Women Talking by Miriam Toews

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I liked how a novel called Women Talking dared to be about just that. More broadly, it’s about women in a Mennonite community meeting in secret to discuss their plans to escape the men who have been drugging and assaulting them in their sleep. It felt at times more like a play than a novel.

This novel is in turns a fascinating and frustrating experience. The characters all sort of sound the same, which is frustrating when I felt like I couldn’t tell them apart or connect with any of them, except for the narrator, a young male teacher in the community who is trusted to take the minutes of the meetings because the women are illiterate. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the narrating character–the character whose eyes the reader sees from–is a man. That a novel about women talking is also about a man watching, helpless.

I can’t say this is a fun read but it’s certainly riveting and fiercely feminist. It is, of course, based on a true story. I found the ending to be a let down, but then again, anything else wouldn’t have felt true.

Thank you to Bloomsbury USA and NetGalley for providing me with a review copy of this book.

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Books I Read in January 2019

This month really tried me. A lot of good things happened, but the stressful kind of good thing, and so of course I was too busy being stressed to really enjoy any of it. Plus (maybe not so unrelated), the winter blues have struck me hard and I’ve been prone to feeling like NOTHING is really good AT ALL and I’m totally messing up MY ENTIRE LIFE. Which I know is a lie.

I gave myself a deadline of January 23 (the start of the spring semester of my grad program) to finish 2 short story drafts, and I did. They both need some work, but a complete draft is a complete draft and I’m happy. This spring I am starting a new writing project that is a secret goal, and I have a deadline: my 28th birthday.

Other good things: I’ve read some good books.

BOOKS I’VE READ IN JANUARY:

  1. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
    This book was adorable and I raced through it. It is a contemporary romance about a high-powered Silicon Valley math geek with autism and her love affair with a male escort she hires to teach her how to be good at sex things. If that isn’t the kind of wild ride fiction is all about, I don’t know anything.
  2. Tin Man by Sarah Winman
    This was a slower paced read, but I still read it quickly. A lot of poetic language and sadness and beauty, though I think this is the sort of book I will forget having ever read.
  3. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont (audio; also, this is a re-read)
    A security blanket book. I read it for the first time in 2013, on the bus to the mall where I worked. This time I listened to it while driving to job interviews. I liked the narrator.
  4. If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel
    Wonderful short stories about the experiences of first generation Indian Americans. All told in the first person. Some of these characters are truly hot messes, but I loved them and I loved the crisp writing so much.
  5. The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett
    A thriller, horror, thing. This book is divisive, but I devoured it. The narrator was crazy and I still don’t understand the ending but what a wild ride.
  6. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (audio)
    This was a gossipy romp into the crazy world of arrogant and corrupt people who not only buy their own BS, they patent it.And the not so good stuff….
  7. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
    Alas, the first DNF of the new year. I had this on hold for a while at the library so I’m annoyed I didn’t like it. I got a few stories in and gave up in the middle of the story that was just fictional recaps of Law & Order: SVU. This book reminded me of a tumblr blog, pre-pornography ban, dirty for its own sake and in love with it’s own deepness. I couldn’t connect with it at all.
  8. No Exit by Taylor Adams
    I’m in the middle of this now. It may be my second DNF of the year. I like thrillers but the first few chapters haven’t gotten my interest yet.
  9. You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian
    I’m going to finish this one, but it’ll be more of a hate read that’ll drag into February. Roupenian is the author of Cat Person, a short story that was published in the New Yorker and went viral last year. The rest of the collection feels very rushed, and I think I suspect why. Seeing a short story writer make big bucks is pretty cool, though.

That’s all for now. The spring semester has begun and I’m already exhausted. I started a new job in the teen department of a library, which is an exciting thing, so if the next recap seems YA-heavy you know why.

2018 in Review

Happy new year! I wanted to pop in here to review my 2018 year in books and talk about what I’ve been up to lately.

I read 38 books this year, which is not a lot, but I spent most of the year not feeling like reading. In the last month or so, I’ve been reading constantly. This is because I read Goodbye, Vitamin and I remembered why I love fiction. The main lesson I learned in 2018 is that sometimes we need to take a break in order to take off running.

Here are my top 10 books I read in 2018:

1. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
2. Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
3. Florida by Lauren Groff
4. Sweet & Low by Nick White
5. Lit by Mary Karr
6. Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
7. Educated by Tara Westover
8. I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi
9. What if This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky
10. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

 

My reading goal for 2019 is to read 30 books. Secretly, I want to read much more, but I am learning the power of secret goals. Secret goals are when you tell no one about what you plan to do until you’ve already done it. It’s a good way to confuse and amaze people, and best of all you avoid unsolicited advice.

IRL goals: I’d like stay off social media, except Goodreads and Litsy and this blog and I don’t know, LinkedIn, for at least 3 months. I’ll check in during March to see how I feel about continuing it all year long. I was inspired by John Green, but I didn’t want to promise a year. I’d also like to run another marathon. I plan to graduate with my master’s degree in library and information science and then we’ll see where the future takes me. I am only a little bit very anxious.

What I’ve been doing lately: I recently started volunteering with CRAFT literary, an online magazine, as a reader. Reading other people’s unpublished fiction has been so valuable for me. I’m realizing how important that first paragraph is, and how often people over-explain in their fiction. I’m realizing how often I do the same thing.

I am slowly working my way through a book called DIY MFA by Gabriella Pereira, which is inspiring me to create my own writing education, and I’ve also realized the importance of workshops. Currently, I’m enrolled in Fiction I online with Gotham Writers, which has been such a delight. I just finished a draft of a new story, the first one in a long while that feels complete. This spring, I will be giving Grubstreet‘s online classes another whirl with a novel intensive (because I have some secret goals). Having homework and deadlines has been helpful. I feel focused and evolving as a writer for the first time in a while.

But, also, I’ve been busy, and I hate being busy but I’m not sure how to do all the things I want to do without being busy. The other day I took a nap that transported me to heaven and then brought me back to life. Resting, too, has become another homework assignment.

Along with being less interested in reading this year, I lost my appetite for talking about books, but it’s coming back to me. Writing more has gotten me reading more and vice versa. It’s like a pendulum, swaying back and forth. Maybe this year I will update this blog regularly. (Only time will tell.)

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

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The thing about thrillers is that they’re not about characters, or even plot, but how it all comes together in the reading experience. A thriller needs to shock and surprise in order to be successful. It needs to be unputdownable. The more thrillers I read, the harder this is to achieve – like some sort of literary high, my tolerance for twists has risen. I read The Girl on the Train. It was okay. I read The Woman in the Window. It was okay. Still, I wait to be thrilled.

Baby Teeth doesn’t try to be one of those books but because it’s a dark thriller, I anticipate it will be compared to them. It’s different, though – I appreciate the uniqueness of its story and the characters, its lack of a mysterious dead woman driving the plot. Most of all, I admit that once I got into the meat of the story, I had trouble putting it down.

The plot: a beautiful couple has a child, Hanna, who is non-verbal and keeps getting kicked out of schools. Suzette, a stay at home mother, has seen her child’s dark side, but the father, Alex, only sees her as a sweet eight year old girl. The story alternates between Suzette’s and Hanna’s perspectives. As the story builds, Hanna takes on the persona of a witch, and starts to plan her mother’s demise. The character’s darkness rises and it drew me in, unable to look away as the story got more and more twisted.

Then, it falls flat. I’m going to talk about the ending of the book, so stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers.

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation is the tale of a wealthy depressive in her early 20s, set in New York City in the year 2000. I’m going to risk a guess and say that to most people, the main character of this novel is not the sort of person that’s appealing to read about. Especially since the book is written in the first person. It basically means you will be living in the character’s thoughts for however many pages it is. And it gets dark in there.

I’m a huge fan of deeply flawed female characters, but even I had trouble stomaching Moshfegh’s narrator in this novel. Both of her terrible parents died a few years ago, she just graduated from Columbia University, she’s supposedly effortlessly beautiful and she knows it. But after being fired from her part time job at an art gallery, she decides to spend the next year taking a variety of sleeping pills from her hilariously incompetent doctor so that she can spend as much time asleep as humanly possible.

If books came with scratch and sniff, this one would smell stale, like dirty laundry left out too long. In a good way, if only because it’s purposeful. Living inside this character’s head was truly upsetting. My Year of Rest and Relaxation perfectly encapsulates clinical depression and addiction. It’s darkly funny at some points and deeply sad at other points, but the entire time I was reading it I thought there was no way the plot could go anywhere; the sorrow just went too far down, as if the depression was the entire character, the entire plot. Ultimately, the ending did fall slightly flat to me, reaching as it did for a high note in a novel about the search for nothingness. Still, because I admire women writers who write about women that prickle the reader’s skin, I admire this novel and Moshfegh’s writing.

Thanks to Penguin and Netgalley for providing me with a review copy of this book.

Sweet and Low: Stories by Nick White

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I haven’t read a short story collection in a minute, so Sweet and Low by Nick White was a treat: I read it mostly in the ten or fifteen minutes before bed, or in the minutes I spent waiting for something or someone. Sometimes short story writers lose me in this way – I like the first story, but then the second story is harder to get into, and so on. With Sweet and Low I was always able to jump back in and get re-absorbed by White’s writing.

Sweet and Low is full of personal, closely narrated stories about people in the south. Many of the stories deal with sexuality and shame, making it all feel so very American and familiar. The first story is about a woman who, after her husband’s death, discovers he was having an affair with a younger man – a sort of cliche story line that feels real through White’s writing. The second half of the collection is a series of disjointed stories about a single character, from his childhood through adulthood, and dealing with sexuality, family, and loss beautifully.

My main criticism is that from time to time the stories switch from being fully realized and palpably real to having something of a literary magazine flavor which is hard to describe. I love literary magazines, but they have a tendency to celebrate writing rather than stories – some parts of Sweet and Low feel like writing, and some parts feel, brilliantly, like stories. Enough so that I recommend it, especially for those stolen minutes of reading wherever you can find them.

Thanks to NetGalley and Dutton for providing me with a review copy.

Writing In the Margins #3: Ideas

I’ve had this problem with my writing over the last couple years – I had no ideas. I thought and thought and still no ideas. Sometimes I would come up with small ideas, nothing big enough to sustain whole stories, but ideas, still – usually of half-imagined characters. I can come up with characters no problem, and snippets of dialogue, and maybe half of a chewed up plot line, but actual story – this has been impossible to come by.

Which is I guess why I haven’t finished a short story in around two years, though I’ve started plenty. I kept chalking it up to laziness. Why couldn’t I take half an idea or a character name and turn it into a freaking novel? A lack of discipline, of course.

I am currently working on two short stories. One of which is a half-formed idea that I think if I punch enough will finally start to look like a story. Another one, the more recent one, came from an idea that feels larger. I was sitting in Starbucks, forcing myself to write, and it came to me.

Is it a good idea? I don’t know. But there’s characters there, and a plot, and even a sub-plot, and CONFLICT! How did it happen? Well, I squinted at my computer screen in boredom for long enough that my brain was just like, “Okay, enough, here you go – do something.”

For the first time in a while I think about my story when I’m not writing. That’s how it used to be – like my mind couldn’t rest until the story was finished and all written down. But this is still a small idea, and an idea is not a story by itself. So what happens when you finally have an idea? If you don’t keep working on the story, there’s a chance it’ll leave you, and you’ll forget why you were excited to write it in the first place.

I am living in fear that this will happen. Right now I am busy – I am learning how to admit that without feeling lazy. While I write this it’s finals week, but I still wrote a little bit today. I am getting better all the time at this writing-with-a-day-job thing. It only took me a few years to have an idea. Hopefully, in another decade, I’ll have finally written something good.

The point of this post is mainly just to check in, and because I felt like I have to update this blog every once in a while or else it goes to the blog graveyard to die. But also I wanted to say that I’ve finally taken the writing advice that I’ve heard so many times, and it worked. You can’t wait to feel inspired, you just have to sit your butt in the chair and get to work. I was always all for the sitting part, but once it got to the work part, the blank word processing document with its cursor going blink blink blink always filled me with a bone-deep exhaustion. It didn’t make me feel especially creative. On the day in Starbucks when I got the idea for the story I am currently working on, I had a backpack full of grad school work I should have been doing instead. But I wanted to try and write something. I put a timer on for 25 minutes, and opened up a notebook, and after a few minutes of that familiar, no-fun feeling of having nothing to write, I eventually did. For every writing session that goes like that, I’ve had a bunch of others that have gone the other way, where I clam up and then go take a nap instead. I’ve heard it gets easier the more often you do it.