I’d been vaguely meaning to read this book since it first came out in 2015, and only recently learned that an updated edition was released in 2021; I figured I might as well finally check it out. This book is maybe more firmly in the self-help genre than I was expecting, and some of the metaphors (sexuality as garden, certain brain structures/systems as an “emotional One Ring”) were either cheesy or hard for me to follow, but there was enough interesting/useful information for me to be glad I did finally get around to this. I appreciate that this book does not assume heterosexuality or monogamy, and, metaphors aside, I mostly like Nagoski’s writing style, which is approachable and generally clear.

It was interesting to read about the changes in how sexual response has been conceptualized/understood over the years, from the “four-phase model” focused on physical phenomena that was formulated in the 1960s by Masters and Johnson (excitement/plateau/orgasm/resolution) to Helen Singer Kaplan’s “triphasic” model from the 1970s (desire/arousal/orgasm) to the “dual control model” that was “developed in the late 1990s by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft” (the brain has an accelerator/it also has brakes; flooring the accelerator is not particularly useful if the brakes are still engaged). It was also interesting to read about stress and the idea that our bodies and brains are, in evolutionary terms, good at dealing with intense stressful situations with a clear beginning, middle, and end (like: being chased by a lion) which doesn’t really help in modern life where in general “our stressors are lower intensity and longer duration.” A key point in this section is about the need for “completing the stress response cycle and recalibrating your central nervous system into a calm state” rather than “self-inhibition”, which can involve “stopping the stress response midcycle.” Other highlights: spontaneous desire vs. responsive desire and the fact that many people experience both at different points in their lives, and some surprising-to-me stats like the fact that “80-90 percent of women who masturbate typically do so with little or no vaginal penetration” (I would have guessed a lower number for that!) and that “approximately 30 percent of women experience nocturnal orgasm” (I would have guessed higher!).

Otto: A Palindrama by Jon Agee

January 15th, 2023

Although Otto is published by Dial Books for Young Readers, I think this “palindromic graphic novel” would be fun for readers of all ages who like wordplay. As others have mentioned, most of the book is a kind of daydream/reverie/fantasy journey, which means the plot doesn’t have to make a ton of sense, but that didn’t bother me: I’m here for the text, which is totally made up of palindromes. At the start of the book we see Otto’s parents in the kitchen; his dad is making soup. When Otto is called to the table his dad tells him to eat (“Nosh, son”) but Otto is entranced by the steam rising from his bowl. We’re transported to a beach scene, where Otto’s dog, Pip, gets lost while chasing another beachgoer. The beach leads to a desert, which leads to a road, which leads to a city, which leads to a cemetery, which leads back to the ocean, which leads back to the dining table—none of which is the point, really. I like Agee’s art, but the palindromes are really the draw. When Otto catches a ride to the city of Grubsburg, all the license plates and signs on trucks and billboards are palindromes—from “Walsh’s Irish Slaw” to “Regal Lager” and “Octet Co” and more. There’s a bookstore where all the covers on display are palindromic, and Otto finds himself at one point in a “Mueseum” (yes, that is a bit of a cheat) that has a “Moore Room” and a “Koons Nook”, all of which I find totally charming.

I found out about this book thanks to Neil Pasricha’s post about the best books he read in 2022, and I’m really delighted to have read it!

In her introduction to the edition that I read, Anne Perry captures the appeal of the setting of this book, which takes place in the cavernous Palais Garnier, aka the home of the Paris Opera at the time the novel was written: “There are rooms beyond rooms, passages under and over other passages, and endless shifting walls and hidden pivots and trapdoors, cellars beneath the cellars.” And in this labyrinthine setting, there is a ghost. Or, at least, people say there is a ghost, though the novel’s narrator assures us in the prologue that what people called a ghost was really a man: “he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom.” The ghost, anyway, is a troublemaker: he’s the reason the departing managers have left, and the new managers are bothered by the stipulation that one of the opera boxes be left empty for him, not to mention his request for a monthly allowance. (The managers and their attempts to ignore/avoid/figure out the ghost provide a fairly humorous subplot.)

And then there’s Christine, a singer at the opera who performs at the gala for the departing managers, showing the world that her voice has “a radiance hitherto unsuspected.” Turns out she’s been getting secret music lessons in her dressing room from an unseen figure, a voice she hears through the walls. Is it the Angel of Music her father told her about when she was a little kid? Raoul—who was Christine’s friend in childhood, though they come from different social classes—thinks not, and finds himself jealous that Christine is being pursued by someone else/possibly taken advantage of by some trickster. Meanwhile, a worker at the opera is found dead behind the scenes early in the book, and one of the questions of the plot is how many more deaths in the opera house there will be. (The answer: not zero.)

The edition I read comes with a rather dense academic essay at the end that made me wonder why the editors included it: it features lots of references to Julia Kristeva and the idea of abjection and sentences I needed to read multiple times to even kind of understand. Which isn’t to say it was necessarily a bad essay, just that it felt weird in an edition for a general audience. It did have the result of making me wish I’d read this in English class at some point in high school or college: reading it as an adult for fun I was mostly focused on plot and setting, but I’m sure it would be interesting to hear a good teacher talk about this book in relation to themes like class, Orientalism, et cetera, and in relation to other Gothic novels.

Highlights: I love this description of Christine taking Raoul up above the stage, and wanted more prose like this: “And she would drag him up above the clouds, in the magnificent disorder of the grid, where she loved to make him giddy by running in front of him along the frail bridges, among the thousands of ropes fastened to the pulleys, the windlasses, the rollers, in the midst of a regular forest of yards and masts.” Also great: the description of the opera roof, and “the huge tanks, full of stagnant water, where, in the hot weather, the little boys of the ballet, a score or so, learn to swim and dive.”

2022 Reading Highlights

January 5th, 2023

2022: another year working mostly from home, another year of finding time to read in places/times other than my commute—although I probably did travel more by subway in 2022 for work and non-work reasons than I did in 2020 or 2021.

I read 42 books in 2022, with the genre breakdown as follows:

Middle-grade and YA: 9 books. Highlights included the humor and excitement of Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken, the sweetness of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser, and the atmosphere and emotion of Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo. I also appreciated reading Marguerite Henry’s King of the Wind as an adult/having been to Wandlebury Country Park, where the Godolphin Arabian’s grave is.

Non-fiction: 10 books. I often love books with a travelogue element that also are doing something else/have a bigger scope, so it is not surprising that I loved The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane and Underground by Will Hunt. James Baldwin’s writing is precise and powerful and I loved The Fire Next Time. And while I was not totally smitten by the style or structure of Nineteen Reservoirs by Lucy Sante, I am still very glad I read it because I learned a bunch from it, and because it prompted me to learn some family history as well. (I’m pretty sure my great grandpa worked on the Ashokan Reservoir.)

Fiction for grown-ups: 23 books. Of course I loved Ali Smith’s Companion Piece, because I generally love Ali Smith. Other highlights included The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (which made me fondly remember reading Piranesi by Susanna Clarke in 2020), Scattered All Over the Earth by Yōko Tawada (which has a very fun and twisty plot and lots of interesting things to say about language and culture and identity) and An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura (which touches on similar themes, actually, though the structure and style are very different).

Like Animals makes me think of the Marina and the Diamonds song called “Savages”, though the vibe of Eve Lemieux’s book is more gritty and raw than the song. Like Animals tells us the story of Philomena, or Philly, in short dated chapters, which aren’t in chronological order: we start in 2019, jump to 2016, jump to 2008, jump to 2012, and so on, skipping from moment to moment in Philly’s story of loss and heartbreak and artistic growth. We see her with her best friend, Tania, and with her parents (who are divorced) and with various guys. Most of the novel takes place when Philly is in her twenties and adrift, and most of it takes place in Montreal, but there are moments that happen earlier/later/elsewhere—and interspersed with Philly’s own story we get fragments of a story she’s working on, a dark fairy tale she’s writing and illustrating. You can tell there is going to be drama from the very beginning: “I’m the lead martyr in the cautionary tale of my own invention,” Philly thinks, on page two, when she’s meant to be having a nice birthday celebration with her partner and her closest friends. Things only get more intense as the book proceeds. Philly knows she can be difficult and knows she shouldn’t get so obsessed with guys; she sees the way her mother has gone from one bad guy to the next to the next for most of her life and knows she shouldn’t do the same (her dad isn’t one of the bad guys, though; he’s great, and the parts of the book about him are some of the most moving). The back cover says this book is “inspired by people who haven’t learned to love gently,” and while it isn’t always a pleasant read, I think that’s a testament to Lemieux’s writing and how her words put you right there with Philly.

Underground by Will Hunt

December 28th, 2022

In the nine chapters of Underground, Will Hunt talks about his personal fascination with underground spaces and their larger historical/cultural significances in various places and times through history, from caves where Paleolithic people painted images or created sculptures to NYC subway tunnels and the people who explore them and/or write graffiti in them. He travels to the world’s oldest known mine (an ochre mine in Western Australia) and crosses Paris underground (in a chapter that made me grin for many reasons, not least because one of his companions for that trip was someone who is an acquaintance of mine). He talks about the experience of being lost underground, and the experience of being alone in the dark zone of a cave. The book is a great mix of personal experience/reportage and research on various historical aspects of underground exploration, and it’s pleasingly wide-ranging in more ways than just the geographical span it covers. Hunt talks about microbiology and a theory that life may have originated underground rather than on our planet’s surface; he talks about neurobiology and altered states of consciousness; he talks about ant nests and underground cities; he talks about the first known map of a cave. Black and white images throughout add to the narrative, and I like the way that Hunt writes, which is often lyrical in a way I find very satisfying. Like: “The underground is our ghost landscape, unfolding everywhere beneath our feet, always out of view.” Or: “In a realm of palimpsests, the graffiti from spray cans of cataphiles obscured smoke streaks from torches of seventeenth-century quarry diggers, which obscured fossils of ancient creatures embedded in the limestone.” Or, when he’s talking about Wilgie Mia, that ochre mine: “it felt like the place where red began.”

I’d been meaning to read The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street since it came out in 2017, but somehow hadn’t gotten around to it, despite the fact that this style of middle-grade novel is totally my jam. If you like Elizabeth Enright’s books about the Melendy family, or Jeanne Birdsall’s books about the Penderwicks, you will probably like this book too—and this book is a great pre-Christmas read, if that’s something you’re currently looking for.

When the book opens, it’s December 20th and the Vanderbeekers are all “gathered in the living room for a family meeting”: their parents have some bad news to deliver, which is that their landlord, Mr. Beiderman (who lives on the top floor of the building where the Vanderbeekers have been living for the past several years) has declined to renew their lease, which means they need to move by the end of the month. The five kids (four girls and a boy, ranging in age from four-and-three-quarters to twelve years old) are dismayed: they love their home, and their Harlem neighborhood (which is where their dad grew up, too) and they definitely do not want to move. And so the plot is set in motion: Isa, who’s twelve, says it plainly: “I figure we have until Christmas to convince the Beiderman to let us stay.” But how can they convince a man who seems to dislike kids and noise (and who hasn’t left his apartment in six years) to keep their big (and sometimes raucous) family (complete with a Basset Hound, a cat, and a house rabbit) on as tenants?

Without saying much more about the plot, I will say this book is totally charming. It made me grin a lot, and also made me teary-eyed more than once. I love all the kids and their personalities. The oldest kids are twin sisters Isa and Jessie—one of whom loves playing the violin, the other of whom loves science. Then there’s Oliver, who’s nine: he likes basketball and reading. Hyacinth, who is six, loves animals and making things (whether that’s sewing or knitting or making things out of cardboard or paper or making peanut butter dog treats, with her mom’s help). And then there’s Laney, who loves people and also loves her pet rabbit. (I was not surprised to read a bio that described the author of this book as living “in Harlem with her husband, two daughters, dog, cat, and house rabbit”: from the way she describes Laney’s rabbit as “hopping in bizarre patterns around the living room carpet, periodically flinging himself into the air and spinning as if auditioning for a Broadway show” and then describes watching the rabbit “nibble on a stack of books,” I strongly suspected she was writing from personal experience of living with a bunny.)

I borrowed this book from my mother-in-law, who recently bought (and read) the whole series—I borrowed the rest of the books, too, and I’m excited to read them all.

Early in this book, our narrator (Happy Doll, an ex-cop turned private investigator/security specialist) notes that he’s “become an armchair Buddhist,” which relates to the book’s title (which relates to the wheel of dharma). Happy thinks about karma and dharma and samsara, and co-exists with the ants in his sink rather than killing them, but (because he’s a man of contradictions and this, like the first book featuring him, is very noir) he also does a remarkably bad job of breaking free from things like violence and vengeance as the story proceeds.

When the book opens, in January 2020, he’s on his way to his office for an appointment with a woman named Mary who has contacted him to say she wants “help locating her mother”. Mary, who’s in her twenties, says her mom is homeless (and has been for about five years) and hasn’t been in touch for the last few months. Mary says her mom is a junkie, up in Olympia, and then comes the kicker: she mentions that her mom was Happy’s “girlfriend for a little while”, more than a decade ago, before she left Los Angeles. This woman, Ines, was someone Happy loved deeply, though she was in a bad place in terms of drug use and mental health at the time. And so, despite advice from a cop friend who notes that “things with junkies never turn out good,” Happy takes the job and heads up to Olympia to find Ines.

From there, well: to say that things go wrong would be a massive understatement. And while I saw some plot events coming from miles away, I was still totally caught up in the narrative, reading quickly and staying up way past my bedtime one night to finish this book. This book has fewer sweet moments with Happy’s dog, George, than the last one—though there are still a few great passages/phrases, like when Happy talks about coming home and George being super-excited to see him and then says this: “and then he attacked one of his toys, pretending to kill it as a way to work through his good feelings.” And there are fewer descriptions of lush LA scenery, though there are a few, and we get some vivid descriptions of other places (including Cannon Beach, in Oregon, and Joshua Tree) as compensation. This book feels even bleaker than the first Happy Doll book, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting, and I’m curious about whether this series will continue and where it will go from here, if so. “I simply had to burn this whole thing down so that someday I could start again,” Happy thinks to himself at one point, and there is definitely a scorched-earth recklessness to this book that feels quite dark. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like this one—I liked it a lot—but I think the next book I read is going to be something lighter/happier.

A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames

November 26th, 2022

Noir isn’t generally my genre, but my husband read this and loved it and I’m glad I read it too. The narrator is an ex-cop private investigator who finds himself trying to solve a crime that hits close to home while he’s also high on prescription painkillers and pot; in doing so he makes a number of questionable decisions and gets himself into a whole lot of trouble. The body count in this book was way higher than in the cozier mysteries I usually go for, but I felt the violence was balanced by the narrator’s quirks (he is very devoted to his dog, George, and writes about George in a way I found totally charming) and by the descriptive passages about LA and its surroundings that are scattered throughout.

Here’s what the narrator has to say about George, early in the book: “I think of him as my dear friend whom I happen to live with. In that way, we’re like two old-fashioned closeted bachelors who cohabitate and don’t think the rest of the world knows we’re lovers.” (16) And here’s one of those LA passages: “I looked out over the city. The wind was blowing right, and with all the rain lately you could see clear through to the port of Los Angeles, thirty miles away. You could see the cranes and the tanker ships and the ocean, which was glinting like a strip of silver” (82).

Also, I loved this description of someone’s apartment: “it was frozen in time in the ’80s, with a white leather couch, glass tables, mirrors, the color red, the color black, sculptures of Greek torsos” (147).

Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

November 13th, 2022

Savage Gods is a book about writing and a book about being stuck and a book about trying to figure things out. Kingsnorth writes about how he and his wife, Jyoti, bought a house and some land in Ireland because he wanted to feel connected to a place, and because he thought “that the work of being in a place would still [his] unquiet mind” (7). As it turns out: wherever you go, there you are, and if you’re a writer with a tendency to be very much in your head, you will probably still be very much in your head even if you are also doing the physical work of planting trees and tending to fields and growing food. Kingsnorth fantasizes, sometimes, about a bigger change of place, a bigger change of self: “I would like to live on the Grand Canal. I would like to drop all of this and move to Venice with Jyoti and change my name and wear a linen suit every day and wander the streets and drink strange orange drinks in little bars down crumbling alleyways and gaze up at huge Tintorettos in dark old churches, forever” (96). But he doesn’t, or at any rate hasn’t yet. What he has done is written this book, which is partly about the specifics of his life (his sense that his old way of writing no longer serves him, his reactions against his father and his father’s values, when he was younger, and how he feels when his dad eventually takes his own life) and partly about how he conceptualizes the mid-life moment he’s in, which he describes in the context of a talk he heard by Colin Campbell about the idea, in Botswana, that “the first half of our lives is fire, the second water” (32).

My husband read this book a few years ago and loved it, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it, too, though it wasn’t exactly what I expected. I was expecting more about Kingsnorth’s daily life in Ireland, and I liked the moments when he writes specifically about the place he’s in and his experience of it—like at the start of the book when he talks about the field he’s sitting in and describes it as “a long, thin field, grass and dock and plantain and ground ivy, hedged in with thorn and sycamore and elder” (4). Or when he talks about trying to “resist the impulse to catalog” but admits that he’s “been making a list for three years of all the birds that visit our land in the course of the year” and then gives us the “edited highlights”: “Wagtail. Bullfinch. Dunnock. Wren. Collared dove. Robin. Long-tailed tit. Goldfinch. Swift. Swallow. Blackcap. Coal tit. Willow warbler. Sparrowhawk. Fieldfare. Pheasant. Heron” (28). But I ended up liking the other aspects of the book, too, in part because Kingsnorth’s writing, at the sentence/phrase level, is really really satisfying.