July/August Reads Part 1

July was a slow month where I spent a lot of time on the couch watching Try Guys videos because it was too hot out to be alive, so I didn’t get as much reading done as I wanted. So I decided to combine my July and August reads into a single blog post.

Then I proceeded to have a fairly good August, so I guess I’ll be doing two parts after all to avoid this getting too long. /shrug

Educated by Tara Westover

It’s hard to describe how much I loved this memoir. I laughed. I cried. The whole gamut of emotions. I’m still thinking about it a month and a half later.

Tara Westover was “homeschooled” by her parents, Mormon fundamentalists who were heavily influenced by Ruby Ridge and tried to live largely outside the influence of mainstream society and especially government. Her memoir is painful and beautiful and I cannot wait to see what Westover does next because this was absolutely breathtaking.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinso

I’ve been working on trying to read genre fiction written by women and nonbinary people that have been nominated for several awards, and Brown Girl in the Ring is up there as one of the most nominated genre novels of the last 20 years.

I listened to Brown Girl in the Ring on audio and while I mostly enjoyed the story, I enjoyed it despite the narration, not because of it. The narrator did a lot of dialect work that I found distracting and just didn’t click with me. It felt almost cartoonish at times.

It was really interesting to read a novel that’s centered on Afro-Caribbean folklore. I really enjoyed that. But each chapter began with a lyric from a children’s song or repeated phrases from children’s stories, and again, I found it distracting and it kicked me out of the narrative. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much in print. I’m excited to pick up more of Nalo Hopkinson’s work, just maybe in a different medium next time.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

It feels a little wrong to say that I like anything that I’ve read by Ottessa Moshfegh. I’ve read several stories from her collection Homesick for Another World and now I’ve listened to this. Her shtick, as far as I can tell, is writing about gross people who do gross things and are unapologetic about it. This sounds like a complaint. It’s not. Moshfegh’s writing is incredibly visceral and engrossing, but it can be a lot to handle. I definitely have to be in a particular mood for Moshfegh, but when I’m in that mood it’s pretty incredible.

I think this is probably a good place to start with her work. It’s compelling, and it doesn’t quite rise to the level of disturbing and offputting that her short stories do. If you like this, there’s a good chance you’ll like her other work. If not, then you’ve learned something valuable about yourself, and books that you might not want to read in the future.

One of the best things about this novel is the impending sense of dread that builds throughout the narrative. You know something is about to go horribly wrong, but you have no idea what. It’s very well done and I thought the pacing and oppressive mood were masterfully crafted.

It also takes place in the dead of winter and would be a great read for inclement weather this winter. I don’t know that I liked it as much during the summer as I might have during, say, a November snowstorm.

Things to do When You’re Goth in the Country & Other Stories by Chavisa Woods

This collection is pure Midwest Gothic through and through. I especially loved the stories “Zombie” and “Take the Way Home That Leads Back to Sullivan Street.” Each of the stories is unapologetically queer and the collection as a whole deals with familiar ideas and themes of the Midwest (isolation, class disparity, incarceration, limited opportunities leading young men into the military, coming home, being an outsider, etc) in fresh, occasionally heartrending ways.

I often have trouble with short story collections – I rarely connect evenly with all the stories equally; they can feel uneven. I had the same issue here. Some of the stories just didn’t grab me, but overall the collection really worked for me.

An aside: I was reading this while at the brunch place a couple blocks from my apartment and the waiter invited himself to sit down on the bench next to me, take the book out of my hands, start flipping through it, and quizzing me on my literary credentials, because books are just “so much deeper than, like, TV, you know?” No, I don’t know. Also, he saw the story title “Zombie” and was like, “ah, genre fiction” in that smug knowing way some guys have, despite “Zombie” being perhaps the least genre inflected story in the collection. I have not been back to that brunch place since, which is a shame because their cinnamon rolls are very good.

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

My sister and I listened to this on a road trip moving her stuff from Atlanta to Syracuse at the conclusion of her summer internship. This is a solid courtroom drama that centers on the explosion of a hyperbaric chamber used to pressurize patients and deliver them pure oxygen, billed as a treatment for things ranging from infertility to autism. The explosion resulted in two deaths, and the main action of the story takes place a year afterward, during the trial of a mother of one of the children in treatment for autism, for supposedly causing the explosion with a lit cigarette near the oxygen tanks.

I honestly don’t think I’ll remember much about this novel a couple months from now. It was interesting, but it’s not going to stick with me, and I definitely feel like it took its sweet time getting around to the point. It’s probably best consumed in a binge over a couple of days, because there are a lot of perspectives to keep track of and everyone is lying at some point or another, often even to themselves. I think it would be difficult to follow if you read it over the course of a couple weeks by reading one chapter at a time.

I’m glad I read this, it was fun, but it’s definitely a 3/5 stars kind of book. Fine. Certainly not a knockout.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

I found this book on Libby while commiserating with my sister about my cancelled flight and lamenting the fact that we chose the slowest restaurant in all of New York state to get lunch. I had to make an unexpected drive from Syracuse to Chicago, so instead of finishing up the book I was reading on a quick afternoon flight, I needed to find a compelling audiobook to distract me from the fact that I was pissed about having to drive a huge rental car for twelve hours and would need to take an unexpected day off of work to accommodate the travel.

(It’s fine, my boss was very understanding. I was still miffed at the inconvenience)

In this thriller a young tarot reader is menaced by a loan shark and completely broke. She receives a letter that indicates she might be entitled to some inheritance from her recently deceased grandmother. She’s pretty sure that the letter has gone to the wrong person, but she’s desperate, and hey. What’s a little light fraud between strangers?

This is an excellent road trip book. It’s engaging, and even if you see some of the bits coming, it’s still rewarding watching them play out. The narrator was good, and it has a ~14 hour runtime, so listening to it on 1.5x means it fit pretty perfectly into my impromptu trip. If you’ve liked Ruth Ware’s previous works, you’ll probably like this. If you haven’t read her previous works, think of your typical clockwork mystery with a limited cast and shady old women with secrets, and you’ve got this book. It’s a thumbs up from me.

I’ll get back to you all at the beginning of September with the rest of my August reads!

A tip for traveling cross country alone

Sunday was incredibly trying. I was supposed to fly back to Chicago from Syracuse, but due to severe thunderstorms in Chicago, a ton of flights were grounded. And because I cheaped out and went with Frontier, they would be unable to get me on a replacement flight until Tuesday, which was less than ideal seeing as how I needed to get back to work.

So, I did the only thing i could think of at the time. I rented a car and started driving back. I got a late start since I was supposed to be on a mid-afternoon flight. If I had known I’d be driving, I would have started much earlier.

I’ve driven through Ohio a bunch of times this year and decided to stop at around 9:30 at a Super 8 just west of Cleveland, since I thought I had a good handle on how long it would take me to get from Cleveland to Chicago given reasonable traffic conditions.

I know this is sounding like a lot of background. “Where is my travel tip?” I hear you asking.

Always. Always always always latch the deadbolt and security latch on your motel door, friends.

At 12:57 AM an angry drunk couple started aggressively rattling my door handle and talking about how bullshit the hotel keys were, throwing themselves at m door trying to get it open. It turns out that the spacey kid at the desk gave them a key to my room (153) instead of the vacant room across the parking lot (135).

I knew it was 12:57 AM because the man’s slurred yelling woke me up, and in my panicked haze I realized that I needed to alert them that the room was already occupied. So I shouted “This is already a room!” three times and made some truly horrific groaning noises, and went back to sleep.

If I hadn’t had the security latch in place it might have turned into a much more dangerous situation. As it was, I was merely miffed that two days in a row were not going as planned, and I went to sleep dreaming of cuddling with my kitties.

Stray Travel Thought

May is a truly miserable time of year to visit Costa Rica, so my recent trip wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. But one of the biggest things I kept thinking about while wandering around San Jose was that in America we have ceded so much of public life to the auto industry. All of the US prioritizes the needs and storage of individually owned cars above all other methods of getting around, and that’s simply not true other places. There are entire pedestrian-only avenues in San Jose filled with street vendors and people just walking in the middle of everything without fear. The only place in the US you see that kind of thing is literally in amusement parks. It makes me wonder what we could be capable of if we invested in public infrastructure and de-incentivized individual car ownership. I say this as someone who owns a car and loves it. But it’s possible that I just love it because owning a car makes the experience of living here materially better in ways that aren’t true in other parts of the world.