Reading Roundup: September/October

Read

A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I actually finished rereading the day after I posted my midway review in the last roundup. I found that I didn’t want to put it down.

All Grown Up by Jamie Attenberg. A fast phone read–I read about 40% while minding a boring post at a work event. I had so many feelings, not all of them positive. I respect and wrote about Attenberg’s earlier novel, The Middlesteins, which dips into a number of different characters’ perspectives. All Grown Up features just one–Andrea, thirtysomething and single and working a boring if stable job and trying and continuously failing to figure out how to be happy. I got so tired of Andrea, but her problems are my problems (barring the occasional dip into drug addiction and the extent of her tolerance for worthless men). There’s no lesson in the emotional ending, but part of the point of this book is that there isn’t a lesson. In this world, people don’t change for the better, they just get sadder and older. Perhaps that’s what I didn’t like about it–it offends the optimism I cling to for dear life.

What is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi. It’s sort of cheating to include this book because it was several days into November when I finished it, but I enjoyed it so much that I can’t wait to talk about it. I felt let down by Oyeyemi’s last book, Boy, Snow, Bird, even before the rather dismaying plot twist. I think this author is at her best in structures like Mr. Fox, in which she can cartwheel between beautiful, mysterious fairytale-like short stories that are surprising but familiar. What is Not Yours returns to that format and opens up a series of captivating little worlds, some mundane and contemporary and others seemingly from times long past in lands where supernatural forces easily slip into daily life. But the stories mostly connect, so that characters you meet in one chapter might reappear decades later in another story, and you learn that the otherworldly student from the creepy puppet school grows up, falls in love, exists in the same plane as the contemporary teenager heartbroken over a celebrity crush. Each story is about longing, in some ways–wanting something that you cannot or should not have–and I found it reassuring that in the universe of these stories, one can recover from loss and yearning and magic and simply go on.

Reading

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I did it, I’m taking the class. Some of my favorite co-workers are in it. Now that I’m not reading it hungover on a stunning beach in Mexico, I’m able to appreciate the humor in it. It’s a challenge to read on my commute; Melville packs about three sentences into every one, with clauses and asides that make nautical jokes or fill in the picture of seafaring life two centuries ago, and if the bus jolts I lose my place and have trouble finding my way back. But I’m enjoying the ride immensely. Everyone is just so extra.
On the minus side, Moby-Dick is not a small book and reading it has considerably shortened my Read list.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. This is the only book I picked up at the book swap I hosted in August. I was more focused on given books away, but the book’s owner had written on a sticky note that the book about some medieval miniaturists trying to solve a murder, and I love me a good art history mystery. I was enjoying the story, too, but set it aside for by Moby-Dick and other distractions. Now the book’s previous owner has passed away and I wish I’d kept that sticky note. I am a little too sad to keep reading for the time being.

To Be Read

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Kindle, Amazon released pretty much all of Octavia Butler’s work for $1.99 apiece, and I downloaded everything I haven’t yet read. I am so excited.

I also picked up a copy of Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, which is the One Book One Philadelphia selection this year, and I am really looking forward to the experience of reading it at the same time that so many friends and neighbors are reading it. I loved that last year with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Book Blind Items

I started writing reviews for IndieReader.com. I can’t post my reviews anywhere else, but in way this is very liberating, because I can write here what I cannot say in my review, and just not mention which book it is.

The first book I received really troubled me, and I talked about it angrily to several friends before I tempered my response into a review format. During that time, I saw Colson Whitehead speak at the Wolf Humanities Center, and he said several things that helped me temper and modify my response. He quoted Toni Morrison in saying that the catastrophe of slavery makes it an inexhaustible subject. He also said that the very fine work of authors before him freed him from an obligation to social realism. In combination, these perspectives allows him to write a version of the Underground Railroad that involved a literal train: there was still more meaning to mine from that catastrophe, but no obligation to cleave only to the truth of what happened. Indeed, what factual recitation could really express the truth?

The first book I reviewed was set during the Civil Rights Era; written by a white author, the dedication said that she told this story so that her grandchildren would know the shadow history of the south (presuming, I guess, that they won’t read any of the high quality Civil Rights narratives by writers of color). The book, in addition to being poorly written, raped and maimed its black characters and peppered them with n-words, purportedly to show how bad things were Back Then. (One is reminded of the Game of Thrones defense: rape is historically accurate! that is definitely the only reason we are depicting it onscreen, and definitely not because we are trying to be edgy! also this has nothing to do with any sexual assault discourse today!) But why did we need a white author to write this story in this way? What do I, a white reader, gain by reading it? What on earth would a nonwhite reader get out of it?

The second book I received is just fic trash about some Yakuza assassins, but I’m not finished reading it and have not yet reviewed it.

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Reading Roundup: July/August

Some books are particularly good to read in the summertime. Typically I do most of my reading on subways and bus commutes, but summer offers new venues, like beaches or road trips. Because I was out of the house so much more for work and play, only a few books were good enough bring home to my couch–that meant I was reading en route but the book was too good to put down when I got home, despite other temptations like television and sleep.

Books worth reading on the couch

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile. As predicted earlier this summer, I continued to really love this book–seriously, just stunning writing. It made me really feel how little I know I know about agriculture and the rural South despite living in Southern cities for the first 24 years of my life. I’ve never been interested, but the author makes rural life fascinating, beautiful, and terrifying.
But the ending though. So abrupt. And poor Ralph Angel never really evolved in this story. Maybe that’s the point–some sad combination of his circumstances and his choices continually kept him from growing into the person he desperately wanted to be, and if it’s wearying to the reader to watch him fail at everything he tries, that is likely the intent. Maybe I should just deal with my feelings about that. But it’s the only aspect of this gorgeous novel that is hard to love.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. A prequel to Practical Magic, which was published more than twenty years ago. Look, unpopular opinion or not (probably not), I think the film adaptation of Practical Magic is better than the book. But I still enjoyed the book, a romantic and quasi-Romantic fantasy about beautiful and powerful women, transformative and life-threatening love, and magical interpretations of natural phenomena. The Rules of Magic is much the same, plus a little nostalgia for midcentury New York. It was a cheesy, charming read that I started reading on the train to New Jersey, continued on the beach, and then kept reading when I got home all warm and drowsy from the sun.
“What are you reading?” asked my gentleman friend, dropping by for a nightcap.
“A sexy witch book,” I told him. That’s pretty much it.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I started this earlier in the summer–it’s not a difficult book, just a long one. The hardest part is getting through the early chapters, in which dozens and dozens of characters appear for the first time with three names apiece, and then the Battle of Austerlitz which itself appears confusing and chaotic as it is experienced by the characters, in addition to being the first time we meet some of them. After that, it’s an absorbing read–a miss-your-subway-stop read–as characters scheme and seduce in the drawing room and on the battlefield. Closing the book made me miss the characters I’d spent 900 pages with, so I’ve been watching the recent BBC adaptation (which is astonishingly tight, in part because it makes some subtext into text) and look forward to sitting down with the cast recording of Natasha, Pierre, and the Comet of 1812 and following along with the lyrics, as I did for Hamilton.

Books to read in bars

Yes Please! by Amy Poehler. Happenstance brought about several consecutive afternoons of killing some time in a bar, having a drink alone while waiting to meet up with friends. On these occasions I was happy to have this playful, occasionally silly book on my phone rather than the enormous tome of War and Peace on the counter. This may be faint praise; there are some rough spots where the author is not quite as clever about racism and intersectional feminism as you’d like to see your heroes be. But I did love the chapter about the creation and production of Parks and Recreation.

Books to read on the road

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter. Do I mean Krysten Ritter of Jessica Jones and Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23, two television series I love? Yes, I do! Is she a good writer? Well, this book is intended to be a gritty and suspenseful thriller, not a literary masterpiece. It was not as gritty as the cover promised, but it was interesting enough to merit a spontaneous read-aloud on two hour-long legs of a road trip. I highly recommend this as a form of entertainment! I skimmed along and just read the juicy bits, and I am sure I missed a few relevant plot points, but we had more than enough material to milk all the hard-boiled one-liners, bar scenes, and surprise twists for all they were worth–and complain aloud to each other about the loose ends. A+ reading experience, would repeat with a different thriller.

The Floating World, by C. Morgan Babst. Not completely intentionally, I ended up reading most of this either next to the water or in transit, where the grassy marshes and pastel seashore houses of New Jersey reminded me of the long lakeside stretch of I-10. The Floating World takes place in New Orleans in the three months after I moved away from that city: 2005, Hurricane Katrina, then Hurricane Rita.
As a caveat, I tend to shy away from media about New Orleans. I have my own cherished memories from living there fresh out of college, when everything in the world was new, and it’s hard to make space for other visions. Parts of Babst’s vision is strangely like mine, and it rankles. Some of the young characters dance on Frenchmen Street and go for burgers at Port of Call, like I did with my roommates. They think about the light and the river and the weight of history. The narrator goes in for first-year M.F.A. turns of phrase–one kiss is described as “his tongue fluttered on her palate” and I almost threw the book away. I think the author’s next novel is going to be stunning. I can’t tell if this one displeased me because of the writing or my jealousy over a city that hasn’t existed the way I knew for twelve years. But I still read it hungrily, and sadly as news coverage of Hurricane Harvey began to come in.

Books on my nightstand (in progress)

A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. My gentleman friend had a copy of this one our recent beach trip, while I had The Floating World. We each finished reading our respective apocalypses side-by-side in the comfort of our room on a day of nonstop rain. Then he lent me A Handmaid’s Tale for the ride home. I had read it twice but it’s been about a decade, and I’d forgotten how vivid and dense with detail it is. I watched the first six episodes of the Hulu series, and there are so many tiny details that I thought were imagined by the showrunners–it is a beautifully designed show–but which actually appear first in the text. It’s weird to say that I’m enjoying it, but I am. As Atwood says in the new introduction, it’s an anti-prediction: telling this story is supposed to keep it from happening.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I’m obsessed with the Twitter bot–out of context, lines from the book sound like prophecies from a gay sea oracle–but I didn’t get very far when I first started reading the book several years ago on a trip to Mexico. I’m hoping to audit a course on the novel that is offered by my workplace–if not, I can’t promise to power through when I have a stack of ARCs and previously owned books to choose from.

Reading Roundup: May/June

Recommended

The Windfall by Diksha Basu. A slow-burn family drama set in New Delhi. I really enjoyed it. A good reminder to read more contemporary fiction set in global cities outside of the U.S. and London–as one character reflects, all Americans see of India are scenes of extreme wealth or extreme poverty, and we don’t know how to conceptualize the middle-class Indian experience. In this book, class is a plot driver and character divider, but (as one would hope) the class differences highlight some other critical dividers such as gender, tradition, westernization.

Broken Harbor by Tana French. I’m not sorry. I can’t get enough of these Dublin Murder Squad books. There’s always at least one in a used bookstore. I like this one because the first-person narrator is an utterly unlikeable minor character in a previous book; while he tells his story, you don’t necessarily come to like him exactly, but you see what makes him tick.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. Ah, yes, in the tender season of spring, a girl’s mind turns to murrrderrr. I downloaded this book because there’s a new movie version coming out that, like its cinematic predecessor, is all camp and exquisite costuming and star turns. I am definitely going to go see it. As for the book, it took a little time to grow on me, but once the murder has been committed it’s all ruthless procedural–interviewing one train passenger at a time–and I loved it. I was even, naively, completely surprised by the ending.

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente. Here are some things you should know about me, as a reader. I don’t love short stories. (There are some notable exceptions, like Lesley Nneka Arimah’s new collection.) I usually do not like it when a single author introduces different characters with first-person narratives in different writing styles; again, there are exceptions, but unless an author is particularly skillful at code-switching, this affectation is jarring at best and offensive at worst. Finally, while I love me some superhero movies, I’m not a big comic book reader.
Thus, this is not really a book for me. Yet I still enjoyed it, and I’m glad it exists.
Basically, The Refrigerator Monologues tells the stories of several female characters–wives, mothers, girlfriends–who got caught in the crossfire of some other superhero-villain battle. Now they all hang out in the afterlife together, drinking tea and bitching. Some are superheroes themselves whose own powers got sidelined by those of their male companions; others are ordinary women whose lives and ambitions got snuffed by the deadlier drama of their superhero boyfriends. The superheroes are fictional, but some were recognizable to me as adaptations of known characters, like Harley Quinn and the Joker. Probably I would have enjoyed recognizing others if I was more familiar with the genre.

Ulysses by James Joyce. I mean…. I sort of read it. I may have skimmed the last few chapters. Who cares, there’s time to read it again next year. And I did enjoy writing about it, and reciting part of it at Bloomsday.

Not Recommended:

Quiet Until the Thaw by Alexandra Fuller. This book is a piece of work. It’s moving and elegantly written; at first I was reminded of The Things They Carried, but reimagined in Louise Erdrich’s Badlands landscape. Its main characters grow up and around an Indian reservation, and I think more of those stories need to be told and shared in literary fiction. But about a quarter of the way through I began to get a weird feeling, flipped to the back cover, and read that the author was a white British woman who had lived in Zimbabwe and Wyoming.
Okay, well, I guess it’s debatable whether that means she’s the wrong person to tell this tale. But it raised a red flag for sure, which was joined by a few others: the Kiplingesque way the narrator address the reader (“All My Relations,” translated from a Lakotan phrase); the fact that a main character is named Le-a, pronounced “Ledasha,” straight out of urban legend (and debunked by Snopes).
So I read this book, but I wish I hadn’t. I would have rather read a similar book by a different author, preferably one not blinkered by white privilege, or else an entirely different book by the same author.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier. This, like Quiet Until the Thaw, seems to be a case of Right Book, Wrong Author or vice versa. (I’m thinking of the Girl, that’s not your dress! posts at Tom & Lorenzo.) It’s a retelling of Othello set in fifth grade in 1970s suburban DC. And it’s pretty much the kind of story about race that white students tell when they are trying to get outside their comfort zones in fiction 101. American racism is complicated and insidious; the nation’s capital, with its history and its location right smack in the middle of what’s considered north and south, has its own particular complexities. White writers tend to make racism simple and obvious. And though this book is meant for a YA audience, I’ve read YA books with extremely smart and meaningful representations of racism–and I don’t think this book is it. To say nothing with how poorly this drama of war and murder is suited to the schoolyard.

New People by Danzy Senna. I loved Senna’s Caucasia and still think about it often years after I first read it. Caucasia is a coming of age novel as well as a novel of passing set in the twentieth century, sharp and critical but accessible–perfect classroom reading. New People is none of those things and I’m still not really sure what to make of it. At first it seems as though it will unfold until a critique of the early days of Brooklyn gentrification and fashionable race fetishism, but it really focuses on one woman’s complete downward spiral–but not in a Nella Larsen way? More in a Lydia Millet way. A month later I’m still worrying about it.

Currently on the nightstand:

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile. Y’all. This book. SO GOOD. I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of a story about contemporary cane farming in Louisiana but it is a story deftly and suspensefully told. I’ve nearly missed my subway stop several times while engrossed in a tractor auction or fishing expedition, and on the description level, the writing is just beautiful.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I mean. I loved Anna Karenina so much that I read two different translations, and everyone’s talking about Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, so I thought why not? So far I’m enjoying the book for all the same reasons I loved Anna–social and political drama played out in drawing rooms via manners and eyebrows; lush descriptions of everything from food and dresses to feelings and family connections; a gratifying amount of attention paid to the thoughts and wishes of female characters, who are all quite distinct. But it will take me awhile to finish this one.

Reading Roundup: March/April

In the Woods by Tana French. I was slow to get on the Tana French train, but I read Faithful Place last year and knew I’d be back for more eventually. In the Woods is the first of a series: a riveting, page-turning dive into the murder investigation for two unusual cases. I hate, hate that a key plot device never really gets resolution, but I enjoyed the ride too much to be mad about it.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Gearing up for a fall exhibition. I read this book several times in college, and was surprised about (a) how inattentive my college-aged readings had been and (b) that I didn’t enjoy my re-read more. I loved reading Dracula for the first time, but it’s far more campy and less existential; perhaps that’s why. But there was so much I missed on my first times through that it was well worth revisiting.

Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives. Have you ever disliked someone almost to the point of enjoyment? Maybe someone you know from work or school, someone who you ought to have a great deal in common with, except that they irritate you in thousands of small ways that you can’t stop thinking about or talking about? This book is that, for me.
On paper, we’re made for each other: it takes place in a large art museum not unlike one where I’ve worked, among overeducated and overmoneyed people not unlike some who I’ve met, driven by a sort of mystery that can only be solved by looking at books and art. Perfect, right? But this is not a good book. The narration is an irritating blend of purple prose and toneless slang. The characters are weirdly specific yet underdrawn, all quirks and little depth. The mystery fizzles out with an inconclusiveness that is not tantalizing. So, I kind of hate this book. But maybe I also love it? At any rate I couldn’t stop reading it. Make of that what you will. 

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. This novella was free on a Tor for a weekend, so I downloaded it and read it during the two hour duration of my latest tattoo. It turned out to be the perfect thing under those cicumstances. It’s a story about a school for wayward children who have visited other worlds, sort of like the Pevensies and Narnia, except everyone in this book hates them. It’s a fun gimmick–how many other worlds are there, how do children adjust when they return–but then on top of that there is a murder mystery, just gruesome enough to justify my white-knuckled grip of the phone during some of the more uncomfortable angles of my tattoo.
I mean, is it a good book? Do I love it? I can’t really say so; it’s not every author that can make the short novel form really work for a fantasy world. (The only Tor author I’ve read that does it really masterfully is Nnedi Okorafor.) All the same, I wholeheartedly recommend it to friends who enjoy the school-of-magic trope and want a short pleasant confection of a read.

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay. On the other hand, this is undoubtedly a Book I Love. I can’t help it! It’s like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell except in 19th century New York, and if the author had chosen to focus on the magic of women rather than men. There are delicious descriptions of herbs and teas and spells; a gratifying amount of attention to Victorian couture; a pleasing variety of textures in the inclusion of letters, book excerpts, and news columns; and a sort of encyclopedia of 19th century New York fads: Egyptomania, talking to ghosts, suffrage, and more. I was amused at the shout-out to several key figures of the era, including Madame Restell (whose portrait is included in a crime news broadsheet currently on display in the museum where I work) and Anthony Comstock (whose namesake law provided grounds to ban Ulysses among other major books).

Reading Roundup: January/February

Friends, one of the absolute best things about not being in school is that I can read what I want when I want. Here are a few books I read in the last couple of months. Not all of them will make it to the Books I Loved roundup at the end of the year, but I still want to talk about them with you.

Shrill by Lindy West
I haven’t been a Jezebel reader in a long while, but Lindy West’s writing is adored and widely shared in my social media circle and I’d read most of the articles that inspired or supported this essay collection. So it was more of a comfort-reading experience than a ground-breaking experience for me, but I still appreciate her bold, bawdy style.

Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
If you’ve ever wished to read a novel that is actually an opera in book form, this is for you. Huge, sweeping story full of surprise twists and mistaken identities; elaborate, sumptuously-described costuming; opera and circus arts; espionage; thwarted love. This book made me temporarily obsessed with the Napoleon line; I know very little about the louche Emperor Napoleon III, for example, but the excesses of a self-anointed leader are understandably fascinating right now.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibin
Tóibin is a favorite where I work, and this book was on sale on Amazon, so I thought I would acquaint myself with his writing. The appeal of this quiet, subdued story of an Irish-American immigrant in Brooklyn snuck up on me; at first it felt a little too quiet after the all the drama of Queen of the Night, but I found myself really sinking into the story and setting, thinking about Eilis and 1950s New York long after I put the book away.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru
I picked this book up from a pile of ARCs at the library where I work, attracted by its title. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, but I think that is because this is a book of a peculiar genre that might be someone else’s exact jam but isn’t so much mine. It’s sort of a slow-burn technohorror novel, featuring a great deal of white class anxiety and detailed descriptions of recording studio equipment before you realize that it is a ghost story. I read it with an odd mix of appreciation for and disengagement with the author’s craft until the last few chapters, when all the vague creeping horror of the novel coalesces into a vivid, visceral payoff.

What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
I also picked up this book from the ARC table, and against all odds I love it. It’s a collection of short stories, which is usually not at all my thing, but these stories have the feel of snapshots or fairytales that are precisely the right length. Some of the stories are magical or fantastic, exploring relationships (especially parent-child relationships) through supernatural elements in a way that reminds me of the short stories by Karen Russell which I also loved against all odds; the fantasy elements aren’t weird just to be weird, but seem to perfectly express the inherent weirdness of being human. Other stories play out more ordinary conflicts in everyday settings, but are infused with that sense of magic and otherness. I love them and can’t wait to read a novel by this author.

Home by Nnedi Okorafor
This is the sequel to Okorafor’s novella Binti, which I really enjoyed, but I wish I had taken the time to re-read it before beginning Home. It took me a little while to catch back up with the world–which is beautifully imagined and vivid enough to step into, but the action is a little confusing if you’ve forgotten (for example) that the lead character was physically altered at the end of the first novella.

In the reading queue

I am still reading James Joyce’s Ulysses in preparation for my workplace’s annual Bloomsday celebration. I admit that I do not love it, but I appreciate having a once-a-month seminar to discuss the book with a dozen other folks of various ages and educational backgrounds. Class discussion is lively and human and helps me warm up to the book.

My workplace had an incredible event in early February which featured local poets and blues music: I walked away with a stack of new books: The T-Bone Series by Quincy Scott Jones, She Was Once Herself by Trapeta Mayson, Orogeny by Irene Mathieu, and Monk Eats an Afro by Yolanda Wisher.

I’ve downloaded The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey, a 1920s mystery novel writer who I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of before now.

Books I read and loved in 2016

I know, it is certainly not 2016 anymore. And I know, my end-of-year roundup is usually Books By Women I Loved (in 2013, 2014, and 2015). You’ll see below that I still mostly read books by women. But I also set a goal two years in a row to make my reading list less white and less heterosexual, so this is an all-inclusive list of Books I Loved in 2016.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Charming, whimsical, melancholy. It’s one of the first books I read after I turned in my dissertation draft, and I blogged about its food scenes. I just recently watched the film adaptation with Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, and a young Henry Cavill–lovely.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm.  This novel was created in a lab for me. It’s a mystery–an art history mystery!–that centers on a Southern girl who moves up north to study art and then things get really complicated and she’s on the lam, hiding out in an antiques restoration shop. It’s suspenseful–I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop–but also makes some really smart observations about class differences and education.

The Marriage of Elinor by Margaret Oliphant. I read Miss Marjoribanks by the same author in 2015, but didn’t even mention it on my book roundup; it was pleasant but not love at first read. Now I think I underestimated Margaret Oliphant. A Scottish lady who was writing around the same time as my loves George Eliot and M. E. Braddon, Oliphant offers marriage plots that get turned on their heads. In The Marriage of Elinor, Elinor falls for a sexy but dishonorable man and marries him even though everyone tells her not to. She has some rough times with him, but neither party experiences untimely death or protracted horrors as you’d might expect from Victorian fiction. Nor are the trials of her marriage left unspoken, as with the ill-fated matches made by lesser characters in Jane Austen’s books. No, Elinor leaves her no-good husband and lives to tell the tale–to her cousin, who is in love with her but never marries her because she really doesn’t think of him that way. Elinor gave me new respect for Miss Marjoribanks, who spends her novel putting off marriage until the last possible page, since she likes her life just fine as the only daughter of a widower, mistress of the house, and thrower of the neighborhood’s best parties.

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck. I’m not sure how it came to pass that I’d never read this book before; it’s frequently mentioned in literary studies of food, since the novel is very much preoccupied with growing, eating, and starving. It was a brutal read but actually helped me get through a chunk of dissertation revisions. Whenever I was dragging my feet on revisions, I would read a few chapters; when I felt overwhelmed by page after page of famine, I embraced my revisions with open arms. It’s a well-written and engrossing book, I was into it and I’m glad I read it, but it’s bleak.

Faithful Place, by Tana French. I’ve put off reading Tana French because way too many people told me I should, and I get prim and fussy about books that are loved by many. But this book was a highly enjoyable page-turner, gritty detective fiction set in Dublin and embellished with some needed nuance for the “pretty dead girl” trope.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien was every bit as masterfully crafted and moving as I had been told it would be.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle,  which is a short and riveting revision of “The Horror of Red Hook” by H.P. Lovecraft. I never got too far reading Lovecraft, but I was deeply engrossed in LaValle’s version, which includes vivid description of Harlem in its Renaissance, some pretty convincing eldritch horrors, and an unmistakeable callout to police violence today. Bonus: I read the last half of the book in a coffee shop which happened to be playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as I approached the violent and horrifying climax. Awful things kept happening on the page and the music kept getting faster and faster. I don’t have a habit of listening to music while reading, but the background made this book even more memorable.

Fledgling, by Octavia Butler. This book was so unsettling and so deeply absorbing. Everyone knows that Butler is an incredible writer and world-builder but it’s kind of easy to take that for granted until you spend the length of a novel conveniently forgetting that the sensible, empathetic, charismatic, and sensual narrator is, to all human perceptions, a black girl child. It’s kind of messed up, because black girl children are continually hypersexualized and perceived as dangerous by our culture. But if anyone was going to make this protagonist work, it would be Butler. And although I’m not much of a vampire reader, I devoured this weird book quickly.

Emma and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper. I wasn’t sure I loved this book, but I am still thinking about it months later, so I think I do. It’s maybe a little precious, a term I have been taught to hate by male professors who prefer words like muscular or lean to describe prose. But this book is plenty lean, and its smalltown characters and their epic quests have left an indelible mark on me.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. One of those books you think you’ve read but have only read about, right? I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and became wrapped up in this book. Epistolary novels are not usually my jam.

The Winged Histories, by Sofia Samatar. I adore this book and I want everyone to read it.

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. I picked this up at a used book sale before the whole tempest about the author’s identity stirred up. Many of my fellow Toast commenters sang high praise of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and it was easy for me to see why: the prose is masterfully crafted, packed with sensory detail but narrated at a fluid, natural pace that doesn’t get bogged down in description. I read it quickly and appreciated its craft, but I wasn’t sure that I loved it until toward the end. The main characters’ relationship is so fascinating and harrowing that it comes as a great relief when they start to be more kind than competitive, yet that shift takes place just as adulthood opens up a big can of hot mess on both. This novel, the first in a trilogy, ends on a cliffhanger that I found deliciously motivating rather than frustrating. I look forward to reading the next!

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Another book I picked up from a used book sale. The book grabbed me by its intro, which mixes pop culture and scifi/fantasy references with historical details from the Dominican Republic and a little bit of magic and curses. How does that even work? How is it possible that the first chapters describe the life and times of a teenaged boy whose defining tragedy is an inability to get laid? How can a book be so well-written and finely imagined that it managed to sell me on the story I am least interested in hearing?  But Junot Diaz made Oscar’s story gripping, not pathetic. And I’m glad I stuck with him, because Oscar’s story gave way to stories about his mother, his sister, his grandmother, their lives together and apart, in the States and in the Dominican Republic, living in a political climate that I can’t even imagine but may soon have to, surviving unbelievable, almost supernatural events. I could not put this book down and I felt that I understood, in the end, how it all came together.

Honorable mentions:

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo. I love Susan Bordo, and I will always have a weakness for Tudor history, and I very much enjoyed the first section of the book which traces some popular myths and interpretations of Anne back to their very dubious sources. The first book alone would qualify as a Book I Loved! But I was less in love with Bordo’s interpretations of popular TV and movie Annes, which tiptoed a little into “The thing about youth culture is I don’t understand it” territory.

At the same time I downloaded The Ballad of Black Tom, I also downloaded Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Two imaginative, accessible fantasy fictions that only didn’t become Books I Loved because they were so short and fast. Honestly, though, if you’re a sci-fi/fantasy reader and looking to expand your horizons, you cannot go wrong by reading everything Nnedi Okorafor ever wrote.

The Role, by Richard Pearson.  I have a confession. I am a little mulish, sometimes, about reading my friends’ writing. I am not sure why; perhaps I’m defensive about about my book selection after years of required reading, or perhaps I am accustomed to books being books–I still feel surprised when books reveal their living human authors. But after being a bad friend for a year, I finally read my best friend’s first novel and adored it. It sounds just like him: funny and self-deprecating yet passionate and thoughtful. It takes you backstage during a new production and lord have mercy, if you’ve ever done an “experimental” play in college or beyond, you will find yourself in this story.

I can’t believe I managed to read so many wonderful books in the final year of my dissertation. I think that this year I’ll start posting monthly about books I’ve read. As pleasant as it is to effuse about books I love, I’m missing the chance to talk about books I only felt “meh” about, or books that I might have loved but felt betrayed by.