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.

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.

#85 Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

34362982When thumbing through the book review section of The New York Times a few weeks ago I wasn’t surprised to read in Celeste Ng’s By the Book Q&A that she’s not a fan of Karl Ove Knausgaard: “I have never been able to get into Knausgaard, though many, many people whose opinions I trust adore his work. It’s just not for me.”

Knausgaard is a polarizing author. Based on conversations I’ve had with friends and fellow book lovers, it seems you either love him or you just really don’t. I’m solidly in the LOVE category. My husband, however, having never read a lick of Knausgaard’s writing, derides him with passion any chance he gets (most recently over dinner with friends at Leo’s Oyster Bar) because of an instant dislike of Knausgaard’s seriously earnest author photo and a general mistrust of anyone who pens a six-volume, many-paged autobiography. I’ve read the first two volumes of My Struggle, by the way, and they’re fantastic. I particularly loved volume 2.  Most of the people who dislike Knausgaard refer to his navel-gazing, a meticulous dissection of everyday life, calling his writing boring, misogynistic, banal.

What amazes me, again and again, about Knausgaard’s writing is that there is a pedestrian everyday-ness about it. He catalogues 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.

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.

One of my favorite books of the year.

With beautiful illustrations by Vanessa Baird and translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey

#71 Hunger by Roxane Gay

22813605Roxane Gay is a powerhouse.

Honest and raw, Hunger is a detailed account of Gay’s body, the physical and emotional weight of it, the way it carries her, the way it demands and betrays.

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.

#60 Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

27161156Hillbilly Elegy, my book club’s pick for the month of June, is J.D. Vance’s memoir of growing up poor and white in Ohio, in the heart of the collapsing Rust Belt of America.

Vance compares his familial story with a larger cultural issue at work in middle America, the decline of the white working class. A hillbilly among hillbillies, Vance grew up in poverty, with an unstable addiction-prone mother and a multitude of ever-disappearing father figures, within a family where loyalty was fierce and volatile, where every meal was fast food and struggling at school was a given. Despite these early challenges, and with an acknowledgment that his path isn’t the norm within the culture, Vance (now 32) enlisted in the Marines, attended college, and graduated from Yale Law School.

My reaction to the book is mixed. Hillbilly Elegy is definitely readable and Vance’s story is an engaging one. More memoir than sociological study, the mash-up leaves little room for a deep dig into the big issues – class disparity, the drug addiction epidemic, the failing education system, the disillusionment of the American Dream. While Vance makes a case for class divide limiting the opportunities available to Middle America, it can’t be ignored that the author, a white cis Republican male, and the hillbillies with whom he identifies, benefit from a system of white privilege that protects their white bodies every day and affords them more opportunities and higher paychecks than the multitude of others in America today.

#58 We are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

35272259Samantha Irby is funny and acerbic, and her candid personal essays cut the bullshit and get right to the meat of life.

In We are Never Meeting in Real Life, Irby, author of the blog bitches gotta eat, writes about growing up poor and black outside of Chicago, about her sick mom and her loser dad, about being a smart but underachieving student and going to a middling college. She also tackles sex and dildos, shit, stomach issues and body aches, eating and fatness, mental illness, and her love of television and staying indoors. She writes about how the world, in so many ways, asks her to apologize for her size and for her appetite; over and over her essays give the world the bird: No way, fuck you. That doesn’t mean she’s immune to self-doubt, complex body issues, and the constant struggle to be. She just doesn’t owe anyone an apology.

Irby’s humor, while honest, witty, and raw, isn’t for the faint of heart. She is sarcastic and cutting, as hard on those around her as she is on herself.

#51 The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

22609485My book club mostly reads contemporary fiction but this month we decided to read and discuss Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. Despite being a National Book Award finalist and receiving praise and accolades from multiple media outlets, we didn’t love the book.

Montgomery structures her narrative around visits to the New England Aquarium where she meets and interacts with a few different Octopuses and profiles the folks who care for them, and includes a basic overview of the body/brain of the octopus and some historical and cultural references. Overall the book is very repetitive (if I had to read one more paragraph about the author sticking her hand into the octopus tank I might gouge my eyes out) and I kept wishing Montgomery would focus less on her general awe of the octopus, and more on the octopus itself.

Meh.

#50 The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

29936927#50!! And just like that I’m halfway to my goal to read 100 books by the end of the year…

One of the things I appreciated about Berkeley-based Thi Bui’s gorgeously illustrated graphic memoir The Best We Could Do, is that she opens her book with an intense birth. She is in labor with her son, and, by way of her lovely illustrations, we are in the moment with her. I couldn’t help but find a parallel between the “birth” of the book, the creative impulse, and Bui’s labor, the creation of life; the book opens, she opens, the story unfolds, a life is brought forth.

The Best We Could Do is a story of life and survival, of family and identity. Bui tells the story of growing up between two cultures, the story of her parents – where they grew up in Vietnam, how they met, the dreams of their youths, the realities of adulthood. It is the story of a country and a people torn apart, by colonization, by the Vietnam War. It is the story of refugees. It is powerful and memorable, a fascinating and evocative read.