Books Read in 2021: Four-Star Non-Fiction and Fiction

Omg, Suzanne (HI SUZANNE), I'm so excited to meet someone who's read Sophie Hannah - I felt like a new weird world had opened up to me with her first book. A couple of times she's missed the mark slightly, but many of the series books are amazing and The Orphan Choir is one of my favourite scary books ever! I just borrowed Perfect Little Children from the library. 

The winter of my discontent continues apace. The Worst Migraine Ever abated slightly yesterday, but is creeping back today. The lack of movement brought on by the migraine has caused a sciatica flare-up in my right leg - I went to the chiropractor today so hopefully that will help. My CPAP mask is making my nose bleed, which happens now and then, but is quite problematic, because the choices are to keep wearing it and worsen the irritation or not wear it and sleep very badly and feel like hell when I wake up. This makes me feel utterly despairing, given the fact that I can't even SLEEP right - like, something that BRAND NEW HUMANS ace effortlessly, I fail at. It just today struck me that the fact that it's super dry right now ("There's no moisture anywhere in the city" as one of my friends once put it) might have an effect on sleep apnea, and I looked it up and SURPRISE, dry air is very bad for sleep apnea. I am skipping over the "why the hell didn't I realize this before" and going straight to ordering a humidifier.

Anyway, enough complaining. It has actually helped to have the book posts to work away at when I can maintain the focus, so I'm appreciative of everybody who reads and comments. Also, I just proofread this post and found six mistakes in four seconds, so I apologize for the ones that I've missed.

Four-Star Non-Fiction

Blues Legacy and Black Feminism: Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis:  Synopsis from Goodreads: From one of this country's most important intellectuals comes a brilliant analysis of the blues tradition that examines the careers of three crucial black women blues singers through a feminist lens. Angela Davis provides the historical, social, and political contexts with which to reinterpret the performances and lyrics of Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as powerful articulations of an alternative consciousness profoundly at odds with mainstream American culture. The works of Rainey, Smith, and Holiday have been largely misunderstood by critics. Overlooked, Davis shows, has been the way their candor and bravado laid the groundwork for an aesthetic that allowed for the celebration of social, moral, and sexual values outside the constraints imposed by middle-class respectability. Through meticulous transcriptions of all the extant lyrics of Rainey and Smith--published here in their entirety for the first time--Davis demonstrates how the roots of the blues extend beyond a musical tradition to serve as a conciousness-raising vehicle for American social memory. A stunning, indispensable contribution to American history, as boldly insightful as the women Davis praises, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism is a triumph. 

I went looking for a good book about music to read to fit a book bingo square and ended up ordering this. I didn't know anything about Angela Y. Davis but she's apparently an important and influential writer and speaker on intersectional black feminism and prison abolition.
I read this very slowly, a few pages a night, because it's structured like and uses the vocabulary of academic writing, so it's not dry, but doesn't read quickly, and bears some thinking about. It highlights some things about the blues that seem screamingly obvious but that I had never thought about, such as the fact that black female sexuality and issues such as homosexuality were suddenly foregrounded, whereas in the Negro spirituals and gospel music that the form is rooted in, no mention was ever made of sexuality.
Davis makes an excellent case for the fact that, even though blues music wasn't overtly political, the very fact that these women (often misunderstood and mistreated by critics, and are still often overlooked in favour of male blues artists) gave voice to their struggles at all laid the groundwork for political consciousness and protest.
She then gets into many cases where she claims that the way Rainey, Smith and Holiday performed certain songs actually belied the words they were singing. To a point I get this, and after that point it seemed like maybe she was forcing the point, but I defer to her expertise on that. The section about the song "Strange Fruit" is fascinating all on its own.

This was excellent. Her voice is clear and intelligent and I will be looking out for more of her writing.

My Own Blood: A Memoir of Madness and Special Needs Parenting by Ashley Bristowe: Synopsis from Goodreads: Mothering under normal circumstances takes all you have to give. But what happens when your child is disabled, and sacrificing all you've got and more is the only hope for a decent future? Full of rage and resilience, duty and love, Ashley Bristowe delivers a mother's voice like no other we've heard. When their second child, Alexander, is diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder, doctors tell Ashley Bristowe and her husband that the boy won't walk, or even talk--that he is profoundly disabled. Stunned and reeling, Ashley researches a disorder so new it's just been named--Kleefstra Syndrome--and she finds little hope and a maze of obstacles. Then she comes across the US-based "Institutes," which have been working to improve the lives of brain-injured children for decades. Recruiting volunteers, organizing therapy, juggling a million tests and appointments, even fundraising as the family falls deep into debt, Ashley devotes years of 24/7 effort to running an impossibly rigorous diet and therapy programme for their son with the hope of saving his life, and her own. The ending is happy: he will never be a "normal" boy, but Alexander talks, he walks, he swims, he plays the piano (badly) and he goes to school. This victory isn't clean and it's far from pretty; the personal toll on Ashley is devastating. "It takes a village," people say, but too much of their village is uncomfortable with her son's difference, the therapy regimen's demands and the family's bottomless need. The health and provincial services bureaucracy set them a maddening set of hoops to jump through, showing how disabled children and their families languish because of criminally low expectations about what can be done to help. My Own Blood is an uplifting story, but it never shies away from the devastating impact of a baby that science couldn't predict and medicine couldn't help. It's the story of a woman who lost everything she'd once been--a professional, an optimist, a joker, a capable adult--in sacrifice to her son. An honest account of a woman's life turned upside down.

You may recall the blog post I wrote about finding out that this book existed, and realizing I knew the author indirectly.

Anyway, it's a fantastic book. She writes really well, and it's an engaging, moving story. I could pick at some things, because there's a small, petty part of me that can always pick at some things. In some ways she's very self-aware and in others, less so. I absolutely get that when you have a disabled child it feels like all of your friends don't help you enough, but it often feels that way when you have a neurotypical child too, but I was self-aware enough to realize that people without kids have their own shit going on, and I wouldn't write a book calling the out for not helping. Ditto with her family - either they are a bunch of gaslighting narcissists or she threw them under the bus because she was having a rough time - some stuff she says at the end of the book makes it hard to tell the difference.
The program they end up following from The Institutes of whatever in the U.S. sounds about thirty percent science based and the rest pyramid scheme/pseudoscience/ woo, and I understand that they were exhausted and desperate enough to just follow it anyway, but again she doesn't really seem to acknowledge that. There's no way to know if they would have had the same level of success without it, so I guess that's vindication enough?

Regardless, I couldn't stop reading. It's raw and honest in a way a lot of memoirs involving disabled children aren't, sometimes brutally so, and I respect that. And she's a really good writer.

What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon: Synopsis from Goodreads: From the creator of Your Fat Friend, an explosive indictment of the systemic and cultural bias facing plus-size people that will move us toward creating an agenda for fat justice. Anti-fatness is everywhere. In What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat, Aubrey Gordon unearths the cultural attitudes and social systems that have led to people being denied basic needs because they are fat and calls for social justice movements to be inclusive of plus-sized people's experiences. Unlike the recent wave of memoirs and quasi self-help books that encourage readers to love and accept themselves, Gordon pushes the discussion further towards authentic fat activism, which includes ending legal weight discrimination, giving equal access to health care for large people, increased access to public spaces, and ending anti-fat violence. As she argues, I did not come to body positivity for self-esteem. I came to it for social justice. By sharing her experiences as well as those of others--from smaller fat to very fat people--she concludes that to be fat in our society is to be seen as an undeniable failure, unlovable, unforgivable, and morally condemnable. Fatness is an open invitation for others to express disgust, fear, and insidious concern. To be fat is to be denied humanity and empathy. Studies show that fat survivors of sexual assault are less likely to be believed and less likely than their thin counterparts to report various crimes; 27% of very fat women and 13% of very fat men attempt suicide; over 50% of doctors describe their fat patients as awkward, unattractive, ugly and noncompliant; and in 48 states, it's legal--even routine--to deny employment because of an applicant's size. Advancing fat justice and changing prejudicial structures and attitudes will require work from all people. What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat is a crucial tool to create a tectonic shift in the way we see, talk about, and treat our bodies, fat and thin alike.

-”Between the private and public sectors, billions of dollars have been spent seeding body dissatisfaction that would increase profits for weight-loss companies. In the process, both sectors seeded this astronomical rise in anti-fat attitudes, actions, and politics -- all targeted at the fatness we learned to fear in ourselves. But those many shots we have learned to take at ourselves have long landed blows at fat people in the process.”

I didn't review this at length when I read it, partly because I was so filled with rage and hurt and recognition at so many things it named and described. How public policy is created around fat bias, so that in many places people can legally be denied jobs, housing, hotel rooms and a host of other things just because of their size. The way poverty and economic instability and phenomena such as food deserts are ignored while government dollars are instead poured into ludicrous and ineffective 'wars on obesity' that do nothing to address the actual root of the issue. The way scientific evidence about weight is ignored in favour of a moral panic that posits fat people as lazy, greedy, contemptible.

I knew that BMI wasn't a reliable indicator of health or wellness, but I'm kind of ashamed that I had never actually researched why it is such a spurious tool that has no place in health care. I feel like quoting this book on the BMI would be too long, but here's what looks like a good link to a basic summary.

This is an excellent, important, evidence-based book that in all likelihood will be ignored by the people that most need to read and internalize it - well that's not true, I guess, it's important that fat people learn how mistreated they/we have been, but it would be really great if people in health care and public policy would have a look too. I've heard that Gordon's podcast is also excellent and I will definitely listen to it as soon as I, you know, get around to listening to podcasts.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe: Synopsis from Goodreads: In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville's children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress--with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes. Patrick Radden Keefe's mesmerizing book on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath uses the McConville case as a starting point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war, a war whose consequences have never been reckoned with. The brutal violence seared not only people like the McConville children, but also I.R.A. members embittered by a peace that fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland, and left them wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders. Patrick Radden Keefe writes an intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions.

This generated a very spirited discussion in my book club. I thought it was very well researched and written. The framing device of Jean McConville's murder and the repercussions throughout her children's lives was extremely effective. I knew about this period of history, of course, but not to this level of detail. It's one thing to say that violence is objectively wrong, and another thing to understand what it must be like to ingest stories of heroic I.R.A. relatives with your mother's milk. It's a long, brutal, uncomfortable account, and I felt sorry for almost everyone, some in spite of myself. 

Broken by Jenny Lawson: Synopsis from Goodreads: From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Furiously Happy and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened comes a deeply relatable book filled with humor and honesty about depression and anxiety. As Jenny Lawson’s hundreds of thousands of fans know, she suffers from depression. In Broken, Jenny brings readers along on her mental and physical health journey, offering heartbreaking and hilarious anecdotes along the way. With people experiencing anxiety and depression now more than ever, Jenny humanizes what we all face in an all-too-real way, reassuring us that we’re not alone and making us laugh while doing it. From the business ideas that she wants to pitch to Shark Tank to the reason why Jenny can never go back to the post office, Broken leaves nothing to the imagination in the most satisfying way. And of course, Jenny’s long-suffering husband Victor―the Ricky to Jenny’s Lucille Ball―is present throughout. A treat for Jenny Lawson’s already existing fans, and destined to convert new ones, Broken is a beacon of hope and a wellspring of laughter when we all need it most.

I haven't read a Jenny Lawson book yet that hasn't made me smile, nod in recognition and wheeze with laughter until my husband takes his pillow and huffily stumps off to sleep somewhere else (just kidding, he just rolls over, raises an eyebrow and promptly falls back asleep, the bastard). This one was my least favourite by a smidge. It reads very slightly as if it might have been rushed to meet a deadline - some very wispy chapters, some very women's-magazine summations like "and in the end, we are all those lobster claws, reaching out for connection but risking painful pinches in the process, and that's okay" (this is not a Jenny Lawson quote, I am paraphrasing disrespectfully, please don't sue me). The part about where she starts a Twitter thread of people's most embarrassing moments? I would read through 300 pages of absolute dreck just to cry-laugh at that one any day (although I guess I don't have to, it's everywhere on the internet, what's my point, I don't know, it's becoming clear why Jenny Lawson still gets paid to write and me not so much).

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara: Synopsis from Goodreads: A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case. "You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark." For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area. Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called "the Golden State Killer." Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was. At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by Michelle’s lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer. 

I never read true crime. This is a false statement. I almost never read true crime. I don't really know why, because I read about fake crime often. When I think of true crime I think I get a picture in my head of cheesy tv shows with melodramatic voice-overs and sensationalism. Obviously this is reductive and not uniformly the case. I had read about this book because Michelle McNamara was the wife of Patton Oswalt, whose acting, comedy and Twitterisms I enjoy. She died while writing this book in a period of one or two years where a few women I knew around her age went to bed and just didn't wake up in the morning, which put her in that sad, frightening category in my mind. I borrowed the book to read her writing more than anything else. 

I really liked her writing. I loved the parts about her childhood, her family and relationship with her parents. Her writing about the Golden State Killer was also very effective, but of course I didn't like it - it was horrifying, although very effective. I also discovered while reading the book that she had actually overdosed, on medication she was taking for insomnia and nightmares, and I became uncomfortably aware of the fact that I might be reading a product of the obsession which had directly or indirectly led to her death, whereupon the whole reading process became extremely fraught.

I hadn't realized how unfinished the book was when she died, and I think it would have been better served only publishing the finished parts, rather than the cobbling together and finishing by other people that was done. I think she had plenty of great writing left in her, and I'm sad that she's gone. 

Four-Star Fiction

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Synopsis from Goodreads: If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life? It's 1969 in New York City's Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes. The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in '80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality. A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

I am very aware that reading is extremely subjective. I try really hard not to judge anyone's opinion of a book as 'right' or 'wrong'. Sometimes that's really difficult when I really like a book and the reasons someone else offers for disliking it seem, for lack of a better term, dumb. There are any number of reasons someone could not like this book - it's quite sad in many ways, and the action is as much internal as external. But the people who read the synopsis and then were mad that it wasn't fantastical enough and trashed the book based on the fact that it was too literary ticked me off. Okay, now that I'm writing that it also seems dumb, never mind. Anyway, be aware that this is very much a book in which the only magic is that a woman predicts the date of death for four siblings. But the question the book then explores - how do you live when you know the exact length of the space in which your life has to play out? How much of it is curse, and how much blessing? And how does it work when the other three people involved are as close to you as your own blood? As you might expect, each of the four characters reacts very differently - some choose to extract the marrow out of every last day, while others are unable to recover from the burden of knowing what should never be known. Thinking back, I'm a little curious why I didn't give this five stars. 

The Overstory by Richard Powers: Synopsis from Goodreads: The Overstory is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of - and paean to - the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, Richard Powers’s twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

Used this for the book bingo square of 'A book that a friend couldn't put down' (HI LIZ). From the quotations she posted I had no idea what to expect. It's called a "sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance" and a "stunning evocation of - and paean to - the natural world". I didn't even realize until a good way into the book when the term 'understory' was used that 'overstory' means upper layers of foliage in a forest canopy. The first half of the book reads like a bunch of masterful short stories about families that have some connection to a particular tree. The second half connects all the descendants of these families in anti-logging activism. There is a lot of very evocative writing about trees. A couple of characters are loosely based on real people. It is dense and sprawling (hey, tree-like again) and lush and majestic (okay, too on the nose, sorry) and I read it in chunks interspersed with other things because it's quite intense. I always wanted to get back to it, though. Along with the latest news about arctic ice melt, it made me sad and anxious about what humans have done to the earth, along with spurring me to get my ass out on some forest trails. Eve has to read this for Practices of Knowledge this term and I'm excited to talk about it with her.

Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown: Synopsis from Goodreads: In this captivating dual narrative novel, a modern-day woman finds inspiration in hidden notes left by her home’s previous owner, a quintessential 1950s housewife. As she discovers remarkable parallels between this woman’s life and her own, it causes her to question the foundation of her own relationship with her husband–and what it means to be a wife fighting for her place in a patriarchal society. When Alice Hale leaves a career in publicity to become a writer and follows her husband to the New York suburbs, she is unaccustomed to filling her days alone in a big, empty house. But when she finds a vintage cookbook buried in a box in the old home’s basement, she becomes captivated by the cookbook’s previous owner–1950s housewife Nellie Murdoch. As Alice cooks her way through the past, she realizes that within the cookbook’s pages Nellie left clues about her life–including a mysterious series of unsent letters penned to her mother. Soon Alice learns that while baked Alaska and meatloaf five ways may seem harmless, Nellie’s secrets may have been anything but. When Alice uncovers a more sinister–even dangerous–side to Nellie’s marriage, and has become increasingly dissatisfied with the mounting pressures in her own relationship, she begins to take control of her life and protect herself with a few secrets of her own. 

Read to fulfill (sort of) a 'recipe book' Book Bingo square. I think my friend Amy (HI AMY) put this on my radar. It's not the usual thing I read, and none of the characters come off very well, but I couldn't stop reading it. It was simple and yet profound, the way the story of a 1950s housewife in difficult circumstances reflects and resonates with the situation of a contemporary woman. The eternal struggle of women not to get lost in marriage. The absolutely white-hot-rage-inducing marriage advice from old books that begin each chapter. The fairly sound assertion that "whipped cream and ham should never mingle. Never ever, never."

The Daughters of Foxcote Manor by Eve Chase: Synopsis from Goodreads: Outside a remote manor house in an idyllic wood, a baby girl is found. The Harrington family takes her in and disbelief quickly turns to joy. They're grieving a terrible tragedy of their own and the beautiful baby fills them with hope, lighting up the house's dark, dusty corners. Desperate not to lose her to the authorities, they keep her secret, suspended in a blissful summer world where normal rules of behaviour - and the law - don't seem to apply. But within days a body will lie dead in the grounds. And their dreams of a perfect family will shatter like glass. Years later, the truth will need to be put back together again, piece by piece . . . From the author of Black Rabbit Hall, The Glass House is a emotional, thrilling book about family secrets and belonging - and how we find ourselves when we are most lost.

For my fiftieth birthday a friend got me one of those subscriptions where you get a book and four or five gifts that correspond to a part of the book - you get notices of when to open each numbered gift as you read. Utterly charming, yes? Yes, even though the first book was very much what my friend's daughter posited it would be upon reading the plot summary - "a wine mom's book". Not that there's anything wrong with that per se, but it read very much like a book contrived to land on women's book club's lists and lacked narrative tension - I have never in my life read anything that was more 'this happened, then this happened, then this happened, the end.' The fun part with a subscription like this is that you still get four or five cute little gifts, which are nice even if the book is not great! Anyway, this was the second book and it was completely different, even though it would do just fine as a book club book. It busted me right out of a reading rut in April of last year. It wasn't super challenging, and the mysteries gradually revealed were more sweet than dark, but the writing was good, sometimes great, and it was just a really good story with a lot of well-written female characters. 

Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald: Synopsis from Goodreads: A magical love story, inspired by the legend of a woman who vanished from Grand Central Terminal, sweeps readers from the 1920s to World War II and beyond, in the spirit of The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonOn a clear December morning in 1937, at the famous gold clock in Grand Central Terminal, Joe Reynolds, a hardworking railroad man from Queens, meets a vibrant young woman who seems mysteriously out of place. Nora Lansing is a Manhattan socialite whose flapper clothing, pearl earrings, and talk of the Roaring Twenties don’t seem to match the bleak mood of Depression-era New York. Captivated by Nora from her first electric touch, Joe despairs when he tries to walk her home and she disappears. Finding her again—and again—will become the focus of his love and his life. Nora, an aspiring artist and fiercely independent, is shocked to find she’s somehow been trapped, her presence in the terminal governed by rules she cannot fathom. It isn’t until she meets Joe that she begins to understand the effect that time is having on her, and the possible connections to the workings of Grand Central and the solar phenomenon known as Manhattanhenge, when the sun rises or sets between the city’s skyscrapers, aligned perfectly with the streets below. As thousands of visitors pass under the famous celestial blue ceiling each day, Joe and Nora create a life unlike any they could have imagined. With infinite love in a finite space, they take full advantage of the “Terminal City” within a city, dining at the Oyster Bar, visiting the Whispering Gallery, and making a home at the Biltmore Hotel. But when the construction of another landmark threatens their future, Nora and Joe are forced to test the limits of freedom and love. Delving into Grand Central Terminal’s rich past, Lisa Grunwald crafts a masterful historical novel about a love affair that defies age, class, place, and even time.

I think I came across this by accident while I was looking for a Jack Finney book (those are called Time and Again and From Time to Time - how does anyone ever keep books about time straight?) I mean, look at that cover, obviously I had to read it. Now that I'm thinking of it, I guess this should have gone under fantasy strictly speaking, but truthfully it's just a really lovely old-fashioned love story with incidental magic. It's worth it for the descriptions of old New York and Grand Central Station alone. 

The Searcher by Tana French: Synopsis from Goodreads: Retired detective Cal Hooper moves to a remote village in rural Ireland. His plans are to fix up the dilapidated cottage he's bought, to walk the mountains, to put his old police instincts to bed forever. Then a local boy appeals to him for help. His brother is missing, and no one in the village, least of all the police, seems to care. And once again, Cal feels that restless itch. Something is wrong in this community, and he must find out what, even if it brings trouble to his door.

You know those writers that you keep reading even though it's kind of like inviting someone to beat you up over and over? I mean this as a compliment. I remember saying about Broken Harbour that it was like she crushed up a bunch of hearts and wrote the book in broken-heart juice. She usually writes about a Dublin police squad, moving from character to character in each book, but the incisive, insightful writing elevates her work above any confining sense of genre. This is a standalone, with the same vivid sense of place and mournful, wise perception of human frailty and doggedness. So, so good, and so, so sad. 

The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya: Synopsis from Goodreads: Everyone talks about falling in love, but falling in friendship can be just as captivating. When Neela Devaki’s song is covered by internet-famous artist Rukmini, the two musicians meet and a transformative friendship begins. But as Rukmini’s star rises and Neela’s stagnates, jealousy and self-doubt creep in. With a single tweet, their friendship implodes, one career is destroyed, and the two women find themselves at the center of an internet firestorm. Celebrated multidisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya’s second novel is a stirring examination of making art in the modern era, a love letter to brown women, an authentic glimpse into the music industry, and a nuanced exploration of the promise and peril of being seen.

One of the most of-the-moment books I've read, not in the sense of being flavour-of-the-month or gimmicky, just very current. Good representation without seeming tokenish. A close examination of the joys and pitfalls of female friendship and fame, sudden or otherwise. 

Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz: Synopsis from Goodreads: NATIONAL BESTSELLER. An immersive, deeply engaging, and hopeful novel about the power of human connection in a time of crisis, as the bonds of love, family, and duty are tested by an impending catastrophe. Named a Book of the Year by the Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, 49th Shelf, and a Book You Should Read by Maclean's and Chatelaine. How quickly he'd forgotten a fundamental truth: the closer you got to the heart of a calamity, the more resilience there was to be found. This is the story of a handful of people living through an unfolding catastrophe. Elliot is a first responder in New York, a man running from past failures and struggling to do the right thing. Emma is a pregnant singer preparing to headline a benefit concert for victims of a growing outbreak--all while questioning what kind of world her child is coming into. Owen is the author of a bestselling novel with eerie similarities to the real-life crisis, and as fact and fiction begin to blur, he must decide whether his lifelong instinct for self-preservation has been worth the cost. As we discover these characters' ties to one another--and to the mystery of the so-called ARAMIS Girl--what emerges is an extraordinary web of connection and community that reveals none of us is ever truly alone. Brilliantly told by an unforgettable chorus of voices, Saleema Nawaz's glittering novel is a moving and hopeful meditation on what we owe to ourselves and to each other. It reminds us that disaster can bring out the best in people--and that coming together may be what saves us in the end.

-”Keelan locked the door behind him and dropped his briefcase beside the umbrella stand, before frowning at the wooden receptacle with a picture of an umbrella and the word parapluies painted on the side. Peculiar artifacts of this sort, so limited and specific, seemed doomed to impeach their fading era of wealth and complacency. Umbrella stands, grapefruit spoons, nose-hair clippers: these were not things that ought to belong to a world in crisis.”

This was published in August 2020, which means Saleema Nawaz started writing it before Covid was A Thing (not to mention one of the characters in the book also writes a prescient work called The Survivalist's Code, which means she wrote a book about a pandemic in which someone wrote a book about a pandemic right before a pandemic, right before.... a pandemic). Did she feel like the people who opened a restaurant called Tsunami right before the tsunami happened in 2004? I did actually read an interview with her, but straight talk, I don't remember what she said. I didn't feel as creeped out reading about a pandemic during a pandemic as I thought I might. Honestly, the book was beautifully written and some thing resonated with me, but the real pandemic was less bittersweet and more grueling, with more references to people eating dirt than I would have expected. It's less about a pandemic than about how different people and relationships react under stress.

 Forever is the Worst Long Time by Camille Pagan: Synopsis from Goodreads: From acclaimed author Camille Pag├ín comes a wry, heartfelt exploration of love and loss. When struggling novelist James Hernandez meets poet Louisa “Lou” Bell, he’s sure he’s just found the love of his life. There’s just one problem: she’s engaged to his oldest friend, Rob. So James toasts their union and swallows his desire. As the years pass, James’s dreams always seem just out of reach—he can’t finish that novel, can’t mend his relationship with his father, can’t fully commit to a romantic relationship. He just can’t move on. But after betrayal fractures Lou’s once-solid marriage, she turns to James for comfort. When Lou and James act on their long-standing mutual attraction, the consequences are more heartbreaking—and miraculous—than either of them could have ever anticipated. Then life throws James one more curveball, and he, Rob, and Lou are forced to come to terms with the unexpected ways in which love and loss are intertwined. 

The 'formula' here was a bit reminiscent of Nicholas Sparks or chick lit, with a streak of How I Met Your Mother, but the writing was really good and it was just a really good story. There was some striking insight into personal relationships and really good main character self awareness. As I've said, the trope of the male tortured writer always makes me a little wary because it is so done and can be so cringe, but it is used to good effect here. Very good read.

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley: Synopsis from Goodreads: A new, feminist translation of Beowulf by the author of The Mere WifeNearly twenty years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf — and fifty years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world — there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley, which brings to light elements never before translated into English. A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. These familiar components of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history. Beowulf has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment — of powerful men seeking to become more powerful and one woman seeking justice for her child — but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation; her Beowulf is one for the twenty-first century. 

"Language is a living thing, and when it dies, it leaves bones. I dropped some fossils here, next to some newborns. I'm as interested in contemporary idiom and slang as I am in the archaic. There are other translations if you're looking for the courtly romance and knights."

-”because when it comes to translating Beowulf, there is no sacred clarity. What the translated text says is a matter of study, interpretation, and poetic leaps of faith. Every translator translates this poem differently. That’s part of its glory. And so, I offer to the banquet table this translation, done by an American woman born in the year 1977, a person who grew up surrounded by sled dogs, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and bubbling natural hot springs nestled in the wild high desert of Idaho, a person who, if we were looking at the poem’s categories, would fall much closer in original habitat to Grendel and his mother than to Beowulf or even the lesser denizens of Hrothgar’s court.”

“A Helming-hostess, treading with purpose, rings shining,

Beer-sounding soldiers, old and young, both of her own


And the sea-slayers’, goblet held to her breast. Hashtag: blessed”

I had never read Beowulf in any translation. I confess that I enjoyed the preface in which the author described her translation work rather more than the actual poem. It was also very educational, as I hadn't realized how much latitude someone translating a work like this has - this sheds new light on a moment in university when I was reading a translation of an Aristophanes play and came across a reference to "Lady Loverley's Chatter" that seemed entirely too recent. It turns out they're just, like, allowed to do that! So, in stead of Lo! or Ho! to begin the whole shebang, Headley goes with Bro! Isn't that awesome? I think it's awesome. I have enjoyed Maria Dahvana Headley's fiction, although I haven't yet read The Mere Wife, her novel which has been termed "Beowulf in the suburbs". Looking forward to that. 

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine: Synopsis from Goodreads: "The Grammarians" are Laurel and Daphne Wolfe, identical, inseparable redheaded twins who share an obsession with words. They speak a secret “twin” tongue of their own as toddlers; as adults making their way in 1980s Manhattan, their verbal infatuation continues, but this love, which has always bound them together, begins instead to push them apart. Daphne, copy editor and grammar columnist, devotes herself to preserving the dignity and elegance of Standard English. Laurel, who gives up teaching kindergarten to write poetry, is drawn, instead, to the polymorphous, chameleon nature of the written and spoken word. Their fraying twin-ship finally shreds completely when the sisters go to war, absurdly but passionately, over custody of their most prized family heirloom: Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second EditionCathleen Schine has written a playful and joyful celebration of the interplay of language and life. A dazzling comedy of sisterly and linguistic manners, a revelation of the delights and stresses of intimacy, The Grammarians is the work of one of our great comic novelists at her very best.

-”When you get home, you both have fevers. Soon you are told you both have measles. You lie in your twin beds with the curtains drawn. Even in the dim light, you can see that the red spots do not occur on the same places on your otherwise identical bodies and faces. You conclude, with the sharp intelligence of a child, that you are not symmetrical in sickness. It seems profound. And sad. And it is a lesson you will not forget.”

-”’The most important thing,’ Laurel said, ‘is not to be afraid of making mistakes. Making a mistake is how you learn what’s right.’ The little girl with the hair that surely harbored a large bird of prey gave her an astonished look. It was not a look of astonished liberation, as Laurel momentarily hoped. It was a look of astonished pity. You blundering amateur, said the look. The child actually rolled her eyes.”

-”’I thought you were going to say having a baby must be like having a twin.’

‘But a baby is a whole other person.’

‘I hate to keep harping on this, but so is your sister.’

‘No, Daphne thought. My sister is me if I were different.’”

"No. Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors."

The column ran irregularly (like bowels,, Becky said), but it was still a column. It had a byline (hers) and it had a name: The People’s Pedant. Daphne had devoted readers -- fans, you might even say. The column was modishly vulgar in its attack on the vulgar tongue. DownTown allowed any word into print, and Daphne enjoyed the alternative journalist’s privilege of tossing out ‘fucks’ like shiny coins to the poor. Observations, corrections,and objections that might otherwise have struck her readers as prim struck them instead as edgy. A sense of superiority does not belong exclusively to conservatives, Daphne knew.”

I know! It's too many quotations! Just read the whole book! It's so damned good! Weird twins, and wordplay, and other weird people, and people fall in love and say more words and then there's a baby and the twin sisters fight for a really long time about the baby and about how words mean different things and I confess I kept coming out of the delicious daze of reading this and thinking "but what is this actually about?" and not really caring. I immediately resolved to read everything else Cathleen Schine has written and immediately forgot about that because my mind is a steel spaghetti strainer, but it will happen at some point. 

Dream Girl by Laura Lippman: Synopsis from Goodreads: After being injured in a freak accident, novelist Gerry Andersen lies in a hospital bed in his glamorous but sterile apartment, isolated from the busy world he can see through his windows, utterly dependent on two women he barely knows: his young assistant and a night nurse whose competency he questions. But Gerry is also beginning to question his own competency. As he moves in and out of dreamlike memories and seemingly random appearances of a persistent ex-girlfriend at his bedside, he fears he may be losing his grip on reality, much like his mother who recently passed away from dementia. Most distressing, he believes he’s being plagued by strange telephone calls, in which a woman claiming to be the titular character of his hit novel Dream Girl swears she will be coming to see him soon. The character is completely fictitious, but no one has ever believed Gerry when he makes that claim. Is he the victim of a cruel prank—or is he actually losing his mind★ There is no record of the calls according to the log on his phone. Could there be someone he has wronged★ Is someone coming to do him harm as he lies helplessly in bed★ Then comes the morning he wakes up next to a dead body—and realizes his nightmare is just beginning..

-”He has lived without his father for so long that his status did not occur to him when his mother died. He is an orphan. He has no siblings, no heirs. No enemies, not really. Shouldn’t he have a longer list of potential enemies; can you have lived a life of consequence if you don’t have people who really, really hate you?”

-”Eyes put in with a dirty finger, his mother would have said. An Irish expression, more meaningful before all women, everywhere, began darkening their eyelashes, outlining their eyes as if they were Cleopatra, wearing false eyelashes. Women were increasingly fake these days. Gerry liked real women -- slender, small-breasted, with their natural hair color.” (BARF)

Oh, Gerry. He comes so close to getting it sometimes and then... I loved Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan series until the last couple. She also wrote a couple of amazing standalones. This was a bit of a departure, although Tess Monaghan makes a brief appearance and is back to her badass self. This is a story about a privileged white male (with, to be fair, some difficult stuff in his past), caught in a tightening noose of his own devising. It is equal parts hilarious and distressing, and I had the agreeable sense that Lippman had a sort of evil good time writing this. 

Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Synopsis from Goodreads: Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she has to say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day, 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights. Lonely and miserable, Ana hatches a reckless plan to escape. But at the bus terminal, she is stopped by Cesar, Juan’s free-spirited younger brother, who convinces her to stay. As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets, leaving Cesar to take care of Ana. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, see a movie at Radio City Music Hall, go dancing with Cesar, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.

I read this book - a large part of which takes place in Washington Heights - right after watching the movie In the Heights. It is so, so good. Absolutely has the flavour of authenticity - sometimes literally, in the cooking descriptions. The matter-of-factness of 15-year-old Ana being betrothed, married, and sent across the ocean with a man twice her age, expected to then be responsible for lifting her family out of poverty, is breathtaking. The relationships she forges and the independence she works for at such a young age - I kept forgetting that she was a child younger than my own, but not because I think any of it was unrealistic. It was beautiful and heartwrenchingly sad and written wonderfully, not in a 'look at me' way, but in a way that draws you wholly into the story.

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez: Synopsis from Goodreads: Antonia Vega, the immigrant writer at the center of Afterlife, has had the rug pulled out from under her. She has just retired from the college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. And then more jolts: her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, and Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep. Antonia has always sought direction in the literature she loves—lines from her favorite authors play in her head like a soundtrack—but now she finds that the world demands more of her than words. Afterlife is a compact, nimble, and sharply droll novel. Set in this political moment of tribalism and distrust, it asks: What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including—maybe especially—members of our human family? How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in one another or ourselves? And how do we stay true to those glorious souls we have lost? 

I read this because I was looking for How the Garcia GIrls Lost Their Accents by the same author but it wasn't available from the library and this was. It was a beautiful exploration of grief, difficult family dynamics and how difficult it is to help the disenfranchised without overturning one's own life entirely. I loved the slightly prickly Antonia, how she loves literature but not necessarily people.

Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O'Farrell: Synopsis from Goodreads: On a summer's day in 1596, Judith, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon, takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home? Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week. Hamnet & Judith is a novel inspired by the children of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker's son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written. A story about the death of a child and the birth of a masterpiece in 16th century England, Hamnet & Judith is mesmerizing, heart-wrenching, impossible to put down--historical fiction at its finest.

I bought this because of Kate (HI KATE) and then put it in my cupboard (because there was no more room on the bookshelves, or on the book table, or on the book stack on the bedside table, so I started putting books in the armoire) and didn't get to it for months. Then I took it out and read it in my hanging chair on the deck that my husband made into my reading spot. It is an absolutely incendiary depiction of soul-destroying grief, but it is also one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. I feel like I watched it as a film rather than reading it, it was so clear and bright and deliberate. Sometimes an author's writing is like music notes being set down lovingly in your mind, and that's what this felt like. 

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak: Synopsis from Goodreads: From one of Turkey’s most acclaimed and outspoken writers, a novel about the tangled histories of two families. In her second novel written in English, Elif Shafak confronts her country’s violent past in a vivid and colorful tale set in both Turkey and the United States. At its center is the “bastard” of the title, Asya, a nineteen-year-old woman who loves Johnny Cash and the French Existentialists, and the four sisters of the Kazanci family who all live together in an extended household in Istanbul: Zehila, the zestful, headstrong youngest sister who runs a tattoo parlor and is Asya’s mother; Banu, who has newly discovered herself as a clairvoyant; Cevriye, a widowed high school teacher; and Feride, a hypochondriac obsessed with impending disaster. Their one estranged brother lives in Arizona with his wife and her Armenian daughter, Armanoush. When Armanoush secretly flies to Istanbul in search of her identity, she finds the Kazanci sisters and becomes fast friends with Asya. A secret is uncovered that links the two families and ties them to the 1915 Armenian deportations and massacres. Full of vigorous, unforgettable female characters, The Bastard of Istanbul is a bold, powerful tale that will confirm Shafak as a rising star of international fiction.

The husband of one of my book club friends lent me this book because he had read Come Thou Tortoise on my recommendation and wanted to return the favour - these kinds of book interactions are one of the greatest joys of my life. I loved almost everything about this - the household of uniformly difficult women, the description of a society totally foreign to me but enchanting in so many ways, the music and literature and food and colour swirling around intoxicatingly. I did not love the way one of the big 'reveals' was handled, and was ambivalent about the resolution, but I'm not entirely sure why. Regardless, I'm really happy someone drew me to read this author. 

 Biloxi by Mary Miller: Synopsis from Goodreads: Mary Miller seizes the mantle of southern literature with this wry tale of middle age and the unexpected turns a life can take. Like her predecessors Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver, Mary Miller brings an essential voice to her generation. Building on her critically acclaimed novel, The Last Days of California, and her biting collection, Always Happy Hour, Miller slyly transports readers to her unapologetic corner of the South—this time, Biloxi, Mississippi, home to sixty-three-year-old Louis McDonald Jr. His wife of thirty-seven years left him, his father has passed—and he has impulsively retired from his job in anticipation of an inheritance check that may not come. In the meantime, he watches reality television, sips beer, and avoids his ex-wife and daughter. One day, he stops at a house advertising free dogs and meets overweight mixed-breed Layla. Unexpectedly, Louis takes her, and, newly invigorated, begins investigating local dog parks and buying extra bologna. Mining the absurdities of life with her signature “droll minimalist’s-eye view of America” (Joyce Carol Oates), Mary Miller’s Biloxi affirms her place in contemporary literature. 

I stumbled across this library ebook - sometimes I search for something and the list of results contains titles that bear zero resemblance to what I was searching, which can be both annoying and fortuitous. There's a process by which some books find their way to readers that is mysterious and charming. I found myself relating, maybe a bit surprisingly, quite a bit to Louis, who is kind of a mess and then gets a dog, and, well, he keeps being kind of a mess but now has a dog. He is also a bit of a sexist shlub, to which I do not relate, but he has a fairly good heart and would probably be open to learning. I liked reading about living in a place that's completely different from where I live, and a life that is far removed from mine. It was a little slice-of-life with some sly insights, and I appreciated it.


StephLove said…
I hope the humidifier helps.

I might have Hamnet and Judith on my GR to-read list. If not, I will put it on there.
Nicole said…
Oooh, I've read several on that list! I really like Karma Brown and Camille Pagan, those were good. I liked Aubrey Gordon's book and she has a great podcast as well. I like her style so much that I get excited when she is a guest on other people's podcasts too. She's an incredibly interesting and smart woman. I didn't love Broken, but I liked parts of it. I liked the Subtweet and Songs for the End of the World. I've been meaning to read that book about parenting a special needs child but you know how it goes, the to-read list is long!
Magpie said…
I enjoy your book round ups and I have added something to my list! Danke.
Suzanne said…

I had to take a brief break from reading your whole post and go order The Orphan Choir immediately, HOW do I not have it already?????

Also, I now very much want to read Recipe for the Perfect Wife and The Grammarians, but I already placed my order. Damn. If only I had any self control when it comes to books!

I too really enjoyed The Searcher (and Broken Harbor is, perhaps, my favorite of French's books -- it haunts me), and Dream Girl.

This made me snort laugh: "I try really hard not to judge anyone's opinion of a book as 'right' or 'wrong'. Sometimes that's really difficult when I really like a book and the reasons someone else offers for disliking it seem, for lack of a better term, dumb." Yes. Relatable.
Ernie said…
I am a bit behind, but I will be back to read the posts I have missed. I love it when you write something and then you say, never mind, or OK, not exactly - or whatever. Paraphrasing big time, but you make me laugh. I love that you can change your mind on the spot and you don't feel the need to delete.

Some of these books sound great. I read the SAY NOTHING book. Yikes, that was such a good book, and so incredibly sad and unsettling. I thought it was really well done. My folks sponsored a kid from Northern Ireland each summer for 4 consecutive years, so I knew of the 'troubles' but not to this extent.

I hope a humidifier helps you.

I am hosting 2 varsity teams for a pasta dinner tonight and I need to start making pasta, apparently. I had a stomach bug and am not feeling very motivated, which is better than feeling like puking. Glad to be on the other side of the awful part of that bug, but sitting in my quiet kitchen on my day off reading blog posts is more my speed right now. I will come back soon.
Rajani Rehana said…
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Rajani Rehana said…
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