Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

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John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van, was a solid first effort, but I remember it feeling thin, perhaps not long enough. With Universal Harvester, Darnielle has found his stride in writing fiction. The writing here is immersive, empathetic, and occasionally funny. The first part of the novel evokes a nostalgic middle America; set in the late 1990s in a video store in Iowa, a clerk named Jeremy is getting complaints that certain VHS tapes are being recorded over with strange home video clips. As Jeremy investigates this mystery with his coworkers, various townspeople, and his widowed father, the story begins to get even more mysterious.

This isn’t really a horror novel, like it’s being described in some blurbs, but it does have a creepy, slow-burning cinematic quality to it, much like an indie horror flick that is more interesting than scary. I can’t really criticize the writing at all; it’s well plotted and paced, but I just didn’t “get it”, which is my least favorite review to give to a novel, because I know the fault is mainly mine. I liked the first quarter of the novel a lot, but as the narration progressed to different times and places, my mind started to wander and I started to lose focus. My interest completely fell off by the end of the novel, thus, I didn’t really get the ending or what exactly was going on. My bad. Universal Harvester is one of those vague, open-ended thrillers, one I really need to be in a certain mood to love.

I’ve got a lot on my mind lately and I much prefer fluffy, easy-to-follow stuff. Romance novels, long-form journalism, and comic books are sort of my jam lately. (This has nothing to do with my review of Universal Harvester – I just wanted to let you know where I’m at.) The book I most enjoyed recently was The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, a contemporary romance about two office workers that end up hate-boning. It was just the ticket for my scattered brain this month; I came home from the March on Washington on January 22 and sat in bed for hours finishing it and ignoring the news like the bad feminist I am. It was perfect.

So, consider this a non-review: I think John Darnielle is awesome, and his second novel shows that he is not just a musician-turned-author, he’s a talented author in his own right. I didn’t really “get” it, but I feel that way about a lot of similarly structured novels. If I were in a different mood, or it was closer to Halloween, I probably would have had a better attention span for this. You may love it, especially if you’re looking for something atmospheric, nostalgic and a little bit strange.

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Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller

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As I started on Mary Miller’s new short story collection, I wasn’t expecting much. Which turns out to be a good thing, sometimes.

I think the reason why I disliked Difficult Women by Roxane Gay last month is that the hype, fanfare, and my own expectations were way too high. Mary Miller, in contrast, is a writer I’ve never heard of. Difficult Women and Always Happy Hour, both new January releases, are actually very similar. Let me just take a moment to be thankful that two short story collections written by women about women are being released, well-received, this month. Difficult Women features situations and lives that are a bit more, well, difficult – and Always Happy Hour is like a revolving door collection of the same story, the same life, in different situations. The characters in Always Happy Hour feel younger, even if they’re not. They’re less mature, less heroic. They are characters that make their own problems, characters who laze around, drink far too much, and think about how much they don’t love their boyfriends. But, hey, when the writing is good, it’s good, and Mary Miller captures the minuscule details of her character’s lives with a witty and warm voice that I loved reading. Her brutally honest and unpretentious writing style appealed to me a lot.

In one story, a women reflects on the foster home where she works, and the imperfect but loving relationship she has with a girl caught in the system. This story is completely un-romanticized, but it’s full of heart. In another story, a women spends a cruise with her boyfriend and his family, drinking too much and being sea sick. Another women in a different story considers whether she should ask her boyfriend to stop filming them having sex. Mary Miller’s stories reminded me why I love short stories – they don’t need to be wildly ambitious like a novel. All they need to do is show the reader one scene and make it real. Miller does that beautifully, and I am glad I’ve heard of her now. You should be too!

The best books I read in 2016 + 2017 Resolutions

Top 11 of 2016
(in the order I read them)

1. Saga Vol. 2-5 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Saga is a comic series about a family caught between an intergalactic space war. It’s fun, sexy-in-a-weird-way, and feminist. What more could you want?!

2. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell
If I had to pick a favorite of the year…it might just be Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Read my review here.

3. Killing and Dying: Stories by Adrian Tomine
This turned out to be a year of graphic novels for me, starting with Killing and Dying, which I read last January. I wrote about it here.

4. You by Caroline Kepnes
This got a lot of buzz, and it was well deserved – this was a seriously fun, fast-paced read. Read my review here.

5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Oh, Jude. You poor thing. Reading A Little Life was an engrossing experience. Read my review here.

6. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Thanks, Obama, for the book rec. Basically, Fates and Furies is the story of a marriage; first told by the husband and then the wife. The first half, Fates (the husband’s side), was good. The second half, Furies, was truly phenomenal. I guess because women have to do everything around here.

7. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Junot Diaz is my favorite contemporary short story writer. His stories are quick, simple on the surface but complex underneath, and deliciously unpretentious.

8. Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart
This is a graphic memoir written about Tom Hart’s experience after the death of his toddler daughter, Rosalie. It was really sad and really beautiful, and I think graphic memoir is a perfect medium for such a story.

9. March Books 1-2 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
I haven’t gotten a chance to read Book 3 yet, but I already know that this series is very important, and should be required reading in schools. It’s about John Lewis’s experience in the Civil Rights Movement, including sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the 1963 March on Washington. This is an important historical testament to the men and women who bravely fought for civil rights, and I encourage everyone to read it.

10. Alex + Ada, Vol. 1 by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn
Another comic – this time, one about a guy who falls in love with a robot. It’s a fun read, but raises a lot of questions about artificial intelligence, the way technology has invaded our personal lives, and the fear and uncertainty that comes with all that.

11. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
I was only going to make this a list of 10 books, but I listened to This is the Story of a Happy Marriage on audiobook and loved Ann Patchett’s voice in my ear with a fierceness, so I had to include it. She is a very smart, warm-hearted writer and I really enjoyed listening to this collection of essays about her life and writing.


2017 Reading Resolutions

Last year I chose to set my goal at 40 books. I know for some people it’s hard to find the time to read 40 books, but I read every day on my commute to work, so I usually can read about 50 books a year without effort – I probably could read 40 books even if I stopped reading everywhere except on the train. My reasoning for setting my goal low was that I wanted to simply enjoy reading without pressure. I wanted to read long books that take a whole month to read without worrying about falling off pace on my reading goal. I think this was helpful, because I had a lot of stressful things going on this year, and my Goodreads reading challenge was not something I wanted to be stressed out about as well.

In 2017 my goal is to read good books, so I will probably be DNF’ing a lot more books. I plan to be a bit more discerning about galleys and ARCs, too, although I want to keep up with new titles as much as possible. And I plan to set my goal a little bit higher at 60 books. I desperately want to be the kind of reader that can read 100+ books every year, simply because I’m getting older and my bookshelf isn’t getting any smaller. It’s just that I don’t think it’s something that’s really possible for me at the moment, unless I quit my job to be a professional reader. 60 is a good compromise.

Last year I also wanted to read books I already own, but I failed pretty badly on that. I just can’t resist the library. I did stop buying new books – I think I bought less than 5 books this entire year, which is bad for book sales but good for me because I have no space on my shelf. I donated a good amount of my book collection as well, but I’m afraid I still won’t have space for new books anytime soon.

2016 was a good year for me, despite the various disasters. I think we are all entering 2017 with a sense of trepidation, but I think it’s a good thing to not be sure all the time. It’s okay to be uncertain about the future. When we’re uncertain, we pay better attention. I do know that compared to this time last year, I have a clearer vision of myself and what I want out of life. I started the year with a lot of questions that I spent the whole year answering. I have a better plan now, and I hope to achieve a lot in 2017 –  and even if I don’t, I’m grateful for what 2016 has given me. Thank you all for reading, and have a happy new year!

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

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Here’s the thing: I think Roxane Gay is awesome. I loved Bad Feminist and An Untamed State and I love following her on twitter. I haven’t read Ayiti, her first short story collection, but I’ve bought a copy and it’s on my TBR list.

So it’s hard for me to say this. I didn’t like Difficult Women, which is her new collection of short stories, previously published in various literary magazines. I had already read a couple of these stories in anthologies and magazines, so I wasn’t surprised by her writing style, but all together, this felt like a very underdeveloped collection. It feels rushed and underwritten, like it’s a collection of very first drafts. Instead of growth, character development, and depth of language, we get a collection of stories that are somewhat skeletal, all similarly structured. It’s a collection of stories that tells, and not shows, and in the end, all the characters and their stories blurred together.

Here’s a sentence about two characters having sex in a highly emotional moment in a story, “The Sacrifice of Darkness”: “We were not gentle but we were gentle.” This is an example of writing that tries to convey meaning by becoming overly vague instead of digging deep, and I found it deeply unsatisfying. At best, it’s poetic-and Gay’s writing certainly has its poetic moments-but at worst, it falls short. These characters really aren’t difficult. They are all pain and no depth, and I kept wishing the stories would linger on important moments instead of rush.

I will say I found the last story “Strange Gods” to be very well done. However, I had to read the entire book to get to a story I really loved, so I’ll take a pass on recommending Difficult WomenI’m going to assume that I’m not the biggest fan of her style of short fiction; I think her writing is better suited for essays (like Bad Feminist) and longer works that are more thought out (like An Untamed State). I’m looking forward to reading her forthcoming memoir Hunger, which will also be released 2017. 

All Joe Knight by Kevin Morris

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I got about a quarter of the way through All Joe Knight, the debut novel by Kevin Morris, and thought very seriously about not finishing it. The story is told in the first person, narrated by the titular character. His character is mostly defined by the fact that he once made a lot of money and now spends an inordinate amount of time with strippers; that, and he used to play high school basketball.

I am not the audience for a novel narrated by a rich misogynist about Philadelphia and basketball. I don’t enjoy spending my leisure time reading a two-page long screed on the tits of women. However, I could sense that even though I really hated being inside the brain of this scumbag character, there was a little bit more to the story. So I kept reading.

The second half of the novel has a little bit more depth – and, to my relief, Joe goes into his relationships with his wife, daughter, and the aunt who raised him with a little more thought and tenderness in the later half of the novel. The novel goes through Joe’s childhood as an orphan, living with his aunt after both his parents die in car accidents when he was a baby. It tells the story of the 70s in Philadelphia, and the ties he had with the men he played basketball with. The crust of the story is that Joe is facing legal trouble from a business deal he made years ago, the deal that made him rich, a deal that involved all of his former teammates.

This is an ambitious first novel that attempts to cover a lot of substance in dealing with history, race, corruption, but it gets caught up in it’s own characterization a bit too much, ultimately attempting shock value over substance. I like unlikeable narrators, but I have trouble with unsympathetic ones. The thing is with Joe Knight – as a character, and a novel, is that I had very little sympathy while reading it. The parts of the character that were sympathetic – his childhood, his relationship with his aunt and his daughter – were understated, leaving the story drenched in the seediness that remains. As I initially expected, this wasn’t my cup of tea.

On Failing, and A Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Next month is NaNoWriMo month, as always, which reminds me that I’ve participated every year since 2006 – I was 15 and thought for sure I was some sort of wunderkind who would be published before I graduated college. These are the sorts of goals failures regularly have.I lost my first NaNoWriMo, and I never stopped trying again after that.

After I made it through college without publishing anything (I was notably rejected from my own school’s literary magazine, of which I was an editor my senior year), I had a new goal: be published by 25. I had been humbled by my failure to succeed right out of the gate, but I was still sure of my talent in the way only the young and/or truly untalented can be.

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, along with a lot of other people – there’s a whole section on the TED website about the matter, and one TED talk on persevering through failure is now a popular pop psych book.

I’m 25 now and I’m rethinking what my success will look like. It’s no longer a matter of time but of shape. How will I fit writing in at the corners of my real life? How will I create work I find satisfying? How will I use writing to communicate with strangers, and tell the stories of the people I love with compassion? How will art change me? Everything else seems small in comparison.

I don’t plan on being published anytime soon. I’m just not there yet. My 15 year old self would be devastated – if being a writer is so important to me, and I’m not producing work good enough to be published, what does that say about me? I think, after all, it doesn’t say much. I could miss every deadline, and fall short of every expectation I have for myself, and no matter what the drive to write is still there. That’s the kind of passion they make TED talks about. I’m really excited for this November – I always am.


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I recently finished Margaret Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed, which is a retelling of the The Tempest by Shakespeare. It got me thinking a lot about failure, too, because the main character, Felix, is a failed director who ultimately triumphs in a wacky but heartening way.

Felix is fired from his job as the artistic director of a theatre company right in the middle of a production of The Tempest, which is cancelled shortly after. Felix is upset at losing his job, but what especially pains him is that he had been planning The Tempest to be a sort of tribute to his three year old daughter, Miranda, who passed away. After he is fired, he moves away from civilization and isolates himself. He lives with the memory of his daughter in a literal sense; she is like a friendly ghost that he lives with like a real daughter. After a few years he decides to take a job teaching literacy at a local prison. He does this, of course, by teaching the inmates how to put on Shakespeare plays.

When he gets a chance to seek revenge against the people who had him fired all those years ago, he does it by finally putting on his Tempest. Even in a prison, with inmates for actors, with a heart desiring nothing but revenge – Felix puts everything into his work. He’s a somewhat strange and flawed character, but I fell in love with him nonetheless.

Truthfully, I know nothing about The Tempest, except a vague recollection of reading it in 8th grade English class. Luckily, this novel doesn’t require any knowledge of the play or Shakespeare, and it does a good job of not carrying on as if everyone reading the novel is familiar with the play.

In conclusion, Margaret Atwood remains a patron saint of this blog.

Loner by Teddy Wayne

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David Federman is a new freshman at Harvard and Loner is the story of his first semester. Despite David overdoing his SAT vocab words, Wayne’s writing is readable enough to convey the wide-eyed hopefulness of the first few days of college with scenes of dorm ice breakers and syllabus hand-outs. It seems like a standard autumnal coming-of-age story, but the story turns upside down as we get to know David a little better.

David is an awkward, mumbly, obnoxiously bright teenager who hopes to leave his lonely high school days behind him. He begins his college experience with dreams of admiration and success, and he becomes infatuated with Veronica Wells, a fellow freshman who lives in his building. She’s from a wealthy Manhattan background, the daughter of a father who works in finance and a socialite mother. She is effortless and cool and David considers her the key to his college glory.

The novel continues with David telling the story of his first semester like a letter to Veronica, referring to her as “you.” I thought this was a little too similar to Caroline Kepnes’s recent novel You, but Loner is a bit more realistic. (It is worth noting that David is just as much of a creepy, entitled dweeb as the narrator of You.)

David dates Veronica’s roommate, the adorable and sweet Sara, to get closer to the object of his obsession. There are a few scenes where David takes advantage of Sara to get sexual experience; his reasoning is that he wants to know what he is doing once he wins over Veronica, and it’s not only creepy but chilling how David sees nothing wrong with his behavior. This novel is not for people who need to like a main character, because David Federman is one of the most despicable characters I’ve read. At first he seems like a slightly arrogant nerd whose insecurity makes him a little bit of a jerk, but as the story progresses it’s clear that he completely lacks empathy for others.

Wayne created an entertaining and deeply upsetting character with David Federman and Loner is a page-turning story. It’s equally funny and disturbing, nostalgically collegiate and contemporary in its reflection of current issues. I highly recommend it for people who like unreliable narrators.