Reading Recap: June Highlights

This was a not-so-great month for reading for me, guys. I'm in the process of moving (the next time I decide it's a good idea to move in the middle of summer, someone kick me in the shins. Hard.), and with everything I own (including most of my brain cells) temporarily misplaced, I haven't been able to get through much. There were two highlights this month, though, and as different as they may be, they are both awesome:


The Blue Blazes, by Chuck Wendig: The story of Mookie Pearl, a big bruiser of a man with lots of muscle, some heart, and less grace, Blue Blazes is full of bad guys from start to finish, a touch of gangster mythology (which is a thing I potentially just made up), and lots of drugs and violence. Oh, and ghosts and demons and a portal to the Underworld. While this could *technically* be classified as urban fantasy, I suppose, trying to label it feels like cheating--no one label or descriptor could possibly do it justice. If you're looking for a fast-paced read with lots of smarts, this is it.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple: Technically, I finished this one at the end of May, but it took me some time to just mull it over and consider and reconsider and consider again how much I loved it. Whip-smart, funny, emotional, poignant--Semple is all of these things and more. The perfect balance of light read + thoughtfulness for my moving-addled brain.

Book Review: Call Me Zelda, by Erika Robuck

I first encountered Erika's work when I read and reviewed her second novel, Hemingway's Girl, for Shelf Awareness. Like Hemingway's GirlCall Me Zelda is rich with incredibly well-research historical detail, using the framework of history to build a carefully imagined story--this time centering on the king and queen of the Jazz Age.

Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald were famous in their day, but beneath the shimmering surface of their lives lay a lurking chaos born of insecurity, competition and alcoholism. Call Me Zelda centers on this looming threat, starting with Zelda’s stay at Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore and continuing into the years following her discharge from the institution. Robuck approaches the Fitzgeralds’ complicated relationship with each other and with the rest of the world through the eyes of Anna Howard, a nurse who befriends Zelda at Phipps. As Anna works with Zelda to recall moments of Zelda’s past, revisiting moments of her past so she can learn to look to the future, she finds herself drawn into the chaos of the Fitzgeralds’ life more wholly than she had intended. Soon she is battling not only Zelda’s demons but her own, struggling to move past the loss of her husband in the war and the death of her daughter shortly after.

While we can never know the full truth of the Fitzgeralds' situation (Was Zelda truly insane? Or was she misdiagnosed? Calling for help?), Call Me Zelda offers readers an interesting approach to the troubles of this famous literary couple, providing a third-party view of their situation without intruding so much on history so as to distort those facts we do have. This third party also affords Robuck the opportunity to explore more of the Jazz Age than the lens of the Fitzgeralds might otherwise have allowed for: the lingering affects of World War I, the trials of widowhood, the difficulties of losing a child. The resulting novel proves to be as much a tribute to the two most famous figures of the Jazz Age as it is a tribute to the power of friendship and love to sustain a person through the most trying of times--of which, we know, Zelda Fitzgerald had many.


You might also like:

Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck
Z: A Novel of Zelda by Therese Ann Fowler
Beautiful Fools by R. Clifton Spargo
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain


Thoughts from other bookworms:


This review based on an original review written for Shelf Awareness for Readers.
Call Me Zelda | Erika Robuck | NAL | Trade Paper | 352 pages | May 2013 | Buy from an independent near you

Just Backed It: Connu

It's a wonderful thing when literary minds meet tech minds and give the literary world a fresh new idea. Like Connu, whose tagline "Read Now. Read Better." can't be easily ignored. From their Kickstarter campaign page:

"We created Connu, the new hub for contemporary short fiction. We feature one short story a day, five days a week. These aren't just any stories. They are brand-new, original, never-before-published works by the writers you know and love, and the talents they know, love, and recommend to us—all for you."

Sound intriguing? Yeah, I thought so too. I've backed the project and am excited to see it launch. The group has reached their funded amount with a few days to spare, and state that any additional dollars raised will go to continuously improving the app (Connu team, if you read this, I really, really, really hope that means an Android app!).

To back Connu yourself and get in on the early action, go here.
To learn more about Connu and their ideas, watch the video below or visit their website.

Note: I am not, nor have I ever been, financially, socially, or anti-socially associated with Connu. I have no stake in this game. I just think it's a really cool project that deserves to be shared with the reading community!

Book Review: Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

Based on a review that originally ran in the Tuesday, June 11th issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. If you don't already subscribe, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Susan Nussbaum's debut novel and 2012 winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Pen/Bellwether Prize for fiction, Good Kings Bad Kings invites readers into the dysfunctional world of ILLC, an institution for juveniles with disabilities. The residents of ILLC, tucked away in an isolated corner of Chicago's South Side, are alone in the world or come from families that cannot afford to give them the care and attention their disabilities demand. There is Yessenia, an aggressive but also witty teen with no one to care for her after her aunt's death. There's Mia, who has lived at the center since she was 11 after being removed from an abusive family. And Teddy, who dresses in a suit every day and is madly in love with Mia; his father visits regularly but cannot afford to bring Teddy home. 

Nussbaum brings these and other characters to life, moving from one perspective to the next flawlessly, building a voice for each character that is so authentic it is easy to forget they are fictional. Ultimately, their voices come together to tell a heartbreaking story of cruelty and hardship, but also a hopeful tale of resilience, love and friendship. Good Kings Bad Kings will make you stop and reconsider--or perhaps consider for the first time--what it means to be disabled and why we fear those who are different from us.


Good Kings Bad Kings | Susan Nussbaum | Algonquin | May 2013 | Hardcover | Buy from an independent near you

I Re-Read My Favorite Book, and Couldn't Finish It

I have long declared Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale to be one of my favorite novels. I first read the novel the winter I graduated from college, when I was living in New York as a "grown-up" and not a student for the first time.

For as long as I can remember, I have been enamored with New York as a place. I loved my college years in Manhattan, but it wasn't until after school that I started to more fully appreciate the power and captivating beauty of a city so hard, so concrete, so fast. Winter's Tale took my new-found love of the city and reflected it back at me. Helprin's appreciation for the quirky nature of New York was palpable on every page, transporting me through the water tunnels beneath the city to the lakes upstate to the ceiling of Grand Central and back again.

But when I picked it up to re-read it this winter, with the chilly December air descending outside and perfectly grey skies overhead, I couldn't finish it. I've been stuck about 150 pages in since February, and it is breaking my heart.

Where is the book I cherished? Where is the story that gripped me so tightly from start to finish? Where are the characters I remember, the city I want to revisit, the adventures I want to relive?

I still appreciate Helprin's stunning way with words; it's hard to argue that he can't craft a mean sentence. And I am still in awe of his ability to recreate a city that feels at once very, very real and yet so far-fetched and impossible that we as readers know it cannot exist. But the book as a whole no longer grips me the way it did when I first read it.

Has the book changed, or have I?

Of course, this is a silly question. The book is the same; I'm even reading the same copy I read six years ago. So clearly I have changed. I have moved away from New York, no longer immersed in the city I once loved so dearly. I have grown as both a person and as a reader. I no longer demand the same things from my beloved novels as I once did. Six years ago, I had just discovered magical realism. I had spent the four years prior reading assigned texts with very little pleasure reading. I had not yet taken up blogging and reviewing, so felt more comfortable languishing in the pages of a novel for weeks on end. I had not yet begun reading more than one book at a time.*

In short, I am no longer the same reader I once was.

But I think it is more than that. I think, too, that part of the beauty I found in Winter's Tale lay in its ability to surprise. Helprin's variety of magical realism is subtle until of a sudden it is not; knowing what to expect and where I was going next took away just enough of that magic to leave me wallowing in the middle of the story, unable to finish.

Winter's Tale resonated with me so much on my first read that even my failed attempt to re-read it will not demote it from my list of favorite novels. This list, which exists in no physical form and changes on a daily basis, does not have to be a list of my favorite novels right now. Instead, it is the list of novels that spoke to me in such a way that they never really left me, changing me both as a person and as a reader. Winter's Tale is still that book to me, so while I'm sad to have lost something in my attempted re-read, I am still eternally grateful for my love of the book the first time around.


Has this ever happened to anyone else? Have you re-read a book you once loved, only to find you no longer do? Why do you think your opinion changed?


*The implications of reading as a blogger and reviewer, as a reader who reads multiple books at one time, and as a reader in the age of social media distraction are great enough to warrant an entirely separate post. Stay tuned.

Buzzfeed's 65 Books to Read in Your Twenties

Guys, I'm not sure if being a twenty-something just feels trendy right now because I am a twenty-something and therefore all the twenty-something articles seem relevant to me, or if it is actually trendy, but either way, I feel there has been an EXPLOSION of content for, by, about, and catered to twenty-somethings in the last few months. Just me? Anyone else?

Perhaps one of my favorites of these posts so far has come from Buzzfeed, famous curator of llama pictures and cat memes and baby-animals-doing-cute-things gifs (which is apparently pronounced "jiff", but that's a whole different story). They compiled a list of 65 books you need to read in your twenties, full of a ton of books I've mostly never even heard of.

Image from Buzzfeed.

Anyhoo, because I am a twenty-something with a penchant for reading and a slight obsession with reading lists, I thought I'd share the list here along with notes on which I've read. (And also because Alley at What Red Read did this and I'm not feeling particularly original today, so this post is posted with apologies to Alley).

Since I've read so few of these books, perhaps this will be my new reading challenge after I get to my 26th birthday and realize I've failed to read all of Hemingway's works and/or complete War and Peace?

Bold are books I own.
Strikethroughs are books I've read.

Great Novels
  1. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
  2. What She Saw... by Lucinda Rosenfeld
  3. The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
  4. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  5. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
  6. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  8. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
  9. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
  10. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  11. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  12. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  13. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
  14. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  15. Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman
  16. The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis
  17. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  18. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  19. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  20. A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham
  21. The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman
  22. The Group by Mary McCarthy
  23. Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen
  24. Pastoralia by George Saunders
  25. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  26. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
  27. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  28. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
  29. His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
  30. Generation X by Douglas Coupland
  31. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
  32. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  33. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
  34. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  35. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins
  36. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World by Haruki Murakami
I've read a whopping four of the novels above (seven if you count the His Dark Materials as three books instead of one), and of the unread ones, only have a few on my to-read list. Well, only had a few on my to-read list, because now I've added more.

Great Memoirs
  1. Bossypants by Tina Fey
  2. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
  3. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young
  4. The Dirt by Motley Crue and Neil Strauss
  5. Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
  6. Just Kids by Patti Smith
  7. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
  8. Oh the Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey
  9. I Don't Care About Your Band by Julie Klausner
  10. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  11. Lit by Mary Karr
  12. I'm with the Band by Pamela Des Barres
  13. Dear Diary by Lesley Arfin
Only two memoirs, but at least my percentage is higher here...

  1. The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton by Anne Sexton
  2. Actual Air by David Berman
  3. The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch by Kenneth Koch
  4. Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins
  5. The Collected Poems of Audre Lord by Audre Lord
No surprise here, since I rarely, if ever, read poetry that isn't Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein.

Essays That Will Make You Think And/Or Laugh
  1. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  2. How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
  3. My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
  4. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  5. Up in the Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
One. Still, that's a 20% rate, which might make essays my best category so far.

General Life How-Tos
  1. How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
  2. How's Your Drink? by Eric Felten
  3. The Elements of Style by Strunk & White
  4. Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens
  5. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
  6. He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt & Liz Tuccillo
Two general life how-to books! Well, two if you count How to Cook Everything, which I confess I've never read cover-to-cover but do own and reference with fair regularity. And I read He's Just Not That Into You in high school, not as a twenty-something, and honestly, I think most of it went over my head, but I'm counting it here anyway.

BEA Recap: Discovering a New Press

I don't tend to focus on the publisher of a particular book as I read, but when I do fall for a press, I tend to fall hard (Other Press, I'm looking at you). This year at BEA, I found a new-to-me publisher whose titles I will most definitely be tracking more closely: Tin House. In fact, I fell so hard for their catalog that I left with more galleys from Tin House than any other publisher, and I'm excited about all four of them:

The Celestials, by Karen Shepard (June 2013): A reimagined tale of a group of Chinese immigrant workers brought to Massachusetts to work in a factory town, without knowing they were working as strikebreakers. The publisher promises "wide appeal to readers of historical fiction, relating the shared sense that we're all aliens of some kind — at home in no place."

The Virgins, by Pamela Erens (August 2013): How could one possibly turn up a galley with such a daring title? The Virgins is set in an elite boarding school, with one classmate regaling readers with tales of the school's power couple and their sexual exploits. Sounds provocative, to say the least?

The Revolution of Every Day, by Cari Luna (October 2013): Apparently, in 1995, NYPD rolled an armored tank into the East Village to evict groups of squatters from buildings in the area. Author Cari Luna has imagined a group of five squatters from this time, promising to reveal to readers "a life that few people know about or understand." Seeing as I learned at BEA that there was--actually, is--a squatter building no more than 2 blocks from my old apartment in NYC, I'd say I'm definitely one of the ones that knows nothing about this lifestyle... and after reading the first 10 pages of Luna's novel, I'm more than intrigued.

This Is Between Us, by Kevin Sampsell (November 2013): Five years of a troubled romance, from whirlwind affair to family to divorce. Jess Walter calls the novel "wry and wistful, strange and sexy, humming with desire, quaking with vulnerability," and my new-found love of Walter is going to temporarily trump my disillusionment with author blurbs in general on this one.

BEA Recap: The Books

Book Expo is at once one of the most exciting and overwhelming events a bookworm can attend. At every turn, there are books, books, books. And readers, and panels, and amazingly bookish people--but the books! SO MANY BOOKS.

It's hard to go and limit acquisitions, though in the days of e-galleys it does get a bit easier to turn things down. Still, I came home with 15 books and my eye on several others:

Seduction, by M.J. Rose (Atria, May 2013): "Gothic tale" + Victor Hugo + Paris/(historical detail x paranormal)2 = must-read.

The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan (Knopf, June 2013): I wrote about this yesterday as one of my most-anticipated books of June, and it was an absolute joy to meet Sullivan at her signing at BEA. She confided that she only owned one belt (the one she was wearing), and listened as fans told her their own engagement stories. Also, her own engagement ring is GORGEOUS. Just sayin'.

The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central, June 2013 | Paperback Release): I actually read the first 20 pages or so of this novel before my galley from Netgalley expired, so I was thrilled to meet the author and score a copy of the novel in paperback.

The Universe vs. Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence (Redhook, June 2013): You had me at "a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology."

The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury, August 2013): The first in a planned seven-book series, this novel reimagines our world with aliens and turns the city of Oxford into a prison for clairvoyants. An ambitious debut, and I hope it works.

Seven for a Secret, by Lyndsay Faye (Amy Einhorn, September 2013): This is by far my biggest fangirl book of the show. I adored Gods of Gotham--smart, intelligent historical fiction with a captivating story--and Lyndsay Faye might be one of the kindest, most enthusiastic authors I met at BEA.

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent (Little Brown, September 2013): Based on the true story of the final days of an accused murderer sentenced to death in Iceland in 1829. It's a unique premise, and I don't read much about Iceland, so I'm excited to see how this one pans out.

The Lion Seeker, by Kenneth Bonert (HMH, October 2013): Hailed as a great immigration saga. I don't know much about this besides its gorgeous cover and the buzz around it, but I'm intrigued.

Hild, by Nicola Griffith (FSG, November 2013): Hild was featured on a panel about fall buzz books, and the man who talked about it ranked St. Hilda of Whitby up there powerful female characters like Dany from Game of Thrones. Sold.

Looking Ahead: June Highlights

It seems fitting to be writing this post after spending the last day of May and the first day of June at Book Expo, surrounded by books, buzz and readers with a serious amount of energy. While I tried to limit the number of galleys I acquired at the show (I'm moving in July, so a massive stack of more books to pack seemed like a bit of a waste), I did grab some titles I'm exceptionally excited about. Then there are those not at the show but that are definitely on my radar for June reading:

The Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa, by Benjamin Constable (Gallery, June 4th): I've actually already read this one, and my full review will follow after the book's release. It's a dark, slightly chilling novel about a girl named Butterfly who kills herself and leaves a kind of treasure hunt for her friend to follow after her death. The clues span Paris and New York, and each reveals some deeply hidden secret about Butterfly. Not entirely uplifting, but definitely an interesting premise that Constable has executed quite well.

Chocolates for Breakfast, by Pamela Moore (Harper Perennial, June 25th): This is one of those novels with a publication history as interesting as the story itself. Written by 18-year-old Pamela Moore in the 1950s, the novel was first published in 1956 and went on to become an international bestseller before falling out of print. Now it's back, with an introduction from Emma Straub (author of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures), and promising to be just as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.

The Celestials, by Karen Shephard (Tin House, June 11th): Shephard's fourth novel centers on 75 Chinese laborers working in New England in the 1870s. From its description, it sounds like a combination of historical fact and incredibly imagined storytelling, bringing 19th century New England to life on the page. 

The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan (Knopf, June 11th): Sullivan's 2012 novel, Maine, was a smash hit last summer, and this summer, we get more from her. The Engagements promises to be a deep dive into both the influence of advertising and the various forms marriage can take, and I'm all giggly about it. Plus I got to meet Sullivan at BEA and she was just a-freaking-dorable, which makes me all the more excited about this.

The Universe vs. Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence (Red Hook, June 25th): The publisher's comp titles for this book include Skippy Dies, one of my favorite reads this year (though it was released in 2010), so needless to say, I was intrigued from the start. Then it was described as "a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology," and I was hooked. I have a galley from BEA and hope to find time to pick this one up in the next few weeks.

BEA: By the Numbers

Whew. What a whirlwind the last few days have been, but what fun to be able to attend BEA again this year.  It wasn't all perfect, but re-immersion in the world of publishing, even just for two days, has my gears turning and my head spinning in all the best ways.

I'll be writing more about the show over the course of the week -- the books, the people, the panels -- but for now, here's a quick recap of my experience by the numbers:

Books acquired: 15

Most galleys acquired from any one publisher: 4

Tote bags acquired: 2

Tote bags torn due to book weight: 1

Panels attended: 2

In-person encounters with Twitter friends: 9

Dollars spent on one slice of mediocre Javits pizza: 4

Sightings of the girls from the BEA Cupcake videos: 2

Sightings of actual cupcakes: 0

Average temperature outside: 95

Average temperature inside Javits: 50

Miles walked to/from Javits: 3

Miles walked inside Javits: I need a pedometer.

Thoughts about how grateful I was for my comfortable shoes: 100+

Literary t-shirts I now feel I must own: Approximately 12

Eye rolls with other attendees over people joining lines without knowing what they were lining up for: At least 6.

Comments made and/or overheard about the drastic reduction in the size of this year's convention: Over 20.

Missed opportunities to connect with publicists, readers, and authors because I'm far to shy in these kinds of situations: Countless