shiny things in messy little piles

Tag: book reviews (Page 1 of 2)

Books of March


The Bear and The Nightingale: A Novel — Katherine Arden (2017)

Best fairy tale I’ve read in a long time. I was skep­ti­cal at first. But the hero­ine is more than a pret­ty face with an inter­est­ing fate. I can’t be sure, as I am no expert, but the sto­ry seems to be more Russ­ian than most set in that fairy tale world. The author was a Russ­ian major in col­lege. Well writ­ten, you won’t find your­self con­stant­ly thrown out of the sto­ry by a bad turn of phrase as you are so often in fairy tales.



Minding the Muse — Priscilla Long (2016)

Bet­ter than the aver­age book on cre­ativ­i­ty — it allows for indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. And it’s a reminder about the need for dai­ly (near­ly) work that I need to hear.



300 Arguments — Sarah Manguso (2017)

Don’t both­er. I like books of frag­ments (99 God and Bluets are exam­ples) but this one does­n’t hang togeth­er as any sort of nuanced state­ment on the world. It got a lot of praise but I just did­n’t find the thread that was sup­posed to link the apho­risms to make them some­thing oth­er than a jum­ble. There are a few that cut to the quick though. The best being:

There will come a time when peo­ple decide you’ve had enough of your grief, and they’ll try to take it away from you.”


All of this mon­th’s poet­ry books are con­cerned with the domes­tic — but what dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences of home the poets bring.

The Day Before: Poems — Dick Allen (2003)

I remem­ber lik­ing these poems while I was read­ing them but a month lat­er I don’t remem­ber any­thing spe­cif­ic about them. What’s up with that? I don’t know what to think of poems that I like but that don’t leave a sol­id mark on me. I had to go and look at them again to write this review. These poems are pedes­tri­an — in a good way — the way in which some­one with­out anoth­er des­ti­na­tion in mind wan­ders down the street in a mid­size town just look­ing and won­der­ing about every­thing they see. They are root­ed in times and places and peo­ple and above all the lit­tle bits of nature that exist for us in every set­ting. But they did­n’t stick. Hmmm.



Bright Dead Things: Poems — Ada Limón (2015)

When she writes about her expe­ri­ences of being dis­lo­cat­ed from the city to rur­al Ken­tucky, Limon writes with humor and appre­ci­a­tion of both envi­ron­ments . Her descrip­tions of Ken­tucky horse coun­try from the point of view of a non-rural, non-horsey per­son are delight­ful­ly vivid. She also brings her fresh per­spec­tive to her rela­tion­ships and the loss of her step-mother. There is a won­der­ful imme­di­a­cy and hon­esty in these poems. Very down to earth, even when she’s being man­i­cal­ly unrealistic.




The Nerve of It: Poems New and Selected ‑Lynn Emanuel (2015)

Lynn Emmanuel is one of my favorite poets. I am always tak­en with her bit­ing, clear-eyed look at the places and peo­ple who make up her life. This vol­ume includes a cou­ple of my favorite old poems and some new favorites as well.

The Books of March


The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Gar­den — C Valente
This is a reread. These are among the first of her books that I read and among the first that she pub­lished. The prose is not as mature as lat­er prose but the onion struc­ture of the book, with its lay­ers and lay­ers of tales each being told to the lis­ten­er whose own tale we are read­ing is fas­ci­nat­ing. The inter­wo­ven mytholo­gies of the steppes and the sea and the star­ry ori­gins of the world make me smile. I like it bet­ter than some of her more recent work, even if I do occa­sion­al­ly get sick of there being a sim­i­le for every noun.

* sooth­ing mythopet­ic tales *

The Gifts of Imper­fec­tion - Brene Brown
Not all that. In part because I’m a devout athe­ist and Ms. Brown relies on God. A researcher into var­i­ous human emo­tions, she is best known for her work on Shame. She’s well know and wide­ly respect­ed and I can’t under­stand why giv­en that there is noth­ing new in here. I think that this might not be her best book. Or at least not the best place to have start­ed look­ing at her work.
* no more inter­est­ing than most self-development books *

Cul­ture Clash — Jean Donaldson
One of the bet­ter books on canine eti­ol­o­gy. It’s been a while since I read it and I was prompt­ed to go back to it by the reports of some recent research into the effec­tive­ness of neg­a­tive mark­ers in oper­ant con­di­tion­ing. I want­ed to look back at some of the broad­er work on canine behav­ior and train­ing meth­ods. If you think of your dog as a fur­ry lit­tle child sub­sti­tute you’re not going to like much of what’s said here. But if you’re curi­ous about how it is that we try (most­ly on the suf­fer­ance of our dogs) to cohab­it with a species that has entire­ly dif­fer­ent rules for going along and get­ting along, this is for you.

* clas­sic in the field, rec­om­mend­ed for every curi­ous dog lover *

Listened to:

Ange­la’s Ash­es — Frank McCourt
Read by Frank McCourt. In a rever­sal of the usu­al Irish fam­i­ly moves to Amer­i­ca and makes good. Brooklyn-born McCourt’s fam­i­ly left the USA and returned to Ire­land  where they lived in the sort of oppres­sive pover­ty that most Irish were leav­ing the coun­try to escape. Opin­ions are firm­ly divid­ed on the mer­its of the book. Some claim­ing that it trades in mawk­ish clichés and oth­ers that it is tran­scen­dent. (Though why any­one would think that it is either of those two extremes I don’t under­stand.) I think it’s actu­al­ly a mid­dle of the road sort of book and that I prob­a­bly would have stopped about a third of the way through if I had been read­ing it. But I was­n’t read­ing it I was lis­ten­ing to Frank McCourt read it. And much like his Frank lis­ten­ing to his father’s sto­ries of Cuchi­u­lainn I could­n’t stop.
* Rather like lis­ten­ing to a rel­a­tive who’s lived and “inter­est­ing” life talk about the old days. 

The Books of February


The Japanese Lover — Isabel Allende

The sto­ry of a Pol­ish refugee girl and her uncle’s Japan­ese gar­den­er’s son who fall in love, are sep­a­rat­ed, then  meet and sep­a­rate repeat­ed­ly over the course of  life time. We learn the sto­ry of their romance as the girl, now in her old age, slow­ly reveals the romance to her young immi­grant care­giv­er and her patient but per­sis­tent grand­son. It’s a vast sto­ry with all of the ter­rors of the mod­ern world in it. Nazis, the Japan­ese intern­ment, the chaos in mod­ern Balka­ns, child abuse, and on and on, but it’s all so good-natured that you don’t real­ly feel any of the hor­ror you ought to. As much as you’ll like that char­ac­ters you won’t feel any deep emo­tion­al tie to them. The sto­ry is epic in scope but it nev­er quite grabs you by the scruff of your neck like so many of Allen­de’s sto­ries do.

*Like­able char­ac­ters, no great dra­ma in spite of the settings.*

The Girl in the Spider’s Web — David Lagercrantz

I decid­ed to read this in spite of all the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing it’s writ­ing. (There were estate issues fol­low­ing the death of Stieg Lars­son. The right to pub­lish new books in the series has been the sub­ject of ugly lawsuits.)

I prob­a­bly should­n’t have both­ered. It’s flat. All of the dan­ger to our favorite pro­tag­o­nists (and I love both Blomquist and Salan­der) is nar­rat­ed rather than shown. And the twin sis­ter’s sur­prise appear­ance at the end? What the fuck?

It’s orig­i­nal­ly is Swedish of course. So I can’t tell how much of the awk­ward writ­ing is in the orig­i­nal and how much is in the trans­la­tion. But there are so many missed oppor­tu­ni­ties for depth. The rela­tion­ship between Lis­beth and the savant boy in particular.
I fin­ished it quick­ly. But I prob­a­bly won’t pick up anoth­er book in the series. And for what it’s worth I think the Swedish movies/TV series does the best job of por­tray­ing the characters.

* The book is not near­ly as inter­est­ing as con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing it’s publication. *

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim — David Sedaris

Clas­sic Sedaris. Not his fun­ni­est but hey, dys­func­tion­al fam­i­lies are only par­tic­u­lar­ly fun­ny if you come from one. Even then the sto­ries don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly stick with you. I can’t pick out a favorite because — well I don’t remem­ber any of them.

* Why did noth­ing stick with me? *

Radiance — Cathrynne Valente

So glad that I gave this book two chances. (I lis­tened to it last month.) The sec­ond time through I was final­ly able to fol­low the many char­ac­ters and con­vo­lut­ed time line. Can I just say right here that if I need the lit­tle dates that you put at the head of the chap­ter to fol­low the shift­ing time peri­ods in your book you’ve got a writ­ing prob­lem. I should be able to tell from the first three sen­tences in a chap­ter who’s talk­ing and at what point in the story.

That said, Valen­te’s deep dive into the world of cin­e­ma or rather what it would look like in her wild­ly improb­a­ble but appeal­ing alter­nate uni­verse is a lot of fun and filled with love­ly prose touch­es. Just take it slow­ly and don’t feel stu­pid if you have to look back to the begin­ning of the chap­ter to fig­ure out where in the sto­ry you are.

* Valente returns to lyric but read­able prose *

Loitering — Charles D’Ambrosio

I do not want my essays about lit­er­a­ture quite so com­min­gled with the tragedies of the writer. In fact it bores me. Yes, if your broth­er com­mit­ted sui­cide you will have a dif­fer­ent take on a lot of Salinger than if you had­n’t had the expe­ri­ence. And yes, there is prob­a­bly see sort of essay in that but not one so plain­ly try­ing to dis­guise itself as aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly accept­able lit­er­ary criticism.

DAmbro­sio is high­ly praised but I found myself skim­ming and then out­right skip­ping. Salinger is for teenagers — sorry.

* Not sure what all the fuss is about. But then again I did­n’t real­ly get DFW either. *

The Partly Cloudy Patriot — Sarah Vowell

The title riffs on a Thomas Paine quote refer­ring sum­mer sol­diers and sun­shine patri­ots. Vow­ell takes on the inci­dences and char­ac­ters of Amer­i­can His­to­ry with insight and offers a rea­soned (if prop­er­ly biased — more on that lat­er) view of the present polit­i­cal and social cli­mate. I say prop­er­ly biased because any­one who does not have an opin­ion on what his­to­ry is try­ing to tell us as we look back on it isn’t read­ing hon­est­ly. His­to­ry isn’t dry facts and the unan­a­lyzed rota­tion of heads of state. Nor is it the sim­plis­ti­cal­ly glossed patri­ot­ic ver­sion that we are giv­en like so much pab­u­lum in grade school. SV is no sun­shine patri­ot. Nor is she so slav­ish­ly ded­i­cat­ed to the nation that she can­not see the dark­ness of the clouds that some­times cov­er our sun. She sees into both the good and bad that arise from each episode that she examines.

I par­tic­u­lar­ly liked her pieces about the above Paine quote and the very short and point­ed Rosa Parks C’est Moi (no you ain’t.) Also State of the Union which reads like a list poem.

* A charm­ing guide to Amer­i­can idiosyncrasies. *

Nothing in Reserve — Jack Lewis

I know Jack, he’s my writ­ing part­ner on what is a major project at the moment. As is com­mon with writ­ers who work togeth­er we know too much about each oth­er. Here are many things that I have sensed rum­blings of but nev­er had put into words for me. Some­times it’s a fright­en­ing place, the inside of Jack­’s head, but it’s also a place filled with life and hope.

* A war nar­ra­tive that isn’t real­ly about war. *

I Was Promised There Would be Cake — Sloane Crosley

I have a soft spot for these com­ing of age — the age being 25 or so — essays. They take place dur­ing the sec­ond great rein­ven­tion of the self. (The first being some­where in high school when you real­ize that your par­ents don’t get the final word on who you are.)
The essays are pret­ty pre­dictable. At least if you are a mid­dle class, col­lege edu­cat­ed straight woman. No, I’ve nev­er been the unin­ten­tion­al maid-of-honor at a long-lost high school friend’s wed­ding. Though there was that one grade school friend who includ­ed me in her wed­ding because we had recent­ly recon­nect­ed by acci­dent and were still explor­ing a nos­tal­gic con­nec­tion. It all came to noth­ing in the end. We were both still geeks but the focus of our geek­ing had diverged to the point where we had lit­tle to say to each oth­er, and a friend­ship can­not sur­vive on nos­tal­gia alone.

There are moments of pure light here. The descrip­tion of the Chris­t­ian sum­mer camp that her Jew­ish par­ents inad­ver­tent­ly sent her to as a clus­ter­fuck of rit­u­al send me slam­ming back in time to when I sat in a din­ing hall with all of my friends singing both hymns and the gross­ly mor­bid “The Great Ship Titanic”

In oth­er essays she locks her­self out of two apart­ments in a sin­gle day (the haz­ards of mov­ing), vol­un­teers at the But­ter­fly exhib­it in the Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry (brief and unsuc­cess­ful) and deals, not well, with a pas­sive aggres­sive mon­ster of a first boss.
She is both what I was and what I want­ed to be when I was 25. Though would­n’t it be nice to see essays from  some­one who isn’t col­lege edu­cat­ed and work­ing publishing?

* an all day nos­tal­gia suck­er for mid­dle class women of a cer­tain age *

Pulphead — John Jeremiah Sullivan

Lots of music here. Also some his­to­ry and crit­i­cism. The star­ring piece is the first piece. A tale of rock and roll, fun­da­men­tal­ism and a big RV, as Sul­li­van vis­its the largest Chris­t­ian music fes­ti­val in the USA, nay the whole world — Cre­ation Fes­ti­val. A mega-church ver­sion of a rock fes­ti­val with Chris­t­ian Rock bands and tens of thou­sands of young Christ-loving fans. Sul­li­van’s take on the whole thing — while start­ing with an assump­tion of glib irrel­e­vance to the world at large becomes nuanced and empa­thet­ic as he meets var­i­ous con­cert goers and band members.

* Par­tic­u­lar­ly good if you like mod­ern music and obscure cor­ners of literature. *

I haven’t got any­thing writ­ten yet about the one book I lis­tened to in Feb­ru­ary, but con­sid­er­ing it’s the 3rd of April. Per­haps I’d bet­ter just get this out…


Books of December and January

A lot of Decem­ber and Jan­u­ary was tak­en up by read­ing tech­ni­cal books for a writ­ing project. So the recre­ation­al (?) read­ing took a back seat. Here’s the com­bined list.


M Train — Pat­ti Smith

Feels very impor­tant. I’m not sure why a book that fea­tures a lacon­ic cow­poke dream fig­ure and a lot of vis­it­ing ceme­ter­ies and grave sites should feel so impor­tant. But it does. I gave it to a friend who is in the mid­dle of read­ing it and points out that Pat­ti Smith is poet first. Poet­ry relies on a lot of tech­niques that more dense than those used in prose (few­er words, more obvi­ous struc­ture.) The need to dig deeply into each state­ment might be part of the appeal for me.

* I’ll be pon­der­ing this for a while. * 

A God in Ruins — Kate Atkinson

Fol­low on to her Life After Life. Sort of. It takes up the sto­ry of Ursu­la Tod­d’s younger broth­er Ted­dy who flew a Hal­i­fax for the RAF, crash land­ed in the sea, then again in Ger­many, and nev­er expect­ed to find him­self liv­ing through war, let alone into the late 20th cen­tu­ry and beyond. Life is a con­fus­ing place some­times and Ted­dy’s life has it’s odd — seem­ing­ly out-of-place moments. You’ll love his grand­daugh­ter and come to despise his daugh­ter (though I’m not cer­tain that the author means you to.) The end­ing two sen­tences are opaque to the point that I don’t under­stand them and I fol­lowed the book close­ly. (Yes, I could go look up some reviews and analy­ses and fig­ure it out, but do I want to? Not real­ly. Too much expli­ca­tion can be as bad as too little.)

* Sun and Moon are not just bad names for children. * 

My Life on the Road - Glo­ria Steinem

* Sad­ly dull. * 


Casablan­ca Screenplay

One of the greats. I read it most­ly to learn for­mat­ting for screen plays and to look at the struc­ture of the thing. I can judge the tim­ing of plot points bet­ter by pages that I can by minutes.

* Just watch it. * 


Song Dogs — Colum McCann

I read this years ago. The book I read this month is not the book I remem­ber. I could be wrong about which McCann I read. Or I could be a dif­fer­ent (old­er) read­er. This time the points of con­nec­tion and dis­con­nec­tion between the son and his father seemed entire­ly nat­ur­al. I’ve been told that you have to be care­ful read­ing McCann lest his voice infect your own work. I’ll nev­er sound like a middle-aged Irish guy. I don’t think. Even if I do not final­ly drop all of the extra­ne­ous hem­ming and haw­ing and qual­i­fy­ing that goes into my aver­age sen­tence. (See the word “final­ly” in the pre­vi­ous sentence.)

* a clas­sic of father/son awkwardness * 

Listened to:

Eliz­a­beth Gilbert’s Big Mag­ic again. Because I need­ed the boost. It is like­ly going to be a book that I revis­it reg­u­lar­ly. Odd that. I gen­er­al­ly hate self-actualization books.



Mycroft Holmes — Karem Abdul Jabar with Anna Waterhouse

It lacks the snap and smack and acer­bic wit that we asso­ciate with Sher­lock Holmes. And does­n’t play up to Mycroft being the smarter less socia­ble brother.

* Meh. * 


Radi­ance — Cath­erynne M. Valente

A world in which we have col­o­nized all of the plan­ets but movies are still shot on film and often with­out sound. There’s a mur­der(?) mys­tery at the heart of it. I got lost a whole bunch of times. But I liked what I could track well enough that I’m going to read the book. (Which I’ve just fin­ished doing as I write this and am grate­ful that it was my sec­ond attempt at the story.)

* I’d tell you about the cal­lowhales but that would spoil it for you. * 

The Bone Clocks — David Mitchell

Hav­ing been con­fused through much of the sto­ry when I read it — lis­ten­ing to it made it much clear­er. Espe­cial­ly the use of sep­a­rate nar­ra­tors for each of the six sec­tions. Which made the point of view changes more obvi­ous. A good sto­ry, but not deep or intel­lec­tu­al. Immor­tals fight­ing the vam­pires (in essence) isn’t any­thing new. Throw in a cli­mate change dri­ven world col­lapse at the end and … well that part seemed gra­tu­itous. Mitchell writes well but some­thing keeps me from lov­ing his work. Prob­a­bly the lack of orig­i­nal­i­ty in plot even though it is hid­den under an orig­i­nal or at least sophis­ti­cat­ed structure.

* is it pos­si­ble to fall in like with an author? * 

The Books of November

Listened to:

Big Mag­ic — Eliz­a­beth Gilbert

Good on cre­ativ­i­ty and she reads her own work nice­ly. Good enough that I start­ed lis­ten­ing to it again just a day or two ago.

* self-help worth your time *

Star­Dust — Neil Gaiman

YA nov­el about a mag­i­cal boy and a shoot­ing star girl. It’s Nice to see a boy as a magical-hero.

* the master *

Pump Six and Oth­er Sto­ries — Pao­lo Bacigalupi

The short sto­ries that came before The Windup Girl and The Water Knife. Some inter­est­ing insights into the world build­ing that went into both novels.

* good short fiction * 

Furi­ous­ly Hap­py — Jen­ny Lawson

Either you love The Blo­gess or you don’t. I think she’s hys­ter­i­cal. I can total­ly under­stand why some peo­ple don’t.

* only if you can laugh along with the men­tal­ly ill * 

Palimpsest — Cath­erynne Valente

The first CV that I ever read. Lush, chewy, sat­is­fy­ing prose. It’s not the eas­i­est sto­ry to fol­low but worth the trou­ble. And the way that she plays out geog­ra­phy as a sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted dis­ease is stunning.

* mag­i­cal real­is­m’s latter-day cousin *

Death­less — Cath­erynne Valente

Sev­er­al Russ­ian fairy­tales and leg­ends mashed togeth­er into the sto­ry of one girl/woman and her rela­tion­ship to the Tsar of Life. Tak­ing in the var­i­ous rev­o­lu­tions and wars of Rus­sia in the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. It ends on an odd­ly hope­ful note for all of the dis­as­ter that befalls the main char­ac­ters. And it is a real­ly disaster-full book. Much clean­er more stream­lined writ­ing than a lot of CV’s more recent work. (Not count­ing her chil­dren’s books.)

* Utter­ly Russian *


The Ante­lope Wife — Lousie Erdritch

More about the Native Amer­i­cans of the Dako­tas. This one has a more chal­leng­ing nar­ra­tive struc­ture than Love Med­i­cine. Worth­while read from an author that I will con­tin­ue to seek out.

* worth the effort to piece togeth­er the nar­ra­tive threads *

The Sig­na­ture of All Things — Eliz­a­beth Gilbert

Botany is good. Multi-generational epics are good. Strong, if flawed, women are good. Adding them all togeth­er is good. The his­to­ry of a fam­i­ly her­itage of plant hunters and loves gone ter­ri­bly wrong. Ser­vice­able writing.

* if you have the time it’s worth your while *

You Are Badass — Jen Sincero

Yuck, just yuck. Read it based on a trust­ed friends rec­om­men­da­tion — “It’s not like any self-improvement book you’ve ever read.” It’s exact­ly like every self-improvement book I’ve ever read except with more swear­ing. The Laws of Attrac­tion are bull­shit — even when you dress them up with words like ‘bull­shit.’

* why am I even link­ing to this? *

What Poets are Like: Up and Down with the Writ­ing Life — Gary Soto

Some poet­ry, some prose, a lot of reflec­tions on a long career.

* light read­ing for writers *

Speak Easy — Cath­erynne Valente.

Sad­ly, I gave up on this one. The sto­ry of a 1920’s apart­ment build­ing and it’s denizens. It’s sup­posed to be a mash up of the twelve danc­ing Princess­es and the courtship of Zel­da and F. Scott Fitzger­ald. The exag­ger­at­ed jazz-age lan­guage was too hard to make it through to the sto­ry. And the sto­ry did­n’t real­ly appear. It’s all par­ty and apart­ment. I might go back and fin­ish it lat­er. But for the moment I need clean­er prose in my head. I think I am falling out of love with an author crush. But Palimpsest will always be with me.

* thank heav­en I did­n’t buy the lim­it­ed edi­tion hardback *

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