Books I read this week: February week 4-March week 3

I’ve been reading a lot and not writing a lot, so I’m a bit behind. This month’s worth of books are kind of all over the place, but they were all really good reads.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton is the sequel to her excellent The Just City. It continues the story of Athena’s grand experiment to create Plato’s Republic with people pulled from throughout time, as the Just City has splintered into separate groups. Each group wants to create their own version of the Republic, and things go fairly well until people are killed in raids over art. Apollo incarnate and his children go out to investigate, and so many ideas about responsibility, fate, agency, art, grief, and so much more are explored in this book. The story is great, the ending is the best kind of out of nowhere (I’m thrilled that there will be a third book), and the ideas are thought provoking.

“Then why did you betray me?” she asked, her gray eyes hard as flint. “With Sokrates? Or by saying you were an angel?” he asked. “That there are multiple possible occasions does seem indicative of problems,” Zeus said.

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths sent me down a glorious rabbit hole. Apparently there was really a special forces team during WW2 and their job was to create illusions using camouflage and stage design to trick the Nazis. This book is a murder mystery wherein two members of a similar team (one now a police officer, one a stage magician) investigate a murder with uncanny similarities to a trick in the magician’s show. It’s a clever mystery, a great set up, with excellent characters.

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie is one I really thought I’d read before, but once I got into it I didn’t remember most of it. (I think that just means that I read it so long ago that it faded from my mind.) It’s a great set up for a closed room mystery- a woman is murdered mid flight on a plane. It could have been a blow dart found in a seat back, it could have been a wasp, and Hercule Poirot will figure it out.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak is really, really good. I got it from the library, but I might actually have to buy it. The stories are clever and inventive, and Novak has a distinct, wry voice that I appreciate. I don’t have a lot of detail to give, because the book is back at the library now, but I do recommend it.

If you love something, let it go. If you don’t love something, definitely let it go. Basically, just drop everything, who cares.

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente is a gorgeous ending to her Fairyland series. All of the rulers, past and present, of Fairyland have been brought back to life due to a mistaken spell, and September has to race them all to keep her claim as the Queen of Fairyland. But she doesn’t necessarily want to be the queen, and she doesn’t want to leave. Valente has created such a glorious world, with such beautiful, living characters. Her sentences are little gems, and this book goes exactly where it needs to go.

“You go paddle about in your supersecret lair of secretness and we’ll just lie out in the sun and discuss Agatha Christie and eat coconuts- ALL THE COCONUTS.”

For that is all a story is, my dears: a knife that cuts the world into pieces small enough to eat.

Growing Up Brave: Expert Strategies for Helping Your Child Overcome Fear, Stress, and Anxiety by Donna B. Pincus has some really excellent information about how kids experience anxiety and fear, and what strategies have been developed to teach them to deal with those emotions. Pulling from cognitive behavioral therapy, the tools in this book would be helpful for any parent of any child, whether they suffer from aggravated anxiety or not. The suggestions she gives are clear and easily implemented, and she imparts a very straight forward vision of what is “normal” and when to reach out to professionals for help. I really highly recommend this one.

Euphoria by Lily King was fascinating. Based loosely on the experiences of Margaret Mead (another rabbit hole I’ll be falling down soon), it’s the story of three anthropologists in the 1930s in New Guinea. Two are married and have just left their study of  a cannibalistic tribe, the other is suicidal and in over his head. When they come together it becomes clear that all three of them have different views on what it means to experience, study, and understand other cultures and even each other. The characters in this book live and breathe, the cultures that King creates are full of depth and complexity, and she raises really important questions about how we interact with the world. This would be a great book club book.

When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis? As usual, I found myself more interested in that intersection than anything else.

Unnatural Causes by P.D. James is another book that I know that I’ve read (because I know that I’ve read all of James’ mysteries), but I didn’t remember it at all. Not even a little bit. That’s glorious, because then it’s like a new P.D. James book! And it makes me wonder if I remember the others, or if I’ve got a new bunch of books to read. (And don’t go worrying that I’m losing my memory- I would have read them at least 15, if not 20 years ago. I think it’s acceptable to have lost the details.) The murder victim in this one is an aggravating little writer who sets everyone in the village’s teeth on edge, and who floats to shore in a little boat with his hands chopped off. The twists are fantastic, James is a brilliant plotter who sets up clues like glorious little dominoes. And her sentences- my goodness. The woman had beautiful, beautiful sentences.

The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast.

I wanted another mystery to follow up Unnatural Causes, so I chose Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), which I got for my birthday. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, and I have mixed feelings about it. The first two books in this series were such lovely little mysteries, little puzzles you could hold in your hand and sort through. And the characters and story of Cormoran and Robin were moving forward in a nice little way. They fit nicely into the formula (as it were) of the kind of mystery series that I love. But Rowling is all about character, and I can see that it would be impossible for her to have characters involved in a series of murders that had no effect on them, because Rowling’s characters exist in the real world, not in the murder mystery bubble. They’re not Jessica Fletcher, solving murder after murder and moving on, blissfully unaffected. So this book is all about the real life repercussions of murder and abuse, and it’s a pretty nasty piece of work. No one in it (save Cormoran and Robin) is a good person, and there’s so much darkness. Someone from Cormoran’s past sends Robin a woman’s leg in the mail, and as they investigate the murder and obvious threat, Rowling lays out Cormoran’s past as well as the past and present of the three suspects. Interspersed throughout are the thoughts of the killer, which gives the book more of a suspense/thriller feel than a mystery, because there’s really no way to solve the murder before the book leads you to the end.

It’s very well written, but you have to go into it knowing what you’re getting into. There’s lots of abuse and cruelty, and lots of language. It reminded me in a way of the 5th Harry Potter book- unpleasant, but necessary to set things up for what was to come, and I’m really hoping that now that this one is out of the way, we can get back to murder mysteries.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson was another birthday present. I’ve been wanting to read it since Furiously Happy was one of my top books of last year. It’s not quite as brilliantly hilarious as Furiously Happy- this is her first book, and you can see how Lawson has developed as a writer- but it is full of absurd real life stories. Lawson had a very unusual childhood, and while some of it is legitimately laugh out loud funny, some of it is sad and uncomfortable. But she’s not afraid to tell her stories, as crazy as they are, and I appreciate that.

I can ignore that piles of clothes on the guest room bed because I know they’re all straight from the dryer and just waiting to be folded. Victor, on the other hand, will glare at he growing pile and huff loudly over and over until I finally break down ans ask him why he sounds like he’s deflating. We look into the same guest bedroom and see two entirely different things. Victor sees a dangerous volcano erupting with clothes that I must be intentionally refusing to hang up because I’m lazy and am purposefully trying to make him have a nervous breakdown. I see it as a personal achievement… a physical manifestation of all the laundry I’ve done over the last few months. It’s like a strange trophy made of clothes that I’ve forgotten I even owned. Victor says it’s like a crazy person lives in our house and is sculpting Mount Vesuvius out of the sweaters that need to be in storage. This is when I remind him exactly why doors were invented, and I close the guest bedroom door. “See?” I say. “Problem solved.”  “You can’t fix a problem by just not using rooms in the house,” he argues, and I point out how ridiculous he’s being, as I use that room all the damn time. I use it as a giant drawer for clothes that need to be hung up.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller was an interesting book to read directly after Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. The settings are completely different- rural Texas versus revolution torn Rhodesia- but both are the stories are young girls trying to find their way amidst a bit of chaos and uncertainty, and possible mental illness of parents. Fuller grew up on farms and plantations in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe, and her story is fascinating because they personify colonialism and third culture children and institutionalized racism and so many other concepts. Her parents were British, and moved to the British colony of Rhodesia in the 70s, and they fully believe that whites are superior to blacks, and that whites should be in charge, and that they have every right to be there. They refer to the native people who are fighting for independence from Britain as terrorists, and talk casually about the idea of drinking from the same cup as a black person as appalling, and they’re so very sure that they are right. As the revolution is successful and their farm is taken by the government, you feel badly for them, and badly for Fuller, who in her mind IS African- it’s the only life she can remember- but they’re still on the wrong side. It’s just really really interesting. Fuller’s childhood is so very different from what I’m used to, and this book is a fascinating look into a time period and a place that I’m not very familiar with. I highly recommend this one.

No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel is a sneaky kind of Holocaust novel. There are no Nazis, no concentration camps (explicitly in the story- they do exist in the world of the book), just a little tiny Jewish village up in the mountains that decides to pretend that nothing outside of their borders exists when the war begins. There’s an element of magical realism to the book, but it only serves to highlight the very real tragedies that the people of the village inflict upon each other. I don’t know that I have words to describe or explain this book, I just finished it this morning and I’m still trying to process it. But it’s got some wonderful ideas about how we claim and use people, how we interact with God, what we do in the name of parenthood and love. I have the feeling this one is going to stick with me for a long time.

My mother beckoned all three of us. She held us against her chest, my father crying and my brother and I stunned cold. She whispered into out hair, “You are reasons to live. You are enough to survive for.” I grew older and heavier then, my mother’s love bigger than my own small body could hold. Her love would hang on to my ankles and wrists on every journey I would ever have to take, even if she was the one who sent me on it.

“You are thinking of it wrong,” she comforted. “Everything stays true. You are yourself, no matter how much you have to change.” Until a long time later, until I was a mother myself, until I lost everything, until it found me back, I didn’t believe the stranger’s words. Everything stays true. Now I know that. Now, it’s all I know. And knowing it saves my life again every time I wake up.

Books I read this week: February week 3

I started a number of books this week that I ended up abandoning, but here’s what I finished this week.


Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou is breathtaking. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school and loved it (I should read it again), but I’d never read further into her autobiographies, and now I need to hit the library and binge on the rest of them. Her life is FASCINATING. She was so naive, but so headstrong, and so brave, and she made some colossal mistakes in judgement, but she’s so honest about them. You can definitely see in this book how she learned her two axioms that Oprah lives by- “When you know better, do better”, and “When someone shows you who they really are, believe them”. In this section of her life Maya’s son is kidnapped, she stumbles into owning a whorehouse, and becomes a prostitute herself, for a short while. And she learns and grows and becomes more of herself. It’s really so so good.


Pride and Prejudice  by Jane Austen. This is the first time I’ve read this book, after a lifetime of holding out against it. I actually live blogged my reading experience on Facebook, which was highly amusing to myself (and hopefully to others). There’s a reason why this book is a classic, it’s brilliantly written and bitingly insightful. I’m probably in the minority that prefers the biting insight to the romance at the core of it- I’m actually not a huge fan of Elizabeth Bennet (or really, hardly anyone in the book), and I don’t really think Austen was either. I am honestly a bit puzzled by the obsessions this book has spawned, with so many people writing sequels and things. But, to each their own, I suppose. I did really enjoy it.


Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer is a really interesting book. It’s about a 15 year old named Jamaica (Jam) who has been sent to a special school for teenagers with psychological issues. She is dealing (or not dealing) with debilitating depression stemming from grief at the death of her boyfriend. They had 41 days together, and all she wants to do is relive them. She gets selected to be one of 5 students in a Special Topics in English class, and finds herself studying the works of Sylvia Plath with 4 other students struggling to deal with great trauma. Each student is also given a journal, and they soon discover that when they write in the journal, they find themselves in a netherspace where their trauma never occurred. Jam gets to be with Reeve again, her friend Sierra’s brother was never abducted, Casey was never in the accident that paralyzed her. And then, of course, they have to figure out what to do with that, because being in the netherworld doesn’t change anything- they can’t progress there or go anywhere that they didn’t in their original time line. It’s a really interesting look at grief and healing, and Wolitzer does a good job of capturing the vulnerability of kids that age. That feeling of knowing  and being responsible for so much, and yet knowing so very very little at all. There are a  couple of  revelations at the end that I’m still working over; I don’t know that I think they were effective, but I don’t know that I think they weren’t. Anyway, there’s lots in here about the power of words and literature and finding your voice, and it’s worth a read.

Books I read this week: February week 1 and 2

Lots of good books over the last two weeks, and I’ve succeeded in not buying any new books for another two weeks. Go me! Go the library! Go the Haunted Kindle!


The Just City by Jo Walton has an intriguing premise- Athena decides to create the city that Plato wrote about in The Republic, set up and run by adults from throughout time who have prayed (even in a moment of whimsy) to Athena with a desire to live there, and peopled by 10 year old enslaved children taken from throughout time. The children are bought from their enslavers and brought to the city to grow up and learn and live (and not be slaves, though at least a couple of them don’t see the distinction). The city is run on the principles Plato laid out, and what he always intended as a thought experiment becomes a real experiment. Add into the mix a child who is Apollo in human form, the arrival of Socrates, and possibly sentient robots, and things get very interesting. The story is told from a few different perspectives, and it’s very thought provoking. There’s not ever really a feeling of urgency or conflict, even when there is conflict, which results in a bit of an emotional remove. But I really liked it, and I’m excited to discover that there is a sequel.


I made a list of the Agatha Christie books that I haven’t read, and have been working my way through them. Cat Among the Pigeons  might be the first of her books that has ever disappointed me. It’s the story of murders that occur at a prestigious girls school, and it just doesn’t have the same flow or sense of character as her other books. One of the major plot points is telegraphed really loudly really early, and other clues are completely missing- overall the book read as though someone was trying really hard to write like Agatha Christie and didn’t quite make it.


At Bertram’s Hotel  by Agatha Christie was definitely a step up from Cat Among the Pigeons, but not quite top drawer Christie. Strange things are afoot at Bertram’s Hotel; a man goes missing, a man is murdered, a girl is threatened. Miss Marple is there to observe and ultimately figure out what’s going on. There’s a decently sized conspiracy going on, which isn’t my favorite thing in Christie books, I prefer her closed room/one house mysteries. But the clues are all in this one, and the characters are interesting.


Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie is the best of the three I read in this binge; it’s based completely in relationships and motivation. Elinore loves Roderick, and they both stand to benefit from their aunt’s death, especially since they are going to be married. (Elinore is the aunt’s sister’s daughter, Roderick is the aunt’s husband’s nephew, so there’s no biological relation between the two.) Mary is their childhood friend and the aunt’s caregiver. When the aunt dies, Roderick sees Mary for the first time in a long while, and falls in love. Then Mary dies of morphine poisoning, and it is discovered that the aunt died of the same. Elinore is the only one with the means and opportunity to have done it, and acts guilty, yet Hercule Poirot does not believe that she is the culprit.  This book is such a marked difference from Cat Among the Pigeons, and I’d actually put it really high in my rankings of Christie’s books. The characters are complex but distinct, and their actions are consistent and reasonable. The solution is tricky but there’s no cheating- all the clues are there.


The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide is a lovely little book. It’s the story of a couple who befriend a cat. The cat belongs to someone else, but comes to visit them on a regular basis, and the book is about how the humans are changed by interacting with the cat. It’s very Japanese; not much happens but so much happens. It would be a gentle introduction to Japanese fiction.


Still Alice by Lisa Genova is really a stunning book. It’s about Alice, a brilliant psycho-linguistics professor who develops early onset Alzheimer’s. As she begins to lose her memory she hides her condition from her family and colleagues, until she (and they) have to come to terms with the reality of her situation. I thought the book was going to be overpoweringly sad, but it really wasn’t. Alice is a strong person, and as she begins to lose the things that she thinks define her, she realizes what truly does make her who she is. It’s a very thought provoking book that brings up questions of end of life decisions (and when those can and should be made), and of identity and the meaning of a worthwhile life. I think it would make a great book club read; there’s tons to discuss. It’s also very possible that it will give you hypochondria about any little memory slips, but that’s to be expected, I guess.

     
The Price You Pay Is Red  and The Long And Silent Ever After  by Carlie St. George are the second and third novellas in the Spindle City Mystery Trilogy.  I hope that St. George continues writing in this world, because it’s a gorgeous world that she’s created. The Price You Pay is Red is loosely based on the story of Snow White, while The Long and Silent Ever After is based on Sleeping Beauty and The Frog Prince. The stories are excellent; twisty and dark. The characters continue to develop nicely, and in interesting ways.


Greenglass House by Kate Milford is a pretty great middle grade book. Milo lives in a hotel at the top of a mountain with his parents. He’s looking forward to Christmas vacation alone with them (since the hotel usually doesn’t have guests during the winter), but guest after guest arrive, all with an interest in the hotel, its past as a haven for smugglers, and its former owners. When something is stolen from Milo’s room, he teams up with Meddy, the only other kid in the hotel, to investigate. Meddy plays role playing games, and brings an element of her game playing into their interactions, which allow Milo to break out of his shell as well as analyze his feelings about being adopted as he “becomes” someone else. There’s a pretty decent mystery at the center of the book, and a twist toward the end that literally made me catch my breath because I didn’t see it coming at all. Milo is a great character- sensitive and bothered by change, but courageous and loving. The sub story about adoption is well done; Milo’s family is loving and portrayed very positively, and their conversations about his feelings and thoughts about his identity and adoption are sensitively done.  Some of the RPG sections are a bit overwritten, but overall it’s a highly enjoyable book.

Books I read this week: January week 4

words

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale is fascinating. In 1860 a 3 year old boy was murdered on the grounds of  his family’s estate.  As he was taken from the room where his nanny and sister slept, it quickly became obvious that the murderer was someone who lived in the house. The question of who did it became the purview of Mr. Whicher, top detective at Scotland Yard.  This book is part mystery, part history lesson, and it reads like a novel. One of the most interesting elements is the lack of trust most people had in police and detectives at the time, and the somewhat dysfunctional relationship between local police and Scotland Yard. Whicher detected his way to the murderer, and even had them in custody, but was unable ultimately to prove it to the courts’ satisfaction. The fact that the person that he suspected eventually confessed didn’t matter in the course of things; Whicher’s career was ruined, as was the family’s life. The whole thing is so interesting, and very well written.

A Victorian detective was a secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. In a newly uncertain world, he offered science, conviction, stories that could organize chaos. He turned brutal crimes- the vestiges of the beast in man- into intellectual puzzles.

Many felt that Whicher’s inquiries culminated in a violation of the middle class home, an assault on privacy, a crime to match the murder he had been sent to solve. He exposed the corruptions within the house-hold: sexual transgressions, emotional cruelty, scheming servants, wayward children, insanity, jealous, loneliness, and loathing. The scene he uncovered aroused fear (and excitement) at the thought of what might be hiding behind the closed doors of other respectable houses. His conclusions helped to create an era of voyeurism and suspicion, in which the detective was a shadowy figure, a demon as well as a demi-god.


Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 1) by Jeff Vandermeer is a book that I’ve had my eye on for a while, and finally picked up at the library. I’d been on the fence about it, but after reading a description that described it as a cross between Lovecraft and Lost I decided that I needed to read it. That description is pretty apt, as a group of scientists enter a quarantined area to investigate it. They’re the 12th expedition to go in, and the return rate has been far from positive. Things get really strange really fast, and that’s really all I can tell you without ruining things. It’s great science fiction that also falls solidly in the weird fiction category. I’ve read my fair share of weird fiction, so some of the big surprises were perhaps not as surprising as they could have been, but it’s really well written and highly enjoyable. 

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.


Authority: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 2) by Jeff Vandermeer takes everything from the first book and turns it on its head as you get more information (or perhaps misinformation) about what’s going on. If we’re going with a Lost analogy, the first book is on the island, and this book is about Dharma. Kind of. It’s also excellently written and a great read.


Acceptance: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 3) by Jeff Vandermeer takes the previous two books and kind of puts them in a blender. You do get answers, and it’s pretty awesome.  I really recommend all three.


Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher is a collection of essays, written after a while of her undergoing electro convulsive therapy (or shock treatments). ECT affects memory, and that’s a theme of a number of the essays. She writes a bit about fame, a bit about her parents, a bit about Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor. There isn’t completely a through line, but the essays are conversational and sly, and her personality shines through them. She’s a compelling person, and she’s not shy about her shortcomings or mistakes. She’s also not reticent about her successes, which is nice. This was a quick read, but I enjoyed it.

There’s a breed of women in Hollywood who wander among us looking very tense and very mad. Of course they’re angry. Who wouldn’t be enraged about having to ensure you’re looking an age you haven’t been in a generation?

I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.

Books I read this week: January week 2 and 3

Aaaaah! I get behind a week and all of the sudden there’s a million books to post about. Ok, so just 8. But still. I’ve been reading really good stuff.

Come Hell or Highball: A Mystery (Discreet Retrieval Agency Mysteries) by Maia Chance is a quick, clever mystery. Lola Woodby’s husband dies and she finds herself with a pile of debt and kicked out of the ancestral manor by her husband’s brother. With only her cook for company (who insists on staying with her until she can get paid), she hides out from the creditors and her family at her husband’s love nest. Together they get swept into a hunt for a stolen film reel, a murder, and all sorts of madness.

(I got this one from the library and I’ve already returned it, so I have no quotation from it.)

Slade House by David Mitchell is weird and creepy and awesome. Every nine years, on the same day, a doorway appears in Slade Alley that opens into a grand mansion. The people who go in, don’t come out. As the book moves through time and through unfortunate visitors, the reader discovers more about what happens in the house and why. I can’t really say more than that without ruining things, but it’s definitely worth a read. It apparently ties in to his book The Bone Clocks, though I think you’re supposed to read The Bone Clocks first, as I think this probably spoils elements of it. But I haven’t read The Bone Clocks and this stood up perfectly well on its own.

There’s a small black iron door, set into the brick wall. It’s small all right. I’m four feet eleven inches, and it’s only up to my eyes. A fat person’d need to squeeze hard to get through. It has no handle, keyhole, or gaps around the edges. It’s black, nothing-black, like the gaps between stars.

The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato is SO GOOD. SO GOOD. A pop star (with major Lady Gaga vibes) disappears without a trace. A little while later, a woman who has been investigating her disappearance vanishes in a boating accident. The mystery of their joint obsessions lies at the crux of this book, which is written in the form of an academic piece. There’s an abstraction from the story that gives the same effect (or the wanted effect) of found footage films, and the inclusion of real life references and context make the lines between fiction and non-fiction even more blurry. There are secret organizations, real life historical persons, the real history of the Chicago train line,  conspiracies, and so much more. It’s like Disabato took all of the things she knows and carefully researched about all of the things she loves and put them all together in this book. You can tell because none of it feels forced, it all just flows gorgeously together. I came away from this book with a list of things I want to learn more about.

They were at war with the whole world, but lightheartedly.

Molly’s Ghost Network is a strange piece; it catalogues not only a hypothetical transit system, but also one that would be nearly impossible to build and ridiculous to implement.  … The Ghost Network exists in a world without decisions, where every proposal is adopted, where construction isn’t based on the realities of the city.


The Case of the Little Bloody Slipper by Carlie St. George is short, only about 40 pages, but it’s so good. It’s a retelling of the Cinderella story, in a noir setting. That could be super hokey, but the tone and the flow of this work perfectly. There are two more stories set in this world and I can’t wait to read them.

It was half past eleven when I saw her. She was standing at the top of the staircase, with restless fingers and defiant eyes, wrapped in blue silk that clung to her hips. Her legs went on, and on, and on.

The Queen of Whale Cay: The Eccentric Story of “Joe” Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water by Kate Summerscale is the story of Joe Carstairs, a seriously fascinating woman. She lived from 1900-1993, and lived much of her life dressing and carrying herself as a man. She raced speedboats, bought her own Caribbean island which she ruled as its Queen, and generally just did whatever she wanted. She had a relationship with Marlene Dietrich, Dolly Wilde (Oscar’s niece), and a string of other women. It’s a fascinating read.

Dolly was known for her sparkling conversation. Yet Dolly’s words, unlike those of her uncle, were evanescent, careless, utterly resistant to repetition or transcription.


Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is a mindblower. I finished it and immediately had to round up other people to read it because I HAD to talk about it. It’s one of those books that has so much in it that you have to talk it through and even then you won’t get to everything. The characters are so complex, so full of depth. Nothing that they do seems out of character, but you don’t necessarily understand why they do what they do. It’s just so thought provoking and excellent. And the writing is gorgeous. Beautiful, beautiful sentences.

Lotto is a golden boy, popular, lucky, rich. A talented actor, he has the world at his feet in college, and when he meets Mathilde and she agrees to marry him, he has everything he could want. They have struggles, as his mother cuts him off financially and acting jobs become harder to come by, but Mathilde works, and their love keeps them happy and content. The first section of the book is Lotto’s story, his perspective on their life. The second half is Mathilde’s, and let’s just say that there are some discrepancies. And my goodness is it gorgeous as you begin to realize how little we really know anyone, how much our perception of the world is influenced by our assumptions, how far from the truth we might be.

I remember coming out of watching the movie Identity (totally spooky movie, if you haven’t watched it, you maybe should) and feeling completely shaken about the world- was everyone else a figment of my imagination? Was I just in someone’s mind? It totally upheaved my sense of reality. This book did the same thing, as I started looking at everyone around me in terms of what I might not know about them.

There’s a decent amount of sex and some swearing, but if you’re comfortable with that, I highly recommend this one.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood is odd and strange and disconcerting, and everything I expect from Margaret Atwood. In the slight future, the economy has collapsed and most people are living out of their cars, prey to roving bands of thieves. Not quite Mad Max style; there are still laundromats and convenience stores and hotels, but most people are pretty hard up. Stan and Charmaine are a married couple hard on their luck, until they see an ad for the Positron Project. If accepted, they will move into the city of Consilience, where they will be given a lovely home to live in, a job, and a safe life. In order for the city to work, however, every other month they will be inmates in the city’s prison, while an alternate couple takes a turn in their home. When the month is up, they trade places, going back to their life while the alternates serve their time in prison. With the prison as the pivot on which the society turns (you either live there or work there) the economy and society flow easily and well. Life in the prison is pleasant, and everyone is happy. But when Charmaine begins a relationship with the man who lives in her house on the alternate months, the cracks begin to show and things take a very Atwood-y turn.

It’s a fascinating, weird book. I’m still thinking about it- some of the places Atwood goes are chilling in their potential. There’s a lot of sex in this one, slightly more than I would say is necessary, but it is in service of the plot.

Oblivion is increasingly attractive to the young, and even to the middle-aged, since why retain your brain when no amount of thinking can even begin to solve the problem?

Everything in this town is retro, which accounts for the large supply of black vintage items in Accessories. The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened, It can’t be changed; so in a way, there’s nothing to dread.


I got The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George out of the library, and 5 pages in I realized that I had to just buy it because I wanted to mark passages on every page. So it has the distinction of the first book I’ve bought this year. I HAD to. I felt the same way reading it as I did when reading The Night Circus- that someone had written down my heart’s delight. It’s the story of Monsieur Perdu, owner and purveyor of The Literary Apothecary (which really should have been the title of the book. Why don’t people run these things by me?), a bookshop on a boat. Perdu is my kind of bookseller, the kind who won’t sell a book to someone if it’s the wrong book for them. He gives prescriptions for books that will heal the heart, fix the soul, make you cry if that’s what you need, give you courage, give a measure of grace. When a woman in need of all of those things moves into his apartment building, his own inner walls begin to crumble, and he finds himself (literally) on a journey to face his own past.

The story itself is fairly straightforward, but the prose is absolutely delectable. I just checked, and I marked 40 different passages, most of them because they were just so very pretty. This book falls solidly into my own personal set of scriptural texts, those books that bear witness to gospel of the power of stories. It’s one of those books that if you don’t like it, I don’t want to know, because it speaks so purely to my soul and to the things that I know to be true that someone not liking it would be a rejection of the parts of myself I hold dear.

But it’s well known that reading makes people impudent, and tomorrow’s world is going to need some people who aren’t shy to speak their minds, don’t you think?

He calls books freedoms. And homes too. They preserve all the good words that we so seldom use. Leniency. Kindness. Contradiction. Forbearance.

“Here you go, my dear. Novels for willpower, nonfiction for rethinking one’s life, poems for dignity.” Books about dreaming, about dying, about love and life as a woman artist. He laid out mystical ballads, hard-edged old stories about chasms, falls, peril and betrayal at her feet. Soon Anna was surrounded by piles of books as a woman in a shoe shop might be surrounded by boxes. Pedu wanted Anna to feel that she was in a nest. He wanted her to sense the boundless possibilities offered by books. They would always be enough. They would never stop loving their readers. They were a fixed point in an otherwise unpredictable world. In life. In love. In death.

I’m currently reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which I should finish today.  Then I’ve got a stack of books from the library. I’m trying to alternate between library books and my library on the Haunted Kindle. I have a long list of books to get through, which is pretty much heaven.

Books I read this week: Jan. week 1

One of my goals this year is to buy less books (isn’t it every year?) and I’m going to achieve this goal by reading what’s already on the Haunted Kindle and utilizing the library. I’ve missed the library so much. This week’s reads include two from the library, woohoo goals!

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey is a dense book. I’m not quite sure why, but it took me 5 days to read its 272 pages where it took me a day to read all 455 pages of The Silkworm.  The book is in the form of a long letter from a woman to a friend she has known since childhood, a friend who has betrayed her. As the letter continues, the words flow in a stream of consciousness way until the full truth of all of the relationships are revealed. It’s a very “slice of life” book; not a lot happens that anyone would deem world changing, but the whole world is in the details of these people’s lives. It’s a very interesting, poetic read.

  We are all looking for miracles and small mercies. I mean this. Who are we to decide on another’s behalf what is miraculous, what is merciful?

All life is a joke and falling for it is the best we can do. Better than refusing to laugh along, which I sometimes think is the route to madness.

Time is a drug that wears off.


The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike Book 2) by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) is a solid followup to The Cuckoo’s Calling. It doesn’t quite have the same glitter- I didn’t enjoy the cast of characters as much- but it’s a twisty, enjoyable mystery. Strike is hired to track down a writer and bring him home by the writer’s wife, when he can’t do that, it turns into a missing person’s case. And when a manuscript by the missing man is leaked and it contains thinly veiled caricatures of almost everyone he knows, it’s not long before it turns into a murder case. As with Cuckoo’s Calling, the clues are all there, there’s no cheating, and there are plenty of plausible suspects and red herrings. The background stories of Strike and his ex-wife, and Robin and Matthew move along nicely.


The Daughters: A Novel by Adrienne Cole was an impulse library pick up. I rarely go to the library with particular books in mind (I did with The Silkworm), I usually just let books yell at me from the shelves, and this one did. It’s the story of Lulu, an opera singer who has just had a baby. She comes from a line of women who believe that, due to an ancestor’s “deal with the devil”, when they give birth to a daughter something they love will be taken from them. Lulu fears that her daughter’s birth will cost her her voice, as her own birth cost her mother her singing career. It’s a beautiful look at what motherhood costs, the sacrifices made, and the hopes we hold for future generations. It’s also a meditation on the role of stories in the formation of our identities, and how the past influences us. I really, really liked this one.

I could tell Kara a story. She has a lot to learn about me, about the past. Where she comes from, where she’s going. And anyway, isn’t that the function of stories? To teach our brains to dream? It would be daunting to fall asleep into the noise of complete darkness, infinite probability. Wihtout the guide of a little narrative, a little magic, how would we know where to go when we closed our eyes? 

Best Books of 2015

This is the first year that I’ve taken a look at what year the books I read were published, so I’m actually able to put together a list of my favorite books that came out this year.  Interestingly, the majority of the books that I rated 5 stars were 2015 publications (3 were super late 2014- late enough that I’m counting them as 2015. I can do that, it’s my list.)

Here are my top rated books of 2015, in no particular order. If you want more info on any of these books, click through to their Amazon page or search for the title in the “Search this Site” box to the left to go to my original review.

The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura: Such a fascinating, insightful look at how languages interact and how those who speak and write in English are privileged in a great many ways.


The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen: An incredibly fun read about a mysterious writers’ society. (Fair warning- one graphic sexual scene)


The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery: It’s all about octopus. What more could you ask for? Utterly fascinating.


Vermilion: The Adventures of Lou Merriwether, Psychopomp by Molly Tanzer: Pulpy westerny ghosty goodness.


Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert: One of my top 3 of the year. There’s just SO MUCH in this book. I think a reread is in order. It’s an electrical jolt of creative inspiration.


Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson: This is another top 3 book. I have never laughed so hard reading a book. Lawson is honest and completely hilarious. (Fair warning- lots of swearing.)


Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente: Manages to be an utterly gorgeous ode to the golden age of film while also being completely solid sci-fi.


All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: The final of the my top 3 books. The heartbreaking, gorgeous, thought provoking story of a suicidal woman and the sister who doesn’t want her to kill herself. SO SO SO SO SO good.


Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar: Another book about a suicidal woman and her sister, but that’s only part of the story, as this book focuses on Vanessa Bell, rather than Virginia Woolf, her sister.


The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock by Lucy Worsley: This book was exceptionally good. Chock full of fascinating information and history, written like a novel. I’d buy it for everyone I know, except that would look a little weird.

My other two 5 star reads (that did not come out in 2015, or close to 2015) were:


The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks: An incredible memoir of living (and thriving) with acute paranoid schizophrenia. A truly exceptional book.


The History of Love by Nicole Krauss: A gorgeous story of the power of literature and love. Vibrant, complex characters who will break your heart.

 

Books I read this week: December week 4

Here’s what I read over the last week or so of the year.

Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist was a bit of a hard book to get my head around to begin with. It’s a series of vignettes about different points in the lives of a married couple when they have had to deal with death. What threw me was that some of the vignettes concern experiences that only the wife had (when she was a child, before she even knew the husband) yet all of them are written in the voice of the husband. I thought that was a strange choice for a woman writer- in effect taking the woman character’s voice from her- but there did turn out to be a reason for it. I get it, and I don’t know of a different way it could have been done, but I’m still not sure I love it.

But anyway, the story itself is lovely and sad, as this couple find themselves dealing with the task of “cleaning up” after deaths of family members- selling homes, cleaning out belongings, finalizing finances. And through it all, they love each other and live their lives, and are strengthened by their experiences.

And even through every offering you make, we both know the baby himself is not really an idol. He’s just an altar- a place to lay sacrifices. The sacrifice you make here is so profound I’ve never dared to mention my own- real but lost and invisible in the face of the cataclysm of your new motherhood. But the look of sameness in the routine of my life is not real. I have laid something precious on the altar of the baby too. My own sacrifice– it was you.


After Birth by Elisa Albert was on a ton of best of 2015 lists, and for good reason. It’s a raw, honest, powerful book. It’s the story of a newish mother (her baby is a year old) who is struggling with post partum depression in addition to the general upheaval of her life that came with a new baby. She befriends another new mom (of a newborn) who is also struggling, and the two of them create a support system for each other. The whole book is in a stream of consciousness form, and every emotion connected with motherhood is present here. Reviews that I read found the main character abrasive and some of her views offensive (she is stringently pro-breast feeding and thinks formula is horrible), but I found her honest and real (and I totally used formula). Some characters in fiction have different opinions than we as readers have. It happens. The experiences that these characters have are not everyone’s experiences. But I found myself more aware of those with new babies around me after reading this, checking in, making sure that they’re ok.

Another day gone, okay, and I get it, I got it: I’m over. I no longer exist. This is why there’s all that talk about kids having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby, and disappear.

Who can say I’m not a good mother? Who can say I don’t read the subject headings in the books? The How to Care for Your Child if there is Absolutely No One with Any Primal Knowledge Around to Guide You guides. What to Expect When There Is No Received Wisdom Whatsover.


On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them by Melissa Dalton-Bradford is such a lovely book. Bradford’s oldest son died in a water accident just as he was starting college- he died saving a friend from drowning in a canal. Bradford wrote about that loss in her previous book, but this book is the result of her search for peace after his death. She read every book she could get her hands on about death and people’s experiences continuing on after their loved ones died, and she collected the passages that rang true to her. She put them in order of experience- the day they died, the next morning, at the funeral, a month later, a year later when people don’t talk about them every day anymore- and then added her own essays about her experience. The result is a compendium of shared experience that could bring comfort to the grieving and understanding to those who love them. I really highly recommend this one.

Remember: grief always outlasts conventional comfort.

The child was a gift. The grief does not smother the gratitude. And death is not the end. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope. Yet none says that since death is not the end, we should not grieve. Though grief does not smother hope, neither does hope smother grief.


Hands Free Life: Nine Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better, and Loving More by Rachel Macy Stafford is a follow up to her book, Hands Free Mama. It’s a good look at ways to have less distraction and more connection in your day. It’s an easy read with some good ideas.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity to connect to what really matters lies in the silent spaces of our day. When we resist the urge to fill every minute with noise, excess, and activity, we open the doors of our heart, mind, and soul to let the joy come in.


The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg is a really solid read with a lot of good information. He breaks down how habits work, in practice and neurologically. When that foundation is laid, he goes into how to change habits. There are lots of good real life examples. We’ve already used the ideas to help a nail biter in our home.

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.


Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a really powerful book. It’s a collection of poems about being black in America, and it hurt my heart and made me angry and want to change the world. Many of the things that Rankine writes about are small moments of large import- when her friend (her educated friend) tells her that she didn’t know black women could get cancer, when a white woman chooses to stand rather than sit next to a black man on the train. All those little moments build on top of each other until they feel crushing. And then there are the larger moments, the moments that crush all by themselves, when men are pulled over and arrested because they fit a profile, when they are killed for daring to ask why. This is the kind of book (like After Birth) that probably makes some readers defensive, because this isn’t their experience, because they feel accused, complicit, because they don’t want to know. But sometimes reading is about reflecting your own experience, and sometimes it’s about listening to someone else’s.

As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing: it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.


Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira is a sweet, sad, story. Laurel has just started as a freshman at a new high school, and is given the assignment to write a letter to a dead person. So she chooses Kurt Cobain because he was her sister May’s favorite before she died. Laurel continues to write letters to dead people (Amelia Earhart, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, River Phoenix) as she tries to sort through her grief, the break up of her family, her new friends, and her part in her sister’s death. Dellaira does a great job of capturing the feeling of being a young teen who knows too much and who feels responsible for everyone else’s happiness- both in the characters of Laurel and May. As they keep secrets from everyone else and believe that their view of what is happening is correct, they’re crushing their own souls. The characters are nicely developed and complex, and while some of the events are predictable in a YA novel sort of way, that’s not a bad thing.

River, you were a star so bright, One that people made wishes on. Until you took so many drugs that you took your life. Do you think that everyone gets to be a star like that? Do you think that everyone gets to be seen? Gets to be loved? Gets to glow? They don’t. They don’t get to do it like you did. They don’t get to be as beautiful as you were. And you just wanted to burn up.

There was something between me and the world right then, I saw it like a big sheet of glass, too thick to break through, I could make new friends, but they could never know me, not really, because they could never know my sister, the person I loved most in the world.

 

Books I read this week: December week 1 and 2

Here’s what I read over the last couple weeks.

M Train by Patti Smith is a worthy followup to her first memoir, Just Kids. I LOVED that book. While it was a pretty straightforward recounting of her early years, this is a more meandering look at her later life. Each chapter is book-ended by a visit to her favorite coffee shop, and as she sits, she looks back, remembering friendships, travel, love. Her writing is beautiful; there’s a poetry to it that is really enjoyable.


I thought I had already read Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie, (it’s an easy assumption, I’ve read a lot of her books) and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I hadn’t. It’s a solid and tangly mystery- a young girl is murdered at a Halloween party after boasting that she once witnessed a murder. Hercule Poirot is the detective on this one, with Ariadne Oliver, the mystery writer, backing him up. She’s a fun character, and the rest of the cast is great as well.


All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists by Terry Gross was interesting. It’s a collection of interviews that she has conducted on her radio show, Fresh Air. I say interesting because I think I would have preferred to listen to them (though she does say that there are some of her favorites that she left out because they didn’t “read” as well), but the content was still good. I actually found her comments about how they put the interviews together the most compelling part; a LOT of work goes into putting that radio show together.


I bought The Cuckoo’s Calling  by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) 2 years ago, and had put off reading it because I wasn’t sure how good it was going to be. It’s a contemporary detective novel, and I just wasn’t positive that it was going to be an enjoyable read. I needn’t have worried. It’s a super solid mystery, no holes, no raised eyebrows, no cheats. The clues are all there. And the characters- my goodness, the characters.

If you’ll allow me to digress for a moment- one of the main plot points of the book Speak Easy by Catherynne Valente is that Zelda and Frankie (F. Scott Fitzgerald) play cards with a fairy. He’s a dangerous fairy, and the stakes are high- a name that goes on forever, a life in Paris, a marriage, a healthy baby girl, fourteen novels, death by fire locked in a room with nobody coming for you, and most importantly, a “heart beaten into a lovely tale where a girl comes out on top and the beats come so hot and sweet they’ll knock you dead and you’ll beg for a sequel”. Some of those are Zelda’s stakes, some are Frankie’s, some belong to the house, and in the end, Frankie wins it all. Zelda goes with him to try to get hers back, but he keeps her heart, her story, and gives her back her death by fire. “He thinks he’s being kind. Generous.” But all she wants back is her story, the story that as the reader you know is The Great Gatsby. And it’s heartbreaking and gorgeous and true, this story about Frankie and Zelda.

The reason I tell that story is because it’s inched into my brain and now I wonder about what the wagers of other writers would look like. I think Ms. Rowling’s winnings would all be about her characters. An orphaned wizard, a smart, goodie two shoes witch, a red haired best friend, a villain without a name, a lovesick bully, a long bearded kind old professor. All of these would be in that winning pot, characters that will live on in hearts and minds for decades. And you’d think that would be a big enough pot.

But apparently Rowling won a jackpot, because her characters in this book are just as living and breathing as anything in Harry Potter. I’ve found myself thinking about them days later, and not just the main characters, who are excellent, but the side characters as well. Each one is a fully realized individual, to the point that I feel like I could say, “that sounds like something they would do”. When the conclusion comes, it all makes sense, like I said, there’s no cheating. It’s a rock solid set up, it all plays. That’s hard enough to do, but inhabiting that with living, breathing people, not just characters; that’s a gift that makes me want to wager with a fairy.

The mystery at the core of the book is an apparent suicide; a young model throws herself from her apartment window. But her brother thinks it’s murder, and he hires Cormoran Strike, private detective, ex-military man, illegitmate son of a rock star, to look into it. Add in his temporary secretary Robin, who harbors dreams of being a detective herself, and you’ve got magic. There are two more books in the series so far, and they’re all I want to read, but I’m holding out so that I can stretch out the experience. Dang J.K. Rowling!

There is a decent amount of swearing in the book, but not egregious.

Because I really just want to read those books, I’m bouncing between a couple that look really good but I’m not sure that I’m in the right mood for. We’ll see where I end up.

 

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.”