Missing the Hype Around Two Buzzy Books

Sometimes, the blogosphere goes crazy over a book, and you read it and fall in love. But sometimes a book that garners tons of praise leaves you feeling underwhelmed. The second thing happened to me with two books in recent months.

Tender | The Martian

Tender by Belinda McKeon

(Goodreads)

Set in 1990s Dublin, Tender is told from the point of view of Catherine, a sheltered girl leaving home for the first time to attend university in the big city. She quickly develops an intense friendship with James, a charismatic photographer struggling with what it means to be gay in a culture that doesn’t accept open homosexuality. It’s a compelling psychological novel, and I loved how it pulled me into Catherine’s growing obsession — right up until the end. Just when the story reaches peak intensity, McKeon pulls away for an ending that provides a tidy resolution without showing readers how the characters got from point A to point B. I would have liked to see more of that character development on the page, and the last chapter felt like a let-down after the rest of the book’s dark power.

The Martian by Andy Weir

(Goodreads)

Six days into the first manned mission to Mars, a dust storm forces the crew to evacuate. On their way to the Mars Ascent Vehicle, debris strikes Mark Watney, leading his crew to believe him dead and to leave the planet without him. But Mark, the mission’s botanist, is still alive, and now he must find away to survive on a planet that is trying to kill him. With immense patience, extreme cunning, and a healthy does of gallows humor, he solves problem after problem. But will it be enough to get him home? Honestly, I liked The Martian better as a movie. This novel reminded me why plot-driven novels aren’t typically my jam; for most of the book, I was just wondering how many more problems Mark would have to solve before NASA inevitably rescued him. Additionally, as a visual learner, I had trouble following some of Watney’s engineering fixes; I was able to understand them more easily on the screen than on the page. This wasn’t a bad book; it just wasn’t for me.

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So Sad Today by Melissa Broder

Book Review: So Sad Today by Melissa BroderFor four years, Melissa Broder has been tweeting funny but achingly sincere tidbits like, “I don’t feel at peace unless I’m torturing myself,” and, “the road to hell is you not texting me enough,” from the @sosadtoday Twitter account. Each tweet is an effort to connect, to entertain, and to score a tiny dopamine hit as the faves and retweets come rolling in — because her tweets are an effect of the very obsessions she is speaking about. In her book of essays, So Sad Today, Broder steps out from behind her Twitter handle to write about her struggles with anxiety, depression, and addiction in a deeply vulnerable way.

In “Honk If There’s a Committee in Your Head Trying to Kill You,” Broder writes about her attempts to shut out the internal voices incessantly reminding her how fucked she is. She tries alcohol and drugs, but she has to come down. She tries spiritual trinkets like Buddha statues and crystals before realizing, “In the temple it’s magic, but at home it just becomes more crap.” Finally, she finds meditation to be a useful way to find stillness and silence, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

“Google Hangout with My Higher Self” is exactly what it sounds like: an imaginary conversation between her anxiety and her rational mind. It’s so familiar to anyone who has tried to talk themselves out of their fears (“ok u need 2 chill the fuck out. u need 2 sit still”) only to realize that obsessing over small everyday bullshit is what keeps them from freaking out over existential doom.

In “Keep Your Friends Close But Your Anxiety Closer,” Broder writes about her fear of appearing vulnerable and the mask she wears in an attempt to control the way people perceive her.

She gets real about disordered eating, panic attacks, addiction to drugs and alcohol and the internet (she’s now sober), body image, fear of dying, her sexual fetish, and the tedium and tenderness of her open marriage to someone who has a chronic illness.

In a world where talking about mental illness is still taboo, books like So Sad Today are so important. I’m a firm believer in the power of books to build empathy, and Broder’s essays open a window into the life and mind of a woman whose brain chemistry makes getting through the day so much harder than it is for mentally healthy people. I related to some pieces and felt overwhelmed simply reading others.

Balancing out the mortal dread, fear, and insecurity is a darkly comic voice. As she writes of her Twitter account in the final essay, “I felt that in the reality of what I had experienced, it was a lot more helpful to just lie there and share experiences with others who understood. What worked for me was to maybe make myself laugh about my plight, and through the grace of the Internet, make other people laugh.” This book does that really well, using humor to build a bridge and encourage empathy.

I so highly recommend this book. It’s sad, it’s funny, and it will make you more human.

Giant Love for Giant Days by John Allison and Whitney Cogar

Giant Days, Vol. 1 and 2

[book-info]

I’m still a newbie to the comics game, but when I came across Giant Days, Vol. 1 at my job at the library, I couldn’t help reading the first few pages. And I was IMMEDIATELY hooked. I requested the first two volumes from the library and basically devoured them.

Giant Days follows three students who recently started university and quickly became best friends: Goth, statuesque Esther, whose powers for stirring up drama are truly remarkable; snarky, cynical Susan, the trio’s voice of reason and common sense; and sweet, home-schooled Daisy, whose naivety and optimism are truly refreshing. Together, the girls embark on a journey of self-discovery and reinvention as they find themselves away from home for the first time.

I really loved the way Giant Days portrays college life, enveloping everything from the unlikely friendships that develop, to the struggle to find a balance between socializing and schoolwork, to the colds and flus that spread like wildfire through the dorms. There are boy troubles and girl troubles, experimentation and questions of sexuality, drama-fraught dances, and study sessions fueled by pills of questionable legality.

But what I loved the most are the three heroins. Esther, Susan, and Daisy have such vivid, distinct personalities, and it was so much fun to see them play off each other. They each have a completely different approach to life and how they handle problems, but each young woman is smart, funny, strong, and insecure in her own way. Like Lumberjanes, Giant Days is a really wonderful depiction of female friendship. It’s just a ton of fun to read, and I can’t wait for Vol . 3 to come out in October. READ IT!

Stepping Outside My Comfort Zone With The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

 

When I was a teenager, fantasy novels were my jam. I couldn’t re-read the Harry Potter series enough times, I was always anticipating the next Artemis Fowl book, and the Abhorsen series was a regular part of my rotation. And yet, as I transitioned to adult fiction, my interest in fantasy fell by the wayside. However, a few months ago, in the depths of the worst reading slump I’ve ever experienced, I decided to shake things up and try reading The Killing Moon, the first novel in N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood series. Julianne of Outlandish Lit raved about it, and she hasn’t let me down yet.

In the city of Gujaareh, peace is the law of the land — a law enforced by Gatherers, who shepherd the souls of the pure and the corrupt alike to their final resting place, the land of dreams. But what happens when the very institution responsible for rooting out corruption becomes complicit in the creation of a monster?

From the outset, Jemisin drops the reader into a world that is already turning on its axis, offering little help to readers as they try to get their bearings. I felt so lost in a world of unfamiliar terms, new-to-me names, and mysterious systems of law and religion, that I nearly gave up after the first 150 pages. Luckily, Julianne told me to keep reading, and she’s a queen, so I do what she says. After re-skimming all of the dialogue that point (which really didn’t take very long), I had a much better grasp on who the characters were, how this world worked, and what was happening in the plot.

Once I hit my stride, everything fell into place. The Killing Moon transformed from a baffling world where I didn’t speak the language into a gripping adventure full of intrigue, ambition, and deception as our heroes Ehiru, Gujaareh’s most respected Gatherer; Nijiri, his apprentice; and Sunandi, a totally badass foreign ambassador, fight to get to the bottom of a conspiracy that threatens the peace and safety not only of Gujaareh, but of the world. The characters are compelling and well-drawn, the world building is top-notch while still leaving plenty to reveal in future books, and the multi-layered plot kept me guessing.

This book was definitely outside my comfort zone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it after I got over my initial discomfort. I would highly recommend The Killing Moon to other readers interested in foraying into fantasy, with a small heads up that some patience is required. May I hint that there’s a glossary in the back of the book that would probably have helped me immensely had it occurred to me to read it?

What’s the last book you read that was outside your comfort zone? 

Book Review: The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz

Safely secluded from the Outside world by a massive stone wall, Calamity Leek and her 12 sisters spend their days tending roses in the Garden, embroidering petal-stuffed cushions, and learning the skills they will use when they are old enough to go to war against the demonmales. In the place of textbooks, their dedicated, deformed caregiver Aunty instructs them from her multi-volume Appendix, a document made up of a Showreel; beauty rituals; and bizarre myths about the sisters’ purpose, life Outside, and the nature of the world. (Those cushions they sew? They’ll be used to cover the sky lid to protect the girls from the damaging heat of the Sun. And why are the cushions stuffed with petals? To perfume the sky so they won’t be poisoned by His polluting farts, naturally.) But when one sister seeks out the truth about what lies beyond the Wall, she sows the seeds of doubt that will topple their orderly lives.

I’ve been slumping pretty hard for the last six months, unable to muster much enthusiasm for the books on my shelf. I’ve been trying to #readmyowndamnbooks, but when I came across this novel in my work at the library, it seemed like just the right amount of weirdness to capture and keep my attention. It didn’t let me down! The First Book of Calamity Leek alternately made me laugh and gave me chills. I loved the way Lichtarowicz slowly, subtly reveals details in the observations of a girl who has no idea of the significance of what she’s reporting.

Delightfully strange and deeply unsettling, The First Book of Calamity Leek calls into question the stories we tell ourselves — and our stubborn adherence to these stories even as their holes are revealed. It’s a book that combines The Handmaid’s Tale‘s twisted version of female safety with The Beautiful Bureaucrat‘s inventive plays on language to fantastic effect. Like Our Endless Numbered Days, it asks more questions than it answers, making it a great book club pick.

Notable Quotes

“On the television, the demonmale was stepping up to seal the deal good and proper with poor Cinderella, or, how they say it so females should know to set off running, if they haven’t already started, Forever and ever OUR MEN. ” p 79-80

“Course, them demonmales shook their beards and laughed when Annie told them — which she was a total loonhead to do — about our Appendix. One of them said he had his own book with different stories in it about how everything started. The other one said the plain truth was the Sun was just a ball of fire, and we all grew out of fish, and hadn’t Annie heard that?” p  267

Screen and Page Pairings: Girls and Treasure Island!!!

Nearly two years may have passed since I lamented the seeming lack of literary fiction centered around characters in their twenties, but I still feel that same frustration. My thirst for stories about people in my stage of life is slightly slaked by HBO’s Girls, which, despite its failings in representing only a very narrow, white, privileged version of Brooklyn millennial life, is one of the only shows I’ve seen that stars characters I relate too. (It’s a curse as much as it is a blessing; I can’t describe the horror I felt while re-watching the series a year ago and realizing Marnie was the character I related to the most. Fucking Marnie. It was a dark time in my life, which has thankfully passed.)

Anyway, all this to say,* I’m always on the lookout for books that delve into the lives of women in their twenties, so I was more than a little excited when bae sneakily bought me a copy of Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine on a used-bookstore date.**

Our unnamed narrator is drifting through life without purpose and working a string of meaningless jobs when she picks up a copy of Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The adventures of Jim Hawkins shock her out of her lethargy, and she vows to live her life according to Stevenson’s Core Values:

BOLDNESS

RESOLUTION

INDEPENDENCE

HORN-BLOWING

As she becomes increasingly obsessed with Treasure Island, she sheds caution and manners and any trace of respect for her friends and family. She imposes on her boyfriend’s generosity, steals cash from her employer at The Pet Library to buy a parrot (because if she’s going to be Jim Hawkins, she needs a parrot, obvs), proceeds to neglect said parrot, and betrays her sister in a fit of self-righteousness. She is self-absorbed, entitled, delusional, and completely oblivious to the way her actions are hurting those around her. She is infuriating and, somehow, utterly endearing.

I don’t always “cast” characters in the books I read, but I couldn’t help reading lines like, “I’m twenty-five years old and this happened on a Monday when I didn’t have to work at The Pet Library and had no plans except to sleep and maybe wash my bras in the sink, and that was a big maybe,” in the voice of Lena Dunham playing Hannah Horvath on Girls. Although Treasure Island!!! is exponentially more ridiculous than Girls, they both convey a sense of millennial aimlessness and portray young women who don’t always conform to the roles society has created for them. As Roxane Gay discusses in her essay “Not Here to Make Friends,” it’s weirdly refreshing to watch and read about women who are just unapologetically terrible in a world where female characters are often judged on their likability.

Treasure Island!!! is absurd, hilarious, and oddly compelling. I haven’t been this horrifically entranced by a narrator since reading The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara, and that is a truly magical thing. If you’re craving a bizarre read (I mean, it has a Pet Library where people literally borrow living animals) that will simultaneously make you boil with rage and want to grab a bowl of popcorn, this one’s for you.

*I basically just resurrected this blog as a means of finding out just how many Hamilton lyrics I can sneak into my posts.

** He was reading Bad Feminist and remembered Roxane Gay’s essay about Treasure Island!!! I’m telling you, he’s a keeper.

Four Favorite Fall Releases

Although I’ve stepped back from reviewing new releases in the last few months, the fall books I have managed to read so far have been excellent! Here’s a quick look at four of my favorites:

Fortune Smiles by Adam JohnsonFortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

Publisher: Random House
Release Date: August 18, 2015
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher

Fresh off the heels of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son, Anthony Johnson is back with an excellent short story collection. In “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” a former warden of an East German Stasi prison denies the crimes of his past and tries to convince tourists that no wrong-doing was committed. In “Dark Meadow,” a pedophile grapples with his desires while using his computer skills to fight child pornography. Mixing humor with darkness and despair, Fortune Smiles is sometimes deeply uncomfortable to read but compelling nonetheless.

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Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill CleggDid You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Publisher: Gallery/Scout Books
Release Date: September 8, 2015
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher

The night before her daughter’s wedding, June Reid loses everyone she cares about in a horrific gas explosion. Devastated, she sets off across the country to heal and start anew. Although this story alone would make for a beautiful, gut-wrenching book, Did You Ever Have a Family isn’t just a portrayal of a woman dealing with tragedy; using a rotating cast of memorable characters, Clegg paints a portrait of a small Connecticut town with it’s tangled relationships, unique social dynamics, and racial tensions. One of my favorite books of the year, this novel is heartbreaking, poignant, and ultimately uplifting.

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Fates and Furies by Lauren GroffFates and Furies by Lauren Groff 

Publisher: Riverhead Books
Release Date: September 15, 2015
Pages: 392
Source: Publisher

One of the biggest books of fall, Fates & Furies is a dazzling portrait of a marriage. When the novel opens, Lotto and Mathilde are newly married and passionately in love — but as the decades pass, the cracks in their relationship, the secrets and resentments roiling beneath the surface, are revealed. Although the first half of the novel, told from Lotto’s perspective, is less than spectacular, the second half, presenting Mathilde’s point of view, blows it out of the water. Wildly inventive and poetically written, Groff’s newest novel takes on a legendary feel with its vibrant characters, unique format, and and mythological allusions.

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Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye WatkinsGold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Publisher: Riverhead Books
Release Date: September 29, 2015
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher

In a near-future California devastated by drought, Luz and Ray squat in an abandoned mansion, avoiding evacuation to a camp for as long as possible. Living on love and rationed cola, the couple are content eking out a meager living until they cross paths with a baby with strange blue-gray eyes and translucent skin. To give the child a better life, they set out across the desert in search of greener pastures. Emily St. John Mandel‘s post-apocalyptic vision meets Karen Russell‘s sparkling sentences to make Gold Fame Citrus a stunning work of fiction. Although the ending doesn’t quite hit the right note, this is a gripping novel with heart-stopping twists and a hearty dose of environmentalism. It’s totally bonkers and crazy good.

What’s the best new book you’ve read this fall?

Audiobook Mini Reviews

I have been in a pretty major blogging slump for the last few months, and the number of books I have read but neglected to review is frankly embarrassing. To close that gap a little bit, I’d like to share mini reviews of some of the fantastic audiobooks I’ve listened to lately!

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste NgEverything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Publisher: The Penguin Press | Blackhouse Audio
Pages / Hours: 292 pages | 10 hours, 1 minute
Source: Audible

When the body of Lydia Lee, the favorite daughter of a mixed race couple in 1970s Ohio, is discovered at the bottom of the local lake, her already fractured family is shaken to its core. Long-buried secrets rise to the surface and hidden tensions are revealed as her parents and two siblings grapple with the tragedy.

Written in beautiful prose, Everything I Never Told You is an intimate portrait of all the things that go unsaid within a family, from racial tensions, impossible expectations, to pressure to succeed in particular ways.

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Modern Romance by Aziz AnsariModern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg

Narrator: Aziz Ansari
Publisher: The Penguin Press | Penguin Audio
Pages / Hours: 277 pages | 6 hours, 14 minutes
Source: Scribd

Aziz Ansari has incorporated romance into his comedy for years, but in Modern Romance, he teams up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg to take an analytical approach to dating in the age of Tinder. Narrated with Ansari’s trademark humor, this book looks at how dating and marriage have changed in the past 50 years, the experiences of modern daters, and the romantic cultures of different cities around the world.

Funny, informative, and thought-provoking, this was an oddly comforting book to read in the wake of my breakup a few months ago.

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The Engagements by J. Courtney SullivanThe Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Publisher: Vintage | Random House Audio
Pages / Hours: 528 pages | 16 hours, 50 minutes
Source: Scribd

When advertising copywriter Frances Garety scribbls the phrase “A diamond is forever” on a slip of paper in 1947, she has no idea the slogan will change the way Americans think about diamond engagement rings. The Engagements tells Frances’ fascinating story, as well as the tales of four couples whose lives are linked by a single ring: Evelyn is struggling to accept her low-life son’s divorce; James can’t live up to the expectations of his wife’s family; Delphine takes revenge on her unfaithful fiance by destroying the things he loves the most; and Kate, happily partnered but vehemently anti-marriage, helps her cousin prepare for his wedding.

With compelling details and vibrant characters, The Engagements explores the history of the diamond engagement ring and the complexities of romantic relationships.

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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Narrator: Carolyn McKormick
Publisher: FSG | Blackhouse Audio
Pages / Hours: 195 pages | 6 hours
Source: Scribd

For decades, Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world by a nearly impenetrable border. The first exhibition sent to explore reported a landscape completely reclaimed by nature; the second exhibition committed suicide; and the members of the third exhibition turned on each other. Now, the Southern Reach has assembled a twelfth expedition team, made up of a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor. Narrated by the biologist, Annihilation takes readers (and listeners) through a mysterious land complete with dangerous creatures and unreliable characters.

Annihilation is intriguing and suspenseful, but too little is resolved in the end for it to be satisfying. This isn’t entirely surprising, considering it’s the first book in a trilogy, but after listening to (and being entirely bored with) more than half of the second book, Authority, I gave up on the series.

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Circling the Sun by Paula McLainCircling the Sun by Paula McLane

Narrator: Katharine McEwan
Publisher: Ballantine Books | Random House Audio
Pages / Hours: 384 pages | 12 hours, 16 minutes
Source: Scribd

Growing up in colonial Kenya, Beryl Markham has a rather unusual childhood. She fearlessly rides the racehorses her father trains, plays with the native Kipsigis children, and rebels against her governess’ attempts to turn her into a proper young lady. But when everything falls apart, she is forced to grow up too quickly and enters a disastrous marriage — the first of many doomed relationships. Struggling to retain her independence and sense of self, she makes a name for herself as a racehorse trainer and falls in with a decadent crowd of European expats, including Karen Blixen (author of Out of Africa) and Denys Finch Hatton, who helps her realize her desire to become a pilot.

Glamorous, spirited, and heartbreaking, Circling the Sun is a stunning portrait of a trailblazing woman and the colorful expat community of 1920s Kenya.