Shiny New Books

The new issue of Shiny New Books is up! There’s lots of good stuff to dive into over there, plus two reviews of my own, one of Michelle Bailat-Jones’s novel Fog Island Mountains and one of Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped. Both books are fabulous. Go check out the site!

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Reading updates

I thought I’d give a few reading updates here, between checking the weather forecast, as tomorrow we are getting a storm they are calling potentially historic in its horribleness. Tomorrow is also my first day of class for the spring semester, and I have no idea if I’ll be able to meet my classes or not. Fun times!

First, I want to mention a short story collection, The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns. I don’t usually accept review copies these days, but this collection looked intriguing, partly because they are linked short stories, and I’ve had very good luck with that form. There’s something about it that works for me; I like how you get a wide-ranging view of a community or group of people, with stories that can connect in satisfying ways but that also offer variety. Figuring out all the connections among the pieces is fun. Burns’s collection did not stand out as far as the writing went; I thought some parts were awkward or confusing, but I found myself drawn into the world Burns describes and not wanting to put the book down. The stories are set in New Zealand and tell about life during colonial times. They mostly describe the British settlers’ experiences, with an emphasis on domestic life. Some of the stories give a glimpse into Maori response to the British presence as well. The writing, while not impressive, didn’t get in the way of the stories, so I think anyone who is interested in the place and time would appreciate this.

Then I want to recommend strongly that everyone go out and get yourselves a copy of Meghan Daum’s essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. I LOVED this book. If you like essays, you need to read this. If you like good nonfiction writing, read this. If you like good writing, read this. Daum is entertaining, funny, and brutally honest about herself and her thoughts/feelings/opinions. She is a writer who can make any subject interesting. Her essay about her mother is devastating (it’s called “Matricide”). Her essay about not wanting to have children describes the kind of ambivalence I wish it were easier to discuss. Her essay on Joni Mitchell is just … amazing (as is Zadie Smith’s essay on Joni Mitchell, “Some Notes on Attunement” — maybe Joni Mitchell is someone I should like??). Her essay on brushes with celebrity in L.A. is so funny. We need to hear more from Daum. More, please!

Also, The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld was very good; I didn’t quite get the point of … well … the enchanted part, but it deals with prison life and death row beautifully. It’s a novel very much about an issue, but it didn’t feel reductive or oversimplified or preachy. That was surely hard to pull off. I listened to Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You on audio and liked it very much; she captures complex family life extremely well.

And finally, Ruth Rendell’s A Judgment in Stone was enjoyable, although perhaps not Rendell’s best? Do any Rendell fans have a sense of whether this one was typical? It has a chatty narrator who comments directly on the action and hypothesizes on characters’ motivations. This is highly unusual in contemporary crime fiction, and I liked it, to an extent, but at times all the commentary seemed to go too far. At times it felt just a little gimmicky. But still, it was a good story, very creepy, and I do like chatty narrators. I’ll be reading more Rendell, and also Rendell as Barbara Vine, in the future.

Happy reading everyone!

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Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter

Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter was not what I expected, but then, this is my third Comyns novel and none of them have been what I expected. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was my first one, and it was an unsettling mix of a light, breezy tone and dark subject matter. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead remains my favorite Comyns so far; it’s very strange, opening with ducks swimming in and out of drawing room windows and staying on a similar off-beat note. The world of the book seems familiar, but it’s not, quite. The Vet’s Daughter is perhaps more like Our Spoons than Who Was Changed, but it’s darker in tone throughout. But it also veers off in some odd directions, especially in the second half.

It tells the story of Alice, the daughter of the title, who lives in London with her bitter, nasty father and her ailing mother. She’s trying to give her mother as much help as she can, but her mother is on her way out of this world, and now the daughter is going to be left to manage her father on her own as best as she can. She has a friend Lucy, but she can only see her occasionally, and Lucy is deaf, which makes communication difficult. The vet’s practice has sinister aspects to it; a vivisectionist stops by to pick up unwanted animals and many of the animals they keep suffer. There are few bright spots in Alice’s life. One is Mrs. Churchill, who is a companion to the family during and after Alice’s mother’s illness. She provides some needed stability.

Mr. Peebles is not exactly a bright spot in Alice’s life, but he’s a friend and one with some power to provide Alice with much-needed diversions. He is another veterinarian who has helped with the family vet practice, and it becomes clear early on that he is attracted to Alice. It seems as though he might provide an escape, but Alice does not return his feelings. She spends time with him but considers him only a friend, although marriage is always there as a possibility should she get desperate enough. She walks a line between honesty and deception, trying to get what pleasure she can out of his company without leading him on.

All this takes place in the gloomy setting of poverty-stricken London, but this is only the first half of the novel. In the second half Alice heads out toward the English coast to live with Mr. Peebles’s mother. She is a depressed woman living in a house that’s halfway burned to the ground, being cared for by a truly strange, scarily sinister couple, the Gowleys. Alice’s job is to be a companion. She is still isolated here, this time geographically isolated as well as emotionally so, but this job brings some new opportunities with it. Alice learns about the countryside and its ways, and she also learns about sexual desire, as she meets Nicholas, a young, attractive soldier who teaches her how to ice skate and seems to be attracted to her as well. This relationship puts her feelings toward Mr. Peebles in a new light; she knows now what real attraction can be and marriage Mr. Peebles takes on an even duller, bleaker aspect.

I think I’ll stop there with a discussion of the plot, except to say that levitation becomes an important plot point, and I’m trying to figure out what to make of this. Alice had a couple experiences with levitation during her sleep while in London, and it happens again out on the coast. She experiments a bit and discovers she can levitate at will, although it takes a lot of energy and focus. When her father finds out about her ability, it becomes another way he can exploit her, and her life closes in on her again. But what are we supposed to make of this? I first thought she was merely dreaming that she could levitate and that it was a metaphor for her desire for freedom or something like that. But then what I thought was a metaphor becomes real and she actually does have the ability to float up into the air. Of course, it is still a metaphor even though it’s “real” — her ability to levitate only sets her apart and leads to more suffering and despair. The thing that makes her special makes her miserable, and there is no chance for escape, ever.

I’m still not sure what I think of the book as a whole, and I’m looking forward to reading other people’s thoughts. I liked the first person narration; the story is told through Alice’s eyes in her forthright, no-nonsense tone. Alice is so young — only seventeen — and she hasn’t had the chance to do much in her life, but she has seen a lot of suffering. One of the first things she tells us is that “if [my mother] had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.” She describes her father’s cruelties matter-of-factly and without dwelling on the darkness of it all, but there’s a sadness to the tone as well, as though she knows life isn’t ever going to offer much, in spite of her hopes. When Nicholas betrays her, she is not really surprised. But I’m not sure how to integrate the two parts of the book, particularly the very ending. The note the book ends on seems appropriate, but to get there by way of levitation? I’m curious what other people think of the value of bringing in this fantastical? supernatural? element.

But I definitely can conclude that Comyns is a writer I want to read in full. I love how she’s full of surprises and that her novels have so much variety. I love the darkness and twistedness of her worlds, and the way she look at that darkness straight on.

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New Ways of Reading: Giving Scribd a Try

I’ve known about subscription services for reading such as Oyster and Scribd for a while now — services that give you unlimited ebook reading for $8-9 a month. They never appealed to me, though, because I was happy getting ebooks from the library and from other sources. Cheap and free ebooks are plentiful right now, so I thought I didn’t need another source of them, particularly since I read slowly and read fewer ebooks than print books. But then Scribd started offering audiobooks as well as ebooks, and the situation changed. I had been getting audiobooks from the library, and that worked pretty well, but I always had a problem with the timing of it — I’d be in the mood for a particular audiobook, but there would be a long waiting list for it, and when it finally became available, I was no longer interested, or involved in something else, or happy listening to podcasts at the moment. I’d considered using Audible.com or a similar service, but the price always seemed too high.

So I thought I’d give Scribd a try. I’ve had it for going on two months now, and have finished one audiobook and am in the middle of another, and I’m in the middle of an ebook as well. So far, I think it may be worthwhile to keep, although the service is still very much on trial in my mind; if I find it’s not worth it, it’s easy to drop, and I will. But there is a pretty good selection of audiobooks — plenty there I’d like to listen to — and I love how they are instantly available, with no waiting. The price seems to be right. Even if I listen to only one audiobook, or even less than one, per month it’s still cheaper than Audible, plus it includes ebook access. I haven’t looked through their ebook catalog very thoroughly, but that’s because my focus is more on audiobooks, plus it’s very large and overwhelming to browse through.

I listened to Jennifer Egan’s novel Look at Me, which was great — though so long! It took about 20 hours to listen to. Now I’m in the middle of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, which I’m enjoying very much (and which is a much more reasonable 10 hours). I’m slowing reading Jennifer Weiner’s novel Good in Bed, which I started because I’ve been curious about her books and wondered how I would like something a little more “commercial” than what I usually read, plus wanting something potentially fun to read before I fall asleep each night. It’s been enjoyable in parts, but in the last third of the book, I’m finding it implausible, and I’m kind of losing interest. Ah, well.

The Scribd app isn’t perfect — I’ve had some trouble getting audiobooks downloaded and ebooks don’t sync very well between devices (iPhone and iPad). But generally I’m happy with this experiment so far. It’s a good way of getting more audiobooks into my life, at a time when audiobooks are becoming a more and more convenient way for me to read.

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Best of 2014

Okay, it’s time for my best-of list. I made this list really quickly because I’m not sure agonizing over what I put here will lead to a better list. I go with my gut impulse instead. But I think my gut impulse is pretty reliable!

Best Fiction:

  • Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
  • A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
  • Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Best Mysteries:

  • A Kiss Before Dying, by Ira Levin
  • Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke

Best Nonfiction:

  • Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, by Roz Chast
  • Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward
  • My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead
  • On Immunity, by Eula Biss

Best Poetry:

  • Bough Down, by Karen Green

Best Short Story Collection:

  • I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, by Matthew Salesses

Best Essay Collections:

  • Notes From No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss
  • Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin

Books I Brought Up in Conversation and Recommended Most Often:

  • Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz
  • A Kiss Before Dying, by Ira Levin

Funniest Book (and best book to have on hand Christmas day to make your bookish family read chapters of):

  • Texts from Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg

And a shout-out to the best book published by a friend, which is really great book and could go on my best-of list easily: Michelle Bailat-Jones’s Fog Island Mountains.

Happy reading in 2015 everyone!

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2014 Wrap-up

It’s time for a wrap-up of the year. I’m feeling resistant to both best-of lists (I’m sick of them! although I’m not sick of yours, dear reader, and I am still going to do one of my own) and thinking in terms of years — does it matter that a year is ending, really? But still, I want to keep up my tradition of looking at reading stats for the year. So here goes:

  • Books read: 78 (down from the previous three years, but that’s what having a toddler, a job, a bicycle, friends, and a strong desire to sleep will do to you)
  • Audiobooks: 10 (up from the previous year’s 2. Audiobooks are a great way to keep reading even when you’re busy)
  • eBooks: 18 (a little bit down from 2013)
  • From library: 12 (This includes some library audiobooks and ebooks)
  • Fiction: 53 (the exact same percentage as last year)
  • Nonfiction: 23
  • Poetry: 2 (up from last year — by 2)
  • Essay collections: 9 (higher than last year)
  • Biography/autobiography: 10
  • Theory/criticism: 1
  • Short story collections: 3 (same number as last year but a higher percentage)
  • Mysteries: 8
  • Graphic Novels: 1 (really a graphic memoir)
  • Books in translation: 3 (down)
  • Books by writers of color: 15 (up, both in terms of number and percentage. I worked at this one and can still do better)

Gender breakdown:

  • Men: 21
  • Women: 55 (a higher percentage than last year)
  • Collections with men and women: 2

Nationalities:

  • Americans: 57 (slightly higher than last year, which was already pretty high)
  • British: 12
  • One each by authors from Canada, Italy, Korea, Mozambique, New Zealand, Nigeria, and the Virgin Islands, plus two books with writers from more than one country.

Year of publication:

  • 19th: 2
  • First half of 20th century: 4
  • Second half of 20th century: 15
  • 2000-2009: 12
  • 2010-2014: 45

So many super-contemporary authors! Even more than last year, and that number was pretty high. Ah, well. I’m just in a place where I want to read new and newish books. That may change in future years. In other trends, I haven’t read as many writers from countries other than the U.S. and the U.K. as I’d like, but I did read pretty diversely within those two countries. Not such a bad year! I’ll be back soon with my favorites of the year.

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Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio

I am not one to pass up a good essay collection — in fact, I’m one to chase down a good essay collection — so I was eager to read Charles D’Ambrosio’s new book Loitering. It includes some essays from an earlier book called Orphans and adds new material. I liked it very much — so much, in fact, that I wish I hadn’t read it as an e-galley and would like to buy myself a hard copy so it’s on hand for future rereading. The essays cover many different topics — whaling, Russian orphans, housing developments, J.D. Salinger, among others — and they also tell personal stories and present a persona who kept me engaged through the whole collection. D’Ambrosio has had some serious struggles in his life, and he writes about them movingly, and always with intelligence instead of self-pity. He is someone I felt I could trust to think deeply about whatever issue he confronts, and whose mind I was happy to have as company. I appreciated the variety of the collection, with interesting subjects you might not read about elsewhere. I also loved his writing style. But mostly I loved D’Ambrosio’s take on the world — a slightly jaded, perhaps disappointed outlook, but one that still is curious and receptive and trying to make sense of the world.

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