Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Great Believers (by Rebecca Makkai)

I finally found a book in this year's tournament that I loved maybe even more than My Sister the Serial Killer! Unfortunately, like the outstanding My Year of Rest and Relaxation, it didn't make the shortlist. What the hell is up with this year's tourney!?! I started The Great Believers at the same time as the shortlisted The Mars Room, which I gave up about 40% in. But this one I couldn't put down.

It's a story told halfway in the 1980s, about a group of gay friends in Chicago who are beginning to die, one by one, from AIDS.  The other half is the story of Fiona, the sister of one of the dead boys, searching in Paris for her daughter in 2015. 

My friend Wendy said that it reminded her of A Little Life, which was my thought exactly. Here's what I sent her in an email earlier today:

Completely agree about A Little Life. In fact I wished the whole book was set in the 1980s timeline since that was by far my favorite and was most Little Life-y. It also reminds me of that essay pointing out how Little Life works as an AIDS epidemic allegory. No wonder it feels similar! 

Side note: I recently got the chance to read through a box of letters sent to my biological mom in the 1970s. Gave me a window into her friendships with a huge circle of gay men. One was writing from San Francisco, where he had just moved, and was so happy to feel part of a community that accepted him for the first time. Of course, her entire circle mostly died of AIDS in the 80s. She was basically the Fiona. 


Loved this novel and really enjoyed it. Now that I've given up on The Mars Room I'm going to start on my pick to win the entire Tournament of Books, the buzzy and first-seeded Washington Black. Cross your fingers for me. 

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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

George (by Alex Gino)

A book about a girl who at birth was assigned male and named George. She wants nothing more than to play Charlotte in her middle school's production of Charlotte's Web, and to be seen as she truly is: a girl.

This is a deeply moving read. It's impossible not to fall in love with Melissa (Melissa is the main character's preferred name) and sympathize or empathize with her struggles.  The use of the female pronoun throughout really emphasizes Melissa's identity. And the cruelty of some of the children in her class is a microcosm of what trans people face in the world today and how frankly ridiculous it is not to let people just be themselves.

Highly recommended for middle grade readers and beyond!

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The Kiss Quotient (by Helen Hoang)

The last book I read was one that I thought was part of the Read Harder Challenge, but wasn't. In contrast, this one I didn't realize qualified for the Read Harder Challenge, but it does, in the category of "book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse."

This is a romance novel, which is not usually my genre, but it popped up in my library list so I must have heard about it somewhere. It's about a woman who has autism and written by a woman who also has autism.  It's a sort of reverse Pretty Woman storyline: a wealthy Silicon Valley engineer assumes she's bad in bed, and hires a male escort to help her learn how to have sex. He is escorting to pay his mother's medical bills. Romance ensues!

This book is kind of wall-to-wall sex, framed by a cute story. The lead character, Stella, is delightful and you really root for her. If you're into romance, I definitely recommend it.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Stag's Leap (by Sharon Olds)

One of the RHC categories is "a collection of poetry published since 2014."

Originally I'd selected Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, a collection of James Tate's from 2015. I got through about half of it and gave up. I love James Tate's work, but this felt both formulaic (surreal scenario with surreal dialogue in a prose poem paragraph) and padded (it felt endless). Most of the poems are also more cerebral than emotional.

In contrast, Stag's Leap grabbed me by the heart immediately. It's a collection written about her divorce, which her husband initiated by leaving her for a colleague after 30 years of marriage. It captures the bond of marriage so beautifully that I've spent the past couple of days clinging to Ian and saying you can never divorce me! Divorce hurts so much and our love is too beautiful.  

Here's an excerpt from he title poem:

Stag’s Leap

Then the drawing on the label of our favorite red wine
looks like my husband, casting himself off a
cliff in his fervor to get free of me.
His fur is rough and cozy, his face
placid, tranced, ruminant,
the bough of each furculum reaches back
to his haunches, each tine of it grows straight up
and branches, like a model of his brain, archaic,
unwieldy. He bears its bony tray
level as he soars from the precipice edge,
dreamy. When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver.


As I'm looking this up, I notice Stag's Leap was written in 2012 and was awarded the Pulitzer in 2013 so it actually doesn't qualify for the RHC. But I loved it nonetheless and am grateful I read it.  

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

The House of Broken Angels (by Luís Alberto Urrea)

This is the saga of a Mexican-American family told via two events: Big Angel's mother's funeral and then, the next day, his last birthday party (he is dying of cancer). The characters are vivid, the writing is fantastic, the compassionate view of all aspects of Mexican-American culture is especially needed at this moment in time. So why didn't I love it more? I don't know. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for a sprawling family saga? It is genuinely a great novel but I didn't fall in love. Maybe the Tournament of Books discussions will add to my appreciation as time goes on.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Book Wrapup: L.A.

I took a bit of an unexpected trip to Los Angeles last week because my father had to have triple heart bypass surgery. My reading was a bit desultory, as in times of great worry I could focus mostly on random online games and not literature. But I did finish a few books during the trip. And, best of all, dad is on the mend and doing well!

The Parking Lot Attendant (by Nafkote Tamirat)

My notes say: Kind of enjoyable, but ultimately annoying and not grounded in reality. Maybe I'm missing The Metaphor or maybe don't have the patience for it right now. Another ToB disappointment. WHERE ARE THE GOOD BOOKS? 

I would characterize this as an okay read, though I didn't fully buy the characters, and didn't enjoy the ending. Also aych and I just chatted about the Tournament and I now think my main issue this year is that the library wait list is the longest for the top seeds with the most buzz, particularly There There and Washington Black. I should get The Mars Room and Warlight fairly soon. I may end up -- gasp -- actually purchasing a book because I am currently either 99th or 694th on the There There waitlist depending on which library you ask. 

True Porn Clerk Stories (by Ali Davis)

This came up in a thread on Ask Metafilter, I believe. This was a 2002-era online journal that I remembered highly enjoying at the time, and enjoyed revisiting as a time capsule of the video store and VHS porn era at the turn of the century.  It looks like Ali Davis has more recently become a playwright, and I hope to see more of her in the future. (Also this was self-published, so it ticks off a box in the Read Harder Challenge as well. Kismet!)

Born A Crime (by Trevor Noah)

The drive to and from Los Angeles was a good twelve hours, and the Extra Hot Great podcast can only get you so far! Friends had recommended this on audiobook, plus the South Africa aspect would give me and my mom something to chat about during our time together, since she grew up in South Africa (obviously, in a white township).  Well-structured, well-told, and gave me an appreciation of Trevor Noah that I hadn't previously had.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Xenofeminist Manifesto (by Laboria Cuboniks)

Laboria Cuboniks is not a person but a "xenofeminist collective." I got this little book for Christmas and kicked off the Read Harder Challenge with it when I saw it had fewer than 100 Goodreads reviews (one of the categories).

Coming out of this reading experience, I think I would like xenofeminism if I fully understood it. I felt like I was back in grad school reading the words of passionate people with great ideas and inflated ways of conveying them.

What I got out of it in terms of principles: technology has the potential to create an egalitarian world but it needs to be created and maintained by someone other than a group of white men. Everyone has the right to speak without markers of race, sex, class until those markers are abolished.  Yay to both of those points and I would love to know how to personally work towards that! The book is written like this though:  

This non-absolute, generic universality must guard against the facile tendency of conflation with bloated, unmarked particulars -- namely Eurocentric universalism -- whereby the male is mistaken for the sexless, the white for raceless, the cis for the real, and so on. Absent such a universal, the abolition of race will remain a tacit white supremacism, and the absolution of gender will remain a thinly veiled misogyny, even -- especially -- when prosecuted by avowed feminists themselves.

This is one of the clearer passages but it gives you the idea. I would like to learn more about this movement in more actionable terms, but I'm not sure I can read a full book about the"autophagic orgy of indignity," "embedded velocities," or the "insurgent memeplex."

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Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Year-End Book Wrapup '18

My goal this year was to read 50 books and to complete the Read Harder Challenge. (On last year’s post I said my goal was to read 70 books, but then I realized I wanted to prioritize my own writing goal and downshifted to 50. It doesn’t matter because I beat the goal either way and kicked ass on my own writing goal too. Yay me.)

You can see all my Challenge books here on last year’s wrapup. This year, I read 78 books: 47 by women, 30 by men, and one co-authored by both. I recently got a Los Angeles County library card to help feed my insatiable addiction to Kindle books from the library.  I now have four libraries to choose from!

Top five books of the year:

1. My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Still bitter this isn’t on the Tournament of Books shortlist. I adored this book. Maybe it was this year’s Version Control — a book where its quirkiness spoke directly to me and others didn’t love it as much. But I loved this. The author particularly nailed the ending, which isn’t always the case with litfic, I find. And it’s utterly absorbing and unique.

2. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Another book I adored; the main character is so prickly and unlikeable and yet you fall in love with her and root for her and are so moved by her. I am planning to re-read this one in 2019 just to have the experience of reading it again.

3. Homegoing

I put a plus sign next to a book on my list if it was particularly good; Homegoing got three plus signs. It was also the fourth book I read this year. Some of the books with one or two plus signs, I had to go back and look up to remember what I liked about them; Homegoing is indelible. An amazing novel.

4. My Sister the Serial Killer

I’ve brought this up every time I read a Tournament book because this was my Zombie vote and so far I don’t regret it. I’m a sucker for the unreliable narrator and the black comedy of this book. I also love its portrayal of modern-day Nigeria, although the characters and story feel universal.

5. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

I had a lot of wonderful and very literary novels duking it out for the fifth place on the list but ultimately I had to give it to the one that I was so charmed by, I’ve already read it twice and watched the movie. I read quite a few great YA novels this year (including Jordi Perez, Foolish Hearts, and Emergency Contact) but this one was my favorite. Even though one of my friends is gonna be real mad at me if she sees this. Sorry, Jen!

Runners up: The Vegetarian, White Tears, Florence Gordon, The Bright Hour, So Much Blue, Goodbye Vitamin, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Eat Pray Love, Catherine Called Birdy, Stronger Faster and More Beautiful

Bottom five books:

1. Chaos Monkeys

Just on principle, I’m putting the one by the douchey tech bro at number one.

2. Inkheart

Ugh this one was boring and lacked stakes. Forced myself to the end because it was a category for the Read Harder Challenge, but I do not recommend.

3. The End of Eddy

A Tournament of Books novel I disliked. (This year I’m setting aside the ones I can't get into; so far I’ve given up on Call Me Zebra, and The Dictionary of Animal Languages might be next.) Just a world and a story I did not enjoy.

4. The Idiot

Boring. Elif Batuman is a super genius and a great writer but I needed a plot.

5. Love Warrior

A memoir that ultimately came across as insincere.

Next year my goal is to read 70 books (apparently it doesn’t cut into my writing time so this seems doable) and complete the Read Harder Challenge. As usual, I’ll be updating this post as I get through the challenge and use a label on my posts so you can follow along.

Here are the categories:

Total: 23/24

[X]  An epistolary novel or collection of letters: Frances and Bernard
[X]  An alternate history novel: Golden State
[X]  A book by a woman and/or AOC (Author of Color) that won a literary award in 2018: There, There
[X]  A humor book: We Are Never Meeting in Real Life
[X]  A book by a journalist or about journalism: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
[X]  A book by an AOC set in or about space: Binti
[X]  An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America House of Broken Angels*
[X]  An #ownvoices book set in Oceania: Whale Rider
[X]  A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads: The Xenofeminist Manifesto
[X]  A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman: Convenience Store Woman
[X]  A book of manga: My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness
[X]  A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character: The Bees
[X]  A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse: The Kiss Quotient
[X]  A cozy mystery: Strong Poison
[X]  A book of mythology or folklore: Circe
[X]  An historical romance by an AOC: An Extraordinary Union
[X]  A business book: Bad Blood
[X]  A novel by a trans or nonbinary author: George
[X]  A book of nonviolent true crime: A Disposition to Be Rich
[X]  A book written in prison: Cherry
[X]  A comic by an LGBTQIA creator: My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness
[X]  A children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009: George
[X]  A self-published book: True Porn Clerk Stories
[X]  A collection of poetry published since 2014: When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities

I really like this year’s challenges! I love epistolary novels and cozy mysteries, and many of the other categories are intriguing.

I’m so excited for more booky, library goodness in 2019 — thanks so much for reading!

*I wasn't planning to count this because it's largely set in San Diego, but it's the first rec on the challenge page so I guess it counts.

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