Book Review: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

Jenny Offill's short but incredibly powerful second novel, Dept. of Speculation, is the story of a woman, the Wife, and a man, the Husband, and their daughter. Told in a series of crisp vignettes, the staccato of the story reads like a journal, or maybe a confession, or a memoir, though the tales do not always follow chronologically.

Much like Pam Houston's stunning story collection, Contents May Have Shifted, Offill's short chapters are somewhat related, though non-linear, each packed with standalone emotions that combine to tell the story of a disappointed, outraged, anguished, but still-fighting woman who has seen her dreams drift past her in favor of the life she has chosen--or submitted to. It's sometimes hard to say which, but isn't that always the case?

Whatever more I try to write will inevitably not do the book justice, so suffice it to say:

I highlighted well over 50% of the words on these pages.

I re-read well over 50% of the pages in this book.

I laughed. I stopped. I pondered. I didn't quite cry, but I considered it.

I tried to think of something coherent to say about how much I loved this, but I (obviously) didn't come up with much.

So instead, let me just say this: Read this. 

Read this if you have ever had a vision of your future and found yourself barreling away from it at a speed you cannot even begin to fathom. Read this if you are married, or if you are thinking about being married, or you might one day be married, or you think that people who get married are foolish. Read this if you've ever found yourself becoming someone you used to mock.

If you have fallen into, or out of love. If you have, or might have, or will never have children.

Just make sure that when you do read it, as short as it is, you give yourself plenty of time for the thinking and the reflecting. And keep a pen nearby for all the inevitable underlining.


Dept. of Speculation | Jenny Offill | Knopf | Hardcover | January 2014 | 174 pages | Buy from a bookstore near you

Book Review: Bingo's Run, by James A. Levine

This review originally ran in the Friday, January 10th, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. If you don't already subscribe, sign up here for a bi-weekly dose of bookish goodness in your inbox.

Bingo is a 15-year-old orphan whose small stature often leads to him being mistaken for a child of 10. He is also the best drug-runner in the slums of Kibera in Nairobi--at least until he witnesses something he was never meant to see and finds himself under the "protection" of the drug gangs for whom he used to work.

Narrating Bingo's Run in Bingo's own voice, James Levine (The Blue Notebook) captures the innocence and confusion of this cunning, distrustful young man, forced to grow up before his time and without benefit of a family to guide him. Little more than a child, he has seen his grandparents burned to death, his mother murdered, his friends raped and his every possession stolen. It is this horrific background, though, that gives insight into the inequalities of Nairobi and Bingo's forced acceptance of them, from the bribery and corruption that steep every institution to the clash of cultures as American and European tourists descend upon Kibera.

All of this, reflecting Levine's own time in Nairobi, is fascinating in its own right, but even more interesting than the portrait of the place is the portrait of the young boy found hidden among all the chaos--seeking, like so many other children, to be loved.

Book Review: My Age of Anxiety, by Steve Stossel

This review originally ran in the Friday, January 10th, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. If you don't already subscribe, sign up here for a bi-weekly dose of bookish goodness in your inbox.

"Anxiety and its associated disorders represent the most common form of officially classified mental illness in the United States today," says Atlantic editor Scott Stossel. But what, exactly, is anxiety disorder? In My Age of Anxiety, Stossel delves into the history of the disease, from the first references to anxiousness and nerves to the current state of anxiety disorders and the pharmaceutical world that has sprung up around them.

Because psychology is an ever-evolving field of study with hotly contested schools of thought, Stossel faces controversial issues: Is anxiety genetic or caused by upbringing? Should we medicate the condition, or is talk therapy a surer route to a stable life? In each instance, Stossel draws heavily on his own experience with anxiety--and with his own psychiatric teams--to offer his opinion, but never dismisses any other school of thought, giving readers enough details to form their own opinions about anxiety and its causes, treatments and cures.

Peppered with stories from Stossel's personal battle with anxiety, as well as those of his family members, My Age of Anxiety is one part memoir and one part medical history. The two narratives combine almost seamlessly to present a fascinating glimpse into the generalized and acute anxiety disorders that seem to plague our modern world. 


My Age of Anxiety | Steve Stossel | Knopf | January 2014 | Hardcover | 416 pages | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

It's Resolution Season, Baby

2013 has come and gone, and 2014 is well upon us. And January, as everyone knows, is the season of resolutions. What will we set out to do? How will we make 2014 better than last year, the year before, and all the years before that? Resolutions are a sign of our constant striving for improvement--for perfection.

But 2014? This year, I'm throwing perfection out the window. My resolutions in the past have always pushed towards the unreachable state that is "perfect." It hasn't worked. So here's a list of resolutions that push towards... well, not imperfection, but perhaps the embrace of imperfection:
  1. Read carefully. Slow down. Savor the pages. If I'm not savoring them, skip it and move on. Life's too short to read bad books.
  2. Run in new places. Without the GPS tracker. Who cares how many miles it is?
  3. Eat more chocolate. Also, drink more red wine.
  4. Go to-do-less. One entire week without a to-do list. Vacation weeks do not count.
  5. Be thankful. Sounds easy. Probably isn't.
  6. Converse. (Not the shoes, the verb.) In person. Online. Reach out. Connect.
  7. Try. Without trying, there is no doing, no matter what Yoda says. 
  8. Fail. We can't learn from our mistakes if we're constantly afraid of making them.
  9. Sleep. Who doesn't need more sleep?
  10. Less multi-tasking. Sure, listening to a book while driving can be great. But so can cruising along with the windows down and the music blaring. Getting a TV show in on the treadmill is a great way not to focus on the running, but maybe focusing on running shouldn't be such a terrible thing. One thing at a time, even if that means sacrificing productivity.

What are your goals (or un-goals) for 2014? What do you do to stick to your resolutions?


Tournament of Books Contenders Announced!

The Morning News has announced the list of contenders for the 2014 Tournament of Books (the 10th annual, no less!), affectionately known as "the rooster." The list is, as always, full of books I want to read (though this year I actually have read some already, and own others)

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Long Division by Kiese Laymon
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Hill William by Scott McClanahan
The Son by Philipp Meyer
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Pre-tournament play-off round:
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

I've already read The Goldfinch, Life After Life, and A Tale for the Time Being, so my preference currently stands with those contenders, but it's such a wonderfully interesting, diverse list that I'm sure I'll find other titles to catch my attention as I read through some of these (up first: The Son, The Signature of All Things and The Lowland are all in my possession already).

Which have you read? What are you rooting for?

2013: A Year in Numbers

I kicked off 2013 with a few big reading goals, all of which seem to have done me some good:

  • 100 books, 30,000 pages
  • Read better
  • Less challenges
  • More readalongs
In 2013, I read less books than I read in 2012, but more pages. I read less ARCs and reviewed less titles on assignment, but upped the number of my own TBR titles significantly. I participated in no challenges except the Classics Club, instead opting for the more personal readalongs that I've come to love--for Harry Potter in the spring, and hosting my own for Jane Eyre in September. 

Because I love me some numbers and data and spreadsheets, here are my 2013 reading stats in visual form. I use a spreadsheet full of formulas to keep track of my reading stats and goals (which, by the way, I am happy to share with anyone who would like a copy for themselves), and have grown to love watching the numbers change year over year.

Onwards to 2014... reading resolutions still under consideration!

Pride and Prejudice: That Book Everyone Else Loves

Mug: Brookish Etsy Shop | T-shirt: Out of Print
There's something special about Pride and Prejudice. For reasons I can't quite fathom, people love this book. They adore it. They re-read it every year. They quote it. They have it on t-shirts and tote bags and cocktail napkins. They've seen every movie adaptation ever made. They can't imagine anyone but Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (though to be fair, neither can I at this point). 

Pride and Prejudice is a book that people adore--loudly, from the rooftops, singing its praises--but it's a book I just don't like. While I can appreciate it as an important work of literature, appreciate Austen's wit and power with words, it fell flat for me as a story, failed to give me characters in which I felt invested, and ultimately proved to be a disappointment.

Not for lack of trying, mind you. I read it as an assigned title in high school (didn't like it). Because I try not to form permanent opinions of books I've only read as assigned reading, I re-read it just after college (didn't like it). I picked it up a third time and read the first thirty pages or so (didn't like it).

Maybe, I thought, Pride and Prejudice is just not the right Austen novel for me. I'll try Emma!
Bad idea. Where I mildly disliked Pride and Prejudice, I really, truly did not like Emma. I suppose I liked it in theory, with Austen driving home the point that the mundane details of everyday life are actually what make life interesting, but liking something in theory and actually liking it are two different things. I like kale in theory. I like vitamins in theory. I like going to the gym in theory. I like jumping in the ocean in the wintertime in theory.

I tend to shy away from voicing my Austen opinions. Every time I mention to someone that I don't like Pride and Prejudice, I'm urged to read it again. Or, even worse, I'm given the cliche statement that just because something is cliche now doesn't mean it was cliche when it was first done:
"It's not overdone when it's never been done before when it was first done that time before it was ever done before anyone else had done it."
Yes, thank you, I get that.

But I don't get Austen. I didn't like Pride and Prejudice any of the three times I read it, but I read Middlemarch earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed it--and there are some definite thematic similarities between Middlemarch and what I know of Austen's works. So if it's not the subject matter or time period that's throwing me, it must be something else. Maybe it's the hype. Maybe I'm missing something. Or maybe it's my own pride and prejudice (I made a pun).

This is where I need the hive-mind help. Should I re-read Pride and Prejudice (perhaps as part of a readalong, supported by the wisdom and love of others as I read)? Should I try yet a different Austen novel (I've been told Mansfield Park is decidedly different from her other works)? Or should I just give up the ghost, declare myself a non-Austen fan, and move on to other authors?

People of the bookish internet, please help.