What books do you turn to when you’re sad?

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me. My chronic pain has been especially severe and, well, chronic lately, and world news has felt especially bad. It got me thinking: what books help you cope when things are difficult?

I think there are two components that make a book a good companion when you’re sad: catharsis and comfort. Cathartic books help me to process what I’m feeling, while comforting books help me to forget for awhile. I’ve found I need both kinds, although I tend toward catharsis. (My family jokes–kindly–about my love of traumatic and tear-jerking media.)

I’ve listed a few of my favorite sadness-companion books below, and I’d love to hear about your own favorites in the comments.


9780307476074Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

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This is the newest addition to my list of go-to’s, but it’s a good one. Strayed’s blockbuster memoir documents the aftermath of her mother’s death–a painful divorce, casual heroin use, and a terrible dead-end feeling–and how, with nothing more to lose, she decided to spend a summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, despite being broke and brutally unprepared.

The result is a memoir that pushes the very limits of the form and is also tremendously inspiring–without, exactly, feeling inspirational. I devoured this book and highly, highly recommend it for anyone who has lost something–which is to say, everyone.

153008Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

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Also fairly new to its permanent home on my nightstand is this spectacular high fantasy novel, about an alternate version of medieval Europe where gods still make their presence known. Kushiel’s Dart manages to be both hardcore escapism and also a remarkable commentary on our own world. In the nation of Terre d’Ange, where most of the story takes place, love is a central religious precept, making sex a spiritual act, and rape a crime of heresy as well as violence. It’s deeply erotic but also deeply emotional, and the action and world-building are to die for.

The whole series is incredible (I’m currently halfway through the first book in a second, linked trilogy), and I can’t recommend it more highly to fantasy lovers who are sick of the endless iterations of Tolkien-lite.

9780385720953The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

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It’s hard to imagine myself loving any book as much as I love The Blind Assassin. It’s a sprawling, messy family epic set in early-20th century Canada, told in conjunction with a novel-within-a-novel that’s part sci-fi, part modernist tragedy. The Blind Assassin‘s protagonist, Iris, is vain, proud, and a bit foolish, and at first it seems like the novel will never get where it’s going, but when it does, the effect is something akin to a refreshing plunge into deep, cold water.

I re-read this book at least once every couple of years, and every time I do, I find something new to love. While I wouldn’t characterize it as a comforting story, it is comforting for me personally, because I’m reminded of the person I was all the times I read it before.

77262Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

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I distinctly remember “stealing” this book from my mother’s shelf when I was 11 or 12 years old; it was probably the first adult literary novel I ever read, so its emotional power felt especially fresh to me. It’s about a woman who returns to her tiny Southwestern hometown to help support her aging father. It touches on all sorts of topics, from Kingsolver’s characteristic environmentalism to her equally characteristic explorations of motherhood.

Over ten years after I first read it, its cathartic highs and lows (and a lovely, hopeful ending) still make it one of the first books I reach for when I need to revisit a familiar and comforting world.


Do you tend towards catharsis or comfort reads when times are tough? Do you have any stories of times books helped you through a difficult situation? If you’re game to share, I’d love to read your thoughts below.

Friday Bookbag, 2.16.18

friday bookbag

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

This week I am, frustratingly, still very sick, so I didn’t make a library run. Instead, I got a great deal on an e-book I’ve had my eye on for awhile. Let’s go!


9780062457790They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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source: I purchased the e-book.

why I’m excited: I don’t read much YA anymore, but They Both Die at the End sounded so perfect I decided to buy it anyway. I’m going to include the publisher’s description below so I don’t accidentally botch its quirky premise:

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today.

Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure–to live a lifetime in a single day.

It sounds creative and wacky and almost unbearably sad (which is sort of my literary sweet spot). I love books that weave in modern technology (smartphones! apps!) in thoughtful new ways; additionally, I always struggle to find good books about queer characters, which gets tiring, since I’m queer myself–and since Silvera is known for writing great books about queer people, I’m very excited to read this.


Is They Both Die at the End on your to-read list? What else are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Short Story Roundup, 2.14.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.

This week I’m featuring two stories about heartbreak and one about a not-too-distant but devastating future. Enjoy!


Mildly Unhappy, with Moments of Joy” by Amber Sparks

  • genre: literary/realistic fiction
  • publication: Matchbook
  • publication date: February 2018
  • why I loved it: There’s gobs of fiction out there about the unique pain of falling in love and breaking up with a romantic partner, but much less about the–in my experience, far worse–pain of breaking up with a friend. “Mildly Unhappy, with Moments of Joy” is a tender examination of a best-friendship gone wrong, and I was struck by how well Sparks captures the little details of this uniquely awful experience.

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse

  • genre: science fiction
  • publication: Apex Magazine
  • publication date: August 8, 2017
  • why I loved it: This story has a heavy concept–an Indian (as in Native American) man offers “authentic Indian experiences” to tourists via a virtual reality machine, ultimately to his own detriment–but Rebecca Roanhorse writes with a light, almost breezy touch. This story is wildly imaginative, ironic, and sad, and it makes me even more excited than I already was for Roanhorse’s next novel, Trail of Lightning, about a post-apocalyptic Dinétah (Navajo) monster hunter.

In Omaha” by Amy Mackelden

  • genre: flash fiction, literary/realistic fiction, magical realism
  • publication: NANO Fiction
  • publication date: February 2016
  • why I loved it: I love how inventive flash fiction writers are by necessity, whether with language or plot. This snippet, about parents’ reaction to their child’s heartbreak, is sweet, sad, a little goofy, and very real all at once, in the way that only good flash fiction really can be.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed lately? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!

 

Book Review: A LOVING, FAITHFUL ANIMAL by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe is already a lauded author in Australia, but A Loving, Faithful Animal marks her U.S. debut–and it’s an auspicious one. The novel chronicles one family’s cycle of trauma against the backdrop of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which is already an interesting story; Rowe’s prose, at once precise and dreamy, elevates this arc into fiction so potent and powerful that I want sing its praises from the rooftops, pressing copies into the hands of everyone I know.

You can read my full review below.


9781936787579

A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

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  • publisher: Catapult (catapult.co)
  • publication date: September 12, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-9367-8757-9
  • length: 176 pages

That was the summer a sperm whale drifted sick into the bay, washed up dead at Mount Martha, and there were many terrible jokes about fertility. It was the summer that all the best cartoons went off the air, swapped for Gulf War broadcasts in infrared snippets, and your mother started saying things like I used to be pretty, you know? Christ, I used to be brave. But you thought brave was not crying when the neighbor girl dug her sharp red fingernails into your arm, until the skin broke and bled, and she cried out herself in disgust. You were still dumb enough to think that was winning.

A Loving, Faithful Animal, page 3

The concept of World Englishes is usually applied to colonized (and neo-colonized) countries and cultures whose variations on English are often considered “broken” and less-than. There’s a growing understanding that these Englishes are no less valid and rich than “standard” British and U.S. English–but World English speakers still find the long arm of U.S. and U.K. cultural dominance difficult to shake.

I define all this because although Australian English is usually considered “standard,” I was struck by how much A Loving, Faithful Animal feels like a work of World English: a working-class, trauma-laden, bitter and acerbic portrait of an Australia that’s impossibly far-flung from its easygoing cultural stereotype.

The Burroughs family is damaged: by domestic abuse, by poverty, by a Vietnam War that Australians wished to be involved in even less than Americans did, and by an intense and painful love for one another that none of them know how to safely express.

Ru quietly seethes, Lani is a rebel on a razor’s edge, and their parents, Evelyn and Jack, are locked in a terrible cycle of abuse. When Jack, a Vietnam War veteran, disappears for what seems to be the last time, Jack’s brother, Les, waits for Evelyn in the wings. The beloved family dog–the eponymous loving, faithful animal–was recently torn to shreds by a wildcat.

Two big questions hang over all of this–Would Jack be an abuser if his draft number had never come up? Would this family still struggle this much? –which Rowe smartly doesn’t answer. Instead, she tells what are effectively linked short stories from the perspective of each family member, all distinct in style but anchored by a single point in time that serves as a dark star at the center of the chaos: New Year’s Eve, 1990.

Rowe’s grasp of language is superhuman, and the act of reading her prose feels rather like watching Mirai Nagasu land that triple axel at the Olympics: jaw dropped in stupefied awe, not quite understanding but certainly feeling. I had to keep my smartphone handy while reading to interpret the Australian slang and cultural references, and this added to the dream-like feeling, as if I were using an interpretation book. (I read the American edition, but Catapult seems not to have made any changes from the Australian one, which is an excellent thing.)

The Burroughs’s dusty, devastated home, full of holes punched in drywall and with redback spiders crawling all over the garage, is nowhere near my world. But in this book, Rowe seems to have pulled up a chair for me, asking if I’d like a glass of water or anything to eat. For a few precious hours, it felt like my home. And though it wasn’t exactly a pleasant place to be, it was still a magical one.

When I’m reading good fiction, I feel infinite, able to explore lives and Englishes far from my own. Josephine Rowe writes prodigiously good fiction–and I hope that A Loving, Faithful Animal is only the start of what U.S. readers will see from her. 5/5 stars.


My copy of A Loving, Faithful Animal came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 2.9.18

friday bookbag

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

This week I am in Deadline Hell, which means–of course–that I am really excited about two novels that I hope will help me procrastinate take my mind off things! Let’s go!


9780374279660Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

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source: my local library

why I’m excited: I’ve flirted with this book ever since I first spotted it on the New Releases shelf, but its cover, which I find frankly creepy and embarrassing, always put me off. Still, the premise is intriguing–a drug-addicted, girlfriend-experience sex worker becomes slowly unhinged and is maybe a terrorist–and it’s short. (I love short books!) I’m hoping Ultraluminous will fill the stylish, pulpy hole in my heart left by Atomic Blonde, one of my favorite movies of 2017.

9781616201340An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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source: my local library

why I’m excited: This book and I have had a whirlwind affair: last week, I first learned of it when I read this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about the conversation that inspired it; in the past few days, I’ve read rave review after rave review; yesterday, I resolved to buy this book; today, I encountered a “Lucky Day” copy at my local library (3 week loan with no option for renewals, effectively allowing you to skip the hold line), and subsequently walked out of the branch feeling like I’d won the lottery. The novel, about a marriage shattered by a wrongful incarceration, sounds incredible in every way, and I’m damn near sure I’ll love it–so you can expect I’ll still buy a copy at some point. I’m just happy I get to have a head start on loving it.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE ANSWERS by Catherine Lacey

The Answers’ premise is about as difficult to explain as the novel’s many layers are to digest: a broke New York 30-something, Mary, gets a job acting as an on-call “Emotional Girlfriend” to a vain, selfish actor and auteur. But in Catherine Lacey’s hands, this “Girlfriend Experiment” feels no stranger than reality TV or even more ordinary experiences of falling in love. Love or hate The Answers, you’ll almost certainly find it unforgettable (and not just because of its eye-catching cover).

You can read my full review below.


9780374100261

The Answers by Catherine Lacey

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  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: June 6, 2017
  • isbn: 978-0-3741-0026-1
  • length: 304 pages

I wondered what could have happened between them that would make her need him this badly, but I suppose you can never tell what is happening between people. It’s as private as eye contact, no room for more than two.

The Answers, page 272

Few books have reminded me how subjective reading is as potently as The Answers did. As I turned the pages of Lacey’s novel, I kept thinking about why, for example, I gave five stars to There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon–a book that’s undoubtedly lovely but also forgettable–but only four stars to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book I think of constantly and even purchased as a Christmas gift for my partner.

Oh, the things that keep a book blogger up at night.

The answer is because I’m flawed, of course, but also because I’ve noticed that I demand more from books I love than from books I merely like and admire. I loved The Answers unconditionally–but I also wanted to demand more from it.

In The Answers, 30-year-old Mary is isolated and lonely, crushed by travel debt, and seriously ill with chronic pain and numbness that doctors can’t explain. Her best friend Chandra recommends new-agey PAKing treatments, and to Mary’s shock, they begin to cure her–but they’re also desperately expensive, so she replies to a cryptic job ad, and is quickly hired as the “Emotional Girlfriend” in a vanity project-cum-scientific experiment run by actor Kurt Sky. Mary caters to Kurt’s every emotional need for pay, along with teams of other women who cater to his other needs, like the “Mundanity Girlfriend,” “Anger Girlfriend,” and the, er, “Intimacy Team.”

Unsurprisingly, the “Girlfriend Experiment” doesn’t go well.

I tweeted up a storm about this book’s thriller-like atmosphere–it feels intensely like a David Fincher movie, complete with me imagining Rooney Mara as its heroine–though it’s not a thriller at all. Rather, it’s a deep dive into the meanings of vanity, celebrity, isolation, the queasy power of falling in love, and–profoundly–sexism.

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Rooney Mara chews out Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010).

We eventually learn that Mary was an only child raised off the grid by deeply Christian parents. She’s ignorant of and ambivalent towards pop culture: she’s never seen a movie, doesn’t listen to music, and doesn’t read the news, making her the perfect sponge for all of superstar Kurt Sky’s emotional diatribes, since she has absolutely no idea who he is.

Kurt fetishizes Mary’s emotional availability to an absurd degree, ignoring the fact that he’s literally paying her to act that way, and Mary, for her part, finds herself falling in a sort of love with Kurt regardless. The whole experiment is a an extreme allegory for how sexism, money, and power complicate all sorts of relationships between men and women, but it never feels heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, the story’s early beginning and late end did leave a lot to be desired. Mary is inscrutable, something that’s made worse, not better, by parts I and III’s first-person perspective. (Part II, told in third-person omniscient, is by far the novel’s strongest section.) Some questions also don’t get the answers (ha!) that I was looking for, or don’t get answered at all; I think that Mary’s best friend Chandra, in particular, gets short shrift.

I couldn’t help it, though–by 50 pages in, I was enough in love with The Answers’ bonkers, brilliant premise and Lacey’s lyrical, profound style to forgive it just about anything. The idea of the Girlfriend Experiment might be extreme–but so is sexism; so is falling in love. 4/5 stars.


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

Short Story Roundup, 2.7.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.

This week I’m featuring two novel excerpts–one about post-apocalyptic dogs and one about running into a high school sweetheart after a near-death experience–so read on.


Anna” by Niccolò Ammaniti (translated by Jonathan Hunt)

  • genre: science fiction (post-apocalyptic)
  • publication: Guernica
  • publication date: February 5, 2018
  • why I loved it: This story, an excerpt from Ammaniti’s novel of the same name (translated from the original Italian), is a tense account of a conflict between a young Sicilian girl scavenging for food and a mangy dog covered in ash. Like many novel excerpts, it feels a bit unresolved, but Ammaniti’s world is immediately compelling. Why are all the grown-ups gone? What was the fire? What came before? All those questions will play in the back of your mind, but most of all, you’ll be gripped by the action.

The Afterlives” by Thomas Pierce

  • genre: literary/realistic fiction
  • publication: Literary Hub
  • publication date: January 12, 2018
  • why I loved it: This story is also an excerpt, from a novel by Thomas Pierce about an atheistic man who suffers a heart attack, only to confront the frightening possibility that there might not be an afterlife, after all. The excerpt documents the moment when he runs into his high school sweetheart after the attack, and it’s very tender and funny, propelled along by the gentle believability of its characters, even as they experience unbelievable events.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed lately? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!