In-between times: Selected readings

What is time? Matthew McConaughey says it’s a flat circle. I say it’s a slippery devil I can’t get hold of. Which means I haven’t done monthly books on a, well, monthly basis lately. So here is a curated collection of what I’ve read in the in-between times.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us – Hanif Abdurraqib


This is the first book I’ve read by Hanif Abdurraqib, but I’ve loved his essays on music and culture for a long time. Abdurraqib is everything – eager to engage in new and old content, wary of the world but full of love for some of its inhabitants, a quivering soul with some great stories about the punk scene in Ohio in the early 2000s. In this essay collection, he writes about everything from Prince’s unparalleled Super Bowl performance in 2007 to Carly Rae Jepsen. Nothing I can say will do his writing justice; it’s poetic and personal and wrapped up in empathy. I can’t wait to read his latest, the just-released “Go Ahead in the Rain,” about A Tribe Called Quest.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh


It was just a month ago, but feels like eons since I read this book. Like I was living a different life – I think that’s the effect of Moshfegh’s writing; she seizes your mind and pulls it into a different plane while you’re reading. (I know, isn’t that what all reading does? Reading Rainbow travels? Not like this. Not like Moshfegh does it.) Whatever world she’s created is jarringly different but has all the same scenery as modern life that you feel like a zombie in an alternate world.

An unnamed young woman in 2000 New York decides to narcotically enhance her life by sleeping as much as possible. She finds the worst psychiatrist imaginable and gets endless prescriptions to aid in this endeavor. During her fleeting waking moments, she is addicted to watching Whoopi Goldberg movies on VHS and has to find ways to keep her drug cocktail calibrated for maximum unconsciousness.

I’ve heard this book described by multiple sources as “utterly depressing.” And maybe my mind chemistry is addled, but that wasn’t my first impression. Sad, yes, but Moshfegh is too good for this to just be a sinking stone. This was…funny. Darkly so, but it took the concept of alienation and pushed it into another universe. The protagonist doesn’t only want to escape from the world, but her own inner one, too. Moshfegh steers us through the narcoleptic fugue states and arrives at something almost hopeful.

Presidio – Randy Kennedy


I couldn’t have asked for much more in a thriller – oddball characters on the fringes, a beautifully rendered setting, and a unique plot. I read plenty of trash, but I can’t add this one to the garbage barge. The writing is insanely good, taking types like the loner criminal and making them much more interesting. In 1970s Texas, Troy Falconer is a car thief who goes home to help his brother Harlan look for his wife, who vanished with his money (catfishing has been a thing for a long time). They steal a car to start this quest, and oops, there’s a Mennonite girl in the back. Martha Zacharias doesn’t want to go home. Her backstory is a shock to the system. As the unlikely companions careen toward the border with police in pursuit, we read snippet’s of Troy’s journal, a study in leaving society and not needing your own identity. And the SCENERY.

Early Work – Andrew Martin


This book was almost like a millennial video game. Unmotivated dude with outside funds languishes in a college town, half-heartedly teaching at a women’s prison and drifting through life, drinking like he has gills, while the med student girlfriend he doesn’t deserve works nights at the hospital. He meets a woman also drifting but attuned to her writing impulse. They mess around. Nothing really happens, but I suppose that’s the point. Back to start, Player 1 begin again. And I liked it.

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win – Jo Piazza


I don’t know. I seem to have gravitated toward candy of late. The titular character is a successful Silicon Valley woman who decides to run for Senate in her native Pennsylvania. While Piazza is great at capturing all the insanity of a political campaign, this was like a Glamour magazine profile ballooned to 300 pages. Entertaining but ultimately unsatisfying, as the author wasn’t willing to actually give this book an ending. Will there be a sequel? Was she afraid that people would think she wrote a Hillary Clinton redemption tale? God forbid.

Past Tense – Lee Child


Hello again, Jack Reacher. He is still my favorite. He’s my Hobbes (as in The Rock’s character from Fast and Furious, not Calvin’s friend. Big and stony, but a heart of gold). I just bought yet another from this series at the airport, because those brick paperbacks make me ridiculously happy and my flight was delayed. Jack would’ve had a better idea of how to deal with minor setbacks like that.

I always wonder how Child will come up with the next plot for this series – what could Jack possibly do that hasn’t already been done? Well, has Child got just the thing. In this outing, Jack is planning to hitchhike from Maine to California (he doesn’t own anything but the clothes on his back) when early on he sees a sign for the town his father was born in. There’s more going on than I care to impart here, but he embarks on a fascinating tour of its various records offices (maybe work on this part a bit?), beats some people up, and finally makes it out to a place purporting to be a motel but is really where rich people go to bow hunt…other people. Some Canadians need saving. Reacher’s dad may not have told the truth about his life. Child spools this out in a suspenseful way, as he usually does, and I couldn’t stop reading. But then, I’m a tad biased.

Casualty: Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret – Craig Brown


The setup is hook-y – who doesn’t want to hear about all the naughty things Princess Margaret said to the Beatles and every single other famous person who ever met her? Brown’s glimpses are just such episodes, lists, diaries, and imaginings about the Princess. I admire Brown’s commitment to his subject matter, as he seems to have read everything ever published or said in that arena, but I had to abandon ship. However creative, the entries kept having a snark level I didn’t know I could take hundreds more pages of. I would say sorry, Margaret, but I don’t think she’d have cared.

Book Time: November Titles

I broke a promise to myself this month – that I would read mainly works by women authors. All dudes this time around. And I didn’t mean for it to happen this way, but one of the books involves actual sausage. I shan’t bow to patriarchal pressure to apologize. (You’re not the kielbasa of me.) Brace yourself for some meatiness.

The Winter Soldier – Daniel Mason


This is such a beautiful, devastating book. Lucius is a young Polish medical student in 1914 Vienna, and thinks signing up for military service will get him the actual experience he craves. He ends up stationed at a field hospital (a former church) deep on the Polish eastern front, with a mysterious nun named Margarete as his guide in surgical and all other matters. With Margarete heavily in the lead, the duo go on to treat the gruesome, innumerable wounds of the war raging all around them. When a soldier wanders into the town with intensive internal trauma, Lucius gets an even greater shock than the physical brutality he’s witnessed so far.

Lucius has long been fascinated by neurological cases, and believes he can probe the mind as much as he’s learned about physical ailments. “There was a beautiful clarity in the patterns, the possibility of locating a tumor simply by whether it destroyed language or vision. The opportunity to reduce the complexity of other people to architecture of their cells.” Lucius, in the brutality of war and the incapacity of medicine, learns that unseen pain from combat trauma far eclipses his enthusiasm to find such equations. I don’t think he ever truly recovers from that realization.

Mason is a masterful writer, and also happens to be a physician, so he imbues everything with incredible medical detail along with emotion. Lucius is such a real, complicated man full of feelings and angst. (He is also full of sausage, as at one point he keeps some links in his pocket for days of rounds.) Mason’s deep research brings us a brilliantly realized World War I-era Vienna, and an intriguing reckoning of the early work with patients who would later be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Margarete is as full a character as Lucius, who falls in love with her but can’t quite spin out her whole story. That Mason can pull this off is how stunning a writer he is. He doesn’t fall into the “women are such a mystery, oh well” trap; he sketches out just enough to make her utterly unforgettable and a resilient survivor.

Come for the sausage, stay for the Margarete.

Continue reading “Book Time: November Titles”

Book Time: October Titles

There There – Tommy Orange


When Tommy Orange writes, speaks, or generally puts anything out into the universe, you should pay attention. Just the first dozen pages of “There There” are enough to jolt you to rapt observance – in that space alone, he lasers through centuries of wrongs against Native American people, across continents. Orange zeroes in on the contemporary urban space: “…nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”

At the very least, here is a voice big enough for the Grand Canyon, booming and bitingly philosophical, yet precise enough to convey the particularities of people with both named and unnamed trauma.

In his debut novel, Orange follows a range of Native Americans through Oakland, California, as they converge on a powwow at the city’s Coliseum. He has created people who want to forget, discover, hide, be seen, who grieve but find ways to make it through the world, who have been ascribed a restricted identity by a country that still doesn’t let them create one for themselves.

Orange gives life to a wide array of characters struggling with these identities. At one point, one of them flies a drone into the open top of the Coliseum to take in the scene – Orange is a drone himself, a flyer who has only just begun to show what he can do.

Continue reading “Book Time: October Titles”

Book Time: September Titles

Lightning round!

The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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


Read my review here.

We Begin Our Ascent – Joe Mungo Reed


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


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


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.