Finally Spring: March & April Books

So I’m starting this post from the past, but I’m hopeful that by the time this publishes it will actually feel like spring in New York. At the moment, I’m preparing for (yet another) snowstorm (the second one this March, NOT THAT I’M BITTER). Anyway, I read some incredible books in March and April, and I can’t wait to tell you about them below.

**Update from the present: it still doesn’t totally feel like spring in New York, as of May 1. How sad.

book #10: hallucinations by oliver sacks

I was excited and weirdly a little nervous to read my first Oliver Sacks. I’m not a science person at all, so I always worry that books like this will be over my head and I’ll miss out on the invaluable wisdom that someone like Oliver Sacks has to offer. Luckily, he’s a pro at discussing medical conditions in terms that I can understand and get really into. Some people are just too skilled at what they do. Hallucinations was a fascinating read about the various conditions of the human brain and/or body that can lead to hallucinations. He delves into all sorts of hallucinations — from auditory and visual to participatory and impersonal. He references several former patients and friends, and their hallucinatory experiences. He even touches on his own past experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, and the terrifying things he saw and heard during this phase of his own life. It definitely got a bit jargon-y from time to time, but overall this book fascinated me and helped me to further appreciate the complexity of the human brain.

I realized that I was hallucinating or experiencing some bizarre perceptual disorder, that I could not stop what was happening in my brain, and that I had to maintain at least an external control and not panic or scream or become catatonic, faced by the bug-eyed monsters around me. The best way of doing this, I found, was to write, to describe the hallucinations in clear, almost clinical detail, and, in so doing, become an observer, even an explorer, not a helpless victim of the craziness inside me. I am never without a pen and notebook, and now I wrote for dear life, as wave after wave of hallucinations rolled over me.”

—page 116

book #11: her body and other parties by carmen maria machado

WOW THIS BOOK. Carmen Maria Machado has been added to my list of authors whose every scrap of work I will read until I die. I am in complete awe of this short story collection. Each chapter shares the common thread of veering off into such beautifully weird, fantastical territory by the end of each chapter, and every story revolves around a woman. I don’t even know how to pick my favorite, because I underlined probably 50% of the entire book. It kicked off with a twist on that classic girlhood horror story about the woman whose head is held in place by a ribbon tied around her neck that she can never take off. There was the incredibly transfixing story about Law & Order: SVU, that started as a brief synopsis of every single SVU episode, but quickly turned into one of the most interesting and disturbing spin-offs of a special victims investigator being haunted by victims and an alternate version of herself and her partner in New York City. Machado’s writing is rich with uncomfortable imagery and spare, clever, telling details. The collection finishes off with a couple stories that I found heartbreaking: one about a (possibly) unstable woman trying to finish her novel at an artist residency in the mountains near where she used to camp as a Girl Scout, and the other about a woman who survives some sort of trauma, and does her best to move forward with her life. I can’t recommend this short story collection highly enough, please read it.

In the realm of sense and reason it seemed logical for something to make sense for no reason (natural order) or not make sense for some reason (the deliberate design of deception) but it seemed perverse to have things make no sense for no reason.”

—page 215

book #12: the prime of miss jean brodie by muriel spark

I was pressed for time on the way to work one morning right after I’d finished HBAOP, so I grabbed the first thing I saw, which happened to be this quirky, short novel published in 1961 that takes place in Edinburgh in the 1930’s. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is about a schoolmistress, Jean Brodie, who is obsessed with the fact that she is in her prime and equally obsessed with the control she wields over the lives of some of her students, her “chosen” girls, called the Brodie set. This group is made up of six students whom Miss Brodie aims to mold into the “creme de la creme,” but one of the girls ends up betraying their beloved teacher and getting her fired from her position at Marcia Blaine School for Girls. I didn’t have any context on this novel before I started reading, but I quickly and happily found that Muriel Spark’s voice is very entertaining. The book was smart and spare and light, but also touched on the deeper issues running just below the surface. Especially intriguing was the question of whether Miss Brodie was a truly progressive and influential teacher in her prime, or just a deeply sad and lonely unmarried woman who lost her betrothed in the war. It’s old and pretty random, but I’d recommend this book and am now interested in reading more from and about Muriel Spark.

The word ‘education’ comes from the root from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.”

—page 36

book #13: monday’s not coming by tiffany d. jackson

I should stop reading books that make my cry in public. Monday’s Not Coming was the heartbreaking story of a girl named Monday who went missing, though no one seemed to notice or care except  Monday’s best friend and the narrator, Claudia. The book starts on their first day of eighth grade, but Monday never shows. From there, the timeline varies, flashing forward to some undisclosed time, ominously called “The After.” The story also flashes back to a year or two before “The Before,” with brief but meaningful memories of Claudia and Monday’s time together. The main story line follows Claudia through the trials of eighth grade without her best friend by her side, as she also works to solve the mystery of where Monday is. I don’t want to give away too much, but it was really beautifully done. Early in the book, it becomes clear that Claudia has dyslexia or some kind of learning disability, and Monday has been editing her schoolwork to help her hide it. But Claudia is artistically inclined and some of her descriptions of color – especially color in relation to other characters – are breathtaking. Monday’s Not Coming is about the fierce love in the friendship of young girls, but it’s also about how you can rarely really know anyone; it’s about gentrification and poverty and the terrible implications that both can have on a community; it’s about flaws in social service systems, and who has the responsibility (or right) to intervene when a family might be an unsafe environment for its members. This book is so good and sad and important, and everyone should read it.

If Monday were a color, she’d be red. Crisp, striking, vivid, you couldn’t miss her—a bull’s-eye in the room, a crackling flame. I saw so much read that it blinded me to any flags.”

—page 41

book #14: a wrinkle in time again) by madeleine l’engle

AH, I love a good reread, and I love coming back to this book. I feel like I get something new out of it every time I read it. It’s about the most precious siblings, Meg and Charles Wallace, who have always been a bit different. One dark and stormy night, the siblings and their mother, Mrs. Murry, are interrupted by a peculiar Mrs. Whatsit, who was blown off course traveling home. This sets off a series of events eventually leading to Meg and Charles Wallace’s inter-dimensional journey through time and space with the magical Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which to find their father. Mr. and Mrs. Murry are both scientists, but Mr. Murry has been away for years on an experiment that the family knows very little about, and they haven’t received even a letter from their father in more than a year. It’s up to young Meg and Charles Wallace to rescue him, facing grave danger along the way. It’s such an inventive and wonderful book, and I’m not sure why I’ve never continued reading the series. I love that the concepts in this book are simplified enough for children to enjoy, but not overly. It makes me think that Madeleine L’Engle always had faith in children, with a childlike spark of curiosity in herself that she never lost. She seems like the coolest lady. And now I feel ready to watch the movie.

It was a music more tangible than form or sight. It had essence and structure. It supported Meg more firmly than the arms of Aunt Beast. It seemed to travel with her, to sweep her aloft in the power of song, so that she was moving in glory among the starts, and for a moment she, too, felt that the words Darkness and Light had no meaning, and only this melody was real.”

—page 185

book #15: annihilation by jeff vandermeer

This book was a change of pace for me, but I liked it (but it was real weird). I noticed Annihilation everywhere when it first came out, and always thought the covers on this trilogy were so striking, but I had no idea what it was about. Then I started seeing trailers for the movie, and I was intrigued enough to finally read it. The first book in the trilogy introduces “Area X,” a confined area that has been the destination of 11 prior government-sponsored expeditions. The book is told through the journal of the biologist who is one of the members of expedition 12. None of the characters have names, so their expedition is simply made up of the psychologist, the anthropologist, the biologist, and the surveyor. The group’s job is to explore Area X and figure out what they can about it. Things start going horribly wrong after they discover an unmapped tunnel, and everyone kind of splits up and loses it. I really had to get used to the writing style of this book; the biologist has a compelling voice, but she’s very closed off, rational, and emotionless. Some of her feelings start to poke through very slightly as she starts divulging more and more of her personal life (anecdotes that happen in brief flashes throughout her journal) but she’s extremely detail-oriented and impersonal so her account (aka the novel) comes across that way. There were shocking twists and graphic scenes that I felt lacked the power because of the narrator’s monotone voice. However, I was still intrigued by the story and premise. I plan to continue the series and figure out what the hell is happening in Area X, because it’s a weird, scary, fascinating place.

The sea was ablaze with light, but nothing beautiful here fooled me anymore. Human lives had poured into this place over time, volunteered to become party to exile and worse. Under everything lay the ghastly presence of countless desperate struggles.”

—page 119

book #16: marlena by julie buntin

liiiiked this book. I saw it everywhere last year so I was worried it couldn’t live up to the hype, but I think it did. Marlena tells the sad story of a 17-year-old girl (named Marlena), from the perspective of a 15-year-old narrator, Cat, who moves in next door to her in Silver Lake, MI. Cat has relocated to Silver Lake with her mom and older brother after her parents get a divorce, and she’s ready to rebel for the first time in her life. Her little family is poor, but they aren’t Marlena-poor, and that’s one of the only things that matters in the ultimate way that the two girl’s lives shape up. The book jumps between time periods in Cat’s life, spending more time on the young Cat as she becomes quickly infatuated by her reckless, beautiful new neighbor, periodically jumping ahead to Cat 15 years later, as a librarian and functioning alcoholic living in in New York City. I was almost immediately sucked in to their volatile friendship, and the reckless ways that they filled their plentiful free time. Julie Buntin really effectively taps into the mind of a teenage girl, and getting the story from Cat’s perspective was especially powerful. I felt like I was getting some of the details, almost enough to figure out what was really going on with Marlena and her family, but Cat, as a self-absorbed 15-year-old girl, overlooks and disregards juuust enough of what’s staring her in the face that it almost makes the reader kind of complicit in watching Marlena’s downfall. I’m being a little intentionally vague because I don’t want to ruin anything, but you do find out in a first few pages that Marlena dies, so it’s just a matter of working your way to that inevitable, sad ending. I thought this novel was very well-done, and highly recommend it to anyone who has ever been or known a teenage girl.

Like so many teenagers, I was always worried that someone would catch me up to no good, and full of a contradictory, deflated surprise when no one found me out—or ever paid anywhere near as much attention to me as I paid myself.”

—page 64-65

book #17: no one is coming to save us by stephanie powell watts

I loved this book. It’s an African American retelling of The Great Gatsby, as told in a contemporary North Carolina town, once known for it’s booming furniture industry, now shaped primarily by factory closings and lack of jobs. The main characters are what brought this story to life for me. There is Sylvia, the exhausted and self-doubting matriarch of the family, and her daughter Ava, who has “made it,” in that she has a great job at the bank, except that she’s in a sad, disloyal marriage and desperately trying to conceive as she approaches 40, scared that she’s destined to repeat the worst of her mother’s mistakes. There is also JJ (Jay, now) who has returned to the town with new money to build a mansion on a hill. Now that I’m thinking back on this read, I realize that not too much really happens; the plot is driven by flashbacks, interpersonal relationships, and the internal struggles and disappointments of all these characters. I saw all the major themes from Gatsby in this book, but they are reshaped through the lens of  racism and economic downturn. I loved No One is Coming to Save Us because it both paid homage to a book that I love, and created a new story line to fall in love with. Pulling off the retelling of one of the most famous (and most retold/adapted) stories is a feat regardless; doing so successfully, while also telling a new story with its own legs to stand on made me revere Stephanie Powell Watts. What a great writer. Her prose is so, so beautiful and poetic and creative, and I think everyone should read this book.

What started it, Ava cannot say, but the realization that they might die became real. Not someday, but that day… The last one to the gleaming car, too hot from the high sun, the last one there is a dead girl. Last one to the car can’t tell the story. Last one to the car is the story.”

—page 160

book #18: the professor and the madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the oxford english dictionary by simon winchester

I love non-fiction that tells an insane and little-known story so well that it reads like a novel. The Professor and the Madman told the story of William Minor (the American madman) and James Murray (the English professor), and their crucial involvement in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s funny, but I’ve never actually considered how any of those huge, integral reference books came to be. Of course, in the back of my mind I knew that at some point, all the words in the world had to be compiled and defined, but I’d never really thought about the dictionary’s formation beyond that. But what a story! It took more than 40 years to complete, and had been attempted by several people before James Murray officially took on the project in 1978. Using a crowd-sourcing strategy, he brought game-changing innovation to the project and is one of the primary reasons that it was finished. The other reason was another innovator, William Minor, who with his own brilliant techniques found the first use of tens of thousands of words. It is not an exaggeration to say that the OED would not exist as it does now, as a fundamental text, if it weren’t for these two men. It just so happens that William Minor was a convicted murderer and contributed to the dictionary from his permanent station in a lunatic asylum, where he was serving his life sentence! The story gets even crazier from there, as it delves into both Minor and Murray’s lives leading up to their work on the dictionary. I won’t give too much away, but this book was a fascinating and enjoyable read that I would recommend to anyone interested in history, words, and everything in between.

And it was all those quoted meanings, a demonstration of the multiplicity of subtle shadings of sense that can be encompassed by the simple arrangement of a group of letters, that prove the great triumph of Johnson’s dictionary.”

—page 106

book #19: the light we lost by jill santopolo

This book bummed me out. The characters and the story line fell very flat for me, and I found myself mostly irritated by it all in the end. There were quotes all over this telling me about this “elegant” “tearjerker” of a novel, but I didn’t cry once and I wouldn’t call this book elegant (I’m sounding harsh, I’ll dial it back). The book was about two characters, Lucy and Gabriel, who meet at Columbia the morning of September 11, 2001. They watch the towers fall from a roof, then make out and fall in this obsessive, unhealthy (and pretty unrealistic, IMO) love with each other. Well, kind of. Hours later, Gabe is calling Lucy and telling her that he’s getting back together with his ex, he’s sorry, he doesn’t regret their morning of making out while the Twin Towers fell, etc. This is all in the first few pages. The book goes on to follow the two for 13 more years, as they stay loosely in touch and reconnect in person every so often. They both have the bad habit of dropping everything and everyone to be with each other whenever possible, which gets old after a while, especially after Lucy gets married and has children. And it would have been one thing if her husband, Darren, was a wonderful guy. I might have had more sympathy for everyone involved, and maybe I would have believed that Lucy had some type of internal struggle when decided whether or not to let Gabe back in her life a decade after he left her. But, alas: Darren is also the worst! He’s like this wealthy, good-looking man plucked straight out of the 1950’s. He calls Lucy’s job as a producer on a children’s TV show “adorable,” and expects her to quit after she gives birth (twice!) Blah. I just didn’t really like anyone in this book, and none of them even felt fully developed in the end. There were some well-done depictions of life post-breakup, but that’s really the only thing in this book that I could get behind. In conclusion, a bummer.

You were my comfort and my pain all at once.”

—page 71

book #20: beasts of no nation by uzodinma iweala

This book completely destroyed me. I know I’m late – it’s been out since 2006 – but I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time. Beasts of No Nation tells the story of a brutal, senseless war in an unspecified West African country from the perspective of a young boy who is recruited as a soldier immediately following his father’s death (I think at the hands of these same soldiers he joins?). This story coming from this specific narrator (a school-age boy) was so powerful and impactful and heartbreaking. The boy’s name is Agu, and his voice is straightforward as he tries to reconcile his comfortable, care-free past life as the educated son of a teacher with his violent and difficult reality. He is plagued by hunger and guilt as they constantly travel, invade towns, and “kill kill” with this troop of guerilla fighters. It’s a really short, engrossing read, though a lot of sections are difficult to read in their brutality. But it’s an important story, and so well-told. I have Iweala’s newest novel, Speak No Evil, and I can’t wait to read it. He’s an incredible writer and Beasts of No Nation was an incredible read.

If it is day, I am sitting and staring at the sun like it is the only thing to look at in this world. I am watching how sometime it is bright and other time it is like it is just struggling too much to be shining and I am wanting to ask it why it is even thinking to shine on this world. If I am sun, I will be finding another place to be shining where people are not using my light to be doing terrible terrible thing. At night I am staring at the moon and looking to see if a man is smiling. They are saying man is living there and smiling , but I am never finding anything at all. Nobody is smiling in this place. If it is night, if it is day, nobody is smiling.”

—page 133

book #21: the five people you meet in heaven by mitch albom

I did not love this book. I know that’s kind of a disappointing way to end the past two months’ worth of reviews, but it’s bound to end on a dull note once in a while. I’d heard nothing but great things about The Five People You Meet in Heaven, so I had tentatively high hopes. The story starts with an introduction to the main character, Eddie, on his 83rd birthday, which also happens to be the day that he’s going to die. The premise of the book is when you die and go to heaven, you meet five people who have greatly impacted your life in some way (or vice versa). These five people will then lead you to a greater understanding of who you were, why you lived your life the way that you lived it, and what your life meant. I think it’s a great premise, and upon a brief description, the book is very compelling. I just never felt connected with any of the characters, and that could partly be because the book is so short overall; there simply wasn’t time to feel a deep connection with anyone. I will say that I was a huge fan of Eddie and Marguerite’s love. Unfortunately, I never felt too deeply or emotionally moved by this novel, which is what I was expecting going into it. Ah, well.

Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.”

—page 104

So that’s it! Months 3 and 4 of 2018 are done, and I read 12 books along the way. I’ll be back with more reviews at the end of June, during the all-time greatest season of them all. ◊

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