mini-reviews: you should have left and the strange bird

I’m definitely out of my reading slump! These two novellas came through my library holds on audio at the same time, and they’re short enough that I was able to listen to both in one day while drawing.

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann is a taut, unsettling psychological horror novella. Kehlmann handles classic haunted house, ghost story, and existential madness tropes well—a creeping dread is palpable here. Easily read in one sitting, too—the audiobook is just about two hours long. A couple and their 4-year-old daughter stay at an AirBnB in the mountains for vacation, but they’re also there so the husband (our narrator) can work on his screenplay. You spend the entire book in his head, as strange things start to happen (they easily get lost in the house, optical illusions and issues with depth perception abound, doors appear in places there wasn’t a door before, phrases mysteriously appear in his notes, etc., and then the nightmares start), all the while something is up with his marriage. People online have compared it to House of Leaves and The Shining, and I’d agree, although this is much, much shorter! [Listened to audiobook in February 2018.]

Jeff VanderMeer is an author I like to follow. I enjoyed his Area X trilogy (so excited for the movie adaptation of Annihilation!) and loved Borne last summer. I saw The Strange Bird on my library browse and borrowed it right away. This adds a chapter to Borne, from the perspective of another of the Company’s hybrid creatures, the Strange Bird. She is part bird, part human, part… other stuff(?). The biotech lab where she was created, the Company, has devolved into chaos and she, as well as other experiments, have escaped. The sky and land are full of creatures and technology and debris making this near-future world a very dangerous place to be, where humans are now struggling to survive. I do think you need to read Borne first, as that book does all the world-building and set up for The Strange Bird. I kind of wish I had read it on paper or ebook instead of listening to the audio, though—the narrator read in a tortured tone that could be a bit much for me at times. There isn’t quite the level of mystery and tension I felt while reading this one as I did with Borne, but it’s a great expansion of this imaginative setting. [Listened to audiobook in February 2018.]

american housewife

As you know, I’ve been in a funk the last month or so with my reading (and kind of everything…). I’ve been having the worst time focusing on books in any format, but I think maybe I’m starting to come out of it, partly thanks to American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis, a great recommendation from one of my friends back home. Edited from Goodreads:

Meet the women of American Housewife: they wear lipstick, pearls, and sunscreen, even when it’s cloudy. They casserole. They pinwheel. They pump the salad spinner like it’s a CPR dummy. And then they kill a party crasher, carefully stepping around the body to pull cookies out of the oven. These twelve irresistible stories take us from a haunted prewar Manhattan apartment building to the set of a rigged reality television show, from the unique initiation ritual of a book club to the getaway car of a pageant princess on the lam, from the gallery opening of a tinfoil artist to the fitting room of a legendary lingerie shop. Vicious, fresh, and nutty as a poisoned Goo Goo Cluster, American Housewife is an uproarious, pointed commentary on womanhood.

As a woman who happens to be married and also happens to just now not be working outside the home, I have to admit the beginnings of some of these stories hit me a little to close to home (“What I Do All Day,” for example—a list of the mundane things a former career woman rattles off after she relinquishes her office job to become a full-time author supported financially by her husband, only to lose her motivation and settle into a stereotypical housewife role… holy identity crisis (mine), Batman). Here in Singapore, I’ve been called a housewife and have gotten so offended! “NO, I’m a musician and artist.” I’ve learned since that there isn’t the stigma or historically negative association with being a non-working female spouse here like there is in the States (I still answer “no,” though). But just when I moved from slightly uncomfortable to cringing while listening to these stories, there’d be a wtf! moment that would turn the whole thing on its head and have me laughing. Well done! My favorite stories were:

  • “The Wainscoting War,” about a condo-hallway decorating conversation that, in the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, “escalated quickly”
  • “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” a commentary on our ridiculous obsession with reality TV and celebrities
  • “Hello! Welcome to Book Club!” which emphasizes the cliquey-ness of book clubs and takes it to the extreme
  • “My Novel is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax,” another “that escalated quickly” story, about a woman with a touch of writer’s block working on her first novel, which has been sponsored by Tampax
  • “Dead Doorman,” in which a bored housewife develops relationships with employees of her posh apartment building

There were a few list-like pieces that I found amusing too, like “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady” and “How to Be a Patron of the Arts.” Ellis’s characters are devilish and wicked while her observations on the expectations of modern womanhood are sharp and sardonic. Overall I enjoyed the dark quirkiness to this collection; it’s a funny, entertaining quick read that was perfect to get me out of this slump.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

mini-reviews: ending things, fever dream, white tears, vegetarian

I’m getting more into weird fiction. I love strange, mind-bending stories that have the power to shock me and make me think about them hours (days, weeks) after finishing. I still have quite a lot of wonder to me and an overactive imagination, so OMG twists in books usually manage to surprise me! In 2016 and 2017 I read these four unusual, dark books:

I put Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things on hold before I saw mixed reviews, so I didn’t have high expectations when it finally came through for me from the library. But wow, what a mind fuck! A young couple visit the man’s parents at their rural farmhouse for dinner one night, and the girlfriend is internally ruminating on their relationship and how she might end it soon. Things get progressively creepier and more odd during dinner. On the way home, they are stalled by a snowstorm and end up at a local high school to wait it out… no spoilers! Reid does an effective job creating a menacing atmosphere, and building tension that releases only at the very end. I thought it was a great, short psychological horror! [Read ebook in December 2016.]

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream was getting tons of raves this year, but unfortunately for me it didn’t quite live up to the hype… but I think maybe it was me—I had a hard time following exactly what was happening, especially towards the end, listening on audiobook. A woman wakes up in a hospital bed with a young boy beside her, and he urges her to recount how she ended up there, what happened to her daughter, and a day she spent with his mother. The boy pushes her to stay focused on what’s important as she searches her memory. “Fever Dream” is a perfect title; it’s surreal and unsettling with a palpable sense of dread and I really, really wish I had been able to get into it. I think maybe in 2018 I’ll try it on paper or ebook. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

Two young men meet in college and bond over their shared love of music and records in Hari Kunzru’s White Tears. One of them explores New York City recording sounds, and one day encounters a blues song being sung by a man playing chess in the park. He and his friend “authenticate” the song, making it sound vintage, give the “artist” a fake name, and list it on record collecting websites. A veteran collector meets up with them and insists the song and singer are real, and at this point the story takes a dark turn sending the boys on a disorienting and disturbing journey to discover the truth. It has some mixed reviews—people either love or hate the new direction in the second half—but I thought it was a good, thought-provoking book on a number of issues including race, privilege, and cultural appropriation and exploitation. Plus a little bit of supernatural mystery/thriller thrown in. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I read this interesting, short book over the course of one day. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is eerie, sad, provocative, and Kafkaesque. Yeong-hye and her husband live a normal, uneventful life. But one day she starts having dark, violent, gory thoughts and nightmares and decides to stop eating meat. After this decision, Yeong-hye’s sanity starts a descent into madness, where she wants to become one with plant life and transition into being a tree. The story is told from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband, sister, and brother-in-law. We never actually have an inside glimpse into Yeong-hye’s interior thoughts. The blurb says it’s an allegory for modern-day South Korea… but I admit I can’t speak to that accuracy as I’m not familiar with the country’s social and cultural state at the moment. However, my interpretation of Yeong-hye’s decision to take control of her body on her own terms and the negative, sometimes hostile reactions to her decision from men (and women) in her life smack of the infuriating social construct of beauty standards and the archaic “woman’s place” in patriarchal society. I guess there were issues with the translation from Korean, and I’m not quite sure how to feel about that because it was an impactful and interesting story for me in English anyway. [Read in September 2016.]

favorite reads of 2017

I had a hard year. It’s strange to be here on the other side of the world away from my loved ones, especially during such a volatile time in my country’s history. I felt helpless, lonely, and frustrated a lot in 2017. Books and music, as always, provided much comfort, as well as entertaining and educating me.

I read 97 books total in 2017. Ninety-seven! I can’t believe that; doesn’t seem real. Is it weird that even though I wildly exceeded my goal and read more than ever before in a single year, I’m a little mad I didn’t hit 100?? I’m a competitive person. A lot of them were in the form of audiobooks listened to while I was spending hours drawing. Reading on paper is still my favorite method, though, and I want to get back to reading more of my physical books in the new year.

• 97 books read total
• 9,599 pages read
• 407 hours (approx.) of audiobooks (that’s 17 days!)
• 27.8% paper books, 58.8% audiobooks, 11.3% ebooks, 2.1% paper/audio
• 61.9% non-fiction, 38.1% fiction
• 64.9% library borrows, 32% own books read, 2.1% audible free trial, 2% borrow
• 2007: average publishing year of books read
• 2017: publishing year of most books read (38 of 97)
• 8 books read per month average

I did track author gender (identifying as), POC or not, and whether they were from the United States or not. I ended up about half-and-half on gender and POC/white, but disproportionately more American writers than other nationalities. I’d like to read even more books by women, writers of color, and non-Americans in 2018… although I admit I usually just go with what looks good and interesting to me first and foremost before taking these other items into account. But I’m glad I started tracking this to be more aware of my reading choices and to diversify it further.

Here are my favorite books I read in 2017, separated by non-fiction and fiction, in alphabetical order by author’s last name (links go to my individual posts):

The New Jim Crow … Michelle Alexander (2010)
What Happened … Hillary Clinton (2017)
Hunger … Roxane Gay (2017)
Janesville: An American Story (audio) … Amy Goldstein (2017)
Killers of the Flower Moon (audio) … David Grann (2017)
When Breath Becomes Air … Paul Kalanithi (2016)
• The Glass Castle … Jeannette Walls (2005)
• They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us … Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (2017)

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (ebook) … Lesley Nneka Arimah
The Heart’s Invisible Furies (audio) … John Boyne
The Hearts of Men (audio) … Nickolas Butler
Bitch Planet, Vol. 2: President Bitch … DeConnick / De Landro
Difficult Women … Roxane Gay
Made for Love (audio) … Alissa Nutting
Borne … Jeff VanderMeer
Sing, Unburied, Sing … Jesmyn Ward
**all fiction here published in 2017

Honorable Mentions from 2017 (alpha by author’s last name):
The Teacher Wars … Dana Goldstein (2014)
The Road to Jonestown (audio) … Jeff Guinn (2017)
A Colony in a Nation … Chris Hayes (2017)
A Thousand Splendid Suns (audio) … Khaled Hosseini (2007)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (audio) … Ken Kesey (1962)
The New Odyssey (audio) … Patrick Kingsley (2017)
The Lathe of Heaven (audio) … Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)
The Radium Girls (audio) … Kate Moore (2017)
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer … Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)
Born a Crime (ebook) … Trevor Noah
ZeroZeroZero (audio) … Roberto Saviano (2013)

 

sing, unburied, sing

Jesmyn Ward has become one of my new favorite writers. Her work is eloquent and powerful, and she deserves all the awards and accolades she’s received lately for her latest book, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Edited from Goodreads:

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When Michael, the white father of Leonie’s children, is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

I initially had trouble getting into this book. I agree with some of the criticisms I’ve seen online—it’s a slow-moving burn, too much vomit (sorry, ever-so-mild spoiler), and I wasn’t entirely convinced of the ghosts until about halfway through. While an alternating first-person narrative doesn’t typically bother me, I found Jojo and Leonie’s voices a little too similar in tone. It too me far too long to get through; I started in October and didn’t read it at all in November (I was traveling… I barely read anything when visiting family!)

Ward’s esoteric, delicate writing as well as an excellent ending that made everything click for me ultimately made Sing, Unburied, Sing one of the best books I read this year. She builds tension describes situations and scenery so vividly you can easily become wrapped up in the story (at least, I did when I finally committed and settled into reading the rest of it this month). The characters were heartbreaking in their struggles and suffering, from Leonie’s addictions (to drugs and Michael) to Jojo’s protective instincts and loss of innocence, to Pop’s burdens as patriarch of this family and as an older Southern black man with his own personal demons. Ward powerfully illustrates many of America’s ills (specifically those that have historically and disproportionately effected black Americans)—poverty, parental neglect, disease, racism, incarceration, addiction, premature death, violence—with a multi-generational, mixed-race family in the deep South and a good dose of magical realism. It’s a Southern Gothic tragedy, one that is all too typical (ghosts notwithstanding) and familiar these days.

Read in December 2017.

mini-reviews: children, women, trouble, men without

I used to think I wasn’t much of a short story person, but in the last year I’ve read a good handful of collections of them, and even bought a few more! Short stories still aren’t my favorite type of literature, but I’m really starting to come around to them.

Alexander Weinstein imagines people getting by in a near-future world taken over by technological advances in his debut, Children of the New World, with often dangerous and frightening consequences, featuring pieces on robots, industry and commercialism, cloning, virtual reality, memory, and more. The stories are more speculative than straight-up science fiction. Weinstein takes our society and culture already addicted to technology and social media and pushes that obsession to numerous edges, from merely uncomfortable to utterly catastrophic. They make you think about your own use of and dependence on social media and technology, brainwashing and memory, and what it means to be human and present in the modern world. His writing is kind of quiet though, I didn’t feel like I was reading sensationalist warnings necessarily. My favorite stories include “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Rocket Night,” and “Ice Age.” [Read in December 2016.]

I will read the hell out of anything and everything Roxane Gay writes, and I was so excited when her short story collection Difficult Women was released early this year. Gay’s writing is raw, affecting, and poetic. She presents women in her work who are complex, emotional, damaged, and have persevered through tragedy. I loved all the stories and had a hard time setting them down, but check out this incredibly prescient passage from “Noble Things:” “…there was anger and then there were petitions and then terrible decisions were made—demands for secession, refusals from Washington, rising tensions, a war to bring secession about, the wall erected, everything going to hell on only one side of the wall, dulling whatever victory was to be had. It all happened so fast, it hardly seemed real, until the war began and it was too real and then the war ended and nothing had been saved, which was always the case when foolish men made foolish, prideful decisions.” Written in 2014. [Read in February 2017.]

I bought Get in Trouble by Kelly Link right when it was released, after Margaret Atwood mentioned Link as an author she was currently enjoying during a Q&A portion of her lecture I attended in 2015. As with many short story collections, this was full of hits-or-misses… I’d say, for me, six of the nine stories were good. A few were too long, but a few others could have been longer. “The Summer People,” “Secret Identity,” “The Lesson,” and “Two Houses” were my favorites. I loved the weirdness and magical realism aspects, and Link’s sense of fun and pushing boundaries in her writing. [Read in March 2017.]

Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women, his latest short story collection, was a nice read, although I think I enjoy Murakami in full-novel form better. His signature cat and magical realism elements are included here throughout. The stories have melancholic and somewhat surreal atmospheres, and the writing is beautiful, as usual, but I think I read this book at the wrong time in my life, during a period where I needed something more uplifting. That said, I liked “Drive My Car,” “Scheherezade,” “Kino,” and “Samsa in Love” the best. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]