stuff I read

A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by David O. Dowling

41154985._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A vibrant history of the renowned and often controversial Iowa Writers’ Workshop and its celebrated alumni and faculty

As the world’s preeminent creative writing program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has produced an astonishing number of distinguished writers and poets since its establishment in 1936. Its alumni and faculty include twenty-eight Pulitzer Prize winners, six U.S. poet laureates, and numerous National Book Award winners. This volume follows the program from its rise to prominence in the early 1940s under director Paul Engle, who promoted the “workshop” method of classroom peer criticism.

Meant to simulate the rigors of editorial and critical scrutiny in the publishing industry, this educational style created an environment of both competition and community, cooperation and rivalry. Focusing on some of the exceptional authors who have participated in the program—such as Flannery O’Connor, Dylan Thomas, Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. C. Boyle, and Marilynne Robinson—David Dowling examines how the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has shaped professional authorship, publishing industries, and the course of American literature.

A Delicate Aggression is an interesting read, but a very slow one and one that I feel wasn’t terribly cohesive in the end. I appreciate that Dowling comes from outside the Workshop (I can throw a stone from my office – ok, fine, I would need a slingshot from the roof of my wing of the hospital – and hit Dey House across the river, so this is all very local to me) but the way he chose to spotlight particular individuals during different directors’ tenures didn’t give me a good picture of the Workshop over time, how it changed or stayed the same. My major takeaways were:

  • the Workshop method is WOW, abusive and resistant to experimentation or change
  • it was a hella boys club plus booze, which I think most of us already knew.

I think a reader would need to know about the history of the Workshop already to understand this book, so it isn’t a good entry point.

There were also some obvious people missing although I’m not sure if some authors declined to participate in the interviews or how many declined. Alexander Chee has written about his time at IWW a bit so should have been a good inclusion during the Conroy era and if we’re going to talk about IWW graduates who write successful popular novels with romantic elements, Elin Hilderbrand was suspiciously absent from this narrative, particularly when the last two chapters are about Anthony Swofford and Ayana Mathis.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Hunting for a Highlander by Lynsay Sands (Highland Brides #8)

43548914.jpgSummary from Goodreads:
Four Buchanan brothers have found their brides…only three more to go in this scintillating romance from New York Times bestselling author Lynsay Sands…

Lady Dwyn Innes feels utterly out of place among the eligible women who’ve descended on Buchanan Keep, vying for the attention of the last unmarried brothers. She isn’t long-legged and slender like her sisters, or flirtatious and wily like other lasses. Since her betrothed died, Dwyn has resigned herself to becoming an old maid. Yet a chance encounter with a stranger in the orchard awakens her to a new world of sensation and possibility…

After weeks away, Geordie Buchanan returns to find his home swarming with potential brides, thanks to his loving but interfering family. But one lass in particular draws his attention from the moment he spies her climbing a tree. Lady Dwyn is not nearly as plain as she thinks. Her lush figure and eager kisses delight him, as does her honesty. But the real test lies ahead: eliminating a hidden enemy, so that he and Dwyn can seal their Highland passion with a vow.

This series is RIDICULOUS but I can’t quite Lynsay. Doesn’t matter how nuts. I’ll read all her Scottish historicals forever, doesn’t matter.

So after our last go-round – where the heroine tried to kidnap the Buchanan who was the healer (Rory) and got Conran insteadHunting for a Highlander opens with Geordie returning to Buchanan to find the keep filled to bursting. His well-meaning sister-in-law Jetta has invited a number of women and their families in the hopes that Geordie, Alick, and Rory will fall in love with them (this isn’t necessarily a terrible plan, and she had some specific parameters, but Geordie is very wtf, this is uncalled for). So he beds down in the orchard, waking to see a woman climbing a tree to hide. Dwyn has taken to hiding from two of the cattiest invitees (they’ve decided to call her “Whinnie”….like the sound a horse makes, these are lovely women). Geordie follows Dwyn up the tree, thinking she might need help getting down, but one thing leads to another….and they’re basically at second base by Chapter 2. Not an unheard of thing for a Lynsay Sands; an unscientific check of a chunk of her medievals notes that’s kind of a thing.

Things keep leading from one to another – Geordie expresses interest in Dwyn, someone starts trying to maim her (Aulay cracks a joke that wow, it’s a change from attempted murder). And then someone tries to kill Geordie….

This story is wild. I liked Dwyn a lot. She has to put up with her younger sisters’ hare-brained idea to take in Dwyn’s gowns so they’re so tight her breasts pop out the top (that’s an old Sands trope in this series) and they keep after her to be social to catch a man rather than quietly reading upstairs. She has a really nice meditation on how even the nicest, well-intentioned comments or suggestions about “how to help her catch a guy” just made her feel small and not important but Geordie makes her feel special and wanted for who she is, not what everyone tried to make her to be. Which <3<3<3

A fun read but whooo boy, content warnings for Hunting for a Highlander include descriptions of attempted rape, threatened gang rape (the bad guy in this one is something else), domestic violence, brief mention of suicide, and a real surprising instance of homophobia which just felt out of place (even if you wanted to argue the attitude is somewhat historically accurate those 3-4 lines just didn’t fit in that scene at all and could have been cut).

Hunting for a Highlander is out tomorrow, January 21!

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

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Headliners by Lucy Parker (London Celebrities #5)

47826382Summary from Goodreads:
Sparks fly when two feuding TV presenters are thrown together to host a live morning show in Lucy Parker’s latest enemies-to-lovers contemporary romance.

He might be the sexiest man in London, according to his fan site (which he definitely writes himself), but he’s also the most arrogant man she’s ever met.

She might have the longest legs he’s ever seen, but she also has the sharpest tongue.

For years, rival TV presenters Sabrina Carlton and Nick Davenport have traded barbs on their respective shows. The public can’t get enough of their feud, but after Nick airs Sabrina’s family scandals to all of Britain, the gloves are off. They can barely be in the same room together—but these longtime enemies are about to become the unlikeliest of cohosts.

With their reputations on the rocks, Sabrina and Nick have one last chance to save their careers. If they can resurrect a sinking morning show, they’ll still have a future in television. But with ratings at an all-time low and a Christmas Eve deadline to win back the nation’s favor, the clock is ticking—and someone on their staff doesn’t want them to succeed.

Small mishaps on set start adding up, and Sabrina and Nick find themselves—quelle horreur—working together to hunt down the saboteur…and discovering they might have more in common than they thought. When a fiery encounter is caught on camera, the public is convinced that the reluctant cohosts are secretly lusting after one another.

The public might not be wrong.

Their chemistry has always been explosive, but with hate turning to love, the stakes are rising and everything is on the line. Neither is sure if they can trust these new feelings…or if they’ll still have a job in the New Year.

Now, if you haven’t read London Celebrities book 4, The Austen Playbook, you can read Headliners without it but I suggest you just go read it (and the rest of the series) because it’s really flipping good. And the big climax of that book leads directly into Sabs’ and Nick’s story here (you are hereby warned about spoilers…). 

Sabrina Carlton and Nick Davenport have been professional rivals and competitors for years with competing evening news shows. Their separate networks have recently combined in a merger – so there’s only one spot at the top. But Nick displayed questionable ethics and broke a massive story about Sabs’ family that ruined one of his closest friendships and almost cost her sister Freddy her career (The Austen Playbook), not to mention tanking Sabrina’s credit with the network. On top of that, Nick got caught on camera in a dressing room rant about the network’s shady new boss. So he’s doubly in the doghouse and what was going to be a professional dogfight is now a knives-out grudge-match. But they’re each given one more chance: work together to rehab the network’s flagging morning chat show in one month and maybe they won’t be out on their asses in the New Year. Nick and Sabrina have to make nice for the camera but then doing it for the camera leads to perhaps making nice IRL…and then something more (knitting is involved, it’s adorable). And when a saboteur starts causing strange accidents – a misprogrammed child’s toy, salt in the sugar in a baking segment, a rogue boom mike – Nick and Sabs are in a race against time to save their careers and find time to come together (SPARKS DO SOME FLYING, OH YEAH). 

Headliners is an absolutely smashing enemies-to-lovers contemporary. This is an excellent addition to books that rehab the “bad guy” (Devil in Winter, Duke of Sin, Loving Rose) except rather than a rakish nobleman who kidnapped the previous book’s heroine or tried to kill the hero the stakes are much more realistic. Nick is a reporter who made a very ill-considered decision with professional and personal consequences. The fallout cost him friendships and integrity. The incident was also connected to Sabs discovering her boyfriend had been cheating on her (again) while on air which contributed to her bad press. Parker really gets into how one has to adult up after making a such a huge mistake, how trust has to be rebuilt. 

It’s also another in a recent string of contemporaries where everyone refreshingly is an adult and has adult problems. Nick and Sabs, despite their seemingly glamorous television presenter jobs, get up every morning – too damn early for normal humans, in my opinion – and do the daily grind. They have family to deal with, former lovers, surprise job opportunities. They are eventually able to talk about what happened, about all the hurt that Nick’s decision caused. And, to top it off, when Sabs gets her period and rotten cramps and the whole nine yards, and needs supplies, Nick goes out and gets them for her from the store, no whining, no acting like an nincompoop about it. Seeing characters on the page who aren’t jerks about menstrual cycles is such a great step forward. (If you were wondering if the infamous Sadie Foster, instigator of all the problems in The Austen Playbook, is still around, you best read this book.)

The Austen Playbook is out today, January 20, in ebook formats! (Paperbacks are out next week.)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley and I bought a copy on my Nook.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer

43565374Summary from Goodreads:
Award-winning poet and essayist Anne Boyer delivers a one-of-a-kind meditation on pain, vulnerability, mortality, medicine, art, time, space, exhaustion, and economics—sharing her true story of coping with cancer, both the illness and the industry, in The Undying.

A week after her forty-first birthday, the acclaimed poet Anne Boyer was diagnosed with highly aggressive triple-negative breast cancer. For a single mother living paycheck to paycheck who had always been the caregiver rather than the one needing care, the catastrophic illness was both a crisis and an initiation into new ideas about mortality and the gendered politics of illness.

A twenty-first-century Illness as Metaphor, as well as a harrowing memoir of survival, The Undying explores the experience of illness as mediated by digital screens, weaving in ancient Roman dream diarists, cancer hoaxers and fetishists, cancer vloggers, corporate lies, John Donne, pro-pain ”dolorists,” the ecological costs of chemotherapy, and the many little murders of capitalism. It excoriates the pharmaceutical industry and the bland hypocrisies of ”pink ribbon culture” while also diving into the long literary line of women writing about their own illnesses and ongoing deaths: Audre Lorde, Kathy Acker, Susan Sontag, and others.

A genre-bending memoir in the tradition of The Argonauts, The Undying will break your heart, make you angry enough to spit, and show you contemporary America as a thing both desperately ill and occasionally, perversely glorious.

A vivid and moving work that defies genre. The Undying isn’t a “cancer memoir,” Boyer isn’t interested in giving a blow-by-blow account of her diagnosis and treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. Instead this is a poet trying to describe the experience of being a patient, experiencing a treatment that is often worse than the disease it’s trying to cure, comment on the utter cruelty of our healthcare system and medical leave policies, and place it within a sociological and literary framework. At one point she even says she did not write this book for people who are well.

I haven’t read Boyer’s poetry but I am interested in picking up one of her collections.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from my store.

stuff I read

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

45892271Summary from Goodreads:
In the highly anticipated follow-up to his beloved debut, What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell deepens his exploration of foreignness, obligation, and desire

Sofia, Bulgaria, a landlocked city in southern Europe, stirs with hope and impending upheaval. Soviet buildings crumble, wind scatters sand from the far south, and political protesters flood the streets with song.

In this atmosphere of disquiet, an American teacher navigates a life transformed by the discovery and loss of love. As he prepares to leave the place he’s come to call home, he grapples with the intimate encounters that have marked his years abroad, each bearing uncanny reminders of his past. A queer student’s confession recalls his own first love, a stranger’s seduction devolves into paternal sadism, and a romance with another foreigner opens, and heals, old wounds. Each echo reveals startling insights about what it means to seek connection: with those we love, with the places we inhabit, and with our own fugitive selves.

Cleanness revisits and expands the world of Garth Greenwell’s beloved debut, What Belongs to You, declared “an instant classic” by The New York Times Book Review. In exacting, elegant prose, he transcribes the strange dialects of desire, cementing his stature as one of our most vital living writers.

A quick up-front disclaimer: I know Garth socially, and through Twitter, and absolutely love to hear him discuss books and have conversations with other writers. His first book, What Belongs to You, is incredible.

Cleanness is comprised of a series of vignettes narrated by the narrator from What Belongs to You, an unnamed, gay American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is lonely, aching in the aftermath of a breakup with his long-distance boyfriend, and trying to find connection in a city he will soon leave. The longing for true companionship as an openly gay man is palpable.  At times, it seems the city itself, Sophia, is the narrator’s only real friend. In the third vignette (“Decent People”) the narrator joins in a protest march and even in this large crowd, even when he finds friends and one of his students, he still remains apart but his narration about the path of the march reveals a hidden depth of affection for his adopted city.

The central three vignettes of the book present the arc of the narrator’s long-distance relationship with a Portuguese man, “Loving R.” These stories are tender, beginning with the exuberance of finding a person who is so right for your heart and ending with the bittersweet realization that age and distance might be insurmountable odds. Greenwell has bookended this section with two incredible chapters of the narrator seeking sexual release in D/s encounters found through dating apps. In the first encounter, “Gospodar,” the narrator is the submissive, seeking release through willing humiliation, to be nothing, until the scene turns terrifying; in the second, “The Little Saint,” the narrator is the dominant in the scene with a younger sub who invites the narrator to use him as needed. Both of these scenes are breathtaking in the beauty of their sentences and the honesty of the narrator’s desire. By placing them either side of the “Loving R.” section, they underscore the different types of connection we seek as humans, without judgement for desire or kink. But in looking back on those chapters, we also feel the narrator’s loss of R. very acutely. At times I thought of Jane Eyre, Rochester’s idea of the cord, tying him to Jane somewhere under his ribs, and were it to break he would bleed inwardly. The narrator of Cleanness bleeds inwardly and, as a gay man in a country that is unwelcoming to those who fall outside of the cis/het binary, he bleeds silently or, at times, with shame (the final story, “An Evening Out,” is incredible).

“But then there’s no fathoming pleasure, the forms it takes or their sources, nothing we can imagine is beyond it; however far beyond the pale of our own desires, for someone it is the intensest desire, the key to the latch of the self, or the promised key, a key that perhaps never turns.” (~p 38, I don’t have a finished copy to check the page number)

Cleanness is beautiful, emotionally naked, raw, frank, tender, and explicit. A book to sit beside Edinburgh and How We Fight For Our Lives. Even though Cleanness is a sequel of-sorts, you don’t have to have read What Belongs to You to read Cleanness but I highly recommend that you do because it puts several of the narrator’s experiences into perspective.

A content warning for brief sexual violence on the page (neither long nor gratuitous, perhaps two pages at most).

Cleanness is out today, January 14!

Dear FTC: Thank you so much FSG for the review copy.

Edited to add: Please read Colm Toibin’s review of Cleanness in the New York Times Book Review. I could never do Cleanness the justice it deserves.

mini-review · stuff I read

Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

26720951Summary from Goodreads:
Almost everyone swears, or worries about not swearing, from the two year-old who has just discovered the power of potty mouth to the grandma who wonders why every other word she hears is obscene. Whether they express anger or exhilaration, are meant to insult or to commend, swear words perform a crucial role in language. But swearing is also a uniquely well-suited lens through which to look at history, offering a fascinating record of what people care about on the deepest levels of a culture–what’s divine, what’s terrifying, and what’s taboo.

Holy Sh*t tells the story of two kinds of swearing–obscenities and oaths–from ancient Rome and the Bible to today. With humor and insight, Melissa Mohr takes readers on a journey to discover how “swearing” has come to include both testifying with your hand on the Bible and calling someone a *#$&!* when they cut you off on the highway. She explores obscenities in ancient Rome–which were remarkably similar to our own–and unearths the history of religious oaths in the Middle Ages, when swearing (or not swearing) an oath was often a matter of life and death. Holy Sh*t also explains the advancement of civility and corresponding censorship of language in the 18th century, considers the rise of racial slurs after World War II, examines the physiological effects of swearing (increased heart rate and greater pain tolerance), and answers a question that preoccupies the FCC, the US Senate, and anyone who has recently overheard little kids at a playground: are we swearing more now than people did in the past?

A gem of lexicography and cultural history, Holy Sh*t is a serious exploration of obscenity–and it also just might expand your repertoire of words to choose from the next time you shut your finger in the car door.

The first book I started in 2020!

I picked up Holy Shit after Sarah MacLean recommended it on an episode of the Fated Mates podcast on an early interstitial episode, if I remember correctly (hi, I only started listening to that podcast in December because I’m late to the party). It’s a little dry in places – you get an unexpected dose of Church history – but Mohr is also unexpectedly droll in her asides and footnotes. I really enjoyed the examination of how swearing has changed over millennia. I definitely recommend if you’re into language.

I will add that Mohr does get into racial slurs and slurs in general in a late chapter and does give warning about use of the N-word in her introduction. I’ve seen some criticism that this chapter really doesn’t fit with the rest of the book and I kind of agree. much of this book has to do with epithets and euphemisms – our favorite four-letter words started out as epithets and have moved to euphemisms without (or with less) moral implication. Racial slurs like the N-word and g***y are light years from becoming mere euphemisms. So while the discussion of how these words come about and have such impact is important, this chapter is a bit much at the end and doesn’t fit in as well as, say, discussion of all the different ways we can use the word “fuck” (which is delightful). If you aren’t really into reading slurs on the page in any way, that’s a chapter to skip.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

mini-review · stuff I read

Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum

46065066Summary from Goodreads:
Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about publishing but were too afraid to ask is right here in this funny, candid guide by acclaimed author Courtney Maum. Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book has over 150 contributors from all walks of the industry, including international bestselling authors Anthony Doerr, Roxane Gay, Garth Greenwell, Lisa Ko, R. O. Kwon, Rebecca Makkai, and Ottessa Moshfegh, alongside cult favorites Sarah Gerard, Melissa Febos, Mitchell S. Jackson, and Mira Jacob. Agents, film scouts, film producers, translators, disability and minority activists, and power agents and editors also weigh in, offering advice and sharing intimate anecdotes about even the most taboo topics in the industry. Their wisdom will help aspiring authors find a foothold in the publishing world and navigate the challenges of life before and after publication with sanity and grace.

Are MFA programs worth the time and money? How do people actually sit down and finish a novel? Did you get a good advance? What do you do when you feel envious of other writers? And why the heck aren’t your friends saying anything about your book? Covering questions ranging from the logistical to the existential (and everything in between), Before and After the Book Deal is the definitive guide for anyone who has ever wanted to know what it’s really like to be an author.

Before and After the Book Deal is a comprehensive explanation of the publishing process all the way from “so you want to be a writer” to “do I have to publish a second book”. The soup-to-nuts guide to publishing, if you will. Maum includes examples of personal experience and advice from many writers, editors, publicists, and agents to provide a larger scope of advice. This isn’t a book of Rules About Publishing You Must Follow To Get Published Or Else. Some pointers are pretty common-sense reminders, like, don’t be a jerk to other people then expect them to help you. In many instances Maum provides information about points where an author may need to make a decision – MFA or no MFA? Self-publish or traditional publisher? Get an agent or go it alone? To teach or not to teach? – without saying one choice is right or better than an other because it all depends on what an author wants from their career.

A good read, too, for anyone who just wants to know more about the process from a writer’s perspective. Plus, Maum is pretty funny.

Before and After the Book Deal is out today, January 7!

Dear FTC: Thanks to Catapult for the galley – I had requested the digital galley on Edelweiss and then a paper copy magically showed up at the store for me from Jen Kovitz. ❤

mini-review · stuff I read

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

50234293._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Be careful who you let in.

Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.

She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.

Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.

In The Family Upstairs, the master of “bone-chilling suspense” (People) brings us the can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets.

The Family Upstairs is fine. But it does some things that annoy me.
1) rotating narrators, two in 3rd person present and ONE in 1st person present who was clearly set up as the “unreliable” character and telegraphing a lot of what this character did in the 3rd person timelines.
2) too much foreshadowing; we know stuff is going to get bad/nuts because it’s a domestic thriller so ending almost every 1st person chapter with some sort of cliff-hanger or foreshadowing statement caused me to guess every, single plot twist about two chapters before it happened (I am Dido, I have read all the Agatha Christies).

It’s plotty and reads quickly. This was my first introduction to Lisa Jewell and it will probably be my last for some time.

Content warning: domestic abuse both in reference and on the page; reference to abuse of a cat; use of abortifacients (with a bonus combo of slipping it into someone’s food/drink)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss since I’m the book club leader at my store.