Some Months Are Less Exciting: June 2015 Round Up + Library Book Sale Haul

It is July and July is so summer that I am not even going to apologize that this post is late. I’m just going to be chill about it.

I actually didn’t read so much in June, or at least it didn’t feel like I did. I am currently 7 books behind in my Goodreads challenge, and screaming on the inside.

I started the month reading Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood, and it wasn’t bad. I think I need a break from Atwood at the moment, actually, even though The Handmaid’s Tale is up next and I love that novel. I am still going to try to read all of her novels this year (especially since she has a new one coming out in the fall), but I find that it takes me a little longer to get through her books, and I am in the mood for quicker reads now that it’s summer.

Bodily Harm is about a journalist recovering from breast cancer who accidentally travels to a politically dangerous island where shit starts going down. It was a definite maturation in plot than her earlier novels. As always, I love how Atwood writes female characters who are chronically unsatisfied by men. #realism

While I was reading Bodily Harm I also read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout as, you know, some light reading. I reviewed it here. Then, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee over father’s day weekend. There’s some problematic aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird being the ‘quintessential’ racial justice novel in the U.S., but, on the other hand, Atticus is a DILF and I still love this novel. Hopefully I’ll be able to review Go Set a Watchman within the next few weeks, and I will discuss this more. I’m already annoyed by all the Atticus hand-wringing that’s happening online. Just because it takes place in the future doesn’t make it a damn sequel!

I finished out the month with Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown, which is one of the only self-help books that changed my life in real time. It helped me realize that when things feel scary or uncomfortable, that’s actually a good thing. When I want to run is when I should sit still with what’s scaring me. That’s being vulnerable and open, and it leads to everything good.

So, four books last month. I feel like I’m slacking! But, like I said, it’s summer. As for the SWBR summer reading challenge, To Kill a Mockingbird counts for the classics by women challenge.

I’m hoping July will see more books crossed off my list. Also, I went to a library book sale today, so here! A bonus haul!

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The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr / Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (this paperback was in poor shape, but I have been hankering to re-read this so I had to grab it) / The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice / Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood / American Pastoral by Philip Roth / Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times

Well, that was boring. Now I have to go read. Or watch Orange is the New Black. Either/or.

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Short Stories, Literary Bros, and My Girlfriend, Margaret Atwood: May 2015 Round Up

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#bookstagram

I recently listened to the New Yorker Fiction podcast episode where Gary Shteyngart reads Lorrie Moore and immediately went to the library to take out Self Help, Moore’s first short story collection. I really admire writers who get famous off of their short stories. There’s no money and very little readers to gain from being a writer of short stories, but the fact that we’re still talking about writers like Lorrie Moore with such reverence shows that there is still something magical about a story that can be life-affirming, funny, and sad all in one sitting.

I liked Self Help a lot, but it’s very much a collection by a young writer. One of the stories is called “How to Be A Writer”–about a young woman being a writer. If I never have to read another story about a writer being a writer, I’ll be happy. It just screams I’M A WRITER WITH NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT. Otherwise, I can’t wait to read more from Lorrie Moore; she seems to be a foreshadowing of my favorite newer short story writers, like Aimee Bender, Miranda July and Aryn Kyle, and I think I have a lot to learn from her.

After that I read the short story collection Tenth of December by George Saunders, which I resisted for a long time. There was a lot of hype surrounding this book when it first released. I read the title story for a writing class in college and I just hated it so much. Re-reading it now made me realize that I was wrong–“Tenth of December” is a good story. I think my annoyance back then was that it was just that: a good short story, and yet people were talking about how George Saunders was the best living short story writer of our time like it was pure fact. Blergh.

If you haven’t noticed, lately I’m into reading books mainly by women–and I think this was a medicinal measure to cure me of the yuckiness I was feeling in the book world; it was getting to me that male writers get titles such as greatest and genius a little too easy while so many women writers are being overlooked. Many women writers can write just as good a short story collection as George Saunders (I’m discussing one of them right above!). I’m tired of taking writers like Saunders so seriously all the time while all of my favorite writers (women) get called quirky.

What I realize now that I didn’t realize in college is that none of that–none of the hype, the think pieces about diversity in publishing, my own personal annoyance about LitBros, et al–have anything to actually do with George Saunders’ writing, which is good. I should stop comparing every short story writer I like to Miranda July (A very “Quirky” writer), but No One Belongs Here More Than You is basically my favorite short story collection, and Tenth of December reminded me of it in some ways. The joy in both collections is seeing the banal turned extraordinary, or the extraordinary turned banal, see: “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” my personal favorite from Tenth of December. (A close second is “Victory Lap”)

Saunders’ work seems to focus a lot on class anxiety in America, but in a way that is funny just as often as it is tragic. I recommend it to anyone who may be new to reading short story collections, because the writing style is very conversational.

When I was at the library picking up a copy of Self Help I stumbled upon a beautifully designed indie-published book called Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm. The book is about a woman named Leah, whose brother went missing when they were both young. It goes in and out of past and present, and although it seemed full of potential, I didn’t love it. I reviewed on Goodreads:

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Ain’t it a shame.

I needed something short and sweet after that, so I reached for some YA: Legend by Marie Lu, which I reviewed here. I will be reading Prodigy soon.

I’m reading Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood at the moment. It’s not my favorite Atwood. It’s about a love triangle between some miserable 70s hipsters who work at a museum. How many douchey hipster men has Margaret Atwood dated? I feel like we could swap some stories. At this point in my Atwood reading adventure I am just antsy to get through the 70s and reread The Handmaid’s Tale. I loved it when I was in high school, and you all know how I feel about dystopian. I am getting impatient to get to it, but next up after Life After Man is Bodily Harm, which I guess I will write about in next month’s round up. At this point I feel like I have traded my relationships with douchey hipster men for a monogamous relationship with Margaret Atwood. It’s an improvement.


 

Hey, thanks for reading. How’s the Goodreads challenge going, you ask? Not great, Bob.

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Just kidding, it’s fine, except I’m four books behind and that is crazy to me since I feel like I’m reading a lot. I wanted to get ahead a little bit so I could spend some time later in the year reading longer books, like The Stand or Game of Thrones both of which have been wearing holes in my to-read pile but are just too damn long. The biggest mistake I made in 2014 was choosing to read IT by Stephen King as my one long book. That book was a clusterfuck, and I won’t get that month of reading back. It’s such a commitment, you guys! #goodproblems

So, what did y’all read this month? Feel free to write to me in the comments, by email at saltwaterbookreview@gmail.com, or on Tumblr if you have any books you NEED TO DISCUSS!! (I know that feel.)

Creepy kids, lit babes, and how to write about your escape from a burning building: Monthly Roundup, April 2015

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I kept meaning to post my April roundup, and now, embarrassingly, it’s the middle of May. So let me dust off my Goodreads history and see what I read last month.

WRITING THE WRITER

I started the month with a writing ‘how-to’ book which I picked up randomly from the library, called Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo. I can’t remember why I picked it up, but I think it had something to do with the fact that I have had a pretty rough winter, and I am also trying to create a steady, permanent writing routine for the first time in my life (I can make a post on that later if you would like to hear more). A lot of my fiction is personal, I suppose, but never autobiographical. When I try to write autobiographical fiction, it just ends up boring and whiny. I tend to instead borrow bits and pieces of feelings, places, and characters from my experiences, but narratively speaking, it’s mostly invented. Anyway, I’m in a weird time in my life, trying to heal some past wounds while also trying to build a writing career with no starting-off point except my own stubborn belief that this is what I’m meant to do. I thought this book could help me turn my own personal brand of unhappiness into something that I felt was good enough to merit readers. Unfortunately, I found myself not relating to most of the text. I think it’s aimed much more towards memoirists or, at the very least, writers of purely autobiographical fiction.

One thing I absolutely hated was when DeSalvo would bring up ‘confessional’ type writers, such as Sylvia Plath, who were apparently Doing it Wrong. I felt it was kind of tacky how DeSalvo brought up the personal nature of Plath’s writing only to say that Plath wasn’t viewing her work as a form of healing so therefore she committed suicide. That felt very simplistic and diminishing to me, and totally dismisses how powerful/healing so many readers have found Plath’s work. DeSalvo also wrote a lot about her creative writing students, and this was sometimes laughable. ‘My one student who was raped, my one student who was homeless, my one student who escaped a burning building’, etc and so on. Did she ever have students who didn’t have traumatic pasts? How did they do in her class? It seemed to me that her brand/style of teaching writing is aimed entirely on memoirs of traumatic experience. This is fine, I just couldn’t really find a use for it myself.

It also made me wonder about different types of teaching that goes on in creative writing. Some teachers will really play up the emotional aspect of writing, while others will say that all that matters is the quality of the work. DeSalvo is writing from a place that says that our writing has more purpose than just being good work. I think she believes that good work will come if we make healing ourselves with our writing our main goal. I disagree. There’s a place for emotional, healing writing, but writing that you give to others to read and react to is usually a different kind of work–sometimes they intersect, but I wouldn’t expect to make a narrative out of my journals and have people get anything out of reading them. But, again, that’s just the kind of writer I am; there is good reason why writing a memoir at my age is not something I will even consider. I need to look outside of myself in order to write stories that are worthwhile. All this is just to say that this book isn’t for me, but writers of memoirs might get something out of it. I wouldn’t recommend it to writers of poetry, because her writing ‘program’ is aimed towards the turning of painful experiences into narratives in order to heal, and I know that personally, focusing too much on narrative doesn’t really work when I’m writing poetry.

Next I read Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood. The title refers to a novel-within-the-novel written by the main character, who is a writer of romance novels under a pen name, and is currently on the run after faking her own death. I would describe this as a mostly comic novel, and I liked it a lot although it’s not a favorite. I’m really enjoying reading Atwood’s novels in chronological order–I’ll make a post on this later.

LIT BABE ALERT: Junot Díaz

I broke my current streak of reading only women to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, and ended up with a crush. (This is the real reason I don’t like to read men.) After I finished this novel I went right on youtube and watched a bunch of interviews with Díaz, consumed with lust/admiration. What a babe. I don’t have much to say about this book except it was excellent, weird and stubborn and unapologetic in all the best ways, and reminded me that I want to learn Spanish. Now I’m back on Duolingo and learning a lot. Reading improves your life!™

THE MONSTER YOU RAISE

After that things took a creepy turn in April when I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, who wrote “The Lottery”. I loved this novel so much. It’s very American gothic, and it gets under your skin while somehow being so delightful to read. I think it’s basically I Capture the Castle meets American Horror Story, which of course means I recommend it to EVERYONE. So great. It’s basically about two sisters who are shunned by their whole town because of an “accident” that had poisoned their entire family years before. It’s so good, definitely a must-read for anyone who loves books with unreliable narrators and psychologically disturbed characters.

I somehow read two novels in a row about young characters who are accused of killing their families. How cute. Is there a genre for this? Anyway, I read Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, and I must say, Flynn is becoming one of my favorite contemporary writers. Her books are just so entertaining; I fly through them. I definitely recommend them for anyone who is in a reading slump, or wants to get back into reading–all three of her novels are impossible to put down. The main character of Dark Places is a mentally unstable woman, in true Flynn fashion. When she was a child she escaped from the murder of her entire family except her brother, who was accused of the crime and is currently in jail. Like with Sharp Objects, much of the story felt like it was for pure shock value, but the writing is so crisp that I can’t help but feel that Flynn almost always gets away with it.


That’s it for April. In total I read five books. If you’re wondering where I’m at in my Goodreads 2015 Challenge: I have read a total of 27 books to meet my goal of 80 for the year. Goodreads tells me I am 2 books behind, but that’s fine for me. Because we’re halfway through May already, I can give you some spoilers for next month’s roundup: so far I have been reading mostly short story collections, and gasp! Two books by men. Other than that I am really enjoying making an effort to read women this year, although I have noticed that the books I am reading are written by predominately white, Western authors. I am going to try to make an effort to change that this summer, so please feel free to give me some recommendations, and as always, hang out with me on Goodreads to see what I’m currently reading.

Recapping

Let’s just get the sorry-I-have-been-bad-at-blogging part out of the way. Sorry I have been bad at blogging. This semester has been hell on earth, but now it’s summer, which means I have more time to read and review books when I’m not job hunting or curled in the fetal position somewhere, opening weeping with my right hand buried deep in a jar of peanut butter.

How are you all?

Since I haven’t reviewed any books since January (not really, anyway—I have written a sentence here and there on Goodreads), I wanted to go through the ones I have read over the past three months that I feel are worth discussing.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
Rating: 3/5 Stars

A little dull, in the way “classics” sometimes are, and not at all romantic, Wuthering Heights, at least, was a good wintertime read. I read it in the first few weeks of the semester this past January, mostly with a cup of tea by my side. Nice in theory, but I was glad to be done with it when it was over. Now I can say that I have read it and move on to something else.

The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
Rating: 4/5 Stars

I’ve been quite into graphic novels lately, and this was the first I read in 2013. Persepolis offers a wonderful historical narrative with lots of heart and personality. I only gave it four stars because I felt it dragged a little towards the end, but this may have been because I read it in about two sittings, and its longer than the average graphic novel as it combined four volumes in one. But, still, I recommend it, especially if you’re not very familiar with graphic novels and you’d like a good introductory text.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
Rating: 5/5 Stars

Continuing on my graphic novel kick (and refusing, as it were, to read a graphic novel written by a man), I read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I was completely floored by this one, and I very much recommend it, especially if you are interested in graphic novels, women’s autobiographical narratives, LGBT lit, stories about family and the father/daughter bond or lack thereof. Or, you know, if you like to read good things. Definitely check out Fun Home.

Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody
Rating: 5/5 Stars

I had to read this for a class. A class, incidentally, that I hated, and got a blasted B+ in. Never mind—this book should be required reading for high schoolers, in my opinion. It’s an autobiography of a woman who was an activist in the civil rights movement, most notably taking part in the famous lunch counter sit-ins in Mississippi. It’s very unsentimental and powerful.

Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, Anders Nilson
No rating

Kind of a scrapbook of sorts that Anders Nilson put together of pictures, letters, notes, etc in remembrance of his fiancé, who died of cancer. I didn’t rate it because it felt too personal of a book for that, but it made me cry like a baby and the love inside its pages makes this book a precious thing.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
Rating: 5/5 Stars

Oh boy. Oh man. I have the biggest literary crush on Jeffrey Eugenides. I hope I never meet the man, because I’d be all giggly in his presence. He’s just great, that’s all. I really regret reading this in the middle of the Semester from Hell, because I wish I had written a full review. Now it’s kind of a blur to me, although, like all of Eugenides novels, there are scenes and characters and sentences that have stuck with me, living inside my bone marrow, probably, because oh boy, oh man, I’d kiss on Jeffrey Eugenides, I like his books that much!

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, David Levithan & Rachel Cohn
Rating: 1/5 Stars

I wanted to like this, I really did, especially since Levithan’s half of Will Grayson, Will Grayson was my favorite part—but I just did not like this book at all. I can’t remember not liking a book so plainly in such a time. I feel like it was dumbed down in a way that it should be illegal for YA books to be dumbed down. Not in themes, but in language, characterization, etc. I wrote in my Goodreads review that everyone should read Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno instead, and I stand by that. That book has the same kind of youth counterculture (that seems way too cool to be true) while offering a lot more than just the selling point of Teen Punk Rock and Kissing, which seemed all there was to Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist—that and a lot of emptiness, like packing peanuts.

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Bryan Lee O’Malley
Rating: 3/5 Stars

I don’t know why I read two novels that eventually turned into films starring Michael Cera back to back. Probably because I have seen both films before I read the movies, and you know, I liked them enough. I liked this little graphic novel. I read it in one sitting. It was cute, and hip without being annoying. I’ll be reading the rest of the series this summer.

Willful Creatures, Aimee Bender
Rating: 4/5 Stars

I was recommended one of the stories in this collection by my creative writing professor. I ended up reading the entire book in the span of one night. It reminded me a lot of Miranda July, whose collection No One Belongs Here More Than You is my favorite collection of short stories and one of my favorite books, period, so I think I was just happy to find it. These stories can all be classified as magical realism, with a kind of whimsical, sassy bent. I tend to not be into magical realism, and some of these stories lost me a little by getting a little too absurdist, but for the most part, it was a perfect balance.

Office Girl, Joe Meno
Rating: 2/5 Stars

This novel broke my heart, I swear to god. I love Joe Meno. He’s one of my favorite writers, The Boy Detective Fails is my favorite book, his short stories are transcendent, he’s dreamy, etc, etc. Office Girl, though, I can only review with a sigh. Sigh. Office Girl herself turns out to be one of the most blatant and flimsy Manic Pixie Dream Girls I can ever recall reading about. The novel starts off with the main female character’s point of view for the first hundred pages or so, and then the male character is introduced and suddenly it’s all his thoughts, his feelings, his perception of this totally out of this world queen of quirky adorableness. She’s always just about to leave town—but not before stealing the male lead’s heart and changing him for the better. Gag. Please, if you’ve never read Meno, don’t start with this one.

Embroideries, Marjane Satrapi
Rating: 4/5

This is a very short glimpse into a conversation of different generations of women, regarding love, sex, and marriage. It’s not Persepolis, but it’s a nice little addition.

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So, that’s that. I read a few other books that I didn’t like or dislike enough to comment on, mostly for class and etc.  I also recently reread Franny and Zooey and am rereading The Catcher in the Rye as we speak (well, not as we speak, for we are not speaking, and I am not reading, I am typing). I am calling it the Great Salinger Reread of 2013. Regarding this post, I failed quite valiantly, of course, but I am very much looking forward to reading the books I missed out on over the summer.

Until next time, y’all—hopefully it won’t be such a long time between posts this time. Next up, I am thinking of compiling a list of my favorite book bloggers/booktubers, because I have a bunch and they are so much better than me.

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Book Challenge Progress: 20/70
Currently Reading: ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King