Aug 20

COVID-19 Diaries: What I’ve been reading

For a writer I probably don’t read as much I should, but I have been reading more during the pandemic.

The Trespasser and The Secret Place by Tana French

Although I watch a lot of crime dramas, I don’t read too many crime or mystery novels. However, Tana French is an exception. Hers are more like crime or mystery literature with well-developed characters and excellent dialogue. The Irish slang is an added bonus. 

I read The Trespasser before realizing I had skipped The Secret Place, which I promptly got with a generous birthday gift card. Back in my apartment in NYC, I have The Witch Elm waiting, and I wish to hell I had brought it with me.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

My friend Yiannis often gives me his books when he’s done with them, and this was one of them. I loved it. Set in NYC and San Francisco, it’s about a group of siblings who pay a fateful visit to a fortune teller, after which each of their lives is changed forever.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

I love true crime in podcast form but less so in book form. However, I felt like it was important to read this one (and it was another freebie from Yiannis). Of course it was well written and brought to life McNamara’s search and obsession for the Golden State Killer, but I think I’m just not that into reading nonfiction. And I feel like I’ve learned just as much about the GSK from the various podcasts I’ve listened to as well as articles and such.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Another freebie, this one picked up from a random office. Although I don’t often read hard science fiction, I was interested in these short stories since Chiang wrote “Story of Your Life,” the basis of the movie Arrival. However, “Story of Your Life” isn’t included in Exhalation. I was a bit disappointed but I still enjoyed the other stories, some more than others. I fee like a couple could be movies or at least Black Mirror episodes.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I’m late to the game on these immensely popular series of books, but better late than never: I loved it! Set in post-WWII Italy, it’s about a friendship between two young girls, and also what it’s like being a girl and a woman in a very male-dominated society in which you basically can’t make choices about your own life. Will definitely want to read the other “Neapolitan” novels as they’re called.

The Suicide of Claire Bishop by Carmiel Banasky

I had been reading this novel off and on for months. It’s the book I kept at my mom’s place for when I visited and part of a book club I used to belong to. It’s well written but just okay, at least to me. It’s about a woman in the late 1950s NYC who is painted by a mysterious artist, and then basically her troubled life. The chapters switch between her point of view and that of a young man in present time who has schizophrenia so you can’t tell what’s reality and what’s his skewed perception. Again, well done but not a page turner and not a book I would read again.

We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler

Another one from the book club and another meh. Set in San Francisco, it tells two stories, one from the point of view of a middle-aged man having a crisis and the other from his troubled teenaged daughter who runs away to basically be a pirate. The writing is good and the characters are well drawn, but it’s also at times overly quirky. Also, it’s not a novel I would have picked up on my own.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Oy, was this depressing. Set in Texas, this book club pick is about a kind man in love with a beautiful yet deeply troubled woman, the titular Ruby. While beautifully written with well-drawn characters and an affective story (I straight up cried), there are several scenes that are so incredibly dark and disturbing, one of which I had a very hard time erasing from my mind. (Turns out some reviewers on Goodreads agree.)

Could also be my state of mind. Right now I mostly just want to escape while I’m reading, not be sent into further depression.

Saint Maizie by Jami Attenberg

I really enjoyed this novel, another one from the book club. Set in 1920-30s New York, it’s about a spirited young woman from a working class background who works in the ticket box of a movie theater. She loves having fun and is kind of wild but also is drawn to helping those less fortunate. It’s told through her diary entries as well as short “interviews” with people who knew her or had a connection to her.

I have several more unread books from that book club, but I might reread The Discovery of Witches of trilogy from Deborah Harkness. Sometimes you just need a bit of (slightly trashy) magic and comfort.

Feb 16

What I Read This Week: Daniel Holtzclaw, Mommie Dearest, naughty words

mommie-dearestEvery week I read a lot of articles, and every Friday I blog about the most interesting ones right here, from listicles to long-reads to everything in between. This week: terrible journalism, why Joan Crawford hated wire hangers, and how to offend in Japanese.

SB Nation Publishes, Deletes “Complete Failure” Of A Story About Convicted Rapist Cop Daniel Holtzclaw

Deadspin has an excellent blow-by-blow takedown of the fascinatingly awful piece from SB Nation about convicted rapist and former Oklahoma City police officer, Daniel Holtzclaw. Deadspin says you should read the SB Nation piece first, and you really should. It’s an excellent example of what not to do as a journalist: don’t be biased, don’t speculate, and don’t include a ton of irrelevant information.

I Lost My Virginity to David Bowie: Confessions of a ‘70s Groupie

Lori Mattix was all of 15 years old when David Bowie invited her into his bedroom. Although Mattix describes the experience as “beautiful,” one can’t help but be disturbed by it, and by the fact that Bowie wasn’t the only rock star to engage in relations with underaged girls. (Another groupie became involved with Iggy Pop with she was 11 — 11!)  A fascinating if disturbing read.

12 Over the Top Facts About Mommie Dearest

I’ve seen this movie approximately one million times. It was one of those that HBO ran over and over, and somehow I never got sick of it. Despite my (weird) childhood obsession with the film, I didn’t know much about the behind-the-scenes, and this Mental Floss article has some interesting tidbits.

For instance, Faye Dunaway was almost as diva-ish as Joan Crawford herself, albeit in much less “ladylike” way, and Crawford despised those infamous wire hangers because her mother worked at a dry cleaners when the family was in dire financial straits.

Naughty Words

This fun Aeon piece delves into why some words are considered offensive, and the different categories of those naughty words, such as the blasphemous (“goddammit”) and the hierarchical (anything about anyone’s parentage).

My favorites are the Quebecois Mon tabernak j’vais te décalliser la yeule, calisse, or “Motherfucker, I’m gonna fuck you up as fuck”; the Mandarin 肏你祖宗十八代, or “Fuck your ancestors to the 18th generation”; and the Japanese “hierarchy-themed insult”: a derogatory form of “you.”

Jodie Sweetin’s Return to Predictability

Although I was already in high school when Full House was on, I still watched it. What else was a nerdy kid going to do on a Friday night? Besides, it was total brain candy, the kids were cute, and Uncle Jesse was cuter. Jodie “How Rude” Sweetin’s life hasn’t always been so, well, sweet — she battled drug addiction after the show went off the air — but she seems to on the road to recovery.

Feb 16

What I Read This Week: Pee-Wee, Winona, and the original welfare queen

Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, 5/2/09 - 3 of 3

As an erstwhile news editor and content curator, I subscribe to a lot of great daily and weekly email newsletters. The Quartz Daily Brief, This.cm, Pocket, Digg, and The Week all keep me up to date on what’s happening in the world and what everyone is reading and sharing.

I often tweet and Facebook (that’s a verb now, right?) my favorite stories, but I thought I’d also gather them right here every week (or at least try to).

Pee-Wee’s Big Comeback

Although I never watched Pee-Wee’s Playhouse growing up nor did I love Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, I’m still a big Pee-Wee Herman fan. I think it all started with his first appearance post-scandal and continued with his appearances in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie), Murphy Brown, and 30 Rock.

Jonah Weiner’s NY Times piece is a fan of Pee-Wee’s creator Paul Reubens as well. It opens with Reubens showing Weiner a fabulous Walgreen’s in Los Angeles (which I want to visit), takes us through his latest project, and ends with him hard at work at a voiceover session.

Winona, Forever

I like when artists keep on working no matter what, which is just one of the reasons I love Winona Ryder.

I enjoyed this article by Soraya Roberts at Hazlitt because I enjoy most things Winona, and it’s important that it calls out the blatant sexism in Hollywood. For instance, Ryder’s entire net worth is only half of one paycheck Johnny Depp gets for a movie, and Robert Downey, Jr., despite a drug scandal, was able to bounce back to become a megastar while Ryder didn’t have as much luck after her shoplifting debacle.

However, I’m happy to see Ryder doing any kind work. Like Reubens doing voiceovers for cartoons, I admire Ryder for continuing to work, even if it’s “small” roles in big films. Not that I’m saying she should take what she can get, and I hope things change, but it’s better than not working at all.

And besides, Winona can do no wrong in my book.

The Welfare Queen

I stumbled upon this fascinating 2013 Slate piece while doing research on the term welfare queen. Josh Levin takes an exhaustive look at the craziness that is the original welfare queen, Linda Taylor, which by the way is only one of at least 80 pseudonyms she used. Cheating the welfare system is the least of her evils, which include abduction and possibly murder.

Another layer of the story is race. Apparently Taylor could pass for just about anything: white, black, Spanish, and Filipino. Much of her family claims she’s white, despite her “long black hair and dark skin,” which no one else in the family had.

The piece is hella long but well worth the read.

A Polygamist Cult’s Last Stand: The Rise and Fall of Warren Jeffs

Warren Jeffs is a sicko. That is all.

Apr 15

Review: Gwendolyn, by Diana Souhami

gwendolynWarning: lots of spoilers.

First I want to admit I haven’t read George Eliot since high school. But I remember enjoying Silas Marner and Middlemarch so when I had the chance to read historian Diana Souhami’s Gwendolyn, which is based on a character in another one of Eliot’s novels, Daniel Deronda, I snatched it up.

At first I thought I had made a huge mistake.

The book starts off slowly, probably much in the style of Eliot and not in a style that I’m used to reading as of late. It didn’t help that I had just finished Gina Frangello’s A Life in Men, which was fan-fucking-tastic. So Gwendolyn, Souhami’s first foray into fiction, had a lot to live up to.

Something else that got on my nerves at first was Gwen’s referring to Deronda as “you” throughout the book. I understand that the novel is in the form of a letter, but all the you’s got pretty tedious after a while, especially in the scenes with Deronda, who seemed like a high and mighty killjoy if you ask me.

But then something happened. Deronda left the picture, and the book got a whole lot more interesting.

Every single other character was a hell of a lot more interesting than Deronda, from Gwen herself, to her cruel and sadistic husband, Grandcourt, to the unique and artistic friends she makes post-marriage, to George Eliot herself, who while a celebrated author is also nosy, judgmental, and insecure.

The story of Gwen’s marriage to Grandcourt is horrific yet gripping, and I found myself rooting for her escape and, afterward, her growth and freedom without rescue from a “prince.”

I also kept anxiously waiting for Grandcourt to show up on her doorstep, alive and well, since his body, post-drowning, never washed up on shore. But as Gwen gained strength and confidence, in addition to her new circle of friends, I was less anxious, not that Grandcourt wouldn’t show, but because I thought she could handle herself if he did.

The sign of well-done historical fiction for me is when while I’m reading or immediately afterward, I look up all the “characters.” That happened with The Paris Wife and it happened with Gwendolyn.

Right after I finished I looked up George Eliot to find out more about her longtime companion George Lewes, with whom she had an open relationship although she liked to be called Mrs. Lewes, and after his death, her marriage to a man 20 years her junior — in the book, it’s said she called him her “nephew,” weird — who during their honeymoon in Venice “jumped from their hotel balcony into the Grand Canal.” (He survived.)

Another “real” character is Paul Leroy, a French painter who lives with his probable-lover Antoine. Julian, a trapeze artist who cross-dresses as Juliette, might be based on the “female impersonator, high-wire performer” Barbette, who, like Julian, was born in Texas (although many years after Julian would have been) and performed in drag, only revealing himself as male at the end of his performance. That could be a whole book in and of itself.

Overall I enjoyed the book, and think that fans of Eliot and especially Daniel Deronda will enjoy it even more.

Dec 12

2012 in Retrospect: My 10 Must-Reads of the Year

It’s that time of year again. That’s right, time for my year-end retrospects. First up, my choices for must-reads of 2012. Some of these were published this year; some were books I just happened to read in 2012. They’re in the order that I read them.

I wrote about several of these back in July and for those books am just (lazily) quoting that blog post.

Fathermucker, by Greg Olear. I started this book at the end of 2011 and finished it in 2012 so it just makes this list. Here’s what I wrote in July: “Greg Olear’s Fathermucker was the first book I read this year, and I was blown away. On the surface it seems like a simple plot: a day in the life of a stay-at-home dad. But like Ulysses it’s far more complex (yet not incomprehensible), as well as moving and funny. It was one of those books I felt like kissing after I was done.”

Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, by Kris D’Agostino. Again, quoting myself: “Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac by Kris D’Agostino is a little like The Corrections, but with much more heart. I didn’t so much love The Corrections as admire it. But with Sleepy Hollow, it was pure love. I read the book months ago but I still have clear images of most of the characters: the hapless narrator, the autistic kid he helps at the school where he works, the ill father, the troubled younger sister.”

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park, by Jack Lynch. MB picked out this book, thinking I’d like it since I’m an amateur lexicographer now, and he was right. Over the summer I wrote that this book “is a delight for any word nerd.” It “gives a comprehensive overview of the history of the English language, from a time where there was no consistency in spelling or grammar, to the Latinizing of English, to modern-day neologisms.”

The Cove, by Ron Rash. My original write-up: “The Cove was another surprise. It starts off quiet: an Appalachian town during World War I, a lonely outcast girl, a stranger with a flute. But Ron Rash subtly and skillfully brings all the elements together, and what happens is at once inevitable, surprising, and heart-breaking.”

Moby-Duck, by Donovan Hohn.Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them not only has the longest subtitle I’ve seen in a long time but also reminded me David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction: fascinating, informative, entertaining, and very funny. It’s an example of the very best nonfiction. There’s what it’s about – seeking out these rubber ducks and other bath toys – and what’s it’s really about: the author’s external and internal journeys.”

I was pretty obsessed with this book, to the point that I made a list of the words in the book that I found interesting.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. “How good is The Magicians? The moment I finished it, I bought the sequel in e-book format although I prefer print. I won’t even say anything more about it. You must experience it for yourself. Just remember my snarky six word review: Harry Potter, grown-up, fucked up.

The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood. Set in modern-day Cambridge, a young man who works as a caregiver in a nursing home befriends a wealthy brother and sister and their eclectic circle. At first the group seems merely eccentric, but soon the young man finds much weirdness among them. Reminiscent of The Secret History (one of my all-time favorite novels), The Bellwether Revivals kept me reading and guessing what was going to happen next.

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. To tell the truth, I didn’t think I was going to love this book. The 1960s, a mysterious movie star, Italy, Hollywood. Maybe I’m crazy but I thought I wouldn’t be into it. Well, yes, I’m definitely crazy because Beautiful Ruins absolutely lovely.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, by Jonathan Evison. This was another book I flew through, and it was so freaking good. Like Fathermucker good. Divorced and depressed Ben Benjamin gets a job caring for a young man with cerebral palsy, and along the way we find out little by little about Benjamin’s tragic past. While the book is incredibly sad in some ways, it’s often hilarious at the same time. I loved the relationship between Benjamin and his charge, Trevor. I believe the movie rights were recently sold for the book (congrats Jonathan!) which I could totally envision.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Okay, I lied. I put this book last because it was my favorite of the year. Set in Seattle and told in a series of letters and emails, we get to know precocious teen Bee, some annoying busybodies, and the eccentric and vivacious Bernadette. It’s a total romp – funny and fun but with serious undertones.

In case you’re wondering how I heard about these books, most of them I received through The Nervous Breakdown’s book club. If you’re into quality books arriving on your doorstep every month, you should totally join. Plus it’s just $9.99 a month. I did some research on other book clubs, and it’s definitely one of the more cost-effective ones out there.

As for the ones I didn’t get through the book club, like I said, MB sort of randomly picked up The Lexicographer’s Dilemma; my boss had mentioned The Magicians and when I saw it featured at my local bookstore, I snatched it up; and Moby-Duck I had heard of before. The author, Donovan Hohn, was actually a classmate of mine in grad school.

What were some of your favorite books this year?

Nov 12

Miracle Boy and Other Stories, by Pinckney Benedict

Oct 12

The Stockholm Octavo, by Karen Engelmann

Oct 12

Familiar, by J. Robert Lennon

Oct 12

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, by Jonathan Evison

Oct 12

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple