Friday Bookbag, 12.8.17

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.

Side note: I’ve been reading so many review-worthy books lately that I’m considering adding a second scheduled slot for reviews like I’m already doing with Monday Reads–I’m thinking on Thursdays or even Saturdays–or maybe I’ll drop extra reviews in randomly…I’m not sure yet!

Musings aside, here are two books I picked up this week that I’m dying to read.


9781250124579

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Loving thy neighbor is easier said than done.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors. One is black, the other white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed and are living with questions, disappointments, and secrets that have brought them shame. And each has something that the woman next door deeply desires.

Sworn enemies, the two share a hedge and a deliberate hostility, which they maintain with a zeal that belies their age. But, one day, an unexpected event forces Hortensia and Marion together. As the physical barriers between them collapse, their bickering softens into conversation. But are these sparks of connection enough to ignite a friendship, or is it too late to expect these women to change?

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: This has been my year of making a conscious effort to read more books by women, and especially books about women who are different from myself. I’m 23, not in my 80s as these two characters are, and I’ll be interested to see if I find this book relatable anyway…even if I don’t, it promises to be funny and sweet, something I need this week.

9781250109163

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Freshly disengaged from her fiancé and feeling that life has not turned out quite the way she planned, thirty-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town, and arrives at her parents’ home to find family life more complicated than she’d realized. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory. Her mother, like Ruth, is smarting from a betrayal. But over the course of a year, the comedy in Ruth’s situation takes hold, gently transforming her grief.

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I love books about family, which this is, and I also love NPR’s 2017 book concierge, where this book was featured. Like The Woman Next Door, it sounds like there’s a humorous component. Also, the cover design is pretty, and the spine was eye-catching on the library shelf. (What can I say? Sometimes I do judge by a cover.)


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

3 book-themed gift ideas, 2017 edition

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image source: picjumbo.com

I always struggle with gift-giving. I hate the pressure to buy extravagant gifts that no one will really use, and buying gift cards can feel like a total cop-out. So, this year, I’m trying something new in my Christmas shopping–and no, it’s not buying giant teddy bears for everyone on my list, per the photo above.

Instead, this year, I’m trying to shop exclusively for books, clothes, and consumables like chocolate and tea for friends and family. In my experience, these items are easily usable, even if that use is regifting, which I’m actually okay with–especially for books, since the more readers, the merrier! Since I know I’m not alone in trying to cultivate better gift-giving habits, I thought I’d share some of my favorite book-themed gift ideas here.

If you don’t celebrate Christmas,  but do celebrate another holiday with gift-giving traditions–or you’re just really into giving gifts!–nothing here is Christmas-specific. Bookmark and gift-give away in this or any season!


Cookbooks

A lot of people love to cook (myself included), but even folks who don’t can appreciate tasty food–which is why cookbooks are such a great gift. Cookbooks tend to fall into two categories: the “yes, you can actually make these recipes!” cookbooks, and the “no, these recipes aren’t practical, but the writing/photography/etc. is SUPER pretty” cookbooks. Either one can make a great gift if you’re thoughtful about it!

Does your intended recipient love to travel? Find them a cookbook full of authentic recipes from their dream destination (complete with pictures), and even if they don’t cook any of it themselves, they’ll know what to sample when they visit.

Does your intended recipient follow dietary restrictions? Instead of mocking them for it (which is a really crappy thing to do!), find a cookbook that caters to those restrictions. It’s a thoughtful gift that might help them find new delicious things that are safe/allowable for them to eat.

RedBubble nerd merch!

RedBubble.com is a site where artists create beautiful fandom designs for all kinds of items, from T-shirts to laptop stickers to coffee mugs. In my experience (and unlike many other “nerd”-oriented sites), their apparel is actually good-quality, too! Searching for authors like Oscar Wilde, Audre Lorde, and Stephen King turns up great stuff.

If your intended recipient is a teen (or adult!) who loves The Hunger Games, Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, or Divergent, those fandoms seem to have a particularly active literary RedBubble presence. And, of course, there’s always Harry Potter.

Don’t assume that a particular quote, author, or fandom is too obscure to appear on RedBubble, either. If you know someone who’s really into a thing, there might be an artist on the site who’s just as obsessed!

A well-thought-out list

Maybe it’s a list of your favorite reality TV shows hand-written inside a card, or a collaborative Spotify playlist shared with your friend group, or an email full of suggestions on what book to check out next from the library. Whatever the format, there’s a reason that curated lists are always such a lovely gift: the effort involved in making them (and sometimes vulnerability, if you’re putting your near-and-dear media choices on the line) is a real sign of love. And if the recipient doesn’t appreciate that, well…it might be time to pare down your inner circle.

If you share a favorite book with the intended recipient, try creating a music playlist for your favorite characters! I remember this being really popular for Twilight and Hunger Games ships, but it could work for less fandom-oriented books, too. Speaking from personal experience, some of the music might look cringey in 5 years, but there are always real gems on those lists, too.

If your intended recipient has very different tastes from you, try compiling a list of “things I’d never read/watch/listen to that I still think you’d love.” If you do it with a sense of humor (or maybe even a gentle roast of your friend/relative’s weird, trashy, or pretentious tastes!), it’s a nice way of showing that person that you pay attention to their interests, even if you don’t share them.


What are your favorite gifts to give and receive? Let me know in the comments!

Short Story Roundup, 12.6.17

Short Story Roundup

“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” – Neil Gaiman

Introducing Short Story Roundup: a new feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you on Wednesdays. 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.


Say, She Toy” by Chesya Burke

  • genre: science fiction
  • publication: Apex Magazine
  • date: April 4, 2017
  • why I loved it: “Say, She Toy” is the story of an android in the form of a black woman designed to bear the pain and abuse intended for real black women. It’s exactly as brutal and clarion as you’d think, and if you read only one piece of fiction this week, make it this one.

Clutchings” by Alina Stefanescu

  • genre: literary
  • publication: Necessary Fiction
  • date: October 25, 2017
  • why I loved it: “Clutchings” is a paranoid snapshot of a tattoo and a dissolving marriage. It’s a story perfectly suited to its micro length: a glimpse that is significant but not overwhelming.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed this week? 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!

Review: PRETEND WE ARE LOVELY by Noley Reid

Monday Reviews

Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Tin House Books

publication date: July 18, 2017

9781941040669As you may recall from Tuesday’s post on triggering books and when to keep reading, I struggled a lot with this book. I did finish it, but not only did I find it painful, I also find it lacking in any positive respite or catharsis. Pretend We Are Lovely drags, and the slipperiness of its narrative structure gives an effect more like incoherence than profundity. While there are treasures to be found here, they are few and far between in a narrative full of things I didn’t care about and nearly devoid of things I did.

Pretend We Are Lovely tells the story of a summer and fall in the lives of a Virginia family in the 1980s. The Sobel family, made up of parents Francie and Tate and daughters Enid and Vivvy, all suffer from a tortured and toxic relationship with food. Overweight philosophy professor Tate has moved out and embarked on an affair with one of his students (a kind and curvaceous donut shop employee, just in case you missed the symbolism), and Francie sinks ever-further into binge-purge cycles and shockingly nasty treatment of her daughters. Enid, 10, is chubby, mercilessly bullied, and always thinking of her next meal. Vivvy, 12, is struggling with confusing feelings towards girls and an even more confusing apathy towards boys, along with a punishing desire to be as thin as her mother.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the suspicious death of Enid and Vivvy’s voraciously hungry older brother, Sheldon, whom Francie hit and killed with her car years ago. This incident, supposedly the driving force behind all the other problems, was incomprehensible to me. I was hoping answers–how and why Sheldon died–would be revealed at the end, but they weren’t, leaving me even more frustrated and confused by the last page than I’d been at the end of the first chapter.

Reid’s decision to tell the story from the rotating perspectives of all four characters, switching perspectives within chapters (and sometimes even paragraph-to-paragraph), worsens the confusion. Each Sobel does have a distinct and interesting voice, but they spend so much of the book separated from each other and lost in thoughts of the past that I didn’t understand what was supposed to be currently happening for at least half of the book. All I got was jolt of unpleasant emotion after jolt of unpleasant emotion, utterly unconnected to plot events.

The other problem with Pretend We Are Lovely’s shifting perspectives is that they remove all tension from the narrative. I can’t get mad about how Vivvy treats Enid because in the next paragraph I am told exactly why Vivvy is lashing out. I can’t get mad on Francie’s behalf at Tate for having an affair because I know Tate’s exact reasons for having the affair. I think the effect is supposed to trigger something like sadness about the miscommunications inherent in family, but instead, I found it boring.

There were two things I really, really loved about this book, and both involved Vivvy: Vivvy and Enid’s sister relationship, and the Reid’s delicate touch when writing about Vivvy’s feelings for other girls. Admittedly, I’m a sister partial to sister stories, and a lesbian partial to lesbian stories, so I don’t know if these were the best parts of the book or just the ones that pushed my buttons. But with every Francie and Tate scene, and some of the Enid scenes, I found myself wanting to be back with Vivvy.

For me at least, Pretend We Are Lovely was a Vivvy story trapped inside a family story, and the promise of the book I wanted trapped inside this book that I didn’t want made my reading experience even more tortuous. I wonder what this book might have looked like had its narrative been reorganized around Vivvy, perhaps even as a literary YA novel. I know her story would have meant a lot to me as a teen struggling to come out.

Other aspects that showed promise were the book’s commentary on kids’ nastiness toward other kids–boys, especially, hold an air of sexual menace, including a couple of truly disturbing assaults on Enid and Vivvy by classmates and neighbors–and Reid’s prose style, which I found refreshingly simple and affecting. But these things are utterly buried under the weight of convoluted narrative, spoiling their power.

Pretend We Are Lovely really is lovely in places, but its hazy plot and countless unresolved and underdeveloped sub-plots ruin the effect. 2/5 stars.

My copy of Pretend We Are Lovely came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Triggering books: When do you set them aside? When do you keep reading?

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image source: picjumbo.com

This question occurred to me because right now I’m reading Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid, a book that delves intensely into eating disorders and the deeply unhealthy thought patterns that are associated with them, and I’ve been struggling to decide whether or not to set the book aside. When I wrote about this book for Friday Bookbag, I mentioned that I was excited to see how the author handled the issue…and unfortunately, I’m not enjoying Reid’s take.

The cover copy led me to believe that Pretend We Are Lovely would have more of a dark humor component, when instead it’s just dark: we dip in and out of the thoughts of the four members of the Sobel family, all of whom have lots and lots of baggage around food. I also don’t think this book is very good, complicating things further, because I’m dealing with all of this unpleasantness without the payoff of beautiful language, plotting, characterization, and all the other things I expect from good fiction.

I’ve never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I do have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can create unhealthy eating patterns for me when it flares up. Pretend We Are Lovely has left me feeling jittery, anxious, and unhappy with all its reminders of the difficulty I’ve had managing my mental health at times, especially since so far, none of the Sobels are getting the help they need.

I do think I’ll finish it, but this has happened to me before, and I’m curious how other readers cope with this. This isn’t so much a matter of trigger warnings as what happens when a reader finds a book triggering for any reason, whether PTSD-related or due to another trauma or sensitivity. I knew this book would contain discussion of eating disorders, so I was warned, but I’m still finding it a much more difficult read than I had anticipated.

So, I thought I’d throw this problem out to the internet.

Have you ever read a book that triggers unpleasant or harmful thoughts and memories? Did you finish reading? Did you set it aside? Do you try and screen books for these triggers beforehand? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Review: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Monday Reviews

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Penguin Press (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: September 12, 2017

9780735224292Some books, like this one, are magic. They succeed on every level, they hit every emotional sweet spot, they do things with words that remind me why writing is such a unique and incredible art form…and I just can’t explain why. This book struck me dumb with awe and gratitude. I finished it over a week ago, now, and I’m still struggling to articulate how much I loved it, because the truth is that I loved it too much for words.

Bear with me, folks.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a lot of things, but it’s especially the story of a place and two families that live there: Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a planned community struggling to cope with the rapidly encroaching mess unpredictability of the outside world; the Richardsons are a big, messy, mostly-happy upper-middle-class white family with deep roots; and mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren are newcomers no one can quite figure out. When Mia instigates an ugly custody battle between a young Chinese American woman, Bebe Chow, and the wealthy white neighbors who attempt to adopt her baby, May Ling, the community is blown open and family secrets laid bare.

The story isn’t told in order, and opens as the Richardsons’ house burns to the ground around them. From that first page, I was hooked. The closest book I can think to compare it to–though they’re not really similar at all–is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But where I found Eugenides’ book to be an arch, unpleasant, and chilly allegory for the folly of suburbia, Ng is deeply, warmly concerned with a real suburban community and characters so lifelike they might as well be real people.

I think “realistic” is a quality that can be overrated in fiction, because it’s fiction–why not take the opportunity to create something intricately, beautifully unreal? As long as an author does it well, I’m onboard. But Little Fires Everywhere did remind me of the magic and power of authors who write about the real world and understand real people: what we think like, what we act like, and what we care about. Ng not only understands people, but values them. She treats her characters–most of whom are painfully clueless, some borderline malicious–as if they are all worthy of love and respect. It’s revelatory, especially because Little Fires Everywhere is literary fiction, which is a genre that I think values coldness overmuch and compassion too little.

Every scene, no matter how slight, benefits from this loving characterization. Characters with only few paragraphs devoted to them are still given actions and dialogue that hints at the rich motivation within; central characters we thought we understood are given shake-ups that reveal new and satisfying depths. I particularly loved the (very) minor character of Mr. Yang, a tenant of the Richardsons and downstairs neighbor of the Warrens, and the more central characters of Trip and Moody, teenage Richardson sons who are tender and emotional and defy every dull and tired stereotype of teenage boys.

But of all these characters to fall in love with, my favorite was Mia Warren, whom we discover is a gifted photographer as well as mother and enigmatic drifter. A powerful theme of the book is the process of creation, punishing and healing by turns, whether it’s art-making or motherhood. I cried several times at this book, and each time it was because of that push and pull: the things mothers give up and the things their children give back; the things the children lose that their mothers want to stop them from losing but can’t; the bravery and vulnerability it takes to put art into the world.

I think most of us have at least some idea of what makes a good mother, but novels about visual artists can be especially hit or miss because we can’t see for ourselves whether a canvas or photograph is good or bad or mediocre–the author has to tell us. Thankfully, Ng has a light touch when describing Mia’s talents, trusting the mind’s eye of the reader to fill in the rest.

In fact, it’s been a long time since my mind’s eye felt so engaged in a novel. I was born in ’95 and thus have no memories of the late ’90s, I know nothing about Ohio, and I certainly knew nothing about Shaker Heights, but every scene is so carefully detailed, as lovingly costume-designed and set-dressed as a Wes Anderson movie (though less twee by half), that I felt there.

This absorbing, transporting quality is especially wonderful because Little Fires Everywhere is told in the omniscient 3rd-person, often hopping from mind-to-mind mid-scene, a technique I associate most with epic, impersonal fantasy novels and not with intimate family dramas. It turns out that–at least in Ng’s skilled hands–that mind-hopping can actually make a book more personal and more intimate. We don’t see one side of an argument, we see all of them: a good quality in a book filled with complicated and unwinnable arguments.

I could write a book-length love letter to this book. (Can you tell?) I could especially go on for hours about its razor-sharp critique of the kind of feel-good, orderly white liberalism that crumbles in the face of honest and difficult questions.

But I won’t go on any longer. I’ll just trust that you’ll read Little Fires Everywhere, and tell all your friends, and tell them to tell all of their friends, too. This book is miraculous. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.

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

4 oldie-but-goodie books about food and farming to read this Thanksgiving

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image source: picjumbo.com

I love cooking, good food, and that peculiar quiet that happens when most stores and offices are closed (don’t get me started on Black Friday creep), so Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s also a holiday based on over-simplified feel-good fibs, and can also stir up unpleasantness about everything from eating disorder recovery to acrid family politics.

In other words, it’s complicated, kind of like our national relationship with food on the whole. To celebrate–or at least commemorate–the upcoming food frenzy, I’m sharing four of my favorite food and farming books that would be perfect for savoring over the long weekend.


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (with Camille Kingsolver and Steven L. Hopp

9780060852566Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Troubled by the ecological toll of modern agriculture, particularly the fossil fuel expenditures involved in transporting food from farm to grocery store to table, Barbara Kingsolver and family moved to Appalachia and embark on a year of local eating. The result is this book, which is adventurous, funny, alarming, warm, and also a love letter to Appalachia.

If you’re a fan of Kingsolver’s fiction, you know that she is deeply concerned with themes of family and sustainability, making this memoir–peppered with nonfiction reporting on food issues and environmentalism–even more charming. The window into Kingsolver and her family’s life is as precious as the window she opens onto our alienating modern food system.

Hit By a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn by Catherine Friend

9781569242988Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Certified city girl Catherine Friend fell in love with a woman who dreamed of farming, so the two picked up and moved to southeastern Minnesota to raise sheep and wine grapes. In Hit By a Farm, Friend explores the steep learning curves of both farming and long-term relationships, and it’s as much a book about her partnership with her now-wife Melissa as it is a book about farming.

Still, there’s plenty of farming and food commentary to be had, accompanied by a glimpse of the swath of writing life that exists between unpublished nobody and runaway bestseller–Friend is a moderately successful technical writer and romance author as well as farmer. This book is laugh-out-loud, bust-a-gut funny, and Friend’s no-nonsense approach to her relationship with Melissa makes this one of the great lesbian memoirs–if such a sub-genre exists–too.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

9781416551614Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Dirty Life is another fish-out-of-water memoir, recounting formerly-of-NYC writer Kristin Kimball’s whirlwind romance with a sustainability-minded farmer, and their move to a plot of land in Vermont that they slowly transform into a thriving CSA (a weekly share-based community-supported agriculture business). Kimball’s book is honest and gritty, featuring more of farming’s bitter disappointments than most books in the sustainable agriculture sub-genre, making it more credible and complex than the typical feel-good, permaculture-will-save-the-world story.

I spent my teens living on my mom’s failed hobby farm, and The Dirty Life came closest to capturing what that’s like (even though Kimball’s farm eventually does succeed). If you’re looking for an emotional rollercoaster and sensory feast of a farm memoir, this is it. (There’s also a memorable scene where she recounts eating a heart–if memory serves, a venison heart–stuffed with breadcrumbs. It’s a lot to take if you’re squeamish, but it’s certainly evocative.)

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel

9780385420174Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

It’s a classic “food book” to the point of cliché, but for a reason–Like Water for Chocolate is one of the most sensual and lovely books about the power of food that there is. Esquivel’s novel follows the life of Tita, the youngest daughter in a wealthy Mexican family who is prohibited from marrying in order to devote her full attention to her aging mother. Tita’s heart breaks early when she has a forbidden fling with a man named Pedro, who eventually marries her sister. The story of Tita’s fight for independence is told through her cooking, which imparts whatever emotions Tita is experiencing upon whomever eats it.

Is it over-the-top? Absolutely. Is it gorgeous and memorable? Absolutely, again. I especially love the glimpse into family life during the Mexican Revolution and into a food tradition that’s very different from my German-Scandinavian-American family’s food traditions. The book is relatively short if memory serves, but if you’re in the mood for a three-hour drama fest, the film has its own sort of joy and magic. It’s in Spanish, but English subtitles are available, and the ridiculous image of Tita’s sister, Gertrudis, riding naked on horseback through the wilderness with a rebel soldier, is well worth it.


What are your favorite books about food? I’m always looking for good food journalism, food and farm memoirs, food-centric fiction, cookbooks, and more, so please leave your recommendations in the comments, especially if it’s a more obscure title than these four.

Because of the holiday, I’m skipping Friday Bookbag this week. I’ll be back on Monday with a review of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng!