Book Time: September Titles

Lightning round!

The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon

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Phoebe lost her mother, Will lost his faith. When they meet at college, these losses congeal into extremes. Kwon writes devastatingly well about manifested pain.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

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Rooney is my pick for the best chronicler of modern life. Nothing and everything happen in the truest, barest portrait of relationship I’ve read.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou

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This is a story that shakes your neck off your spine: a woman in Silicon Valley has an idea for better blood testing, but takes it to a dangerous level of deception, raising millions of dollars in funding while lying about the technology’s progress (or lack thereof), deceiving her board (which consisted of people like General James Mattis and Henry Kissinger), and terrorizing her employees. While she did a bad bad thing, there is also something thrilling/chilling about what Elizabeth Holmes was doing in the male-saturated tech world. 

The Ensemble – Aja Gabel

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Gabel explores how family and closeness play themselves out in a classical quartet – in each of the members’ individual lives, and the life of the group itself. I had high hopes for this book, but it wasn’t as satisfying a bouquet as the cover depicts. Still, it was worth it for the musical references alone.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson

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Read everything Atkinson gives you. “Transcription” probes the mundanities of war that mix with the overall drama, buoyed by a dry sense of humor.

Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby

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In a long-term relationship with a man obsessed with former cult musician Tucker Crowe to the exclusion of almost everything else, Annie wonders if life has anything more to offer. I saw a movie poster for this before I read the book and couldn’t help but picture Ethan Hawke in the role of Tucker. I think it improved the experience.

Book Time: August Titles

Didn’t quite reach my quota this month, but did spend some quality time with these pages.

Night School – Lee Child

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Let me tell you something about Jack Reacher. I am in deep, unapologetic love with this man. I will follow him wherever he goes, from tiny towns in American nowhere to more far-flung destinations, nod along as he breaks down every move in his fights against bad men. (Hand-to-hand combat comes up a lot.) Jack can devine the motives and next moves of any criminal just by which door he uses to exit the building. Everything is black and white and gray is a color reserved for mood-setting weather. He always eats in diners because of the sturdy coffee mugs and favorable calorie-to-cost ratio, and the fact that he usually uses them to either receive or stage missions, or take out a few criminals.

Jack is a 6’5”, 250-pound itinerant ex-military cop, moving through the world with one spartan outfit, a travel-size toothbrush, and a mean right hook. He’s basically a Viking: “I think ninety-nine of us grow up to love the campfire, and one grows up to hate it. Ninety-nine of us grow up to fear the howling wolf, and one grows up to envy it. And I’m that guy.” Did I mention Jack is the main character in an eponymous series by Lee Child? Well, I’m addicted.

Continue reading “Book Time: August Titles”

Book Time: July Titles

In which I somehow read three memoirs and the last installment of a favorite trilogy.

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The Liars’ Club – Mary Karr

Born in East Texas in the mid-1950s, Mary Marlene Karr grew up surrounded by deadly forces and beings – hurricanes, blazing heat, the oil industry, poisonous snakes, spiders, giant rats, alligators, stinging jellyfish, undertow. Her childhood was an extended calamity. But other people were perhaps the most dangerous creatures.

Memories were deadly, too, as they both evaded and invited inspection into past tragedy. Karr wastes no time getting to the butcher knife- and sheriff-rousing-type episodes of her youth, and circles this element of recollection. Some points in her life are almost too painful to be fully known, yet call out for it: “When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head, then, like the smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it, as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.” A central weight in Karr’s writing is cultivating fading but extant memories and telling stories about them.

Continue reading “Book Time: July Titles”

Book Time: June Titles

Here are the books I read in June, with some thoughts on each. Mostly women authors, and a curious assortment of worlds. I’d gladly spend more time in each one, looking over facets of the fossils unearthed and the cave drawings brought to light.

The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner

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Kushner is among my favorite writers working today. She can take real issues and historical epochs and imagine the people in them like no one else I’ve read. She does meticulous research, but her knowledge doesn’t translate as a mere recitation of facts. Her work is dextrous and fascinating. Her most recent book, The Mars Room, is set in a women’s prison, but contains an eddy swirling with memories of growing up in San Francisco and being swept up and consumed by the criminal justice system.

In the early 2000s, Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at California’s Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. She killed her stalker in self-defense, and had a swift path to imprisonment in a courtroom unconcerned with her reality. Romy was raising her son, Jackson, in San Francisco, and working at the Mars Room. (Kushner describes it better than I can.) Her sense of place and how people occupy it captivated me – as Romy ekes out the days of her sentences, she conjures her life before. Her childhood in the city, the people she ran with, and  her adult life are a gallery of indelible images.

Kushner inhabits the unknowable in history. She reminds us of all the lost worlds out there, real at some point to some people but never recorded. She renders Romy’s life in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and prison with the detail not afforded to her in court as her story was brushed aside. Kushner breaks into experiences, and this is where she shines, giving Romy this awareness: “A lot of history is not known. A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out that I cannot, since I don’t have access to the internet. Google the Scammerz, and you’ll find nothing, no trace, but they existed.” Existence is a luxury stolen from Romy.

And this is what stays with me – Romy is in prison, utterly forgotten, cast aside with a biblical punishment, but her past is so alive. She keeps it with her. Though Romy has effectively been erased, when she closes her eyes, she still sees the outlines of herself. “All those lights stayed on, in the world that had been, and that still existed in me, the one I contained.”

Emergency Contact – Mary H.K. Choi

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Read my review here.

We Begin Our Ascent – Joe Mungo Reed

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I hope I start seeing Joe Mungo Reed’s name more often, both because I like saying “Mungo” and because now that I’ve seen what he can do, I need more.

Reed’s first novel covers journeyman cyclist Sol at the Tour de France. He’s singularly devoted to being a machine, fueling and training his body for peak performance, but he plays a supporting role on his team. He is also married and recently became a father. Reed ties all these elements into a meditation on quiet ambition and what success means.

I’m not sure what exactly drew me to this book, but I was glued to it. Though it takes place at a world-famous athletic event, Reed seemingly doesn’t have a lot to work with in the monotony of tour cycling. Teams race, recover, rinse, repeat. But Reed focuses on the process of getting to the top of a sport, and each tiny action that builds into mastery. He is an engineer of plot and detail. I was in thrall to the story he built and the people he created.

I liked how Reed described the peloton as a way of being: “When one is cycling surrounded by others, one does not think of slowing, or speeding up, or stopping pedaling. One thinks only of behaving as the group dictates: leaning into corners at the same angle, pumping one’s legs at a similar rate, marking the same parabolas around alpine turns. There is not, in one sense, a single choice to be made. In another sense, however, there are many choices: the hard and unending decisions made in the service of behaving uniformly, reliably, and predictably.”

As Sol gives every day in service of his team, he and his wife are also drawn into the seedier side of racing. How far will they go to prop up a lifetime of small sacrifices? Reed sails deep into the territory of extreme but ordinary routines, the life of an athlete.

(Of note: Reed created a playlist for his book here – just in case you want to relive the team leader belting out “Livin’ on a Prayer” to his charges over the radio during a stage.)

Priestdaddy – Patricia Lockwood

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Patricia Lockwood was born into unusual religious circumstances: her father decided to become a Catholic priest after marriage, getting special permission from the Vatican. The family moved around to different Midwest rectories, following Mr. Lockwood’s career. “Priestdaddy” concerns the time Patricia and her husband moved back in with her parents. There is much to unravel.

Despite its title, the book is also a love letter to the author’s mother, who raised five children in a space that never expected them, and conveniently does a lot of highly readable things. For example, Lockwood writes, “at some point during my childhood, [my mother] decided bellowing ‘OHHHH YEAHHHHH’ in a loud Kool-Aid Man voice was a catchphrase, and she has punctuated her speech with it ever since.” Mom Lockwood steals every scene she’s in.

Patricia Lockwood is a poet, but her prose is equally smashing. She is gut-splittingly funny about the many absurdities she grew up around, but deftly weaves in the struggles of Catholic womanhood and simply being a teenager. It knocked me down. Lockwood covers a lot of ground, but it never feels drawn-out or unnecessary. She is captivating with any material.

I’ll leave you with two of my favorite bits:

“‘I’ll tell you what the problem is,’ he says, taking on the comfortable tone of instruction. ‘When people started forgetting about gender roles, they started building ugly churches. Architecture requires an equal balance of the male and female in order to be beautiful.’ What? There’s no way that can be right. According to those standards, the perfect cathedral would be a gigantic Prince symbol people could pray inside.”

“When my father started saying the Latin Mass, he gave up the short-sleeved shirts and slacks and took to wearing a cassock, which is just a long black dress for a man that everyone refuses to call a dress. (‘It is a dress,’ I have reiterated many times, trying to open people’s eyes to the truth. ‘And the pope wears what a baby would wear to the prom.’)”

The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls

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The Glass Castle is a devastating portrait of poverty rendered by someone trying to see what else is out there. Jeannette Walls grew up in an itinerant family, one of four children. Her father was a long-standing alcoholic who would leave for unspecified amounts of time, and her mother lived in her own cocoon of paintings and novels. They moved every time her father lost a job, which was usually in a violently dramatic manner. Walls spools out her father’s thought process – that he was an exceptional inventor just one imminent discovery away from greatness – and much of the book is essentially from his point of view. If his daughter loves him, wouldn’t she understand?

As Walls gets older, she notices that not everyone conforms to her parents’ worldview. She struggles to reconcile her love for them with the desire to fit into the spaces outside their house. About her first foray into journalism, Walls writes, “I’d never known what was going on in the world, except for the skewed version of events we got from Mom and Dad – one in which every politician was a crook, every cop was a thug, and every criminal had been framed. I began to feel like I was getting the whole story for the first time, that I was being handed the missing pieces to the puzzle, and the world was making a little more sense.” Walls faces considerable obstacles in gaining a foothold in society, and it’s both painful and fascinating to see how she navigates crossing over from her parents’ realm to the world at large. While she cannot fully let go of her father’s ethos, she plants her feet firmly in independence. But she carries shards of that old existence with her, and they puncture her writing with an all-encompassing sympathy for those living outside the margins.

I read this in a slipstream from Tara Westover’s Educated – throughout, I couldn’t help compare her experience and reflection with Walls’s. While they were born into vastly different lives, they both grew up in fringe households with domineering fathers. These figures wove for them a needle-specific view of the world, one which they first accepted and lived by, and then gradually reckoned with. That reckoning is harrowing, but ultimately liberating. I would recommend reading both books in succession.

 

Book Time: “Emergency Contact” by Mary H.K. Choi

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Mary H.K. Choi is one of those writers you would gladly allow to take over your brain. You read any of her words and immediately want her to comment on anything and everything. She has trained her perfectly eye-linered gaze on such myriad subjects as formative experiences, Korean Thanksgiving, moms, and the joys of fruit-tinged sparkling water. She has written comic books (among them “Lady Deadpool”) and founded a magazine. But no matter how much of her I am blessed with, I always want more of her stealth devastating observations. (Might I bother you to rewrite the entire Internet, Mary?)

Choi’s recent book “Emergency Contact” proved to be another “Alien”-style takeover, a welcome invasion. Her world of budding relationships and texts pulses with humor, loving detail, and everyday pain. She brings us Penny, a college freshman who wants to be a writer, and Sam, an aspiring director who works at a coffee shop and can bake like a tattooed Nancy Birtwhistle. When Sam passes out on an Austin sidewalk, Penny rescues him, and the emergency contacting begins.

Continue reading “Book Time: “Emergency Contact” by Mary H.K. Choi”