Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Coming soon

Mini-reviews of
Beyond the Sky and the Earth by Jamie Zeppa
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

But if anyone is on here, rather than waiting for me to not update my reading blog, go get The Refugees and The Underground Railroad--both excellent reads.

Falling off wagon. Also read:
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

Saturday, December 31, 2016


When you don't like a book by an acclaimed "writer's writer" (NYT), you wonder if you're missing something. Salter writes beautiful sentences and controls the rhythm of his prose masterfully. But I'm sorry to report that I disliked A Sport and a Pastime. The romantic lead is a spoiled, shiftless, wealthy narcissist Yale dropout at loose in the French countryside, and the narrator (who describes/imagines his friend's affair with a young French girl) is a milktoast who fancies himself a photographer and also doesn't work. The car the romantic lead drives is more fully characterized than the object of his desire; women in this world are just there to fuck (or marry). And Blacks are there to be exoticized. Both are described in stereotypical terms--her ass like two halves of an apple, the white teeth of the Black American soldier in a French nightclub. Isn't 1965--when this book was written--too late in the game even for an old (now dead) white man to be unapologetically trotting out those images? (And I must say, Salter is far too good a stylist to rely on tired language.) The bulk of the story follows (through the narrator's imaginings) the young couple as they go from one town to another and one hotel to another and have sex... and I do mean to another and another and another. It's boring. It's predictable. Nothing happens. The sex scenes are tame. Oh, mon dieu, they have anal sex! Dis donc, alors! The descriptions of France in a certain era are quite lovely and evocative, but I found this novel to be a poor cross between Fitzgerald and Hemingway (and I confess that last time I read The Great Gatsby, I didn't like it, either.)


Neglected blog. Summary post for my records.

Books read last summer:

  • The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis
  • A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
  • The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade 
  • a couple of other titles, but I can't remember what

There wasn't a dud in the bunch, but standouts included Citizen; A Manual for Cleaning Women; The Sympathizer and Barbarian Days. 

I read Citizen twice... Rankine's prose-poems form a polemic on being Black in white America... poignant content in a compelling, unusual form.

Barbarian Days, New Yorker writer Finnegan's surf memoir was a quintessential summer read for me, as someone who loves the ocean, traveling and stellar writing.

And The Sympathizer was my favorite book of the year, about a Vietnamese double-agent at the end of the Vietnam War, who has to flee to the States--part spy thriller, part history, part great American immigrant novel, all beautifully written and constructed, and a page turner, to boot.

Monday, January 4, 2016

UNSPEAKABLE and Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum


Kick-ass first essay about her relationship with her mother, followed by more mundane offerings, ending with two strong ones--one a paean to Los Angeles, and one about nearly dying. Some great writing, but too much that doesn't rise above the me-me-me of the personal essay.

Friday, December 25, 2015



I tend to be a skipper. Somewhere midway through or so, I start paging forward, skimming large chunks of a book, then slow down to preview a part I’m not up to yet, then go back to where I left off and read forward. Or I page back and reread, when I think I missed the full impact. I read some passages deeply, noting style and texture, but read other passages for plot. Sometimes I skip words and sentences altogether, to cut to the chase.

But I read every word of all 686 pages of this epic novel. Why? The language. It doesn’t hurt that the story’s good—based on the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976, and the political and gang intrigue in Jamaica surrounding and following it. Told from the points of view of a dozen or so characters, what got me and kept me was James’ ear for dialect--Jamaican, American, British, Latin-American, upper crust, street… and how he uses it to reveal the interior lives of his characters.

It’s a fantastic read. But be warned—it’s violent, and though one of the most compelling characters is female, the overall tenor is so male that three-quarters of the way through, I went out and bought four books by women writers to stack up by my bed like talismans (or taliswomans).

Sunday, October 18, 2015

BETWEEN YOU & ME: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Instead of a rating, I give this book a white privilege alert. Reader, beware.

Norris, a copyediting diva for The New Yorker, has written a memoir that offers the kind of a fine-tooth comb examination of everyday grammar and punctuation that is fascinating to an English teacher like moi. And she's sassy and she gives you a behind the scenes at The New Yorker. But she lost me on page 2. Describing a long ago job at the Cleveland Costume Company, she writes: “On my first day, a young black woman, Yvonne, was setting Santa beards in rollers so that they would be curly by Christmas. An older black woman worked in the kitchen… and said things like ‘My dogs is killin’ me.’ “ Is there a reason for describing the first two characters we meet by their race? Well, on page three, the young Norris has a Halloween party where “One of the guests came as a penis; another as a Ku Klux Klansman. Initially, I was sorry that Yvonne declined my invitation, but not anymore.”  Oh. I see. Yvonne and the colorful older woman are there for a hahahaha-I-grew-up-such-a-redneck moment. The older woman doesn’t figure in the story again, but isn’t her language something.

Funny? Perhaps I missed the joke. There’s nothing funny about a writer who thinks that a friend dressing up as a Klansman makes for a humorous opening anecdote to her book.  Are you surprised to hear that the rest of the characters introduced in Between You and Me are white by default? And this from someone who is one of the gatekeepers of what’s fit to print. How could her editors at Norton have let this through? How could the long list of people she acknowledged (including a few I know) not have bristled?

I read the rest of the book—and enjoyed it as only a grammar geek could—but I never really got past those initial pages. Once she set herself up that way, Norris’ voice—arch yet pithy—just annoyed me, rather than making me laugh.  I’m the queen of the red pen in my 8th grade English classroom, but some things are more important than punctuation.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Very good

Coates is possibly the most important writer on race in this country today. I read everything he publishes in The Atlantic, and find him keenly insightful and illuminating, as well as eloquent. Between the World and Me delivers in some ways, but not in others. I’m going to say it’s a must read… for its ideas. But Coates is an essayist, and this—written as a letter to his son—is a kind of memoir, a form that demands rich storytelling. In this aspect, I found the book to fall a tad short.  Coates tells far more than he shows, and his prose—so elegant in his essays—occasionally veers into the purple, and can be somewhat pedantic and repetitive. He establishes his thesis early on—that the White Dream is deadly to the Black body—and he goes on to replicate it in a kind of theme and variations. Between the World and Me is an homage to Richard Wright—whose very words and language he borrows from liberally*—and James Baldwin, whose “Letter to my Nephew” was the inspiration for this work. Wright tells a better story, imho, and Baldwin’s prose is simpler and clearer—and just as outraged and powerful. Criticisms notwithstanding, the ideas and emotions are absolutely vital to our national discussion. Read it.

*(For instance, Wright, Black Boy: “There was the hint of cosmic cruelty that I felt when I saw the curved timbers of a wooden shack that had been warped in the summer sun.” Coates, Between the World and Me: “And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.”)