February Reading Wrap-Up

Books read in February: 9 // Total books read in 2018 so far: 20

Favorite book read in February: André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name


The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (⭐️⭐️)

Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle is a historical novel set in post-WWII Germany. A group of women, widows of resistance fighters, grapple with the aftermath of war, struggle to come to terms with their troubled country, and piece together their lives. I usually love historical fiction, but this book just plods along, the characters read like unsympathetic caricatures, and the plot never fully grabbed me.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (⭐️⭐️⭐️)

Binti, a young Himba woman who is the first of her people to be accepted to the best university in the galaxy, flees her homeland and boards a spaceship that will take her on an eye-opening and life-changing journey. The first novella in Nnedi Okorafor’s sci-fi trilogy, Binti is a quick, engaging read that tackles ideas of race, identity, black power, and “otherness” in a fantastical, outer space setting.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Hillary Clinton’s memoir What Happened was my book club’s pick for the month and supplied interesting fodder for conversation, though we agreed that the writing was, at best, very mediocre, and parts read like a shout-out/hand slap to the various folks who’ve helped/hindered Clinton along the way. While t
he rehashing of the lead-up to the 2016 presidential debacle was more emotionally grueling than fascinating, the most engaging bits were the descriptions of the Clinton’s interior lives, their family gatherings, dinners with friends, their favorite television shows, their private chats. Being invited into these quiet, personal spaces, moments that speak to the importance of family, community, and survival, grants the reader some kind of social catharsis against the tumultuous, razor-sharp political situation we inhabit today.

Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Heart Berries is a beautifully written memoir by Native American writer Terese Mailhot. In it Mailhot puts big, messy emotions on paper, exposing her life – missteps and triumphs, bouts in a mental hospital, jealousy and rage – and her huge heart. She writes with a fearless pen about identity, colonial whiteness, and the trauma that persists in the body after the generations of violence against her people. A strong, powerful book.


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (⭐️⭐️)

The Miniaturist, a historical novel set in 1886 Amsterdam, follows the young bride Nella Oortman as she moves into the house of her newly-wed husband. He is often absent and his strong-willed, cruel sister rules the roost. The first half of the book was well-plotted and the story of Nella’s maneuvering within her new, strange world was an interesting one; the second half of the book fell flat and the plot moved off into predictable yet ridiculous territory.


The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
I decided to take Oakland-based Jasmine Guillory’s breakout romance The Wedding Date on vacation to Mexico and am happy I did. It’s the perfect beach read. After meeting in a stuck elevator, Drew Nicols asks stranger Alexa Monroe to be his guest to a wedding, his ex’s. She agrees, and their biracial romance blossoms. It’s a playful, easy book with a huge dose of food porn thrown in to whet the appetite.

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
My favorite book so far this year has been André Aciman’s 2007 coming-of-age novel, Call Me By Your Name. Set in Italy during a summer in the 1980’s, the novel centers around the charged romance between 17-year-old Elio and the 24-year old American scholar/student, Oliver, staying at Elio’s parents’ villa. It’s a gorgeously evocative glimpse at the endless possibility of youth, the disarming intensity of first love, and the blind need of infatuation. I wept through the last 40 pages, and upon finishing I went back and read those last pages again, heart aching and feeling all the feels.


The Idiot by Elif Batuman (⭐️⭐️⭐️)

Where Call Me By Your Name is electric with passion and longing, Elif Batuman’s ambitious coming-of-age novel, The Idiot, is emotionally bereft. The heroine of the book is Selin, a bookishly smart young Harvard student who stumbles as much through her academic life as she does through her emotional one. Batuman satirizes academia and shines a light on what it meant to be on the cusp of adulthood in 1995 when email was new and missing a phone call on accident was still a thing. Satire is not my favorite genre and I kept expecting to be wowed by this book, to find some gem in the narrative that pulled it all together, to feel something deeper for the bland main character, but it, and she, ultimately left me cold and indifferent.


Defectors by Joseph Kanon (⭐️
)
Stilted dialogue. Uninteresting characters making baffling decisions. Slow plot.
Hard pass.

Deep Space: The Wanderers + Good Morning, Midnight

Outer space terrifies me; The endless darkness dotted with stars; The abyss expanding into infinity; Our galaxy and its periphery, the mystery of what lies beyond. I usually avoid books that delve into deep space, favoring novels grounded on earth, narratives stabilized by the world’s environment, oxygen, water, trees, and gravity. It was surprising to me, then, when I was drawn to and read two novels about space exploration in January. Perhaps even more surprising was that I enjoyed both.

The first was Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers (#5), a book author Ruth Ozeki said “left [her] awestruck.” The plot revolves around three seasoned astronauts as they embark on a simulated mission to Mars in the Utah desert. The simulation is meant to prepare them for the real thing, both the day-to-day mundane tasks and any possible complications that may arise one their long journey. Howrey excavates the working relationships and personal bonds that the astronauts develop with each other, and how they relate to and connect with family they’ve left at “home.” In an environment so manufactured and controlled, the astronauts’ complex and emotional humanness shines through. On the surface, the novel is about journeying to outer space, but at the core, it’s a novel about what makes us unique, what brings us together and what tears us apart, what makes us human, full of love and yearning, and inescapably fallible.

Good Morning, Midnight (#9) by Lily Brooks-Dalton approaches outer space and the fragility of Earth with a post-apocalyptic lens. In it, Augustine, an aged astronomer in the Arctic, declines the last plane back to civilization before the radio waves from the rest of the planet go eerily silent. While Augustine wrestles with his solitude and the vast snowy expanse around him, a team of astronauts aboard the Aether is on their way back to Earth from a mission to Jupiter. When their contacts on Earth stop responding, they know something horrible has happened, and are left to grapple with the loss of their families and the end of humanity as they know it from the outer reaches of space, where the bleak and infinite expanse around them is both a savior from whatever awaits them at home and an overwhelming, uninhabitable force.

Both of these novels intimate that at the heart of space exploration or any exhilarating and alienating mission into the unknown, is a desire to connect, with fellow humans, with a fear that dwells in the deep parts of the psyche, with undying hope, with a singular kind of aloneness, with mystery. And threaded through each of the plots is a longing for the familiar, a desire to return home, even when “home” is a big, vast planet, even when that home is forever changed, existing outside of time and space and only in memory.

#3 The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

girlinthetowerKatherine Arden’s The Girl in the Tower is the second in the Winternight trilogy following the fantasy fairy tale The Bear and the Nightingale. The story picks up where The Bear and the Nightingale leaves off, with the young heroine Vasya donning the clothes of a boy and fleeing the life she has known in her small medieval Russian village. She braves the snowy landscape, encountering mystical creatures and dangerous bandits, in search of a different life, a life of her own, where she is not controlled by a husband or by the church.

Arden is an artful storyteller, beautifully weaving magic and adventure together to create a narrative that is captivating, entertaining, and evocative. A very enjoyable read.

#1 The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Book of Dust.jpgI haven’t read Philip Pullman’s bestselling His Dark Materials YA trilogy, nor have I seen the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, so when I cracked open Pullman’s newest, La Belle Sauvage, it was with fresh, unknowing eyes. La Belle Sauvage, the first volume in The Book of Dust trilogy, is actually a precursor to The Golden Compass and is set 10 years before the plot lines at the start of that series take place.

This first book follows eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, the son of Oxford innkeepers, and his daemon Asta, on various adventures as he attempts to parse good from evil in the complex world around him, all the while shielding an orphaned infant, a baby named Lyra, from harm with the help of a girl named Alice.

While I was entertained by La Belle Sauvage and enjoyed reading it, I couldn’t help feeling that, from page one, I’d been dropped into this world, this Pullman universe, without a guide map. Perhaps all the big world building took place in His Dark Materials. Perhaps my view of this world, so like our own but also different, was small because I saw it solely through the eyes of the young protagonist and have no vision for what comes after. The story was interesting, engaging even, but felt slightly limited in scope. Also, while clearly setting the scene for the next book, the ending felt very rushed and haphazard, a sloppily tied bow at the end of a finely-plotted book.

2017 Favorites

Top 10 Books of 2017 Brief Book Reviews(5)

I read so many really great books this year. Books that broke my heart, made me laugh and cry, books that terrified me, books that enchanted me and made me wonder, books that made me fear the future and books that carried me into the past, books that grounded me in the present and books that transported me to magical worlds.

Of the 104 books I read this year, these were my favorites:

Top 10 Books of 2017 Brief Book Reviews(1)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This book astonished me. Within the first few pages, I knew that it would be one of my favorites of the year. A favorite for always. It is just. that. GOOD. It’s hilarious and smart, touching and bizarre, and I fucking LOVED it. A truly remarkable read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
I had the great pleasure of hearing Jesmyn Ward read from Sing, Unburied, Sing with my friend Guinevere a few months back at East Bay Booksellers. As far as I am concerned, Jesmyn Ward can do no wrong. She does things with language and narrative that are magic. The characters in this book, their story, will amaze you and break your heart. Read it, it’s so worth the heartbreak.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
I loved this story of complicated father figure Samuel Hawley and his teenage daughter Loo navigating their way through the world. It’s a tale full of adventure, danger, suspense, and heart. Tinti keeps you hanging on every sentence, every word, up until the glorious end.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Idaho is a gorgeously written debut novel about family, memory, and loss. The narrative pivots around the murder of a child and is both haunting and lovely, with a line of suspense that keeps the reader turning page after page. I was so moved by Idaho, by the characters and the writing, and I can’t wait to see what Emily Ruskovich comes out with next.

Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard
What amazes me, again and again, about Knausgaard’s writing is that there is a pedestrian everyday-ness about it. He catalogs and peels apart the world around him in seemingly ordinary prose. And then, in peeling back and exposing ugliness and the ritual of the mundane, he shows us such great beauty and insight. That beauty is, at times, simply breathtaking.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
This book stole my heart, broke it, and stitched it back together. It’s the story of an all-consuming tangled mess of love and violence, of growing up, of survival. It’s brutal and terrifying and beautiful and brave, and completely riveting. An absolutely stunning debut. Read it.  Trigger warning: rape, incest

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I can’t believe I waited so long to read Pachinko, my 104th book of the year. It’s a saga about multiple generations of a Korean family in Japan, about identity and duty and honor, about love and longing and loss, about the triumphs and hardships of life. It’s a great read, a page-turner, and Lee is a wonderful, seemingly effortless storyteller.

Hourglass by Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass is a memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. It is intimate and insightful and achingly beautiful and I loved it.

Hunger by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is a powerhouse. Hunger traces the before and after in Gay’s life. Before she was raped, and after; before she used food as a salve and after, when food filled the void of hurt and pain left by the boys who raped her when she was 12, when hunger built her body into a massive impenetrable fortress. Gay is consistently smart and insightful, and her look inward in Hunger is fastidious and unflinching. Her look outward, towards the way women in society can never escape the weight of their bodies, their worth constantly measured by their ability to disappear into thinness or reviled for their audacity to take up space, is dead-on.

Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab
I sing the praises of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic fantasy trilogy to anyone who will listen. As I mentioned in my review of the third book, A Conjuring of Light, “these books are the perfect escape.” And they are! They are a pleasure to read because they’re FUN and full of magic, and they make me happy. Start with book one, A Darker Shade of Magic, and you won’t be able to stop. I’ve been trying to find a magical series that replicates the feelings I was imbued with while reading this trilogy but I haven’t found another fantasy series that I’ve loved as much. Let me know if you do…

More great reads of 2017:
Silk Poems by Jen Bervin
The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Her Body and Other Parties stories by Carmen Maria Machado
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen
Human Acts by Han Kang
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Look poems by Solmaz Sharif
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
News of the World by Paulette Jiles

What were your favorite books of 2017?

Give Books: A Holiday Gift Guide

Give Books Brief Book Reviews Instagram Post

There were books I loved this year, books that were amazing and/or difficult reads, that didn’t make it onto this gift guide list because either the subject matter isn’t for everyone or those titles are on so many gift guide lists already (looking at you, Lincoln in the Bardo and Sing, Unburied, Sing). So I’ll be compiling my top books of the year in another post.

Happy gifting!

FOR YOUR MOM

1.) FOR MOM: Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass, $22.95
Hourglass is a stunner, a deftly braided memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. In it Shapiro excavates the girl she was, examines the woman – mother and wife and writer – she is now, and speculates about the woman she is constantly becoming as her life inches closer, ever closer, towards death. Shapiro has packed so much into this slim book, the fast abandon of youth, the intense love and weight of years of marriage, the anxiety and joys of parenthood, and the sweet sting of memory, of aging.

2.) FOR DAD: Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, $14.95
While Norwegian by Night is, at its core, a book of suspense, it also provides a fascinating look at Jewish identity, the frailty of memory, language and the ability to communicate without words, war and the effects of violence on the brain, parenting, aging, and death. It’s great.

3.) FOR YOUR BEST FRIEND: Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, $27
This is a fantastic read full of adventure, suspense, and heart. I just loved it, as did my book club, and most all my friends who’ve read it.

4.) FOR YOUR SPOUSE: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn, $27
In Autumn, the first in The Seasons quartet, Knausgaard, already a father of three, writes to his unborn daughter about the mundanity of our world, about the place she’ll soon be entering into and some of what she’ll encounter. As only Knausgaard can do, he describes for his daughter: Apples, War, Infants, Autumn Leaves, Lice, Vomit, Pain, Flaubert, the Labia (holy shit, read it), Forgiveness, and more. In each description, there is knowledge to be imparted and a personal connection being made, to others and to the world. And at the core of it all, fleshed out and laid bare, a deep and gorgeous truth.

Gift Guide 5-8(1)

5.) FOR YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW: Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, $27
Little Fires Everywhere is a beautifully rendered novel about family, identity, art, friendship, and the fire-spark of love. Throughout, I was struck by Ng’s excellent ability to get inside her characters’ heads. All different, each character feels true and distinct, emotionally complex without being contrived. Ng’s characters grapple with issues of belonging and betrayal, with what makes a “good” or “bad” or “worthy” parent. We witness the desperate acts of parents attempting to hold onto their children, and family dynamics pulled taut by fear, expectations, and deep affection, and the evidence that sometimes family isn’t the one we’re born into but the one we choose.

6.) FOR YOUNG KIDS: Carson Ellis’ Du Iz Tak?, $16.99
A favorite picture book in my house, Du Iz Tak? is a beautifully illustrated story about the seasons, nature, and the cycle of life from the incredibly talented Carson Ellis, illustrator of the Wildwood Chronicles.

7.) FOR THE COOK: David Tanis’ Market Cooking, $40
Fresh, seasonal produce takes center stage in David Tanis’ gorgeous new cookbook. My sister-in-law, who knows I love to buy vegetables seasonally at our local farmers’ markets, gave me this cookbook for my birthday in November, and there are so many recipes I can’t wait to try, including: Yellow Beet Salad with Mustard Seeds, Celery Salad with Pistachios, Sake-Steamed Kabocha with Miso, Roasted Coconut Carrots, Tomato Chutney, and Fennel al Forno, to name just a few.

8.) FOR THE BOOK LOVER: Guinevere de la Mare’s I’d Rather Be Reading, $12.95
This little volume fits into a stocking and is perfect for lovers of book stacks, libraries and indie bookstores, reading nooks, and that amazing new book smell. Compiled by Silent Book Club founder (and personal friend) Guinevere de la Mare, I’d Rather be Reading is an ode to books and the reading life.

#89 Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

10846336Salvage the Bones, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2011, is the profoundly harrowing story of a young teenage girl, Esch, and her father and brothers, as they prepare to face a hurricane threatening to upend their lives in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. It is a story about what it means to be black and poor in the South today, about burgeoning sexuality, about family and community and secrets, about the destructive power of nature.

Jesmyn Ward is a master of language and narrative, with a sharp, uncanny ability to craft a world that glitters with realness and chafes with grit. Her characters seem to emerge from a deep well of human understanding, they are nuanced and determined, tender and fierce, each one a survivor, hardened by the painful difficulties of life. Salvage the Bones houses both brilliance and heavy sorrow, what an intense and necessary book.

#88 Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún

32920269Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections is a quick, dark, and calculated novel about family and politics. Set in Bolivia after WWII, and based on real historical figures, the narrative follows the German Ertl family, father Hans and two of his daughters, on an expedition into the Amazon, and beyond.

The Ertl family provides Hasbún with great fodder for his story. In Germany, Hans Ertl had worked with Leni Riefenstahl as a Nazi propaganda cinematographer. After WWII, he fled the country with his family, relocating in Bolivia where he made expedition documentaries, and eventually became a farmer. His daughter, Monika Ertl, became a guerrilla fighter after joining up with the remnants of Che Guevara’s army.

While there is a precise elegance to Hasbún’s writing, and the history of the Ertl family is intriguing, the novel, composed of vignettes told from various perspectives, felt limited and disjointed, and lacked an emotional nucleus.

#87 The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

Messud_final_front.inddMost girls, at some point in adolescence, survive a best friend breakup. Most women I know have been through multiple friend breakups: new friends are made, interests change. A certain rite of passage, it can be sad, heartbreaking even, yet inevitable. The Burning Girl is the story of a broken friendship between two young teenage girls, friends since preschool. The foundation of this friendship, however, felt stilted and false, totally ungrounded emotionally. It’s hard to mourn a broken friendship if that friendship doesn’t ring true and is just simply boring.

I’ve never been able to get into Messud’s writing (I hated the characters in The Emperor’s Children and couldn’t even make it half way through), though friends, whose opinions I trust, love her. In this, Messud’s astute adult voice underscores the thoughts and observations of her young teenage protagonist making her character’s inner dialogue too insightful for her age and completely unbelievable. Messud’s adult perspective in this teenage narrative, and the lack of real emotion evoked by the characters or the plot, made this one of my least favorite books of the year.