The Book Beat - May 2, 2021
Happy Monday, book friends! Before I get to bookish news and reviews, I want to share my bookish adventures of the last two weeks. This bookworm has been busy!
First, we'll start with the book scavenger hunt I went on yesterday. It starts with me seeing a promotion on Instagram for Little Free Libraries. They partnered with Celadonbooks to scatter early copies of The Maidens, Alex Michaelides's latest book (pub date: 6/15) in Little Free Libraries across the country. So, OF COURSE, I looked at the map and OF COURSE I found that one was super close to me, and OF COURSE, I took a little trip there this morning to see if I could snag myself a copy. No such luck! But I did find a copy of Hollywood Park, the memoir by Mikel Jollett about his childhood in an infamous cult. It's been on my list. Book joy! If you find The Maidens at your local LFL, let me know!
Two weeks ago, I finally visited a local-to-me indie, Reads and Company, and spent the generous gift card my twin sis had gotten me for our birthday. Tucked into the artsy and innovative enclave of Phoenixville, PA, it's a wonderful space. Friendly staff, a cute kids' corner, and--the best part--the Main Street in the town closes to all traffic every Friday afternoon through Monday morning so restaurants can seat people on the street and the bookstore can have sidewalk space to sell books. My sis and I had a terrific time! [Book Haul: Homefire by Kamila Shamsie, The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, and Betty by Tiffany McDaniel].
The next day, Saturday, April 24, was Independent Bookstore Day! It's my third favorite day of the year, after Christmas and my birthday. I put on a book-themed tee and went to my super-close indie, Wellington Square Bookshop. I spent over $15 and even got a free audiobook from Libro.fm (an audiobook company that specifically works with independent bookstores to give them part of the profits). A mix of traditional decor (here's me with one of their TWO rolling ladders!) and funky extras (it has a water fountain at the front of the store), it's truly a unique place. I've been there for author readings, shopping, and just to sit and read in one of their comfy chairs. The staff has always been so lovely, helpful, and nice--and this time was no different. Mimi and Mike even gave me a bundtini for the road (since I would miss the official distribution at 2pm). The Independent Bookstore Day tote is adorable, too! All in all, it was a wonderful day. [Book Haul: Good Company by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, We Are Watching Eliza Bright by A.E. Osworth, Interior Chinatown by Charles Wu, and Circe by Madeline Miller].
Here are some more snaps from my bookish adventures! I hope you had--or are planning--some book-themed adventures of your own.
RIP Kathie Coblentz:
Treasure of the New York Public Library
In the age of social media, it's gotten easier to find out about ordinary people doing extraordinary things--people who might have gotten missed a decade or two ago. While these people still have to contend with the social-media fanfare given to the Kardashians of the world, there's still a chance one of them goes viral and we learn about a quiet, unassuming person who's made a sizable impact on our world.
So, let me do that for you now. If you're a book/library/librarian fan, this librarian may have slipped under your radar. Read about the amazing life (and untimely death) of Kathie Coblentz, a rare-book cataloger at the New York Public Library who was their third-longest-serving employee. Hired right after the moon landing in 1969, she thought she'd work there until she found what she wanted to do and ended up staying there for over 50 years. What a loss but what a life.
📚 Pandemic Decor Checkup 📚
Is Your "Comfort" Space a Book Nook?
This fun article discusses the concept of "comfort decorating," or making spaces (or your whole home) more comfortable, efficient, and calming. Many have done that during the pandemic. Have you?
I've gotten some ribbing from my family for the "book nook" that I created during quarantine. I'm the main reader of the family, so sometimes my love of books, reading, and writing doesn't get the respect it deserves. But, when I needed an office to work from home in in 2019 when I started freelancing in earnest after getting laid off, I started hatching my plan.
And, during the last year or so, the stars aligned for the space to become a reality. My kids got old enough to no longer need a playroom; I upped the amount of bookstagramming I did, so I needed a space to take pics; and I had the time to make the teal faux card catalog I always wanted. I love the final result (below in all its pano/vacuumed glory). Well, I should say "almost" final as I still want to get some more art for the blank walls. It's my favorite spot in the house (look at all those books and teal!).
Someday it will become my library, with traditional shelves and (🤞🏻) a rolling ladder, but for now it's perfect. (🗣️ Shout-out to Home Goods, Etsy, and Kohls for the funky decor).
The Writer, the Biographer & the Alleged Assaults
There's been a lot of press the last few weeks about Blake Bailey, the biographer of late writer Philip Roth. Bailey's book Philip Roth: The Biography was released in early April to great acclaim. While the majority of the reviews were effusive with praise, some called out the misogynistic undertones of the anecdotes about Roth that Bailey shared. Several called out how the over 900-page book seemed like a "reply" to the book Roth's ex-wife Claire Bloom wrote about their tumultuous marriage in the late 1990s. A collection of various reviews are below:
I'll be honest, I have one Roth book (The Plot Against America) and I've never read it. And I hadn't really read or learned much about the author. Only after the sexual assault allegations against his biographer came to light, did I learn about Roth and his infamy. His lauded talent. His awards (Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards). His philandering. His acrimonious break-ups with his ex-wives. His misogynistic views about women. His blatant arrogance. And even, his attempt to ghost-write his own biography after he fired the writer he originally picked (his apparent best friend) because he was too unsympathetic to Roth.
In the end, Roth chose Bailey, who had written two previously well-received biographies about male authors (Richard Yates and John Cheever). Bailey has recounted in various interviews how he won the job. When, at an interview, Roth pulled out a scrapbook of all the women he dated, Bailey asked him why he didn't ask out Ali McGraw when she starred in the movie version of his first book, Goodbye Columbus. Roth hired him on the spot. Bailey also caused waves a few years ago when his review of Ruth Franklin's Shirley Jackson biography claimed Franklin was "too feminist," for depicting Jackson's husband as a saboteur and wastrel of Jackson's monetary success.
The Washington Post has an interesting opinion piece about how the anecdotes highlighted in the biography--and Bailey's tendency to take Roth's side over the woman he's interacting with--help cement misogyny in our culture. Another speaks to how, as of 2015, over 70% of released biographies were about men and over 85% were written by men. If you haven't read about the allegations against Bailey--ones that he denies--a story on those appeared in Slate.
At this point, Norton, the publisher of the biography, is no longer printing the book and the Bailey's past students and colleagues who made the accusations against him wait for what comes next.
My take(s)? We obviously need more biographies written about and by women. Bailey has the right to defend himself, but at the same time, his comments and work from the past do reveal a certain sensibility. Like artists I have adored in the past who have, over time, been revealed to be problematic, it's disappointing and I'm still not sure how to separate the work from the artist. And, finally, I'll keep listening to the audiobook memoirs I adore of complex yet fascinating men and women who intrigue me and who, in the end, humbly seem to put more good into the world than bad. I don't think Philip Roth will be one of them.
In the Works: Book-to-Movie Adaptations
Where the Crawdads Sing by Deliah Owens
Our Patron Saint of Books, Reese Witherspoon, bought the rights to bring this one to the big screen--and filming started this week! I'm excited! Follow the production at IG: @crawdadsmovie. Look at this cast! It also stars one of my favorite character actors, David Strathairn.
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
Casting news for the big-screen adaptation of this book. I haven't read it, but I will have to before the movie is released. I really liked her novel Room.
You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi
This book isn't even out yet (2022) but it still enjoyed a heated competition for the rights. Amazon snagged it and Michael B. Jordan will be producing. I read Emezi's powerful novel The Death of Vivek Oji last year. It was a four-star read for me. I have their novel Freshwater on audio, which I hope to get to soon.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
The movie based on this book will premiere on Netflix in December. I'm going to admit it: I've never read a Kristin Hannah book. I know, I know! I will get on that soon. Promise!
National Poetry Month Finale:
"Little Sleeps-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight" by Galway Kinnell
I. You scream, waking from a nightmare. When I sleepwalk into your room, and pick you up, and hold you up in the moonlight, you cling to me hard, as if clinging could save us. I think you think I will never die, I think I exude to you the permanence of smoke or stars, even as my broken arms heal themselves around you.
II. I have heard you tell the sun, don’t go down, I have stood by as you told the flower, don’t grow old, don’t die. Little Maud, I would blow the flame out of your silver cup, I would suck the rot from your fingernail, I would brush your sprouting hair of the dying light, I would scrape the rust off your ivory bones, I would help death escape through the little ribs of your body, I would alchemize the ashes of your cradle back into wood, I would let nothing of you go, ever, until washerwomen feel the clothes fall asleep in their hands, and hens scratch their spell across hatchet blades, and rats walk away from the culture of the plague, and iron twists weapons toward truth north, and grease refuse to slide in the machinery of progress, and men feel as free on earth as fleas on the bodies of men, and the widow still whispers to the presence no longer beside her in the dark. And yet perhaps this is the reason you cry, this the nightmare you wake screaming from: being forever in the pre-trembling of a house that falls.
III. In a restaurant once, everyone quietly eating, you clambered up on my lap: to all the mouthfuls rising toward all the mouths, at the top of your voice you cried your one word, caca! caca! caca! and each spoonful stopped, a moment, in midair, in its withering steam. Yes, you cling because I, like you, only sooner than you, will go down the path of vanished alphabets, the roadlessness to the other side of the darkness, your arms like the shoes left behind, like the adjectives in the halting speech of old folk, which once could call up the lost nouns. IV. And you yourself, some impossible Tuesday in the year Two Thousand and Nine, will walk out among the black stones of the field, in the rain, and the stones saying over their one word, ci-gît, ci-gît, ci-gît, and the raindrops hitting you on the fontanel over and over, and you standing there unable to let them in.
V. If one day it happens you find yourself with someone you love in a café at one end of the Pont Mirabeau, at the zinc bar where wine takes the shapes of upward opening glasses, and if you commit then, as we did, the error of thinking, one day all this will only be memory, learn to reach deeper into the sorrows to come—to touch the almost imaginary bones under the face, to hear under the laughter the wind crying across the black stones. Kiss the mouth that tells you, here, here is the world. This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones. The still undanced cadence of vanishing. VI. In the light the moon sends back, I can see in your eyes the hand that waved once in my father’s eyes, a tiny kite wobbling far up in the twilight of his last look: and the angel of all mortal things lets go the string.
VII. Back you go, into your crib. The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell. Your eyes close inside your head, in sleep. Already in your dreams the hours begin to sing. Little sleep’s-head sprouting hair in the moonlight, when I come back we will go out together, we will walk out together among the ten thousand things, each scratched in time with such knowledge, the wages of dying is love.
I'm pretty sure I've shared my love for this poem before in this blog, but I'm doing it again. I love this poem that much. Kinnell, an American poet from Rhode Island who won the Pulitzer Prize and shared a National Book Award, was a devotee of Walt Whitman and very involved in civil rights issues. His particular talent was writing about real-life experiences with spiritual undertones. Of the power of poetry he said, “One thing that leads a person to poetry is an inner life of some activity and maybe even turbulence, the weight of meaning and feeling that has to get out. There’s not a specific something that I’m aiming for, but there is something that’s almost unspeakable and poems are efforts to speak it bit by bit, like a burden that has to be laid down piece by piece, that can’t be just thrown off.”
This idea that poetry is a way to express powerful thoughts you have but are unable to express in any other way is a wonderful sentiment. I recently read an article about this very thing--using poetry, in this specific case the reading of poetry--to soothe and calm. Like the decorating I spoke about above, poetry can act as balm for tough times--both for the experience of the challenges and, according to Kinnell, for "getting out" your feelings about them.
This poem masterfully mixes an instance of Earthly life with the spiritual fear of inevitable death. When I first read it, I wasn't yet a parent, but the evocative mix of a parental moment--a father soothing his infant after she wakes from a nightmare--and the lofty ideas of life and death it evokes spoke to me. After I became a parent, it really hit home.
As a parent, you're forever worrying about the life of your child. Even though Kinnell's soothing his daughter Maud in her moment of fear and experiencing the vibrance of her life as she clings to him and finds solace in him, he's not content. He instead starts imaging her current innocence giving way to the harsh realities and tragedies inherent in life. He knows that as she ages, she will suffer and although he'll want to protect her from that, he won't always be able to. He also doesn't want her taking the joys and natural beauties of an Earthly existence for granted. He wants her to live life for all its worth--even as she hurtles towards death.
And that last line! I got chills the first time I read it. "The wages of dying is love." In exchange for the inevitability of our deaths, we get the most precious gift of all: love. I read this line two ways. One, the "real-life" reading: Our payment for living a life of anticipating/fearing death, is the powerful experience of love. In this case, the love of a father for his daughter. The second reading is a spiritual one. In traditional Christian terms, we get "paid" for our death by an afterlife of joy with those we loved on Earth.
Whichever way it's read, that last line and the gorgeous poetry that precedes it are a perfect way to close out National Poetry Month. I hope you seek out some poetry and that when you need it, it brings you comfort during tough times.
What I Read/Listened To the Last Two Weeks...
📚 Send for Me by Lauren Fox - ⭐⭐⭐
This novel is about four generations of women from a Jewish family and how their life experiences reverberate through time. It starts in Germany where Annelise works at her family's bakery and is excited for the future. Unfortunately as Hitler rises to power, anti-Jewish sentiment is on the rise and Annelise must escape to the United States when things turn dire. The novel then switches to Annalise's granddaughter Claire, who finds the letters her great-grandmother Klara wrote to Annelise and how their contents shaped the lives of the women in her family.
While a quick read, this book was uneven and confusing at times. The four character stories were imbalanced, with Annalise getting the bulk of the narrative time, which left characters like Ruth with little definition. The chapters weren't labeled, so that make things a bit confusing, too. Unfortunately, Fox's lyrical writing and a hefty, powerful subject weren't enough to make up for the uneven characterization.
🎧 Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters - ⭐⭐⭐
This was my first audiobook of fiction! I loved the narrator's work and thought she did a fabulous job with this fearless, provocative book.
Reese is a transgender woman who thought she had the life she always wanted: a relationship with Amy, another trans woman, an apartment in New York City, and a job she enjoyed. Yet after Amy breaks up with her and detransitions to become Ames, Reese is thrown for a loop and ends up in a self-destructive spiral of sex with married men who treat her horribly. Yet, she still yearns to be a mother.
So it's perfect timing when Ames reenters the picture, this time asking Reese if she'd like to form an unconventional family with him and his cisgender lover, Katrina, whom he has impregnated. This way Reese gets the child she's always wanted, Katrina gets an invested co-parent, and Ames doesn't have to be a father without his closest friend/ex-lover by his side.
I enjoyed the story part of this novel, which is light on plot but heavy on characterization. This unconventional narrative reveals the very real and expansive issues that trans women experience, whether it be the messy, self-destructive life of Reese, or the conflicted life of Ames. Katrina, too, is a complex character. A divorced cis woman who experienced miscarriages and a lack of connection with her ex-husband, she, too, gets something out of this modern-day family. All in all it's an intense character study of a trio who are written about in all their messy, complex, flawed glory.
The writing, on the other hand, was often chaotic and it definitely was overdone in parts. Lots of adverbs and adjectives and extensive internal dialogues by the characters. The "indulgence" of it (as Roxane Gay astutely said) slows the novel down. Overall, though, this debut by Peters, a trans woman herself, opened my eyes to realities of the lives of trans women.
🎧 Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner - ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
When this preordered audiobook popped up on my phone as "ready-to-read," I started right away. I've been waiting for this one!
And, great news! It's as compelling and wonderful as I thought it would be. Michelle Zauner, solo artist who performs as Japanese Breakfast, wrote an essay for The New Yorker in 2018 with this same title. It was so popular, she got a book deal from it and expanded the essay into a memoir detailing her complex yet powerful relationship with her Korean mother, who passed away at 56 from cancer.
Michelle's honesty about their connection and how it was fostered through their mutual love of Korean food--which she gets in a Korean food store called H Mart--is something many can relate to. I remember specific moments with both my grandmother and mother based on what we were eating at the time. Still, the anecdotes she shares, through the lens of a Korean-American daughter living in America with a Korean mother, are enlightening, emotional, and heartwarming. I have to say, her describing eating octopus tentacles as they are still moving is something I won't soon forget.
The complexities of the mother-daughter relationship are discussed honestly and openly. Michelle's deep love for her mother--who at times could be cruel--makes sense when we remember how flawed all humans are. I, too, was sad to see that just as they were beginning to mend their past challenges, the time was cut short by cancer.
I cried numerous times listening to Michelle speak about caring for her dying mother and how food--both the making and eating of it--was the main experience that brought them together. This memoir has it all: humor, humanity, and heart. I highly recommend this one. Such a wonderful "listen."
📱The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin - ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Bees have always been more of a nuisance than cool creature to me, but this book has helped me gain respect for this organized and female-oriented species. All hail the Queen Bee!
This charmer was like a ray of sunshine. Plus, it organically incorporated cool & eye-opening facts about bees (author Garvin is a beekeeper).
Alice is a middle-aged woman who’s lost a lot but has found some solace in beekeeping. When she almost ends up hitting a mohawked boy in a wheelchair on the side of the road, her life starts to change. The boy, Jake, has his own wounds. After a fall at a party, Jake has to learn how to live his life as a paraplegic. His volatile father further affects Jake’s sense of self, family, and coping with his new reality. Recruited by Alice to help at her farm with her beehives, Jake seems to find the purpose and place his life’s been lacking. Harry, another young man who’s emotionally damaged and lost, also ends up working at Alice’s farm. The friendships forged between this trio form the emotional core of the book. While the specific character narratives and the environmental storyline about harmful pesticides doing serious damage to the orchards and bee populations do speak to serious issues—it’s ultimately a story about love. This sweet and heartwarming story reminds us that, like real life, love, friendship, and forgiveness have the ability to soothe the emotional wounds of tragedy and the challenges of life. It’s also a love letter to bees and the invaluable place they have in the life cycle of our environment.
If you’re looking for a charming story that reminds us how humanity can heal, this is the book for you.
📚 Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin - ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5/5
It's no secret that I loved Uzma's debut romance, Ayesha at Last. Her latest features the same framework as Ayesha: Reimagining a past romance classic (in this case You've Got Mail) with Muslim characters living in Toronto that is enhanced by delectable descriptions of Indian food and familial drama. This is a romance (with a surprising amount of heat from two characters who never even kiss) that beautifully presents Indian-Muslim representation, while also addressing real-life issues like Islamaphobia and bigotry. I appreciated the main plot lines about these issues. It jibed so well with the main romance and the individual and "couple" growth of both Hana and Aydin. And, really, isn't that what a good romance does? Gives you the happily-ever-after required, but also injects some real-life issues and character growth along the way. I highly recommend this one. It's a wonderful addition to the #ownvoices contemporary romance canon.
What I'm Reading/Listening to Now...
📚The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
📚 Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto
🎧 Lightening Flowers by Katherine Standefer
🎧 The Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley
📸 Book Snaps of the Week! 📸
Cover of the Week:
Good Eggs by Rebecca Hardiman
How adorable is this cover? I hadn't heard anything about this book, so my purchase was me literally judging a book by its cover. Ah, the life of a bookworm!
Jonathan Bush (@johnbbbush) is the artist who did the illustration and design for this. I love it. I can't wait to give this book a read. The vintage library card mug pictured here is from the delightful @outofprint that has some of the best book-themed merch around.
Below is a write-up for this book...
When Kevin Gogarty’s irrepressible eighty-three-year-old mother, Millie, is caught shoplifting yet again, he has no choice but to hire a caretaker to keep an eye on her. Kevin, recently unemployed, is already at his wits’ end tending to a full house while his wife travels to exotic locales for work, leaving him solo with his sulky, misbehaved teenaged daughter, Aideen, whose troubles escalate when she befriends the campus rebel at her new boarding school.
Into the Gogarty fray steps Sylvia, Millie’s upbeat home aide, who appears at first to be their saving grace—until she catapults the Gogarty clan into their greatest crisis yet.
With charm, humor, and pathos to spare, Good Eggs is a delightful study in self-determination; the notion that it’s never too late to start living; and the unique redemption that family, despite its maddening flaws, can offer.
Just a reminder, that if you're on Instagram, you can follow my bookstagram account @readingwhilemommying. My Twitter handle is @readingwhilemom.
Have a great week! I hope it's filled with books!