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.

This is the seventh of nine books in the Anastasia Krupnik series, and I think I’m going to be a little sad when I’ve read them all: they’re such fun middle-grade/early YA reads, and this one, while not my favorite, was still pleasing. Anastasia is thirteen and is bummed that she doesn’t get to go skiing over winter break: it seems like all of her friends are off on ski trips (well, except for Sonya, who is unfortunately stuck going to some weight loss program and being told to eat half an apple for “dessert” – blergh) while Anastasia’s stuck at home. She has nothing to do over break except a school paper on the topic of her “chosen career,” and she’s not really looking forward to it, until she has a brilliant idea: maybe she can convince her parents to let her go to a week-long modeling course for junior high students. In her head, of course, “model” is her chosen career, but she knows her parents aren’t going to be cool with that, so she tells them she wants to be a bookstore owner: the modeling course is just because anyone being entrepreneurial needs poise and confidence, right?

So her parents agree she can take the course, and her dad also arranges for her to interview a Boston bookstore owner he knows: it may not be skiing, but Anastasia’s excited. The modeling school turns out not to be as glamorous as Anastasia’s visions of it, and she keeps forgetting to actually interview the bookstore owner (though she visits her more than once), and oh, also, the hopelessly uncool boy from her old school who totally used to have a crush on her is signed up for the modeling class, too: augh. But it’s OK because visiting a bookstore owner and her store is interesting, and Anastasia makes a new friend in modeling class: Henry Peabody (“Short for Henrietta. But if you call me that, you die”) who is gorgeous (though she doesn’t initially realize it) and also smart/kind/fun. I like Henry’s no-nonsense feminism (she tells Anastasia that when they grow up, they can get married if they want, but they don’t need husbands), but as always, Anastasia herself is what makes this book as fun as it is. I love the way we get to see her rewrites of her school assignment in progress as the week progresses, and I love her ridiculous overactive imagination: she’s always thinking about something, whether she’s pondering changing her name to “Spike” because she thinks the matching k-sounds in “Spike Krupnik” are cool, or worrying about being late (or, possibly worse, early) to modeling school on the first day, or getting bizarrely nervous about Henry’s dad (who’s a police officer) driving her home after she has dinner with the Peabody family (because he’s driving her home on the way to work, and what if he has to, like, capture a criminal with her in the car?). And, I mean, how could I not love/relate to a character who’s described like this?

Bookstores were among Anastasia’s favorite places; maybe they were even first on her list, or at least tied for first with libraries. She sometimes thought that she would like to live in a library, not even having a kitchen—just going out to eat, and spending all the rest of her life surrounded by books. (67-68)

I originally read this picture book (which was originally published in German in 2007) back in April, when I was visiting a dear friend in New Zealand. I was in the middle of a break-up and was feeling pretty overwhelmingly sad, and she had this book checked out from the library and left it outside the door of the room I was staying in for me to read. I read it, and liked it, enough that I kept thinking about it and eventually checked it out from the library back home in Brooklyn.

The art is really lovely, with cut-out style pencil drawings of our protagonists (Duck and Death) and other collage elements, too. The text is straightforward but graceful and sometimes funny, in a way that works with the story, in which Duck learns of the presence of Death in her life/in life in general, and becomes comfortable with him, despite how fearful she is at first. The whole thing is excellent: I mean, look at this page (and don’t mind my hand; I was precariously balancing the book on the arm of the couch to take this picture):


Duck

You can see more from this book on Brain Pickings, though scrolling through the images on a screen isn’t quite as satisfying (for me, anyway) as turning pages.

When I started reading How to Murder Your Life, Cat Marnell’s addiction memoir, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it: her style is heavy on exclamation points and felt, at first, a bit dumbed-down. But as I kept reading, I found myself liking it a whole lot: the (dark) humor and vividness of the writing won me over, and the flow improves as the book proceeds. I do a lot of my reading on my commute in the mornings and evenings, and this book was no exception, and I regularly found myself a) so engrossed I worried I’d missed my stop, and b) pretty sure that I might be making ridiculous faces as I laughed/cringed/squirmed along with Marnell’s telling of her messy drug-fuelled life.

Marnell acknowledges up front that she has a lot of privilege: the financial support of her family, from rehab to rent money, means her experience of addiction is very different from that of someone not so well-off or well-connected. But that doesn’t make her daily life, when she’s strung out on Adderall and staying up all night and then going in to work the next day, any less of a disaster. Marnell writes engagingly about her life, from childhood and adolescence (dysfunctional family, a dad who screamed at the dinner table, a sister who was sent to reform school, her own experience at boarding school) to early adulthood (interning at magazines like Nylon, working at Lucky and then at xoJane.com, doing lots of drugs, going to rehab, doing more drugs). She writes honestly about being bulimic and addicted to pills and also about her self-hatred and loneliness. I was impressed at how relatable her story felt: when I read about her procrastinating on a writing assignment and freaking out about it, I felt myself getting stressed; when I read about her going grocery shopping for foods to binge on at 4:30 am, I could feel the anticipation of that, even though my typical grocery shopping problem is, like, going to the store when I’m thirsty and coming home with three liters of seltzer and three VitaminWater Zeros and maybe a Sparkling Ice in addition to whatever food I’d meant to buy. Marnell and I are pretty much the same age and both came to NYC when we were eighteen, and it was super-interesting to read a book by someone in my demographic, age-wise, in which so much of the book feels like it takes place in this parallel city that’s adjacent to my own but largely invisible to me: I was never a staying-up-all-night club kid; the segment of publishing I’ve worked in since my early twenties is very different from the magazine industry in which she worked, et cetera.

All Our Pretty Songs is a lush YA retelling of the Orpheus myth (but different), set in the Pacific Northwest, written in a way that is pleasantly reminiscent of Francesca Lia Block. It starts with our unnamed narrator on summer vacation before her senior year of high school, introducing us to herself and her best friend, Aurora. The narrator’s mom and Aurora’s mom used to be best friends but no longer speak; the narrator’s dad has never been around, and Aurora’s dad, who was a famous rock star, is dead. Aurora’s mom is a junkie; the narrator’s mom is a witch (in the herbs-and-amulets-and-fortune-telling way, I mean). And the narrator and Aurora? They’re like sisters who have kind of raised themselves, with Aurora as the wilder one, the one who “never thinks about what comes after. She’s all now, all the time. This moment, this kiss, this second holds everything” (6).

Not long into the book, Aurora and the narrator meet Jack, a slightly-older singer/guitarist whose music is intense and beautiful and like nothing they’ve ever experienced. As the flap copy puts it, though, they’re “not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below, which may not be mythical at all.” So, yeah, things get weird: at the same party where the narrator meets Jack, she notices a creepy guy who “smiles a smile with too many teeth” who’s also made rapt by Jack’s music (25). The creepy guy, whose name is Minos (yes, the mythological one), keeps showing up, pulling both Aurora and Jack into his orbit, in this interesting way where the narrator is pretty sure she’s seeing some supernatural stuff happening but still has doubts as to what’s actually going on: at one point Aurora’s mom asks where she is, and the narrator’s answer is priceless: “She either went to Los Angeles or she went to hell” (142).

Before the weird stuff, though, the narrator becomes smitten with Jack, and there are some pretty delicious scenes with the two of them, but what I like even more are the scenes with her and Aurora, or, best of all, with her and her friend from work, Raoul—they work together at a fruit stand at what basically seems to be Pike Place Market, and he’s totally my favorite character in the book. I like how the narrator figures herself out a bit over the course of the book, and how Raoul helps with that; I like his smarts and his kindness and his humor, and a conversation the narrator has with him at one point totally made me teary-eyed. I felt like the pacing of this book was somewhat uneven, but maybe it was just where I was in my reading of it: it felt like the plot was slow to get moving and then moved really quickly, but the writing was pleasing enough to keep me engaged even before the plot kicked in. I like how the narrator describes being up front at a show, watching a band: she says she and Aurora are “all the way inside our bodies and all the way outside them at the same time” (7). And I am a sucker for descriptive passages like this:

In the winter I love my work. All the out-of-towners flee the eternal damp. We have to wear sweaters and wool hats to keep out the cold, and we drink coffee until we’re cracked-out and speedy. The cobblestoned streets are wet and foggy, the low mournful sound of the ferry horn carries across the water, and all the afternoons are dreamy and quiet. (36)

This was a book I liked more as I got farther into it, a book I ended up staying up late to finish, and a book whose sequels I’m looking forward to reading.

In his blurb for Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, Daniel Handler says it has “the grit and the wit and the girls in trouble loving each other fierce and true” of Michelle Tea’s work in general (which totally makes me want to read more by Michelle Tea) and also “all the juice of a terrific fantasy novel, with the magic and the creatures and the otherworldly sense of something lurking underneath each artifact of our ordinary lives,” and yeah, I think that’s a good description, and captures a lot of why I liked this book so much.

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is set in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which is described in the first sentence as “a city where people landed” (7). It’s a city of immigrants, all of whom bring their own cultures and traditions—and also, their own magic, though it’s maybe hard to pass that magic and those traditions on to children and grandchildren who grow up American. Sophie Swankowski, who’s thirteen and being raised by a single mom, is the granddaughter of Polish immigrants, though at the start of the story she’s not particularly connected to that heritage: she basically sees her Polish grandmother only on holidays, and her overworked mom is more likely to suggest cereal or pizza for dinner than to cook anything. In addition to magic, we learn, the people who land in Chelsea bring stories with them:

And the stories brought from the many places were all different, but then, they were all the same. And the oldest story, the silliest and most dangerous story, the saddest and most hopeful story, was the story of the girl who would bring the magic, the girl who would come to save them all. (9)

Plants

OK, so I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that it becomes clear pretty early that this is going to be a Chosen One story—and, surprise, Sophie is the Chosen One. But she doesn’t know that to start: she just knows her life in Chelsea, this city that Tea describes like this:

brick and cement, the telephone poles and electrical wires, the roaring buses and the graffitied everything, busted playgrounds, a city with so much wear and tear on it, so many people with so little money coming to it for so long, the threadbare buildings and dollar stores, the railroad tracks where men slept in the tall grass, the sub shops and pizza places and the corner stores selling scratchers and cigarettes, the corner bars with no windows and men inside heaped and immobile as the cracked stools they sat upon. (9)

This being a Chosen One story, it’s a lot about Sophie learning about her history/destiny/magic, though meanwhile it’s also about her dealing with being grounded on summer vacation, and tensions with her best/only friend, and her growing awareness of herself as her own person, and I thought the combination of it all worked really well. The scenes where Sophie learns about/explores her magic are great, and I also love the magic itself, how much it’s about feelings and intuition and, crucially/centrally, empathy: Sophie can read people’s hearts and feel what they’re feeling.

I loved so many things about this book, from the grumpy/hilarious/bedraggled mermaid of the title to the way that Sophie comes to see pigeons as something other than “rats with wings” to Jason Polan’s pleasing illustrations (see above). Minor quibbles: I might have liked this more if it were a standalone book rather than the first of a trilogy, and oh man, so many typos/this book really needed a better proofread. But everything else was delightful enough for me to overlook those things. I took this book with me on the 4th of July, when I went to Queens three hours before the Macy’s fireworks so I could get a decent spot in one of the parks by the water with a good view, and it was pretty perfect to be reading this in the midst of the crowd and the heat: it was engrossing enough to get lost in, even in the middle of a whole lot of potential annoyances/distractions.

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.

The fact that An Arrangement of Skin has cover blurbs from Mark Doty and Maggie Nelson, both of whom I really like, probably helped convince me to check this book out from the library, even though I wasn’t actually sure I was in the mood for a book of essays. As it turns out, I was (eventually) in the mood for a book of essays, and this was an excellent choice. The fourteen essays here are largely personal in nature, with Journey recounting bits of her life and her family history, but they also pull in literature and history; there are passages talking about (and quoting) poems by Larry Levis or Thomas James or C.D. Wright, or referencing Walter Benjamin or Gaston Bachelard. (Journey herself is a poet and academic.)

Journey refers, in the first essay, to a point in her life when she “invented a ritual to stop time,” and then talks about poetry as serving the same purpose (pp 4-5). She talks about taxidermy (which she take a few classes in) as another way to do this, and also about it being a characteristic of certain places, as when she says this about Richmond, Virginia: “As soon as someone enters an alley, the wisteria-shrouded path stops time” (121). This concern with the passage of time/memory reminds me a bit of André Aciman, as does the way Journey looks at her past self and the spaces she inhabited or moved through, whether she’s talking about the horseback-riding lessons she took when her family lived in India when she was six and seven years old, or those alleyways and wisteria and porches of Richmond (where she went to college and also lived after the end of a long-term relationship).

I like the style of these essays a lot: in a few of them, like “Epithalamium with Skunk Pigs,” I really like how Journey seems to proceed via a chain of association and memory, in this way where you don’t quite know where she’s going until she gets there, though when you arrive you get the sense that it was actually all carefully mapped out. I also really love the descriptions of places in some of the pieces, especially a paragraph about the now-empty zoo in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park that appears in “A Flicker of Animal, a Flank”: it’s so great I wish I could quote it in full here, but it’s a bit long for that. Ah well: if you read this book, you’ll have it to look forward to. Meanwhile, the book’s very satisfying final essay, “Bluebeard’s Closet,” is available in its entirety on the Blackbird website: this was a really solid end to the book, but I think would serve just as well as an introduction to it.

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 Surrender is Toni Bentley’s “erotic memoir” about transcendence/anal sex/submission, and despite the fact that there were things in the book that bugged me, I quite liked it overall. To start with the things that bothered me: I could have done with a lot less Freudian psychologizing, though at the same time, it feels somewhat unfair to criticize the book for its emphasis on something that is apparently a very big part of Bentley’s subjective experience of her life and sexuality. Like, even though for me the appeal of being called a “good girl” feels like it has zero relationship to anything about my childhood or parents, I can’t speak for anyone else’s feelings or experiences; while I may not be able to relate to the way Bentley connects her childhood experiences of shame or humiliation, particularly related to her relationship to her father, to her adult sexuality, I can’t disbelieve her experience of the relatedness of those things. I also feel like Bentley and I have quite different takes on gender and male/female relationships, but, again, her experiences and feelings are hers, so it’s sort of neither here nor there except to the extent that I, as a reader, want a memoir to be “relatable” in some way: I sort of do, but I also see the value in reading memoirs that come from different perspectives. That said, I was annoyed that Bentley wrote these two sentences and that her editor didn’t talk her out of them: “I reckon every woman wants a cock between her legs, ultimately. The question is: Does she want one of her own, or can she tolerate one belonging to a man?” (43). Ugh, really?

Those complaints aside, Bentley is smart and funny, and I appreciated this book’s combination of intensity and humor, and how wide-ranging it is. It includes sections about such disparate things as being an atheist who had wanted to find God/faith for a long time and crotchless underpants and the various styles thereof; it’s got sexy threesome/foursome scenes and philosophical musings about non-monogamy and stories about the experience of jealousy. At its heart, really, is a whole lot about the experience of letting go—the surrender of the title. For Bentley, that surrender comes mostly via anal sex (though not entirely: there’s a section where she writes about learning to go down on her lover in just the way he likes that also has a fair bit of surrender/submission in it). The sections about that experience of surrender and submission were probably my favorite parts of the book, and I think not just because I do find those bits relatable—there’s something so pure and intense about the way Bentley writes about the experience of letting go of her “desire to know, control, understand, and analyze”, about how that makes room for her to experience “openness and vulnerability” (7). Also, I love that Bentley writes about laughing during sex—and not like, oops-we-fell-off-the-bed laughter or oh-bodies-are-weird laughter, but a laughter that’s tied to that experience of letting go. My other favorite bits are the writerly parts—as someone who also feels the impulse to write things down, I really liked sections like this:

He presented me with the first sex I’d ever had that I thought about in words, that I wanted to describe and preserve in words. And so the scribbling began. Every time he came, and left, I went straight to my notebook and wrote it all down. I was experiencing an impossible pleasure, and having it on paper would prove that the impossible existed. (29)