mini-review · stuff I read

The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan

37570526Summary from Goodreads:
In Islamic and Western tradition, age twenty-nine is a milestone, a year of transformation and upheaval.

For Hala Alyan, this is a year in which the past–memories of family members, old friends and past lovers, the heat of another land, another language, a different faith–winds itself around the present. Hala’s ever-shifting, subversive verse sifts together and through different forms of forced displacement and the tolls they take on mind and body. Poems leap from war-torn cities in the Middle East, to an Oklahoma Olive Garden, a Brooklyn brownstone; from alcoholism to recovery; from a single woman to a wife. This collection summons breathtaking chaos, one that seeps into the bones of these odes, the shape of these elegies.

A vivid catalog of trauma, heartache, loneliness, and joy, The Twenty-Ninth Year is an education in looking for home and self in the space between disparate identities.

I was impressed with the poetic nature of Alyan’s novel Salt Houses so I was really interested in her new poetry collection. The poems in The Twenty-Ninth Year twist around themselves, unable to find an anchor in the body, in addiction, in middle America, or in the Middle East. It reminded me quite a lot of Porochista Khakpour’s excellent memoir Sick with that feeling of displacement. I didn’t quite feel that all the poems went together as a collection, though they are all good.

The Twenty Ninth Year is out now in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Truth or Beard by Penny Reid (Winston Brothers #1)

23314731Summary from Goodreads:
Beards, brothers, and bikers! Oh my!

Identical twins Beau and Duane Winston might share the same devastatingly handsome face, but where Beau is outgoing and sociable, Duane is broody and reserved. This is why Jessica James, recent college graduate and perpetual level-headed good girl, has been in naïve and unhealthy infatuation with Beau Winston for most of her life.

His friendly smiles make her tongue-tied and weak-kneed, and she’s never been able to move beyond her childhood crush. Whereas Duane and Jessica have always been adversaries. She can’t stand him, and she’s pretty sure he can’t stand the sight of her…

But after a case of mistaken identity, Jessica finds herself in a massive confusion kerfuffle. Jessica James has spent her whole life paralyzed by the fantasy of Beau and her assumptions of Duane’s disdain; therefore she’s unprepared for the reality that is Duane’s insatiable interest, as well as his hot hands and hot mouth and hotter looks. Not helping Jessica’s muddled mind and good girl sensibilities, Duane seems to have gotten himself in trouble with the local biker gang, the Iron Order.

Certainly, Beau’s magic spell is broken. Yet when Jessica finds herself drawn to the man who was always her adversary, now more dangerous than ever, how much of her level-head heart is she willing to risk?

This is…fine. I had Truth or Beard hanging around on my Nook and had heard good things so I decided to see if it could help get me out of my reading slump. Plus I like the kitschy cover. Well, Duane and Jessica are cute enough together but a) this romance was written in alternating 1st person POV and it wasn’t working so well for me and b) there were about four too many tropes in the plot. It was super-awkward at the beginning where Jessica thinks that the dude she’s hitting on/letting get to second base with her is Beau yet we the readers can tell that Duane knows she’s thinks he’s Beau. So consent is a little hazy. Plus the biker-gang thing was weird.

So it was an OK story, but I’m not exactly rushing to immediately buy and read the rest of the series.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book on my Nook a while back.

mini-review · stuff I read

Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

40180065Summary from Goodreads:
A young woman leaves Appalachia for life as a classical musician—or so she thinks.

When aspiring violinist Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman lands a job with a professional ensemble in New York City, she imagines she has achieved her lifelong dream. But the ensemble proves to be a sham. When the group “performs,” the microphones are never on. Instead, the music blares from a CD. The mastermind behind this scheme is a peculiar and mysterious figure known as The Composer, who is gaslighting his audiences with music that sounds suspiciously like the Titanic movie soundtrack. On tour with his chaotic ensemble, Hindman spirals into crises of identity and disillusionment as she “plays” for audiences genuinely moved by the performance, unable to differentiate real from fake.

Sounds Like Titanic is a strangely fascinating memoir about the author’s years working with The Composer (who is real and I’ve figured out who this is but I have absolutely never heard of him, and I say that as a PBS donor) as a violinist in his touring ensemble where all the mics were dead and the music came from a CD. The music sounds as much like the soundtrack of Titanic with out getting sued by James Horner and people LOVE it, claiming that it helps them through tough times. So I’m stuck between FRAUD and he genuinely wants to help people feel better. Hindman also provides a look into her life growing up in a poor area of Appalachia, her ambition to be a professional musician, her switch to Middle Eastern studies/journalism, and the growing panic disorder that derails those plans. Very well written.

Sounds Like Titanic is out today in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border by Octavio Solis

39027983Summary from Goodreads:
Seminal moments, rites of passage, crystalline vignettes–a memoir about growing up brown at the U.S./Mexico border.

The tradition of retablo painting dates back to the Spanish Conquest in both Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Humble ex-votos, retablos are usually painted on repurposed metal, and in one small tableau they tell the story of a crisis, and offer thanks for its successful resolution.

In this uniquely framed memoir, playwright Octavio Solis channels his youth in El Paso, Texas. Like traditional retablos, the rituals of childhood and rites of passage are remembered as singular, dramatic events, self-contained episodes with life-changing reverberations.

Living in a home just a mile from the Rio Grande, Octavio is a skinny brown kid on the border, growing up among those who live there, and those passing through on their way North. From the first terrible self-awareness of racism to inspired afternoons playing air trumpet with Herb Alpert, from an innocent game of hide-and-seek to the discovery of a Mexican girl hiding in the cotton fields, Solis reflects on the moments of trauma and transformation that shaped him into a man.

Retablos recreates a childhood growing up in a border town through short stories and micro fiction drawn from playwright Octavio Solis’s childhood. Each piece uses the idea of the retablo (a small votive painting created to thank a sacred person for their intercession in a crisis) to illustrate moments of awareness as a brown kid with immigrant parents: the first recognition of racism, a painful relationship with a sibling, a first job, interactions with Border Patrol, helping undocumented migrants, beginning to date.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

43692424Summary from Goodreads:
She was beautiful. She was a genius. Could the world handle both? A powerful, illuminating novel about Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Kiesler is lucky. Her beauty leads to a starring role in a controversial film and marriage to a powerful Austrian arms dealer, allowing her to evade Nazi persecution despite her Jewish heritage. But Hedy is also intelligent. At lavish Vienna dinner parties, she overhears the Third Reich’s plans. One night in 1937, desperate to escape her controlling husband and the rise of the Nazis, she disguises herself and flees her husband’s castle.

She lands in Hollywood, where she becomes Hedy Lamarr, screen star. But Hedy is keeping a secret even more shocking than her Jewish heritage: she is a scientist. She has an idea that might help the country and that might ease her guilt for escaping alone — if anyone will listen to her. A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece.

Well, I finished it in time to lead the Book Club discussion last night (we had bad weather, one person came so we’ll try for a make-up date next week). I’m extremely lukewarm on this book. While Hedy Lamarr herself is a really interesting historical figure, I found this fictional account of her life as a married woman in Vienna and her subsequent work in Hollywood to be shallowly drawn and rather simplistic. Bloodless, really. So much was beautifully described, especially the houses and clothes and jewels of Lamarr’s married life, but glossed over the violence of living with a possessive, abusive man. I also wished that the plot spent more time on her life in Hollywood and her scientific inventing, since it came so late in the book. The novel reads easily, though.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book provided by the publisher for the Book Club leader.

stuff I read

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang

40121993Summary from Goodreads:
Powerful, affecting essays on mental illness, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and a Whiting Award

An intimate, moving book written with the immediacy and directness of one who still struggles with the effects of mental and chronic illness, The Collected Schizophrenias cuts right to the core. Schizophrenia is not a single unifying diagnosis, and Esmé Weijun Wang writes not just to her fellow members of the “collected schizophrenias” but to those who wish to understand it as well. Opening with the journey toward her diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, Wang discusses the medical community’s own disagreement about labels and procedures for diagnosing those with mental illness, and then follows an arc that examines the manifestations of schizophrenia in her life. In essays that range from using fashion to present as high-functioning to the depths of a rare form of psychosis, and from the failures of the higher education system and the dangers of institutionalization to the complexity of compounding factors such as PTSD and Lyme disease, Wang’s analytical eye, honed as a former lab researcher at Stanford, allows her to balance research with personal narrative. An essay collection of undeniable power, The Collected Schizophrenias dispels misconceptions and provides insight into a condition long misunderstood.

The Collected Schizophrenias is an outstanding collection of essays about living with schizoaffective disorder and later chronic Lyme disease. Wang provides a glimpse into an existence that is harrowing at times but also so rich and filled with life. She brings into sharp relief how poorly she was treated as a person having delusions and disassociative episodes (particularly by her college) but contrasted with her love of fashion and vintage clothing which she uses as a way to present herself as a “well” person. She writes about living with a “slippery brain” (a term taken from the last essay, “Beyond the Hedges”) and how to tether herself to reality. If you liked Sick by Porochista Khakpour, you’ll like The Collected Schizophrenias.

The Collected Schizophrenias is out today in the US.

Dear FTC: I received a paper galley of this book from the publisher.

stuff I read

Figuring by Maria Popova

40277347Summary from Goodreads:
Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries–beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement.

Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists–mostly women, mostly queer–whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.

Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman–and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

I was really interested in Figuring because of Popova’s Brain Pickings writing. And the book doesn’t disappoint, but it did take a while to get rolling. For the first third or so of the book I wasn’t quite sure what Popova was really getting at. There were a lot of historical figures surrounding her “main” subjects and I was having a little bit of trouble keeping up with the jumps back and forth (and I kept confusing Maria Mitchell and Margaret Fuller, oops). But then Popova got to her chapters on Emily Dickinson and just wow. Blew me away. That was when the book began to gel for me and I started to really understand that Popova was drawing all these parallels between geniuses ahead of their times, their successes and set-backs, the rich relationships they formed (some romantic, some not, some that could be considered queer, some more “conventional”), and how their work creates a web from generation to generation, from Kepler to Dickinson to Rachel Carson. This is not a book to rush through – you’ll want to savor it.

Figuring is out on Tuesday, February 5, in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.