manages to make it fresh.

Other stories are straight-up terrifying rather than just unsettling. “The Rabbit,” a sinister retelling of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” particularly upset me (in a delicious way). Another story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad,” is just as creepy, but much less effective because it’s so confusing. (Ortberg has a loopy prose style that usually works well but sometimes seems to waffle and double back on itself.)

Every story in the collection feels like a major risk, and some don’t pay off as well as others. I really didn’t like the “Mr. Toad” story, and others, like “The Wedding Party”–about a couple arguing before their courthouse wedding–were interesting but not emotionally effective for me.

But in a way, I love that uneven, unpredictable quality in The Merry Spinster: because it’s not only a short story collection, but a short short story collection at only 208 pages, everything flies by so quickly that even the parts that drag didn’t drag down my enjoyment too much.

The word that pops up again and again when I think about The Merry Spinster is “unique,” and not in a passive-aggressive Midwestern way–it’s genuinely unique and thoughtful and experimental and wonderful. It scratched an itch I never knew I had, and now that it’s been scratched, I’m sad that there aren’t more books in this niche. Ortberg’s next book will be a memoir (currently titled Something That May Shock and Discredit You) but I hope he returns to this well soon. ★★★★☆


My copy of The Merry Spinster came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.