Tuesday, April 30, 2019

April Wrap-Up and Plans for May


Reading and Listening


I finished 8 books this month, which is pretty typical. It was a good reading month! I read three very different nonfiction books that were all quite good: I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening), which is all about having productive political conversations with people who may have different perspectives; Mayflower, the history of the first Europeans who came to New England and their relationship with the native people; and An Everlasting Meal, which is about food and cooking.

Both audiobooks I listened to were great: The Upside of Unrequited and American Street. Really, everything I read and listened to this month was quite good!

I managed to get to one book from my TBR Pile Challenge at the very end of the month, Paradox Bound by Peter Clines, which I'll be posting about soon.

Watching

 

Ridiculous dog photo of the month
 I watched the first season of The Great British Baking Show without Mary Berry or Mel and Sue. In many ways it wasn't the same, but the bakers were great and the new people can't help that they aren't the old people. Plus, baking!

I'm also re-watching Veronica Mars in anticipation of the reboot that's coming in July. I've watched season 1 and am now on season 2. It's so funny to watch a show I've seen before that I remember bits and pieces of, but there were a lot of things I had totally forgotten. Such a great show!

Earlier this month I made a visit to an actual movie theater to see Jordan Peele's Us. I was afraid it would be super creepy and freak me out, but although it had some creepy moments I found it more thought-provoking than scary. It's the sort of movie that as soon as I finished it I immediately wanted to go back and watch it again knowing what I know now.

Cooking

 

Nice-looking loaf of bread. Tasty, too!
I think the only new things I tried were Chile and Bell Pepper Quesadillas from Moosewood Cooks at Home and Sloppy Joes from the Pioneer Woman both of which were pretty easy and tasty. I also finally tried a no-knead bread, or I guess it's technically Almost No-Knead Bread, as the recipe in Bread Illustrated is called, since there's like a minute of kneading. It came out quite well! Otherwise I cooked and baked things I've made before.

Work lunches are always a struggle and I've made grain bowls a couple of weeks recently. I used this recipe once, I think back in March, but then another week I decided to just make up my own since it's all components. I roasted some broccolini and carrots, cooked arborio rice and mixed it with pesto, added sauerkraut leftover from the previous bowls, and topped it all with chopped radishes and hard-boiled eggs. It was pretty good. I like the idea of just cooking components and throwing them all together. I look at a lot of grain bowl recipes but usually there are things I like and don't like about them, so I may start just mixing and matching components and sauces and whatnot. One thing that frustrates me about these recipes is that they often top them with avocado, even the ones suggested to take for lunches on the go. It's like they don't realize that avocados will brown. I love avocados and would love to have them in my lunch, but it's not realistic. Anyhow, we're also getting into main dish grain/pasta salad season so I look forward to finding some new options to eat outside in the park during my lunch while reading. I can't wait for those days!

I also got together with a friend to do some cooking and we made a stir-fry. I learned from this experience that the best way to stir-fry is to cook each ingredient separately and then combine them at the end. In the past, I've followed recipes that try to time it so that you put in the longest-cooking things first and then add the others gradually so that they'll all be done the right amount at the end, but it never quite works out. I think that's because you can't necessarily anticipate how long something will take and it's very easy to overcook ingredients. So now I may try stir-frying again because I really like eating stir-fries and now I feel like I have a handle on how to do a better job of it.

Doing

 

I did finish physical therapy, not because my shoulder is 100% healed but because I reached the point where my insurance cut me off. Yay, America. I'm glad it's over though. They were lovely at the physical therapy place, but it was hard. It was a lot of exercise, and also I had to use part of my lunch break twice a week, so I'm glad to have that off my schedule. I have some exercises to do at home, though I haven't been great about actually doing them.

First al fresco dining of the year, at Twyrl in Arlington
With physical therapy over, I've begin doing other exercise again. I've gone to Zumba a few times and I've been running once or twice a week, though it's been hard with all the rain we've been having. (I don't run in the rain. Or snow. Or ice.) But when I've run it's been for 2 miles or a little more, which is pleasantly surprising.

I also finally bit the bullet and ordered a new laptop, since mine has had multiple horizontal lines running across the screen for a couple of months now since I dropped it. I couldn't bear to pony up for another Macbook so I ordered a cheap laptop that was recommended in an article. Honestly I didn't do a ton of research because computers are boring, but I also didn't spend a ton so it doesn't feel very risky.

I've made pretty good progress on the sweater I began knitting. I actually screwed up near the very beginning and didn't realize it until a few inches later, but I ripped back and re-knit it correctly because I knew it would drive me nuts if I left it, even though it probably wouldn't be noticeable to most people.

Plans for May

 

Now that I'm out of the bleak winter I feel like I need to reassess and refocus on goals for this year. Right now I don't remember what any of those goals even were.

I'm attending the Massachusetts Library Association conference later this month, which I'm looking forward to. I also have a new person starting at work who I have to train and get up to speed, so I think it's going to be a busy month!

I booked a camping trip at the very end of the month that I'm excited about because we're actually getting a camp site that requires a half mile hike to get to, which means we won't have lots of people and dogs and radios on top of us. I'm just hoping the weather holds! It feels like we got a year's worth of rain in April so hopefully we'll have nice weather for May.

How was your April?


Sunday, April 28, 2019

American Street

American Street by Ibi Zoboi (2017), narrated by Robin Miles

Fabiola and her mother leave Haiti to come to the United States, but her mother is detained at the border, leaving Fabiola to go on alone with her cousins to her aunt's house. Her new life at the intersection of American Street and Joy Road is not off the start that she expected, but Fabiola does her best to fit in while hoping her mother can eventually join her. Her cousins- Chantal, Donna, and Pri- are tough and notorious, known as the Three B's (brains, beauty, and brawn.) Donna's boyfriend Dray is a drug dealer who beats her, and Fabiola's fiercely protective feelings for her cousin draw her into a plan that is dangerous for everyone.

I thought this was going to be a book about a new immigrant trying to fit in, but it's so much more. The fact that her cousins are wrapped up in the stuff they're wrapped up in makes it much more complicated. And her Aunt Jo is not in great health so she isn't as strong of a parent as she could otherwise be; she had really been counting on Fabiola's mother to be there. Plus Fabiola ends up with a romance with Kasim, who is a good friend of Dray's who Fabiola isn't crazy about being around. And there's a mysterious guy on their street who everyone calls Bad Leg but who Fabiola is convinced is Papa Legba, a voodoo spirit, and begins listening intently to his songs which she thinks may provide direction for her.

These kids may be streetwise, but they are still teenagers and I was very worried about them. Especially Fabiola, who was SO desperate to get her mother out of lockup that she would do anything to help her. I could totally see where she was coming from, but at certain points in the story I wanted to warn her against the things she was doing, or considering doing. Fabiola was loyal almost to a fault. There were times that I wanted her to slap Donna and insist she break off her abusive relationship, but instead, Fabiola would comfort and support her. Even though she was new in Detroit, she was confident enough to stand up for her family and new friends. For instance, Dray showed an interest in Fabiola's friend Imani and Donna was terrible to Imani but Fabiola defended Imani even though she was also loyal to her cousin because she knew Donna was in the wrong.

I was struck by the way these girls were so jealous and fought over men. Like, why not just insist the guys make a choice, or at least ask them which girl they were interested in? But I've never understood the way people will fight over a romantic partner as though they're an object without a will of their own. Is the assumption that the person likes both potential partners equally and they need to fight it out? It doesn't make sense to me. And it's not the other person's fault, it's the two-timing jerk's fault, so they're the one you should be fighting with. Anyway, I digress.

That was a criticism of human nature, not of the book. I honestly have no criticisms of this book. I listened to the audio version, which Robin Miles expertly narrated. Although her name sounded familiar to me I can't identify anything of hers I've listened to, but it does appear that she narrates some other pretty great books, notably the Broken Earth and Binti series. If you were considering listening to either of those, let that be your deciding factor.

American Street was a contender for our community read this year, and I can see why it was nominated. It's a different story than I've encountered in teen lit before and I thought it was great! Ibi Zoboi has also written a Pride and Prejudice retelling and I just checked to see if it was also narrated by Robin Miles, but to my surprise the narrator is none other than the author Elizabeth Acevedo. This is definitely going on my list of audiobooks to listen to sometime soon!

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

An Everlasting Meal

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler (2011)

So I don't remember where or how I heard about this book, but I somehow got the impression that it would teach me how to cook without a recipe. In reality, it was more like a series of essays in which Tamar Adler talks about everything she cooks and eats, telling us how and why she does what she does. It's very much about intuitive cooking, but doesn't really tell you how to gain that skill yourself (possibly because you either have it or don't?) She does give instructions, and even recipes, but it's pretty loosey-goosey. I came away with the feeling that any cooking instructions at all are just suggestions and you can always take them with a grain of salt and change them to suit your needs and tastes, which is pretty reassuring.

It also emphasizes using up every single part of every food. She's constantly talking about throwing ends of onions in a bowl for stock or pouring fat into a jar for cooking later. I imagine this is incredibly useful if you're very frugal yet very organized (so as to keep track of all these odds and ends) or if you're living through some sort of apocalyptic event.

The whole experience was rather aspirational for me, as I did like to imagine that I'm the kind of person who can just throw bits of this and that together and have a delicious meal, or who will squirrel away bits of bone and fat and vegetable scraps and then - and this is key - remember that I have them and also where I put them.

In reality, I think maybe it did give me a few ideas about ways to use bits of leftovers; primarily, smashing them up and putting them on toast. There were also a couple of practical ideas I might employ: buying lots of vegetables and just roasting them all at the beginning of the week rather than waiting to cook them later when I magically have good ideas about how to use them; and using leftover parsley by making parsley oil, which she insists makes everything taste better:

"To make dark green, lovely parsley oil, chop the leaves off a bunch of parsley, smash a clove of garlic to a paste with a little salt, and douse both in olive oil. Combine herb and oil here with volition. It is not damp herb you want, but a lusty, deep, spoonable sauce that assures sliced tomatoes get eaten deliberately, with eager hands spooning garlicky green sauce onto each."

Sounds tempting, doesn't it? I also liked her idea that you can put pretty much any leftovers onto some rice, top it with a fried egg, and call it a rice bowl.

Early in the book she makes some crazy statements that I'm glad I soldiered past. She says that avocado should never be put in an omelet because it tastes "flabby," which isn't even a thing. Plus as far as I'm concerned, avocado is welcome everywhere. She also insists that frittatas are intended to be made ahead and "cooled for hours or days because they are better that way" and that "No one has ever eaten a frittata hot and not been scolded for it." Obviously a bold lie as I've eaten, and served, many a hot frittata and not once been scolded. They're fine leftover the following days, but not better.

Her small number of controversial statements are tempered by her more welcome opinions, like what a shame it is that we've decided bread is bad for us. She insists that it is not and she's preaching to the choir here because I could not agree more that the recent vilification of bread is a travesty. I also think it's important to mention that she is honest about how long it takes to caramelize onions, which elevates my opinion of any food writer.

The thing about this whole idea of using bits of leftovers together to make new things is that they do have to go together. Sometimes my leftovers are already sauced or spiced in ways that would not be delicious together. It seems like she maybe eats a lot of the same kinds of things: variations on bread, rice, beans, roasted vegetables, drizzled with oil and a grating of parmesan, topped with a fried egg. Adler was also rather inconsistent in that she goes back and forth between "anything goes" and strong statements beginning with "you must" and "you shouldn't." But like with any book of advice, I feel like you should just take what works for you and leave the rest.

Much of the pleasure of this book is in the writing itself, which is often dramatic and grandiose and full of unexpected, and often clever, turns of phrase. Some readers find it a bit twee, and I suppose it veers in that direction sometimes but I like a surprising metaphor and her descriptions made me want to eat almost everything she was telling me about. It was a very sensory experience. When I finished it was very jarring to see on the back cover flap that she lives in Brooklyn, as I had pictured her rattling around a big old farmhouse in a slow-paced little town somewhere. I guess it's reassuring to know that one can have this attitude and philosophy towards food even in a city.

When I started this book I was honestly not sold on it and wasn't sure if I'd finish, but ultimately I was captivated by her obvious deep love of food and the lush, almost magical, way she writes about it. I don't know how much, if at all, this book will influence the way I cook and eat, but it's a book I can see myself coming back to in the future.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

The story begins when Korede receives a phone call from her sister, who has just murdered her boyfriend. She needs Korede's help to clean things up. This is the third time. Korede knows that it is wrong but Ayoola is her sister and it's her job to protect her. Plus, at this point she's already an accessory because the first time it happened she believed Ayoola that it was self-defense, and now she's just in too deep. So she helps Ayoola dispose of the body and clean up the guy's apartment once again.

However, Ayoola is now setting her sights on Tade, a doctor with whom Korede works. Korede is in love with Tade, but her beauty is no match for Ayoola's and now Korede is afraid Tade will end up dead as well. The only person Korede can talk to is a coma patient whose family doesn't visit often. He's been there for months and his family no longer visits often, but Korede sits and talks to him because he can't talk back and will likely never wake up.

This is a super short book and I read it in two evenings. It's only a little over 200 pages and they are small pages. It goes quickly but there is a lot here. It's really an understatement to say that Korede's and Ayoola's relationship is complicated and a little unhealthy. Ayoola is the beautiful one who can get away with anything (literally!) because everyone around her is blinded by her beauty. Korede is the dependable one, often overlooked, but she is a nurse and is always the one who takes care of everyone. They also have the shared experience of growing up with their father, which is a story in itself that we get piece by piece throughout the story. He was not a nice man and he is dead now, but it is his knife that Ayoola uses on her victims.

The status of women in Nigeria is undoubtedly more complicated than I know, but it's definitely not ideal. Korede and Ayoola's father would beat them, and he once brought a mistress home and paraded her in front of his wife. I don't think these things are necessarily super unusual, and they definitely provide an interesting context for a story about a woman murdering men.

There's a lot to talk about and think about here, so if you're looking for an especially unusual book group pick, I think this would be a stellar choice. I haven't read anything quite like this surprising debut novel, and I will be eagerly awaiting Braithwaite's next book.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

One in a Million

One in a Million by Lindsey Kelk (2018)

Annie co-owns a social media company with her friend Miranda, and they are having a tough time making ends meet. When a guy from another office in their building challenges them to a bet, Annie can't pass it up. She agrees that she can take whoever next walks through the door and get them 20k Instagram followers in thirty days. If she does, she gets a month of free rent on her office, which they desperately need. Enter Dr. Samuel Page. A scruffy historian who has just been kicked out of his girlfriend's house and is now sleeping in his office, Sam is not at all interested in social media. But he is interested in selling the dry historical tome he has just published so he agrees to participate in the bet.

It's no mystery that Annie and Sam will have a romance - because this is a romance novel - but how they will get there is all the fun. She loves social media; he hates it. He just wants to be left alone; she wants to make him famous. Oh, and how she really got him to agree to the social media campaign? Promise to put him through a boyfriend bootcamp so he can win his ex-girlfriend back. What could possibly go wrong?

Because of the focus on social media culture, this is sure to be dated in no time, but right now it's an awful lot of fun. It's a little dramatic, maybe not entirely believable, but it's funny and entertaining and exactly the perfect book to have around while I was reading Mayflower for those times I needed to read something a little lighter.

Annie was a hard worker and good at her job I loved the focus on a small business run by two women who were kicking ass. Ok, so the social media campaign she started for Sam, calling him the Hip Historian, didn't make a ton of sense to me. Late in the book when she finally had a brilliant idea about what to do to finally get him a ton of followers, I couldn't figure out why that wasn't the first idea she had because to me it seemed obvious. But that was my only criticism. A lot of romances also tell the story from the hero's point of view and here it was all Annie, but I think that worked.

It was also very funny. For instance, Annie snagged a copy of Sam's book to use to research him and his interests and when Miranda starts reading it out loud and it immediately becomes obvious that it's dry and impenetrable, Annie suggests, "Maybe it's a horcrux." It was just filled with pop culture references and clever quips.

As you're thinking about nice weather and beach reading, you might want to consider bringing this book along with you. If you're looking for something light and fun and entertaining, this could easily fit the bill.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Mayflower

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick (2006)

I've mentioned before how spotty my U.S. history is and how I don't remember anything I "learned" from the dry textbooks I was given in school growing up. It was just a recitation of facts and I don't think any of them actually stuck with me - I just remember trying to memorize key names, dates, and phrases to pass tests. Well, I was finally inspired to get a fuller picture of the beginnings of our nation with this book by Nathanial Philbrick. He's popular so I thought it might be readable enough for me. It begins with the first pilgrims leaving England, going to the Netherlands (we weren't taught about that part in school,) and then traveling aboard the Mayflower to the new world. They found a spot where nobody was living, made friends with the native people nearby and tried to integrate in a peaceful way, and then 50 years later the Puritans really screwed things up and then came King Phillip's War, which changed the whole dynamic until it became English vs. Indians, and you know who lost that war.

I really liked the nuance here, which is lost from pretty much all discussions about this time period I've ever been a part of. As a kid it was all happy pilgrims coming to a new land and everything was fine! Then as an adult everyone was like "Everything you learned was wrong! All the Europeans just came and murdered everyone in cold blood!" Of course the truth is somewhere in between. Those first to arrive acknowledged that there were others here first and that they had rights. They reached out to the indigenous people and befriended them and learned from them. They had to depend on them to survive and they appreciated that, but their descendants and the Puritans who came later hadn't had those same experiences and they just wanted the Indians out of there so they could have all the land. I think this book was the first time I knew the difference between Pilgrims and Puritans, and it was definitely the first time I got such a complete story about the first white settlers in New England.

However it was still a nonfiction book about history, so I got bogged down in certain parts. When the war really started up and there was a lot of descriptions about military maneuvers and transactions and other things that are more difficult to picture I struggled a bit. Plus there were a lot of names and tribes, and it was hard to keep straight who was who. Another thing I never learned as a kid was that the different tribes had different alliances, so initially the war wasn't just between the English and the Indians, but some of the English made it into a racial thing rather than about the original issues, which was pretty interesting. But I know my difficulty understanding some of that is just the way I read and understand what I'm reading. In fiction they say you need to show rather than tell, and in nonfiction there is just naturally more telling. Sometimes they don't have enough detail to flesh it out the way fiction does, and sometimes an event just needs to be summed up so as not to take up an extra 100 pages. It just makes it hard for me to visualize what's happening or integrate it into the story I'm reading. This isn't a criticism of the book at all, just an acknowledgement of my own shortcomings in being able to take in nonfiction, particularly about history.

All in all, I'm very glad I read this book. I learned a lot from it and I'm sure I'll forget most of it very soon as I am wont to do, but that's probably just more reason to make a habit of reading nonfiction. This is sort of timely as next year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, but of course any time is a good time to learn more about history.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Upside of Unrequited

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli (2017), narrated by Arielle DeLisle

Molly Peskin-Suso has had twenty-six crushes but so far has never even been kissed once. She's self-conscious about her weight and afraid of rejection. Now, her twin sister Cassie has a girlfriend and Molly feels even more alone. This new girlfriend, Mina, has a good friend Molly starts thinking of as "hipster Will" and he is super cute and kind of flirtatious. Cassie and Mina are clearly trying to get Molly and Will together, but Molly is unsure, especially after she starts working with Reid, a Tolkien fan and Ren Faire enthusiast who seems not at all her type, and yet.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriage legal, which means that Molly and Cassie's parents can finally get married. Molly immediately gets to work creating centerpieces and other decorations, as this girl was basically born for Pinterest. As the wedding date draws near, tensions run high in the family and Molly fears Cassie's new relationship will mean the two sisters won't ever be as close as they once were.

If the second part of Molly and Cassie's last name sounds familiar, that's because you met their cousin, Abby Suso, in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Abby appears here too, as Molly often turns to her for advice. (Molly even meets Simon himself at one point via Skype.) One thing I really liked about this book was that the family relationships were at least as important as the romantic ones. I loved that Molly's cousin is her best friend, that her relationship with his sister is so incredibly important to her, and that her moms are involved in their daughters' lives in such a caring way. They know everything that's going on with Molly and Cassie and talk to them about it. This means their relationships, but also sneaking around and drinking alcohol. They're very clear about their expectations, but never portrayed as villains. They just care a lot about Molly and Cassie and want them to make good choices.

The romances were great too! As Cassie and Mina fell immediately into an intense relationship, we see it from Molly's point of view. She feels left out when Cassie doesn't tell her everything about her budding romance with Mina, but she also feels left out because it feels like everyone around her has had a relationship except for her. Now she has two boys who seems to be interested in her, Hipster Will and Middle Earth Reid. She coaches herself to get out there and take risks, and her awkward fumbling in dealing with these boys was pretty realistic. I know that poor communication can be an annoying trope, but here it rang true and watch some of her conversations go the way they did was a bit painful but absolutely genuine.

The narration by Arielle DeLisle was decent, though I though she made some of the voices a bit annoying, like Abby's high-pitched squeak. Although I maybe didn't like this one as much as the other two Albertalli books I've read, it was still pretty solid and I'll probably continue to read (or listen to) anything this author writes.

Friday, April 5, 2019

I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening)

I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening) by Sarah Stewart Holland & Beth Silvers (2019)


As everyone who has talked to me in the last couple of months knows, I've been listening to a podcast called Pantsuit Politics, hosted by two women from different sides of the aisle. Sarah is a Democrat and Beth is a Republican, and their tagline is "No shouting. No insults. Plenty of nuance." In their new book, they try to teach the rest of us how to put partisanship aside and have difficult political conversations with people with whom we disagree.

They are both women of faith and as such they talk a lot about grace. This is not a religious book, so please don't be deterred if you're the sort of person who is deterred by that. There's an occasional Bible quote, but these women are what I tend to think of as "the good kind" of Christian, which is sort of horrible of me. But what I mean is that they espouse the values I was always taught in church as a child (charity, forgiveness, etc.) rather than the hatred and judgment we all too often see from so-called Christians these days.

Although Beth and Sarah are willing to, and even embrace, differing viewpoints, they have some baselines. For instance, they don't consider racism or homophobia to be acceptable because they feel strongly that all humans are deserving of respect and love so they will not entertain those views or give them airtime. They do not embrace the "all sides" rhetoric or condone news shows that insist on giving equal airtime to all viewpoints when clearly some viewpoints are more valid than others. These are very smart women who value education, ethics, and honesty and strive to rise above partisanship and I think they do it very well.

The first few chapters of the book are collectively called "Start with you" and they introduce us to some foundational principles to make sure we're bringing our best selves to our political conversations. They acknowledge that many of us are discouraged from talking politics, especially with people we disagree with, but they think this is dangerous because it reinforces isolation and echo chambers. They encourage us to "take off your jersey," a reference to how we talk about politics like sports, in which the only important thing is that our team wins. In "Find Your Why" they ask us to look at our values, which is a more productive focus than the nitty-gritty of particular pieces of legislation and allow us to have relatable conversations with other people who want the same basic things even if we disagree about how to get there. "Put Politics in Its Place" is a reminder to keep things in perspective and think about other ways outside of politics that we can have a positive impact.

Part two is "Turn Your Eyes Outward," which is where they give more specific advice about interacting with other humans in political conversations once we've worked on ourselves. They talk about grace, which is basically giving people the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming that everyone is nefarious. They encourage us to be curious, about each other and about issues: ask questions rather than assuming that a person who believes one thing also holds a whole set of beliefs that you think go together, and learn as much as you can about issues from nonpartisan sources. They talk about embracing paradoxes and the value of being uncomfortable, how to exit the echo chamber, and of course, offer advice on keeping it nuanced. They acknowledge the complexity of issues and relationships and warn against oversimplification and taking sides.

I could honestly talk about this book for ages. It makes wish my book group was still together so we could talk about this because I think there's a lot here that we would all do better to think about and consider. I know my friends and I are just as guilty of a lot of these things as anyone, and we could all do better to make fewer assumptions about each other and stop acting like we're all going to die if such-and-such person gets elected or some horrid piece of legislation enacted. Yes, there are bad things and there always have been, but there are more productive ways to deal with them than to become more and more partisan and divisive. That is what's been happening and it's not benefiting anyone right now.

I found so many passages I wanted to save and quote, but if I try to do that here I'll basically be re-writing the book. But I put a bunch of them into a Google doc that you can access here if you'd like to read some samples. I do encourage you to read this whole book though. I promise you it's short and easy to read. I struggle with nonfiction - especially nonfiction that's not telling a story - and I had no problem with this one. It was enjoyable and gave me a lot to think about. I'm adding it to my very short list of books that I think everyone should read.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

A couple of short books

Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak (2018)

Girl Town is a collection of five stories in graphic format. The cover illustration is of Betsy from the first story, "Girl Town." It's about three young woman who live next door to three other woman who they find kind of terrifying but also compelling. In "Radishes," a girl convinces her friend to skip school and go to a very strange market where they sample some produce that has surprising effects. "Diana's Electric Tongue" is about a woman who buys herself a robot boyfriend. "The Big Burning House" is about a cult movie that has been lost and nobody can quite remember all the details, and two women who have a podcast about it have suddenly obtained a copy of it that will answer all their questions. In "Please Sleep Over" a young woman invites her friend to stay at a house that apparently belongs to her parents and honestly I am not quite sure what is going on. The two women arrive wearing some sort of medals around their necks that aren't ever explained, a stranger comes into the house talking like she knows them, and the ending doesn't make sense to me.

Anyhow, my favorite was "Diana's Electric Tongue" although I really liked "Radishes" quite a lot too. I could see myself going back to read those again.


Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath (2019)

Speaking of stories where I don't really know what was going on, this never-before-published short story by Sylvia Plath was pretty weird. She submitted it to a magazine when she was in college and it was rejected, and it was just published for the first time in a standalone volume. This seems to be a thing now - publishing a short story all by itself - and I'm not sure what I think of it. At any rate, I wasn't about to pass up something by Sylvia Plath.

In this story, Mary reluctantly leaves her parents on a train where she is going to a place called The Ninth Kingdom. What is the Ninth Kingdom and why is she going there? Who the hell knows. Well, one lady knows, I think, and she's sitting next to Mary on the train. She's friendly and knows more than she's really letting on, but she won't actually tell Mary (or us) anything. I don't know if Mary's parents sent her away or if she's ever expected to come back or what explanation she has for her journey. Her parents make a reference to "time to leave home" so it doesn't sound ominous. But the woman on the train makes the trip often and seems to have some sort of business interest in it. When Mary talks about how luxurious the trip is, the woman says you pay for it in the end. "The train company has more than a pure friendly interest in the passengers." And then they came to a stop and a woman whose ticket was for that stop had to be forced off, which implies that the passengers don't like where they're going.

I think the whole thing might be an allegory about becoming an adult and choosing your path in life. The woman on the train says the passengers bought their tickets and chose their destinations and they can't now decide to get off elsewhere. Mary is destined for the final stop, and the older woman describes the Ninth Kingdom as "the kingdom of negation, of the frozen will." But there is one way that Mary can escape her fate, which makes it all a little bit less ominous. I read the story twice, and although it still doesn't 100% make sense to me, I feel pretty confident about my interpretation.