Book Time: April Titles

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland – Patrick Radden Keefe


One of my favorite books of the year so far. It’s about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, as seen through the lens of a family whose mother was taken by the IRA (AKA disappeared) in 1972, and select IRA members themselves. Radden Keefe unfolds disappearance as another weapon of war -deployed on a smaller scale in a tiny country but still sending giant aftershocks into the community and decades ahead.

A code of silence undergirds everything about both the IRA and living in Northern Ireland at this time. Everyone knew things, whether what they had witnessed or information they picked up, but had to be very careful about using it. So silence it was, for years on end. Radden Keefe also uses this thread to explore repression and lying, noting especially that Gerry Adams, once a key IRA operative and then a leading member of Sinn Féin, still flat out denies ever having been a militant.

Information – both in withholding and wielding – is the weapon that can’t be contained or defeated. Radden Keefe is a measured but giving storyteller, and the research and time that went into gathering all these details is staggering.

The Friend – Sigrid Nunez


A beautiful book about the nature of grief. Well, about a woman who inherits a Harlequin Great Dane from her friend, who died by suicide. The woman wonders how she’s supposed to keep living without his presence, all while the years go on and on, and she loves the dog more and more.

Stay Up with Hugo Best – Erin Somers


A somber look at comedy. June is a writer’s assistant at a late night show (it’s Hugo’s, you guessed it) wrapping up its final episode. After the final party, she wanders into an old haunt comedy club, not so much wondering what she’ll do next but more sliding into a fog. After her impromptu set, Hugo Best himself comes up to her and asks her to spend the long weekend at his house in Connecticut. Sort of an “Odd Couple” setup with a mystery edge. Off they go, and the weekend unfolds more or less moment by moment.

Somers populates the story with entertaining details and fully realized characters, and there are some excellent one-liners. It just made me sad – I don’t know what I expected; perhaps I was hoping for more head high and fuck ‘em all from June and less middle-aged-white-man-has-an-identity-crisis from Hugo. Maybe that was the point. I liked the humor and sadness mixing to an extent, but Hugo Best wasn’t a nut I wanted June to have to crack. In any case, I think this book will go in the pantheon of millennial literature, because I’m still experiencing existential tinyshocks after reading it.

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing – Thomas Morris


After gobbling up Conversations with Friends and Normal People, I needed more Sally Rooney in my life immediately. So I dredged the internet for her interviews, looking for mentions of what she reads. She mentioned Thomas Morris, and here we are.

The stories are all set in Caerphilly, Wales, and are an examination of ordinary lives. Everyone is grappling with averageness, but there are moments where the banality mixes with happiness. Overall – yes, also depressing, but great stories all the same.

The New Me – Halle Butler


This book also made me almost irrepressibly depressed. Something about my reading selections this month, I guess. I couldn’t stop reading once I started, though, so I just had to endure the feelings.

Millie is an office temp in Chicago, and Butler’s descriptions of cubicle denizens and workday mundanity are something to behold. Millie keeps spiraling down into unemployment and despair, with Butler keeping up the ever more manic voice in her head. I really can’t articulate a better reason why this was so compelling other than it looks you straight in the eye.

The Authentic Lie – Pandora Sykes


This is technically an essay, but the Pound Project bound it into a beautiful little book, so I’m counting it. Sykes tackles the maelstrom of self, culture, and social media, and what it means to be real. These topics encompass a lot of what I think about all the time – philosophies of pop culture, the nature of gossip in society, and how the social sausage gets made. I also love the podcast Sykes hosts with Dolly Alderton, the High Low, so I suppose I was primed to like this essay.

I love that Sykes and this outfit collaborated – I’ll read anything she writes, and I can’t wait for the Pound Project’s future campaigns. I wish I had known about them earlier so I could have a little library of their titles going.


Book Time: March Titles

Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest – Hanif Abdurraqib


Hanif Abdurraqib is one of the best writers at work today. He’s a poet and essayist but no box can contain everything that comes out of his brain – and I can’t get enough. With this latest book, Abdurraqib writes about and to A Tribe Called Quest, combining a deep love and appreciation for the group with a far-reaching history of why people make and share music, an elegiac sensibility for cultural legacies that have come before and cannot always be carried forward, epistolary sections to the group’s members, and and personal ode to the mark it left on him and his world.

It’s one of my favorite openings to a book I’ve read in a while: “In the beginning, from somewhere south of anywhere I come from, lips pressed the edge of a horn, and a horn was blown. In the beginning before the beginning, there were drums, and hymns, and a people carried here from another here, and a language stripped and a new one learned, with the songs to go with it.”

I got to see Abdurraqib speak and read recently, and I want to leave some of his sentiments here. The joy and love for his subject, while still holding it at arm’s length, was palpable and insanely fun to hear about firsthand.

“Sampling is speaking backwards.”
“I’m not speaking as an authority, but as a fan. I raise the personal stakes while keeping a distance.”
“Adam looked upon the apple and said ‘I have no choice but to stan.’”
“There are moments you can tell a rapper is fully in their bag.”
“I don’t care how much you know about music. If you have one song you love, I’m with you.”
“To love a musician is to already have mourned the world without them in it.”

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss


In the 1970s, teenage Silvie and her family are on a two-week trip of sorts reenacting the lives of Iron Age Britons in northern England. Her father is obsessed with this period of life, turning out to be an abusive bigot (not a spoiler). He would like to think that if he goes back far enough, there will be no foreign influence to be found, and he can wallow in the sameness. At his behest, the group falls into gender-segregated tasks, with the women cooking foraged food and the men “hunting.” We learn more about Silvie’s everyday life, with her father looming over with painful control. The patriarchy is strong in this one – the men eventually build a “ghost wall” after something ancient Britons apparently did. Silvie’s father is also drawn to sacrificial practices, and is locked in a past of his own design. Moss explores the thread of violence connecting women in all spans of time. Walls may not be new, but they seem to speak to the dangerous sensibilities of assault and subjugation in any period.

Continue reading “Book Time: March Titles”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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


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”