Books I’ve Disliked Recently

Hello blog, here’s two reviews of two books I didn’t like recently.

Boomer1 by Daniel Torday (DNF)
I got about 30% into this book and decided to give up. The first few chapters describe the doomed relationship of two hipster millennial bandmates in New York City, so I probably should have stopped reading right then because those are exactly the characters I don’t want to read about. The story then takes a turn when the couple breaks up and the dude decides to become a domestic terrorist because the Baby Boomers kept him from getting a job? And then, for some reason, we get a whole section of the book from the point-of-view of the dude’s mother, who was also in a band? And it lost me there.

And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell (2/5 Stars)
My feelings on this memoir are more complicated, because I not only finished it but raced through it. I enjoyed reading it! It felt like reading a long form blog post, which is why I read it so fast and also why I can’t give this book a good review. This is a memoir about a late twenty-something woman who becomes pregnant shortly after becoming engaged. She lives in New York City and wants to be a writer. She decides to keep the baby, and the rest of the book is about her experience with pregnancy and her traumatically painful labor, and then her first year as a mother, where she experiences postpartum depression and tries to get back into writing.

I felt for her experience, and I even learned a few things. (Get the epidural, for instance.) However, I rolled my eyes so often during this book I felt bad about it. I don’t judge O’Connell’s experience, but it was hard to sympathize with her after a while. The last quarter of the book is mostly her saying, “Why does no one ever tell women that child birth is so painful? Why did no one tell us it was going to be so difficult?”

I’m all for breaking the stigma of how motherhood is difficult – but come on. These questions – why did no one tell me it was going to be so hard? – become the thesis of the book, and by the end I realized there was little substance to this memoir besides that. I suspect this was a memoir written simply to write a memoir, without the benefit of distance, and the fact that O’Connell writes about how difficult her experience is without recognizing that it’s a pretty universal experience that a lot of woman have written about makes it seem like a memoir totally lacking in self awareness, which is the absolute worst quality a memoir can have. I can’t stand memoirs written in haste the very second after someone Has An Experience, and this one is that.

 

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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.

Best of 2017

Hello, hello, sorry for the lack of posting here, as usual. This fall I started grad school and I’ve had trouble getting myself to sit and write blog posts (so, nothing new). I hope to post more in 2018.

This year my reading goal was 60 books, and I only read 50. This summer I moved closer to work, so I no longer commute by train. I drive to work, about 40 minutes to an hour a day, and I usually listen to audiobooks, but it hasn’t been enough to keep up with my old reading pace. I’m going to try to get back into the habit of reading before bed to try and read more…so we’ll see how that goes. My boyfriend got me a Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas, which is exciting because I can read it before bed without interfering with my sleep with an LCD screen. It’s been working quite well so far.

Here’s my 10 favorite books read in 2017. Overall, I can’t say it was my best reading year ever, but I did read some good stuff. The best part of this year was discovering a love for audiobooks as a result of my new commute. As someone who hardly ever buys books, my Audible subscription is basically my greatest luxury, but it’s worth the money. I still don’t like listening to much fiction on audio, but a good memoir read by the author is a true delight.

MY FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2017
(Listed in order read)

  1. The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
    This contemporary romance novel was probably my favorite reading experience of 2017, which is kind of a bummer because I read it way back in January. It was fun, breezy, cute, sexy, and the characters were fun. It’s about two work enemies becoming work enemies who kiss. I loved it. My favorite reading memory of 2017 was coming home from the Women’s March in DC at 3AM, then staying in bed the next day and reading this book all day.
  2. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
    I read this mostly on vacation in February, because it seemed like a good vacation/airplane book. It was. Still undecided on whether I want to read more Liane Moriarty, but judging by my first two picks of 2017, I need to read more fun, breezy books. Incidentally, I have no desire to watch the TV series based on this book…so maybe I didn’t love it all that much. Still fun, though.
  3. Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama
    I started reading this around the time of Trump’s inauguration, probably out of mourning, and I slowly worked my way through it over the next month or so. It’s a beautiful memoir, and I’m excited to read Obama’s next book.
  4. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
    This novel is about a black girl who witnesses her the murder of her childhood friend by police, and it’s a timely, serious read but it is also full of coming-of-age delightfulness. The main character, Starr, is a perfect YA heroine – imperfect, believable, and brave. This book was talked about a lot this past year, first because it was the biggest YA book of 2017, and later on because it was banned in a Texas school district.
  5. Lower Ed: How For-Profit Colleges Deepen Inequality in America by Tressie McMillan Cottom
    This was an interesting non-fiction read about for-profit colleges and the way they play on the fears and hopes of poor people (especially poor people of color) and it also delves into the way our new economy hurts working class people. If you’re interested in sociology, economics, or higher education in general, it’s a must read.
  6. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (audio)
    Blackout is about Sarah Hepola’s experience with alcoholism as a young woman. I especially enjoyed her narration in the audiobook. Not a salacious addiction memoir, but a story about how our culture often encourages self-destruction, and how it’s possible to build a life away from that.
  7. The Long Walk by Stephen King (Richard Bauchman)
    This novel, an early King Hunger Games -esque dystopia in which young boys are sent on an endless march to see who will be the last survivor, was probably not the best choice to read during my half-marathon training. It helped put things in perspective, however. Training for a long distance race? Consider reading The Long Walk and quit complaining that your feet hurt, because things could always be worse.
  8. Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis (audio)
    This book made me think a lot about how group-think and mob mentality can lead us down bad paths. Kipnis makes good points about how “sexual paranoia” can infantilize young women by treating them as continual victims. I think this book is a must-read for feminists because of the way it takes a different look at a controversial topic.
  9. The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
    Another great memoir about a life unravelling.
  10. Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (audio)
    This is maybe my favorite audiobook of the year. I spent a lot of time stuck in traffic, happy to be stuck because the chapter I was listening to was so good. I spent a lot of time laughing alone in my car like a crazy person. Patricia Lockwood’s narration is really the best part, because you get her comedic timing and inflection as it was meant to be when she wrote it. The book, as the title suggests, is about her experiences being the daughter of a kooky priest.

Now, as for 2018: I have some resolutions, but none of them are book based – I want to run 1,000 miles, meditate every day and do more yoga. Later in the year I will probably form some more substantial writing goals that will include this blog, but for now I’m taking it one day at a time. I set my Goodreads Challenge goal at 52 this year, so about 1 book a week, but I’m ambivalent about it. I’m also very against the idea of any challenge that dictates what books I will be reading, so I guess my main goal in 2018 is “read whatever the heck I want” – wish me luck.

 

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.

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!