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

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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

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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

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  • 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.

Victor Lavalle tackles Stephen King’s latest in the New York Times

 

I’ve got two book reviews and a ballyhoo coming down the pipe, but this week has gotten off to a wildly busy start for me, so in lieu of an original post today I thought I’d share this lovely NYT review of Stephen King’s newest novel, The Outsider.

Victor Lavalle starts off recounting a personal experience familiar to most (if not all) writers:

The first time I wrote a short story I ripped off Stephen King.

(My first short story was a gender-swapped version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone titled “Salinda and the Ruby.” Good times.)

Lavalle goes on with more about the plot of The Outsider as well as some interesting thoughts on cultural appropriation–King has a patchy record in that regard in my opinion, but Lavalle seems to think he’s done a good job in this book.

(Related: If you haven’t read Nnedi Okorafor’s classic essay on King’s use of the “magical negro” trope, get thee to this hyperlink immediately.)

Then Lavalle drops in this gem:

More than 50 novels published, and [King is] still adding new influences to his work. I can think of a great many literary writers who are far lazier about their range of inspirations and interests.

What a zinger! I’m not a fan of horror, meaning most of King’s oeuvre isn’t in my wheelhouse, but his book On Writing is one of the best memoirs you could ever hope to read and I’ve always been inspired by King’s willingness to branch out as a writer (and lately, Twitter-er). Lavalle captured King’s charm perfectly here.

In short, this review is everything I’d like my book reviews to be someday: personal, open-minded, thoughtful, a bit funny. *gets inspired*

You can read the entire review here.

Some personal news

I technically graduated back in December, but today I got to celebrate my past 3.5 years of hard work towards my degree at my university’s commencement ceremony. It was special, to say the least!

I graduated with a B.A. in Public Health Sciences with Latin honors (magna cum laude) and membership in the Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Delta Pi honors societies.

By far the best part of college was everything I learned about myself along the way. I came all the way out of the closet, met and befriended the best people I could ever hope to meet and befriend, got engaged to my incredible-gorgeous-fantastic partner, Serena, and learned how to navigate two major disabilities–bipolar and endometriosis–that I was worried would ruin my life.

Words cannot express how grateful I am for the opportunities I’ve had. I’m living my best life as a full-time writer, which goes to show that childhood dreams can come true, and I can’t wait to see what blessings are just around the corner.

I’ll be back with the book-themed content you know and love on Monday, but I couldn’t help but share this good news today. ❤

Friday Bookbag, 5.18.18

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.

This week I’ve got three short books in my bookbag that each carry a big, emotional, firecracker punch. Let’s dive in!


Straying by Molly McCloskey

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9781501172465the premise: Alice, a young American woman, moves to Ireland in the late 1980s, settles down, marries an Irishman…and then embarks on an affair that shatters the life she’d carefully created for herself. Years later, grieving her mother’s death and recovering from years of working in war zones, Alice returns to Ireland and discovers that her marriage and the affair that ended it may not have been at all what they seemed.

why I’m excited: I’m a big fan of stories that hinge on an affair–there’s so much inherent tension in cheating that it’s no wonder it’s such a trope. Lately, I’ve also been seeking out books set in countries other than the United States. McCloskey is a renowned writer in her native Ireland and part of Straying‘s plot is the alienation and culture shock Alice experiences when she moves away from the United States. Both of these elements add up to a novel I’m really excited about.

9781936787845Cove by Cynan James

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the premise: A man out kayaking at sea is struck by lightning in a sudden storm. He awakes with his memory gone, still adrift in a hostile sea. Relying on instincts and imagination, he sets out for home in an ultimate man-against-nature adventure.

why I’m excited: This is a tiny book: it’s made up of barely 92 pages of spare prose. That’s great for me, since I much prefer short books to long ones (Larissa Pham recently tweeted that “the novella might be the ideal form” and I relate), and I also love nature and survival stories. I’m terrified of open water, so the kayaking element promises to be especially thrilling for me.

9781250113429The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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the premise: Ortberg transforms beloved fairy tales into eleven creepy short stories in this collection–“tales of everyday horror” seems to be the perfect subtitle.

why I’m excited: Two reasons: one, I love fairytales, and two, over the course of writing this book, Ortberg came out as a trans man, in part because of the way these stories challenged him to think about gender. (For more on that, you should read this excellent interview with Ortberg in The Cut. ) I would have been sold on this book regardless without that second part, but as a nonbinary person myself, I’m really excited to read a book by a fellow transgender person that pushes gender boundaries.


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!

Are you a reading perfectionist?

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Ah, the Goodreads reading challenge: it’s a New Year’s resolution that’s probably more keep-able than just “working out and eating healthy” (at least it’s tangible!), but for me, it’s also a source of major overcommitment and stress.

This year, I intended to read 100 books, which seemed pretty simple at the time. I’m a fast reader, and a little under two books a week seemed eminently doable. Right?

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Wrong. Between my busy life and my own perfectionism, I feel like I’ve had to fight for every single book I manage to read this year–not a good feeling, since ostensibly reading is supposed to be fun.

Where did I go wrong?

I can think of at least one clinical reason that’s outside my control: I’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder since I was a kid, and it often causes this same kind of overcommit-and-crash-and-burn pattern. (My obsessions and compulsions relate to organization in ways that are less “helpful” and more “quagmire.”)

But I’ve heard a lot of other avid readers and book bloggers complain of this problem, too, so I don’t think it’s just me.

After all, there are so many new books and old favorites to enjoy, and never enough time–an essay by NPR’s Linda Holmes, titled “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re Going to Miss Almost Everything,” gets to the heart of this. That’s one source of perfectionist tendencies.

But worse, when you’re a book blogger, you notice that there are always others who read more than you, who write reviews better than you, who publish more content than you, and are generally just “better” at being a reader/blogger than you. It creates this weird cycle of admiration and resentment, of “I could be like that if I just put my mind to it” and then despair when you can’t measure up.

This game of comparisons that I play with myself is tremendously unhealthy, unrealistic, and unfair, and I’ve noticed it spoiling my enjoyment of reading. It’s so frustrating that my oldest and favorite hobby is getting poisoned by something so pointless.

I started this blog as a way to get myself to read more and, by extension, also to write more. It began in my final semester of college (I graduated in December 2017), when I was feeling thoroughly burnt out on my coursework and uncertain about my life path–I was initially planning to go into the public health field before I switched to freelance writing.

Reading was my escape from that, and falling in love with reading all over again convinced me that I made 100% the right choice by striking out as a freelance writer. I already accomplished my initial goals for this blog–so I think it’s time to revisit them and make some newer, healthier ones.

I want to blog as a way to celebrate the books I love and process the books I don’t. I want to blog as a way to connect with other people who love books as much as I do. And in conjunction with that, it’s time to put my foot down and read for myself and not for other people. It’s time for me to stop putting my every reading choice and habit under the microscope in comparison to others.

I’m working on eradicating perfectionism from my life wherever I can, since the thing about perfectionism is it’s not about creating something “perfect” as it is about avoiding the nasty monologue of criticism that runs 24/7 in my brain. If I let that monologue get the best of me, it’s going to eat up everything I love and continue to make me miserable. Enough is enough.

Next year, I’m skipping the Goodreads reading  challenge. This year, I’m giving myself permission to ignore it (though I’ll continue to use Goodreads–you can friend me here.)

I’m tired of being a reading perfectionist–I’d much rather enjoy reading than be some arbitrary kind of “best” at it.


Are you a reading perfectionist? Have you overcome that perfectionism? (If so, how?!) I’d love to hear all about it in the comments!

Friday Bookbag, 5.11.18

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.

This week I have three works of literary fiction that toy with gender, optimism, and expectations in my bookbag. Let’s dive in!


The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel

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9781616206307the premise: Set in the 1980s, The Optimistic Decade takes place at Llamalo, a “utopian summer camp.” As they learn camp survival skills through booms and busts, wars and protests, and dreams and mistakes, the novel’s five central characters push up against the limits of idealism and themselves.

why I’m excited: I love novels set in the recent past, and while there are plenty set in the ’50s-’70s, there are fewer about the ’80s. I think the title–particularly the “optimistic” part–says it all: so much of the ’80s feels both glamorous and naive in hindsight and I like that the premise of the novel (especially the back-to-the-land element) plays around with that.

A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley

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9781555978051the premise: This short story collection contains nine stories set in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Each story probes at the ways the ways men make and interact with power, exploring facets of masculinity from elementary school through adulthood.

why I’m excited: I’m tired of the fact that the entire weight of “gender” fiction is placed on the shoulders of everyone who isn’t a man. That’s why I’m excited for this collection, which promises to not only be interesting from a writing and craft standpoint but also because Brinkley seems to be taking on masculinity from a man’s perspective. That shouldn’t feel fresh, but it does–and the buzz this book is receiving is more than enough to convince me to read it.

Eventide by Therese Bohman

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9781590518939the premise: Karolina Andersson, a solitary art history professor in her forties, becomes entangled in a ferocious, erotic game that threatens to uproot her personal and professional lives. When she begins to advise a postgraduate student whose research could turn Swedish art history upside-down, Andersson finds herself reckoning with much more than academic consequences.

why I’m excited: This is a relatively slim book that promises to pack a big punch. I love translated works (Eventide is translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy) and this one tackles gendered double-standards, academia, and loneliness in a big, fascinating way. I can’t wait.


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!