Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Reading Log and Comments (2021)


The Turn of the Key. Ruth Ware. (Scout Press, 2019.)

When I woke, it was with a start, to complete darkness,
and a sense of total disorientation.
Where was I? What had woken me?

After enjoying Ruth Ware's One by One, I decided to try this earlier novel. It reminded me of other horror/suspense novels. Similar tropes. Large house with a lot of history in a remote area. A rich, dysfunctional family. Legends and ghost stories. It also very much reminded me of the Netflix series, The Haunting of Bly Manor. Except unfortunately Ware's story isn't nearly as well executed.

As the book wrapped up, I thought a lot about Chekhov's gun and how Ware seeded the book with red herrings. Or maybe she's a fan of Hemingway; that guy had no beef with inconsequential details. But I'm not a Hemingway fan. So, (spoilers ahead!), it annoyed me when a flash in the woods, the protagonist's asthma (so many inhaler scenes), the deep-enough-to-drown-in pond on the property, the seemingly possessed "smart house" technology, and the "poison garden" amounted to nothing. And as if all these quiet guns weren't enough, the ending of the book was no kind of ending at all. It felt like several attempts at an end that never solidifid or clarified. Readers don't ultimately know if the protagonist, who seemed desperate to prove her innocence (so desperate she wrote much of the book, a thorough epistle, to a barrister she hoped would take her case) ever succeeded in her endeavor. And while Ware does provide enough info to demystify the mysteries in the book, it comes as a single lump, an info dump, leaving readers staring at the man behind the curtain and holding a bag full of empty promises.

Despite its failings, the book wasn't a complete waste of time. I was intrigued enough to finish it, after all. And I'll probably try another Ruth Ware book. Not ready to give up yet, though I won't tolerate another shaggy dog story. Fool me once...

The Secret of You and Me. Melissa Lenhardt. (Graydon House Books, 2020.)

I wondered if she could see into me like she used to,
if she knew I was repulsed by her
as much as I was drawn to her?

I began reading this novel without knowing what it was. (Story of my life: I put it on hold a while back and could not recall why when it became available.) I like picking up a book without knowing too much about it (also why I avoid long movie trailers), but I was definitely perplexed as I started out. Had I chosen a romance novel? I could NOT see that for myself. I figured at some point, the plot would turn towards horror, suspense, mystery. I kept reading and learning about this small Texas town and the people who never left and what happened when one person who did leave came back for her father's funeral half a lifetime after abruptly leaving. And then suddenly, I found myself reading my first Sapphic novel. I must have read something of the book beforehand and chosen it in anticipation of Pride month and with a desire to try something new.

Would this book exist if the main characters actually spoke honestly with each other more immediately? Nah. But I guess that's how it is with most books. And with life. Although the relationships in this book are often dysfunctional and frustrating, I still enjoyed the queer flirtations. Not sure if that's because they were novel to me (gay on the page!), if it's because I've been celibate for several years (hard-up, low bar), or if it's because sexy is sexy, whatever.

When it comes down to it, my favorite part of the book wasn't the romance, but the way the author nailed the small town dynamics. Or at least, I think she did. I don't come from a small town and thus can't verify the accuracy of the portrayal, but I bought what she was selling. 

Who should read this novel? Anyone (but obviously especially women who love women) who can recognize dysfunction and clearly distinguish between it and healthy love (so as not to aspire to the relationship in this book, which needs a hell of a lot of work). Also, some of the minor characters are more likable than the two lead women; readers who need to love the main characters might want to avoid this novel. I sound like a Negative Nancy. The book was good enough! I only hope the author writes a healthier WLW novel in the future.

Piecing Me Together. Renée Watson. (Bloomsbury, 2017.)

This makes me wonder if a black girl's life is only about
being stitched together and coming undone, being
stitched together and coming undone. I wonder
if there's ever a way for a girl like me
to feel whole.

I selected this book for a library project, a give-away for kids ages 16-17.  I didn't have time to read it before choosing it, but I'd read the synopsis and was intrigued by the prospect of a novel that tackled issues of race and class without setting the main character, in this case a Black teenager, in the middle of a drug scene, prison, foster home, shooting, or other extreme and stereotypical (racist?) situation. I wanted a story written by a Black author about a Black child who is living life and coming of age despite systemic oppression and its terrible ripples. What I got was a wonderful story that didn't shy away from conversations most adults struggle to have. (And, bonus, it takes place in my beloved Portland, Oregon. A delightful surprise!)

In this novel, Jade must brave being herself in a world full of people who think they know better than she does about who she is and what she might do. I empathized with her as she struggled to be offered the opportunities she deserved at the mostly-white, upper-class school she attended, and as she engaged in tense discussions with a white friend who refused to accept the realities of racism and white privilege. I cheered for her each time she found her voice, even as I worried for her, with her, that the mere act of using her voice would get her in trouble in a world that doesn't always want to hear truth.

It's no wonder this book won the Newbery and the Coretta Scott King awards. It's a good read, an important read, for all kids. And for adults, too. I'll be recommending it to library patrons and loved ones alike.

The Someday Birds. Sally J. Pla. (Harper, 2017.)

Then, a little brown speckled bird struts into my dream.
That's what I focus on, behind my closed eyelids: a bird
pecking around despite the flaming prairie grass.
A bird, finding a way to survive.

I selected this book for a library project, a give-away for kids ages 10-12.  I didn't have time to read it before choosing it, but I'd read the synopsis and the reviews and liked the idea of a book that could engage kids with challenging topics, on their level (that is, with honesty but a certain amount of protective distance, too). Though it's never explicitly stated (unless I missed it), the main character, Charlie, is on the autism spectrum and has OCD. It's a relief to read a book with a neurodivergent protagonist. And I admire the author's handling of the challenges this character takes on, including those that accompany the tragedy of his father, a journalist, returning home with a severe TBI. 

Charlie isn't the most immediately likable character. Even for a 12-year-old, he can be self-absorbed. It takes time--and the reader's compassion--to empathize with Charlie, who has precise and unyielding preferences involving hygiene, food, and the types of activities he's willing to engage in. (He often annoys his younger twin brothers and older sister.) He can seem needy, stubborn, cowardly. However, readers, with enough patience and observation, will note that Charlie does care about other people. He just might not show it with physical or verbal affection. His caring is introverted but real. And his preferences stem not from a place of unfounded obstinacy but actual issues. I know plenty of people who don't like to get messy or use gross bathrooms (Charlie even has a rating system for bathrooms, which is honestly kind of endearing) and who won't eat certain foods due to a texture or smell that doesn't sit right with them. I think the key to liking Charlie is to recognize his humanity, to embrace his differences and passion (man, he loves birds!), and to not take any of his potentially more grating behaviors as personal affronts.

There is another character deserving of the reader's focus, and that's Ludmila, a woman in her 20s or 30s who appears in Charlie's father's hospital room and whose relationship and motives are a bit of a mystery to the family (and to the reader) for quite a while, even as she steps in to help when the kids' grandma cannot watch them. Over the course of a spontaneous cross-country trip from California to Washington, D.C., Ludmila's reveal to the kids her story, which involves war, death, immigration, foster care, grief, depression, healing.

Oh, I forgot to mention Charlie's "Someday Birds" list (don't want to tell you too much, though). Charlie is obsessed with birds and with a certain ornithologist, and his birding desires are a little bit wrapped up in his love for his father. I think that's all I'll say about that. Go read the book! I can't promise you won't tear up a little in spots. You might even laugh. You'll almost certainly enjoy watching the characters grow together.

One by One. Ruth Ware. (Scout Press, 2020.)

I climb back into bed and I switch off Snoop. Then I lie,
quite still, listening instead to the whisper of the snow
falling onto my balcony outside. 
Obliterating everything.

This was my first experience with Ruth Ware, a mystery/suspense author. As with nearly every book I get from the library, by the time it showed up on the hold shelf, I had no idea how it came to be there. Mysteries perpetually abound. Anyway. I checked it out as a paperback but didn't start reading until the day before it was due back, and I couldn't renew the hold (it's apparently a popular title). Fortunately, I was able to check out a digital copy. I flew through the book, intrigued not only by the who-done-it aspect, but by the setting (a luxury chalet in the snow-packed mountains), and the author's conception of a music-streaming app, Snoop, in which users can listen in real time to other users' streams, including those of celebrities.

The plot: A Snoop company retreat gets tense over discussions of a potential buyout that, if successful, would leave shareholders, several of whom are on the retreat, with millions of dollars. When one of their party goes missing on a group ski outing, suspicions about the nature of her disappearance stir up the group, and as one by one more of the group disappears or dies, it becomes clear there's a murderer on the mountain, a realization that is all the more unsettling after a massive avalanche cuts off their ties from the rest of the world. Who done it, and who's next?

As with any mystery, I found myself trying to solve the case. I thought I was so clever! But every time I came up with a bunch of possibilities, Ware had already anticipated me. She'd lay out my thoughts, which was both satisfying (vindicating) and (in a good way) disappointing (was she putting her cards on the table as a bluff? Or because my guesses were so far off, she had nothing to lose by sharing?). I liked the tension created by this overt analysis. I felt a little like I was in a reality TV show. Fitting for a story that grapples with the ethics of technological voyeurism.

In the end, I was both right and wrong about the murderer(s). Because I'd guessed just about everyone. (Like throwing darts in the dark. Sure to hit something!) I was impressed by how the author had managed to both reveal and conceal throughout the book. I felt like she'd been fair to the reader, not unnecessarily misleading.

If I had any suggestion for improvement, it would be to involve more than just two characters' POVs. I definitely enjoyed the two characters through whose views we get the story, but I think that's a little too simplistic. Go all Knives Out on us, Ruth Ware! There is too much said by whose views we get and whose are omitted. Anyway, a worthwhile read. (And, side note, in a genre field that seems to be inundated with men, it's nice to read a book by a different gender.)

The Wicker King. K. Ancrum. (Macmillan Imprint, 2017.)

August sped toward the middle of the field, breathing the cold air quick
and Jack laughed. They thundered across, sneakers slipping
in the dew, hearts pumping, throats heaving.
Caught. He could feel it. He was caught.

I read this book at the suggestion of a friend. We both follow the author on Twitter, but I'd never actually read K. Ancrum's work. Well, I'm glad she nudged me. This was I think only the second queer book I've ready, after Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. I began reading without looking up the premise, so everything was a surprise.

As I read, I wondered about the two teenage boys who are the primary focus of the book. Their friendship seemed a notch above friendship, which kept me wondering, despite their sexual relationships with girls. Their friendship also seemed dysfunctional. Still I could tell their love for each other, platonic or otherwise, was genuine. I was intrigued by the complexity of their relationship, of how they seemed to want to save each other from the gloomy neglect they each experienced at home. I wished more than once that they had more caring adults in their lives, and I was quietly impressed by their friends' awareness and efforts to help. It shouldn't fall on children to save each other, but their efforts to do the right thing were touching.

This book isn't just about trauma and its ripple effects or friendship or sexuality; it's also about mental and physical illness. Somewhat early on, Ancrum carefully hints that Jack can't trust his mind--his memories or his perception. The issue slowly becomes more pronounced and concrete. It evolves, and the reader, along with Jack and his friends, isn't sure what's real and what isn't. For a while, it's fascinating--Jack's "world," his visions. But gradually the story becomes darker, less of an adventure and more of a horror.

What keeps the reader reading is wondering what will ultimately happen between Jack and August; will their friendship survive? Will they admit they have deeper feelings for each other? DO they have deeper feelings for each other? And the reader also wonders what's going on with Jack. Are his visions some kind of superpower? Or a product of a mental illness? Something physical? Something else? What's going to happen to him?

I enjoyed this book, but I think Ancrum's Author's Note at the end might be my favorite part. It feels like a behind-the-scenes, intimate analysis and teaching, a sharing of the book's lessons. Many if not all of my concerns about the characters are adeptly addressed here. Made me hope that Ancrum is out and about, talking to teens, uplifting them, letting them know that they don't have to, shouldn't, carry the world on their shoulders.

March, April, May-ish

The Part That Burns. Jeannine Ouellette. (Split Lip Press, 2021.)

What I feared most during that year on Jackson Street was
that my brokenness was--like my pregnant body--
slowly swelling, and that it would spill out of its
hiding place and expose me for who I really was.

I saw this book advertised on Twitter and then I attended a virtual event in which Jeannine Ouellette was one of the guest speakers, after which I decided her memoir sounded exactly up my alley. I bought it along with a few others as an early birthday present to myself and then read it sometime in May.

Ouellette's memoir reads like a collection of essays with a subtle arc. It begins with "Four Dogs, Maybe Five," the title suggesting the slipperiness of memory, truth, definition.  The chapter is organized around the dogs that punctuate ouellette's childhood, anchoring her memories to the seemingly perpetual shift of time and place. We meet Ouellette's mother, her biological father "Mafia" (Mike Smith), her stepfather "Jack Daddy" whom she considers her real dad,  her half sister Rachael, a cast of family friends, and of course a number of dogs. Readers move through a young Ouellette's perspective of her circumstances, which include abuse (firsthand and secondhand) and neglect. Because it's written from a child's POV, the story is as fucked up as it should be/is while also being threaded with enough light (children never fail to make/find light in the dark) to carry the reader through.

What is this memoir? I think it's an account of the author's trials, travails, and triumphs, of her survival, of her grappling with old wounds as an adult while she reclaims her life and hopes to enlarge it and make a family, become a mother. 

I appreciate the author's tangible descriptions and her willingness to find a form for her story, as she moves through multi-part essays and autobiography homework assignments and poetic interview/storytelling/conversations co-written with her daughter.

Who is this memoir for? I think it's for people who can brave sadness and enjoy beautiful writing, specially folks who have survived abuse or who need to know it's possible to go beyond mere survival, to reclaim life from the jaws of predation, abandonment, loneliness, grief, horror.

It Devours. Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor. (Harper Perennial, 2017.)

As the saying goes,
"Those who fail to understand history are doomed,
as are those who do understand it."

I checked out this book after reading the first book in the Welcome to Night Vale series, and though I didn't grow as attached to the characters in this book, I still enjoyed the quirky humor and its plot, reminiscent of the Tremors franchise, if the characters in Tremors engaged more deeply in questions of faith vs. science. 

In this Night Vale adventure, Nilanjana Sikdar, a scientist whose investigation into sudden earthly rumblings and sinkholes leads her to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God and a devotee, Darryl, unearths more than she bargains for as she uncovers the newest otherworldly threat to Night Vale.

As with the first book in the series, I was taken with the author's ability to slip wisdom into the absurd and create humor. A few lines: "It felt like illness, but it was only existence," "There are moments in life in which it is made clear to us how vastly we have misunderstood," "Sometimes it's okay to find something beautiful without correctly understanding it."

A fun read. Will it lead to another Night Vale book on my dossier? Perhaps!


Horrorstör. Grady Hendrix. (Quirk Books, 2014.)

During the day, Orsk was a building like any other, a sensible container
built with modern materials to house furniture and people.
But after eleven o’clock, when no one roamed its aisles,
when its back offices went dark and the last customers
were escorted out the front doors, when its entrances
were dead-bolted, when its final floor partners
went home, it became something else.

I checked out Horrorstör when a coworker at the library told me it was about a haunted furniture store. I looked it up before putting it on hold and immediately loved its spirit, its absolute buy-in. The novel is packaged like an Ikea catalogue, with a glossy, colorful cover featuring modern furniture with umlauted names and clear prices (along with hints of horror), and interior ads and company propaganda and jargon. The first page of front matter (alongside a map of the “Orsk” store layout) clearly states, “Horrorstör is an original work of fiction, horror, and parody.” Indeed. This novel is a comedic commentary on the horrors of retail, of big-box stores, of the programming that marketers and other capitalistic puppeteers implement to increase sales and gain customer loyalty—while also managing to be a legitimate ghost story.

I appreciate this novel because there is a manageable cast of characters (basically five), and I am not overly emotionally attached to any of them but am concerned for their welfare (who wants to get too attached to characters when they are knowingly reading a horror story?!), and I generally find myself bouncing between smiling and holding my breath.

If you’re looking for a mild horror story set in an Ikea-like store with a young woman protagonist who has the gall to stand up to company-indoctrinated management and tell it like it is—“You know what I see? I see you dedicating your life to a store that’s a knockoff of a better store with better furniture and better management. That’s the big picture I see”—but who also has the integrity to try to rescue her coworkers when literal hell breaks loose, this book is for you!

Welcome to Night Vale. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. (Harper Perennial, 2015.)

“Things go strange here. Your children forget you, and
the courses of their lives get frozen. Or they change
shapes every day, and they think that just because
they look completely different you won’t be able
to recognize them. But you always will. You
always know your child, even when
your child doesn’t know you.”

I discovered The Night Vale series while checking in books at the library. A title—The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Homejumped out at me. I voiced my intrigue, and a nearby colleague began telling me about the strange town of Night Vale and the podcast on which the series of novels is based. I decided I should find the first book in the series and take a shot. Glad I did.

The book reads a little like Aimee Bender meets Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. It is bizarre. And cheeky. Punny. Sarcastic. Satirical. Obviously humorous. Things that we consider fringe-worthy—aliens, monsters, angels, shapeshiftingare accepted (though perhaps illegal to acknowledge), and things that we consider normal, like clouds and mountains, are debatable. In Night Vale, time can be meaningless, frequent blood loss can be normal, and librarians can be homicidal and many-tentacled.

One of my favorite moves in the book takes place when the authors manage to slip some wisdom into the layers of weird, and in matter-of-fact ways. For instance: "Most people in Night Vale know there is information that is forbidden or unavailable, which is almost all information. Most people in Night Vale get by with a cobbled-together framework of lies and assumptions and conspiracy theories. Diane was like most people. Most people are," or "Comfort was the answer to all life’s problems. It didn’t solve them, but it made them more distant for a bit as they quietly worsened."

And there was even a moment, the one I quoted at the top of this entry, that touched me. Because there is a theme in the book, though it feels improbable to have something so serious as a theme in this work, about mothers and their children and memory and struggle and identity and unconditional love, that is told wonderfully through the characters' unique, somewhat supernatural situations.

This is a story that will stick with me, mainly for the chapter(s) in in which the two main characters visit the library. Man. If you don't want to read this whole book, okay. But at least check out chapter 27. I would happily watch a whole movie built around that chapter alone.

Will I read another Night Vale book? Yes. I can only hope there's another trip to the library or somewhere equally unexpectedly horrifying or that the authors have created more characters who are easy to love.


Postcolonial Love Poems. Natalie Diaz. (Graywolf Press, 2020.)

The water we drink, like the air we breathe, is not a part
of our body but is our body. What we do to one—
to the body, to the water —
we do to the other.

- [line breaks are mine],
from "The First Water is the Body"

Natalie Diaz's name had been popping up in my Twitter timeline around the time a patron at the library brought a stack of books to circulation, including Diaz's newest poetry collection. The patron seemed overwhelmed by the abundance in her hands, and she slid Postcolonial Love Poem off the top of the stack with a rueful frown and said she didn't think she'd have time to read it, that she would have to check it out some other time. "Well, this must be my lucky day," I said. "I've been meaning to read her." I didn't know how lucky I was until I cracked the thin volume, which is also when I understood why the patron had let this one go; she would have had to put back all her other books if she wanted to keep this one. These poems deserve one's full attention and time. They should be read and reread, bookmarked, quoted.

Diaz's bio at the back of the book notes that she was "born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe." Diaz's indigenous roots are the foundation of this collection. Her identity as Mojave, Latina, and queer underpins her poetry. Though underpins isn't the right word. Perhaps composes. But no. Perhaps the essence is best captured in a line from "The First Water is the Body": 

If I was created to hold the Colorado River, to carry its rushing inside me, if the very shape of my throat, of my thighs is for wetness, how can I say who I am if the river is gone? 

I do not know how Diaz could say who she was without poetry, either, so perhaps poetry is a river. It sure feels like one in this book, every word like water, every line a current, a ripple, a splash.

These poems are not sentimental, but I cried reading them anyway, these quiet war stories, eulogies, incantations, earthly sermons, graceful summons. For all the political bluster around global warming, for all the fists slammed into the air or onto desks, for all the microphones raised and dropped, for all the bills waged, wagered, signed or thwarted, very few environmental activists have been able to make apparent, so simply, beautifully, and compellingly, the imperative connection between humans and the earth itself. My heart ached reading these poems because they got inside. Or rather, they were already there, inside me like the water that sustains my life, but I forget. We forget. We live in a society that makes it so easy to disconnect, that wants us to forget. And remembering hurts. It hurts because we are scared. We feel powerless, or we feel our power to do something and we fear the responsibility. "If the river is a ghost, am I?/ Unsoothable thirst is one type of haunting," Diaz writes.

My favorite poem in the collection is "exhibits from The American Water Museum," a list of imagined exhibits at an imagined museum, through which Diaz critiques capitalism, colonialism, and other U.S.-defining -isms. I could not help but feel horror, shame, grief, desire, and desperation as I read this long, many-layered piece. I wept at the beautiful sting of exhibit 2345, which reads in part,

The river is my sister—I am its daughter.
It is my hands when I drink from it,
my own eye when I am weeping,
and my desire when I ache like a yucca bell
in the night. The river says, Open your mouth to me,
and I will make you more.

Open your mouth to me, and I will make you more. How can we heedlessly divert, damn, pollute, bottle, buy, and sell something so absolutely innocent, altruistic, pure? We do not simply fill our mouths. If we stopped there, things might not be so dire.

I don't know how to finish my commentary, so I think I will end with an excerpt of the beautiful imagery and truths Diaz lays out in her poem, "Isn't the Air Also a Body, Moving?"

From the right distance, I can hold anything

in my hand—the hawk riding a thermal,
the horizon which across many days might lead to
the sea, the red cliff, my love
glazed in fine red dust, your letter, even the train.
Each is devoured in its own envelope of air.
What we hold grows weight,
becomes enough or burden.

The Perfect Guests. Emma Rous. (Berkley, 2021.)

Sometimes I like to look at what's on order in the library catalog and surprise my future self when a book comes in that I forgot I requested. This is one such book. I don't read a lot of genre fiction anymore, but I liked the suspenseful Knives Out sound of this one.

The story takes place in "the Fens," a marshy coastal plane in England, and specifically at a large estate called Raven Hall. The place itself is a real presence on the page, which is good, as it is the heart of much of the narrative conflict. The book is organized into a braid of three narratives, one by Beth beginning in the late 1980s, another by Sadie beginning in 2019, and another that is unlabeled and italicized, meant to be a mystery until it's not. In one narrative, an orphan becomes wrapped up in a dark mystery. In another, a young woman attends a mystery dinner event. Gradually, the two narratives collide, and the third narrative's narrator and purpose become apparent.

The book is labeled "horror" at my library but it is decidedly not a horror novel. It is, however, gently suspenseful. Some of the tricks in it, I've seen before, but I was not put off. I enjoyed my time in "the Fens" and inside the rooms of Raven Hall. The characters are believable enough, and the writing easily carries the reader from page to page. A quick read. Nothing too poignant or memorable in the writing itself, and I may not remember the nuances of the story a year from now, but I was entertained for the duration of the book, and that's all I hoped to be!

All Of Us: The Collected Poems. Raymond Carver. (Vintage Contemporaries, 2000.)

The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.
~ from "Happiness"

I was inspired to explore Raymond Carver's poetry after recently learning that he wrote poetry. (I already admired his fiction.) Before checking out this book, which is a compilation of four of his books of poetry, I discovered his poem "What the Doctor Said," in which he tempers his cancer diagnosis with with humor and immediacy that create a quietly beautiful portrait of life in the face of death. That poem sold me on Carver.

I kept a record of the poems I most appreciated as I read, and though I didn't log as many poems as I had hoped I would, I was glad of the poems that did speak to me, and there were plenty. I was especially interested in the developing subtext, a narrative of Raymond Carver's life, including moments from his childhood, scenes from the period of his life when he struggled with addiction, and gems from his years in recovery and his years battling cancer. In between these autobiographical poems, Raymond honors other authors and historical figures as well as classic stories. One of the earlier poems in the book, "You Don't Know What Love Is," is a real or imagined conversation with Charles Bukowski and is all the more impressive if it's fabricated because of how perfectly he nails Bukowski's cocky persona. Some other names that pop up through the book are Haruki Murakami, Hemingway, W.C. Williams, Robert Graves, and Karl Wallenda. And there are many excerpts of Chekhov's work, formatted as poems.

It's difficult to say what it is about Carver's poetry that is so compelling. Sometimes he nails a line break so perfectly, the enjambment sings. Sometimes it's juxtaposition. But I suppose it might be the simple intensity of his images. His characters take on three dimensions in their dialogue and gestures. Carver's poems all seem quiet, like they were born in the early morning hours, with a ghostly sun casting gray light through a foggy sky. I guess I'd say they have atmosphere. When he's writing about fishing in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, I want to be in that water with him, seeing the fish flicker like he does, feeling the river lick my calves the way he does. When he's sitting in a kitchen, cup of coffee in his hand or pie on his plate, I want to be beside him drinking, eating, trying to make sense of this life.


The Terrible Girls: A Novel in Stories.
 Rebecca Brown. (City Lights Books, 1990.)

Each gift you want to give is an excuse, a toy, a bauble
in lieu of something irreplaceable. You're trying to pay
an unpayable debt. You're trying to buy forgiveness.

I read Rebecca Brown's The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary in grad school and was floored by Brown's use of metaphor and repetition. I appreciated the Robert Coover Spanking the Maid feel of it, and the story was similarly dark and destructive, a tale of a dysfunctional, perhaps abusive, relationship. Recently, I thought I'd like to read that book again, but I gave it away, and I could not locate a copy in the library. However, my search for it yielded other books by the author, including The Terrible Girls. The library app's short description, which included the phrase, "body parts are traded for love," intrigued me. I decided to give it a shot.

I was immediately taken by the voice in the first tale, and by the subject matter. "The Dark House" opens with a recounting of a conversation, in second person: "Never, you said, not me. Don't waste your time waiting.// But after a while you said, Well possibly.// Then after a longer while you said, Well maybe. But that whatever you might do, if you did anything, you'd certainly make no promises and one would be wrong to assume or expect. Then you cocked your head a little and said that if anything were perhaps to happen it would take a long, long time. But if one were around anyway and felt like it, one might wait." Here is the hook, set right away, with a character that is either open to a relationship or who is lying the way a man might lie to his mistress that he will one day leave his wife, and another character who, it becomes clear in the next paragraph, decides to believe in the former rather than the latter. "This," the character thinks, "was your way of saying Someday. Of telling me to wait." And this conflicting dynamic—this push-pull, stay-go, maybe-maybe notdrives the first story and flares throughout the rest of the book, which is either a novel told in stories, as the subtitle indicates, or a collection of interconnected short stories. (I would argue there are at least two stories that are only loosely linked to the rest of the narrative.)

What is quickly apparent are themes of deception (by others, by the self) and betrayal, yearning and distance, have and have not, doing and undoing. The body is especially palpable throughout, its own character. A hand waving or not waving. (Reminiscent of Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning.") An arm severed. Thighs warm and wanting. A square white back. A heartcarved out, boxed, bagged, bleeding, pink and dry and artificial, hidden, overt. Skin black and blue. The body drowning, the body trampled to a right red pulp.

In a world starkly divided, one that is familiar to readers and yet futuristic and surreal, the author plays with the question of forgiveness, redemption. Should liars be forgiven? Should deceivers be absolved? Should a traitor, drowning, be saved? The answer, in no uncertain terms, is no. At least, in many of the stories. But Brown does leave readers with a bit of hope.

What I love about this book is that it's queer and almost primarily populated with women. I like the dystopian feel of it. I like the closeness of the characters to the page, the use of second person, the lack of names. I adore the physicality of it, the language building upon itself like how cells make a body. Some of the scenes in this book will stay with me forever, for their beauty, their truth, their brutality.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of instances in the book where the narrator expresses abusive desires and in at least one instance an act. The term "partner violence" is relevant. I wonder, 31 years after its publication, if the author would change that material if she could. Even as fiction, even as metaphor, it feels dangerous.

The other beef I have with the book is the narrator's lack of introspection. She takes no accountability for her actions, even when she can admit, "I'd gotten so used to hearing what you said the way I wanted to that I couldn't tell what you really said. I wanted, when you had said to me, I'm not, I'll never, for you to have been lying. I wanted someday for you to stop lying and be with me." As a recovering codependent, I recognize many problematic patterns of thinking and behavior in this book. I only wish the author had grappled with these issues more fairly. To cast the "other" entirely as offender and the narrator solely as victim is simplistic and disingenuous, though maybe I missed the part where the narrator does take her own inventory. (I doubt it.) But would I recommend this book, especially to writers looking to hone their craft? Yes. And will I read another Rebecca Brown book? I am sure.

Birds of America. Lorrie Moore. (Vintage Books, 1998.)

It was part of their effort not to become their parents,
though marriage, they knew, held that hazard.
The functional disenchantment, the sweet
habit of each other had begun to put
lines around her mouth, lines that
looked like quotation marks—
as if everything she said had 
already been said before.

After reading The Writer's Library, in which it felt like every author interviewed spoke of their great esteem for Lorrie Moore, and after asking a writer friend her opinion on the author, and being assured that yes, Lorrie Moore is funny, I checked out this collection of short stories. And I fell in love, not immediately from page one, but a few pages into the first story, when the protagonist, a flailing middle-aged actress, is dumped by her married director boyfriend, leaves Hollywood, and moves into a Days Inn in her hometown of Chicago. Moore writes, "She let her life get dull--dull, but with Hostess cakes. There were moments bristling with deadness, when she looked out at her life and went 'What?' Or worse, feeling interrupted and tired, 'Wha--?'" I mean, "bristling with deadness"! And the What/Wha?! I am not sophisticated enough to name Moore's moves, but I am a good enough reader and writer to know she's got the right ones.

I read this book mostly while walking around my neighborhood, which was the perfect setting for these stories, as most of them basically satirize domesticity. Every single story drips with dark humor. I was absolutely tickled the whole time. I looked like a damn fool, my head bent over my phone, smile plastered across my face in the cold. I wanted to shout at the passing couples walking their dogs, "You have to read this book!" Even though the whole collection is a criticism of marriage.

Three things I love about this book: 1) Moore finds a way to weave the bird motif into every story, no matter how unlikely, and it never feels forced. 2) The humor, endemic in the puns, the awkwardness, the absolute brutal honesty, and the way she seems to imply, by her use of surreal moments, that most fiction has largely scrubbed the surreal reality of life off the page when it shouldn't, when in fact life itself is surreal. (E.g., "The plane had taken off with a terrible shudder, and when it proceeded with the rattle of an old subway car, particularly over Greenland, the flight attendant had gotten on the address system to announce there was nothing to worry about, especially when you thought about “how heavy air really is.”) 3) Moore's nuggets of poetic wisdom, which are all the more awesome because they shine between pieces of dark humor.

While Moore engages with the banal—marriage, careers, children—her characters have unique jobs and interesting opportunities. Their stories are very specific. Which reminds me of a passage in the book, a short interaction between two characters that reveals so much about them, their marriage, and probably marriage in general:

“Terence!” Ruth clapped her hands twice, sharply. “Speak more quickly! I don’t have long to live!” They’d been married for twenty-three years. Marriage, she felt, was a fine arrangement generally, except that one never got it generally. One got it very, very specifically. “And, please,” she added, “don’t be fooled by the euphemisms of realtors. This was never a home, darling. This is a house.”

Honestly, readers who are looking for uplifting stories should get out while they can, as should readers looking for resolution. And those who don't want to engage with characters dealing with midlife crises, divorce, affairs, the monotony of marriage/commitment, strained relationships with family, politics (academic and otherwise), cancer, or sick or dead children or pets should find some tamer fiction, too.

Those who decide to open this collection and stick with it shall be treated to gifts like these:

No one is modest anymore. Everyone exalts their disappointments. They do ceremonious battle with everything; they demand receipts and take their presents back—all the unhappy things that life awkwardly, stupidly, without thinking, without bothering even to get to know them a little or to ask around! has given them. They bring it all back for an exchange.

(Warning: once you've read this book, there are no refunds, returns, exchanges!)

The Writer's Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives. Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager. (HarperOne, 2020.)

Reading means being inhabited by the voice of another person
that originates outside you, a form of possession,
which is not purely passive.
- Siri Hustvedt

I checked this book out of the library with the intent of discovering new-to-me voices. For someone who has enjoyed reading her entire life and attended an upper-crust high school and followed it with seven years of higher ed with creative writing as a focus, I am egregiously under-read—at least, in fiction—and this book is assuredly geared towards fictionistas, despite its introduction by renowned nonfiction author Susan Orlean. Many of the authors interviewed write fiction, and understandably their answers to questions regarding books of significance in their lives elicit mainly names of novelists.

In addition to those interviewees I didn't recognize, I decided to take note of reoccurring authors I have not read along with titles of interest, with the aspiration of building a reading list. Lorrie Moore came up a lot, and I can't recall ever reading a single word by her, but apparently she's smart and funny and revered, so she's at the top of my to-read list. Philip Roth. Toni Morrison. (I am ashamed I have not read much of her.) Fortunately, I've already grappled with the oft-mentioned Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, in college. Zadie Smith. (My cheeks are burning.) T.C. Boyle. Jonathan Lethem. Proust. Tolstoy. Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) came up a lot, but I have such an aversion to 19th century literature that focuses on heterosexual romance and the oppression of women via the patriarchy that I'm not sure I'll ever crack this classic. Alice Munro. Zora Neale Hurston. (My shame is apparently infinite.) Flannery O'Connor (maybe I'll read her, I dunno; has the question of whether we can separate the art from the artist been answered yet?). Donald Barthelme. Saul Bellow. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Lolita comes up a number of times, but considering its subject matter, I may not read it. Faulkner. (No shame here; I've read some of his work, but not enough and not at the right age.) Chekhov. (Same story as Faulkner.) Richard Wright. (Ditto.) Ursula K. Le Guin—I remember trying to read The Left Hand of Darkness in college and failing, but I should probably try something else of hers before totally abandoning ship. Joan Didion (I've read much of her nonfiction and none of her fiction). Edith Wharton. Russell Banks. Luis Alberto Urrea.

Here is another list, of titles and authors I'll explore based on what the interviewees had to say about them. The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems by Diane Wakoski. The Emperor of Air by Ethan Canin. "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger. The Wars by Timothy Findley. The World's Wife by Carol Ann Duffy. "The Rocket Man" by Ray Bradbury. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Any book by Pete Dexter, though The Paperboy might be best. The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis. Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy. Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz. My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. The Door by Magda Szabó. Clarice Lispector. Natalie Diaz. Tanya Tagaq's Split Tooth. Tommy Orange's There There. Samuel Johnson Is Indignant by Lydia Davis. Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock. Diane Williams. Naomi Alderman's The Power. Ruth Ozeki. Karen Joy Fowler. Ten Windows by Jane Hirshfield. Philip Levine's "The Simple Truth." Jack Gilbert. Robert Hass. The poetry of Raymond Carver. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates. Eudora Welty. Zeruya Shalev. Kate Zambreno's Book of Mutter. Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17. Ivan Doig. Renata Adler's Speedboat. Simon Doonan's Beautiful People.

As for the actual interviews in the book, the best involve storytelling, enthusiasm, quoted favorite lines, beautiful turns of phrase, and surprises. While reading, I was—what's the adverb for schadenfreude?—surprised when an author confided in not caring for a classic like Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby. Not surprisingly, many authors express appreciation for Shakespeare, Dickens, and others for whom I've only ever at best experienced lukewarm feelings. I almost feel ashamed by how untaken I am by many of the classics. (Yeah, I probably need to read more.)

Anyway. Would I recommend this book? Sure. It's probably best enjoyed by folks who recognize the authors interviewed, though. If you're just looking to expand your reading world, maybe browsing the names and titles I culled above will serve.

The Light Between Us. Laura Lynne Jackson. (The Dial Press, 2015.)

If we don't at least consider the possibility of an afterlife—if we
don't look at the wealth of evidence that has surfaced in recent
years about the endurance of consciousness—we are shutting
ourselves off from a source of great beauty, comfort,
healing, and love. But if we are open to having this
conversation, we might become brighter, happier,
more authentic people. Closer to our truth.

I looked up Laura Lynne Jackson while I was watching the Netflix docuseries, Surviving Death. Her obvious gifts as a medium inspired me to want to know more. In this book, Jackson explores her own coming of age story in terms of her realizing, developing, and ultimately accepting her abilities as a psychic and medium. Her story, though, is really more of a backdrop or foundation for other people's stories—those of her family's and those of strangers, students, and clients. 

Jackson helps readers understand how the unseen realm operates. She addresses how communication between the physical realm and invisible realm works, and talks about how she interprets images and symbols that spirits convey to her. She also addresses the ethics of reading people. And importantly, she makes it clear that her gifts aren't simply a curiosity or sideshow; she mainly uses them to help people who are grieving, especially parents who have lost children.

I came to this book already having a considerable grasp of the field but still found it a worthwhile read. I appreciated Jackson's honesty about her own struggle to determine whether she was imagining her abilities or they were real. When opportunities arise to be tested, she eagerly participates in the studies. She wants scientific validation, and she gets it. 

Some of my favorite stories in the book involve animals and natural phenomena. In one, a bee spirit thanks a couple who saved its life. In another, a kitten spirit relieves a grown woman of a burden of guilt she's been carrying since she was a child. In another, a deceased woman sends her living partner meteors to let him know she still exists.

Who is this book for? Believers and those who want to believe, and for those willing to suspend doubt long enough to be touched by the stories inside, which are really love stories. I cried many times reading this book, shamelessly, on my couch and in public, because I read it with an open heart, which is how I hope, if you decide to pick up this book, you read it. And if when we die, it turns out we don't go on after all, we'll never know about it, but perhaps in believing in a miracle, our lives will have been more beautiful.


Note: This log only includes books, not all of the wonderful literary magazines I like to read online and in print.