“Love, it seems, arrives not only unannounced, but so accidentally, so randomly, as to make you wonder why you, why anyone, believes even fleetingly in laws of cause and effect.”
So writes Michael Cunningham in his 2014 novel “The Snow Queen.“ It is a gentle novel, the kind that builds slowly, in waves, rather than the kind that whisks you away. But there are moments like this one, observations about love and life that induce a powerful feeling of clarity and reflection, that give the story real weight.
We meet Barrett first, in his own moment of observation. To be more precise, what Barrett observes is a giant light in the sky hovering above Central Park one winter night. The light arrives at a good time — Barrett is recovering from the sudden termination of another relationship, and coping with a general feeling of floundering as an adult human living in the new millennium. The light seems to promise something, though he’s not sure what. At the very least, just bearing witness to such a thing makes him feel like there might be something special, something worth examining about his earthly experience after all. Continue reading “Staff Review: The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham”
Even if you aren’t interested in dragons or dark academia, chances are you’ve heard about “Fourth Wing” by Rebecca Yarros. It is all over social media and the holds list is quite long. There are read alikes at the bottom of this blog to check out in the meantime, but first I’m going to give a mostly spoiler-free review, so skip ahead if you want to go in knowing nothing.
Violet Sorrengail was supposed to enter the Scribe Quadrant, but the commanding general (her mother) has ordered Violet to join the hundreds of candidates striving to become dragon riders. But when you’re smaller than everyone else and your body is weak, death is only a heartbeat away because if the training doesn’t kill you, the dragons will. And the other candidates would kill her just for being her mother’s daughter. Yet, with every day that passes, the war outside grows more deadly, the kingdom’s protective wards are failing, and the death toll continues to rise.
I really didn’t love this book. Continue reading “Fourth Wing: Staff Review and Read Alikes”
At any given library, Zadie Smith is one of those authors who claims her own shelf, or two (And that’s just in the fiction section. You’ll find her essay collections in nonfiction, somewhere in the 800s). It’s hard to miss the Zadie Smith shelf, with its bulky hardbacks and bright colors. And if you’re like me, it’s hard to walk past her name once you’ve spotted it — a name you’ve seen referenced by your favorite authors; a name that seems to invoke the idea of contemporary literature itself. It was this feeling of promise, of cultural weight, that brought me to a halt at the end of the “Smith”s. I pulled “The Autograph Man,” a large white thing boasting a protagonist by the name of Alex Li-Tandem (A Chinese main character? What are the odds? I had to investigate). After a heartrending prologue, the story begins:
”You’re either for me or against me, thought Alex Li-Tandem, referring to the daylight and, more generally, to the day. He stretched flat and made two fists. He was fully determined to lie right here until he was given something to work with, something noble, something fine. He saw no purpose in leaving his bed for a day that was against him from the get-go. He had tried it before; no good could come from it. A moment later he was surprised to feel a flush of warm light dappled over him, filtered through a blind. Nonviolent light. This was encouraging.” Continue reading “Staff Review: The First Two Novels of Zadie Smith”
In 2019, a reporter interviewed a notable presidential candidate on a well-kept secret. The reporter? John Hendrickson, just a few months into his new job at The Atlantic. The candidate? Former vice president of the United States, Joe Biden. And the secret: his stutter.
At that point, we didn’t know much about Biden’s speech disorder — he’d become an expert at hiding it, working around his stutter with word substitutions, and maneuvering strategically out of difficult moments. But Hendrickson saw through the maneuvers, noticed the thoughtful pauses that were really the “blocks” characteristic of stuttering. He identified the coping mechanisms because he’d used similar ones his entire life. In January 2023, four years after writing an acclaimed, vibrantly human story on the potential president-elect’s lingering stutter, Hendrickson published a book detailing his own experience with the disorder. Continue reading “Staff Review: Life on Delay by John Hendrickson”
Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto is the adult daughter of a distant Japanese father and a dead Jewish mother. When we meet her, she is preparing to start a new job at a large internet company, having set aside her philosophy dissertation in search of a change.
Evelyn is somewhat anchorless — in identity, in work and in her relationships. But it is clear her ambivalence does not come from a lack of depth. Evelyn is a philosopher, who traces the movements of her own mind with the curiosity of a scientist. If she seems stuck between two points, it’s only because she is taking her time mapping the troubled landscape of the liminal space. Continue reading “Staff Review: Happy for You by Claire Stanford”
I. Going Somewhere
The first time I listened to Snail Mail’s 2018 album “Lush” was on a train to Chicago, newly heartbroken and on my way to see a dear friend. The sun was rising on a frigid November morning. I felt relieved to be tucked away, going somewhere.
I curled up against the window and hit “shuffle.” Track three, “Speaking Terms,” greeted me with a moody lead guitar and swept me up in its driving rhythm.
I was startled by Lindsey Jordan’s voice, youthful and piercing yet deeply world-weary.
“Leave things on speaking terms / And I’ll see you around,” she sang. I closed my eyes.
Some albums win you over with their expansive emotional and musical range. For me, “Lush” was not one of those albums.
Rather, listening to “Lush” feels like tuning into a singular, excruciating emotional frequency; like walking into a waterfall and letting the roaring wall of feeling crash through you. Heartbreak. Youth. Shame. And still, love. Over and over again, until your heart emerges a shiny pebble. Continue reading “Album Review: Snail Mail’s Lush”
Book I Read: “Sadie” by Courtney Summers
Why I Checked It Out: I’m a sucker for a good thriller and I’d seen good reviews so I had no issue putting “Sadie” on my to-be-read list. It moved to the top of the list once I learned it had an unusual storytelling format. Some of the chapters are from the perspective of the protagonist, Sadie. But the other half are a true-crime podcast. That grabbed me since I’m pretty much a true-crime junkie. But then I learned that not only was the book in this format, but the audiobook went all out and actually created those chapters in podcast format with multiple narrators and sound effects. I knew this was one I would have to listen to. Continue reading “Staff Book Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers”
“This is what it means to be a fan: curious, open, desiring for connection, to feel like art has chosen you, claimed you as its witness.” – Carrie Brownstein, “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl”
Prior to reading this book, I would not have necessarily considered myself a Carrie Brownstein “fan.” Like many my age, I knew Brownstein from Portlandia, her charmingly absurd sketch comedy show with Fred Armisen. My apologies to Sleater-Kinney fans; I acknowledge that this is sacrilege. In my defense, the band’s pre-hiatus discography released concurrently with my journey from infancy through elementary school, so I had barely graduated from Barney to Britney Spears. I downloaded the audiobook on a whim and it fully converted me into a fan as Brownstein defines the term.
This is not a sex, drugs, rock and roll type memoir. It begins with Brownstein’s youth in the Pacific Northwest, where her intense love of music and her attention-seeking tendencies lead to the formation of iconic punk band Sleater-Kinney. The format of the book then shifts to each chapter title corresponding to a Sleater-Kinney album, detailing each album’s creation, release and subsequent tour. Brownstein conveys tour life as grimy, unglamourous and exhausting. She does find comfort in the books she reads on the road, which clearly cultivated her talent as a writer. Content aside, “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” is incredibly well-written. The rich vocabulary and shrewd sense of timing make this a visceral and immersive read. Brownstein’s account of her own instantaneous breakdown that led to a 10 year hiatus for Sleater-Kinney is completely gut-wrenching. Continue reading “Staff Review: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl”
Book I Read: “The Silent Companions” by Laura Purcell
Why I Checked It Out: I won’t lie — that beautiful cover with its gold inlay-enhanced imagery was the first thing that made me consider picking up this book. The eye staring out of the keyhole is just super creepy. I, of course, immediately had to open the cover and see who it was that was staring back at me. And then I figured out it was a Gothic-style horror, complete with haunted manor house, secretive servants and a protagonist with a secret from her past that has come back to haunt her. So, yeah, it had me hooked pretty quickly. Continue reading “Staff Book Review: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell”
Editor’s note: Several of our regular blog writers have looked back at the books they read in 2017, and they’ve each written their own “Year in Review.” This is the last installment. Enjoy!
2017 Year in Reading
2016 was tough; 2017 could have been better than 2016, but wasn’t. So, this year I re-read books for the comfort of knowing I’d spend hours reading well. I returned to Hanya Yanahihara’s “A Little Life” for the third time, and re-read, slowly, Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” “The Red Parts,” “Jane: A Murder,” “Bluets” and “The Art of Cruelty.” For their elegant sentences, challenging ideas, and strobe-like illumination, these books are treasures to me. The character of Jude, in “A Little Life,” reminded me that healing isn’t for all—that some people don’t change, that fate, in all its dogmatic baggage, binds, stills, abides, sustains. This novel again taught me also, among many other things, that happiness is plush, a privilege, not for everyone. I coupled this thought with Nelson’s insistence on queer world-making and queer family-making in “The Argonauts.” Even if happiness dissembles and eludes, there is pleasure. Continue reading “A Year in Reading: Rereads and More Favorites”