Since I started a (very very small) publishing company a few months ago, published my book of poetry, and have been working on writing novels (two in progress, zero finished so far), and have been learning more about self-publishing, I really need to reinvigorate this blog. I cleaned up a few things a couple months ago, but there’s still a lot to do, and I’m thinking it’s about time I switched from Blogger to WordPress. The guys who do The Self-Publishing Podcast (which I discovered when I found their book, Write. Publish. Repeat, at the library) have talked a bit about “digital sharecropping,” I think they called it, and the importance of having your own space on the internet. As long as I’m on Blogger, I’m basically at the mercy of Google. Like millions of other people, I love many things about Google, but the idea of controlling my own space is very appealing. My business, and my writing career, is still in its fledgling state, and will be for some months to come (but not years — please, Lord, let it be months and not years!), but I want it to grow and succeed. Getting a “real” web host, making the blog a bit more “professional,” and posting more often — even if it’s only short updates like this one — are reasonable steps I can take, and should take, toward gradually growing my business.
“Fair enough,” Matty said, and immediately he wished he hadn’t. She had once accused him of saying that — “fair enough” — way too often and in response to things that weren’t fair enough at all, and then they’d gotten into a fight about it, his gist being, did she have to be such a bitch, and her gist being, she wouldn’t have to be such a bitch if he didn’t say “fair enough” all the time. (pp. 26-27)
In this way, Henry learned several things.That once Americans were out of the cold and in their trucks, they did not like to get back out into the cold, even if it meant making the inside of their trucks as cold as the outside; that American weathermen liked to refer to snow as “the white stuff”; that American sports talk radio announcers liked to say about something, “There’s no doubt about it,” before then expressing their many doubts about it; that American political commentators liked to preface their comments by saying, “No offense,” before then saying something offensive (the political commentator on the radio had said to whomever he was talking to, “No offense, but you have to be the stupidest human being on the planet”); that Americans were very impatient people with very short attention spans; that Americans believed as long as they were inside their trucks they were invisible, and that as long as they smoked cigarettes inside their trucks they would not then smell like cigarettes once they exited their trucks, and that in general Americans thought their trucks were magic; that while Europeans tended to think of Americans as people who liked to drive incredibly long distances in their pickup trucks, in fact Americans liked to drive incredibly short distances in their pickup trucks as well. These were the lessons Henry learned about Americans during his first minute in Ellen’s truck, and not once was he forced to reconsider them during all his days in Broomeville. (p. 92)
I loved taking the crazy journeys Clarke maps out in this novel. I was interested in his previous novel because of its unusual title, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, but hadn’t actually read it. Now that I’ve read The Happiest People twice, I decided to purchase that earlier book for my ereader. I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.
This was a slightly disappointing reading year, in that I only read about 35 books. Part of this is because I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November and didn’t read much of anything as I tried to focus on writing. I also didn’t listen to as many audiobooks this year as I usually do, choosing more often to listen to podcasts. Still, I did read some very good stuff, and wanted to do a top ten list to make sure those books I enjoyed but didn’t review would get a little end-of-year attention.
1. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
This memoir by Roz Chast is the first graphic memoir/novel/anything that I’ve ever read. I bought the brand-new hardcover after hearing about it on the Slate Audio Book Club podcast. Listening to Dan Kois and Hanna Rosin reading a section in the voices of Roz’s parents, I was overcome with laughter, and also, having grown up in my own hoarders-like situation, I knew there would be parts I could relate to. This book is hysterically funny, at times heartbreaking, completely honest, and full of awesome. Everyone should read it.
2. Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
In a year when I didn’t blog as much as I would have liked, and didn’t review as many books as I’d hoped to (in both cases, I realize that’s the same story as EVERY year, but I digress), I did post a review of this amazing debut novel by David Connerley Nahm. I skimmed through several best-of-the-year roundups online, and didn’t see this novel on any of them. WHY DO I HAVE TO SAY THIS AGAIN?? GO FIND THIS BOOK AND READ IT!!
3. Station Eleven
This is the fourth book by Emily St. John Mandel, and her breakout. I was lucky to be one of the first to get it from my local library, and I read the whole thing in one day, during the October Read-a-thon. It’s post-apocalyptic and literary, with both smarts and heart, and unlike the Nahm book, it actually DID make many best-of-the-year lists, deservedly so. Count me on the bandwagon.
4. Can’t and Won’t
Lydia Davis has become a favorite of mine, and this one, her latest collection of stories (some short, and some short-short), was a solid effort. A handful of the pieces didn’t do it for me, but overall, this book was a joy. Like Ancient Oceans, this is one I initially got from the library, and then bought my own copy because I liked it so much. I now have most of Davis’s books, and really I should just plan to buy the new ones as they come out because I can’t imagine not liking them.
5. The Days of Abandonment
This was the first book I read by elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante. I bought it at the library book sale a few years ago, and finally read it because of the World Cup of Literature event hosted by Three Percent. It was blisteringly angry, and also maybe a little crazy. I bought into it, and I loved it. I bought another Ferrante book soon after finishing this one, so definitely plan to read more of her.
Like the Ferrante novel, this book by Maggie Nelson sat on my bedside table for a LOOONG TIIIIME, while I hoped to write a review or at least post some of the passages I liked best. (As usual, I didn’t get to it.) It’s hard to say whether this book is prose, or prose poetry, or something else I don’t have a name for. It consists of over 100 passages and short paragraphs, all numbered, all growing from thoughts about the color blue — thus the title. This book isn’t for everyone: there are F-bombs in it, and sexually graphic moments, and you might wonder if Nelson has them in there merely to shock the reader or to make some point that’s not entirely clear. But good heavens, a lot of the sections in the book are SO BEAUTIFUL, so finely-crafted and moving, I don’t even care about the comparatively small number that mention screwing and sodomy and what-have-you. I’d really like to read more by Nelson, and look forward to hearing what she’ll do next.
7. My Life in Middlemarch
This book by Rebecca Mead is part memoir, part biography of George Eliot, and part literary criticism/appreciation of Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. As a huge fan of Middlemarch, I was eager to read this book, and it didn’t disappoint. It brought me to tears several times. My only problem with it is that it’s the kind of book I would have wanted to write, and Mead has already written it, dammit. Since she’s British, and read Middlemarch far earlier in life than I did, she clearly had an advantage over me anyway, so I forgive her, and truly appreciate her work. Moreover, she brought attention to Middlemarch, and that makes me very happy.
8. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
Confession: I listened to Jenny Lawson’s “mostly true memoir” on audio, very early in 2014, and haven’t revisited it. But when I looked at the list of books I read during the year, and saw this title, all I could think of was how incredibly funny it was — I mean laughed-till-I-cried, might-need-my-inhaler, almost-wetting-my-pants, loud-guffaws-in-public kind of funny. Anything that makes me laugh that hard is always worth my time. If you like funny books and you don’t mind one that includes at least 85 occurrences of the word “vagina,” give this one a shot.
9. Home Leave
I got an ARC of Brittani Sonnenberg’s debut novel from LibraryThing, so I’ve already written a review of it, and don’t need to say much more. I really admired all the different perspectives, and the variety of styles, that Sonnenberg used to tell this story. That willingness to experiment helps her to stand out from the crowd.
10. Bury Me in My Jersey
This one is a memoir by Tom McAllister, a writer who also co-hosts my favorite podcast, Book Fight! Because I love the podcast, I was probably predisposed to enjoy the book. Moreover, since it’s a memoir, and I know Tom’s voice from the podcast, I could “hear” him narrating as I read it. A big part of the book is about Tom’s adolescence and young adulthood in and around Philadelphia, and specifically his family’s devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Tom’s experiences in Eagles fandom, and the loss of his father to cancer when Tom was only 20, are woven together into a mosaic of love for both family and a wider community (in this case, both fellow Eagles fans and Philly itself), and of grief at losing his dad when he still badly needed his dad’s guidance and encouragement. I’ve learned a decent amount about basketball and baseball from my husband and sons, but I still know almost nothing about football, and I’m happy to remain in ignorance. And yet, I enjoyed this book very much. It doesn’t matter if you have an interest in football, or in any kind of “fandom,” or if you’ve lost a loved one too soon, or like to read about father-son relationships, or you’ve considered writing as your vocation but don’t see how you could ever actually do it — there is something in McAllister’s book for all of these readers. And if you’re like me, and you’ve listened to enough episodes of the Book Fight! podcast that you can tell which voice is Tom’s and which is Mike’s, then you should definitely read Tom’s book. Like, stop reading this now and go find a copy!
Cheers to discovering some excellent books in 2014, and let’s hope 2015 is full of fantastic reading!
(Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.)
Most of my November writing will be for NaNoWriMo, but I saw this topic today and had to join in. Links are to my reviews or to “appreciation” posts about the books mentioned.
The Stand — Stephen King
I read this when I was about 19 or 20 years old, and I remember loving it. I also loved the mini-series that aired a few years later. While I re-watched the mini-series a couple of times, I don’t think I’ve ever reread the book. It’s been over 20 years, and I still have it, so I really should find the time to revisit it.
The Madness of a Seduced Woman — Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
A co-worker lent me a copy of this book was I was about 17. Not only did I love it, but Schaeffer became one of my favorite novelists. I’ve read her book The Injured Party at least four times, but I’ve never reread this one. Since it was the first one I read by her — and yes, I have my own copy now — I’d love to read it again.
The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors — Michele Young-Stone
Another one I loved to pieces. I recently got a digital ARC of Michele Young-Stone’s next novel, and it makes me want to experience The Handbook all over again.
Middlemarch — George Eliot
Because I’ve only listened to the audiobook three times, and that’s not nearly enough!
The Passage — Justin Cronin
I bought and read this when it first came out, and then I reread it two years ago before reading the second book in the trilogy, The Twelve. I’m planning to read BOTH of them again when we get close to the release date for the third book — which is sometime in 2015, but not soon enough for me!
Tinkers — Paul Harding
I read this three or four years ago. I thought the writing was beautiful, but I didn’t truly appreciate it. When I read Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky last month, it reminded me of Tinkers. I think I’d get more out of this if I read it a second time.
My Cousin Rachel — Daphne du Maurier
This one is a similar situation to the Schaeffer book: I read My Cousin Rachel first, enjoyed it, and then went on to buy and read a bunch more books by Daphne du Maurier. (I actually own a pile by her that I haven’t read yet — she wrote A LOT of books!) Since it was my first du Maurier, and it was so long ago, I’d like to go back to it.
King Dork — Frank Portman
This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read — laugh-so-hard-my-stomach-hurts kind of funny.
Florida — Christine Schutt
This book mesmerized me. I’ve since read two other novels by Schutt, and one story collection, and they were all good, but they didn’t infect me the way Florida did.
Appetites: Why Women Want — Caroline Knapp
I’ve struggled with my addictive tendencies, and still do too much emotional overeating. This book touched me deeply, and I probably should have read it again before now.
Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is the kind of book that can cast a spell over you, one that pulls you in. The writing is so beautiful, and the book’s mood so evocative, after you finish it, you’ll find yourself wanting to read it again.
I learned about this debut novel when the author, David Connerley Nahm, was interviewed on Brad Listi’s Other Ppl podcast. (That’s the podcast formerly known as Other People, which is still called “Other People” but is now spelled in that shorter and hipper style.) During the interview, I heard that the book was getting good reviews, that it involved kids telling scary stories, that Nahm is actually a practicing lawyer, and that he spent fifteen years (off and on) writing this novel. I decided to check my public library‘s catalog, and was amazed to see that it had been pre-ordered. (This appears to be the first book published by Two Dollar Radio that my library has purchased.) When it was available and I checked it out, I was honored and excited to see I was the first person to borrow it!
The book is about Leah Shepherd, a woman directing a non-profit agency in her hometown of Crow Station, Kentucky. When she was about ten years old, her younger brother, Jacob, went missing. He was never found, neither alive nor dead. The story is told by a third-person narrator who might be omniscient, but if he is, he certainly doesn’t tell us everything. Most of the book is written from Leah’s perspective, though some of the short sections put us inside other characters’ heads — primarily Leah’s mother, but also her father, and Jacob (in flashbacks). There are also passages about the everyday life of the town and its residents, which add to the immediacy of the story. I felt like I was inside the skin of everyone in Crow Station.
The story is not linear, and there’s not much “action.” Instead, Nahm masterfully takes us inside Leah’s thoughts, emotions, and memories. We see her at work, or walking outside, or talking with her mother, and alongside the mundane activities of most days, we watch her mind wander, and we learn about her past. Through her, we get to know Jacob, find out what they both were like as children, and share the confusion and grief the family felt when Jacob first disappeared, and in the months and years that followed. In the same way that people get distracted, or if they see or hear something that reminds them of something else — perhaps from far away and many years in the past — the novel follows Leah’s trains of thought more than any kind of plot.
The best thing about Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is the quality of the writing. At the most basic level — sentences and paragraphs — this is truly a fantastic book. Here are a few excerpts to give you a sense of the style:
It is impossible to sleep in such heat, the body turning and twisting and tacky with sweat, so everyone stays up all night, listening to the chorus of crickets sounding the depth of the dark. And every night is every night that ever was all at once and every lonely boy prone in his bed is every lonely girl prone in hers, chests heaving with that painful pressure of hoping that there is someone out there unable to sleep on their account. The thunder ends. The crickets quiet. The houses settle and the only sound left is heavy breath in the night air. They get up, walk to the window and stare out at the dark yard, shallow breaths catching as they watch the shifting shape of the shadows, but it was nothing, they are certain, nothing but breeze, nothing, they are certain. (p. 28)
Distant howls and cries. They crept up the stairs toward a dim hallway and heard a voice, distant and low, and they knew that they’d found the horrific heart of the crumbling maze and would have to face the creature that writhed there. They peeked around the corner, to see what they could see. (p. 14)
And for this one, part of a description of Leah’s workplace, I just had to share a photo of page 69 so you’d get the full effect:
As I read Ancient Oceans, the other book that kept coming to mind was Tinkers by Paul Harding, another stream-of-consciousness type of novel with gorgeous language, that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Do I need to say more than that? David Connerley Nahm is a gifted writer, and I hope this novel becomes one of those small press success stories. And then, I hope he can find time to write more beautiful books.
I took the day off from work, but since the boys were also out of school, and Jeff left a to-do list for me, I haven’t had a chance to do what I’d originally planned to do today: to get some more of my books in order before the read-a-thon, and do some of the housecleaning I won’t do tomorrow because I will be reading. So, this is not a long or fancy or detailed post, but just a quick one to say:
Updating at 2pm Central Time, 10/18
The read-a-thon started at 7am my time, but I didn’t start reading until 8. My progress so far:
8-9am: Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Gluck (poems), 35 p.
9-10am: Gluck, 23 p.
10-11am: Gluck, 11 p. (finished book)
11am-12noon: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (novel), 18 p.
noon-1pm: Mandel, 24 p.
1-2pm: none — I had lunch, looked at a few blogs, then took a shower and got dressed. I feel refreshed and am ready to get back to Station Eleven, which is very good so far!
Chris Kriegstein is a man on the move, with a global career that catapults his family across North America, Europe, and Asia. For his wife, Elise, the hardship of chronic relocation is soothed by the allure of reinvention. Over the years, Elise shape-shifts: once a secretive Southern Baptist, she finds herself becoming a seasoned expat in Shanghai, an unapologetic adulterer in Thailand, and, finally, a renowned interior decorator in Madison.But it’s the Kriegstein daughters, Leah and Sophie, who face the most tumult. Fiercely protective of each other — but also fiercely competitive — the two sisters long for stability in an ever-changing environment. With each new move, the girls find they can count on only one thing: the consoling, confounding presence of each other.When the family suffers an unimaginable loss, they can’t help but wonder: Was it meant to be, or did one decision change their lives forever? And what does it mean when home is everywhere and nowhere at the same time? With humor and heart, Brittani Sonnenberg chases this wildly loveable family through the excitement and anguish of their adventures around the world.
A blogger who goes by Biblibio (and only just posted her real name this last week) created an event called Women in Translation Month, to increase awareness of books in translation written by female authors, and to highlight the fact that there are far more books by men translated into English than books by women. You can read more about it on the Biblibio blog.
I’ve been following her posts all month and wanting to join in, if only in a small way, and finally have a small window of time to get this review up. Back in the spring of 2012, I won a copy of the novel The Hunger Angel by Nobel Prize-winning German author Herta Müller through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewers program. (It wasn’t an ARC, but an actual hardcover book — very rare in LTER giveaways! Many thanks to Henry Holt and Company, and of course to LibraryThing, for the opportunity to read and review the book.) I posted my review on LT in August 2012, but it appears that I never posted a review here on the blog. So, I decided to copy it here from LT, in recognition of #WITMonth. I’m thrilled that Biblibio decided to create this event, and I hope it has brought some much-needed attention to women writers in translation, and the fact that we need more of them!
The Hunger Angel tells the story of 17-year-old Leo Auberg’s deportation to a Soviet labor camp, and the five years he spent there. If you read novels mainly for plot or character development, this one might not be for you. It helps to know BEFORE you try to read it that the story isn’t really linear, but could instead be called episodic. The chapters are very short, and some of them describe actions and events that occur during Leo’s time in the labor camp. However, some of them are primarily descriptive; their purpose is not to move the story forward, but to add another layer to our understanding of Leo’s experiences in the camp.
Because the chapters are short and serve these two different purposes, I found some to be more interesting than others. It also made for a slightly disorienting reading experience. But the book is well worth reading — for the power of the writing and language, and the light it shines on a dark period in history. Müller places Leo’s focus on physical experiences and specific objects, and this stylistic decision draws the reader into the labor camp. I believe that reading this novel is MEANT to be disorienting, that the reader SHOULD feel a sense of unreality and nightmare, in between moments of hypnotic focus on physical objects.
Müller made the not-uncommon decision to omit quotation marks from the novel. At some point while I read, I realized that it also contains no question marks. In the translator’s note at the end of the book, Philip Boehm confirms that he followed this stylistic choice from the German original — and that’s where I learned there are also no semi-colons in the book. The limited punctuation adds to the reader’s confusion and disorientation, particularly when reading a sentence that is obviously a question. The last sentence in the chapter called “Cement” is, “So why can’t I disappear” (p. 33). This happens again and again, increasing the sense of confusion and dislocation.
Don’t read The Hunger Angel looking for plot, and don’t try too hard to keep track of all the characters mentioned — many of them are not clearly defined, and not too important in themselves. Read it to admire the way Müller uses language to bring this dark history to life, and to pull you into Leo’s world.
Self-doubting Ruth is coddled by her immigrant mother, who uses food to soothe and control. Defiant Francesca believes her heavy frame shames her Park Avenue society mother and, to provoke her, consumes everything in sight. Lonely Opal longs to be included in her glamorous mother’s dinner dates—until a disturbing encounter forever changes her desires. Finally, Setsu, a promising violinist, staves off conflict with her jealous brother by allowing him to take the choicest morsels from her plate—and from her future. College brings the four young women together as suitemates, where their stories and appetites collide. Here they make a pact to maintain their friendships into adulthood, but each must first find strength and her own way in the world.
When it was fairly new, my book group read Bee Season by Myla Goldberg. I liked it very much, and I think most of the other members of the group felt the same way. I had purchased the book, and I still have it. Of course, it was a bestseller, and was eventually adapted into a movie (which I never did see — by then we had kids and less free time).
Around the time when her follow-up, Wickett’s Remedy, was published, Myla Goldberg was at a book event — might have been Book Expo America, but I’m not sure — and she gave a talk about some of the research she had done for the new book. (I watched this talk on television — specifically, on Book TV.) She mentioned spending time in the reading room of New York Public Library, and requesting some World War I-era newspapers from the closed stacks. She talked about the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. Her enthusiasm for her subjects, and for library research, made me like her even more than I’d liked her first book.
In 2007, I came across the audiobook of Wickett’s Remedy at the library, and checked it out. I was interested to hear the story, but doubly intrigued when I saw that Myla Goldberg was narrating it. Many authors are NOT great narrators, but having seen that talk on Book TV, I thought Goldberg might pull it off. She did not disappoint, and I fell in love with this novel. I even have it in my Favorites collection on LibraryThing.
The reviews were mixed for this book. Part of this has got to be because Bee Season was such a hit, and it would be hard for the next book to live up to that. (All this talk about Donna Tartt, who just won the Pulitzer for heaven’s sake for The Goldfinch, her third novel, and how much people still love her debut, The Secret History, after all these years, and all they say about the second novel is, “Oh, she did have The Little Friend in between, but that wasn’t as well-received.” So a bit of sophomore slump is fairly common. Okay, sorry for the long aside.) But also, readers who were expecting something in the same vein as Bee Season were in for a bit of a shock. While the first book is contemporary, the second is set in Boston during the 1910s, and the largest part of the story is set around 1917 and 1918, with the backdrop of America’s entrance into World War I, and the Spanish influenza epidemic. Bee Season, as I recall, has a fairly traditional, mostly linear narrative, while Wickett’s is a patchwork of voices and formats.
People who like mixed formats and somewhat experimental fiction, along with multiple narratives and timelines, should really try Wickett’s. The main story is about Lydia Kilkenny, a young woman from an Irish Catholic South Boston family who works in a department store, meets and marries a medical student named Henry Wickett, then helps him to develop a “remedy” to ease people’s minor ills. The secondary storyline is about a man named Quentin Driscoll and his “QD Soda,” a product and company launched around 1918. These parts of the story are primarily told through excerpts from a newsletter, the “QDISPATCH” or “QD Dispatch,” dated in the early 1990s. (Some of the QD stuff is maybe longer than it needs to be, but I found it mostly entertaining. And think about branding, brand loyalty, and consumer culture as it is today, and the QD Soda Company doesn’t seem like a big stretch.)
The book also includes articles and letters from newspapers, many of which are taken directly from newspapers of that period. (In the audio, the news articles are accompanied by the clacking of typewriter keys.) While we spend much of the book very close to Lydia, the news clippings add a sense of the epidemic’s scope, its terrible impact beyond the Boston of the novel. The Quentin Driscoll storyline also includes some correspondence: letters from an elderly man to his son, and from the management of a nursing facility to Ralph Finnister, the CEO of QD Soda in the 1990s.
Finally, there are the voices of those who have passed on, speaking from beyond the grave, giving further perspectives on the main action of the novel. So, while Lydia’s story is the largest part of the novel, and it’s written in typical third-person, linear fashion, it’s surrounded by notes in the margins, where these other people are adding their two cents to the narrative. I would guess this is the most disorienting part of reading the print version of the book, and it could have been frustrating to me as well. It might be difficult to know exactly where to “insert” the additional comments so that they fit into the flow of the story. Because I listened to the audio version, I didn’t have to make those decisions, it was all just read to me. Moreover, they are narrated by other people, not by Myla Goldberg, so it’s always clear that it’s an aside from a voice beyond, a sidestep from the main story. The CD’s box says, “Read by the Author, with David Aaron Baker, Chris Burns, Ilyana Kadushin and Stina Nielsen.”
The additional narrators and occasional sound effects help to bring the action to life. Goldberg’s lively delivery makes her a great companion as you follow Lydia’s journey from home to marriage, through grief, to the discovery of her true calling, and toward renewed hope. Wickett’s Remedy has a sense of immediacy that brought me into Lydia’s life, and inside the influenza epidemic, and quite simply touched my heart. I wish more readers, and audiobook fans, might give it a try, and some of them fall in love with it as I did.