Category Archives: Books

Reading Round-Up, 2/4/2014

First of all, let me say that posting around here will be light for the foreseeable future. And I apologize for dropping out of the blogging world as far as commenting goes. But the usual busyness — job, baby, life stuff — has been made more complicated by the fact that we are now trying to sell our house. This has required ungodly amounts of cleaning and also putting many of my books into storage, in the name of making our house look less cluttered. We have emptied the house of five large bookcases. It’s painful not to have those books around, although having gotten those books temporarily out of the way will make moving day decidedly less painful. But I have no idea when moving day will be — our house could be on the market another week, another month, another year, no idea — and I don’t like not having my books right here. Um, okay, I have lots of books left, it’s not like I’m living in a bookless house, but just the other day I wanted to reread the opening pages of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and I couldn’t! Frustrating.

So, here is some recent reading:

  • James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, which is part of the Tournament of Books. Actually, most of the books I’ve read in the last few weeks have been part of the tournament. I liked this book, although I didn’t fall in love. The opening sections were enthralling as I read about life in Kansas in the 1850s. McBride captures the wildness and danger of it so well. He also creates a wonderful character in John Brown. I thought the book needed some more editing, though, and it felt too long. But his language is amazing, and he deals with some interesting gender and race issues with his main character.
  • Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. This was a strange reading experience. The book is very long and very plotty, and neither of these attributes is something I really enjoy. But I liked this book. The way the plot unfurls is mesmerizing. Catton has such perfect control over her material that following the plot twists and turns was satisfying. And over time, she creates memorable characters whose lives and fates I came to care about. She also does a brilliant job of capturing the world of the gold rush in 1860s New Zealand. I’m not sure I would ever want to reread this book, though. It’s beautiful, brilliant, moving — but is it a truly great book? I’m not sure.
  • Margaret Millar’s Beast In View. This was my choice for the most recent meeting of my mystery book group. I liked it, although I felt a little disappointed that I didn’t like it more. But it really was good — tightly constructed, chillingly atmospheric and creepy. The psychologizing felt a little too easy to me, which I think was my main problem with it. But Millar was great at keeping the plot going at a good pace and making you feel uneasy and unsettled in the way good thrillers do.
  • Scott McClanahan’s Hill William. This book could easily be a novella. But the large margins and abundant white space that make this book 220 pages serve a good function: the writing has a spare quality to it that invites you to slow down and reread and linger over the language. It’s about a boy growing up in the mountains of West Virginia, dealing with sexual abuse by an older neighborhood boy and also becoming more and more aware of the depredations done to the landscape around him by miners. The book is dark, but also beautifully written and moving. Very good.
  • Lastly, I just finished Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. It was good, not at all surprising in terms of the plot, but with two good main characters. I liked Eleanor very much. This was entertaining, fun, difficult to put down.

I’m in the middle of reading Maggie Nelson’s book Jane: A Murder. It’s part poetry, part bits of journals, books and newspapers. It tells the story of the murder of Nelson’s aunt who died when she was 23, before Nelson was born. The book is Nelson’s attempts to understand and respond to what happened to her aunt and how it affected her own life.

I also plan on picking up Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel The Signature of All Things and maybe also Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division. So, lots of good reading going on around here, in spite of the busyness.

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Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

What a wonderful thing that Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn was the most recent pick for the Slaves of Golconda reading group (in which everyone is welcome to participate!). I’d read du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, and liked it very much, but somehow I never got around to reading further in her work. But I loved Jamaica Inn and am inspired to read more du Maurier now. The novel surprised me. After reading Rebecca the plot twists and turns and the moodiness and sensationalism of it weren’t a surprise, but I expected it to be another novel that takes place in a big house amongst people with wealth. However, Jamaica Inn is very much a novel of the lower classes; it takes place among farms and tiny villages and its characters are smugglers and horse thieves.

The novel tells the story of Mary Yellan, a 23-year-old who has just lost her mother and now, to fulfill a promise, has gone to live with her Aunt Patience. The last time Mary met Patience, she was happy and full of life, but things have changed: Patience has married Joss Merlyn, a surly, violent man who now runs Jamaica Inn, a place strangely devoid of customers — and a place that, mysteriously, no one wants to talk about. As Mary settles in to Jamaica Inn, she becomes determined to get her aunt away from her husband and into a better situation, but she gets unwillingly caught up in her uncle’s doings — which she realizes are worse and worse the longer she lives there — and becomes more and more miserable.

There are two sources of hope for Mary, although neither is particularly hopeful. The first is Joss Merlyn’s brother, Jem, who cheerfully admits he is a horse thief but whose involvement in his brother’s darker doings is uncertain. He is a mysterious figure whom Mary doesn’t trust, but something continually draws her back to him. The other figure of hope, a more substantial one, is a local vicar, Francis Davey, who treats Mary kindly, but who is distant and almost otherworldly. Something about him doesn’t sit right with Mary. But she is on her own and needs to take help wherever she can find it.

The novel started off just a tad slowly for me, but once it gets going, the plotting is very well done — the novel is suspenseful and exciting. Okay, I could figure out roughly where things were going, but there were plenty of surprises and du Maurier kept me glued to the book. In addition to the plot, though, there is much to appreciate. The novel is set in Cornwall, which du Maurier evokes beautifully. The sea, the moors, the marshes, the country roads are all integral parts of the book. Mary is a champion walker, and I could feel the rain and the wind as I read about her exploratory rambles around Jamaica Inn.

Mary is a fascinating character, spirited and independent, as I imagine her Aunt Patience once was. She is often doing things that other characters think women shouldn’t do: taking those long walks unaccompanied, for example, often in circumstances that would frighten just about anyone. She frequently thinks that all she wants to do is live a man’s life, which is to say, she wants to work a farm independently, as a man would. She has no aspirations to marry, as she knows marriage can often lead to subjection and misery, as it did for her aunt. She knows how the world works and what she needs to do to keep herself safe.

She is not a complete loner (although, appealingly, she prefers people who know how to keep quiet when they should to those who will talk nervously through any situation); she has fond memories of living in her small village with her mother, knowing all the people who live around her and being able to count on them for help. She wants a community and to know her place within it, and she is not interested in social climbing; when offered the opportunity to live with a family from a higher class than hers, she rejects it, knowing it’s not her place.

On the one hand, Mary knows who she is and what she wants out of life, but, on the other, there is something appealing about excitement and newness, an appeal that is reflected in the wild landscape surrounding her. At times the rough winds of Cornwall are frightening and lonesome, but at others, they are exhilarating. Perhaps Mary isn’t so sure what she wants out of life after all.

Jamaica Inn is so different from Rebecca that I wonder what du Maurier’s other novels are like. I’m looking forward to finding out.

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Reading Round-Up, 1/12/2014

It’s been over a month since I’ve done one of these round-up posts, and in that time, I’ve only properly reviewed one book. What have I been up to? The books I’ve read since last time I did a round-up include:

  • Alix Kates Schulman’s memoir Drinking the Rain. I liked this, although I thought it started a little slowly. You have to have a fairly large appetite for nature writing in the book’s first section, although it is beautifully written and interesting. Basically, Schulman retreats to an isolated primitive cabin in Maine to live on her own. Later parts of the book include more of Schulman’s past life — her involvement with the feminist movement, her marriage, her writing. There’s lots of interesting stuff here.
  • Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory, a short collection of feminist essays, and also an Emily Books pick. Really great cultural criticism.
  • Victor LaValle’s The Ecstatic. This reminded me a little of A.M. Homes’s writing in the way it’s realistic fiction but turned up just a notch — the people are a little larger, wackier, and stranger than in real life, and more stuff happens to them than happens to most people. I liked it.
  • Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, which I wrote about in my previous post.
  • Laura Kipnis’s Against Love. I started off loving this and continued to like it to the end, although the tone began to feel a little same-y after a while. But this book is a great critique of contemporary ideas about marriage and fidelity. I finished reading it not feeling against love, exactly, but definitely against social expectations that people fit into one model for how relationships should go (which I was already, but still).
  • Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Review forthcoming!

As for current and upcoming reading, any plan I previously had got disrupted by the publication of the Tournament of Books short list. I love the Tournament of Books and have followed it closely for a few years now. It’s so much more interesting than other awards and contests because the decision-making is transparent, at least once you get to the short list stage, and you can follow along and comment on each decision over the course of several weeks. And I love how the organizers recognize how silly and ridiculous the whole idea of a Tournament of Books is. It’s absurd! But it’s fun, and I’m glad they do it.

As happens every year, I’m tempted to read some of the books off their list so I can follow along with the decision-making that much more closely. As it turns out, Hobgoblin gave me a copy of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for Christmas, a book that’s on the tournament list, so I’m reading it right now. Since I put James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, also tournament short listed, on my TBR list last month, I thought I’d check it out of the library and see if I liked it, which I do, so I’m in the middle of that now too. After that, we’ll see. I have a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, so I might pick that up, and others on the list look appealing as well. I may read from the list until I get bored with contemporary fiction and then move on to other things. Of the 17 books on the list, I’d already read only two: Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Have a great week everyone!

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The Trip to Echo Spring

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing was the last book I read in 2013, and it was a good way to end the year. It’s the kind of nonfiction I like: bookish, elegantly written, with a mix of genres. The book is mostly biography, but it contains elements of travel narrative and memoir as well. The idea of the book is to trace the influence of alcohol in the creative lives of six writers: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, and John Cheever. Laing travels by train around the U.S. visiting places of importance to these writers, and while describing her journey, she tells us about the lives of these authors and the ways their paths crossed and their experiences coincided. The connections among these writers proliferate: they were friends, enemies, colleagues, rivals, fellow sufferers. Laing looks not only at the biographies of these writers, but at what they had to say about alcohol in their writing, both in their creative work and in letters and journals.

Laing undertakes a LOT in this book, and for the most part she succeeds. The biographies are interesting, and her insights into the literature she examines are strong. What she has to say about how alcohol influenced these writers’ lives and creative work is illuminating. I kept wishing she would develop the memoir aspects of the book further, though. With Litlove, I wanted more. This touches on another part of the book I found puzzling: Laing’s decision to discuss only  male writers. She says in a parenthesis early in the book that

There were many women writers I could have chosen too, but for reasons that will become apparent their stories came too close to home.

The reasons that “will become apparent” are presumably to do with her mother’s partner who was an alcoholic. Laing sketches out this story in the book. But the reasons for writing only about men never did “become apparent” for me; to say that her experience — very powerful though it was — with an alcoholic woman meant that she couldn’t write about alcoholic women didn’t satisfy me. The explanation might have satisfied me if she had developed it at greater length, but further explanations never came. So I felt that Laing missed an opportunity to shed light on her own experience in the way she does with the writers under examination. I would have loved to see more discussion of gender itself and the role it played in writers’ relationships with alcohol. Have alcoholic men had a fundamentally different experience than alcoholic women? Perhaps this is asking too much of a book that already accomplishes so much, but it does leave what felt to me like a hole in the book.

Still, there is so much here to admire. My biggest fear when picking up biographical writing is that it will be boring, and Laing’s book is decidedly not that. And she makes it look like weaving together multiple strands of narrative, complete with beautiful sentences, is an easy thing to do, when I know for sure it definitely is not.

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My Best of 2013

As I’ve done in recent years, I will list my favorite books in terms of categories rather than creating a simple top ten list (or whatever number). How can I really say which is better, my favorite biography vs. my favorite mystery, for example? So here is what stands out the most from the year:

Best fiction overall:

  • Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding
  • Alissa Nutting’s Tampa
  • Justin Torres’s We the Animals
  • Paul Harding’s Tinkers
  • Elizabeth Gentry’s Housebound

Most enjoyable novels — these are maybe not great, great books, but they were lots of fun:

  • Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette
  • Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins
  • Georgette Heyer’s The Talisman Ring

Best mystery:

  • Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Best graphic novel (yes, I only read two this year, but still):

  • Craig Thompson’s Blankets

Best biography/autobiography:

  • Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments
  • Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave

Best essay collections:

  • Michelle Orange’s This is Running For Your Life
  • Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth
  • Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

Best literary criticism:

  • Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction

Best unclassifiable nonfiction:

  • Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (a reread)

Here’s hoping that we all find some wonderful books in 2014!

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2013 Reading

Happy New Year! I’d hoped to post at least once before Christmas, but I wasn’t able to finish my fall semester grading before we headed off on an almost-two-week trip to visit family in western New York state and California, so I just couldn’t squeeze it in. The trip to California involved three flights on the way there and three flights on the way back — with an eleven-month-old. It was crazy. But the trip was great, and involved this:

Cormac Beach

and this:

Hiking

And this (that’s a winery in the background):

Cormac winery

The California sunshine was lovely. Now I’m back home and there is a snowstorm on the way. Sigh. But it’s a good time to think about last year’s reading. I read much more last year than I thought I would, considering I had a baby and all. I read a lot in the few weeks before the baby was born and then a lot during the night when I was up with the baby, so I learned that it’s not having a child that keeps me from reading. It’s really my job that’s the problem. When the job started back up, my reading slowed down. Again, sigh.

Here’s how my reading breaks down:

  • Books read: 100 (tied with 2011 for my highest number)
  • Audiobooks: 2 (down from the previous year because of podcasts)
  • eBooks: 27 (way, way up)
  • From library: 30 (also up. This includes some library ebooks)
  • Fiction: 67
  • Nonfiction: 33 (this fiction/nonfiction breakdown is pretty typical for me. Nonfiction means a lot to me, but I read it more slowly than fiction.)
  • Poetry: 0 (fail)
  • Essay collections: 10 (typical)
  • Biography/autobiography: 14
  • Theory/criticism: 4 (other nonfiction included history, religion, and unclassifiable nonfiction)
  • Short story collections: 3 (up!)
  • Mysteries: 12 (typical)
  • Graphic Novels: 2
  • Books in translation: 6 (up only a bit)
  • Books by writers of color: 12

Gender breakdown:

  • Men: 36
  • Women: 63 (almost exactly the same as last year. I used to read more evenly. I don’t purposely try to read more women; it just works out that way.)
  • Collection with men and women: 1

Nationalities:

  • Americans: 70 (up a lot!)
  • British: 17 (down)
  • Canadian: 2
  • French: 2
  • One each by Dutch, Irish, Israeli, Japanese, Norwegian, Pakistani, Spanish, Sri Lankan, and Swiss authors.

Year of publication:

  • 18th century: 0 (I’ve moved on from my grad school days, I see.)
  • 19th: 1 (fail)
  • First half of 20th century: 6
  • Second half of 20th century: 16
  • 2000-2009: 25
  • 2010-2013: 52 (way up)

This year and last year I read  many more contemporary novels than I used to. Ah, well. I’m just balancing out earlier years of my life when I hardly read anything contemporary.

As for the upcoming year, I’m doing what I did last year and setting no specific goals and making no real plans. I would like to try to read more books from other countries, keep reading more and more books from authors of color, and read more books from earlier centuries. It would be great to read some poetry as well. But these are just thoughts in the back of my mind and if I don’t follow through, so be it. The one thing I’d like to do this year is not worry about the number of books read. If I read less, I don’t want to feel bad about it. This year promises to be very busy, so I’d like to focus less on quantity and more on quality. I set myself a goal on Goodreads of reading 50 books, half of this year’s number and a goal I shouldn’t have any trouble meeting. I hope this will help me choose the books I pick up a little more carefully and take my time with them.

I hope to come back soon with a list of favorites from 2013.

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Reading Round-Up 12/8/2013

First of all, I never reported back on my Small Business Saturday book shopping experience. I loved Sherman Alexie’s Indies First idea — that authors go hang out in bookstores and act as booksellers for a day — and I wanted to take part in it as much as possible. One of my local bookstores, Byrd’s Books, hosted the author Mark Slouka, who recently published the novel Brewster, which takes place in a town not far from my home. So we stopped in the store to meet him, and I left with a signed copy of the novel. The bookstore was full of people and excitement, which was great to see. Then we headed out of town to visit Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, NY. The drive was rather lengthy, but Hobgoblin wanted to see Kelly Braffet and get signed copies of her books, and I was happy to go along. We thought perhaps her author husband, Owen King, son of Stephen King, might be there, but he wasn’t. That was fine, though. In the store, it took a minute to figure out who Kelly Braffet was, and then it took a few minutes more to figure out how to get a conversation going. But since she was hanging out by the cash register looking a little bored, I eventually just went up and asked if she was giving out book recommendations. She immediately lit up, happy that someone wanted a recommendation from her, and we headed over to the fiction section, where we spent the next 10-15 minutes looking over books and talking about ones we liked. As we talked, I realized how difficult Hobgoblin and I are as customers in bookshops; much of what Braffet recommended, we had already read. We talked about Jennifer Egan, Megan Abbott, Joe Hill, and others. Eventually, we came across Jenni Fagan’s novel The Panopticon, which neither of us had heard of, and which sounded great. Then Hobgoblin got Braffet to sign his books, we looked around a little more, and we were two happy customers.

That’s not all going on in my book world, though. Yesterday evening, my mystery book group met to discuss D.A. Mishani’s novel The Missing File. It was a lively discussion, although not because the novel is a great one. For the most part, I was enjoying myself as I read the book, but afterward when I tried to put it all together, it just didn’t work. It’s a very odd mystery novel. The detective is not very good at his job and makes several important mistakes. His colleagues do a better job conducting the investigation, but they are flawed as well. Mishani spends a lot of time with a marginally-related character who involves himself in the mystery for reasons that I never fully understood. He’s a writer, and through what I guess is writerly imagination and empathy ends up doing a better job understanding the people involved in the mystery than the detective does. But this guy is kind of creepy and doesn’t cohere as a character. I think Mishani is most interested in the ways fictional stories help but also more interestingly fail to help us understand stories in the “real” world. This is an intriguing idea, but Mishani doesn’t manage to pull his plot and themes together.

Next up for the mystery book group is Margaret Millar’s novel Beast in View, which was my choice. I became interested in Millar after reading this essay by the crime fiction critic Sarah Weinman. Sarah has come through with recommendations for me before, so I’m looking forward to seeing how this one turns out.

The only book that has come into the house since I last wrote about incoming books is Brewster. I have added a bunch of books that I’d like to investigate and perhaps add to my TBR pile at some point, though. These are by no means books that I will definitely read; they are just ones I’ve got my eye on:

  • James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, winner of the National Book Award.
  • Javiar Marías’s The Infatuations, as another Marías novel to follow All Souls.
  • Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies. I can’t remember where I heard about this one….

These books are small press books, a category I’ve been learning more about recently as I listen to podcasts with small press authors or that champion small press books. I really have no idea if I will like these or not, but it will be fun to explore them:

  • Monica Drake, The Stud Book,
  • Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon, Nothing,
  • Renee Gladman, Event Factory,
  • Pamela Erens, The Virgins: A Novel,
  • Jamie Iredell, I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac.

Have a good week everyone!

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All Souls, by Javier Marias

I enjoyed All Souls by Javier Marías in a detached, intellectual kind of way. It’s not the kind of book that wins over your heart, or not in any obvious way at least. It’s set in Oxford and tells the story of a visiting lecturer from Spain who is looking to pass his two years as pleasantly as possible. He has minimal teaching duties and frequently finds himself bored. He looks around for and then finds a woman, an Oxford tutor, with whom to have an affair and this helps fill his days. But his life is fairly flat. He finds amusement looking through used book shops — this is, as Amateur Reader pointed out to me, a book shopping classic — and he also observes British life and particularly university life and reports to us on its oddities. Most memorable for me was a lengthy set piece describing a college dinner in which one of the dons behaves spectacularly badly and everyone else pretends not to notice. We also get lengthy descriptions of the things that fill the narrator’s life: the beggars he sees on the streets as he takes long walks, the author whose work he is trying to track down, the garbage that accumulates in his apartment.

All this sounds dull, but it’s not. Somehow, through the satirical tone, the dry humor, the detached observations, a deeper feeling comes through. I’m not sure how to describe it; perhaps it’s melancholy, sadness, and nostalgia all mixed together. The narrator is writing from a time after his stay in Oxford is over; he is back in Madrid, married and moving on with his life. We learn early on that two of the men most important to him while in Oxford have died, and he is writing in part in order to describe them and his interactions with them. So a sense of loss hangs over the whole book. It’s not only these friends — or, perhaps, acquaintances — that he has lost, though; he recognizes on the novel’s first page that the person he was then is gone, replaced by someone entirely different. Even memory doesn’t hold him together as a coherent being. He didn’t make much of a mark in Oxford, and it seems that this is his fate: not to make much of a mark on the world. All he can do, it seems, is to write down his story, and to seek out the nearly-lost stories of others, which his bookshop haunting allows him to do.

The pleasures of this novel are quiet, but real, nonetheless. For a lengthier review of the book, make sure to read Litlove’s take on it. I think I might like to read more Marías at some point. All Souls has intrigued me.

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Supporting Independent Bookstores

I care very much about independent bookstores staying in business, so it only makes sense to buy books from independent bookstores as frequently as possible, right? Right. I thought so. So while on our way to visit friends in Vermont for Thanksgiving, Hobgoblin, the baby, and I stopped in Brattleboro to visit a couple stores. From Mystery on Main Street, I bought Sarah Weinman’s anthology of stories Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. The book includes stories by Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Hughes, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Millar and others. Troubled Daughters From Everyone’s Books just around the corner, I found How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman, a collection of profiles of contemporary authors.

And then later, in Manchester, we stopped by the fabulous Northshire Bookstore and I got a few more things. First is Maureen McLane’s book My Poets, which Stefanie wrote enthusiastically about. How could I resist? It’s a book of experimental prose, combining memoir, criticism, and poetry, and it sounds beautiful. My Poets I also found My 1980s and Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum. I’ve never read Koestenbaum before, but he seems to write the kind of book I admire — idiosyncratic cultural criticism. And finally, I picked up From the Mouth of the Whale, a novel by Sjón, an Icelandic writer. A.S. Byatt wrote glowingly of his work, so I thought I’d give it a try.

When I arrived home, I found this waiting for me, a non-independent bookstore purchase (I’m not perfect!): Hallman The Story About the Story II, edited by J.C. Hallman. I loved the first volume Hallman edited. The book collects  essayistic literary criticism — criticism of literary works that is literary in its own right. As a lover of literature and of the essay form, I had to have this, right?

To further support independent bookstores, I hope to stop by my local bookstore (one of my local bookstores, I should say — I’m lucky!), Byrd’s Books, which is hosting Mark Slouka as part of “Small Business Saturday” and Sherman Alexie’s Indie’s First idea, where authors act as booksellers for a day at their local stores. It should be fun.

I’m just here doing my duty!

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Giveaway Winners and Recent Reading

First of all, I’d like to announce the winners of Elizabeth Gentry’s novel Housebound. And yes, I said “winners” because I decided to give away two copies. The first winner is Teresa, and the second is Stefanie! So congrats to both of you, and thanks to those of you who entered. I hope everyone gets a chance to read the book at some point. If the winners would email me with their mailing addresses at ofbooksandbikes at yahoo dot com, that would be great.

I’d also like to write about the latest Emily Books selection I read, Samantha Irby’s essay collection Meaty. Irby is the author of the blog Bitches Gotta Eat, which I hadn’t heard of before I read the book, but which has a lot of readers and a devoted following. Irby is also a comedian in Chicago. The essays in Meaty have a “bloggy” feel to them, which I don’t mean as a negative; I just mean that they are loose, funny, and informal. They are also very personally revealing and sexually explicit. They are not for everyone, for sure! But I liked their forthrightness, their energy, and their humor. I always admire writers who can reveal personal details about themselves and do it in a way that’s not irritatingly self-absorbed. These essays may be self-absorbed, but they are self-absorbed in the best possible way, which is to say that they are entertaining and may make you feel better about yourself. To say that Irby “reveals” personal details isn’t quite the right way to put it; it’s more like she revels in them, she throws them in your face and dares you to criticize her. She is her own worst critic, after all, so you can’t possibly do her any harm. Her topics include body image, dating and sex, race, food, money, mothers, health, and others. Her first essay is about turning 30, and is basically a long list of all her longings and failures. In another essay, she lists, in actual list format, all her physical imperfections. The overall effect, in spite of or because of the in-your-face tone and the foul language, is charming. She seems like she would make a great person to hang out with, if maybe not the best roommate.

As for the fiction I’ve been reading lately, I finished Javier Marias’s novel All Souls, and I’ll try to write about that later. This evening, I’m going to start Tinkers, by Paul Harding. And soon, I’ll pick up The Missing File by D.A. Mishani for my book group.

Have a good week everyone!

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Book Subscriptions

I’ve become a subscriber to Emily Books, an ebook-only bookstore that makes one book available per month and offers a subscription service so that each month’s book arrives as a link in your email box. I’m very happy with the service, in part because Emily Books are so distinctive: they are generally books by women and ones that have been overlooked or forgotten, or are out of the mainstream for one reason or another. They tend to have a feminist sensibility, and are sometimes edgy and experimental. The books are sometimes novels, sometimes nonfiction. The most famous ones are probably Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent and Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, but there are a lot that I had never heard of before. I have Emily Books to thank for introducing me to Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, a book I loved.

I’m enjoying reading by subscription, but it does cause some anxiety: a new book arrives every month, and I always wonder when I will have time to read it. There is so much to read already! I don’t want these books to pile up unread (metaphorically speaking — they are ebooks!). But on the other hand, I love the idea of someone else choosing a book for me. And I love supporting a small, indie bookstore like Emily Books. They are doing great work in supporting and promoting lesser-known books and authors.

It seems to me that book subscriptions have been growing in popularity lately. There’s the NYRB Classics Book Club, the Melville House Art of the Novella subscription series, the TNB Book Club, and others, I’m sure. There is even a personalized service from Heywood Hill bookshop, which Alex wrote about recently, that offers a book a month tailored to your individual taste.

Emily Books is the only subscription service I’m participating in right now, and I should probably limit myself to only one such service at a time, but they all look so good. All this is entirely too tempting for someone as greedy for books as I am!

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Reading Round-Up, 11/19/13

First of all, don’t forget that I’m giving away a book! Leave a comment on my post reviewing Elizabeth Gentry’s novel Housebound to have a chance to win a copy. I’ll draw a name after this Friday.

A few new books came into my house in the last week and a half, although none of them were books I bought — they were all books I won in some way or another. I rarely have this many free books coming into the house at once, so it felt decadent:

  • Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life came from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s program. I’m not sure if this book is getting more attention or less since it has the same title as Kate Atkinson’s new release.
  • From Goodreads I won Brother Kemal: A Kayankaya Thriller by Jakob Arjouni, part of Melville International Crime from Melville House. This is book 5 in a series of crime novels set in Germany.
  • And then The Cutting Season by Attica Locke, which I won in a giveaway on Twitter. Can you believe my luck? This is another mystery, part of Dennis Lehane’s imprint with HarperCollins.

I added a few books to my TBR list (which numbers in the hundreds and includes a lot of books I may not get to for a long time):

  • The first is Young Rebecca: Writings, 1911-1917, which Rohan from Novel Readings was tweeting about recently. I’m a great admirer of West’s, but I haven’t read any of her nonfiction and would like to.
  • Then there is Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 1960-2000, which Danielle has been writing about. The book is made up of diary entries from, as the title tells us, one day each year. The concept is intriguing.
  • And then I’m greatly looking forward to writer/professor/blogger Jenny Davidson’s forthcoming book Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. It’s not coming out until next spring, but I’ll get a copy as soon as I can.
  • Finally, I read about Enid Bagnold’s book The Squire from the Persephone catalog. It was originally published in 1938 and is largely about pregnancy and childbirth. Intriguing, right?

As for what I’m reading now, I decided to pick up All Souls by Javier Marias, which I’ve had on my shelves for a while now. I was drawn to it because I felt like reading about its Oxford setting, and I just finished a rather ridiculous set piece narrated in great detail about formal dinners at the university, or “high tables.” So far I’m enjoying the novel’s dark humor. I’m also making my way through the essay collection Meaty by Samantha Irby. I should finish that one soon.

After that, who knows?

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Elizabeth Gentry’s Housebound, and a Giveaway!

Housebound I’m thrilled that today is publication day for my friend Elizabeth Gentry’s novel HouseboundI’ve been rereading it this week, and what a pleasure it’s been. As I wrote earlier, I read the novel in draft form and loved it then, so it was fun to reread and see what changes she’s made to make it even better. I’ve read a lot of Elizabeth’s writing over the years, and my response is always, oh, this is exactly the kind of writing I like! Things happen in her books, but the focus is on the characters and their experience of consciousness. The books are about what happens in the mind as much as in the world. Her writing has a very distinctive voice, a thoughtful, deeply insightful voice that makes me think about the world in a new way. But it’s also a little bit strange, in an entirely good way, a little eerie and dark. It’s beautiful, and entirely unconventional.

Housebound tells the story of 19-year-old Maggie and her family, who live an isolated life in a large, oddly-shaped house. Maggie is the oldest of nine siblings, in a  family that undermines the stereotype of large families as close-knit, their houses full of noise and chaos. This is a cautious, guarded family, with an emotionally-absent set of parents and a habit of watching each other carefully, making sure everyone follows the rules that, at this point, don’t have to be named. Everyone just knows what they are. The children are home-schooled, and their only social interaction, at least in recent years, is with neighbors they meet on the way to town to go to the library once a week. They spend their time doing their lessons, reading, and playing quiet games. They know that one of the rules is not to wander beyond the boundaries of their land; in particular, they are not supposed to visit their neighbors, who are few and far between.

It becomes clear soon enough that the family has been under some kind of spell, and that this spell is now showing signs of weakening. The novel opens with Maggie’s decision to leave: “Leaving home felt like tunneling out of a snow that had kept everyone housebound so long they had run out of things to talk about.” From there, the opening paragraph circles back to what it had been like when the spell descended:

There were no more anecdotes, poetry recitations, ghost stories, contrived games, or late-night disclosures before the wood stove. Rather than building their knowledge of one another in successive cycles of irritation and love, memorizing each new layer as they aged and grew, the eleven members of the family had simply succumbed, once and for all, to a silence that turned them into strangers … They felt suspended, always waiting for someone else to make the first move — to take a turn with the bath, to return with fresh wood, to put the pot on to boil, to summon to supper, and most of all, to grow up and to leave.

But now, Maggie has decided she’s ready for a job and drives into the nearby city with her father to find one. The events of the novel take place during the days between getting the job and moving to the city to start it, a strange, suspended time when Maggie is still part of the family, but newly separated from it as well. She begins to venture out into forbidden spaces, to visit the neighbors she’s not supposed to visit.

The question of what Maggie will discover is what drives the plot forward, but along the way, there is so much to notice. The novel has a fairytale quality to it, with witch-like figures, frightening grandmothers, lost memories, suspended time, and the sense of a magic spell settling on the house. There is a definitive emphasis on the menacing, eerie aspects of fairy tales and the threatening sexuality that underlies many of them. Nature is menacing as well; rather than being a benign or a healing force, nature repulses and repels the characters. It’s forever threatening to invade their house — most importantly in the form of a rat that bites Maggie one night — and requires never-ending labor to contain. Even something as potentially pleasurable as reading takes on a dark cast in this novel: the characters are forever escaping into stories in ways that do not seem entirely healthy.

The novel is about isolation and loneliness, as Maggie does battle in a sense against these menacing forces all by herself. The focus isn’t entirely on her, however; the point of view shifts regularly into that of other characters, so that we learn, slowly, what the other siblings and the parents are experiencing. We even, briefly, get into the perspective of the rat. This gives the book a sense of richness as we come to understand the emotional and psychological complexity of everything going on in this very quiet, seemingly still, house.

So, as a way to celebrate publication day, I’d like to give away a copy of the book someone who might like to read it. If you would like a copy, just leave a comment on this post letting me know, and if more than one person is interested, I’ll choose a name at random at the end of the day next Friday. I’m happy to send the book internationally, so everyone is welcome.

If you would like to get a sense of the writing, The Collagist has published an excerpt of the novel here.

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A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura

When I requested this book from the publisher on Netgalleys, I had no idea it was 880 pages long, and I probably wouldn’t have requested it if I’d known. But I thought, well, I might as well give it 50 pages and see what I think. After 50 pages, I was reading happily, and I read happily until the end. Now I miss being in the world of the book. It’s not that the book is unputdownable in the way that long, plotty novels can be, exactly, but it’s absorbing and draws you deeply into the world the author evokes.

It’s described as a retelling of Wuthering Heights, set in Japan, which is largely true, although it doesn’t follow the plot of Wuthering Heights exactly, and there is much more to it than that. But it is about a long love affair between a Heathcliff-like man, Taro, and a Catherine-like woman, Yoko. Taro disappears from home for many years and makes a return just as Heathcliff does, among many other parallels. The parallel to Wuthering Heights that I liked best, though, was the novel’s use of multiple story tellers and embedded stories. Where in WH, we get Nelly Dean telling us the bulk of the story, in A True Novel, it’s Fumiko who narrates much of it. She is first the maid to Yoko’s large extended family, and later more of a friend. There is also an equivalent of Lockwood, the first narrator in WH, in this case, Yusuke, who meets Fumiko accidentally and finds himself unexpectedly drawn into her story. But there is another layer beyond all this, which is the author herself, Minae Mizumura, or someone very much like her, who tells us how she found out about the whole story. This forms a lengthy prologue before the main part of the novel begins.

All this sounds complicated, but, of course, there is plenty of time for Mizumura to develop all her story lines. We begin, surprisingly enough, among Japanese immigrants to the U.S. living on Long Island, where Mizumura meets Taro, her novel’s hero. From there, however, we move to Japan to read about Fumiko’s history and Taro’s and Yoko’s youth and family life, and we learn a lot along the way about Japan from the World War II period through the 1990s. The novel has much to say about the struggles the Japanese experienced after the war and how the ups and downs of Japan’s economy affected their daily lives. We get a picture of Tokyo and also of the countryside, of poor families and of wealthy ones.

The novel offers a chance to think about the relationship of reality and fiction, a preoccupation announced in the book’s title — a “true novel” is perhaps oxymoronic, perhaps not. The author starts with what seems to be autobiography or memoir, and then moves into the lives of her “characters,” one of whom she has met in “real life.” So is all of this “real”? But this real life story is a retelling of sorts of a novel from 19thC England. Added into the mix of fact and fiction are photographs sprinkled throughout the book of landscapes and places mentioned in the story. In case you start to feel as though you are reading a fictional story (which of course, you actually are), the photographs are there to ground you in “reality,” or something like it.

Again, described this way, the book seems like a messy tangle, but that’s not what the experience of reading it feels like. Instead, you feel like you’re drawn into a complex, fully-realized world, a book that explores ideas and history and tells a good story at the same time.

For a lengthier, more detailed discussion of the book, see The Complete Review’s take on it.

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Reading Round-Up, 11/10

This week I finally finished Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, which is well over 800 pages. I will review it in the upcoming week. For now I’ll say that I enjoyed reading it in a quiet, steady way. It didn’t blow my mind, but I stuck with it happily for a long time, and that says something. Once I finished the Mizumura, I picked up Elizabeth Gentry’s novel Housebound. She’s the one I mentioned in an earlier post who is my friend and whose writing is amazingly good. The release date for the novel is this coming Friday, and I’m super-excited about it. I read the novel in an early draft a while back — a couple years ago maybe? Maybe more? Elizabeth went on to revise it quite a bit, and even though I loved the book the first time around, I can tell it’s even better now. More on both these books later.

As for what is next, I read a couple essays in Samantha Irby’s collection Meaty but set it aside for a while in favor of A True Novel, so I’ll pick that back up. I have no idea what novel I will read next. There’s nothing I need to review immediately so the possibilities are wide open. What fun!

A couple weeks ago, I checked two books out from the library, and my next read might be one of those two — but also maybe not. They are Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave and John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist. Any opinions on these?

I bought no new books this week — (sad! I’m going to stop being apologetic about acquiring new books — who cares if my TBR shelves are overflowing?). But I did put some new ones on my list of books to investigate. I might read these, I might not, but they seem worth keeping an eye out for:

  • The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing. This is a book about the connection between creativity and alcohol and I believe it may be partly autobiographical. I can’t remember who recommended this, but it was one of the people whose recommendations I always take seriously (my dream reading app would have an easy way to add books to my TBR list AND makes notes on how I found out about the book).
  • Jeff Jackson’s Mira Corpora. I heard an interview with Jackson on the Other People podcast that I liked, and the book sounds interestingly strange.
  • Alfred Hayes’s In Love. I have Stefanie to thank for this one!
  • The Whispering Muse by Sjòn. A.S. Byatt reviewed three of his books for the New York Review of Books.
  • Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife. I liked her new book The Interestings and would like to read more.

I added one book to my list of books I would definitely like to read, and that is Eleanor Catton’s novel The Luminaries, which won the Booker prize this year.

I hope your reading week was a good one!

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This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett

I didn’t realize when I first picked up this book that it’s a collection of essays; I thought instead that it was a memoir. But I didn’t mind — I like both genres. And, as it turns out, the essays are mostly autobiographical, so I learned a lot about Patchett’s life by reading them. Patchett is a good writer, and I liked all of the essays, some more than others, of course. The most memorable one for me wasn’t the title essay, although that was very good, but “The Bookstore Strikes Back,” about opening Parnassus Books in Nashville. The essay is partly the history of the bookstore itself, but it’s also a passionate argument for the value of bookstores, and for the demand for them. Patchett argues that people are ready to support their local, independent bookstores, and I certainly hope she is right. Anyone at all tempted to open their own store would be encouraged by this essay to give it a try, maybe foolishly, maybe not. But at any rate, her enthusiasm is infectious.

The title essay is also very good, the story of Patchett’s two, very different, marriages. There are several essays about writing and literature, and those I liked, particularly one about going on book tours. Her essay on giving a convocation speech at Clemson University over the protests of students and parents who found her book Truth and Beauty offensive is very good. Overall, Patchett’s voice is engaging, and she seems like a fascinating, vibrant person. I’ll admit I felt some disappointment at times, especially with some of the less personal essays where Patchett’s own history and personality is not the focus, but I also felt this way about the collection as a whole. I wanted more depth, more complexity, more that felt surprising. The essays were solid, but not revelatory. Ultimately, although this is a strong collection, I felt that Patchett is best as a novelist.

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Reading round-up

I thought I might try posting occasionally — maybe once a week, maybe less often — a listy-type post about what books I’m reading, what books I’ve acquired recently, and/or what books I’ve put on my TBR list. It might be fun to keep track a little more closely of the books that come in and out of my house and the ones that have caught my eye.

For today, I’ll list the books that I’ve put on my TBR list recently (I keep track of these books on GoodReads):

  • Ted Solotaroff’s The Literary Community: Selected Essays 1967-2007. I know nothing about this book and GoodReads doesn’t tell me much about it. But the table of contents looks interesting, and it would be good to browse through to see if I might like it. I put it on my list to remember in case I run across it somewhere. I read about it on a Book Riot post.
  • Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. The amazing Roxane Gay has been been writing about and praising this book. It’s a collection of essays and won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.
  • Mitchell S. Jackson’s The Residue Years. This is a novel, published by Bloomsbury Press. I heard an interview with Jackson that intrigued me.
  • Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty. I’m reading Patchett’s recent collection of essays, and although I have some reservations about it, I’m enjoying it in parts and I want to read this memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy. I’ve got Grealy’s memoir on my shelves to read, and I like the idea of reading the two books together. Speaking of reading two books together, Patchett briefly mentions the brothers Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff, both of whom wrote memoirs of their childhoods, although they lived in different places. These would make another good pairing.

The two books I acquired this week are:

  • Victor LaValle’s The Ecstatic, acquired through Book Mooch. I don’t remember where I first heard about LaValle, but the name has stuck with me as one to investigate further.
  • D.A. Mishani’s The Missing File, which I’ll be reading next for my mystery book group.

As for what I’m reading:

  • I’m finishing up the Patchett essay collection This Is the Story of  Happy Marriage, and
  • I’m about halfway through Minae Mizumura long, long work A True Novel.

More of these last two books later!

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Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

I very much enjoyed listening to J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel Maine on audio. It’s the kind of book that I probably enjoyed more on audio than I would have on paper; it’s hard to tell, but I might have remained indifferent reading on paper, but on audio, where I tend to get more emotionally caught up in the story, I enjoyed the family drama. It’s a multi-generational family saga, a genre which I’ll admit only occasionally appeals to me, but this one’s relatively tight focus worked well. It’s set roughly in the present time with flashbacks to earlier years to fill in back story, and I appreciated that we are never in the back story for too long and the shifts are handled well.

What made me like the book the most are the sharply-drawn characters, whom we see through multiple points of view, so we come to understand their inner lives as well as the reasons they drive other family members crazy. The book is divided into sections that switch among four different narrators: there’s Alice, the family matriarch, who is difficult and drinks too much, and whose past life her family knows only a little about. There’s Ann Marie, her daughter-in-law, a seemingly perfect martyr-type who tries so very, very hard to keep her world just so. There’s Kathleen, Alice’s daughter, a former alcoholic trying to stay as far away from her complicated family as possible, and there is Maggie, Kathleen’s daughter, living in New York City and trying to forge a life for herself that feels genuine but that is very different from the lives of the other women in her family. Each character makes us understand her own inner life while we are in her head, in the kind of close third person perspective that made me think sometimes it was actually first person, while showing us how the others look from the outside, so the final picture of each character is richly complex.

The plot largely revolves around a summer home Alice owns in southern, coastal Maine that her children and grandchildren both love and loathe — it’s the site of many treasured memories but also of conflict and anxiety. There are numerous subplots, all of which Sullivan handles well. What I enjoyed most, though, is the book’s emotional complexity, its sense that each person contains more stories than we are ever aware of.

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Tiny Beautiful Things

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed is not at all the kind of thing I usually read, but I’m glad I stepped outside of my usual territory to read it, because it’s a beautiful book. For those of you not familiar with her, Cheryl Strayed, who is also the author of the memoir Wild, wrote an advice column anonymously for the website The Rumpus, using the name Sugar. I never knew about the column while she was writing it, but it had a lot of readers. She revealed her identity something like two years ago, and this book is a collection of some of those columns.

Strayed answers all kind of questions — about family, love, friendship, money — and her answers are personal and revealing. She almost always tells stories about her own life as a way of answering the question. I think this is the thing that makes the columns work so well, that she reveals her own struggles and shows her vulnerabilities at the same time that she doesn’t balk at taking an authoritative stance and telling people what she thinks they should do. Her advice is often tough and it frequently takes the form of telling people they need to make major changes and work harder at facing their problems. She by no means coddles her readers. But this is so much easier to take alongside the stories of her own struggles. You feel as though she has earned every bit of her authority and insight.

The columns are so warm, too. My only experience with advice columns before this was reading Dear Abby and Miss Manners a long time ago, and their voices were so much cooler and more detached, and entirely impersonal. Strayed isn’t just giving people advice; she is sharing with the world her hard-won personal wisdom, and you can tell she genuinely feels the pain of the people who write to her. She calls just about everyone who writes to her “sweet pea,” a habit I thought would annoy me, but instead it feels like a kind way to acknowledge the humanity of the people who write to her.

I was reluctant to read the book because I was afraid I would find it too saccharine and I was turned off by the universal adoration it has received. But enough people I respect love it, including the kind of people who are likely to worry about it being too saccharine for their tastes too, so it seemed worth the risk. And it most definitely was.

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New books!

Or rather, used books! Hobgoblin and I drove across Connecticut to visit the Book Barn in Niantic (which I wrote about here), a book store it is worth driving the entire way across a state to visit (yes, a small state, but still). We met some friends there who had two kids in tow plus there was our own kid, so we didn’t spend as long as I would have liked, but I found some nice things anyway. Hobgoblin found the entire Harry Potter series in hardcover, which we snapped up. We need to be prepared to read to our little one when he gets older, right?

I came home with:

  • Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I was hoping to find The Days of Abandonment, but this one sounds good too. Oh, I just discovered it’s the first in a trilogy, although it looks like only the first two have appeared so far and the second hasn’t been translated into English. It’s a story about friendship between two women, which is promising.
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. The man who was working the register when we paid for our books rhapsodized about Fermor, and I’ve heard many other rhapsodies about his writing, so surely this will be good.
  • Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head. This is partly about Iyer and partly about Iyer’s obsession with Graham Greene. I like this particular mix of genres, memoir and literary criticism.
  • Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and Hopeful. This one is a mix of memoir and travel.
  • Georgette Heyer’s Footsteps in the Dark. All the Heyers I’ve read so far have been the romances, so I’m curious what I will think of one of her mysteries.

I could have come home with so much more, so maybe it’s a good thing the kids desperately needed their lunch and we needed to leave. Especially since I’ve accumulated a few new books from other sources. I picked up a copy of The Best American Essays, 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, a series I make sure to read every year (and I’m such an essay geek that frequently one of the most enjoyable parts of the book is the introductory essay on the essay genre). I also snagged a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel The Signature of All Things from Goodreads. AND, I bought a copy of Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway, which is supposed to be a new take on the detective novel. And also the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon. I love the title.

But most exciting of all, I got an advanced reader’s edition of a novel coming out in November, written by a good friend of mine, Elizabeth Gentry’s Housebound. You will be hearing more from me about this book when it comes out in November, but in the meantime, just go ahead and add it to your TBR pile, because it’s awesome. Here’s the cover:

Housebound

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