I read a few sentences of This Is How You Lose the Time War aloud to my boyfriend because I was liking it so much, and he just looked at me and asked if this book was written for me. It really is full of things I’m into: tea and cities and literary allusions and lush prose and crystalline details; there’s also letter-writing, and the kind of time-travel plot I really enjoy. The book follows two characters we know as Red and Blue: they’re rivals from different futures, each of whom is sent to various points in time to influence the outcome of events in their future’s favor. There’s narrative about them, but we also get letters by them, to each other: letters that start as brags and taunts and shift as the book progresses; letters that are mostly encoded in things, rather than being written on paper: a letter in the flight of a bee or the flow of lava.

It’s a really pleasing conceit, and when it comes with sentences like the ones I read aloud…Yeah, I’m here for this:

London Next—the same day, month, year, but one strand over—is the kind of London other Londons dream: sepia tinted, skies strung with dirigibles, the viciousness of empire acknowledged only as a rosy backdrop glow redolent of spice and petalled sugar. Mannered as a novel, filthy only where story requires it, all meat pies and monarchy—this is a place Blue loves, and hates herself for loving. (55)

Dracula by Bram Stoker

November 13th, 2019

Having never read Dracula before, I didn’t know what kind of reading experience I was in for when I picked it up, in ways good, bad, and funny. The good: I didn’t realize that it was presented as the journal/diary entries and letters of various characters, plus things like newspaper clippings and telegrams, rather than as a single-perspective narrative. I like the way the story is pieced together from all the little bits. The bad: I could have done without all the misogyny. I definitely felt myself scowling as I was reading on the train and reached a sentence about how a female character has a man’s brain and a woman’s heart, ugh. The funny: I obviously knew before I started reading that Dracula is a vampire. But the book’s characters don’t know this at the beginning, which makes for some amusing moments: like, a character gets a letter signed “Your friend, Dracula,” because, you know, that’s just the guy’s name, but it’s as if the letter were signed “Your friend, the vampire,” because we all know that Castle Dracula is not some charming/comfortable place, but of course the character getting the letter doesn’t yet know what he’s in for. Also: I wouldn’t have guessed this book would have so much snow in it, or so many wolves, both of which are excellent additions to the overall mood. There are some extremely creepy moments in this book, and also some passages of tedious narration (there is one character in particular who isn’t a native English speaker whose speech patterns are super-annoying) but also descriptions of things like “the wonderful smoky beauty of a sunset over London, with its lurid lights and inky shadows and all the marvellous tints that come on foul clouds even as on foul water” (120).

I’ve been meaning to read this book for literally a decade, and I’m glad I finally got around to it, even though it didn’t totally click for me. Basically, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a multi-generational family saga, and that is generally not my thing, and this book isn’t really an exception. I like how Díaz uses different chapters to focus on different characters/time periods in a non-linear way, and I like the way the book moves between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, as its characters do, and I like the use of footnotes and the snappy narration, but I also wanted maybe a little more description, maybe a little less plot. Near the end of the book there are a few pages where we get sprawling page-long sentences full of observation, full of detail, and when I got to those parts I was so delighted, and subsequently wished the rest of the book had had more of that. Like this, which is just a short snippet:

after he’d gotten somewhat used to the surreal whirligig that was life in La Capital—the guaguas, the cops, the mind-boggling poverty, the Dunkin’ Donuts, the beggars, the Haitians selling roasted peanuts at the intersections, the mind-boggling poverty, the asshole tourists hogging up all the beaches, the Xica de Silva novelas where homegirl got naked every five seconds that Lola and his female cousins were cracked on, the afternoon walks on the Conde […] (276-277)

But right: “Oscar Wao” is the story of Oscar de León, an overweight Dominican-American nerd from Paterson, NJ, whose mom has raised him and his older sister Lola by herself. It’s also the story of his mom, Beli, and her family: how she ended up in America to begin with, how the brutality of Trujillo’s regime tore her family apart, and whether there might be such a thing as a family curse, and what that might look like. We hear about Oscar’s childhood and his teen years and his college years; we hear about his mom’s teen years and his sister’s teen years, too; we hear about his grandfather and how the family’s troubles all got started. I like how the different pieces of the story fit together, and I like the historical footnotes and the mix of Spanish and English and I like Oscar’s sister Lola a whole lot, and I’ll probably read more by Junot Díaz at some point, but this book wasn’t entirely the book for me.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

September 28th, 2019

At the start of The Goldfinch I felt slightly annoyed by the narrative voice and writing style—just little things, like the way the narrator says “for I’d left New York in a hurry,” or the way “punch-drunk” is used something like three times in the first hundred pages. But as I kept reading, I was won over, and found myself totally engrossed in the story: despite the book’s length, I read it over the course of eleven days, largely on the subway or on breaks at jury duty; I found myself eagerly looking forward to the next time I’d be able to pick it up. There’s a lot of plot, and it’s hard to write about it without spoilers, but OK: our narrator, Theo, is 13 when his mother dies, in an act of violence that he survives, and which changes the course of his life in multiple ways. There’s a painting (the goldfinch of the title), and an interlude in Las Vegas; there are a lot of drugs; there’s a return to New York City, where Theo grew up; there’s a fevered stay in Amsterdam in late December. There are musings about fate, and chance, and luck, and art, and beauty, and obsession, and loss; there are passages that feel over-written and passages that are just gorgeous. Tartt’s style of description leans heavily on lists, which I personally find really really satisfying, but if you don’t, this is probably not the book for you. I mean, I am all about things like these passages about Amsterdam:

Outside, all was activity and cheer. It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their bicycles. (5)

the strangeness of the city pressing in all around me, smells of tobacco and malt and nutmeg, café walls the melancholy brown of an old leather-bound book and then beyond, dark passages and brackish water lapping, low skies and old buildings all leaning against each other with a moody, poetic, edge-of-destruction feel (649)

Or this, describing someone’s bedroom:

Cinnamon-colored walls, rain on the windowpanes, vast quiet and a sense of depth and distance, like the varnish over the background of a nineteenth-century painting (150)

And oh, I love some of the book’s descriptions of New York places/moments/moods because I can picture them so clearly—the park near the subway by Canal Street with the pharmacy across the street, the way the streets feel after a spring rainstorm, what it would be like to step out of a movie at Film Forum and into a world turned white with just-fallen snow.

The New Me by Halle Butler

September 7th, 2019

The short chapters of The New Me are a mix of first-person narration by Millie, who’s thirty and working as a temp in Chicago, and third-person narration about various people whose lives intersect with hers—her supervisor at work, other women at the office, her downstairs neighbor. Nearly all the characters are female: there’s some conversation about Millie’s ex-boyfriend; there’s a dude at the party; there’s the downstairs neighbor’s male significant other; there’s Millie’s landlord: but basically all the interiority in the story is women’s interiority (I think a brief paragraph focused on Millie’s landlord might be the one exception). One of the cover blurbs, from Catherine Lacey, describes Halle Butler as “a first-rate satirist of the horror show being sold to us as Modern Femininity,” and yeah, that: the inside of these women’s minds, even the ones who seem to have their shit together in a way that Millie doesn’t, is a pretty awful place to be.

So yeah, Millie: as mentioned, she definitely does not have her shit together. It’s been a year since she and her boyfriend of four years broke up; she lives alone (with financial help from her parents) in an apartment she only sporadically cleans; she works a mindless/thankless temp job in the back offices of a design showroom; she doesn’t really do much other than work and smoke and watch Forensic Files—sometimes she drinks with her sort-of friend, Sarah, but they time they spend together doesn’t seem particularly rewarding or fulfilling to either of them, with both of them complaining about their lives/waiting for the next gap in the conversation to say what they want to say, not actually connecting at all. But Millie has all these ideas about how things could be different if she ends up getting hired on permanently: maybe with more money she’ll be more stable and she’ll also be a nicer person. Maybe she’ll be less judgmental; maybe she’ll go to yoga classes. But other characters in the book who do have more stability don’t necessarily seem totally fulfilled: a girl at work who just got a puppy is frustrated by her friends, too; Millie’s downstairs neighbor with the clean apartment wishes her partner wouldn’t talk about work all the time/struggles to listen to him; Millie’s supervisor isn’t taken seriously by her bosses. Everyone’s stuck in their own heads, though Millie’s particular combination of self-loathing and judgmental-ness is the most extreme.

This was a fast read that was simultaneously satisfying and really uncomfortable: the messiness of Millie and her life are so vivid; her anxiety and dread are described so well as to feel kind of contagious. When I first read Jia Tolentino’s piece about this book in the New Yorker, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read the book or not, and while I’m glad I did, I’m also glad I’m done with it.

State of the Union by Nick Hornby

September 2nd, 2019

I like the premise of State of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts a whole lot: in ten short chapters, set over the course of ten weeks, we see a married couple, Louise and Tom, having a drink at a pub before their weekly couples’ therapy appointment. They’re both in their forties; they have two kids; she’s a gerontologist; he’s an out-of-work music critic. While you learn early on what precipitated these counseling sessions (she had an affair), you also learn, as the book progresses, that there’s obviously more to it than that.

The text is mostly dialogue, and I wonder how my experience would have been different if I’d watched it in its SundanceTV version with Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd rather than reading it. (Part of the reason that I picked up this book is that my boyfriend saw the SundanceTV production at the Tribeca Film Festival back in May and enjoyed it.) I obviously can’t know, but I wonder if seeing it on-screen would have made it feel more character-driven rather than idea-driven, and I wonder if that would have made me like it more or less.

The book felt very idea-driven to me, in a satisfying way: every week Tom and Louise are talking not just about their specific situation and how they ended up where they are, but also about marriage more generally: about different metaphors for marriage and how those can cause problems, about what different people assume a marriage is or means. Is it about sexual exclusivity and sexual desire? Is it about having a family together? What does it mean/does it matter if two people who are married to one another can’t imagine themselves being friends if they weren’t married? Is a marriage like a computer, i.e. a complicated machine that you shouldn’t take apart because you might not be able to put it back together? If you do take it apart, should you try to put it back together even if you can’t make it the same as it was originally? Is being a couple about being “two against the world,” or is it about some other kind of teamwork? What does it mean when someone says they have doubts about a relationship that they’ve been in for over a decade? Is there such a thing as a “new start” in a relationship? What’s the goal of marriage, or is that the wrong question to ask?

Which isn’t to say that this book is all seriousness—it’s also quite funny. I like how Tom and Louise watch other couples leave their therapist’s house (which is just across the street from the pub) and speculate about those couples’ lives; I like how they find out big or small things about each other that make them kind of appalled, and how they react; I like how they joke with each other and work on cryptic crosswords together; I like the pace and humor of their back-and-forth.

Fox 8 by George Saunders

August 30th, 2019

I read Fox 8 over the course of a single day, starting it on my morning commute and finishing it on my evening commute, and aw, what a sweet/funny/sad/hopeful little book this is. It’s a fable narrated by a fox who has learned human language by listening to a woman read bedtime stories to her kids; he’s entranced by “the Yuman voice, making werds” (3) and by human achievements generally: houses, cars, stereos, malls, all the things people can build. But it turns out people, and the things they build, can cause problems: a mall being built disrupts Fox 8’s habitat, and when he and a friend set out in search of food, things go tragically wrong thanks to human cruelty and callousness, after which Fox 8 gets lost and finds himself wandering the world, unable to find his den-mates. He doesn’t give up hope, though, and after managing to find a new life for himself, he ends the book by offering a piece of advice to humankind, or I guess I should say Yumankind: “If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser” (49).

I really like Fox 8’s narrative voice, phonetic spelling and awkward syntax and all, and found so many things in this book really charming: how bothered Fox 8 is by the “fawlse” depictions of foxes, bears, and owls in the stories he hears the mom reading to her kids; his conversation with a dog in the mall parking lot; his tendency to daydream. I also like Chelsea Cardinal’s illustrations a whole lot: her line drawings, with the foxes in red and most other stuff in black, complement the text really nicely. (You can see some of those drawings on her Instagram: I love the one with the tree on the left page and the foxes on the right, and that gorgeous two-page spread of Fox 8 under a cloud-filled sky, surrounded by grass and trees, with the city off in the distance.)

The first chapter of Master and Commander is such a total delight. It’s 1800, and there’s a concert happening in a fancy house on Menorca. A Navy lieutenant named Jack Aubrey is thoroughly enjoying the music, tapping the beat on his leg without realizing it; his enjoyment is spoiled when the man sitting next to him, a doctor named Stephen Maturin, grumpily tells him that if he’s going to tap the beat, he should at least do it in time. This ruins Aubrey’s mood: he finds himself feeling glum, thinking of how he doesn’t have a ship to command even though he’s been waiting for one for a while; when he leaves the concert we get this:

He was profoundly dissatisfied with himself, and with the man in the black coat, and with the service. And with the velvet softness of the April night, and the choir of nightingales in the orange-trees, and the host of stars hanging so low as almost to touch the palms. (11)

But then he gets a letter giving him command of a ship called the Sophie, and then everything is right with the world. He runs into Maturin and apologizes to him, after which they have breakfast together and talk; after another meal together later, Aubrey asks Maturin to be the Sophie‘s surgeon: and so a friendship starts. I like the opposites-attract aspect of Aubrey and Maturin’s relationship: Maturin is good at languages; Aubrey is terrible at them; Maturin knows next to nothing about boats; Aubrey has been at sea since he was twelve; Aubrey is big and garrulous; Maturin is smaller and more reserved. They’re both smart, though, and they love music, and their personalities end up complementing each other nicely.

The rest of the book is set largely on board the Sophie, which has various adventures/encounters/skirmishes with other ships. There’s a lot of naval vocabulary, some of which gets explained to the reader as it gets explained to Maturin, and some of which doesn’t get explained at all. There are frigates and xebecs and ships-of-the-line, and a whole lot of rigging and guns. But the Sophie and all the other ships out there are of course full of people, and it’s the interactions between them that made the book enjoyable for me. I liked reading about the tensions between Aubrey and his lieutenant, a man named James Dillon who turns out to have a shared history with Maturin. I liked reading about Maturin’s conversations with the doctor on a French ship, and about Aubrey’s interactions with the sailors and officers of the Sophie. But mostly I liked reading about Aubrey and Maturin: Aubrey being scared of a live snake in Maturin’s room when they’re ashore; Maturin being irate when someone drinks the wine preserving a dead snake he’s brought aboard in a jar; the two of them playing music together; Maturin trying to keep Aubrey from shooting himself in the foot, socially/in terms of his prospects for advancement; the two of them just talking, being friends.

My boyfriend often teases me about how I like really little books, and I always protest that I like books of varying lengths/sizes, but there is something appealing about a little book that’s easy to slip into a purse. The Door in the Wall by H.G. Wells is a Penguin Mini Modern Classic, and it’s little indeed: I read it in the course of a late afternoon/evening, mostly on the subway. It consists of three short stories: “The Door in the Wall” (from 1911), “The Sea-Raiders” (from 1897), and “The Moth” (from 1895). The first and last stories are somewhat thematically similar, in that they both deal with ghosts/hauntings, though they’re quite different in feel.

“The Sea-Raiders”, which I like the least, is about giant cephalopods wreaking havoc on the English coast, but even though I found it less engaging than the other two, it wasn’t terrible. There’s a sense of danger (made slightly less vivid by the third-person narration, but still) and also of scientific interest/curiosity, and also a sense of the menace of the unknown depths of the ocean, and I like the interplay of those elements. I also like this description of the cephalopods:

The creatures, it seems like most deep-sea organisms, were phosphorescent, and they had been floating, five fathoms deep or so, like creatures of moonshine through the blackness of the water, their tentacles retracted and as if asleep, rolling over and over, and moving slowly in a wedge-like formation towards the south-east. (46)

In “The Moth”, meanwhile, we learn about a lengthy feud between two entomologists. There’s humor in this story, with the entomologists publishing journal articles and replies (maybe this is funnier because I work in academic publishing?) and dissing each other in late-1800s style: at one point one of them “suggested that [the other one’s] microscope was as defective as his power of observation” (50). When one of them dies, though, the other finds himself adrift without his old nemesis, and haunted by a moth that reminds him of his dead scientific rival, at which point the story takes a turn from funny to dark (in a good way).

My favorite of these stories, though, is “The Door in the Wall”, which is the longest of the three and feels the most well-developed, plot-wise/idea-wise/style-wise. It’s a portal fantasy/parable about the dangers of either following or not following your desires, depending on how you look at it, and it’s narrated by a man whose childhood schoolmate, who grew up to be a very successful politician, has just died unexpectedly. We learn about how the man told the narrator about passing through a door into a garden in another world when he was a young child, and about how that garden/world then proceeded to haunt him for his whole life. The description of the garden is really pleasing, as is the narrator’s friend’s description of how he used to amuse himself on the way to school by trying to find a different way to get there than the usual one, getting himself lost on purpose and trying to find his way without being late: it’s like a schoolkid’s psychogeographical experiment, from long before the Situationists.

The City in the Middle of the Night is set in the future on January, a tidally-locked planet settled by humans after Earth has become uninhabitable. It’s a harsh world: half frozen night, half boiling day, with a narrow twilight range where people live in the two main cities, Xiosphant and Argelos, one of which is rule-bound and repressive, the other of which is a perpetual carnival. People aren’t the only life-forms on January, though: there are creatures they call giant squid, which live below the ice on the Sea of Murder, and hunting predators they call bison, and large creatures they call crocodiles, which turn out to have a culture and civilization of their own that long predates the arrival of humans.

The City in the Middle of the Night alternates between sections narrated by Sophie, a Xiosphanti student who, early in the book, is banished to the night but survives, and sections about Mouth, a smuggler who grew up in a nomadic civilization that was suddenly and catastrophically wiped out. The two stories intertwine, and we also learn about a bigger cast of characters: Sophie’s roommate Bianca, who’s part of Xiosphant’s elite but says she wants to make the city more just, Mouth’s companion Alyssa, who grew up in Argelos and is ready to be done with smuggling, and more human and non-human characters, including the crocodiles, who end up saving Sophie when she’s banished to the night. Sophie starts calling them the Gelet, a Xiosphanti word with connotations of building and exploring, once she learns that they have a whole technologically-advanced civilization, and it’s their city that’s the city of the title.

I liked the Gelet city most of all, I think, but I found this whole book really compelling: I liked the pace of the alternating/intertwined storylines, and all the ideas the book explores: racism and colonialism and trust and communication and memory, friendship and romance, being an outcast, being a survivor, climate change, the interconnectedness of everything.