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All the sweet books I read on vacation

19 Oct

fullsizeoutput_1e8eReturning from vacation tends to engender three questions: How was it? Where did you go? What did you do? For me—freshly returned this week from a five-day sojourn to Vermont—the answer to No. 3 is almost always “I read all of the books.”

My vacay book binges aren’t just the byproduct of fast reading. They’re a result of devoting entire glorious days to the task—turning off the TV, hiding my phone, putting on my comfy pants, and settling into a cushy armchair, preferably one facing some sort of relaxing outdoor vista. In Vermont, it was the pillow-padded wicker deck chair of a cabin on Lake Champlain (at right). Here’s what I got done:

PulitzersThe Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The sympathizer (small s) is the novel’s narrator, a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist double agent stationed in the US after the Fall of Saigon. He’s astute, insightful, and wry, and this book isn’t just good; it’s important. [4 PAPERCUTS]

Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby
In 1960s London, an upstart actress named Barbara just wants to be the next Lucille Ball. She stumbles into an audition that changes her life, and is soon thrown into the spotlight as TV star Sophie Straw, alongside an extremely British quartet of male colleagues (the costar, the writers, and the producer). As with all Hornby novels, I can already picture the movie. [3 PAPERCUTS]

Annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeerAnnihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
A biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor walk into Area X—the jokes write themselves. They are the 12th in a series of expeditions to the quarantined region; past participants have died, disappeared, or never been the same. This book is like Michael Crichton’s Sphere on mushrooms. (Alex Garland’s film adaptation comes out in February.) [3 PAPERCUTS]

Modern Lovers & The Vacationers, by Emma Straub
Two enjoyable family dramas that, fun fact, both have a character who hates bacon. [3 PAPERCUTS]

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
I ran out of books on my last day in VT, and had promised myself I wouldn’t read anything on a screen. The cabin had a copy of this one (naturally), so I read it (naturally) and sobbed uncontrollably while looking out at the lake (naturally). The title is kind of self-explanatory—he time travels, they’re in love… you get it—but as books forced upon you by circumstance go, one could do far worse. [3 PAPERCUTS]

Sweetbitter_mini Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler 

The perfect book for my first day back in New York (but not yet back at work). Danler’s debut is a coming-of-age story about a 22-year-old waitress at a fictional version of Union Square Cafe (the OG fancy restaurant of a major New York restaurateur; Danler once worked there). The novel’s descriptions of food and sex and NYC are wonderful, but every character is a terrible person and I would not like to be friends with any of them. [3 PAPERCUTS]

I have a crush on this book

23 Aug

If you ever need a gut-check on the scope of your own fatalism, crack the spine on Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem.

The first in a trilogy, TTBP was published in China in 2008, and translated into English for the first time in 2014. It kicks off in the 1960s, during China’s Cultural Revolution, a period in which academics and scientists were punished (killed, even) for their alleged infractions against Communism. But this is just the tip of the three-body iceberg. What surfaces is a geopolitical novel carrying itself as a sci-fi novel (see: World War Z) that explores what might happen on Earth if and when an advanced alien civilization were to make contact. But like, with lots of physics. Lots of physics. Continue reading

Yes, you really do need to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

2 Mar

colson_whitehead_underground_railroadIf you’re doing this whole “reading” thing right, there should ideally be a shortlist of books that changed your mind/blew your mind/expanded your mind, whether on specific subjects or just in general. They don’t have to be the greatest books ever written, or even particularly literary or influential (though it’s always nice if they are). They’re just the ones you read in the right place at the right time in your life, or in history. They’re the ones you consciously or unconsciously absorbed into your worldview. A shortlist book is one you finish and then think about, constantly at first and then on and off for years, or even decades, afterwards.

My shortlist for books about racism, and specifically slavery, is particularly short, mostly because I’m an asshole who spent at least 50% of her formative years reading Stephen King and Sookie Stackhouse novels (no regrets though, no regrets). Many of the books on that list I’ve only read in the past few years—The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Homegoing, Americanah—and this month I added a new one: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Continue reading

5 books, reviewed real quick

25 Oct

Summer 2016 went by far too fast, distracted as we were by Donald Trump and the return of the bare midriff. But even though my ST updates this year have been lackluster at best—it’s my 2017 resolution, I swear—I did actually manage to finish some books this summer. So before the frost fully sets in, here are a few things I done read recently. Continue reading

Timehopping with Homegoing

14 Oct

img_2430As cars and RVs line up to pay the $25 entry fee to Arches National Park, I find myself tempted to assume that what’s ahead will be overwrought. Commercialized. Banal. The minimum-effort visitor to Arches (i.e. any rando with a car) can take an 18-mile drive around the park, at the entrance of which sits a quintessential visitor center—part education, part kitsch. I haven’t seen Delicate Arch yet (Arches’ most iconic landmark) and yet I have: on keychains, t-shirts, laminated posters, and lighters—and painted in great detail on a canvas in my Moab, Utah hotel room.

Once inside, a winding road takes me up a rock cliff, which I notice absently, and then with something bordering on panic. All the relevant alarms start to sound in my brain: YOU ARE DRIVING ON A CLIFF! THE SIDE OF THE CLIFF IS RIGHT THERE! And while I know I’m supposed to be feeling some sort of How Stella Got Her Groove Back exhilaration—I’m here! On my road trip! Seeing natural beauty!—mostly I am terrified. I’ve had a driver’s license for 17 years, but I’ve also seen Final Destination a bunch of times.  Continue reading

The Mandibles is Titanic for the economy, and there isn’t enough room on the door

27 Jul

y450-293For as long as there have been disasters, there have been disaster stories. Sometimes they’re natural, sometimes extraterrestrial, sometimes militaristic. Sometimes a disaster story is only personally devastating—a sudden death, a fatal illness. And sometimes it’s national, or global, or even inter-planetary.

Catastrophes have long since been molded into narrative archetypes, such that any new movie or book or television show centered on the unraveling of human society after [fill in life-changing event here] can be easily folded into a pre-existing canon of work ruminating on those same hypotheticals. There is clearly something in us that experiences a perverse glee imagining the upending of everything, perhaps because such thought experiments cast in blissful relief the advantages and conveniences of a charmed life in the modern, real world.

But even in our imaginations, economic collapse ranks low on the list of fictional conjectures, somewhere between friendly aliens and symbolic single-symptom afflictions (see: mass blindness). The world’s somewhat recent flirtation with financial crisis has produced some emergent economic fiction, but it tends to focus on financial firms—who runs them, how, and whether they should be held accountable (see: Margin Call, ArbitrageMoney Monster.) Rarely is there a story centered on the machinations of an economic undoing as experienced by normal people; usually that kind of homey cast is reserved for plagues or earthquakes or the zombie apocalypse.  Continue reading

H Is for Hawk, U is for ugly cry

14 Jun

18803640By all logical measures, we should not be fucking with hawks. Some of the most intelligent birds on the planet, hawks are strong and curious and fast as all hell. They have talons and beaks and the evolutionary advantage of being able to claw your face off and fly away before you even realize you’re bleeding.

And yet, against all odds, hawks also have a long and storied history of being tight with humans. Falconry is a profession (hobby? calling?) dating back to 700 BC, and there is to this day a uniquely talented community of people who raise and train hawks, people whose fists feel empty without the weight of an avian predator, people who live in a world where tucking a dead rabbit into the back pocket of your jeans is just a regular Saturday.  Continue reading