Friday, September 29, 2017

Review: From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was sent this book by the publisher after responding to an email sent to a librarian email list; they had extras leftover from ALA, and I was #ALAleftbehind, so I asked for a few from their list.

I knew of Caitlin Doughty but never read her earlier book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, which talks about her experience running a crematory and funeral home. In this book, she visits several different places that deal with death differently, either from cultural differences or people thinking outside the mold.

From going through my father's death this past year, I certainly was well acquainted with the incredible costs of a burial, and my Dad was fortunate enough to have a gravesite and gravestone provided by the government because of his status as a veteran. But I witnessed price gouging and how funeral homes take advantage of grieving families who feel trapped. It isn't pretty.

I hadn't stopped to think of how it might be different other places, how the racket might be unique to our country or that other countries at the very least would have different rackets. Doughty explores some of the standard expectations of other places and I felt like I learned a lot, from the Japanese crematorium experience (where the family watches), to the corpses living with families on an island in Indonesia, to the idea that a burial plot is only as good as long as the body is decomposing in Spain (and not a permanent space as it is in the USA.) Doughty also tells the story of how the way a Mexican town honors their dead is healing to her friend who lost a baby.

Such a minor part, but I found myself fascinated by the pages about whales... how their poop feeds an ecosystem, how their decomposing bodies sustain life for half a year! These are the things I brought up during dinner conversation. I was surprised too, but the way she has written some of the details proves hard to forget.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Review: After the People Lights Have Gone Off

After the People Lights Have Gone Off After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While I heard about this author when I spoke briefly to Thomas Olde Heuvelt on his book tour (he was reading Mongrels), I came to this book in a somewhat strange way. Book Riot had a quiz called Which Indie Press Should You Be Obsessed With?" , so of course I took it, and ended up with a publisher I had never heard of - Curbside Splendor. I went on an interlibrary loan requesting frenzy and ended up with five books from Curbside Splendor or their imprint, Dark House Press, which this title is from. I selected this book purely from the amazing cover, and it has not disappointed.

These are the best kind of horror stories. The kind where you finish it and in the seconds after reading the last word, a realization of what has occurred slowly starts to cross your mind. This may be a byproduct of reading too fast, which I do, but sometimes my eyes finish before my brain does. But in that moment after, that feeling of horror, that chill - this is not a thing that I experience very often! There were a few stories that had me swearing at the end and needing some fresh air.

I don't even know how to pick favorites. Welcome to the Reptile House went somewhere I didn't expect. Brushdogs made me read it twice because I didn't quite understand, but then I did. The Spindly Man made my book club loving heart shiver (and I read it the morning I was headed to book club! Bad decision!) The Black Sleeve of Destiny could make thrift shopping scary. And so on.

I always read the front and back material in books, I just can't help myself, so I was fascinated to read the author's explanations of what inspired the stories. He is very firmly situated in the horror genre, with some of these stories serving as tributes practically to previous stories, in a way I would never have understood without him telling me (because I read so infrequently in this genre.) There is a level of intentionality that adds to the experience.

I also need to mention the absolutely beautiful book. The cover is gorgeous. Each story has a full black title page, and the page after has an illustration in black and white facing the first few words/ sentences of the story in a larger font. It was simply a pleasure to read, and it felt like the same level of attention the author has paid was reflected in the book design, such a rare thing.

This will be a perfect read for #spooktober, #scaretober, or however you want to call October in a clever way that makes you crave a scary read.

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Review: Mrs. Fletcher

Mrs. Fletcher Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read, and great in audio. Several characters are facing major transitions in their life - Eve Fletcher is a divorced empty nester, but still fairly attractive. After she drops her son off at college (with his stuff that SHE packed up), she also decides to go to college and signs up for a class about gender and society at the local community college. Her son Brendan is not prepared for adulthood, not even the adulthood light version of college, and the audiobook narrator for his sections is pretty perfect at pulling off a slightly whiny, slightly entitled, clueless college boy. There are a sprinkling of other narrators that pull in voices of some of the minor characters, and that adds nice variety. A word to all authors from this point forward though - I listened to this audiobook on my laptop because I had a review copy, so I listened without headphones. One of the characters had the name Alexa, and since we have an Amazon Echo Dot downstairs, Alexa kept talking back and hijinks ensued. No more characters named Alexa, okay?

There is a lot about sex in this book. Eve overhears her son calling his girlfriend names as they have one last sexual encounter before college and decides not to say anything (but this comes back in the story later in a great way), Eve discovers internet porn, Eve learns about transgender through her community college class, and explores her sexuality in other small ways with interactions with others. True to Perrotta's writing of American suburbia, it isn't particularly enticing, but fairly realistic. People talk up their desires more than they act on them, or when they do act on them, the results are disappointing. Pretty much the best part of most of what happens is that they can say it happened!

Some of the Brendan story line doesn't resolve the way I wanted it too, or maybe a direction I thought it was headed was dropped. The name calling comes back around as his own porn watching has negatively impacted his sexual interactions with women, and college women are not as forgiving as highschool girlfriends! But the boy he bullied in high school ends up befriending his mother in the class they both take, and while I felt carried toward a point of conflict there, it never appeared. Seems like a missed opportunity for another layer of potential weirdness.

My only issue with this book may not lie with the publisher or the author, but in how I heard people talking about it. They refer to Eve as "middle aged." Middle aged? At 46? Harrumph. That's just a few years older than me (although I can't imagine having a child, much less one in college!) and I don't think it quite qualifies as middle-aged. It was a huge turnoff for wanting to read the book but I decided to try it anyway, and was glad I did.

I listened to an audio version of this book provided by Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saved this book to listen to in October, and decided to read it a little ahead of October in hopes that I could talk about it on a podcast episode.

To my taste, I think I like The Haunting of Hill House better. I kept expecting a more supernatural element that never appeared, in fact I was scoured the internet looking for mentions that maybe the girls in the story - Constance and Merricat - are ghosts or cats or something like this. I kept suspecting this at various points, and was actually left a little disappointed that it sounds like Shirley Jackson was rather making a point about exclusion and isolation in her own tiny town.

There are some bizarre elements, cruelty from the townspeople, a mystery of who poisoned the blackberries, and it's a very fun read. The audio was well produced, narrated by Bernadette Dunne.

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Review: Second Person Singular

Second Person Singular Second Person Singular by Sayed Kashua
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a selection for my in-person book club, and I would say I was thinking three stars before I had the opportunity to discuss it. At the same time I appreciated the short chapters, the alternating narrators, the sense of a thriller in pace if not always content. Our book club reads tend to be quite serious so this was an attempt at something lighter (we discussed whether or not we succeeded, and I think we agreed we did not!)

We also had someone at our book club meeting who read it in the original Hebrew and is from Israel, and could add a lot to the discussion. It was interesting to hear her perspective and how much difference she places between Arabs and Jews even in such shared spaces in Israel, but that reflects the reality as described by the book.

I really disliked the unnamed narrator, the lawyer character. He was not particularly religious until he suspected his wife was cheating on him, and then it was a jump to honor killings and such. He just seemed so irrational in that arena while he could be so observational of the intricacies of Arab-Israeli society and its hierarchies, all the messages tiny things could send like which place the sushi came from, etc. So it didn't quite fit his character to just lose it and go crazy. At least, that's what I was thinking going into the discussion.

The social worker character, Amir, was interesting, and had some parallels in background with the lawyer. However rather than navigating the difficult roads of Arab-Israeli society, he slowly morphs into being perceived as Jewish, and focusing on his art.

I was more interested in the female characters of the novel and if it had been up to me, I would want to read maybe a second novel about the wife and the sister and the grandmother. I bet they have interesting stories to tell.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Reading Envy 096: Not Without Hope

Yanira returns to discuss books with Jenny. We each select three books we've read and liked recently but also manage to throw in other books we like. That's pretty typical! And we agree - talking about books is the best therapy.

Download or listen via this link: Reading Envy 096: Not Without Hope with Yanira Ramirez

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I am starting to schedule guests for 2018! If you are interested in appearing on the podcast: FAQ

Books featured:

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening by Manal al-Sharif
Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Leger
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
This Close to Happy by Daphne Merkin
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Other mentions:

@bookishfeminist and @mauveandrosysky in Litsy
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer
Wanda (film)
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Tony Morrison
John Steinbeck
Daphne Merkin on NPR
The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
South and West by Joan Didion
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
A List of Things that Didn't Kill Me by Jason Schmidt
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Related episodes:

Episode 063 - Desolation Road (book speed dating and books on grief) 
Episode 070 - Words Like Weapons with Yanira Ramirez

Stalk us online:

Yanira is @notafraidofwords on Litsy Jenny at Goodreads
Jenny on Twitter
Jenny is @readingenvy on Instagram and Litsy

Monday, September 18, 2017

Review: New People

New People New People by Danzy Senna
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was once a PhD student in ethnomusicology, so to find a protagonist with that shared experience was a huge surprise and definitely added a start to my reading of this novel. I loved Maria and her weird obsessions, but she did start making puzzling decisions near the end. I enjoyed the ongoing discussion of identity within biracial realities, and am intrigued/terrified of the music of Jonestown!

Thanks to the publisher for providing an eARC through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Smart was in a longterm relationship with the poet George Barker, even having four children with him. During that time he was married. So her life did not go the way she really wanted it to, and her longing for him permeates this book. Published in 1945, it is one of the earlier examples of "poetic prose," and the mention on the back cover that it is like Anais Nin and Djuna Barnes makes me want to read both of them; in my reading experience it is closest to Jeannette Winterson, one of the authors I love and adore.

That said, I don't think this would be for everyone. It is FLOWERY and DRAMATIC and would almost feel like teenaged angst except the metaphors and allusions are very literary and almost over my head at times. I have a hard time picturing armpits like chalices, and in moments like this, she does lose me a bit.

But I was in a reading slump, and it was so different from what I was slogging through, that I enjoyed immersing into her emotions. This is considered a novel (or novella, as it is only 98 pages) because while her emotions are probably the same, the person who is the narrator in the book only has the one child.

I understand that a later book, which actually occupies the second half of this printing, The Assumption of Rogues and Rascals, tells a much less emotional tale of raising four children alone. I might read it after rereading this one.

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Review: When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this the day it was named to the National Book Award for Poetry longlist for 2017. In one of the poems, Chen Chen mentions that a friend told him that all his friends are about being gay and Chinese (which has also made that poem about being gay and Chinese!) I loved the playful language, exploration of identity, and had fun reading some of these out loud.

My favorites:
Race to the Tree

Talented Human Beings
"Every day I am asked to care about white people
especially if they've been kidnapped overseas...."

In the City - this starts with declarations about engineering and dumplings and becomes a very deeply felt about his parents and their disappointments, wow, so good

Kafka's Axe & Michael's Vest
"...Think of peace & how the Buddhists say it is found through silence
Think of silence & how Audre Lorde says it will not protect you...."

In This Economy
"People person seeks paid internship in liking you as a friend...."

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Thoughts on the Man Booker Prize 2017

A few hours now before the short list is announced, I thought I would weigh in on the Man Booker Prize. I have at least tasted all of these. I bailed on one, am in process with four, and finished the rest, and I'd say that's the farthest I've come on a long list since I started following the Man Booker Prize. Perhaps *I* deserve an award. Just saying.

Official site: The Man Booker Prize

Photo courtesy of Man Booker Prize Website

The Long List, with my thoughts:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
My thoughts: This is one I have only read 50 pages of so far. I've never finished anything by Auster, and this one reads very well. I like the concept I think, although at 50 pages in I've only seen one version of the character. On the other hand I often get annoyed when I get deep into a literary author experimenting with something science fiction has done for decades, so my judgment is still out.
What I think the judges will think: Since Americans are so new to the prize, they haven't had many sweeping New York novels in the pool. This is definitely one. But I think they awarded the prize to an American last year. I think they will be more interested in the experiment in this one than in the sweep. But if they're up for experiment, Saunders may be more of a favorite.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
My thoughts: Ah, this is the one I bailed on. It never felt authentic to me. The language too elevated, the setting too contrived. I could tell it was not going to work for me!
What I think the judges will think: I think Barry is probably a favorite and they will see this as a unique story.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
My thoughts: I wouldn't have included this book in the long list. I'm interested in the themes but did not think they were well executed, and that the parts of the novel lack cohesion.
What I think the judges will think: This is a decent debut that deserved attention but is not short list material.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
My thoughts: Ultimately I was not satisfied with the door concept, feeling like it actually took the risk out of the refugee journey.
What I think the judges will think: Timely, brilliant, short list material.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
My thoughts: I had to push to finish it, and found the experiment far outweighed the content. Before I read it, I expected this to be a favorite.
What I think the judges will think: As one of four experimental titles, I think they are looking for something that feels fresh. I think they will like the symbolism and the craft, and place a finer point on it. I think this one OR the McGregor will make the short list but not both.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate)
My thoughts: A girl disappears and the novel becomes more about the tiny parts of the town over time. It reminded me of Olaf Stapledon (science fiction again) in one of his novels about millions of years of a solar system. I enjoyed the writing but found the pace excruciating.
What I think the judges will think: I think they will select either this or the McCormack for the short list. Both seem to fit together in strange ways, almost like two stories in the same town. I think they will think the non-crime focus of what is presented as a crime novel as "flipping the script" rather than bad copy.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
My thoughts: I'm only 50 pages in or so and haven't decided what I think. It reminds me of a combination of Room by Emma Donaghue and These Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, both novels I enjoyed, about a life on the fringes with a twinge of darkness.
What I think the judges will think: I think if a first-time novel ends up on the short list, this will be some judge's dark horse over the Fridlund.

The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
My thoughts: I read 50 pages and really enjoyed them, then set aside the book for books that would have due dates or expiration dates. That's right, I purchased this one outright, because I enjoyed Roy's previous Booker Prize winner so much.
What I think the judges will think: It has to go in the short list. Roy's first novel in 20 years, since the last time she won the prize? With up to date thematic elements that are so 21st century when the last one was so 20th century? I think they'd be embarrassed to exclude it. The prize can be a bit traditional in that sense.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing)
My thoughts: I have met George and love his short stories, and I really enjoyed the audio of this book once I got in the right groove. It is more experimental than it needed to be but the center was very good. I liked seeing him stretch his wings and then not write a traditional novel, but rather one that felt like essay.
What I think the judges will think: I think they will be most interested in the bardo element, although I think they will not have the audio experience to rely on, which surely for me led to a higher rating. It is possible this will make the short list.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury Circus)
My thoughts: This was very readable but I did not like the shoehorn of the novel into the myth. Shamsie seemed so focused on this idea that some important plot and character threads get dropped. If you are comparing novels by UK-Pakistani writers from this list, Hamid is more even, but not as enjoyable to read.
What I think the judges will think: The opposite of my qualms about the myth, I think they will be impressed by that element. It was enough to make the long list but possibly the flaws will keep it from the short list.

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
My thoughts: I loved this novel, definitely my favorite of the list. Ali Smith is a beautiful writer. And as much as people want to call this a post-Brexit novel, those elements are background. This is also an unusual love story/friendship with another thread about a female pop artist. I learned a lot and paused a lot and enjoyed the reading experience.
What I think the judges will think: We fucked up in 2014 and Ali should have won that year. Definitely a shortlist contender.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
My thoughts: I don't think this is Smith's strongest. I keep forgetting it is on this list.
What I think the judges will think: While Ali Smith and Arundhati Roy deserve repeat appearances on the short list, some of the more interesting experiments eclipse this novel.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)
My thoughts: I put off reading this for a long time because of the hype machine but I do think it is doing something interesting. I'm just halfway through so I'm just starting to see the point of some of these train stops and liking the possibilities. If I had to choose between magical doors, I might pick this over Hamid.
What I think the judges will think: This book has already won SO many prizes. Probably enough to put it in the short list (possibly bumping Saunders or Hamid) but maybe we can give the actual award to one of the others... being awarded the Man Booker should be the top, right? It would really be something for this one book to gain the National Book Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (?!?), the Pulitzer, and selected by Oprah! It almost makes it too popular to win. The Man Booker is literary, dammit.

My guess at the short list:

Autumn by Ali Smith
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Elmet by  Fiona Mozley

Reading Envy 095: Lose the Outside World with Lindy Pratch

Lindy is a Canadian reader who joins Jenny to talk about books we've read recently. You will learn about Lindy's interesting book clubs, authors from Alberta, and how books can form movies in your mind. Please forgive Jenny's voice as she suffered a coughing fit. The coughs were edited out but the voice struggled at the end!

Download or listen via this link: Reading Envy 095: Lose the Outside World with Lindy Pratch

Subscribe to the podcast via this link: Feedburner
Or subscribe via iTunes by clicking: Subscribe
Or listen through TuneIn
Or listen on Google Play
Listen via Stitcher

I am starting to schedule guests for 2018! If you are interested in appearing on the podcast: FAQ

Books featured:

The Heavy Bear by Tim Bowling
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Monoceros by Suzette Mayr
The Amputee's Guide to Sex by Jillian Weise
Nuala by Kimmy Beach
August by Romina Paula

Other mentions:

Nobody Cries at Bingo by Dawn Dumont
Ariel by Sylvia Plath
Delmore Schwartz
Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall by Suzette Mayr
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
Giant marionettes
Autumn by Ali Smith
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Everything is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Stalk us online:

Lindy Reads and Reviews (blog)
Lindy on Twitter
Lindy is @Lindy on Litsy
Jenny at Goodreads
Jenny on Twitter
Jenny is @readingenvy on Instagram and Litsy

Monday, September 11, 2017

Review: Solar Bones

Solar Bones Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to read this book when I read its description; I don't think I would have pushed through to the end if it hadn't been on the Man Booker Prize Long List.

To me, it suffers from what many experimental novels do - too much experiment with no clear purpose. I have read many stream of consciousness works. Most memorable to me (and the least known) is the first chapter of Narcopolis, something I probably could have read for the entire work but the author decided to step back from it and just write the novel after doing it for about 7 pages. How I wish Mike McCormack had made a similar decision!

When you don't have sentences that end and you don't use dialogue markings, you don't give your narrator a chance to take a breath. It may not seem like the narrator needs one, but actually, he or she does. See how I created breaths in the previous sentence by just adding commas? It's funny that my previous review is of a book about radio storytelling, because she has an entire section on signposts and how important they are to a listener. By creating a space to stop and think, to ponder, to absorb a difficult concept, you are engaging the listener. You are asking them to come with you on your journey. When you don't do that, then you are saying you don't give a shit and they're either going to follow you or you will leave them behind.

That is unfortunate, because I think there are some beautiful moments in the prose. But I never felt like I could stop and be with them for a moment or make a note of them because the narrator was still incessantly droning on! There is an overarching structure of sorts that is spoiled by other reviews so don't read them but by the time I reached the end I'd forgotten the beginning because anything important I thought I'd read was taken over by artistic protests and pages and pages of sickness and vomit.

So clearly this is not my style. I'm feeling put out at put myself through it. Depending on the mindset of this year's Man Booker judges, this one might make the shortlist because sometimes experiment is valued above other things. It does have some strange parallels to another title on the longlist - Reservoir 13, in fact I could see the events occurring at the same time, in a strange way.

tl; dr - Solar Bones - most anticipated, ultimately unfulfilling.

I was provided a copy by the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review, based on my request.

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Review: Out on the Wire: Uncovering the Secrets of Radio's New Masters of Story with Ira Glass

Out on the Wire: Uncovering the Secrets of Radio's New Masters of Story with Ira Glass Out on the Wire: Uncovering the Secrets of Radio's New Masters of Story with Ira Glass by Jessica Abel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since I didn't read Jessica Abel's previous book on radio, Radio: An Illustrated Guide, I had no idea this would be in graphic novel format. That took a while to get used to and at first I wasn't sure it needed the graphics or even worked in that format, but I quickly changed my mind. I soon realized that Jessica was identifying an element of radio storytelling and then also illustrating it in graphical form. But not like a diagram, kind of like a meta graphic, with the radio hosts she is interviewing performing the element well. It's hard to explain. Like she says in her epilogue, you need the book to understand the book.

I'm always looking for ways to be a better podcaster, and the answers must lie in the secrets of successful radio producers. Jessica worked extensively with people from This American Life (not just Ira but also Ira), RadioLab, Snap Judgment, The Moth, and more.

I learned about signposts and realized how much podcasters and radio people use them! I liked learning the controversy between giving the listener a conclusion vs. letting them form their own. I have a lot more to say about it and will probably talk about it on the podcast soon. Meta meta meta. It can't be helped.

And since a speech that Jad Abumrad gave a few years ago helped me keep going on my podcast, I was so pleased to encounter his German forest story again.

This is a book I need to own. It also makes me want to go back to teaching my storytelling class, armed with new ideas and strategies.

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Review: The Mountain

The Mountain The Mountain by Paul Yoon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have long wanted to try Paul Yoon based on glowing reviews from Jason R., and I'm so glad I finally got the chance! These stories aren't linked by time period or characters, but they have a lot in common. They all seem to be following a major war or conflict, where the characters are displaced, have experienced loss, or are regathering their lives. They seem to follow life where it goes with the options that are presented, not out of desperation but almost in a way that feels like they are people who have grown accustomed to not having options, of taking what is given, of surviving. They move in and out of situations and relationships, almost a floating feeling, absorbing consequences as they come. The writing, of course, is beautiful. I feel like reading them again.

Thanks to the publisher for providing access through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: What We Lose

What We Lose What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I jumped on this one for a buddy read in the Newest Literary Fiction group.

This was a quick read but a confusing one. I feel like the description led me to expect a pretty straight forward novel about a South African childhood and loss. Instead it reads like a braided essay in longform, a memoir of sorts, with attempts to pull in other information. But it also feels unfinished, with several more revisions needed to really make the transitions work, to bring the emotion in balance with the events, to flesh out a better level of detail of the actual events making up the "novel." It reads more like a summary much of the time, an overview, rather than a series of events that come together for an actual story.

I respond to emotion in writing, when it is presented in a way that brings me into the story. I expected this to have incredible resonance since I recently lost a parent to cancer. But I felt like an outsider the entire time. There is something about the way that the internal aspects of the story are presented that don't welcome you, rather they leave you wanting to turn away.

I think if you are looking for a narrative to explain a South African childhood, I can better recommend Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood.

This was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, September 4, 2017

Review: The Glass Eye: A Memoir

The Glass Eye: A Memoir The Glass Eye: A Memoir by Jeannie Vanasco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to read this because of the connection to grief and fathers. It took a long time to read, but it isn't particularly long - I think the way everything is in fragments, the way the events and thoughts cycle and repeat, and the way Jeannie stops and steps back and considers what she has written on a pretty frequent basis - all these elements make the book feel longer than it probably needs to be.

The element of mental illness is rough to read, because even now I get the impression that the memoirist is not as aware of her own mental illness as everyone around her is, including, now, the reader. She insists to every concerned family member and every therapist/psychiatrist that this is the grief causing this behavior, this isn't mental illness. But anyone who knows about mental illness (and something I learned from reading The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) knows that a major catastrophic event can trigger the brain into a cycle of mental illness that is then impossible to escape. It is clear that this is the case for Jeannie. She is obsessive and out of control, self-harming and manic. It is frightening to read about, and for me, I almost felt party to it, by continuing to read the book, the book she insisted on writing despite the advice to the contrary.

In that sense there is no overarching feeling of perspective, and I think that's why it feels so repetitive. The author reflects or hones in on specific details, checking her memory with her mother's memory, keeping all her old drafts and journals and recordings to verify, because her mental illness confuses those details. But it feels like she is somehow not seeing it from the perspective the rest of us see it. I can't decide if this is brilliance in writing and structure (and therefore deliberate craft) or if this is illness spilled onto a page. The discomfort it causes for me as a reader makes it hard to rate.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, September 3, 2017

Review: Eat Only When You're Hungry

Eat Only When You're Hungry Eat Only When You're Hungry by Lindsay Hunter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After positive reviews and a nod from Roxane Gay, and being one of the Book of the Month picks, my Newest Literary Fiction group declared this as a buddy read for September. It's the first book I grabbed for the month.

Most of the time, the unlikeable, older characters with disappointing lives are side characters, there for pity or amusement. Or they are the central character on a journey. I suppose Greg in this novel is on a journey too, to try to find his drug addict adult son GJ (Greg Junior), but his ex-wife refers to the quest as a "gesture" more than believing it will help.

We get to know Greg quite well by the end of the novel - his dietary habits, his willful denial of his health concerns, his bad decision making, his tendency not to believe something until he's seen it for himself, his lack of change over the course of two wives, the way his life has deteriorated further since retirement. It's like seeing the longterm downside to a lack of selfcare, clueless parenting, and a lack of self-awareness in relationships. But Hunter writes it all in a way where I felt incredibly sympathetic towards all of them.

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Review: Ember

Ember Ember by Brock Adams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I pay careful attention to the winners of the SC First Novel Prize, because it is a good way to know of new local authors, and it supports an independent press, Hub City. I really enjoyed an earlier winner of this prize, Minnow.

I would say this novel felt more like a first novel. I have read better books about apocalypse through an ice age or the sun dying - The Sunlight Pilgrims wasn't perfect but had more going on, for instance. Adams takes a chance here by making the book completely about the people attempting to survive. Because of this, the story of how they got here and how everything happened needs to make sense. But in those crucial moments, the reader isn't told enough.

The sun is dying, and the earth is getting colder. This much we know, and they refer to the sun as "ember." The American government has sent nuclear bombs to the sun to force some kind of heat reaction, and the public statement is that it was successful (I can almost hear it now, "We send the best rockets, our rockets beat the sun, it was yuge.") But the other part of the story, that there are these secret Minutemen (former "Bunker Boys," the preppers that emerged after previous signs of collapse) organizing to overthrow the government all along, and something that they did ruined electricity forever - well, I'm sorry but I'm going to need a better explanation than "something that they did." Apart from that issue, electricity wouldn't be a longterm solution if the sun were dying anyway.

The lack of preparation is not surprising. We see through ongoing climate based disasters how quickly a local area can devolve into chaos. But what about the technologies that don't require electricity? Where are the battery powered short-wave radios, at least for communication? How did the American-based Minutemen manage to disrupt the electric grid of the entire world? And what is the reason for a terrorist act later in the novel? A lot of facts like this, that seem central to the world building of the novel, are left unanswered, and it makes it a less satisfying read because of them. Another convenience is that characters are finding themselves surprised to be "good at" animal butchering or killing others, despite no training in these areas. It's a bit of a stretch. And if you're magically going to find a talent, why isn't anyone learning how to build fires?

I was also annoyed by the naivete of the main characters. Nobody knew not to leave their stuff unmonitored and nobody seemed to think twice about trusting strangers, and this lack of common sense led to most of the terrible things in the novel. Not everyone needs to be a trained soldier but they are adults who have taken care of themselves thus far, including two of the characters working in Africa!

That reminds me that the National Guard is portrayed pretty pitifully here too. I'm not pro-military but it was hard to believe that the minute the power grid goes down, they don't have training or abilities to that end. Especially if, as we're told, they've had three years of warning that this is coming. Perhaps a badly funded National Guard, with a leader who doesn't know about these things.

As a local, though, I have to say it is quite satisfying to read about the locations I know being used as the setting - Lake Hartwell and its one highway, Clemson, the upstate, Atlanta, Asheville, and the Biltmore Estate. I also kind of liked that there is a character who is a librarian and ends up taking charge, however I feel like I would probably go for a park ranger or nature guide over a librarian, personally (and I am a librarian!)

Thanks to the publisher for providing early access to this title through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

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