Monday, March 09, 2015

February Reads

Here are the books I read in February, links to some great writing you can read right now, and my latest publication. (For longer reviews and to see what I'm currently reading at any given moment add me on Goodreads.) Reading is the best!

The Mermaid of Brooklyn, by Amy Shearn 

I've been a fan of Amy Shearn for years and had been meaning to read this book since it came out. I'm so glad I finally did! It's smart, funny, raw, and mystical, which is my favorite combination. When the book opens, Jenny Lipkin's husband, Harry, has disappeared/run off/abandoned the family, leaving Jenny alone in their Park Slope apartment with a toddler and a baby. As if this wasn't bad enough, Jenny also suffers from depression (postpartum and otherwise) and she is in the midst of hottest summer ever, which could drive anyone crazy. One day, when it's all too much, she accidentally jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge, but instead of meeting a watery death, she's rescued by a mermaid, who proceeds to take up residence inside her body. It's not clear if the mermaid is making Jenny do and say very un-Jenny-like things, or if Jenny has simply found an unconventional way to cope with her life. The particulars don't really matter, however. What matters is that Jenny copes (mostly), finding strength and purpose in Harry's absence, rediscovering the self she lost in marriage and motherhood, and eventually realizing that everyone she loves carries their own dark secrets. 

The Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill 

I picked this book up because so many people were recommending it on "best of 2014" lists, and I love a good "best of" list. It was not what I expected at all, but in a good way. I will admit - I took me about 40 pages to get into it. I actually started it three times, because I would begin it right before bed and lose the thread when I tried to pick it up again the next day. This is because in the beginning, the thread is not very clear. The structure is different, the story told in short paragraphs and chapters, with a lot of white space, a lot of jumping around. The beginning feels impressionistic, creating a sense of character and situation, more like poetry than a novel. The conflict is brewing, but doesn't crystallize until mid-way through, which I found a bit frustrating at first. (I'm more of a traditionalist than I like to admit.) 

However, the writing was beautiful and the observations were sharp and funny and sad, so I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did - the payoff was worth it, and by the end I couldn't stop reading. I love that the narrator was a writing professor (obviously) and I love books about marriages (especially ones that are in trouble). Half way through, the book shifts from first person to third, and that's where I became really immersed - I read the last 2/3 in one sitting. I'm so glad I stuck with it! 

On Immunity, by Eula Biss 

From reading this book, I learned so much about the history of vaccinations, how and why the anti-vaccine movement gained legs, and the history of health and wellness - not just in America, but globally. The most important thing I took from this book, however, is that the idea that, when it comes to vaccinations, there's a very small risk, yes. But it's a risk we should be willing to take, a sacrifice we should be willing to make, in exchange for the privilege of being a part of the human race. Biss shows over and over, through facts and metaphors, that we are all connected and no person - or body, or immune system - can ever be truly independent. 

And yet, even though she is clearly pro-vaccination, the idea for this book came to her in the wake of her son's birth, when she was a brand new mother who desperately wanted to do what was best for her son. Because of this perspective, she shies away from shaming people, understands their impulses, and sympathizes with the difficult decisions that parents face. Plus she's a brilliant writer, which also helps. That combination has resulted in such a unique point of view, and such an exquisite book. 

My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff 

Two nonfiction books in one month?! Yes, it's true! I occasionally read something other than novels - and thank goodness, because this memoir was great. Joanna Rakoff is 23 years old when she's hired as a literary assistant in NYC. Her boss is a relic of the past, as is the Agency itself, and they're both struggling for footing in what is quickly becoming a strange new world of publishing. Rakoff, too, is at a crossroads in her personal life, which mirrors (perhaps too neatly) the struggles of the Agency. Who is she? What does she want in life? Who should she love? Will she ever be a writer herself? Why is everything around her changing? Why is growing up so hard? It's a coming of age story, a Bildungsroman, a memoir about beginning and endings, all of which I personally enjoy. I love that time period in a person's life, probably because I've been stuck in it for, oh, thirteen or so years. 

This type of memoir is fairly common, I think, but what sets My Salinger Year apart is the setting in which it unfolds. New York City, the late 90s, the publishing industry, the hallowed halls of a legendary literary agency. I was fascinated by this book for the glimpse it offers into that world. And Rakoff herself is so relatable - a word I hate, but I'm using it here anyway, because that's how much I mean it. Her love for books, the way she connects to the characters and stories around her, the motivation and solace she finds in the written page, her desire to be a part of the world of literature, was so familiar that I couldn't help but fall a little bit in love with her. 

Other things you should read online right now, written by some friends of mine: 

Blackbird, by Joe Worthen (via Bodega) 

I remember reading this in workshop a thousand years ago (or was it last spring? Same difference) and I love it, still. Joe's voice is so precise and funny - I'd recognize it anywhere. 

The Egg and I, by Katie O'Reilly (via The James Franco Review)

Katie is my running buddy and we spend a lot of time talking about works-in-progress while making slow loops around the lake. I can't wait to read her whole memoir about being an egg donor; this essay is sneak peek of what's to come. 

Copse, by Rachel Richardson (via Wyvern Lit)

Rachel read this at her thesis reading last year and it's haunted me since. So happy to see it in print, and relieve the horror whenever I want.

And finally: one of my short stories is in the latest issue of Heavy Feather Review

I submitted a short story to their Vacancies-themed issue last year, and it's finally available for purchase. Not only does it contain my weird story about a man who lives inside the walls of a woman's house, but it also contains work by two other people from my MFA cohort: poetry by Kathleen Jones, and nonfiction by Sally Johnson. What a deal! You should obviously rush out and buy a copy right now

In the meantime, tell me: what are you reading right now?