Monthly Roundup: January 2016

I think I would like to do something a little different with monthly roundups this year, namely: listing and discussing (if I care to discuss) the stared rating I gave each book. It should be easily digested and absorbed, like a Flintstones vitamin.

Here’s what I read in January.

4979Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut – 4/5 Stars
I liked this. It was written during the Bush administration, and Vonnegut was really P.O.’d about this. Reading it was like watching old Daily Show episodes.

17131869

Saga, Vol. 2 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples – 4/5 Stars
I really like Saga and I haven’t been able to put my finger entirely on the reason why, except the characters are interesting and it’s sorta feminist.

 

13590613Work by Thich Nhat Hanh – 3/5 Stars
Or: Whatever Cubicle You’re In, There You Are. This was okay. I wish I had a monk for a friend. So much of what they say is just so sweet and silly.

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell – 5/5 Stars – Reviewed in detail here

23848562

 

Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine – 5/5 Stars
I loved this. It’s a graphic short story collection. It is funny and sad with a calming suburban lack of pretense.

You by Caroline Kepnes – 4/5 Stars – Reviewed in detail here.

118944

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang – 5/5 Stars
I liked this graphic novel a lot, too, but maybe more in an intellectual way. If I were a high school English teacher, this would be required reading.

 

 

7048800

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender – 3/5 Stars
I like Aimee Bender’s short stories (like in Willful Creatures), and I wanted to love this novel, but I didn’t. It was okay. The magical realism often falls flat.

 

 

Currently reading at the time of writing: The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal, which I will probably review soon.

QUOTES OF THE MONTH:

“I really don’t know what I’m going to become from now on. I’m simply along for the ride to see what happens to this body and brain of mine. I’m startled that I became a writer. I don’t think I can control my life or my writing. Every other writer I know feels he is steering himself, and I don’t have that feeling. I don’t have that sort of control. I’m simply becoming.” – Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

“In the Buddhist tradition, a hungry ghost is a spirit with a big belly who is always hungry. Although their bellies have plenty of room, they can’t eat much because they only have a narrow throat, the size of a needle, so their capacity to swallow food is very small. Due to their tiny throats, they can never eat their fill; they’re never satisfied. We can use this image to describe the way people are when they are hungry for love and understanding, and yet their capacity to receive love and understanding is very small. You have to help bring the size of their throat back to normal before they can swallow the food that you offer.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Work

 

Advertisements

You by Caroline Kepnes

You
I picked up You by Caroline Kepnes because it has one of those plots I find immediately intriguing. After hearing one or two bloggers talking about it, I wanted to read it right away.

The novel is told from the point of view of a stalker as he becomes unhinged over a girl, told as if he were talking directly to his victim, which is where the title You comes in. The narrator, Joe, is a nondescript twenty-something man with an inferiority complex because he didn’t go to college. Aside from the stalking and murderous impulses, he’s sympathetic. At times more sympathetic than the girl he is stalking: Beck, an ivy league educated MFA candidate who is insufferably narcissistic.

In this way You flips the concept of ‘likability’ on its side by giving the stalker full reign over the narrative. Of course Joe narrates his life and crimes as if he were a good guy, but you can’t help but agree with him about certain things, like how obnoxious New York hipsters are, or how irritating #hashtags can be. His running commentary shines a light on how deeply sad he is, and you kind of want him to give up the stalking and go to community college. You understand why he hates New York hipsters from Ivy league colleges because he was raised in the city with an abusive family and no educational prospects. As well read as he is, he’ll never fit into the world Beck comes from. But every time the reader comes close to sympathizing with him, he does something truly messed up, which makes the novel both uncomfortable and darkly entertaining.

It has the addictive Gone Girl effect – except You doesn’t really have any twists. Everything you think would happen in a novel about a murderous stalker happens, and the end doesn’t feel so much like a twist than a final breath of air before a fall.

Unfortunately, the writing style was either bad or just age-group anachronistic. It reads like a John Green novel if a John Green novel had murder and very explicit sex scenes in every other chapter. I have no trouble with adult subjects in YA novels – but parts of this novel were truly explicit, not something I’d feel comfortable recommending to a kid to read. In You all the sex reads strange because of how juvenile the writing is. Kepnes was trying to write a novel that is pointedly about millennials, so that’s part of it, but I think a lot of it was just bad writing. The reading experience is quite fun, though. Fast-paced, addicting, all the stuff you want a thriller to be. I spent hours last weekend reading it because I didn’t want to put it down.

This novel is junk food. I recommend it to anyone looking for something quick and satisfying and not polite/boring: travel reading for those who hate romances, perhaps? Older high schoolers or younger college students looking for something edgier than the average YA novel but without too much needless literary substance will love this, too. It’s not Gone Girl (they’re never Gone Girl), but it’ll do. I’m looking forward to the sequel Hidden Bodies, which comes out in 2016. I can see this turning into a Dexter-esque series with the added sociopathy of millennial angst. Which is as much a reason to read You as any. (Or a reason to never read it. Your call.)

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Untitled-3

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell is one of those short story collections which has a unified theme, but not in that Chicken Soup for the Soul sort of way. Every story here is an account of what it means when you’re a woman in a world where being a woman can be a thankless minefield of emotional and physical violence and disappointment.

Highlights include: “Blood Work, 1999”, about a bleeding heart phlebotomist, one of the most engaging stories about loneliness I have read. “Playhouse” which was a gutpunch story about rape, which manages to be Important without being overbearing or preachy. In “A Multitude of Sins”, the main character is a woman faced with caring for her dying husband who abused her throughout their marriage. The title story, “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” is told as a letter from a dying mother to her women’s studies professor daughter about how she did the best she could.

I can see how a short story collection about women’s experiences, told without sentimentality, can seem to some people to be too much: too pointed, too feminist, too whiny. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters does not try to hide the fact that women are the focus, the hero, and the antihero all at once. There is sexual assault, woman being gaslighted into disbelieving their own experiences, young girls being preyed upon, but don’t confuse this with making man the villain. Men are simply on the outskirts of narrative focus, whether they are villainous or kind. (From the title story, my favorite part of the book: “All the men added together made the solid world—they were the marbles in the jar, and women were whatever sand or water or air claimed the space left between them. That’s how I saw things as a young woman, that was my women’s studies. Now I’ve come to know that women are like vodka poured over men, who melt away like ice cubes.”)

There is also the general human experience in these stories full of loneliness and alienation and grit. The stories are mostly set in rural and suburban places among working class people. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters reminded me of cowboy movies with a twist.

“The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree”  ends the collection on a hopeful note, the preceding stories making the sentimental love story somehow new and refreshing.  A little sweetness after so much difficulty. (“Susanna has not been expecting that she would wake up one day, and find that life had gotten easier, that coffee would smell better, that tomatoes would peel with less effort…”). Even when the stories are upsetting, the collection itself culminates to a sort of redemption, a reflection on the quiet ways that life makes it up to us, how all of our pain can sometimes lead to tasting something sweet and new. By the end, the point of the stories isn’t that it’s hard to be a woman, but that being a woman is a fine, strong thing to be.

 

The Art of Asking, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

20980987

There’s a helpless joy I feel whenever I hear song I loved in high school. I sway a little on my feet like the female lead in a romance novel. I mean to say I swoon.

Reading The Art of Asking had the same sort of effect on me, not only because I remembered how much I loved the Dresden Dolls back in the day but because I remembered how cool Amanda Palmer is.

She is brazen and unapologetic, sensitive but unafraid of her audience. Full disclosure: she’s so cool, I thought reading The Art of Asking would grate on my nerves. I thought, a little meanly, that Amanda Palmer was a bit of a try-hard, just like all the cool kids in high school who used to wear all black and smoke cigarettes and dress effortlessly from the thrift store.

I’ve seen the TED talk that inspired the book (or, at the very least, inspired publishers to give Amanda Palmer a book deal), and I liked it, but I failed to see how it would translate into a book.

Palmer makes it work by turning it into half memoir, half art-as-business manifesto. And often The Art of Asking is uncool: it reads like a sentimental blog post that had been professionally edited, full of stories and scenes and life philosophies. Palmer’s discussion of what art is was refreshingly not cool, as it stresses collectivism over elitism, the transactional nature of art: “Collecting the dots. Then connecting them. And then sharing the connections with those around you. This is how a creative human works. Collecting, connecting, sharing.”

This book isn’t really about Kickstarter albums, or couch-sharing. If anything, it ends on a note encouraging a return to patron-based art consumption. (See: Patreon.) Which is something to think about–maybe instead of worrying that the internet will kill art because there is no way to attach monetary value to it anymore, we can change the way we determine that value and give of our own accord. We can help and be helped, guided by our own human determination to collect, connect, and share.

Overall, I enjoyed The Art of Asking more than I thought I would. Amanda Palmer is still cool (or weird, however you look at it) but she’s also much more. I didn’t really need to hear all those stories of Neil Gaiman trying to flirt, though.

January TBR (Subject to Change)

IMG_1935

  • Work, Thich Nhat Hanh
  • A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut
  • You, Caroline Kepnes
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender
  • American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang
  • Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, Bonnie Jo Campbell
  • Killing and Dying, Adrian Tomine
  • Saga, Volume 2, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

I don’t often make ‘to-be-read’ posts because I find them too aspirational. I usually don’t follow through. But, this time I totally am going to! (She said, her eyes widening nervously.)

First, happy 2016! I love a blank slate, don’t you? This morning I set a goal for the Goodreads reading challenge, even though I said I wasn’t going to. Well, here me out: I set my goal to be 40 books, because I sort of like looking at the progress bar, but I didn’t actually want to ‘challenge’ myself to any number. 40 books is not a challenge to me at my current pace of reading, so I’m sure I won’t even think about the challenge for the rest of the year. So it’s sort of like I’m not participating. Even though I’m totally participating. What can I say…old habits die hard.

Sometimes, when it comes to personal projects, I can be a bit of a flake. But in 2016 I plan to practice practical productivity and radical self-compassion in equal measure, so it’s all good.

But there’s a reason I want to read these books in January: most of them are borrowed, and I need to read them so that I can get going with my real challenge this year, which is to read my own books so I can clear out my shelves, as I previously discussed.

I guess signing up for the #READMYOWNDAMNBOOKS challenge sent me into a impulsive library spree. I have a library problem. Four of these books are library books: Work; You; Mothers, Tell Your Daughters; and Killing and Dying. Two more I borrowed from my boyfriend: A Man Without a Country and Saga: Volume 2. Because if I spend enough time with you and you have books I will sometimes be all, “…Can I take this?” — fair warning. (Note: I welcome and love when people do the same to me! PLEASE! TAKE A BOOK! I HAVE TOO MANY!)

My compulsive borrowing and library visiting is why my shelf is so jam-packed with unread books, so I’m going to gobble those up and then read the two books off my shelves, which I’ve owned for some time and never got around to: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and American Born Chinese.

Three of these books are graphic novels/comics: Killing and Dying, American Born Chinese, and Saga: Volume 2. I am really excited because I have been dipping my toes in and out of graphic novels/comics for years but now I want to COMMIT. Getting with the program, as it were. My problem is mainly I don’t like comics where a lot of things happen, like explosions, gun fights, apocalypse…well, I sort of like apocalypses. I really liked the first volume of Saga, which is a comic in which things sometimes happen, but with bad-ass lady characters, so I feel like I am progressing.

What are you reading this month? Please let me know here or add me on Goodreads.