What I’ve been reading: Summer version

What’s been going on lately? Well, it’s a rather unimpressive litany of failing to exercise regularly, struggling with revision, work, a brief (but wondrous) trip to Rome, summer. Sometimes the world feels like it’s falling apart (or maybe that’s just what Donald Trump would have us believe), but I’m constantly reminded that there’s always beauty and—thank goodness—books. Here’s what I’ve been reading, listed in no particular order!

Middle Grade and YA

Ink and Bone (The Great Library) by Rachel Caine – This was an amazing series opener with real thrills and provocative questions set in a very compelling world (Thank you, Linda Perez at Albany Middle School for telling me about this one!). Basically, power is concentrated in libraries, who use mystical means to control reading materials—and therefore people. From initial exalted principles the Great Library has festered into a den of corruption. Thrust into appalling danger, a diverse and appealing group of librarians-in-training try to survive war, betrayal, and each other. Loved this, and have already gulped up the recently released sequel, Paper and Fire.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff – I admit to initial trepidation because the story is put together through various comms and IMs, redacted reports, ships logs, and so on, and usually I prefer the illusion created by “traditional narrative” (insofar as such a thing actually exists). But I was wrong to resist. This was incredibly fun and speedy. Space disaster, conspiracy, love, and valor.

Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung – Funny and heartwarming tale of a Korean American girl’s rather unexpected discoveries about her family. There are a lot of crazy, snort-laugh moments (of course, it’s Mike Jung!) but incredible feeling as well. Such a great middle grade—and I must mention the launch party was amazing.

The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet – I’ve loved all of Anne’s books for their magical imagination, deep sensitivity, and delightful world-building. This story, about a girl who builds a musical instrument, setting in motion a chain of life-changing events, is not to be missed. Friendship, music, and loveliness.

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee – In 1906 San Francisco, Mercy Wong is determined to make a better life for herself and her family. Irresistible blend of pluck and big-heartedness. I’m in awe of people who write historicals, especially those that feel immediate and you-are-there real. Stacey Lee does it again. Yay, Stacey!

The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye – Dueling magicians in an alternate Tsarist Russia. Lots of lovely illusions, gowns, and confections. Very stunning, from another awesome Bay Area writer. This was an immediate bestseller, and it’s easy to see why: suspense, magic, a headstrong heroine, and yummiest boys!

Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan – A boy on the run finds friends and purpose in a kingdom of dark magic. Super fun middle grade, with spookiness and a giant bat!

Adult(ish)

How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell – A huge delight and an extremely comforting book. Montaigne lived through harrowing times (religious wars between Catholics and Protestants) that brought out the worst in humanity. Somehow he kept his equanimity and wrote his Essais. Bakewell is fantastic at making Montaigne feel vital and modern.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout – reminded me strongly of Alice Munro, in that it’s absolutely gripping even though it seems like not much is happening. Terrible things are hinted at, but curiously, not much is revealed (making the couple of details that are remembered starkly horrifying). She has that magic touch of being able to say profound things about life in beautifully limpid, naturalistic language.

The Past by Tessa Hadley – I became a fan of Hadley’s through her stories in the New Yorker. She has such a beautiful prose style, coupled with clear-eyed insight about people—women’s lives in particular. Without a lot of fanfare, she hones in on the moments that in retrospect are huge turning points. This story, about siblings and others gathering at their family’s country house for one last summer before selling it, is near perfect.

Career of Evil by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith – Another murder mystery in the Cormoran Strike series. Perfectly entertaining and fine, except that it’s hard not to see her strengths and faults thrown into relief. For me, I guess the disappointment has been in realizing that she has great imagination, but rather limited (or maybe old-fashioned) ideas. Still, I anticipate reading more of these.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin – In a land battered by geologic activity, some have the ability to control the earth. Strikingly original, with a narrative that jumps in time and POV (with a twist). I picked this up after reading an interview with Jemisin in the Guardian. It’s stuck with me long after I finished it. (Needless to say, I will be reading the sequel, The Obelisk Gate.)

The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho – This was a short, and I’m so glad I took a chance on it. A hilariously deadpan and imaginative vision of the afterlife that lingers in the mind.

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin –
Of course I had to read the finale of this epic vampire trilogy! We finally get the backstory of what went down in that Bolivian jungle so many years ago. Zero’s narrative felt a tiny bit underwhelming after the grand craziness of before. But I’ve loved the scale and sweep of this series. All in all, a mindblowing achievement.

Happy reading and happy summer everyone!

Books I’ve read lately

I feel guilt in so many ways, it’s rather pathetic that one of my profoundest guilts is that I read so many books and never post about them. This list doesn’t include a host of recent reads, but it is at least a first step!

The Vacationers, by Emma Straub
I started this, fittingly enough, in an airport. It’s an incredibly enjoyable read about a family of New Yorkers (plus friends, lovers, etc.) on a two-week vacation in Mallorca. Settled into the world’s most glorious vacation house, they work out their fates in a setting of primal beauty, their interactions observed with a sharp but compassionate humor that reminded me strongly of Meg Wolitzer. Incredible descriptions of food; this book is almost impossible to read without craving ham.

The Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands
A middle-grade novel about alchemy and derring-do set in mid-Seventeenth Century London. I loved how this book convinced me of its time period and setting without creating any distance with the characters or language. It’s full of puzzles and clues, danger, plots, and a very touching friendship. Highly recommended!

A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas
Sarah J. Maas is incredibly successful with YA fantasy, and though her books aren’t exactly my cup of tea, she’s hard to put down. I admire her storytelling, though I admit, I have a hard time with books where all the guys are hot, and where the girl somehow performs amazing feats against adversaries who should by all rights crush her immediately. Right there, you can see that I am totally missing the point! Sexy fairies!

Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins
Apocalyptic, literary, compelling, and beautifully written (gorgeous, gorgeous), but in the end, hard to warm to. I should have loved it, as it’s all about the desert and water and crazy, damaged people.

Underworld, by Don DeLillo
I don’t know why I picked this up. (Well, I do know, but the reasons are complicated and involve hard-to-articulate dislike for David Foster Wallace. I will stop there.) But it really is amazing. It is big and stuffed, and filled with things that feel like digressions (the Texas Highway Killer! OMG!) but actually are intrinsic, because they all fit together into American life. Before Underworld, I sometimes found DeLillo chilly. But the people in this book feel absolutely human and vital. And the baseball game prologue. That alone. Wow.

Books I read in middle school (or, confirmation of my arrested development)

I recently went through the exercise of trying to fill out my anemic Facebook profile. Part of this involved going through their ridiculous suggestions for books I’ve read (FB must have an idea of how old I am and they suggest as #1 book for me, The Lovely Bones, a book I absolutely REFUSE to read. I don’t even want to go into how lame their music suggestions were). Anyway, thinking back, I made a list of books that rocked my world in middle school. They are:

  • Gone With the Wind
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Far Pavilions (romantic blockbuster)
  • The Thorn Birds (another romantic blockbuster)
  • Silas Marner (complete anomaly – a neighbor gave me a copy)
  • The Once and Future King and Malory’s The Death of Arthur (dreamy sigh … Lancelot)

Notice: None of them really aimed at children. (This is in no ways bragging, rather exposure of myself as a total nerd in the days before good TV.)

I DO recall reading children’s books in my childhood. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Harriet the Spy, Jupiter Jones & the Three Investigators (does ANYONE remember those?). Ah, and The Dark Is Rising series. Loved those.

But I loathed sad-ish, lessony books, in other words, award winners. For instance, Island of the Blue Dolphins. I can’t go near that book, even now. It’s probably completely different from what I remember. But the slightest hint of loss and struggle and real-world grappling and having to grow… eeguh! Flowers for Algernon – we read that in seventh grade English maybe. Oh, the scars I carry. I remember turning to The Scarlet Letter of all books (*all* of it passing well overhead) as a way to escape the awful pity pudding of Flowers for Algernon. Or C.S. Lewis and The Last Battle?? Was there ever a worse end to an amazing series? I can’t ever go back to Narnia because I was so upset as a 12-year-old over what he put me through with that ending. I’m still angry!

Much better were books like Silas Marner and Oliver Twist – the cruelty of the world was buffered through the strangeness of the past and the hyperbole of the writing – as if it were all quite humorous and Swiftian. People starving and nearly dying by the side of the road! The innocents expiring with pious sighs! Of course, you knew it would end happily – it had to. Pot boiling melodrama demands it. That guarantee I think was essential. I read George Eliot and Dickens with a lot passing over my head, but I turned the pages, certain I would not have to confront too much melancholy.

Why did I hate well-meaning books? I wonder about this constantly. Because now I’m writing for children. And I find my dark view of the world seeping in, creating loss, thinking about growth and lessons. I think it’s possible to write for children about darkness, especially if done with taloned black humor. But I put it past my abilities to write anything earnest about the pain others go through.

Would my middle school self like the the stuff I’m writing now? I wonder. My middle school self desired fantasy, transformation, wings. But I wanted them all without cost. When’s the right time to learn the truth?

Highlights of 2013

I’m a little behind in wrapping up 2013, but I’m still going to do it! Or at least try to make some notes about what stuck with me, mostly in the cultural realm. In terms of actual life 2013 was an incredible year — all about pushing through and turning corners — but it was very very difficult. I’m so glad it’s behind me.

THE BIG NEWS

Cover of DreamwoodGuys, I did it. I finally finished up my book, which got a new name (Dreamwood) and went through copy edits, and now I have galleys. Actual honest-to-God ARCs. All I can say to everyone is thank you. Everyone who has expressed any interest or been supportive, it just means the world. You know what? I had the idea for this book about 10 years ago. It was a tiny little nubbin of an idea and I wrote some stuff down on legal pads and noodled. And then I went through a whole saga. Seriously a saga. But who cares about that now? Because it’s done! Honest! It comes out in June.

READING

I read fewer books than usual this year – about 25 – partly because I was so busy finishing up Dreamwood. Here are a few standouts, kids and adult books all mixed together:

A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipaul – easily my favorite book read in 2013. Wow.

Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan – This book has the most incredible voice. Willow is such an original, wonderful character, and her story had me wishing I could hug her.

Intuition, by C.J. Omololu – Ah, this book is fun. It’s a sequel that takes things to a new level, features one of the best love triangles I’ve read, and has you pondering the gift (or is it curse?) of being able to remember your past lives. I devoured it.

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin – more crazy vampire stuff on an epic scale by a really good writer. Increasingly you see lit fiction writers trying to write genre and they usually fail, which makes Justin Cronin all the more remarkable.

Canada, by Richard Ford – I was strangely taken by this. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I found myself thinking I preferred it even to The Sportswriter, even though it’s also ruminative to a fault.

MUSIC

This is the year I got way into Spotify. And I have to say, as a result, I’m listening to tons of music. Part of it is due to my day job, where I put the headphones on and try to laser focus. Here are my two most recent faves from 2013

Pusha T, My Name Is My Name – which was stripped down, minimal like Kanye’s Yeezus only not so overblown and without the lame lyrics (e.g., the infamous sweet and sour sauce line). This album had it all: hard, menacing (“King Push”), confessional storytelling (“Nosetalgia”), even the occasional dream (“Sweet Serenade”).

Deafheaven, Sunbather – Ha. Joke on me. Never thought I would listen to this kind of intense black metal but it’s amazing. It’s really hard to call out particular songs – but “Dreamhouse,” “Sunbather,” and “The Pecan Tree” are especially awesome.

MOVIES

Readers, I’m running out of steam on this blog post. Oh, I have so much to say about movies this year. But sadly not tonight. Before I go to bed here are my three favorites:

American Hustle

Spring Breakers

The Great Beauty

Happy 2014 to one and all!!!

The book opening that has me tingling with anticipation

What is it about the first lines of certain books? Can you just tell that something is going to be amazing from the way it begins?

Wanting something of a palate cleanser after the Jack Reacher novel I just devoured, this morning I randomly started “A Bend in the River” by V.S. Naipaul. Here is how it begins:

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn’t think I would have it easy when I took over. The country, like others in Africa, had had its troubles after independence. The town in the interior, at the bend in the great river, had almost ceased to exist; and Nazruddin said I would have to start from the beginning.

“At the bend in the great river” gives me chills. It’s like a fairy tale opening. But the specificity of “Nazruddin” (the mysterious Nazruddin) and the situation (which we grasp at once despite very few facts) make this utterly real. Also, there is a true confidence to the writing. It raises all kinds of interesting questions and sets the scene dead on. But it does everything without fanfare and histrionics.

 

Front Cover

 

A quick catch-up

I have sent in the latest revision on my book, and so now all that remains is to do all the things I have put off for the last several months. It turns out my dentist has put my records in storage–that is how bad things have gotten, upkeep-wise, chez moi.

In honor of the new year and the state of my bank account I have been taking public transportation into work, rather than driving in and paying the exorbitant parking lot fees in South Park, so I have been reading a bit more. Just finished Edward St. Aubyn’s magnificent Patrick Melrose novels. There is so much to say about these, and I am too tired and inarticulate to say it. But I will make this remark: I find it interesting that there are these certain English novels that simply begin by dropping you into situations or conversations without overly careful setup or “hooks.” (I guess I’m thinking of various Anthony Powell novels here.)

I’m now reading Heidi Julavits’ very enjoyable The Vanishers, which makes an interesting  contrast with St. Aubyn. Is it an American versus UK thing, I wonder? There’s definitely an American writing style that feels rather “optimized.”

I also recently read Laini Taylor’s Days of Blood and Starlight and Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone. If I can get to it will have to write more about both of these later!

Grasping at the straws of self-help

Exhausted, depressed, feeling sick. A bug bite on my knee (a round red circle, and I am paranoid that I have Lyme disease AGAIN!) I tried an exercise the other night that was helpful. Instead of getting so angry at things that weren’t the way I want them, I tried being grateful for the very things that are bugging me.

Like:

I am grateful for my job. It’s given me money, more professional self-confidence, and social interaction.

See how much better that feels?

In a bookstore the other day and experienced my usual feelings of despair at how even “big” well reviewed books look like so much unwanted junk once they are a year out in paperback with a sale sticker on them. Does nothing last? ? What’s the point of writing? I think the problem is probably all in my head – because I used to have so much time and energy and innocence and optimism for reading all kinds of books, and now I look at these books on tables and realize with a horrible pragmatism that the chances I’ll get around to reading any of them are slim to nil. Maybe what affects me so negatively in bookstores is actually nostalgia for my past self, that other reader who I used to be (up for anything!), and I’m grieving for her. I have reminders of her all around: that lovely Penguin copy of “The Vivisector” by Patrick White I’ll never get to, the Deleuze & Guattari  sitting unread in the office. Good Lord!

For my book, I tell myself the only thing I can do is try to write with charm. Create the character you want to be, the world you want to live in. Make it the thing you want to carry with you and hug to your pillow each night.

My superhuman reading and viewing

You know what? I am totally exhausted. I don’t even want to go into the reasons for this (they have something to do with competitive youth soccer, more and more and more work, and the novel that I’m STILL revising at night when I should be sleeping). I just basically go around moaning like an undead mom from hell. And yet, somehow, tapping superhuman reserves of energy, I’ve managed to read a few books lately and even seen a couple movies.

I’m just about to finish Gretchen McNeil’s Ten, which has been a super enjoyable and suspenseful YA read with the perfect setting for a murder mystery. At a much more leisurely pace, I’ve made my way through Kate Christensen’s The Astral, which I expected to like better – but it’s been interesting precisely in the moments it frustrates. Recently finished Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, which is beautifully written – my substitute for a beach vacation since I didn’t go anywhere this summer – and which makes me hope she’ll tackle something more ambitious next time.  Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? was amazing – at times I felt the book was transcribing directly from my mind, other times I was like, who is this chick? Both great feelings to encounter. More YA: I managed to polish off Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns (really interesting for how the protagonist grows and changes) and Cate Tiernan’s fantastic  Immortal Beloved (I’m, um, developing a thing for hot immortal Vikings).  But the book that gave me huge pleasure was Charles Portis’s True Grit, which I finally got around to reading. My copy has  a wonderful afterword by Donna Tartt.

I haven’t seen too many movies, but I did get to see Julie Delpy’s Two Days in New York in the theater (and if you see that and do not love Julie Delpy do not tell me that because I do not want to know. Bargaining for her soul with Vincent Gallo – yes!!). Then on video was The Raid: Redemption, which I had high expectations for but in the end found myself more intrigued simply by the Indonesian angle. The fight scenes were good, yeah, but without there being that much in terms of characters it was hard to care. It also had (particularly at the end) ponderous doses of that hard guy sentimentalism I associate with the John Woo school of action films (though, sadly, no white doves). ParaNorman with the kids: fun at first, before all the bite goes out. Then an interminable Five-Year Engagement. I hate it when I’m stuck in a romantic comedy and am rooting for the couple to break up.

Anthony Powell on the sofa

Anthony PowellJust a quick post, as this is too long for Twitter, but I must say something about how much I love Anthony Powell. I am reading an interview with him in the Paris Review from 1978. This piece is so steeped in Englishness that reading it is like taking a vacation (Lady Violet, his wife, brings in tea at 5 o’clock; Powell repositions Flixie Fum his Burmese cat and lies down on the sofa to submit to the interview, occasionally feeding logs to the fire in his “grey limestone mansion,” The Chantry).

I’m not done with it yet, but here is one bit I really liked:

I do think that if a book is really well written, it’s terribly difficult to see how it’s done. I think it’s part of the mystery of writing that the real great hands always conceal how they do it. And an awful lot of bad writing is due to people trying to write like great writers and not really seeing that the outer covering has nothing to do with it at all.

So true! (I know, because I’ve done plenty of the bad writing that is trying to be like great writers’ writing!)

And here, just for fun, is his recollection of an unprofitable stint in Hollywood:

Yes, I was married in 1934 and they were just preparing a film called A Yank at Oxford, and my agent thought it might be possible for me to get in on that. Well, we arrived in Hollywood, and as I’ve said before, the only interesting thing was that we did meet Scott Fitzgerald who was working on A Yank at Oxford. Otherwise, one just tagged round and saw a few people, but I never got a job there. Again, you must remember that when you’re that age you don’t know all sorts of things you learn later on. Now my plan was to work there for about a year, earn as much as possible and then come home. But now I realize this would have been very difficult to do. It’s much more likely that like Fitzgerald one would have been sucked into this really appalling machine and spent the rest of one’s life working night and day in order to maintain a hideously expensive standard of living.

Train Dreams

The other night I was working late, and trying to shift my mind and wind down for sleep, I ended up fishing Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” out of a pile of unread books.

What a book! I finished it that night, reading in one big gulp. The whole experience felt dreamlike and strange, and I found myself staring at the cover: a simple black and white landscape by Thomas Hart Benton of a horse racing a train. I’m still a bit under its spell.

I don’t think there’s anyone like Johnson for beautiful writing that feels somehow tossed off and vernacular. The most gorgeous sentences go past almost without you even noticing how perfect they are. The other thing – to me, his books feel so truly American. It’s the poetry they make of landscape, violence, work, and mysticism.

A long thaw had come earlier in the month. The snow was melted out of the ruts. Bare earth showed off in the woods. But now, again, the weather was freezing, and Grainier hoped he wouldn’t end up bringing in a corpse dead of the cold.

In this scene, Robert Grainier, the main character, is transporting a man who’s been shot in the shoulder by his dog (it’s a long story). It’s a brilliant miniature of absurdity and awe – kind of like “Emergency” in Jesus’s Son.

Grainier disliked the shadows, the spindly silhouettes of birch trees, and the clouds strung around the yellow half-moon. It all seemed designed to frighten the child in him. “Sir, are you dead?” he asked Peterson.

“Who? Me? Nope. Alive,” said Peterson.

I usually distrust short books, often feeling that their writers are trying to palm something off not properly formed. Or, with dread, I anticipate they will be overly poetical, though not with the rigor of actual poems. And I’ll get into it – make the investment and commitment you do with any book – only to discover there’s not much there. (Maybe this is my problem with tapas restaurants.) But reading “Train Dreams” I realized there is another category of short books – books that would be worse for being longer, books that somehow perfectly compress something huge and large as life into a small form.