Freestyle Friday: In which I have qualms about dirt that is American

In the last week or so, you can’t be a bookish person and not be aware of what’s happening with Jeanine Cummins’ debut novel American Dirt. So, where does everybody stand on this? I’ll share some thoughts, but if you’re out there, I’d like to hear yours.

Lately I’ve had misgivings about debut novels in general. The exceptional few, like Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming, are stunning. But many, many of them are just okay, even though they were objects of bidding wars that ended in seven-figure book deals and spots on celebrity book clubs and are now in development with HBO/Netflix/Hulu/major film studio to become a series or movie.

It also seems lately like literary prize long and short lists are crowded with debut novels, and more often than not, when I’ve picked up one of these debuts, I’ve found myself slightly baffled as to how it was nominated. It doesn’t mean the books are bad, but…not really so good they should be nominated for a literary prize. (Whether or not literary prizes mean anything anymore is another debate.)

I first heard about American Dirt way back in June, and I popped it on to my Want-to-read list immediately. (Although I seem to remember the description being much different back then, making it sound like the book was about how the woman owned a bookstore and formed a relationship with the cartel kingpin based on their shared love of books, and I thought that was an interesting angle for a story.) But near the end of the year, when I was thinking about my reading plans for 2020, I decided that I would go deeper into backlists for known authors and re-read old favorites instead of following debuts. I decided to delete  debut novels I’d added over the last year, which included American Dirt, and that’s when I saw the first warning on Goodreads.

So all that rambling is to say, I was taking it off my list anyway, and then I saw the reviewers starting to say the book was racist. I followed this with great interest, mainly because I just find the whole BOOK MACHINE so very interesting. Let me stop right now and say, if I hadn’t taken it off my list because I was tired of debut novels, the racism thing would have made me think twice about reading it. At the very least, I would have done some deeper investigating….but since everything has blown up, that hasn’t been necessary.  [I’ll note that, since the controversy started, I’ve seen many people I follow on Goodreads add it to their shelves as Currently reading or Want to read. Hm.]

This book is bringing up everything that’s ugly about the world of book publishing and promotion. Early (and not so early) reviewers are doubling down on their positive reviews, while writers and professional critics are grappling with early or recent praise they gave the book. (In a truly bizarre turn, the New Republic went after novelist Lauren Groff for her review in the New York Times, which had promoted said review with a quote from an older draft that didn’t appear in the final version.) The author is said to have identified as white years ago and now in interviews is identifying as (one-quarter) Latina, because her grandmother is Puerto Rican…but Puerto Rican and Mexican aren’t the same! Not the same experiences at all! Was this her agent’s idea? Her publisher’s? HERS? And then, she has supposedly also said she wished someone “brown-skinned” could have written this story, but goshgollygeeshrug, they didn’t, so it just had to be her.  And I hear she did careful research she discussed in an Afterword…but then if she’s so sensitive to these issues, if it’s all so carefully researched, why was she okay with the barbed-wire table decorations at her book party? Why did she get an actual manicure with tiny barbed wires on it? This, at a time when half the country wants to BUILD A WALL. When children are in cages!

And then, enter Oprah. Man.

Now, chances are Oprah (or, more likely, her assistants) picked the book months and months ago. But still. I mean, she read it, right? And really, don’t they keep up with social media? Will she change her mind and pick another book? If she does, will that just make more people want to read it?

What worries me about this book is that it’ll end up courting the exact wrong kind of audience from here on out: conservatives who will buy the book just because they want to support a white author they see as a victim of political correctness. And even if they read the book, from what I’ve heard, they will only have their prejudices and limited understanding of Mexicans and the immigrant crisis confirmed. How does this help anyone?

I haven’t read the book, and I’m not going to read the book. Even if I heard it was the most beautifully written book of the 21st century, I would not touch it with a ten foot pole. I feel like there are so. many. things. wrong. I blame the author, who maybe should have found another way to frame the story. I blame the agent and the editor, for being blind (or callous) about issues of race. I blame the publisher–what happened to all those sensitivity readers they’re supposed to have? (I also blame the publisher for not courting Mexican and Mexican American authors, or at least the ones who don’t write magical realism and folksy tales.) But I blame us all, too, we bookish types, for falling hard for every new, hyped debut, for FOMO and the desire to get a bunch of likes  when we promote advanced reviews on Instagram and Twitter or our blogs. (That said, I have seen lots of bookish bloggers and Instagrammers getting out and promoting Own Voices authors and promising to work harder to drive diversity.)

And then, finally: Do you agree writers can write anything they want to write? I’m seeing this tossed out by a lot of reviewers who loved the book. And honestly. I think that’s because it’s easier than admitting you read something and it didn’t even occur to you at the time that IT WAS RACIST. You know, that’s okay. That’s a part of getting woke, yeah? I would much rather be seeing (white) reviewers saying, “I’m going to go back and reconsider in light of what I am hearing,” instead of “People can write what they want it was a thrilling ride the pacing just oh my god shut up I am not a racist.”

Because I feel a little bit like this whole thing brings up that saying, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I definitely think that white people can and should write about racism, but I also think we need to be very sensitive to how we frame issues and whether or not we’re appropriating or promoting (harmful) stereotypes. (I’m looking at you, The Help.) And I think we have to accept that we don’t get the final say, no matter our intentions.

If you’re still here, I appreciate you listening to me ramble! I’d love to know what you think.

Some other links:

Seattle Review of Books

Tropics of Meta

New York Times

The Guardian

Freestyle Friday: In with the old, out with the new…

Okay, everyone. Get ready for a ramble! I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts on both the past reading year and the reading year ahead for several months. I had a pretty decent year in reading for 2019, clocking in at 51 books, and for the first time ever, I completed the 20/15/10 Books of Summer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. But it felt like when things missed for me, they missed big time. For example, I abandoned four books, which is high for me. Sometimes I set things aside to read another time because I’m not in the mood or simply too busy or distracted by another book. But these four books were just disappointing in any number of ways, and the worst offender of all was The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo, a debut novel that was getting praise everywhere and apparently received a seven-figure advance. Ugh. The writing is so sloppy, the characters have no arc, the character relationships felt like something dreamed up by a fifteen-year-old…I’d say it’s like a Lifetime movie in novel form, but I don’t want to insult Lifetime. (Okay, apparently this is in development at HBO with Laura Dern and Amy Adams…maybe they’ll pull a Devil Wears Prada? I hated that book but oh, that movie! I love it!)

Another disappointment for me in 2019 was Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. Everyone seemed to just love it. I thought it felt rushed and sloppy, at least at a plot level, and I was left with so many questions. I was still riding the high of Commonwealth (which I’ve read about five times), so I had huge expectations. Maybe I’ll try it again and listen to the Tom Hanks audio, which is apparently wonderful. I don’t like audio books per se, but Tom Hanks could probably be entertaining reading a seed catalog.

But let’s talk about what I loved! I had four super-favorites (yes, that’s what I’m calling them, because it’s better than “my most favorite favorites”): S.M. Hulse’s Black River, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators, and Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout. Black River is spare, melancholy, and tender in all the best ways. It was so well done, I read it twice in a row. (So technically I read 52 books, yes?) If you like Kent Haruf you must pick this one up as soon as possible. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.

Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins—my god. This novel revisits the Todd family from Life After Life, only this time the main protagonist is Ursula’s youngest brother Teddy. The books spans his entire life, and it’s a more traditional form, although it’s multi POV and bounces around a bit across the years. But the ending! What she did with the ending! Ah, see, I can’t spoil it for you. Atkinson’s writing is so engaging, I did not want to set this down. It was one of my favorite books from the last decade, and honestly I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I plan to re-read it again in 2020. More on that in a bit.

The book that surprised me the most was The Animators. It was wildly popular several years ago, which made me wary. Yet it kept popping back into my mind, so finally this summer I bought the ebook with some credit and I was hooked from page one. Sharon and Mel are such wonderful creations, their friendship is so realistically and richly presented…I was simply blown away. This book broke me and lifted me up and broke me and brought me up one more time. Lately I’ve been feeling wary of popular debut novels. I’d say in the last five years especially, most debuts have been disappointing. I’m not sure if it’s Book of the Month hype, Instagram, book prizes, or all of the above that are to blame. That said, this one deserved every bit of hype and then some. Why can’t they make this into a movie or series? The soundtrack would be amazing…and so many cool opportunities for animation!

(Do you guys occasionally get specific actors stuck in your head as characters? It only happens rarely for me, but I saw Mackenzie Davis from Halt and Catch Fire as Mel. Right now I am reading Tea Obreht’s Inland, and I keep picturing Merritt Wever as Nora. If you haven’t seen Godless on Netflix, watch it! And I must mention, in my mind, the young Philip Seymour Hoffman will always, always be who I see as Bunny in The Secret History. I read the book before I was familiar with him as an actor, but the first time I saw him on screen, the first word that popped into my head was Bunny.)

Well, and then there’s Olive. You either love her or you don’t, I suppose. I love her, but more than the character, I love Strout’s keen eye, dry wit, and overall empathy for her characters, as well as her seamless prose. She has quickly become one of my very favorite writers. I’ll definitely be re-reading Strout in 2020, although the first one I plan to reread is Amy and Isabelle, which was Strout’s debut. (Kind of ironic given all my complaints about debut novels in this post, I know.)

So I could go on and on about my reading in 2019, but let’s focus on 2020 for a bit, shall we? I have some plans, but they aren’t highly structured. The first thing is that this year, I plan to avoid debut novelists. As I said, I’ve been disappointed more often than not lately by debuts. Even if they’re solid first novels, they often aren’t worth the hype being lauded at them. This bothers me because a fine number of second and third books by better writers sort of fall by the wayside. This year I plan to get to some writers’ back catalogs, especially ones where I’ve read one or two books and promised myself (however long ago) I would read more. Right now I’m thinking Toni Morrison, Shirley Jackson, David Mitchell, and Ali Smith. I’m also planning to tackle the TBR and to read more nonfiction. I’ve made a tentative promise to myself not to buy any books at least until my birthday (you can bet I used up Christmas gift cards and $$ buying books, including pre-ordering a few things coming out early this year, like Liz Moore’s Long Bright River).

But the main thing I did was drop my Goodreads challenge number from 50 to 40 books for the year. Originally I had gone as low as 30 books, but my reader ego wouldn’t let me do it. Even setting the goal at 40 (or at 50, if I’m being honest) makes me feel like a fraud when I say I’m an “avid reader.” (I can see all those 100+ books a year people laughing .) But this year I don’t want to just read so much as study—maybe not every book, but many of them. I want to take a closer look at language and structure and how authors accomplished what they did. This means slowing down and taking more time with books, maybe re-reading passages or whole sections. In the last few years I’ve put pressure on myself to keep up (with who? with what?), but this year is going to be about deep discovery (and re-discovery).

How about you? Are you tired of keeping up with all the new stuff? Have any shiny new goals?

Happy weekend!

Favorite books of the last decade, and a little musing on the new year

Happy New Year! I cannot believe it’s already 2020. It didn’t even hit me until mid-December, but when it did, I immediately started to think about my favorite books of the past ten years. I compiled this list on New Year’s Eve by scrolling through Goodreads and the blog and then posted it on New Year’s Day…since then I’ve wanted to edit it a bunch of times, but it’s out there already and so I’ll just stick by it. (Okay, I wish I’d included Dreyer’s English and Behold the Dreamers.) These are all books that have stuck with me, that I’ve recommended time and again, and that at some point I hope to revisit. Erm, except Commonwealth and M Train, which I’ve already read about five times. And yes, I’ll probably read them again.

I started this blog in 2009. Looking back at my very on-again/off-again blogging habits made me a bit melancholy. I can only blame myself for my irregular engagement here, but most often over the past ten years, I quit blogging from fear that I was giving too much away to “friends” and co-workers IRL.  But that meant I forgot about the community (a very supportive one, I might add) that I had made here. So that’s one thing. Another thing, of course, is who reads blogs anymore? Well, plenty of people, from what I can tell. I know there’s competition from bookstagrammers and Twitter and newsletters and so on…but I also wonder if people are starting to get tired of being spread so thin across the internet, if they’re tired of the overly styled and sponsored book reviews (for new books, mostly), if they want less curation and more conversation.

I know that blogging made me a better reader, in many respects, especially at the beginning, when it was easier to ignore all the new books and sort of “keeping up with the Joneses” effect that started to happen with NetGalley and Book of the Month and so on. A lot of bloggers I still stalk are the ones who most resisted these things and kept on reading what they liked, when they liked. And so I guess this is all to say, thanks to those of you out there who’ve kept on writing about books, and also for visiting this blog from time to time. I’m not sure what 2020 holds, but I hope it’s a good one for all of you out there!

Another #10booksofsummer update and other bookish things

We’re right at that part of the #10booksofthesummer challenge where I start to lose momentum. So far I’ve read seven out of the 15 books I chose to give myself a variety of options. Ha, variety. I know the books left in the stack are all probably all range from good to great, but I all I want to do is read something else. I’m kicking myself for not including any nonfiction, for example, at least a couple of options. And then I did a bad thing and bought a bunch of new books for my birthday, and they just look so shiny compared to those tired old books in the (other) stack on my desk.

Shiny new books

I bought Where the Crawdads Sing because I thought Delia Owens sounded interesting in an interview I read; also, I was intrigued by the fact she’s a debut novelist at 70! However, she’s apparently even a bit more intriguing than that…not sure what to think about this. I read the first few chapters of the book, and the writing is quite good.

I won’t lie; I took a bit of a break and read Dreyer’s English, which was just fantastic. I’m happy to report that we agree on everything EXCEPT putting “an” in front of words like “historical.” He says don’t you dare do it, but I will die on that hill because I like how it sounds. Also, in text to be read aloud, that’s one that can be easily misheard: a historical document can too easily become ahistorical document—amirite? You know I am. One of my favorite, favorite things he hates as much as I do: setting long sections (anything longer than a sentence, really) of prose in italics. It drives him as batty as it does me. Why? It’s just kind of cheap, and it also implies the reader isn’t smart (or the writer can’t find a better way to handle whatever they’re using italics for). Also, did you see what happened there? I used “they” with a singular referent and also ended my sentence with a preposition. All Dreyer approved!

Speaking of books with long sections of prose in italics, I also took a break to read Laura Lippman’s new book, Lady in the Lake. I’m going to write a full post on that one! I swear. Short version: solidly entertaining as always, although large parts of it (and not just the WHOLE CHAPTERS in italics) didn’t work for me. Okay, that’s it. That’s all you get for now.

I also re-read Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted and upgraded it from four stars to five. It was sort a whim, re-reading that one. In addition to all the shiny new books I’ve acquired, the other thing I’ve been wanting to do is go back and re-read everything. Okay, not everything, but the list is long. Sometimes I think I could spend a whole year concentrated on re-reading novels and stories and only reading new nonfiction. Notice the “sometimes.” Don’t think it will ever happen. Anyway, if you haven’t read The Enchanted or The Child Finder, I’d say get on that, pronto, so you’ll be ready for her new book, The Butterfy Girl, which comes out in October. It’s the second in the Naomi Cottle series (The Child Finder is the first), and I know it will be amazing. She writes beautifully, but I won’t lie: the subject matter is dark. That said, she writes with such beauty and humanity and hope and empathy, the darkness never takes over.

Finally, back to #10booksofsummer. I read two more books, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Power of the Dog. Each probably deserves a post of its own, but in short: I can see why TLHOD is a sci-fi classic, and I can see now what other (lesser) authors have been trying to do. Also, LeGuin writes quite cleanly and beautifully. Still…well, let’s save that for later. The Power of the Dog was like if Kent Haruf decided to write a psychological thriller. I’m sure Thomas Savage must have been an influence for him. I highly recommend it, but you stand warned: the quiet suspense will make you squirm.

How’s your summer reading coming along out there? Any big hits or duds?

#10BooksofSummer Check-in

Hello All! I hope your summer is going well. I figure we’re somewhere around the mid-point of #20BooksofSummer (but am too lazy to do any actual counting), so I thought I’d check in and share how things have been going so far.

I’m happy to say that I’ve read five books on the list: Oral History, Truly Devious, Florida, Less, and The Guest Book. I started The Immortalists but didn’t make it very far before setting it down. Right off the bat it felt cliché to me, and the writing was uninspiring. Sometimes our instincts serve us well: I’d never added that one to my TBR because I suspected I wouldn’t care for it, and when it was voted as the choice for book club, I was wary but hoped for the best. I guess I’ll try to sell it back at some point. I’ve also only cheated on my stack once! I re-read Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted, just because. It was even more beautiful the second time around. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly suggest it.

Of course I’d planned to write reviews for all the books I read, but June was a hellish work month and July has been busy with other things. And frankly, I’ve gotten lazy. I’ve stopped thinking as deeply as I used to about what I read. I would love to get back on track with that, but then something else always gets shorted. What a first-world problem! I have time to read. That’s the most important thing, period.

Here’s a quick rundown on what I’ve read so far:
Oral History. Ever got halfway through a book and realized you’ve read it before? That was me with Oral History. I cannot for the life of me remember if I read this book seven years ago or seventeen years ago. Oral History is the story of the Cantrell family, whose stories are told through multiple characters in first or third person, bringing us up to present day, which is the early 1980s (the book was published in 1983). If you aren’t one for reading stories in dialect, this book (and many of Smith’s other books as well) will not be your jam. Several sections are written in what you might call Appalachian English; however, this is no amateur’s [read: citified MFA student’s] attempt at crappy dialect to make the story seem “more real.” Smith, a native of the region, has an empathic and exacting ear for the region’s dialect, as well as for the people who live there.

Truly Devious. This first book in Maureen Johnson’s YA mystery trilogy was solidly smart and entertaining. Stevie Bell gets accepted into the eccentric Ellingham Academy, where she wants to solve the mystery of what happened to the disappeared wife and daughter of the school’s founder, Albert Ellingham. However, soon after she arrives at the school, someone is murdered. Is there a connection? Hm. This book is such great fun. I loved, loved, loved The Westing Game when I was a kid, and this book has some of that same spirit. Johnson deftly weaves in current political and social themes without letting them overtake the central story.

Florida. I loved Delicate Edible Birds and was so hoping to love this—but no. There’s no question that Groff can write beautiful sentences. But there’s something performative about these stories. I felt like I could see her working the lines for effect, which made these stories feel the opposite of effortless. The narrators in three or four stories are interchangeable—middle-aged, professional white women, usually writers or professors, and weirdly, all with two young sons—and the stories overall are filled with middle-class, white malaise. Ultimately, this book didn’t open up or examine anything I haven’t seen before, which I found strange. I expected a more interesting take on location and landscape and especially the people, but I was disappointed. If anything, this felt like the sort of self-conscious prose styling that makes a lot of people avoid picking up short stories.

Less. Arthur Less is about to turn fifty, and his younger ex-lover is marrying another man, so Less embarks on an around-the-world journey over the better part of a year to distract himself. I chortled and hooted my way through this book until the end, when I cried. It took some time for me to warm up to Arthur, but when I did, I could not put the book down. To write a story that is at once funny and also melancholy is no easy feat, and Greer manages to work that delicate balance so cleanly. That means the sadness can cut so sharply through a funny moment, and the humor arises where you might not expect it. This book got so many raves I was a bit wary, but it earns every five-star rating and prize it’s been awarded.

The Guest Book. If this book had been the New England family saga I had expected, complete with top-drawer family secrets and sailing and madras and seersucker, I would have been just fine with it. However, Blake has written a book that’s much deeper–and much more current–than I expected. She takes an unflinching look at the dark side of white privilege, especially WASP privilege, and how so many people who had a hand in shaping America failed to right so many wrongs, mainly because they couldn’t see that they were a huge part of the problem.

I’m currently about halfway through The Left Hand of Darkness. I won’t spoil it, but I will say I can definitely see why readers and writers of all genres hold Le Guin up as a great writer.

I don’t want to brag (or jinx anything), but I think I might actually make it all the way through the challenge this year! How about you? How’s your summer reading going?

10 Books of Summer Challenge

10Well, hello there! Nothing like getting back into the swing of things like joining a challenge. I’ve been itching to get back to the blog, so when Cathy at 746 Books announced her annual 20 Books of Summer challenge, I decided this might be a prime opportunity. Now, I’ve failed to complete this challenge before, so I decided to go easy on myself and commit to 10 books. You’ll notice, however, that I have 15 in my picture. I got a little carried away before I realized that I needed to consider that I’ll have at least three additional books to read for book club, plus I’m bound to go off script and read at least one or two unplanned books, probably re-reads. I average about five books a month, so this should be doable, even though I have a few chunksters there. Let’s get to the list, shall we?

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin. I don’t read a lot of Sci Fi, but I’ve always felt like this was a standard must-read for any person who considers themselves well-read. (For the record, I do not consider myself well-read because my reading has always been all over the place, so I have a lot of gaps.) But this is #4 in a series? Oof. Well. Anyone read it? Do I have to read the other three first? That’s a lot of Sci Fi for this reader, ya’ll, even if I am trying to better myself.

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis. True Grit is one of my favorite books of all time, and I’ve had this one sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for several years.

The Power of the Dog, Thomas Savage. Ha, I should have listed this and The Dog of the South first in an attempt to make you all believe I was only going to read books with dog in the title! Anyway, I just added this dark, modern Western about two brothers vying for the same woman to my list after seeing a review of it on Goodreads a few weeks ago from someone with very similar tastes. Plus, I’m a total sucker for a Western.

Truly Devious, Maureen Johnson. I don’t read a lot of YA, but I’m familiar with Johnson because I used to follow her on Twitter. Her exchanges with the Brothers Green (John and Hank) were always so amusing. Larry from It’s Either Sadness or Euphoria (honestly this guy cannot be human—he reads and reads and then produces the most incredible reviews of everything) reviewed this on Goodreads a few weeks ago and it looked so cute I thought this boarding school mystery (the first in a series) would be a fun summer read.

The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin. Honestly, I have been on the fence about this one, but my book group picked it to read for our next meeting, so the decision was made for me. Let’s hope it’s worth it. It does have a gorgeous cover.

The Guest Book, Sarah Blake. An East Coast multi-generational family saga.                 Sorry, did you need more explanation than that?

A Brightness Long Ago, Guy Gavriel Kay. I’m not sure if it’s just Game of Thrones ending or what, but I got the itch to read some Fantasy, and apparently this guy (see what I did there) is amazing. My MIL really enjoys his books and the description sounded fun, so I thought, why not try it?

Oral History, Lee Smith. Ever since reading Fair and Tender Ladies (oh, how that title makes me cringe, but it is such a wonderful book), I’ve wanted to read all of Lee Smith’s books. But since I have the attention span of a……..what was I saying?

Florida, Lauren Groff. I used to read short stories almost exclusively. Now I can’t remember the last time I picked up a collection, other than to re-read something. I’m not a huge fan of Groff’s novels, but I did love her collection Delicate Edible Birds, which was one of the first books I reviewed here. I’m a little worried about the hype, but we’ll see.

Red Clocks, Leni Zumas. Honestly of all the books on the stack this is the one I am least likely to read. I got it as part of a first editions/new releases subscription through Powell’s last year. I had just read The Power, which was alright, and was not in the mood to read another feminist dystopian novel. I’m still not, truth be told (and I already have Le Guin!), because we’re all just living the dream…er, nightmare…right now, aren’t we?

Less, Andrew Sean Greer. I bought this right before we moved to Amsterdam, so it was on a boat and then in storage and then it went on the shelf and I forgot about it until I went hunting for books to read for this challenge. It’s supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny, so sign me up.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne. There was so much hype around this one I tried to resist it, but then I read the first few pages at the bookstore and thought, yes. Then we moved and see Less by Greer, Andrew Sean above.

Marlena, Julie Buntin. If I remember correctly, this came out right around the same time as Emma Cline’s The Girls (which I thought was fantastic), so I bought and I’ve tried several times to read it and…meh. But maybe there will be some sort of cosmic convergence and I’ll not only actually finish this 10 Books of Summer challenge but I will do so by reading this book! I love it when things just work out, don’t you?

The Italian Teacher, Tom Rachmann. I wholeheartedly enjoyed both The Imperfectionists and The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, so when I saw this on sale at the book store I bought it. And then I went on to read something else. Not that it’s a pattern or anything.

The Gunners, Rebecca Kauffman. Honestly, I think it was on sale? Like The Immortalists, this is one that got a lot of hype and I felt sort of wary about but obviously I had a brain fart and now look at me, proud owner of this book.

So there you have it. Is anybody still out there? Have you read any of the books on my list? Please share in the comments…and stay tuned to see if this will be my year!

Reader’s Journal: Train Dreams

Train DreamsTrain Dreams is one of those books that has seemed to crop up on “Best of” lists at the end of each year for the last few years. I first had the chance to read Denis Johnson in graduate school when I was assigned to read Fiskadoro for a class on the post-modern Twentieth century novel; it was a chance I didn’t take. I was much more interested in reading short stories at the time, and my interest in getting a PhD was starting to dwindle as I realized that none of my friends who were close to completing their degrees were getting job offers and that much of my time and energy would be less devoted to reading and writing what I liked and more to finding ways to say things about literature that either probably didn’t need to be said or would be said in better ways by somebody else.

Nevertheless, I’ve carted Fiskadoro around for the last twenty-three years, sure that I’ll get to it at some point. The chances look better this year than ever before, however, since I made Train Dreams my first book of 2019 and was stunned by this beautifully haunted (and haunting) narrative of the American West. The novella’s protagonist, Robert Grainier, works a variety of jobs across Montana and Washington State, including logging and hauling. He was sent to the Northwest Territories (specifically Idaho) as a child from either Utah or Canada to live with his aunt and uncle, although he has no recall of his early life or how he came to be in his present place. He doesn’t know exactly how old he is. Instead, he relies on accounts of himself from his cousins, even as those accounts differ completely from each other. In his thirties he takes a wife and they have a daughter, but while he’s away working a great fire consumes the valley where their small cabin resides. When he returns the land is devastated, his family gone. He returns to the land as it begins to recover, living first in an old canvas tent and then rebuilding a small cabin in the footprint of the former. He works in the area hauling goods and doing odd jobs for the rest of his life. At night, he howls with the wolves. He flies once in an airplane at a county fair. He sees a train carrying Elvis, watches the interstate being built. He never sees the ocean or speaks on a telephone. He never remarries.

All his life Robert Grainier would remember the vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking–the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of the Brussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.

The story is non-linear and made up more of anecdotes about Grainier’s encounters and dreams than anything that shows an arc across his almost eighty years. Things happen to Grainier, and while he’s certainly affected he remains largely unchanged throughout his life. He’s an everyman, in a sense, and also a reminder that even the smallest lives can be full of wonder. About fifteen years ago I worked with a person who had gone from Atlanta to visit some relatives in northern Alabama, and I remember him telling me that several of them had never experienced technological advances that we took for granted: microwave ovens, for example, and ATMs. They could not fathom walking up to a machine and having it dispense cash. This was 2005. I say this not to make fun, nor to point out how backwards things can still be in the American South. I bring this up because I find it so interesting how easy it is to exalt lives like these in literature, and then so easily forget they still exist in real life until they come upon us in such ugly ways, like the 2016 election. These are people who are poor and largely forgotten, living in deeply rural areas in flyover states. In 2011 when this book was published it would have read as a dream or an allegory. Today I read it and wonder, how did it all go so wrong? The ugliest comments I’ve seen would say these people should simply die, and that is most likely what will happen, as they are either blocked from services that can offer help or refuse those services outright when they are available. But in literature they remind us they should not be discounted, that the circumstances of their lives bring them to experience the world in a very particular way that makes sense to them. This, ultimately, is why a book like Train Dreams is so important, not just for its beautiful language, for its particular account of the American West, but to remind us of the humanity, to remind us to stop and consider lives so wholly different from our own, something that seems harder to do in our own country but easy to afford to those from elsewhere. How do we begin to change that world? What is the new story America must tell itself, even as these dreams remain?

Reader’s Journal: November Road

November RoadLou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone was an amazing surprise for me in 2017, so when I heard he had a new book coming out this year, I immediately made it a priority. Of course, I make lots of books a “priority”—that’s how I ended up with 266 unread books in my possession. I always have good intentions, but what matters, of course, is follow through, and in the case of Berney’s latest, November Road, I’m happy to say that I, in the parlance of my Southern friends, “got her done.” Ew.

Anyway, the book! The year is 1963. Frank Guidry works for the mob in New Orleans. Charlotte is a housewife in Woodrow, Oklahoma, with two daughters and an alcoholic husband who has trouble holding down a steady job. For Frank, the Kennedy assassination sets into motion a chain of events that send him on the run. For Charlotte, the meaninglessness of such a momentous event to her everyday life makes her realize that something has got to change, so she takes her two girls, Joan, 8, and Rosemary, 7, and hits the road for California. Frank and Charlotte’s paths cross in New Mexico after Charlotte’s car goes into a ditch. They wind up staying at the same hotel, and Frank, realizing that a man traveling with a wife and two daughters is far less suspicious than a man traveling alone, begins to charm Charlotte and the girls. Together, the four of them head west. On their trail is hitman Phil Barone.

The thing is, up to a point, this is a predictable story. You know Frank and Charlotte are going to fall for each other. You know Barone will catch up with them eventually. You know Charlotte will figure out that Frank isn’t the person he pretends to be. But the beautiful thing about this book is that the characters don’t go in exactly the direction you think, and that’s not because Berney throws in a big plot twist at the end. See, November Road is the kind of novel that you can hold up as a fine example of the fact that in the very best fiction, the characters drive the plot, rather than existing in service to it. Frank, Charlotte, and Barone are so well developed that you really want them all to come out ahead. Even Joan and Rosemary come across as two real little people rather than plot devices or clichés. In fact, nothing in this story is cliché, when it so, so easily could have veered that way. Another terrific thing is the way Berney uses details specific to the time period, like the Kennedy assassination and certain music, like Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” without being heavy-handed like, “It’s 1963! Huge turning point for America!” Instead, he shows how these things matter to the characters, who are having their own huge turning points that really have nothing (and then also, in some ways, everything) to do with current and coming world events.

Lately I feel that the highest praise I can offer a book is to say it’s worth re-reading. Both November Road and The Long and Faraway Gone earn this praise. Maybe it’s a phase I’m going through, but I follow so many publishers and bloggers, and I have started to feel more than overwhelmed by what’s NEW, NEW, NEW all the time. Everyone’s hyping the same books, and they come and go so quickly. I’ve done more re-reading this year than I have in a long time, and it feels good. It feels much better than trying to keep up with new releases and books longlisted or shortlisted for this or that prize that seem like the judges simply raced through and didn’t notice the smoke and mirrors. Forget those books. Read Lou Berney. Read him twice. You won’t be sorry.

Reader’s Journal: UNSUB

UNSUB (UNSUB, #1)I could say that I picked up Meg Gardiner’s UNSUB on a whim, but that wouldn’t be exactly true. For one thing, I read her first book, China Lake, back in 2011. That was the first in her Evan Delaney series, and the only one I read—not because I didn’t enjoy it (I did!), but because I’m generally too interested in a different next book to get to the next one in a series right away (or ever). I had just discovered the Edgar Awards and along with it some favorite new authors. I decided to read Meg Gardiner because I liked her, or more specifically her blog, Lying for a Living. But then, to tell the truth, I kind of forgot about her. If I tell you that up until last week I had 674 books on my Goodreads “want to read” list, I think that’s explanation enough.

But why UNSUB? Why not just the next in the Evan Delaney series? I guess because I was in a serial killer kind of mood. Is that a thing? In truth, I didn’t read the description all that closely, and I thought it was a book about a father-daughter investigative team that was obsessed with the Zodiac Killer. Close, but not quite. Mack Hendrix is an ex-homicide detective who was driven into retirement after his obsession with a serial killer called The Prophet drove him close to the brink of madness and killed his partner. Caitlin Hendrix is a cop like her old man, working in narcotics when she gets called to the scene of a grisly murder on the outskirts of San Francisco. It’s clear from the crime scene that The Prophet has returned, and Caitlin is determined to be a part of the investigation. That’s where the thrill ride starts, and Gardiner never lets up, even for a second. The story is expertly plotted and paced and highly entertaining to boot. It took me two days to read it, but if you don’t spook easily, you could probably get through it in one sitting. (Actually, if you do spook easily, one sitting might be better, like ripping off a bandage.)

Earlier this year I read Michelle McNamara’s fantastic I’ll Be Gone in the Dark about her obsession and hunt for the Golden State Killer. As it turns out, the GSK prowled and terrorized the Santa Barbara neighborhood where Meg Gardiner lived as a kid, the creek he used to slip quietly through neighborhoods running nearly alongside her family home and the homes of her friends. Echoes of that killer’s crimes appear in UNSUB, as does the terror he caused in the communities where he committed crimes. Gardiner also pays some homage to McNamara’s work in reminding the reader that back in the day, county agencies handled their own investigations, so often they had no idea that the serial rapist or killer in their midst was wreaking the same havoc in other nearby counties. Today, California has a sophisticated DNA database (thanks to a family member of one of GSK’s victims), and we are all linked by the internet—something Gardiner uses to the killer’s chilling advantage. Caitlin also receives help from an amateur sleuth who helps to run a forum called FindTheProhet.com, giving a nod to all those people who work earnestly and tirelessly (and maybe a bit obsessively) to help resolve long unsolved crimes.

I bring up McNamara’s book because in misreading the description for UNSUB and then adding it to my TBR, I assumed I was going to get a novel based on the same type of characters, regular people haunted by and driven to solve a mystery. And instead I got a combination crime thriller/police procedural, which aren’t genres I usually gravitate to, and I think for that reason some things in the book didn’t work for me. (This might get a little spoilery, but I’ll do my best not to reveal anything.) Let me preface this by saying that the problem is me and my expectations, not the book. Gardiner ratchets up the tension from the get go and never lets up, which I appreciated, but I like a slower burn. When The Prophet resurfaces, things escalate quickly over the course of a few days, and it all seemed to me…over the top. There are videos and hidden cameras and explosions and so on and so forth. There’s an elaborate finale in which just the right people are at the scene and lots of people are killed and…I know it’s wrong, but I kept thinking, really? Isn’t this a bit much? (But then I kept reading, because Gardiner is good, and I had to know what happened.) But maybe that’s the point. In fiction, strange as it may be, serial killers are entertainment, and we get to control them, and the point is to contain them, to catch the bad guys (although I am not saying she catches him; you’ll have to read it to find out). But for me it would have been just as thrilling if the end was Caitlin and team pouncing on The Prophet when he was coming out of WalMart with milk and toilet paper, maybe even more so, because that’s really the most terrifying thing of all. GSK, BTK, Ted Bundy…these people walk the streets, go to the grocery store and the mall and the Starbucks, send their kids to school, go to church. In 2016 a billboard went up along Georgia 400 near Alpharetta with a drawing of GSK and a number to call for any information of his whereabouts. And I remember thinking, because I had read McNamara’s original GSK profile in LA Magazine in 2013 (warning: the opening sketch alone will give you nightmares), “No. No way is he here. He’s in California.” But how would I have known? It was entirely plausible he could have crossed the country to get a fresh start. When my husband wasn’t home, I kept the doors and windows locked.

But anyway, back to the safe world of fiction: UNSUB is a terrific read, and lucky me, the second one, Into the Black Nowhere, is already out, and set in my home state of Texas. And I don’t think I’ll stop there.

Reader’s Journal: Why you should read Anthony Marra (if you haven’t already)

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaThis year I’ve read both of Anthony Marra’s books, The Tsar of Love and Techno and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Both works were on so many ‘Best of’ lists the years they were published that I was wary, but I needn’t have worried. They both live up to the hype, especially The Tsar of Love and Techno, a series of linked stories set across the former Soviet Union (Chechnya, a Siberian city called Kirovsk, Leningrad/St. Petersburg) that move between the Soviet era just before World War II to near present day. Recently I saw someone on Goodreads say about a book that the best way they could share how much they loved the work was simply to quote from it extensively. This is exactly how I felt about The Tsar of Love and Techno, and to a lesser extent A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which was Marra’s debut novel, as I seemed to find myself highlighting some turn of phrase or passage on every other page. In fact, I underlined so much that the best way for me to share my feelings might simply be to hand someone the entire book. I’ll admit that A Constellation did drag a bit in places; it’s more bleak than The Tsar, dealing exclusively with the aftermath and devastation of both the First and Second Chechen Wars for a small group of characters. A Constellation covers only five days in the present but moves across time to share the lives of the principal characters. In both books the characters are connected either as family or friends, or by history or direct circumstance, and at times by all of the above. Some of these stories take too long to tell, the suspense building not to a bang but a whimper that can leave the reader feeling that the time spent on something that the plot reveals as inevitable might have been better spent on another character, another story. This is why I think The Tsar is better: Marra seems to have honed these connections, to have figured out exactly how much to tell in one place so that later, when a small but significant detail from an earlier story appears as a major element in a later one, the reader feels the power of the mystery of coincidence. There is much less of a feeling of “of course” and more of a sense of wonder at the ping and response of human activity across time.

The Tsar of Love and TechnoTwo things I loved in both books. First, the humor, which I completely did not expect. A Constellation has its fair share, especially when it brings together two of the primary characters, Akhmed and Sonja. He is a mostly incompetent village doctor who would prefer to be an artist; she is a talented surgeon who studied in London but returned to Chechnya for complicated reasons having to do with her younger sister. At the beginning of the novel, Akhmed brings a  child, Havaa, to the hospital where Sonja works, hoping that as a doctor Sonja will agree to take the homeless child into her care if he agrees to help her manage patients in the hospital. To test him, she asks what he would do with an unresponsive patient brought into the emergency room. He  responds that he would give the patient a questionnaire:

She had asked what he would do with an unresponsive patient, and he, in a blundering moment, had taken it to mean quiet or unwilling to talk , and had thought of the mute village baker, who communicated only through written notes—which had proved problematic the previous winter when the baker suffered from a bout of impotence he was too ashamed to write down, even to Akhmed. Akhmed had resolved the problem—shrewdly, he thought—by giving the mute baker a questionnaire with a hundred potential symptoms, of which the baker checked only one, and so had saved the baker’s testicles, marriage and pride.

Marra is highly adept at using humor to bring levity to the darkest moments. Although occasionally slapstick, this humor is often the most complicated kind, pulled from moments of misunderstanding or desperation to remind us all that the human condition is equal parts comedy and tragedy.

The second thing I love is a small thing: how Marra tells us something significant about even the most seemingly insignificant characters. For example, a man in A Constellation who is brought in after hitting a land mine:

The man, and he was a man, it was so easy to forget that with all his insides leaking out, had graduated from architecture school and had been searching for employment when the first bombs fell. When the land mine took his leg, he had already spent nine years searching for his first architectural commission. Another six and three-quarter years would pass before he got that first commission, at the age of thirty-eight. With only twenty percent of the city still standing, he would never be without work again.

I love this especially because it’s something I wonder about not even so much in novels as in real life, just passing people on the street or in the grocery store. These little glimpses make these bit players into something whole, give us a chance to see the detail framed against the bigger story.

A Constellation was Marra’s first book, but I recommend reading The Tsar first. I think they’re both worth reading and the quotes I’ve shared above are both from A Constellation, The Tsar is just…better. I’m not sure, but perhaps with A Constellation, Marra needed to write out all the blood and horror and betrayal to get some perspective, because it’s certainly the perspective piece of things that makes The Tsar the better book. And so, to convince you, I will leave you with a string of quotes (but I promise it’s not the whole book) from The Tsar. You’re welcome.

Radiographs of broken ribs, dislocated shoulders, malignant tumors, compacted vertebrae had been cut into vague circles, the music etched into the X-ray surface, the center hole punctured with a cigarette ember, and it was glorious to know that these images of human pain could hide in their grooves a sound as pure and joyful as Brian Wilson’s voice.

Yellow fog enshrouded the city like a varnish aged upon the air.

Despite inheriting her grandmother’s beautiful figure, Galina danced with the subtlety of a spooked ostrich.

You see, Kolya was a hundred meters of arrogance pressed into a two-meter frame, the kind of young man who makes you feel inadequate for not impressing him.

The Lenin statue once stood in the square outside this school, arm raised, rallying the schoolchildren to glorious revolution, but now, buried to his chin like a cowboy sentenced to death beneath the desert sun, Vladimir Ilich waves only for help.

I fear for her future in a country whose citizenry is forced to assemble its own furniture.

Then she’s gone and I’m left alone with the assistant whose saccharine perfume smells of vaporized cherubs.

Danilo, a contract soldier, body build like a flour sack and brain wired like a firecracker…

The megalopolis in his mind has quieted to a country road. He does his work, he eats his bread, and he sleeps with the knowledge that today hasn’t added to the sum of human misery. For now at least it’s a peace of a kind he hadn’t imagined himself worthy of receiving.

Kolya entered the chorus with an orchestra of punch-drunk madmen living in him, belting the tune to the velvet yellow, to the misting lake, to the carcinogens no song could dislodge from his capillaries, and in this amphitheater of decimated industry, on this stage of ice and steel, he taught the granddaughter of a prima ballerina to dance.

The strip of concrete, scabbed in gray forest, stretched to the intersection where it linked with another sidewalk, which in turn intersected with another and another, circumscribing the limits of her life. How often had she walked down them silently? How often had she censored her thoughts, her judgments, her beliefs, her desires, consigning them to some region of her soul where they couldn’t betray her?

Took a long time to understand the American mindset. The fear of their cruel and capricious government weighs heavily on their psyches. They’re more inclined to believe they’ll lose what they have than receive what they want.