reading recap: march 2017

I had another prolific month of reading! It’s really nice to be back in a groove after so many blah months. I’m trying to catch up on books I’ve had forever and not buy new ones, and I’m doing okay with that, better than in the past. My audiobook reading has skyrocketed, though. Without a regular 8-to-5 I have tons of time to listen at home and on bus/subway rides. These ten books makes my 2017 total 27 already—more than halfway to my Goodreads goal of 50 for the year, so I may raise that soon enough!

  • Americanah … Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Stranger in the Woods (audio) … Michael Finkel, read by Mark Bramhall
  • When Breath Becomes Air … Paul Kalanithi
  • The Last One (win) … Alexandra Oliva
  • Psycho (audio) … Robert Bloch, read by Paul Michael Garcia
  • Brown Girl Dreaming (audio) … Jacqueline Woodson, read by author
  • Get in Trouble: Stories … Kelly Link
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (audio) … Ken Kesey, read by Tom Parker
  • Hidden Figures (ebook) … Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Mom & Me & Mom (audio) … Maya Angelou, read by author

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestWhen Breath Becomes Air, and The Stranger in the Woods were my favorites read in March. I loved Americanah, but I finished right before Adichie’s controversial interview comments came out, so I’m still sort of reconciling my feelings about it in retrospect. There were some really great stories in Get in Trouble, too, and Psycho was fabulous. I really wanted Hidden Figures to live up to all the grand hype, but for me it fell flat. The parts about the women themselves and their lives were excellent, but you have to wade through lots of textbook-like technical chapters that bored me. I still want to see the movie, though.

Okay. I think if I’m going to be getting through this volume of books (or close to it) each month, I’m going to have to get back into individual posts. It’ll be good for me, another project to keep me occupied!

monthly recap image

the beautiful bureaucrat

I couldn’t resist checking out The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips after seeing it all over the book blogs, despite the mixed reviews. Edited from Goodreads:

In a windowless building in a remote part of town, the newly employed Josephine inputs an endless string of numbers into something known only as “The Database.” After a long period of joblessness, she’s not inclined to question her fortune, but as the days inch by and the files stack up, Josephine feels increasingly anxious in her surroundings. When one evening her husband Joseph disappears, her creeping unease shifts decidedly to dread. As other strange events build to a crescendo, the haunting truth about Josephine’s work begins to take shape in her mind, even as something powerful is gathering its own form within her. She realizes she must penetrate an institution whose tentacles seem to extend to every corner of the city and beyond.

I feel like I’m in the middle on this one. It wasn’t as crazy and out there as I was expecting, and not quite as good overall as I was hoping. But I did like it enough to finish it (very short anyway, only about 170 pages) and I was left thinking afterwards. There seemed to be quite a few religious themes, or more like subtle undertones. For most of the story, Phillips takes the reader along on a compelling mental thriller, set in a familiar yet slightly dystopian future. The money struggles and futile, mindless job toiling will be recognizable to many in today’s economic climate… but it is quirky with enough twists and turns to make it interesting and not boring.

I wish the characters had been more fleshed out (they were described with one major physical attribute—bad breath, pink outfit, etc.) and the anagram wordplay was so annoying (“Gonna yin. Nag inn yo.” like that) that I started skipping over those parts. The end wasn’t executed as well as all that lead up to it; it was rushed, conveniently tied up. I feel like The Beautiful Bureaucrat could have either been shorter or longer than it was. Despite these minor quibbles, it was a real page turner right up until the end.

Read from September 5 to 6, 2015.

in the house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods

After seeing it reviewed by Rory at Fourth Street Review, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell has been on my radar. A few weeks ago, it became available on audio through my library. From Goodreads:

In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.

This is a tough book to review! I was very intrigued by the darkness of the premise, and though I felt like giving up a few times I’m glad I ultimately stuck it out. In the House has so many converging elements, including magical realism, horror, folklore… even some action and mystery thrown in. “Mythical” is just about the perfect word to describe it overall, too. The breakdown of the couple’s marriage is painful, the husband’s descent into fury is kind of frightening, even. It just made me think, how far is this man going to go? Is this even about having children anymore? It was really thought-provoking. Charlie Thurston narrated this audio version, and I had to set it to 1.5x speed—normal was just a little lethargic for me! But the clip of his voice at 1.5x made the poetic nature of the prose much more theatrical.

I don’t think In the House is for everyone—ratings on Goodreads are starkly divided. Once I let go of things making sense and just went with the dreamy quality of the story I enjoyed it a lot more.

I’m counting In the House as book two of five for the KC Library’s Love on the Rocks Adult Winter Reading Program.

Listened to audiobook from January 13 to February 5, 2015.

audiobook mini-reviews: shovel, ocean

In addition to the three short books I read on paper and electronically, I listened to a couple of audiobooks on the road last week and on my rehearsal commutes this week, rounding out my reading for 2014:

I picked Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh for our drive to Wisconsin partly because it was fairly short, and also because it seemed like a plot that both Nick and I would enjoy. While not the greatest example of post-apocalyptic literature I’ve encountered, Shovel Ready was still a fun, action-packed read that was perfect for our time in the car. The book follows Spademan, a garbageman-turned-hitman in a New York City that was decimated by a surprise dirty bomb in Times Square. The wealthy can hook themselves up to a virtual world (a la Ready Player One) while everyone else ekes by out on the chaotic, dangerous streets. Spademan is hired to kill the daughter of a famous evangelist, and thus begins the tumultuous, mysterious adventure in Shovel Ready. [Listened to audiobook from December 19 to 26, 2014.]

I just finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman today, another audiobook I chose for its brevity and the story sounded pretty interesting. This is the first Gaiman work I’ve read. Generally I enjoyed Ocean, though I’m not sure I was compelled enough to seek out more Gaiman. It leaned just a bit too YA and fantasy for my tastes. In Ocean, an unnamed middle-aged man returns to his hometown for a funeral, and ends up stopping by the street on which he grew up and visiting the home of a wise-beyond-her-years, apparently magical girl named Lettie Hempstock, with whom he was friends. At her house, he speaks with one of Lettie’s family members and long-forgotten events start coming to light again. Ocean straddles several genres, with elements of fantasy, horror, adventure, and mystery, ultimately boiling down to a battle between good and evil and the dissociation existing between childhood and adulthood. I have to say it was a treat to listen to Gaiman himself narrate this audio version! I think his reading made it a better experience than paper would have been for me in this case. [Listened to audiobook from December 27 to 31, 2014.]

the enchanted

My second vacation read was The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld. This book has been popping up everyone online lately—I couldn’t resist and treated myself to this one right before I left. From Goodreads:

The enchanted place is an ancient stone prison, viewed through the eyes of a death row inmate who finds escape in his books and in re-imagining life around him, weaving a fantastical story of the people he observes and the world he inhabits. Fearful and reclusive, he senses what others cannot. Though bars confine him every minute of every day, he marries magical visions of golden horses running beneath the prison, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs, with the devastating violence of prison life.

Two outsiders venture here: a fallen priest, and the Lady, an investigator who searches for buried information from prisoners’ pasts that can save those soon-to-be-executed. Digging into the background of a killer named York, she uncovers wrenching truths that challenge familiar notions of victim and criminal, innocence and guilt, honor and corruption-ultimately revealing shocking secrets of her own.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve dragged my feet on writing this review for days. Don’t get me wrong—The Enchanted was a great book. I think any words I use will be insufficient to accurately describe how a book could so beautifully take on the ugliness of a controversial subject.

Denfeld’s prose is simple, yet exquisite. It’s delicate, haunting, heartrending, and quiet, hinging on poetic even. The altering viewpoints were smooth and not distracting, as often they can be (the book switches between the death row inmate’s first-person narration and third person). The inmate is an especially fragile character, with an innocence and otherness to him but also a cryptic aura. But all the characters broken, tragic creatures aching to be seen… or not seen in some cases. The Enchanted has an ethereal, floaty vibe but once in a while will mention something horrifically real and slam you right back down to earth.

The Enchanted doesn’t detail the crimes the inmates committed so focus is taken off the crimes, the victims, and their families. The reader is left to imagine what the inmates may have done to land on death row, and for me that was fine—I didn’t feel like the book needed to go into it to be successful.

I probably could have devoured this book in one sitting, had I a good chunk of free time (I read it during my vacation in Hawaii—yes, there was free time, but it was filled with fun family activities mostly!). I’m sure one day I will read this again.

Read from August 21 to 25, 2014.

beloved

I think I’m in a little bit of a reading slump… sort of. Or I’m just too damn busy. I have taken a break from unpacking the apartment, but school starts next week and I realized I had a ton of things to take care of before then, like getting my bow rehaired, bike tuned up, etc. But while I was doing some of my unpacking last week and weekend, I listened to Beloved by Toni Morrison, read by the author. From Goodreads:

Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

Wow. I mean, what is there to say? Beloved is a haunting, suspenseful, painful, powerful, gothic novel. Sethe is a deeply disturbed and heartrending character, based on a real-life fugitive slave Margaret Garner, who fled to Ohio and was pursued by bounty hunters under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Garner killed her baby daughter rather than allow her to grow up in a life of slavery. Beloved explores the main themes of maternal bonds, and psychological damage done by slavery to individuals and communities.

Sethe is a pretty messed up mom. After all the unspeakable horrors Sethe endured at Sweet Home, she’s severely emotionally stunted, with little to no sense of her own identity. Denver, Sethe’s younger daughter, is a recluse, terrified to venture out into the community. Sethe is not really being the mother that Denver needs. Paul D, another former slave from Sweet Home, joins them in Cincinnati and brings with him a sense of reality, urging them to have a life with some semblance of normalcy. They go to a fair, and on their way home they meet a mysterious woman calling herself Beloved. Sethe is enraptured by the young woman, believing her to be the ghost of the daughter she killed almost two decades earlier. Anyway, things get really dark and weird, but totally captivating.

I have wanted to read Toni Morrison for a long time, and Beloved was my first book of hers. I’m actually really glad I listened to this on audio, read by Morrison. I think her pacing and affectation of her own expressive, poetic prose is just about perfect and stays with you.

Listened to audiobook from August 7 to 11, 2013.