The Half Year Book Report (#7)

Help! I keep acquiring books. I’ve been reading a ton (as you will see in this post), but my collection is growing. I was supposed to end up with no books by the end of my travels, but I can’t help myself. I love books. Also, how could I resist supporting indie bookstores in all the little towns I’ve been to over the last nine months? Between those and little free libraries and books in the houses I’ve stayed in, here what has happened to my collection:

Maine: Acquired 3, Left 5
West Virginia: Acquired 7, Left 4
Mississippi: Acquired 5, Left 4
Arkansas: Acquired 5, Left 5
Arizona: Acquired 4, Left 3
Oregon: Acquired 5, Left 4

So I have more books than I left home with, instead of two dozen fewer. And it’s not just an addiction to physical books. For some reason I purchased a new Kindle and way too many ebooks. I haven’t read on Kindle in a long time, but an urge to do so hit me at some point in February. I had to have a Paperwhite. It became an obsession and as soon as they were on sale, I bought one. This is truly a sickness.

Title: The Coddling of the American Mind
Author: Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
Date Finished: 1/3
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: This is one of those books I know I agree with the message of before I start, so I’m almost guaranteed to like it. And probably the people who need to read it most will decide they don’t like it before giving it a chance. In this book, the authors – lifelong, loyal democrats – make a compelling case for an end to the hyper sensitive world we find ourselves in right now. Words are not violence. You are not “in danger” just because someone disagrees with you. We need to prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. I found it hilarious how the authors wrote in style necessary to communicate with the very people they are criticizing. They spelled out clearly and unambiguously at the beginning and end of every chapter what they were and, more importantly in cancel culture, what they were not saying, so their words wouldn’t be taken out of context. Which they will be anyway.

Title: A Gentleman in Moscow
Author: Amor Towles
Date Finished: 1/12
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: Love, love, love! I’ve had this novel recommended to me a few times and finally bought a copy, but I had no idea what it was about. I didn’t even read the blurb on the back. A few dozen pages in and I realized it was not remotely a plot I could have imagined but what genius. I loved it. I read the first two-thirds in just a few days, then forced myself to slow down only because I didn’t want it end. I felt so sad as some characters dropped out of the narrative or their lives went ways I didn’t expect. The ending took me a bit by surprise; it wasn’t what I would have expected from a decade-spanning epic.

Title: Dark Matter
Author: Blake Crouch
Date Finished: 1/16
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: Another surprise pleasure! I don’t care for sci-fi, and this book technically is, but it’s not really. Someone gave this book to me and told me I’d like it, but I didn’t believe him, so I let it sit on the shelf for 10 months. Turns out, he was right. I raced through this sci/suspense/love story mash up in three days. Or is a fiction/thriller/technological book? Either way. I’m very interested in the concept of the multiverse and how many other ways my life could have gone, and this book fed into my imaginings quite nicely.

Title: Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Date Finished: 1/23
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: Maybe I was just in a special reading mood at the beginning of this year, but here’s yet a third story I ignored for a long time, even though it came well recommended two years earlier, and then ended up absolutely loving. It’s about 100 pages shorter than a standard novel and I devoured this one (another scifi/love story/human drama mash up) in two days. It is written mostly in summary, which is a big no-no in the writing world, yet the prose is all-consuming. The story is an allegory about migration and refugees and love. Accepting the supernatural element (the doors) takes no convincing at all because the rest of the narrative is so heavily grounded in reality and I cared so much for the characters.

Title: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
Author: Caroline Criado Perez
Date Finished: 1/24
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: And another great book! This is a fascinating look at how including female participation and perspectives in all aspects of life from medical trials to politics changes the world in unexpected ways. The author doesn’t place a lot of blame or shame, except where really deserved, but gives so many eye opening examples of how not considering the female point of view leads to so many difficulties. She covers small issues, such as how the way bus passes and transfers are paid for penalizes women financially, to large ones, such as the exclusion of women from pharmaceutical trials because their changing hormone levels make studying the true effects of a drug difficult…which is exactly why women need to be included. Men don’t know what they don’t know, even when well meaning. This book is well-worth reading. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

Title: Rodham
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Date Finished: 1/28
Finished: No
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 5
Notes: This was the first time Sittenfeld has failed me. I stuck with the book longer than I would have with another author because I’ve enjoyed several of Sittenfeld’s novels in the past and wanted to believe I’d like this one eventually. It’s a fictionalized account of what would have happened to Hilary if she hadn’t married Bill. Well, kind of fictionalized. It became more of an essay the author wrote on her feelings of how Hilary was treated by media in reality. On and on and on. And it became fairly predictable. I stopped listening for a few days and then tried again, but gave up for good about 60 percent in. Also, the sex scenes…ewwww! Novel or not, and even though those scenes were of them as college students, I couldn’t stop picturing modern day Bill and Hilary. Gag.

Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Date Finished: 2/7
Finished: No
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Notes: Gaiman, like Ursula K Le Guin, is one of those authors that I want to like. Typically I don’t enjoy his genre, but he is such a master at his craft that I have to believe I can find one novel of his that I love just for the writing and storytelling talent. I got into this one more than I expected; the premise is great. Then it just got weird and seemed to become a hodge podge of ideas, like the author had all these cool ideas and wanted to do something with them so he threw them together in a way amateur novelists could never get away with and professional ones really shouldn’t either. I was only 20 percent in when my library loan expired. I borrowed it again, but didn’t get much further before I gave up for good.

Title: The Past is Never
Author: Tiffany Quay Tyson
Date Finished: 2/10
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: I once took a writing class with Tyson in Denver, so when I saw her book in the tiny bookstore in my Mississippi town, I had to buy it. I forgot she was from Mississippi. This story was the perfect southern gothic: just the right underlying amount of creepiness and sinister happenings but a solid human story overlaid. Also, the weaving of the past and the present until the point of intersection was really well done. There was one real gross-out scene, and I have to commend the author for going there. It has to be difficult to write something that can make the reader squirm like I did. I was simultaneously disappointed and satisfied by the climax of the story because it wasn’t what I wanted but it was exactly right for the story. I would definitely read another novel by Tyson.

Title: The Mothman Prophecies
Author: John Keel
Date Finished: 2/25
Finished: No
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 4
Notes: I picked this up because I was in West Virginia, so it felt like essential reading for the cultural experience, even though I wasn’t anywhere near Point Pleasant. I knew it would be hokey, but thought it might still be vaguely interesting. It wasn’t. It wasn’t even really about the Mothman, just alien sightings in general. The structure of the book was hard to follow and I couldn’t maintain any interest in it. After dragging it around the country with me and still not finished it several months later, I finally left it behind in my Arkansas rental house.

Title: Dispatches from Pluto
Author: Richard Grant
Date Finished: 2/28
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: This was another purchase from Pass Christian Books, and I’m so glad I found this. Like Prairie Fires and Sapiens, this would be on my list of required reading for all American high school students. Grant offers so much insight into a part of our country often ignored, a unique part of the American experience. He and his girlfriend – liberals living in NYC – moved to the Mississippi Delta and this book documents their lives there in an engaging and approachable way. They didn’t change their core principals, but by living somewhere that didn’t allow them to retreat into an echo chamber, they were forced to give a chance to people they never would have bothered to get to know otherwise. They came to understand why “other” people live how they do. They had to adapt to their environment and do things they never would have imagined themselves doing. They lost a lot of their prejudice and judgment, and had a great time. The observations on race relations in this book are also quite interesting, because, as you can imagine, race relations in the Mississippi Delta are very different from those in Chicago or California or any of the other places that dominate the media narrative.

[The Mississippi Delta DMV] was all so from Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean: the collapsing infrastructure, the intermittent electricity supply, the air of lassitude and disorganization, the ancient forms. It brought back memories of multiple trips to the visa office in Bujumbura, in the small African county of Burundi. I was also reminded of Britain in the 1970s, when nothing worked properly, the tea break was sacrosanct, and an obstructive time-wasting surliness prevailed at every interface between institutions and the public. But I ‘d never come across anything like it in America before.

Dispatches from Pluto, Richard Grant

Title: Interior Chinatown
Author: Charles Yu
Date Finished: 3/6
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: When I started to read this, “I thought, oh no. I can’t. This is going to be terrible.” Mostly thought this because it was written like a script, and reading a tv or movie show script for pleasure seems incredibly annoying. The font is even a blocky, script-like font, not what you would normally see in a book. But I stuck with it (because it was for book club) and I’m glad I did because it was brilliant. It’s the story of a Chinese-American who wants to be an actor and the highest goal he can hope for is Kung-Fu Man, while at the beginning he is Generic Asian Man. The book documents his journey and all the stereotypes Asian actors face and how they are treated in general. But it’s written as though his entire life is a movie, hence the title, which is a setting description in a script, and the titles of Old Asian Man, etc. Eventually, as you read, you lose track of which scenes are the narrators reality and which are the shows he’s acting in. This is, of course, intentional on the part of the author. It’s also written in second person, which is so hard to pull off, but Yu does it. This book is an original and masterful creation.

Go down to your local karaoke bar on a busy night. Wait until the third hour when the drunk frat boys and gastropub waitresses with headshots are all done with Backstreet Boys and Alicia Keys and locate the slightly older Asian businessman standing patiently in line for his turn, his face warmly rouged on Crown or Japanese lager, and when he steps up and starts slaying “Country Roads,” try not to laugh or wink knowingly or clap a little too hard, because by the time he gets to “West Virginia, mountain mama,” you’re going to be singing along, and by the time he’s done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan straight who’s been who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

Title: The New Wilderness
Author: Diane Cook
Date Finished: 3/7
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Notes: Ever since I read the short story collection Man V Nature, I’ve been waiting for something else from Diane Cook. This book also has a post-apocalyptic bent, but as a novel, not another collection of short stories. I wasn’t so much into this one. I had to borrow it twice because I wasn’t engaged enough to get through it in the first three-week loan period, but I liked to enough to want to finish. Still, if you like climate/environmental fiction, this is a great choice. This is the story of a group of people allowed to live in the wilderness, which is heavily protected and guarded since most of it has been destroyed by man. These people are participating in a trial to see if humans can survive in nature in a strict leave-no-trace fashion. They have lots of rules to live by and are watched over carefully by rangers. They have no outside help and are subject to all kinds of brutalities of nature. It’s a very creative story and I appreciated the level of detail that Cook went into to describe this way of life.

Title: Sabrina & Corina
Author: Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Date Finished: 3/10
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: A solid and enjoyable short story collection. I read one of Fajardo-Anstine’s short stories in a workshop I was enrolled in and enjoyed it enough to want to read the whole collection. I appreciate that these are actually stories – with a clear story arc and ending. They are satisfying to read and present points of view from Latina characters that are new to me. The stories take place in Colorado, so that also drew me to them since I knew the places mentioned, but even without that, I think anyone would enjoy these. I’m looking forward to what she writes next.

Title: Waiting for Snow in Havana
Author: Carlos Eire
Date Finished: 3/13
Finished: No
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 4
Notes: I carried this book around the country with me for six months and could never make myself finish it, so I finally left it in Arkansas. I read about one-third. The writing style is really heavy handed in terms of lessons learned and self-reflection at the end of chapters. It’s a collection of experiences and memories – I guess it’s supposed to be a memoir – but I couldn’t find a consistent theme running through. Some chapters were interesting on their own, but I didn’t feel connected to any of the people. Some were really weird stories that were too personal to the author and I couldn’t relate to or care about.

Title: Writers & Lovers
Author: Lily King
Date Finished: 3/15
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Notes: So…I didn’t really like this book. Not because it isn’t good, but because it felt too much like my own life. I am (or have been) the protagonist. I’ve had her thoughts, I’ve been through her experiences, I know her feelings too well. I know the men in the book and the coworkers and the writing partners and instructors. I know her fears and desires. It was like listening to a book about my own life. Not fun. Fiction is supposed to be an escape, a look into a different world. It is a good story, just not for me, even though I finished it, which I probably wouldn’t have had I not been on a road trip.

Title: Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women
Author: Kate Manne
Date Finished: 3/27
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: All right, I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole of man-hating. I’m going to stop reading these kinds of books for a while. This author is the very angry femi-nazi type, making up words like “him-pathy” (feeling bad for men who already have everything they want, even when they should be feeling bad for you) and “her-asure” (erasing women’s experiences, saying they don’t matter). Even though she made some good points, I can’t be an audience for someone like this. I’m not sure why I’ve been in a man-hating mode lately. It’s like a delayed reaction; most women felt this during the Trump era. I did not, but I feel it now, and I’m going to stop feeding this little compulsion and attempt to return to normal.

Title: Apeirogon
Author: Colum McCann
Date Finished: 4/4
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: This book is difficult – you have to really appreciate literary fiction – but if you do, read this. It is a (somewhat) fictionalized account of two real men, Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian Muslim, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli Jew, whose daughters have been killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In real life, these men travel the world together, telling their stories and pleading for peace. And in real life, McCann has heard them speak and spent time with them. But much of the details of their lives in the book is fiction. Certain details – real of fiction – come up over and over and over in a way that gets into your brain, forcing you to feel like these daughters were yours. And it’s not just that. The book has 1,000 segments (an apeirogon is a polygon with a countably infinite number of sides) but only maybe half of those are about these two men. McCann pulls you out of the narrative into so many seemingly unrelated factoids and segments, starting with how the songbird ortolan bunting is eaten whole as a delicacy in France. But then he weaves you right back into the story and you understand why he took you on the detour. He does this over and over and over. This book is brilliant.

Title: Lost Girls of Paris
Author: Pam Jenoff
Date Finished: 4/18
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: I’m not really sure how to rate this because I never read historical fiction. It was in the Little Free Library at the pool where my Tucson townhouse was (picture below of the literary book I planned to read at the pool but couldn’t handle after my little Trotsky died). Certain elements of it were very predictable, but I suppose that’s true of all genre fiction, which is why people read it. I felt like I was learning about something cool while I was reading (a group of English women who became spies in occupied France during WW2) but then I read this author’s note: I have taken great liberties with the ways the women trained and deployed. I guess that’s easier than doing research. Or maybe lots of information isn’t available? But I feel a little annoyed by that. The Special Operations Executive and people like Vera Atkins were real, so I’m not sure why the author wouldn’t make the book more true to reality. Still, a good story.

Title: The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Author: Ruth Ware
Date Finished: 5/4
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: Another fast read. Fairly predictable with semi-cliché characters, as genre books tend to be, but if I’m rating it for what it is, and not trying to compare to a literary novel, it was a good read. A solid mystery with plenty of twists of turns.

Title: The Hopefuls
Author: Jennifer Close
Date Finished: 5/10
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: I identified with the theme of this book, about friendships as adults and relationships and the lack of real connection or concern for anyone but yourself, and that’s largely why I enjoyed it. Also, I’ve never lived in DC, but I have a close friend who was there for many years and said exactly what this book did about how your title is so important and everyone is just there to network and it’s so transient. As for the actual story, I felt like a lot happened in this book before the “inciting incident.” A lot of establishing backgrounds and building up to the actual story. So it kind of dragged, and it should have been shorter. Some of the progression of events was fairly predictable too, but the characters were interesting enough for me to read the whole thing.

Title: The Vanishing Half
Author: Brit Bennett
Date Finished: 5/14
Finished: Yes
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: I really enjoyed it this book a lot. I whipped through in 4 days, so I must have. It’s also a rare book that I’m interested in the film/miniseries version of because I’m curious about the casting. But I had the same problem with it that I always do with books that span decades – characters get left behind. The book only covers part of one person’s life and then that person gets dropped and you switch to their daughter and then to someone else and I always feel a little ripped off. I want to know what the first protagonist is up to. the book jacket claims this is the story of Stella and Desiree, but it’s really not.

Title: Hint Fiction
Author: Multiple
Date Finished: 5/22
Finished: Yes
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 5
Notes: I love very short fiction and want to be better at writing it myself. And how do we get better at writing? Practice, of course, but also reading. I’ve read plenty of 25, 50, and 100 word stories on the internet, but picked up this curated collection, hoping for some real insight. Yeah…didn’t quite work out that way. There were a handful of genius ones, but many had too much hinting; I didn’t get them. This one is very clever but not a story: Our job was to lubricate the time machine and keep it oiled, but man, we just now found out we’re being paid by the hour. (Breaking Labor News, Ron Carlson). This one isn’t a story either: The autistic boy wanted to pet her head. She made herself stay, as if he rubbed out the world-and she, the only thing left. (Therapy Dog, Randall Brown). And others that just make no sense whatsoever. You wear a shawl of moonlight, and my mouth where your breast used to be. “We waited too long,” you say. “Not quite.” (Reunion, Ann Harleman). Huh?

Title: Wow, No Thank You
Author: Samantha Irby
Date Finished: 5/22
Finished: Yes
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: Generally don’t like this style of writing – self-deprecating, over-the-top ridiculous, the words screamed off the page at you. But, as previously mentioned, I needed some very lighthearted reads. I ended up enjoying these essays more than I expected, except for the ones about her experiences in Hollywood. Those weren’t interesting and not even very funny. But the ones about her home life were relatable on many levels, even though I’m (obviously!) not a queer, black woman. Her awkwardness about many life situations can ring true for just about anyone.

Title: The Fourth Child
Author: Jessica Winter
Date Finished: 5/27
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: I enjoyed this book a lot, but probably more than I would have had it not been set in Buffalo and had it not been so close to the reality of my life at roughly the same age as the protagonist. I had a little writers envy at first because the author took events well known to me (abortion clinic protests and the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian) and built a book around them. I didn’t realize the Spring of Life protests in Buffalo (who so many people I know were involved in) were a big deal nationally. Also, that adoption features prominently in the book matters to me because I have two adopted siblings. I mostly liked the book but there’s one segment where the author is very, very obviously having one character explain something to another for the benefit of the reader. And it goes on and on and on. I’ve bitched about this before with other books, the author being too visible in her own book and using it as a vehicle for a message. This pisses me off SO much. Probably my biggest pet peeve in reading. So yeah, I marked this book down two points, not one, because of it.

Title: The Old Man and the Sea
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Date Finished: 6/2
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 5
Notes: Like everyone else I watched the Hemingway docuseries from Ken Burns on PBS and decided to give his works another look. I understand why Hemingway was revolutionary for his time, and he deserves respect for his contribution to the literary world, but his style isn’t unusual anymore. So I don’t think we need to keep viewing all his works as great, when they kind of aren’t. This novella is super short and it was okay. I’ve read the analyses of it and I get the symbolism and commentary of the time, but, meh. Doesn’t make want to recommend it to anyone else or pick up another one of his works.

Title: The Lying Life of Adults
Author: Elena Ferrante
Date Finished: 6/10
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Notes: I started this book in April and was very into it at first. The characters were unusual, and even though the plot was slow, I was invested in what was happening. I read about half the book right away. But then my dog died and I couldn’t read it. It’s literary and dense and requires a lot of concentration. I needed light, junky books for awhile. I tried to go back to this one a few times in May but I didn’t care about the story at all anymore. Some books I can go back to after six months and pick right back up, but this book needs to be read without pause. I did finish it – but, honestly, I only skimmed the last 100 pages just to see what happened. I stopped caring at all about the characters.

Title: The Awakening
Author: Kate Chopin
Date Finished: 6/15
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: Another book that was obviously revolutionary for its time (1899) but not so great now. The “sex” scenes in the book are so subtle, just barely hinted at, that they made me wonder, wait, so did they or didn’t they? In 1899, I’m sure they were wildly scandalous. I enjoyed this more than Old Man and the Sea, mostly I think because of the writing. Chopin’s prose, while dated, is smart. So many turns of phrase made me think how clever. I wasn’t a huge fan of the fatalistic ending of the story, but I suppose it was necessary for the time and subject matter.

Books I Started But Didn’t Get Far Enough Into to Rate Before I Quit: The Book of Lost Friends (Lisa Wingate); A Burning (Megha Majumdar), Unorthodox (Deborah Feldman), The Happiness Hypothesis (Jonathan Haidt), Let Me Tell You What I Mean (Joan Didion), City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert), Pym (Mat Johnson), Savage Harvest (Carl Hoffman)

Books I Read for Professional Development: You’re Not Listening (Kate Murphy), Writing is Designing (Michael J Metts and Andy Welfle)

YA Novels for Research: Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From (Jennifer De Leon), We Were Liars (Emily Lockhart), The Dog, Ray (Linda Coggin)

All this “YA research” I’ve been doing is not for nothing. I’ve started my final revision of my YA novel in earnest and will be querying agents by the end of the summer! All it took was me living somewhere so remote that no one could visit me and suffering middle-aged bullshit injury after injury that prevented me from running. Small prices to pay? Time will tell.

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