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.

Check in: March 2018

I thought I’d check in with what I’ve been reading in 2018 so far.

I’ve finished 5 books so far this year. (Goodreads helpfully reminds me that I’m 5 books behind with my reading goal, as well.) I’m not reading as much as I used to, but I have been reading before bed and listening to audio books in my car so it’s not too tragic.

Here are the books I’ve read, am reading, & my thoughts.

A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valerio
This book, a memoir by a black woman who is also into ultra running (a sport dominated by lanky white men) is partially to blame for the fact that I recently signed up for my first marathon. I’ve followed Mirna on instagram for a while and I think she’s delightful. I really appreciate the message that she sends – you don’t have to look a certain way to run, and most importantly, running is fun, even when it hurts. I enjoyed reading this book.

Strange Fruit, Volume 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill
During Black History Month in the U.S., we usually hear about the same stories over and over, which suggests (along with the fact that we dedicate the shortest month to it) that black history doesn’t have the same depth as the history that is predominately taught in schools (white). This is not true, and Gill’s graphic novel depicting lesser known stories of black history makes it known that black history is vast, varied, and surprising.

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
Ever a writer’s writer, Jeffrey Eugenides really drove me wild with jealousy with this one. I absolutely loved it. The man can write a story.

American Primitive by Mary Oliver
A book of poems. Not much to say about this one – everyone (as far as I’m concerned) loves Mary Oliver.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
I had a weird experience with this one. When I started it in January, Sherman Alexie was a literary wonder, loved and admired. By the time I finished, he was another #Metoo statistic. A lot of people are saying they won’t read his books anymore, but frankly I don’t subscribe to the belief that a person’s crimes or misdoings are always worth tossing out their art with the bath water. I think it’s good to look at who has power in the literary community (and all professional areas) and consider sticking more women in there. But overall the scandal didn’t really cause me to see the book differently because I was already kind of put off by it.

I like memoirs, but this was very stream-of-consciousness, which didn’t really work for me. On the surface, this is a memoir about the death of Alexie’s mother, who is depicted as a bad mother, which wasn’t well enough detailed, especially in light of the over-romanticization of his absent alcoholic father. She seemed like an interesting woman but I never got a good picture of her. Overall, each story is more about Alexie himself than anyone else. Sometimes it was funny, sometimes it was heartbreaking, and sometimes it was just plain tedious. The best parts of the book were Alexie’s anecdotes about growing up as a Native American reservation teenager attending a nearby white high school. So I guess I should finally pick up The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has been on my to-read list for years.

And that’s it for books completed. Currently, I’m trying to read more literary magazines to get me in the mood to write short stories. Right now I’m working through back issues of Tin House. I am also writing some truly awful short stories, and getting ready to participate in Camp NaNoWriMo in April. Happy spring, y’all.

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.