Books I read this week: October and November

This happens almost every year- I do really well keeping up on posting about what I’m reading, and then I hit the end of the year and give up the ghost. Then I have to do a major catch up. So here we go. I read some really good stuff these last couple of months.

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling.  I’m pretty sure that, barring some major personality/lifestyle change on her part or mine, I will read every book that Mindy Kaling publishes from now until the end of time. She’s smart and clever, and I enjoy her observations and insights. And I find her fascinating as a person, so I really enjoyed this collection of essays which dips into her personal life a little bit more than her first book. She has some great passages here about confidence and friendship, and just being a person.

If I host a dinner part at my house that you are invited to, then first of all: congratulations! You are living in a thrilling science-fiction world where robots probably walk among humans as equals, and also, I know how to cook.


Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die by Amy Fusselman. This book is fascinating. The author was inspired by a visit to Tokyo, where her host took her and their children to a park where there are pretty much no rules. Kids are allowed to climb trees, build with tools, light things on fire (in a fire pit), and anything else they can think of, as long as they’re not hurting someone. This prompts a consideration of how we think (or don’t think) about space and what we allow kids to do and experience. It’s really good, and not just because I find Tokyo eternally compelling. (I didn’t know about the park when we lived there, and I’m quite sad about that.)

It wasn’t just that the children were flying in the air there, it wasn’t just that they were making insanely great structures, it wasn’t just that the playpark hut was a junk lover’s dream. It was because the place existed at all for just this reason: this full and complete allowance of a self, including all the ineptness, failure, and possibility of death, because it is understood that only with this allowance to we have the capacity to be great.


The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan. I don’t even want to tell you how long it took me to read this collection of poems. I think I started it in 2011. It’s less than 300 pages long and it took me 4 years to read. I just dipped in and out of it over time. Don’t take that as a judgement of the poems, they’re lovely, poetry just takes a long time for me. The poems did start to click better more me about halfway through.

Extreme exertion

isolates a person

from help,

discovered Atlas.

Once a certain

shoulder to burden

ratio collapses,

there is so little

others can do:

they can’t

lend a hand

with Brazil

and not stand

on Peru.


Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson is probably the funniest book I’ve ever read. I laughed so much reading this book. It’s a collection of essays about Lawson’s life, which is a life with mental illness. The title refers to her decision to grab onto happiness when she could, and to not just be happy, but be furiously happy. This expresses itself in absurd, gorgeous ways. I read somewhere that you are more interesting to other people when your own interests are unique and diverse, and in this case, it’s certainly true. She has a love of taxidermy that is hilarious and fascinating; I honestly just adore her. There are some really great insights about struggling with mental and physical illness in the middle of all of the madness and hilarity; some very honest moments. There’s a lot of swearing in this book, which is unfortunate, because otherwise I’d buy it for everyone I know.

Victor thinks taxidermy is a waste of money, claiming that “there are only so many things you can do with a dead raccoon.” But I have proven him wrong time and time again. Victor pointed out that what he’d actually said was “There are only so many things you should do with a dead raccoon,” and honestly, that does sound more like something he’d say, but I still disagree.

Brains are like toddlers. They are wonderful and should be treasured, but that doesn’t mean you should trust them to take care of you in an avalanche or process setotonin effectively.


The Martian by Andy Weir is another book with a lot of swearing. Just saying. I usually don’t even notice swearing in a book, and I thought, “Wow, this book is sweary”. That being said, it’s also pretty great. An astronaut gets accidentally left behind on Mars and has to figure out how to stay alive until he can be saved. The book didn’t really kick into high gear for me until the people at NASA on Earth came into the picture, but I love how the whole book is about people being smart. They’re all able to do what they do because they’re intelligent, and have learned a lot, and can work around problems. There’s no dumb person in this book, which is pretty awesome.

Yes of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works everywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.


A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller. I read this book for book club, and I’m glad, because I’d never heard of it and probably would never have picked it up. Miller wrote a previous autobiographical book that was optioned for a film, and this book is about the process of he and the producers “rewriting” his life to make it less boring. He has a lot of ideas about seeing your life as a story and making conscious choices about the narrative arc (so to speak) that you’re creating. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, and some stuff I don’t agree with, (his ideas about what constitutes an “interesting” life are not always in agreement with mine) but overall it’s a really thought provoking book.

The night after we talked, Jason couldn’t sleep. He thought about the story his daughter was living and the role she was playing inside that story. He realized he hadn’t provided a better role for his daughter. He hadn’t mapped out a story for his family. And so his daughter had chosen another story, a story in which she was wanted, even if she was only bveing used. In the absence of a family story, she’d chosen a story in which there was risk and adventure, rebellion and independence. “She’s not a bad girl,” my friend said. “She was just choosing the best story available to her.”

Jason decided to stop yelling at his daughter and, instead, created a better story to invite her into.


The Monogram Murders: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery by Sophie Hannah is a new Hercule Poirot mystery that’s been approved by the Christie estate. I was wary going in, because it’s not Dame Agatha, but it’s remarkably solid. Hercule is well and consistently written, and the mystery is twisty and really well done. The clues are there, but subtle, and I really enjoyed it.

I do not believe that anyone about to kill for the first time would imagine he might first want to eat a scone.


Carter & Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard is one of the best Lovecraft inspired books I’ve read. At the beginning of the book, Detective Carter is tracking a serial killer with his partner and they’ve found him in time to save the kid he’s kidnapped, and then Carter’s partner starts laughing hysterically and shoots himself. It’s a super eerie scene, and one that sets the stage for Carter to investigate strange happenings with eldritch overtones. When he inherits a bookstore from a man he’s never met he meets Emily Lovecraft, grandaughter of HP Lovecraft himself. And this meta element is what makes the book awesome- it takes place in the real world, where Lovecraft really lived and wrote books, but what he wrote about is actually happening. The Lovecrafty parts are so well done, with the madness of learning too much expressed in a visceral way that I haven’t read in other homages. Most authors go with the “that which can’t be described” trick, but Howard delves into what it would feel like to experience knowing things that the mind isn’t supposed to, and can’t, comprehend. It’s really creepy (I started reading it while B was out of town and had to stop until he got back home), but really really good. And the end is incredible. I can’t wait for the next book.

Carter’s sight blurred with double images, multiple images, and they were not the same. He was breathing heavily, becoming aware of the sound of his breath rasping in and out of his throat, the coldness in his lungs. What a shambolic scarecrow a human is. How full of paradox and obsolescence. Life quivered fitfully inside him, a flickering light in a stormy universe. He felt small and inconsequential. He felt the truth pressing in upom him, up from the ancient Earth beneath him, down from the still more ancient stars above, a pressure of reality that would crush him like a louse between fingernails.

None of this changes that. I don’t care if he is offing people with pixie dust instead of a gun like a good American; he tried to kill me, and he came into the store to threaten you with math and philosophy.


Radiance is by Catherynne M. Valente, who is one of my very favorite authors. This is her first adult book in a while, and it’s so very very good. It’s described in the blurb as a “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery” which really is the description of my dreams. It’s set in an alternative 1920-30s where the solar system has been colonized- each planet claimed by a different country. The moon is claimed by Hollywood, and it’s where all the movies are made. It’s where Severin Unck grows up on camera- her father, a famous movie director, documenting her every moment. Once she’s grown, she disappears during a documentary film shoot, and the book rotates around everyone involved’s knowledge or ignorance about what happened. There are so many pieces that fit together, so many voices, so many compelling characters. The science of the science fiction is solid, the pulpy elements are glorious, and the whole thing is a beautiful ode to film. It’s just so good.

Everyone adored her. She was like laughter turned into a person.

This is the version I’ve seen. I have watched it over and over. It is beautiful. It is right. It is full of hope for the future. It is perfect. It is a whopper of a lie.

 


This month really was a goldmine of books from my favorite authors. A new Jonathan Howard book, two new Valente (see below), and a new Gail Carriger. My heart overflows. Manners & Mutiny is the last (I’m assuming) of Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series, which features Sephronia Temminick who attends what her mother thinks is a proper ladies finishing school, but which is really a school for assassins. It’s just about my favorite thing. There are dirigibles and bad guys called The Picklemen, and it’s glorious. In this last of the series, Sephronia and her friends fight a conspiracy to steal the school itself, and Sephronia has to come to terms with some of her choices from previous books. I highly recommend the whole series, it’s lovely.

After all, Bunson’s was a school for evil geniuses, and scientists weren’t encouraged to experiment with fashion, only weaponry.

He clearly did not know what to do when approached by a pretty young lady wearing a wicker chicken who ought- by all standards of decency- to be long abandoned on the moor… chickenless.

Dimity had firm opinions on cucumber, which she felt was nothing more than slimy, embarrassingly shaped water and should never, under any circumstances, be presented at table.

 


Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente was another glorious surprise. I swear, she somehow has a pipeline into my mind and just writes things that I’d be interested in. I may, in fact, be her exact target market. Anyway, this novella is an imagining of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life, if her life were a Grimms fairy tale. The blurb calls it, “a bootlegger’s brew of fairy tales, Jazz Age opulence, and organized crime” and that’s pretty much right. It’s strange and sad and glorious.

Parties are where you go to do nothing as hard as you can.

Standing between his girl and a boy who just needs to be seen so bad he’d turn on all the lights in hell.


The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by EB Hudspeth is an odd, but neat, book. The first half is the “biography” of Dr. Spencer Black, a Victorian doctor convinced that mythical creatures (like satyrs and mermaids) really used to exist and were the precursors of humans, and that mutations and deformities in humans are caused by those genes trying to reassert themselves. He loses any respectability in the doctoring community and begins to create his own mythical creatures (using carcasses and… not carcasses) to show how the mythical creatures could have existed. The second half of the book is made up of incredibly detailed anatomical illustrations of different mythical creatures, and they’re really quite beautiful. It’s a strange, creepy book, where the horror of what’s happening kind of sneaks up on you.

I must know why five fingers are intended before I can discover the cause of six.


Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. I highlighted so much of this book, it isn’t even funny. It’s a inspiring, encouraging, daring look at what makes creativity, and how we can interact with our creativity. I just don’t even have words. It’s a book I want to buy for everyone I know (and there’s only a little swearing in it, so I could). I highly, highly, highly recommend it.

 

At such times, I can always steady my life once more by returning to my soul. I ask it, “And what is it that you want, dear one?” The answer is always the same: “More wonder please.”


Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse: A Novel by Faith Sullivan is a lovely, lovely book. It’s the story of Nell’s life, beginning with the birth of her son and the death of her abusive husband, and going through the rest of her years to her death. The book itself begins with her obituary, written by herself, and it’s beautiful to see those lines expand into everything they really encompass in her life as the rest of the book unfolds. Nell is a reader, and books are her foundation and safe place as the small town she lives in goes through ups and downs, through World War 1 and its aftermath, through love and friends and loss. She is a kind, thoughtful woman, and the book is gentle and thoughtful, even though sad things happen in it. I really really liked this one.

In 1909, Nell discovered P.G. Wodehouse, who became her treasured companion and savior. She recommends his books to all who know distress. And, of course, to all who don’t. But further, she simply recommends reading- Dickens, Austen, Steinbeck, or whom you will. In books are found solace, companionship, entertainment, and enlightenment. The stuff of our salvation.

Motherhood was the most insecure of all undertakings. If you stopped to think, even for a moment, every choice you made was the wrong choice.


Paulina & Fran: A Novel by Rachel B. Glaser is a gorgeous character study. It’s the story of two girls, Paulina and Fran, who both attend an art school, and who are in turns enamored and at odds with each other. Neither is terribly likable; they’re prickly and vain and rude in a distinctly real way that makes reading about them less an entertainment and more like voyeurism. Both are people I feel like I could have known in college, like they could step off the page and exist in the world as real people. Glaser does an excellent job of capturing the tangly feelings of college life, when you feel like you should have everything figured out, and maybe even feel like you do, but you really know deep down that you don’t have any idea what you’re doing. It’s not necessarily an enjoyable book to read, but it’s incredibly well written, and I really liked it.

She felt Gretchen was the kind of girlfriend she would be offered again and again by the adult world, the real world, but Paulina was someone truly original, someone who existed only once.

She rushed home thinking, I will become a myth who murders old loves.

All month she’d camped out by his heart with little love of her own, but a stubborn need to star in someone’s life.


Newport: A Novel by Jill Morrow is made up of things that make me happy, the 1920s, summer houses in Newport, seances and spiritualism. It’s a fun, tangly story about a lawyer who is sent to revise a client’s will, only to discover that the client’s children are contesting the changes because their father believes that his dead wife is communicating to him through his new fiancee’s niece. There are tons of family secrets and the past coming back to haunt people, and it’s a great read.

“It’s art,” Adrian said. “It’s not accountable to you.”

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