Monday, January 14, 2019

Bringing Up the Backlist: Five Books I'd Like to Get to in 2019

There are enough books stacked around my room to build a fallout shelter.  Try as I might, I am never able to get through all of the books I add to my personal library every year: blame my sluggish reading pace, the pressures of work and LIFE, or my compulsive Amazon purchases (don't judge--respect my journey!).  Though I am spoiled for choice, there are five books that I definitely want to get to sooner, rather than later,  in 2019.

McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh| Last week, Penguin Books reissued Ottessa Moshfegh's 2014 Believer Book Award-winning novella McGlue in a striking paperback edition.  Set in 1851, the work follows the titular character as he sobers-up to some disturbing memories of his drunken antics.  The book sounds (and looks, tbh) sinister as fuhhhhk and I can't wait to tuck into it.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Translated by Misha Hoekstra) | In 2019 I want to make a concerted effort to read more work in translation and this work in translation about a translator just seemed too meta to not dig into.  The novel was a 2017 finalist for the Man Booker International Prize and is published by one of my favorite independent publishers, Graywolf Press.  Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is about Sonja, a Danish woman who translates Swedish crime novels and is dissatisfied with her lonely life in Copenhagen.  In an effort to make changes in her life, Sonja reconnects with family and begins to learn how to drive, the latter of which is made more complicated by Sonja's vertigo. Moody, broody, and Scandi this one has my name on it.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (Translated by Ann Goldstein) | I have been meaning to come back to the Neapolitan Novels since I read and loved My Brilliant Friend a few years ago.  2019 is the year I want to continue and maybe even complete the series . . . even if the covers are a bit cringe.

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Kranostein | The Trauma Cleaner is a biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans-woman who lived an eclectic life before finding her calling as the titular trauma cleaner.  Despite its grim title, the book is meant to be a life-affirming look at our shared humanity.  I actually owned a copy of the book before it was available in the states, but the heaviness of the title and the general heaviness of 2018 made me reticent to pick it up until recently.

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling | The Golden State was a novel I first learned about on several "Best of 2018" lists and is meant to be about a young single mother who leaves in Bay Area to live in the high desert.  Perhaps because of the geographic similarities, the book reminded me of Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room, one of my favorite reads of 2018, and I instinctively (read: impulsively) bought it.

What books are on your reading shortlist?  Let me know on Instagram @thelexicondevil.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Three Books That Owned My Heart in 2018

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been trying to narrow down the *best* books that I read in what was, overall, a banner reading year.  I had a lot of five star reads in 2018, but highlighting each of the fantastic books I picked up in the past twelve months seemed like a copout-- let's be honest, not all five-star reads are created equally. Instead, I have opted to highlight the three books I read last year that now own a small piece of my heart.  If I could force copies of these books into your hands (or into your letterbox, or between your windshield wipers, or stacked neatly under your doormat), I would.  They are THAT GOOD.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell | As it's title implies, this inventive memoir is told through a series of brushes with had with death that the author has experienced throughout her lifetime.  Recounting a chance run-in with a soon-to-be serial killer, a childhood illness that shaped her life (an illness that almost ended her life again during childbirth), harrowing escapes from dangerous men while on holiday, as well as her daughter's life-threatening anaphylactic reactions to common allergens.  I Am, I Am, I Am is as much about the perilousness of being a woman living her day-to-day life, where taking a walk after work could lead to your murder, as it is about O'Farrell's remarkable, literary life.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner | My first foray into Kushner work, The Flamethrowers (2013), was a hard pass from me (you can read my review here).  Her latest, a finalist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, really struck a chord and has been a read I have had trouble shaking months later.  The novel follows Romy Hall, a single mother and former sex worker now serving a life sentence for the murder of her stalker.  Kushner could very easily have angled the novel to exploit the seedier details of Romy's experience; instead, she crafts a nuanced work that considers the confluence of circumstances that catch young women in the correctional system.  Written with a detachment that heightens the hopelessness of Romy's circumstances and the haunted atmosphere of the novel's Northern and Central California setting, The Mars Room is one of the most gripping and emotionally wretching reads of the decade.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez | Earlier this year, established novelist, Sigrid Nunez's latest work, The Friend was the surprise winner for the prestigious National Book Award.  While the novel may have seemed the critical dark horse going into the competition, it is without question the most moving new release of the past fifteen years.  When her oldest and dearest friend, a fellow writer, commits suicide, the narrator is consumed by grief and left in charge of her friend's aged Great Dane.  Throughout the novel, the narrator transfers her love and attention to the dog, whereby the hound becomes a proxy for the faithful companion she lost and symbol of her fidelity (in all of its incarnations) to the most significant relationship of her life.  The Friend isn't just about a sad lady and a sad dog, or even just a meditation on grief; rather, it is a delicately insightful look at the ways in which we process the tragedies that befall us and find the will to live in spite of them.

What books had purchase over your heart in 2018?  Let me know in the comments or on Insta @thelexicondevil.
Monday, January 7, 2019

Five Tips for Setting (and Reaching) Your 2019 GoodReads Goal

It's that time of year again: time to set a new reading goal for the annual GoodReads Reading Challenge.

Within the bookish corners of the Internet, the GoodReads Reading Challenge is THE metric for measuring one's literary year.  Meeting or exceeding one's annual reading goal is a point of pride while falling short can cast a pall over a year's literary highlights.

Personally speaking, I have met my goal seven of the eight times I have participated in the Reading Challenge.  These successes (and notable failure-- I see you, 2013!) have given me some insights into mediating my lofty literary ambitions and my full-time-job-having-adult-lady-who-wants-to-go-to-bed-at-eight reality.

One. | Start where you finished.  There is little difference between December 31st and January 1st.  In all likelihood, the circumstances that shaped your 2018 reading will still be influencing your early 2019 reading as well.  As such, setting a goal that is close to the number of books you read last year is a safe place to start.  Historically, you know that you can read *this many* books in a year; meeting or exceeding last year's number is a safe place to start.

Two. | Goals are a continuum, not an end point.  There are a lot of people (myself included) who set ambitious Reading Goals in January only to have a mild coronary when we revisit them a few months later.  You should never be afraid of either raising or lowering your goal; if the Reading Challenge you set in January seems unreasonable in April, the problem is the goal . . . not you.  Goals should be a stretch that you achieve with a concerted effort over time; they should be neither insurmountably difficult or ridiculously easy.

Three. | Do not be afraid to DNF a book that you are not enjoying.  There is no faster route to a reading slump that chaining yourself to a book you hate.  Your time is a valuable, finite resource and you shouldn't waste it on books that aren't enriching your life.  Toss it in the donate pile and move on.

Four. | Try reading more than one book at a time.  I am a notorious mood reader and usually have multiple books that I am working my way through at any given time.  Sometimes I feel like tucking into a novel, other times I may want to dip back into nonfiction, or I might even tuck into a short story collection.  Having multiple books in my "currently reading" pile affords me greater flexibility as a reader because I always have a book to match my mood (of which there are many).

Five. | Reconsider your metrics.  As devoted as I am to the Reading Challenge, I think it is also important to remember that there are other measures of your reading successes beyond your annual goal.  Truly, the quality of what you are reading is more important than the quantity of your reading.  When you get stuck into your 2019 reading, think about the micro-goals that you would like to achieve along the way.  For instance, this year I would like to read more work by authors of color, more works in translation, and make more mindful reading selections.  Consider the sort of books you would like to read, not just how many books you would like to read.

What are your reading goals for 2019?  What metrics are you using to track your 2019 reads?
Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017) by Gail Honeyman

Since its release last year, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has been a fixture on bestseller lists and was even a Reece Witherspoon Book Club selection (June 2017).

The novel’s titular character is a thirty-year-old woman who works in the accounting department of a Glasgow graphic design firm. Eleanor lives a solitary life, eschewing social interaction; wearing unfashionable, utilitarian clothes; and blotting out her weekends and memories one mug-full of vodka at a time. Her only tenuous connection to the world outside of herself is a crush she develops on a local musician . . . who she stalks on social media. 

After a chance encounter with a coworker and an elderly man in distress, Eleanor’s cloistered life opens up. She begins to form tenuous friendships and, with the help of patient sales assistants, make better sartorial choices. As she begins to build a wider social circle, Eleanor must come to terms with the traumas past and present that have shaped her life.

Ultimately, the book is about the importance of compassion, forgiveness, and the redemptive qualities of human connection. While Eleanor is not always a likable character, she possesses a stilted charm that makes the reader root for her, even in her most despicable of moments.

On the whole, I enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant and, at first, gave the book four stars on GoodReads. Upon reflection, however, I dropped my rating to three. Where the book stumbled is in its conclusion, which felt hamfisted and needlessly protracted. The book is about fifty pages too long and its “twist” ending didn’t feel consistent with the development of Eleanor’s character. Had this manuscript landed on the desk of a more dogged editor (with a fist-full of red pens), it would have been a more cohesive, satisfying read.

Despite its flaws, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is an engaging read tailor-made for book clubs and more substantive evening reading.

TLD Rating: *** / *****
Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: The Sick Bag Song (2015) by Nick Cave

It should be a surprise to no one that I am a huge (HUGE, people) fan of Australian post-punk and goth rock icon, Nick Cave. Cave’s dark, and often darkly funny, music with the Birthday Party and the Badseeds has had a major influence on my life, work, and personal aesthetic. Yet, despite my love of Cave’s music and persona, I hadn’t picked up any of Cave’s seven books until fairly recently.

Books by musicians are, more often than not, a profound disappointment: terrible novels (Morrissey), indulgent or underwritten (Morrissey (again!), Kristin Hersh), or tomes that leave you needing a Silkwood shower by the time you’ve finished the introduction (see: any book by a musician in the 1970s who isn’t Patti Smith). So, as you can imagine, I was a little nervous about delving into the bibliography of an artist I hold as dear as Nick Cave; the literary history of rock had left much to be desired.

My first foray into Cave’s bibliography was 2015’s The Sick Bag Song, an epic poem that charts the Badseeds’ 2014 North American tour. The book’s central conceit is that Cave “wrote” the poems on the back of a series of air sickness bags (hence, the title) along each stop of the tour. However, the titular “sick bag” is more than makeshift stationary, it’s a metaphor for the artist’s collective unconscious, where, for better or worse, his multifarious influences reside and vie for his attention.

Like Odysseus on his circuitous journey back to Ithaca, Cave finds himself encountering a cast of characters nearly as fantastical as those of his ancient analog: a dying she-dragon, a decapitated corpse, some rank seafood, and a scantily-clad wraith cheekily flashing the poet as she perpetually climbs over the railings of North America’s bridges.

As he criss-crosses his way across the continent, Cave struggles to get his wife on the telephone. Isolated from the comforts of home, Cave revisits the contents of the sick bag, recalling the formative events and influences that have shaped his life and career.

For Cave, the influences he carts around in his sick bag both shape his art and tax his creativity. In one memory, the poet recalls a flooded music festival where he met a raincoat-clad Bob Dylan, a creative vampire on the cusp of his celebrated Love and Theft (2001) album . . . while Cave’s next release, Nocturama (2003), was a critical and commercial flop. Your influences, Cave seems to say, can only carry you so far; at some point, the artist must purge themselves of their influences and and take a creative leap into the unknown.

At times emotionally affecting, bawdy, hallucinatory, and darkly funny The Sick Bag song is a fever dream of a travelogue that can holds its own against Cave’s impressive discography.

TLD Rating: * * * * / * * * * *
Monday, May 21, 2018

May 2018 Book Haul

As the temperatures begin to rise, and as the number of school days left slips into the single digits, I have been devoting more time to building my personal library. If you’re trying to fill out your latest Amazon order or are looking for some recommendations for your beach bag, here are some of my recent purchases:

Gems from the Friends of the Library Bookstore. I make a point of trolling the stacks at the Friends of the Library Bookstore in town at least once a week. Friends’ bookstores are a great place to pick up gently used copies of new releases, older titles, bestsellers, and the occasional mass-market paperback. On my last jaunt through the stacks, I picked up copies of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage that are in great condition for $1 each. I love Didion beyond words (JOANIE!) and, for a buck, I am willing to give Tyler’s work another go before I swear off Baltimore for good.

Supporting Independent Booksellers. Over the weekend, I went with my equally as introverted and equally as bookish partner to Pegasus Books on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. In addition to a few literary-related items, I picked up three used books that had been on my radar for a long time: The Accidental by Ali Smith (paperback), Night Film by Marisha Pessl (hardback), and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (hardback). Chachkies not included, I paid about $30 for the lot; each book was in excellent condition and priced well below cover price. If you ever find yourself in the East Bay, Pegasus's used “new arrivals” shelf is well worth rifling through.

The Obligatory Semimonthly Amazon Order. If you live in an area where Prime Same-Day Delivery is an option, why wouldn’t you take advantage of the service? I’m pretty sure it’s criminal not to, at this point. Since I have been taking a deep dive into Mindhunter on Netflix as of late, I picked up copies of the two books that inspired the series: Robert Ressler’s Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI and John Douglas’s Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. I rounded out the order with two books that have been on my shopping shortlist: Lumberjanes, Vol. 5 (yes, I know I am behind in the series) and Samantha Irby’s newest essay collection, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

As the volume of my recent purchases might suggest, I anticipate spending a majority of my summer reading in an air-conditioned space!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Summer Reading Plans 2018

Periodically, through May to August, I will be sharing updates on my summer reading-- what I want to read and what I actually read.  Up first: what kinds of books I like to tackle over the summer and some of the titles that are on my TBR shortlist.

It’s May so, like most educators and students alike, I am counting down the days until summer is finally here. For the first time in years, I’m taking time to rest and relax (thanks, medical problems!) and I am looking forward to seven weeks of sleeping late, not wearing “real pants,” and afternoons spent reading in the shade.--Oh, the luxury!

As I count down the days until summer, I thought I would share my summer reading plans to help you suss out which books to pack in your beach bag before you’re legging it through duty-free.

Getting My Suspense Fix. Summer is a great time to tuck into the thrillers and mysteries that have been piling up in your queue for the past nine months. Really, there are few things as satisfying as reading a page-turner poolside on a sweltering day. This summer I am looking forward to finishing Tana French’s In The Woods and have a copy of Dorothy B. Hughes’s pulp-classic, In a Lonely Place, that is calling my name. I’m almost certain that another mooch through my local library’s used book shop will probably add a few more suspenseful reads to my stacks.

Catching Up On the Hype. This summer, I also plan to finally catch up on some of 2018’s most hyped new releases. On my shortlist are Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, which looks at the relationships between different generations of feminists; Madeline Miller’s Circe, which presently resides on my mother’s nightstand . . . but won’t for much longer; and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, which looks at the impact that institutional racism and incarceration have on a family. Hype-influenced reads should, at the very least, be fodder for water cooler conversations and, at best, get you a few months ahead of the game on your book club reading.

Nonfiction Nosedive. In between novels, a good nonfiction read can be a great pallet cleanser. There have been many an essay collection, for example, that have helped me nurse a massive book hangover. As it starts to heat up, I am planning to (finally) finish reading Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and work through newish essay collections from Sloane Crosley (Look Alive Out There) and Samantha Irby (We Are Never Meeting in Real Life). And, morbid gal that I am, I am keen to pick up From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty, the Internet’s Funeral Director, and Sarah Krasnostein The Trauma Cleaner; honestly, if these two can’t prevent people from trying to start conversations with me while I am reading, I don’t know what will!

The Bricks. The long and lazy days of summer also lend themselves to reading big ‘uns: massive, unwieldy, multi-volume works that you have meant to read for years but never got around to for lack of time or because of sciatica. There is an optimistic part of me that wants to believe that I’ll actually get around to reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 this year. As you can imagine this is a small, small, foolishly optimistic part of myself.