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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What I've Been Reading Lately April 2018

Since it’s been an eternity-- well, at least a year-- since I have done a post similar to this one, I thought now would be a good time to let everyone know about the books I am currently reading. For the past year-and-a-half, I have been in a bit of a reading slump so I have been picking up and putting down several books over the past few months. These are some of the books I have been turning to in recent weeks as I try to catch-up with my (overly) ambitious GoodReads goal.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

True Crime is one of my favorite genres of EVERYTHING. This posthumously published investigation into the as-yet-unsolved crimes of the Golden State Killer, a rapist and murderer who terrorized communities in Northern and Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s is one of the most compelling books I have read in years. The Golden State Killer’s earliest series of crimes occur not far from where I grew up and his specter is one that has long loomed over the region. I actually had to take a small “book vacation” over the weekend from this one because it was so disturbing and proximal. I’m about a third of the way through the book and it is already shaping up to be one of the classics of the True Crime genre, holding court with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me.

In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad #1) by Tana French

Ironically, this is the book that I jumped to while on my book vacation from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. I’m reading this one on my Kindle app and I’m about ten pages in. So far, I am enjoying it. There is something comforting in reading about fictional murder for once instead of, y’know, real ones.

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

I have been dipping in-and-out of this collection for the past few months. The pieces are like letters from a simpler, less dumpster-fire-y time. Per usual, Smith’s prose is lovely. I imagine I would be making more headway in this one if I weren’t nostalgic for a time in the not-so-distant past.

Hopefully, I’ll manage to finish one of these soon and get caught up on my GoodReads goal which I am *gulp* NINE books off-pace with.
Thursday, April 12, 2018

Oh, hi.

I’ve decided to throw myself back into blogging after a tumultuous couple of years of starts and stops.

I guess the best place to begin again is to start with where and why I dropped off the map.

In April of 2016, as I wrote about previously, my beloved pug, who I wrote about on several occasions on TLD, passed away suddenly. I felt her loss acutely; my grief was complicated and I spent a lot of time suppressing my pain just so I could make it through my workdays. Yes, my suppressed grief came back to haunt me. More on that later.

Shortly after my pug died, we were presented with the opportunities, by sheer happenstance, to adopt first one pug-mix (a then two-year-old boy) and a month later another pug-mix (a girl). Even in our pain, we found the strength to open our hearts to two little souls who needed a second chance.

During the summer of 2016, after months of suppressing my grief and throwing myself into my work, I experienced a serious medical deterioration that forced me to reevaluate my health, my emotional well-being, and seek the advice of specialists. Even after the catastrophic presidential elections in 2016, I still managed to, slowly-but-surely, piece myself back together and start posting on The Lexicon Devil again. Sure, my reading had slowed-down considerably, but I was reading. I was trying. I was healing.

Then, in April of 2017, the little pug-mix girl we adopted eleven months, who had been medically frail since she joined our family, was diagnosed with diabetic ketoacidosis that didn’t respond to treatment. After many hospital stays, and a tremendous fight to save her life, in May we had to say goodbye to our second little fur girl in thirteen months. To lose one companion in a year is difficult enough, to lose a second-- so close to the anniversary of your first loss-- is unimaginably difficult.

To complicate matters, in the days after losing our second little girl, I was party to a falling out with one side of my relations (for a number of reasons, none of which I get into) and, as a result, we are no longer in contact. As hurtful as this estrangement has been, it has paled in comparison to the loss of my fur-girls. All of our lives are better without having the other set of relations in our lives.

In October 2017, we adopted a little doxie-chi mix boy we met at an adoption event at a local pet store. He’s been a wonderful addition to our family after so much loss. He’s two years old and as characterful as an episode of Monty Python. Along with his big brother (who will be four later this month!), he has been our saving grace during these troubled times.

Twice last year my mother had to have major surgery (once at the beginning of the year and once at the end of the year). With her second surgery, in December 2017, she experienced major complications that prolonged her recovery period and caused a great deal of physical and emotional pain for quite a while.

Despite the onslaught of tragedies that befell our family over the past two years, recent months have been far kinder to us. My mother, after great hardship, has secured her dream job. I, against all odds, met someone very, very special.

Since we (as a family-duo) are in a better place, I felt like it was about time to reclaim my digital space and write about what I love . . . books and words and whatnots.

So, if all goes to plan, you’ll be seeing more of me around here.

Knock on wood.
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The David Bowie Project, The Good: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

One of the struggles of reading someone else's favorite books is that you are bound to run into an entry or two (or twelve) that you hate (see my previous post). However, at their best, these lists can lead you to literary gems that, for one reason or another, you missed.  Such was the case with Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

I had heard wonderful things about Oscar Wao for years, but I had never made an earnest effort to read it.  To be honest, I was put off by the "science fiction nerd" motif. I wasn't convinced that I would be able to pick up on all of the references; my Dungeons and Dragons knowledge begins and ends with Stranger Things.  While these references pulled me out of my reading on occasion, as did the colloquial use of Spanish, but I soon discovered The Annotated Oscar Wao and was able to cross-reference my reading with the explanatory notes on the site.

Oscar Wao tells the story of a first-generation Dominican-American name Oscar de Leon who is perennially unlucky in love.  Oscar is too fat, too interested in science fiction, and too intensely devoted to girls who are out of his league.

The novel isn't just about Oscar's romantic woes. Instead, Oscar's failures with the opposite sex become the point of contrast that reveals the immigration narrative of the Cabral-de Leon family.  Through a series of flashbacks, we realize that failed relationships, and their violent fallout, plague the Cabral-de Leon clan.  In many ways, the waxing and waning of the novel's romantic relationship mirror the tumultuous course of twentieth century Dominican History.

Beyond the strength of its symbolism, the novel's chatty narrative-- peppered with allusions to classic nerd culture, "Spanglish," and a litany of  expository footnotes-- is intoxicating, like an animated conversation with an old friend.

Though, as its title suggests, the novel doesn't offer its readers any happy endings, it does in fact leave us with a story that is both wondrous and, sadly, too brief.
Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The David Bowie Project, The Bad: In Between the Sheets by Ian McEwan

Short stories aren't a genre that I typically gravitate towards. Because I teach English, I have used a lot of short stories (and story segments) in the classroom over the years; so, I tend to shy away from the genre in my recreational reading.  However, with the spate of "Try a Story" tags that have gone around BookTube once or thrice in the past few months, I decided to try out a few collections a whirl, one of which was on the list of David Bowie's 100 Favorite Books that I am working through this year.

Like a lot of people, I was assigned McEwan's Atonement in college and gateway-read some of his other novels . . . but was never overly enchanted with his work.  To be perfectly frank, I quickly bored of reading about middle aged men who encounter a "nasty surprise."  It's not a surprise if the reader knows it's coming bruh . . .

Anyhoo, I picked up this tome with measured expectations.  I mean, the Thin White Duke loved it and I loved the TWD, so why wouldn't I love this collection, right?  Riiiight? Wrong.  So much NOPE.  It was terrible.

Originally published in 1978, each of the seven stories from In Between the Sheets was McEwan's first short story collection.  In the first selection, "Pornography," a hapless, two-timing newsagent meets his match in a pair of avenging nurses.  "Reflections of a Kept Ape" and "Dead as They Come" the characters have contemptuous relationships with non-human partners.  With other stories, McEwan explores the hazards of romantic entanglements after an apocalyptic event ("Two Fragments") and amongst a coterie of deranged Los Angelenos ("Psychopolis").

Despite these intriguing premises,  In Between the Sheets doesn't deliver.  The stories are poorly structured, ending either at climactic moments or well past the point of resolution.  Why leave your readers mired in exposition with no payoff?  Or make your reader slog through pointless minutiae that clutters the narrative?  It would seem that, at this early point in his career anyway, McEwan had less control over the short story format, or his later aptitude for revealing a *nasty twist*.

Forty years on, In Between the Sheets's depiction of *modern* sexuality reads as dated.  All but one of the relationships in the collection are heterosexual in nature.  Even those sexual encounters that are not explicitly heteronormative in nature are implicitly in character.  For instance, in "Dead as They Come," the narrator forms an obsessive relationship with a mannequin that is eerily reminiscent of the circumscribed existence of ornamental "kept women."

Similarly, in "Reflections of a Kept Ape," a bestial relationship between the titular character and a successful female author is characterized as decidedly, if not unhappily, heterosexual.  The "ape" is a "toy boy" who grows weary of his emotionless mistress.  It is only through a literal reading of the story's title that one begins to see the tale as an examination of a bestiality through the subjectivity of the beast.  In both "Reflections of a Kept Ape" as well as "Dead as They Come," individuals who are supported by their partner are either inanimate objects or (at best?) exploited pets.

The one queer relationship in the collection, found in the titular story, is between two young women, one of whom is a little person.  This lesbian relationship, however, is almost entirely filtered through the subjectivity of one of the girls's father who is uneasy about his daughter's burgeoning desires and his own failed marriage.  The girl's relationship seems to exist not for its own sake, but as a reflection of the father's discomfort with his own sexual abilities.  In this way, the young women's relationship is characterized by its freakishness, just as the relationships in "Reflections of a Kept Ape" and "Dead as They Come" are played for their freakishness.  Pathologizing queer love, juxtaposing queer relationships with bestiality and objectophilia is deeply offensive and reflective of an outmoded way of thinking.

So, so, problematic.

Suffice it to say, In Between the Sheets is not the best place to start with McEwan.  Rather, in my case, it may well be my last.  
Thursday, March 9, 2017

Monthly Wrap Up: February 2017

It’s that time again.  Time to take a deep dive into what I read during the previous month.  Overall, I am pleased with my February reading. I read broadly and managed to finish at least one book a week; so, I am on pace to meet or exceed my goal of reading fifty books this year.

How I Read

Here is how the month broke down for me statistically:

  • I read four books
    • One ebook,
    • One print book, and
    • Two audiobooks
  • I read a total of 1103 pages
    • This averages out to approximately 276 pages per book
  • The average rating for my February reads was a four
    • I read one five star book,
    • Two four star books, and
    • One three star book

What I Read

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood [ebook; 4/5 ]: This is another volume in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a project that sees bestselling contemporary authors re-imaging some of the Bard’s seminal works.  Hag-Seed was my first Atwood novel (though I own four) and my second read in the Hogarth Shakespeare series (last year I read Anne Tyler’s middling Vinegar Girl, a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew) and, if my experience with Hag-Seed is indicative of Atwood’s other works, I am excited to dive deeper into her bibliography.  

If you are unfamiliar with Hag-Seed’s premise, the novel re-imagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Atwood’s version of events Prospero becomes Felix, the deposed artistic director of an Ontario theater festival, forced to eek out a humble existence teaching theater under an alias at a local prison.  When the usurper who fired Felix, now Cultural Minister, plans to visit the prison, a pretense for shutting down the education program, Felix uses the opportunity to stage the ultimate revenge: a production of The Tempest.

Overall, I loved Hag-Seed and found the story easy to read and deeply engrossing.  Readers who may feel overwhelmed by starting elsewhere in Atwood’s bibliography may find, like, that Hag-Seed is an easier entry point into her work.  However, I would warn potential readers that it (obviously) helps to have read The Tempest before Hag-Seed.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman [audiobook; 4/5]: My first audiobook read of the month was Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.  I love the Netflix show based on this book; however, I approached the text with some trepidation.  You see, Piper is my least favorite character on the show and this book is told entirely from Piper’s perspective.  Thankfully, the real Piper is a far cry from her television incarnation.  
In the series, Piper is frequently taken to task for her false bravado, half-hearted attempts at connecting with inmates of color, and her general “basic white girl” in a prison jumpsuit aesthetic.  The most compelling part of Orange is the New Black (the series) is the complex lives and backstories of the non-Piper inmates at the fictional Litchfield prison.  

While the real Piper is more self-aware and likable than her fictional counterpart, the reader isn’t given insight into the lives or experiences of the other inmates, really as you should expect from a first person narrative.  Nonetheless, Piper comes across as having genuine empathy for her fellow inmates and their personal circumstances; Kerman manages to both recognize her own socio-economic privileges while, simultaneously, acknowledge the systemic obstacles her peers encounter.  Rather than simply identifying these obstacles and moving on to the next anecdote, Kerman contextualizes these challenges-- namely mandatory sentencing laws and how they have an inordinately punitive impact on communities of color-- and explicitly advocates for them to be changed.  

At it’s core, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is a story about one woman’s embarrassing, emotionally exhausting, and often dehumanizing experience in the corrections system and how, with a support system that is atypical of most offenders, is able to both survive and agitate for change. Indeed, since her incarceration, Kerman (in addition to writing her memoir) has worked extensively with nonprofits regarding human rights for incarcerated persons as well as against mandatory minimum sentencing.  

Because of my affection for the show, I started my look at the American prison system with Orange is the New Black; however, I am not going to stop here.  In the coming months, I am planning to continue my reading and documentary with a particular focus on how incarceration impacts communities of color.  I think my next prison-related read will be George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye.  

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain [print; 3/5]: There really isn’t much to say about Tom Sawyer that really hasn’t been said before.  It’s a classic of children’s literature.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a better book.  I had to read Tom Sawyer  for work.  It’s a good ‘un, but not a personal favorite.  

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates [audiobook; 5/5]: Hands down, this is one of the most important books I have ever read (well, listened to, really).  For a long time, I flirted with the idea of reading Between the World and Me but ultimately read other things because I was put off by the hype Coates’ essay collection has received.  Last month, following  through on my commitment to read more diversely and to take a deep dive into own-voices narratives, I listed to the audiobook and was enthralled.

Between the World and Me is structured as a prolonged letter from Coates to his then fifteen year old son, written in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri.  In unflinching language, but in the loving tone of a distraught father, Coates addresses the corporal reality of being an African-American man (or woman, really; see the Sandra Bland case) in America, namely that, at any time and for almost any reason, you can be killed and your death will go unpunished.  If you consider yourself an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement,  if you are curious about the sentiments behind the movement, or if you are one of those white people who shakes police officers’ hands at the end of a protest march, read Between the World and Me.

What did you read in February?  Do you have any own voices or prison memoirs to suggest?  Let me know on Twitter @thelexicondev.