Standard Deviation is a novel about married life and parenting, but also about life in general: it’s full of “all that stuff you do every day that sometimes seems pleasurable and sometimes seems pointless but never seems to end” (259). Those everyday moments, particularly the ones that are on the edge of ridiculous, are a big part of what I like about this book. The everyday moments we see are from the twelfth year of Graham and Audra’s marriage: he’s 56, she’s 41, and he cheated on his first wife, Elspeth, with her, but now they’ve been together for longer than he and Elspeth were, and they have a son, Matthew, who’s 10 and on the autism spectrum. I like that we see Graham and Audra going grocery shopping (where she runs into her yoga teacher and lies about why she missed class that morning) and going about their workdays (Graham’s young/clueless secretary is pretty great) and doing parental tasks they’d rather not (from a party for parents of kids in Matthew’s Cub Scout troop to an origami conference to a really great scene in which Graham and their doorman, Julio, rush around collecting food from various parents for a multicultural school event). I like the humor of scenes like a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner, scenes which are often made funnier by Audra’s lack of a filter: she seems to say whatever she’s thinking, without any sense of whether or not it’s appropriate for the time/place/audience. And I like the way we see Graham and Audra, and then just Graham, interacting with Elspeth (who hasn’t been in their lives at all until now) after Graham runs into her by chance at a deli. I like the way Graham and Elspeth’s interactions, in particular, are used to explore friendship and intimacy and personhood and agency, and I also like the scenes where we see Graham and Audra and Elspeth together. I like how Heiny captures little things so well, like the “half-present, half-absent sort of voice people use when they’re looking at a computer screen and talking at the same time” (16), or like this:

Graham’s and Audra’s were not the only universes. There were also other universes—hidden ones, secret ones. Little pocket universes scattered around and you slipped into them unexpectedly, like when you stopped into a bodega for milk and discovered a cardboard display stand of Sucrets or Love’s Baby Soft perfume or some other long-defunct product. (43)

That said, I think I’m not really the ideal audience for this book, or maybe for books about marriage in general: I disliked how the question of infidelity kept coming up in various ways/for various people, without any recognition of the fact that monogamy is not the only relationship model (even though I realize that for a lot of people, it is).

All the Dirty Parts was an extremely fast and extremely fun read for me. The day I started it, I was reading it on the elevator en route to work, and a woman who I don’t know/who works elsewhere in the building asked what I was reading and how it was. I think I said it was funny, which it was, at that moment, but that is not, overall, a word I would use to describe this book. I also added that it was “by the guy who writes as Lemony Snicket, you know, the kids’ books, but this is not for kids.” I don’t know that I’d recommend All the Dirty Parts to that woman on the elevator without knowing anything about her, but if you are OK with reading a whole lot of explicit teenage sex scenes and are into stories told as a series of vignettes, this might be the book for you. One of the back cover blurbs is by Jenny Offill, and I can see how people who liked Dept. of Speculation might like this book, too: I definitely enjoyed them both.

So, right: All the Dirty Parts is pretty much what the title says, though it’s not only the dirty parts, just mostly. It’s narrated by Cole, a seventeen-year-old boy who runs cross-country and takes art class and sometimes fails tests and thinks about sex basically always. When the book opens, he’s slept with eleven girls, and has “a rep” around school for being into casual hookups. He’s eloquent about sex, about the delight of it and the hotness of it and the occasional humor of it and the way he constantly wants it. His eloquence feels more adult than adolescent, but I was willing to give the narrative the benefit of the doubt, particularly because it results in some lovely descriptions, like when Cole is talking about pretty girls and how he wants “to capture their whole bodies under a blanket with enough light to see the pleasure of what we are doing” (3).

I like all the little bits that make up this narrative, the way the story unfolds: Cole talking about sharing online porn with his best friend, Alec, and the unspoken code they have about it; Cole’s conversations with a female friend about sex and his rep and how he treats girls; Cole’s thoughts on the Kinsey scale, after he and Alec have messed around a bit; Cole meeting a girl, Grisaille, who wants sex as much as he does, and how he feels when he’s in the unfamiliar position of being more into the other person than the other person is into him. I like that Cole is knowledgable about sex, that he talks about things like knowing where a clitoris is and going down on girls; I like that Grisaille puts her own pleasure first sometimes. I really like the way the sentences flow, the way the tone is easy and conversational, like in this bit where Cole and Alec are watching porn together: “We both keep shifting, our jeans crackling, weird and hot to watch it together. More weird than hot, or the other way, I don’t know” (35). And I like the funny bits, too, like when Grisaille asks Cole if he has “a favorite German poet” and he replies, “Sorry, I thought you were kidding. Let me answer for everyone you will ever meet in this town, no, we don’t have favorite German poets. We have favorite dinners and beers” (54).

I’m not sure I would have enjoyed Startup as much as I did if I didn’t a) live in NYC and b) know people who work in tech, but I found it to be a very fun, funny, and quick read, even though none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. There’s Mack McAllister, the 28-year-old founder of a mindfulness app called TakeOff, who’s stressed about getting more funding for his company, which has been burning through cash, and who’s also belatedly realizing he’s totally falling for Isabel Taylor, the woman he’s been casually hooking up with for a while (who’s one of his employees, and who, it turns out, doesn’t feel the same way about him). There’s Sabrina Choe Blum, a 36-year-old MFA-program graduate who was a stay-at-home-mom for a few years but now is back in the workforce as an “Engagement Ninja” at TakeOff, reporting to Isabel (who’s a decade younger than she is). There’s Dan Blum, Sabrina’s husband, who’s 39 and an editor at TechScene, a website that covers tech news and is based in the same office building as TakeOff. And there’s Katya Pasternack, a 24-year-old reporter at TechScene who works for Dan and is feeling pressured to break a big story, particularly after the heads of TechScene implement a new ranking system for their writers that’s based on the impact of their pieces rather than just on traffic.

Spoiler alert: the story Katya ends up wanting to break is about Mack and Isabel and the question of whether he’s been sexually harassing her: he sends her a series of dick pics, which Katya happens to see on Isabel’s phone at a party, and that’s really just the beginning of his bad behavior. There are some really cringe-inducing scenes about misogyny in startup office culture, and, honestly, culture at large: that thing where women are painted as “unstable”; that thing where, as Katya puts it, far too many guys seem to subscribe to the “call women crazy whenever they do something that makes you uncomfortable” school of thought (253).

But while I found the sexual harassment plot thread interesting and timely and thought-provoking, and while I appreciated the book’s feminism, I was really here for this book as a portrait of New York now, the new “Promised Land of Duane Reades and Chase ATMs on every corner, luxury doorman buildings, Pilates studios and spin classes, eighteen-dollar rosemary-infused cocktails and seven-dollar cups of single-origin coffee” (4), the New York of sober morning raves (yes, that is a real thing; no, I’ve never been to one, though I was tempted when there was one at the climbing gym I go to) and start-up incubators and offices with fancy coffee and twenty-somethings who seem totally fine with the degree to which their lives revolve around their work/their co-workers.

I saw Alissa Nutting read from Made for Love at Brooklyn Bridge Park over the summer: the scene she read is a hilarious bit where the protagonist, Hazel, who has moved in with her septuagenarian father after leaving her evil-tech-genius-billionaire husband, gets her arm stuck in the mouth of her dad’s new purchase, a highly realistic sex doll. It’s a laugh-out-loud funny bit, and also maybe one of the less weird things in the book. Made for Love follows Hazel and her predicament—she left her husband, Byron, because he wanted to put a chip in her brain so their minds could connect; she fears he’ll stop at nothing to try to get her back, and also fears that if he realizes she’s not coming back, he’ll just have her killed. It’s not just about Hazel, though: we also meet Jasper, a con-man who pretends he’s in love with women, convinces them to give him large sums of money, then skips town. He has a predicament of his own, which is complicated but involves a bizarre experience with a dolphin. There’s also a whole bunch of satire about imagined near-future technology, and a whole lot of very funny/over-the-top scenes, including a great bit where Hazel, very drunk, steals a plastic lawn flamingo and ends up snuggling with it in bed.

It was interesting to read this book after having read Connie Willis’s Crosstalk, which has some similar plot points and explores some of the same themes: they’re both about the threats of technological over-connectedness, and they both explore selfhood and agency and authenticity and the dangers of losing oneself in something that seems like love but isn’t at all. I think both books succeed at what they’re trying to do: I found Crosstalk fast-paced and impossible to put down, and Made for Love less immediately gripping but ultimately more subtle and thought-provoking than I was expecting.

I think Max Gladstone’s Craft books are the only series I’m fully on top of these days, the only series where, when I hear there’s a new book out, I place a hold on it at the library immediately and drop everything when it arrives. I’m currently a few issues behind on the New Yorker, because this book is big, and also I definitely stayed up past my bedtime the night I finished it, but I don’t care: that is the kind of series this is, and this book did not disappoint. This book wears its heart and its politics on its sleeve, and I love it for that: it’s the story of a city governed uneasily by a colonial power (with the help of squid gods, because that’s the kind of world this is) and a push for freedom by some of that city’s residents; it’s about art and story and the power of narrative; it’s about love of various kinds; it’s about a bunch of badass women, queer and otherwise: I think I might be this book’s target audience.

This is the sixth book in the series in both chronological order and publication order, and it was immensely satisfying to read about characters from past books: one of the protagonists this time around is Kai Pohala, from Full Fathom Five; other characters from that book and others make appearances too. Kai is visiting the city of Agdel Lex to look into some investment opportunities, but stays longer than planned when she learns that her sister, Ley, is in some kind of major but mysterious trouble. The book opens with a scene from Kai and Ley’s childhood in which Kai acts as the protective older sister, and it’s a fitting introduction: clearly that family dynamic is still there, even though Kai’s relationship with Ley in adulthood has been distant/strained. It takes a while for the situation Ley’s in to become clear, to both Kai and the reader, and it’s too complicated to explain, but the peculiarities of Agdel Lex are central to both Ley’s situation and the book’s plot. Agdel Lex is the city of the Iskari, that aforementioned colonial power with their squid gods, and it’s a place of order. But it’s built on/coexists with a dead city, ruined in a war that’s still not really over despite having ended a century and a half ago, and also coexists with Alikand, that dead city in a not-dead state, preserved via the memories and family histories of its native inhabitants. The way that Agdel Lex and Alikand and the dead city overlap is really interesting/beautiful/full of plot potential that Gladstone makes great use of, and is a big part of the reason I liked this book so much. And Kai being in a place that’s not home works really well: we get passages like this, when Kai’s en route to her sister’s place:

Observations on her own observation: the unfamiliar drew her eye, so she noticed life-ways she didn’t know, this storyteller, that blue wine, the mask, that unrecognizable card game like a sort of four-way solitaire. She didn’t note samenesses: fathers and children, boys holding hands, a kiss in shadows. (88)

Also: I love the moments of humor in the Craft books, and this one is no exception. I’m a sucker for the way Gladstone draws funny parallels between the world of these books and our world: there’s a passage early in the book where Kai is en route to Agdel Lex and the flight is just one headache after another in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has ever flown economy in our world, never mind that the vessel Kai’s a passenger of is suspended from a dragon. There’s also a series of funny/awful start-up pitch meetings Kai has to sit through, and a great bit where a neighborhood is described as “the kind of place where twenty-year-old guidebooks would have cautioned visitors against walking alone at night, but which had since embraced a coffee-shop-and performance space-based economy” (172).

One complaint: there are rather a lot of typos in this book, including one spot I noticed where a character’s name is misspelled. But all the good stuff made me not mind that so much. I mean, I’ll forgive a lot of typos for bits like this: “cities are acts of will. Cities are decisions people make, every day. They are artist and audience and art” (411). Did I mention I think I might be this book’s target audience?

Pétronille, which was originally published in French in 2014, is the second book in a row that I’ve read that features a narrator who is a writer/shares a name with the author, which I hadn’t really thought about it when I picked it up but which was funny once I realized it. According to this PEN Atlas Q&A, the character of Pétronille herself is inspired by an actual person, and some events in the book are true to life: the Vivienne Westwood interview that the Q&A mentions was probably the highlight of the book for me.

But, OK, let me back up: Pétronille starts with the narrator waxing rhapsodic about being champagne-drunk, which “makes one gracious, disinterested, light as air yet profound at the same time”; champagne, she says “exalts love and confers elegance upon the loss of love” (10). But getting champagne-drunk would surely be more fun with a friend, so the narrator decides she needs a drinking companion, though she’s not sure anyone she knows will actually be up to the task: she takes her champagne-drinking seriously. Well: enter Pétronille, who heard the narrator speak on the radio and read her books, then started exchanging letters with her, and eventually comes to a book-signing to meet her. They talk, and Pétronille charms the narrator by getting an annoying photographer to leave the bookshop: she’s all bravery and action, and her boldness is clearly part of her appeal. They arrange to get drinks another day, which they do, though maybe the narrator feels differently about Pétronille’s boldness now: she pisses in the street and accuses the narrator (who’s from a wealthy family) of slumming. A few years later, though, the narrator sees that Pétronille has published a novel: she reads it, and it’s good, which prompts the narrator to write to her. Their friendship picks up again, and though it’s not always smooth, the lovely moments are really great: I love one bit where, after a champagne-tasting full of snobby society ladies looking down their noses at Pétronille (who’s wearing jeans and a leather jacket), the narrator tells Pétronille to take her to someplace she loves. Pétronille takes her to Shakespeare and Company and then to a Roman amphitheatre and we get this:

We gazed respectfully at the arena. A silence of catacombs reigned.
“I feel very Gallo-Roman,” declared Pétronille.
“Tonight, or in general?”
“You are so not normal,” she answered with a laugh.” (43)

The class difference between Pétronille and the narrator does cause tension, as do other things: the largeness of Pétronille’s personality, the way she loses her temper, the way she expects the narrator to be there for her even when she’s kind of a jerk, but the narrator clearly feels tender and protective towards Pétronille, though maybe she shouldn’t. At one point the narrator refers to “that strange sort of love which is so mysterious and so dangerous and where you never quite know what is at stake: friendship” (94). It feels like that’s what’s at the heart of this book, those mysteries and dangers, full of dark humor, lightened with flutes of champagne.

This epistolary novel is made up of sixteen letters from our narrator (Fay—who, yes, apparently shares some similarities with the book’s author) to her niece, Alice, who is eighteen and studying literature and feeling grumpy about having to read Jane Austen. Fay’s letters endeavor to explain why Austen is still relevant, and to give Alice some context about Austen’s life and times, but end up being more wide-ranging than that: they contain a lot of advice about reading and writing (Fay is a novelist, and Alice is working on a novel too), and also bits about Fay’s life and travels and family history. I found it to be smart and funny and fun, and it made me want to read Emma (which I’ve never read) or re-read Northanger Abbey or Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility (all of which I read in school, years and years ago). Fay is rather didactic, but in a way that I think works: I like how she mixes pronouncements on literature in general with details of the plots of Austen’s novels, or details about the circumstances of their writing or publication. I like the funny bits, like when Fay refers at one point to “Shelley and his wife Mary of Frankenstein fame,” then immediately follows it by referencing “Byron and his sister Augusta, of incest fame” (103). Or like this, when she’s slightly-condescendingly talking to Alice about wanting her to enjoy literature:

I know no one’s ever set you a proper example. (Your mother reads books on tennis, I know: I doubt she’s read a novel since an overdose of Georgette Heyer made her marry your father. Books can be dangerous.)(20)

I also like that Fay writes to Alice about things like empathy, and in particular about empathy as something we can cultivate by reading novels; the narrative voice of this book is concerned with the transformative possibilities of fiction/literature, and I find that emphasis pretty pleasing.

Gothic/horror is not my usual genre, but so far I’m enjoying Seanan McGuire’s “Wayward Children” series, of which this is the second, though it also could work as a standalone because time-wise, it’s a prequel to the first book, Every Heart a Doorway. The dark-fairy-tale tone of this book is similar to the first, though in some ways I liked this book more than that one. In Every Heart a Doorway, we meet the students at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, all of whom traveled to other realms via magic portals but ended up back in our world. In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, we learn more about two of those students, the twin girls Jack (short for Jacqueline) and Jill Wolcott, and actually get to see the world they went to, which is a dark and dangerous place called the Moors.

Before we get to the Moors, though, we get a lot of background about Jack and Jill’s childhoods and their terrible parents, who are pretty insufferable/want children for all the wrong reasons/spend years and years not seeing Jack and Jill for who they are at all/mold the twins into their visions of who they should be. They see Jillian as the brave and boyish one, so she gets dressed in sporty clothes and signed up for the soccer team; they see Jacqueline as the reserved and girlish one, so they put her in fancy dresses that she’s not allowed to get dirty. But because they don’t actually know their children, the Wolcott parents get it totally wrong:

They didn’t know that Jillian was brave because she knew Jacqueline was always somewhere behind her with a careful plan for any situation that might arise. They didn’t know that Jacqueline was timid because she was amused by watching the world deal with her sister, and thought the view was better from outside the splash radius. (34)

The girls find themselves stuck in these roles that have been imposed on them; neither of them has the opportunity to make her own choices about what she wants to do and who she wants to be. That changes one rainy day when they’re twelve: Jillian, bored, suggests that they go play in the attic; when they open the old trunk that’s normally full of dress-up clothes from their grandmother (who is awesome and basically raised them for the first five years of their lives, but is no longer really in their lives because their dad is a jerk), what they find instead is a staircase. Which, of course, they go down. Which takes them to the Moors, where they eventually learn that there are vampires and werewolves and a kindly Dr. Frankenstein-ish figure named Dr. Bleak. In the Moors, the girls’ paths diverge, in ways that readers may already know from having read Every Heart a Doorway, but I really liked getting to see Jack and Jill’s experience of this world in more detail here. Getting to see Jack’s interactions with Dr. Bleak is especially excellent—there was one passage featuring the two of them that totally made me teary-eyed.

I decided to read this book, which is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest for the Hogarth Shakespeare series, after reading Teresa’s post about it over on Shelf Love, and I’m really glad I did. As Teresa says, this book is fun—lots of fun. Before I picked this up, the last five books I read were either 1) enjoyable and readable nonfiction or 2) good but somewhat challenging or offputting fiction, and I was ready for a book like this: a novel that is smart and well-written but also pretty straightforward. Hag-Seed was a pleasure to read, a book that made me look forward to my subway commute every morning and evening because it meant a chance to read a bit more of it.

From early in the book, it’s clear that Felix Phillips is going to be our Prospero-figure, associated as he is with “illusion” and “pretense” and “fakery”, and with a rivalry that has resulted in a “vengefulness” that’s been building for the past twelve years (9-10). As Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival, doing over-the-top Shakespeare adaptations, Felix has been a “cloud-riding enchanter” (12). But he’s familiar with loss, too: his wife, we learn, died in childbirth, and his young daughter (named Miranda, naturally) died from meningitis at the age of three. Felix fears his absorption in his work may have contributed to Miranda’s death, but he’s also convinced it’s what will save him: he throws himself into a production of The Tempest in which he will play Prospero. But that production is never to be: Felix’s assistant, Tony, delivers the news that the festival’s board has decided to cut Felix’s contract short; Tony himself will be the interim artistic director. This blow leads Felix to a self-imposed exile in a shack on the outskirts of town, his version of Prospero’s island, with the imagined ghost of his dead daughter for company.

Eventually, though, he realizes he needs to do something, and so applies to teach a “Literacy through Literature” program at the local prison. He applies under a false name, but the woman who interviews him recognizes him: he convinces her that his true identity needs to be their secret. He gets the job, and decides to make his version of the program focused on Shakespeare: the inmates will read the plays, write about them, and put on productions of them. After three successful years of this, Felix learns that Tony, now a government minister, will be in the audience of the next production: he decides that it has to be The Tempest, and of course, because this is a retelling of The Tempest, he decides he wants to use the occasion of the production to get his revenge on Tony and on others who wronged him. It’s a pleasure to watch the various strands of the story unfold—we get classroom scenes where Felix works with his students to tease out the play’s characters and their motivations; we get rehearsal scenes where we get to see the production taking shape; we get scenes of Felix shopping for props and costumes, and scenes of Felix planning his revenge, all told in a way I found to be lively and fluid and immensely readable.

The Black Notebook, which was originally published in French in 2012, caught my eye at the library after I’d seen this post on Instagram: I like the cover a lot, how layered and atmospheric it is, the way the different urban images are juxtaposed. I’d never read anything by Modiano, and I’m not sure if this short novel was the best place to start: maybe? (If you’ve read anything by him, I’d love to hear your thoughts.) For a book under two hundred pages, it felt like slow going to me, and I sometimes found myself slightly bored by the flatness of the characters, but there were also things about it that I found really appealing.

The black notebook of the title is one that Jean, the book’s narrator (who is a writer) kept when he was younger, in the 1960s. It’s now fifty years later and he finds himself consulting the notebook again as he thinks about the time when he was writing in it, a time when, for a few months, he was dating a mysterious young woman who hung around with some shady-seeming men at a Paris hotel. There’s a little bit of a noir/mystery feel to this book, but not entirely: it’s less plot-driven than that might imply, and there’s not really a big revelation or a tidy ending. It’s not exactly character-driven either: several of the characters are little more than names, and Dannie remains largely a mystery, though the narrator does learn some things about her that he didn’t previously know.

More than anything else, this book to me felt like a combination of place-driven and idea-driven and image-driven. I suspect that if I knew the Paris neighborhoods and landmarks being discussed as intimately as I know New York, I would have liked it even more than I did, but even without a strong sense of the geography (or the scenery or history, beyond what the book includes), I liked the sense I got of the changing city, where the narrator recognizes some buildings fifty years later but realizes that other places have been transformed, with whole streets erased for new construction. The city and the layers of its past are one of the narrator’s concerns even as a young man: some of the things he wrote down in his notebook, in the 1960s, were the names of painted signs for old businesses (tanneries, wine warehouses) that will probably soon disappear. As someone who is really fond of cities/history/layers/old signs myself, I found this really appealing.

In terms of ideas and images, there is a lot here about memory and identity, the distance or lack thereof between the past and the present, between one’s past self and one’s present self, and also a lot about the remove at which the narrator moved through his life when he was younger, writing things down but not necessarily understanding their import, not piecing together the strands of narrative connecting the people around him. A recurrent image throughout the book is a pane of glass separating the narrator from something or someone else: lit apartment windows that give you “a feeling of both presence and absence,” a metaphorical train window beyond which the scenery passes quickly, an imagined window of a subway car through which he thinks about looking at someone he knows, a pane of glass separating a prisoner from a visitor (in a dream), a café window through which the narrator and someone from his past recognize each other, a hotel lobby window outside which the narrator stands, unseen. That sense of distance is sometimes present in the narrative itself, which I think is why it felt like slow going, but it’s intentional and I guess it worked: I found it striking and thought the images where it’s made explicit were some of the loveliest passages of the book, like this, which the narrator uses to explain what he was doing in writing things down in his black notebook, “to have a reference point later”:

A train rushes by a station too fast for you to read the name of the town. And so, with your forehead pressed against the window, you note down other details: a passing river, the village bell tower, a black cow ruminating beneath a tree, removed from the herd. You hope that at the next station you’ll be able to read the name and find out what region you’re in. (13)