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.

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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!

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.