Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star is often an uncomfortable read, but it should be: its narrator is an astronomy grad student with an eating disorder, and she’s in a long-distance relationship with a guy dealing (or rather not dealing) with alcoholism. The binary star of the title is the book’s metaphor for their relationship—two stars orbiting a common center of mass. Gerard captures her narrator’s obsessive thinking—food, her body, the numbers on the scale, diet pills, celebrity gossip magazines with lists of “diet tricks,” food—the litany of brands and products at the supermarket. (Some of this is based on Gerard’s own experiences, as described in this New York Times piece.) The narrator talks about a road trip she took with her aforementioned boyfriend, John, and about their increasing mutual interest in ethical veganism/veganarchism/animal liberation (though for the narrator, veganism also provides an excuse: rules around food, reasons not to eat). The book’s sentences are mostly short, declarative, stripped down, the narrator doing to language what she does to herself: “I have basically starved myself of will,” the narrator says, and then, on the same page, “I am mostly devoid of feelings on purpose” (71). She cultivates emptiness. “The total mass of a star is the principal determinant of its fate,” she says on the book’s first page, and then: “A star is held together by its own gravity.” Her center doesn’t hold. “If I wander far enough into the desert, I may become a dune,” she says, and then: “And winds will blow across and reshape me, and I will see that my form has always been and will always be indefinite” (55-56).

The eleven essays in this book all explore pain, in one way or another (or sometimes in several ways). All are well-written, some are structurally interesting, and I really liked some of them. The title essay, which is partly about Jamison’s job as a medical actor (presenting the symptoms of a disease/the story of a fictional patient to med school students conducting simulated examinations) is really satisfying: Jamison talks about her experience with the med students when she’s acting, and also about her experiences with empathy or lack thereof around the abortion she had and the heart surgery she had, and also about her feelings around empathy when her brother had Bell’s palsy. (This essay appeared in The Believer, and you can read the whole thing online here.) I love this, which is from that first essay: “Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see” (5). Also, this: “Empathy is a kind of care but it’s not the only kind of care, and it’s not always enough” (17).

The second essay, which is about Morgellons (read it here) was also really interesting. Jamison writes about going to an annual conference in Austin for self-described “morgies,” and the weirdness of wanting to be empathetic/believing in the pain of the people she meets, without necessarily believing in some of their explanations for it. The travel/place-themed essays in this book (like one about going to a writers’ conference in Mexicali and hearing about/thinking about the experience of living in parts of Mexico that are very affected by the violence of the drug trade, or about getting mugged/punched in Nicaragua, or about visiting the silver mines of Potosí, or going on a “Gang Tour” in LA) didn’t resonate as strongly with me, and I’m not sure why, though there are interesting bits. I did love The Immortal Horizon, which is about the Barkley Marathons, a 100+-mile race over very rough/wild terrain in Tennessee, in which Jamison’s brother competed in 2010.

The book’s last essay, which is about female pain, seems to be one of those things people either really like or really don’t (based on the Goodreads reviews I’ve seen, anyway), but I felt conflicted. There were parts of it I liked because Jamison is around my age, and I relate to passages like this, because these are the song lyrics of my adolescence, too:

I grew up under the spell of damaged sirens: Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, Björk, Kate Bush, Mazzy Star. They sang about all the ways a woman could hurt: I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl. When they’re out for blood I always give. We are made to bleed and scab and heal and bleed again and turn every scar into a joke. Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon. Bluffing your way into my mouth, behind my teeth, reaching for my scars. Did I ever tell you how I stopped eating, when you stopped calling? You’re only popular with anorexia. Sometimes you’re nothing but meat, girl. I’ve come home. I’m so cold. (202)

And she quotes Anne Carson, which always wins points with me, and I like the way the essay brings together all these different bits and pieces (a female character in Dickens, Lena Dunham’s Girls, Stephen King’s Carrie, and more), and I like the idea of “the possibility of representing female suffering without reifying its mythos” (214). But I have issues with the gender binary, which this essay doesn’t really question, and I think maybe part of the problem with “female pain” is failing, in some cases, to see pain as an individual issue/experience, not in a gendered way (which I think Jamison gets at, right at the end of the essay, but not enough).

I think I’m probably not the ideal audience for Pico Iyer’s very short TED book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. That isn’t to say I didn’t find things to like in it, but I think it might have been better for people who haven’t tried any sort of sitting-in-silence practice at all (I went to a Quaker high school, and had a brief period of going to Quaker meeting semi-regularly as an adult), and/or who don’t already feel convinced of the benefits of sometimes doing nothing/going nowhere/carving out space for quiet in one’s life. I like that while Iyer himself goes on retreats to a monastery, he realizes that isn’t going to work for everyone, in terms of time commitment or finances or personality: near the end of the book he says that “Nowhere has to become somewhere we visit in the corners of our lives by taking a daily run or going fishing or just sitting quietly for thirty minutes every morning” (63).

This book consists of six chapters and an introduction, separated by 2-page spreads of color photos by Eydís Einarsdóttir of horizons and clouds, water and sky. (You can see the photos on Einarsdóttir’s website: this one is totally my favorite). The book starts and ends with stories about Leonard Cohen (who has spent a significant amount of time at a Zen monastery in California, and who famously went on tour in his seventies: Iyer talks about his time at the monastery as stepping away from the world in order to more fully engage with it) but other than that it has a pretty loose structure, meandering through Iyer’s own experiences (deciding to spend a year in Kyoto at the age of 29, after being a successful writer in New York), those of people he’s met (like Matthieu Ricard, the Dalai Lama’s French translator and the monk of The Monk and the Philosopher), general ideas about choosing to step away from busy-ness (e.g. the idea of taking breaks from technology on a “secular Sabbath”), and specific examples of stillness being useful (e.g. a study about “a yoga-based breathing program” for military vets at risk of PTSD). Iyer’s writing sometimes feels a little name-dropping, but sometimes feels really lyrical and pleasing—I haven’t read anything else by him, but this book does make me want to. One sentence that really made me roll my eyes, though: “It takes courage, of course, to step out of the fray, as it takes courage to do anything that’s necessary, whether tending to a loved one on her deathbed or turning away from that sugarcoated doughnut” (62). (That donut part feels really unnecessarily judge-y about other people’s food choices, and is extra weird given that there’s another part of the book where Iyer talks about a balance between Nowhere and normal life, using the example of Leonard Cohen leaving the monastery to go get a Filet-o-Fish sandwich and watch TV at home.)

Some highlights: the idea of “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it” (4). A quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel about the Sabbath being “a cathedral in time rather than space,” and then Iyer’s own description of how “the one day a week we take off becomes a vast empty space through which we can wander, without agenda, as through the light-filled passageways of Notre Dame” (55). And this description of Iyer’s first visit to the Benedictine retreat house he ended up returning to many times:

A fox alighted on the splintered fence outside, and I couldn’t stop watching, transfixed. A deer began grazing just outside my window, and it felt like a small miracle stepping into my life. Bells tolled far above, and I thought I was listening to the “Hallelujah Chorus.” (15)

Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island reminded me a bit of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, in that they both feature writer-narrators engaged in a project of writing/observation whose result, basically, is the book you’re reading. I liked 10:04 a bit more, because it’s got more New York in it and is more lyrical and optimistic, but I liked Satin Island a whole lot too, starting with its form: it’s made of paragraph-long numbered sections (some of them are long paragraphs) that are full of associations, recurring images, tangents, digressions, and nods to the narrator’s hero, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The narrator, U., is an anthropologist himself, but the culture he’s studying is his own/our own: contemporary capitalism, globalization, corporate culture and brands. He works for a company that has just won a big contract for a project he can only describe in the vaguest of terms; he is meant to be working on a “Great Report,” an impossible document that his boss describes as “The First and Last Word on our age” (61). As far as what he actually does, he travels and speaks at conferences, and he sits in a basement office and writes briefs and compiles dossiers about jeans and what different patterns of wear signify, or about breakfast, or about well, anything that he feels like, as he explains early in the book:

I had a dossier on Japanese game-avatars, and another one on newspaper obituaries; a dossier on post-match interviews with sportsmen and their managers; a dossier on alleged alien sightings and one on shark attacks; dossiers on tattoos, “personalization” trends for hand-held gadgets, the rhetoric and diction of scam emails. (35-36)

Satin Island itself follows U.’s whims and trains of thought from the very opening of the book onward: the first chapter, which is great, is pretty representative of the whole thing. The book starts with a description of the shroud of Turin, and then U. remembers being stuck in the airport in Torino-Caselle. He remembers reading about the shroud of Turin there, then remembers moving on to reading about hub-airports (because Torino-Caselle is one), then about the hub/spoke model generally, then about bicycle construction, at which point he remembers how he found himself remembering the sensation of riding a bike in his childhood, until he got distracted by the news footage being shown in the airport (which includes breaking news about an oil spill, which increasingly dominates the news coverage and U.’s thoughts). One thing leads to another, and maybe it’s all worth paying attention to: as U. puts it when talking about how sometimes he can’t tell whether something will be work for a client or work for the Great Report/himself, “Who’s to say what is, or might turn out to be, related to what else?” (36).

Like 10:04, this book is very concerned with narrative. There are the narratives that U. creates to explain how things in our culture work/what things signify, which are sometimes just bullshitting or crazy theories, and there are the other anthropological narratives U. refers to, whether he’s talking about Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques or Vanuatan cargo cults. But there are other people’s stories, too, and how they tell them: U. has a friend who’s dying of cancer, and one of the things the friend is bothered by is the sense that he’s always been conscious of his experiences in terms of how he’ll narrate/frame them to others, but death is the experience he won’t be able to narrate. And then there’s Madison, the woman U. is sleeping with, and the story she tells him about her experience of police brutality. A dream, which is a different kind of narrative (or non-narrative, maybe), gives the book its title and leads to maybe my favorite part of the book, the last chapter, in which U. visits and describes the Staten Island Ferry Terminal: there’s too much of it to quote, but oh, it’s so good, and not just because it’s about a place I can picture.

I mostly read Exodus because I’m a completist—it was bugging me that I’d read the first two books of this trilogy about, as the back cover puts it, “the two preposterous philosophical anti-heroes,” Lars and W., but hadn’t read the third. This third book is more of the same, which is mostly a good thing, because these books are funny: Lars and W. are philosophy professors who drink a lot of gin and bemoan the state of the world in general and academia in particular. In this volume, W. is on the verge of losing his job but then doesn’t, because of some technicality, but now he “only teaches sports science” students (14). In the last book, Lars and W. attempted a US lecture tour; in this one, it’s their “great lecture tour of Great Britain,” their “last look at the ruins of the humanities,” their investigation of the “destruction of philosophy at [W.’s] university — of the destruction of philosophy in Britain — of the destruction of philosophy in the whole world” (3). But we don’t really see much of the lecturing: it’s more the touring, the in-between places, the train rides and the coffees and beers before or after lecturing. And as with the previous two books, a lot of this one consists of Lars recounting his conversations with W., full of funny insults. There’s this:

I was a scholarly Kasper Hauser, W. says, who knew nothing of reading, or note-taking. I could read, that much is true. But only just, only approximately, and with a great deal of pathos, with wild underlinings and illegitimate identifications. — ‘You thought every book you read was about you, didn’t you?’ That’s me!, I would say, pointing to a passage in Hegel. It’s about me!, I would say, pointing to the Science of Logic. (8)

And this: “He can see my lips moving as I read, W. says. It’s not a good sign in a scholar” (29). And this: “I rely on secondary commentaries, on idiot’s guides, W. says. In the end, I am only a ransacker of books, a kind of reader-marauder. My reading is a great pillaging, as if by a Viking raiding party” (ibid.)

W and Lars’s wanderings intertwine with the themes of exile that keep recurring in this book (at least one lecture they give is about “exilic themes in the work of Marx”), and one of the pair’s central concerns is the place of thought in the modern world/in a capitalistic society/in capitalistic Great Britain in particular. I’m sure I missed a bunch of philosophical jokes and references—I suspect someone who majored in philosophy would find this book even funnier than I did—but still, this was a satisfying read.

The subtitle is no joke: this book is short, just 201 pages including the index and an extensive list of books for further reading, and its length was part of what made me pick it up, but may also have kept me from totally loving it. The thing is, Warner isn’t writing primarily about the history/chronology of fairy tales, though she does spend time on key figures like Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers. Rather, she starts by defining fairy tales and then talks in more detail about various aspects of them and about their place in various forms of (American and European) culture and cultural discourse. So she talks about Bruno Bettelheim and psychoanalytic interpretations of fairytales, and about Anne Sexton and Angela Carter and feminist revisions/subversions of fairytales, and about how genres like satire or polemic or magical realism can interact with fairy tales, and about fairy tales in the worlds of ballet, opera, and film. This approach sometimes feels scattered, and makes me think I might like one of Warner’s longer books more.

But there is a lot to like here: Warner’s writing is generally clear, sometimes matter-of-fact, sometimes really graceful. I love this, from her prologue, talking about how one of the defining characteristics of fairy tales is that “the scope of fairy tale is made by language,” and about what fairy-tale language is like:

its building blocks include certain kinds of characters (stepmothers and princesses, elves and giants) and certain recurrent motifs (keys, apples, mirrors, rings, and toads); the symbolism comes alive and communicates meaning through imagery of strong contrasts and sensations, evoking simple, sensuous phenomena that glint and sparkle, pierce and flow, by these means striking recognition in the reader or listener’s body at a visceral depth (glass and forests; gold and silver; diamonds and rubies; thorns and knives; wells and tunnels). (xix)

I mean, I am always a sucker for sentences incorporating lists, but that’s really great, right?

Also, this: “In fairy tales, want stalks everyone, and the word’s double meaning matters: both desire and lack” (78).

Also, this book makes me think I should really really really read some Angela Carter. I mean, I’ve been meaning to, but this book makes me wonder why I haven’t yet.

“Where does trouble come from? How do you get into it?” (9). For fourteen-year-old Gwen Needle, the trouble, and also the adventure, starts on Memorial Day, when she’s caught shoplifting at a drugstore. She also has a falling out with her mean-girl best friend, quits the synchronized swimming team she’s been on (partly because of that falling-out, partly because she’s tired of doing things because of other people’s expectations), and has to volunteer at a residence for senior citizens as punishment for the shoplifting. But she also makes a new friend, Amber, and ends up enjoying her time at the senior citizens’ residence more than she expects: she spends time with Errol, an old man who’s senile and sometimes grouchy but enjoys Gwen’s company, says he used to be in the Navy, and has a great collection of books about pirates. Reading Errol’s books, Gwen and Amber get ideas: they’ll take to the sea and be pirates themselves: they’ll be able to go anywhere, do anything, be free. Gwen says they “want to forge a social order” that’s “beyond the realm of traditional authority,” which is, of course, what teenagers want in general, right? (109).

Meanwhile, this book is also the story of Gwen’s father, Phil, a radio producer who’s pitching a show about a great American blues singer. Phil’s struggling with work, and flailing a bit in general; he’s also kind of a jerk, and I wasn’t really interested in reading his middle-aged married white guy story. But then Gwen and Amber’s story of piracy gets rather too real/dark/violent, and Phil’s perspective provides some solid comic relief.

It’s hard to figure out what to say about this book without being spoiler-y. It’s well-written, and the funny parts are often really funny, and there’s some good satire of contemporary American society, and I like Gwen and Amber’s friendship lots. But the violent bits at the center of the book felt gratuitous, and I felt that they pushed the book into unbelievability, plot-wise and character-wise. I’m still glad I read it though.

I was worried, at first, that The First Bad Man was going to be weird for the sake of weirdness, and awkward/uncomfortable without any sort of payoff for it. But while the book is plenty weird and awkward and uncomfortable, it’s also funny and readable and sometimes surprisingly sweet. The narrator is Cheryl Glickman, who starts the book as a forty-something-year-old woman who’s pretty stuck in her life and in her head. She’s romantically unfulfilled (she’s smitten with an older man she knows from work, but he’s not interested in her), she suffers from a globus (the sensation of a lump in the throat), and she has a “system” for ordering her house, which mainly consists of using fewer dishes, to avoid a downward spiral that starts with dirty dishes piling up in the sink and ends, she says, with staying in her room and “pee[ing] in cups because they’re closer to the bed” (21). Her biggest moments of connection seem to be the imagined ones she has with certain babies she passes in the street or the park or wherever: she feels she has a connection to them, and imagines them as reincarnations, sort of, of a baby she felt close to, briefly, when she was a child. But then her bosses ask if someone can give their twenty-year-old daughter, Clee, someplace to stay until she gets a job and apartment of her own. Cheryl has no intention of taking Clee in, but then she does, and Clee’s presence ends up changing everything, resulting in various physical and sexual and maternal awakenings for Cheryl. I don’t really know how to talk about this book: there are so many bizarre plot threads that July somehow manages to make work, and there are key plot elements that I think work best as surprises, with the reader figuring things out alongside of (or just ahead of) the narrator. If you want more detailed and coherent thoughts, I think Lauren Groff’s review in the New York Times is pretty spot-on.

The Penderwicks in Spring might be my favorite book so far in this series, and not just because it centers on Batty, who’s been my favorite of the Penderwick siblings from the first book, when she was a sweet and shy four-year-old wearing butterfly wings. When this book opens she’s ten, almost eleven, and still sweet and shy. Not only is she no longer the youngest sibling (that spot was taken by Ben, her stepbrother, at the end of the second book), she’s not even the youngest sister anymore: there’s a new Penderwick, two-year-old Lydia, who’s obsessed with princesses and is often hilarious. And oh, this book needs some hilarity to balance out all the hard stuff Batty’s going through. I didn’t keep track of how many times I cried while reading this book, but it was definitely more than once, and started in the very first chapter. Very early in the book we learn that the beloved family dog, Hound, died six months previously, and Batty is heartbroken. Hound was her constant companion since babyhood, and she blames herself for his death. And then, later in the book, Batty starts blaming herself for her mother’s death, too (she died of cancer just after Batty was born). Meanwhile, the tensions between Batty’s sister Skye and their dear friend Jeffrey mean that Batty doesn’t get to see as much of Jeffrey, her musical mentor, as she would like, and she’s missing her older sister Rosalind, too, and feeling pushed out of her own living room by her teenage sisters’ active social lives.

Not that this book is all sadness: Batty starts an odd-jobs business that turns out to actually be more of a dog-walking business, and her class gets a substitute music teacher who hears Batty sing and encourages her to take voice lessons, and Nick Geiger, who lives across the street, comes home on leave from the army. There’s also comic relief in the form of a horrible pretentious boy Rosalind brings home when she visits from college in Rhode Island, and humor in the younger Penderwicks’ attempts to make sense of romance. And oh, I love the dogs Batty walks—a very overweight dachshund named Duchess and a very wrinkly dog (English bulldog? Shar Pei?) named Cilantro who’s scared of everything and makes noises like a tuba when he’s worried.

I recently re-read The Penderwicks, and enjoyed it, though I don’t feel like I have anything to say that I didn’t already say when I wrote about it in 2008, except that this time around one chapter totally made me teary-eyed on the subway. And then I re-read the sequel, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, which, again, I wrote about previously. This time around I enjoyed the second book more than the first, maybe because it feels somewhat less episodic (the first book has some overarching plot but it’s more a series of adventures/mishaps; this book has three or four plotlines that are woven together) or maybe because it felt a little better-written or maybe just because I was more in the mood for it.

Then I moved on to the third book in the series, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, which I hadn’t read before. Like the first book, it’s another summer story, though in this one, the Penderwicks are separated: their dad (and new stepmom and her son) are in England, Rosalind is at the Jersey Shore with her best friend’s family, and the three other sisters (Skye, Jane, and Batty) are in Maine with their aunt for two weeks, along with their friend Jeffrey. Skye, who’s now twelve, is nervous about being the “Oldest Available Penderwick”—she’s not motherly like Rosalind is, and doesn’t like dealing with her sisters’ tears and emotions (or her own). And the trip doesn’t seem like it’s off to the best start when, on the first day, Skye finds herself accidentally dunked in the cold ocean while rescuing Hoover, the goofy dog belonging to Alec, who lives next door to the cottage they’re renting. When Skye realizes that her unintended swim has resulted in the loss of her precious list—the six-page document she’s put together of everything anyone has said about taking care of Batty—she’s sure she won’t be able to manage as the OAP for the duration of the vacation.

And there are accidents and mishaps, but there are also lots of pleasing things about the Maine trip: a boat ride, and seals, and moose, and new friends, and the discovery that Batty may be the only musically-talented Penderwick sister. There’s also a major plot development that’s sort of annoying in terms of how big a coincidence it relies on, but I like these books enough that I didn’t really mind, even though I wasn’t entirely able to suspend my disbelief.