Book Review: Dark Places

The Facebook book club I mentioned in my last review also organizes a yearly book swap around New Year’s. My book swap partner in 2016 (going into 2017) was incredibly gracious and sent me not one but two books! One was Both Flesh and Not, which they sent based on the prodigious amounts of David Foster Wallace in my GoodReads, and one book they had really enjoyed during the year: Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. I tore into Both Flesh and Not right away, but kept on putting off Dark Places. I don’t normally read thrillers (though I love mysteries, so go figure) and everything I knew about Gone Girl was so unappealing that I was afraid Dark Places would be more of the same.

I put off reading Dark Places for so long that it became eligible for my annual goal of “read one book that you’ve owned for over a year but never read,” and so in the absence of anything else left on that list (which also included Journal of a SolitudeGösta Berling’s Saga, and Bödeln, among others), I finally picked it up on New Year’s and finished it within a few days.

The cover of "Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn. The title is in a lime green sans-serif font on a black back background, with a photo negative image of weeds in the bottom left corner.
Image courtesy Phoenix

Author: Gillian Flynn

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.92 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: As a child, Libby Day’s testimony helped put her brother away for the gruesome murders of her mother and sisters. Fresh out of money and still traumatized by the memory,  Libby finally takes it upon herself to investigate what really happened that night at the behest of a group of armchair detectives who are obsessed with her case.

Content warning: Descriptions of violent, gruesome murders appear throughout, as well as a few scenes of a sexual nature; there’s also (dry, clinical) discussion of childhood sex abuse.

Recommended audience: Mystery and thriller fans; true crime fans (though it’s not a true crime novel, much of the story is centered around true crime enthusiasts); people interested in the “Satanic panic” that swept the US during the 80s; aspiring crime and thriller writers.

In-depth thoughts: Ultimately, I’m glad that I finally got around to reading Dark Places. I’m still not much of a thriller fan, but there’s a neat symmetry to the way that Flynn builds the story as it alternates between present-day and the day of the murder. It’s worth reading just for the structure alone, to see the way things are set up and subverted, to see how clues are revealed, to see how even small things turn up again in the end when you least expect them, to see how people can interpret the same events or scenes or scrap of evidence completely differently (sometimes tragically so). Dark Places is an excellent book to dissect if you’re writing your own story in a similar genre.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Days 12 – 14: Bethlehem, PA to Albany, NY

My time at my parents’ is winding down, but I still feel like it wasn’t enough time to do everything I wanted to do. Now that the books are sorted (FINALLY, FOR REAL) and packed up, it’s time to mail them. I also have some other things I’m shipping back to myself, mostly jewelry-making supplies and gifts for other people.  I run into the patriarch of one of the families I’ve known from church forever, who’s mailing a cell phone charger back to his son. We chat a bit, the way you do with people you went to church with your whole childhood.

I also get in a few good hours with Best Chemist Friend and her boyfriend at their place, catching up in real time and enjoying some (non-alcoholic, for me, since I’m driving) drinks and watching her cats.

When the time comes for me to leave, as in leave the Lehigh Valley, there’s a little confusion over how I’m getting to the bus—is Mom dropping me off? are both parents? is Dad around?—but it goes smoothly. I say bye to Dad, and the usual goodbye ritual:

Rub noses, touch heads, give a kiss, a hug, and the other side

Which we did every day when he left for work when I was little, and then we do every time I leave on a long trip (or just, um, leave these days; these aren’t “trips” that I’m taking abroad).

The last time I took one of these buses to NYC, there was a scheduling mishap and I ended up arriving hours later than I had planned. But this time the full bus actually radioed through and the overflow bus was there to pick us up just a few minutes later. Success!

I had messaged another college friend now in NYC about hanging out or getting lunch while I was in the environs, but between an international wedding, a work trip, and a death in the family, things didn’t hook up and that’s 100% fine. So I spend my morning at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, familiar and reassuring in its kind of grossness. I’m still reading Journal of a Solitude, though I also crib the free WiFi to putter around on Facebook and gchat.

I get bumped up from a layover bus trip to a direct bus, so I don’t have to mess around with changing at Kingston. As usual, the ride is ugly all the way through New Jersey and then gorgeous in New York. Sometimes I think about where I’d live if I had to go back to the US, and New England (and New England adjacent) is top of the list. Did I go to college there because I loved it, or do I love it because I went to college there? Hard to say.

My ride, an Internet friend from high school who grew up in the area, relocated to Arizona for a few years, and is now back in Albany, picks me up and gets some Swedish candy for her troubles, and we go out for really goddamn good Thai food before she drops me off where I’ll be staying in Albany, with two friends from college, L and A.

A delicious-looking Thai red curry on a funky square white plate.

Everyone is on a tightly choreographed schedule. My ride’s boyfriend will need the car soon, so there’s no chance to wander somewhere for dessert (cider donuts!) and give my hosts a little extra time to get the kiddos down; coming directly to their house from the bus station instead of getting dinner with my ride would have plopped me there at Peak Chaos. We’ve timed things juuuuuust right.

I knock on the door and L answers.

“Koba Commander! Your timing is perfect. If you had been here, like, ten minutes earlier, you’d have met a room full of naked men.”

(It’s bath time with L and the boys.)

I go upstairs to say hello, and I sit with L and and the oldest son (now 3?), and we read a few stories before bed. A sings the youngest to sleep in the other room, like actually for-real sings a lullaby. Kids to bed, the grown-ups sit in the living room with some tea. I dig out my thank-you gift: some Söderte, in bags because I figure busy parents don’t have time to mess around with tea diffusers and etc. The whole conversation is a weird overlay for me; I’m reminded of my parents’ college friends that we saw sometimes. They had kids around my age (and my brother’s age), and they were just over in Jersey, so it made sense for visits to happen and for the children to get shooed out to spend time together while the adults caught up.

Now I’m living the life I remember my parents living, kind of: I’m visiting with college friends who have just put their kids to bed. I’m just coming from a little farther away than Jersey. Adulthood. I forget what we talk about, but L ducks out the earliest while A and I keep talking about grammar and mathematics and things, but also a lot about friendship and how it changes over time and, naturally, assorted college memories.

“But like, that part of our lives is over now. We’ve been out of college longer than we were in it.”

A is an absolutely lovely person, and one of the things that’s lovely about her is that she has a combination of profundity, kindness, and no filter. She can get right to the heart of an issue, accidentally phrase it in the bluntest, gauchest possible way, and then realize how it might come across after the fact and feel awful and immediately apologize. When she goes on to say that her college friendships have become essentially dead and meaningless, she immediately catches the implications of what she’s saying.

“I mean, I’m happy to see you and I’m glad you’re here, Koba—”

“No, I know what you mean.” And that’s when I start thinking about Arrival and “The Story of Your Life” and my perception of time within friendships as being eternal and circular and many-layered, counter to what sounds like a very Zen approach (“I’m the person I am NOW, not eight years ago.”) that A has.

There is some irony in the fact that we are having this conversation about the ghosts of our past and the temporary whatever that was college with our mugs of tea resting on a cheap, wheeled table/drawer thing that L found while “suite shopping” (dormitory dumpster diving) to outfit the suite we had for our junior (A’s senior) year at school. Some things never change.

But sleep comes for us all, and since we’re the adults who will be in charge of a pair of little ones in just a handful of hours, eventually we have to pack it in. A goes upstairs and I collapse on the dangerously comfortable couch.  Never enough time; always too much to talk about.

Book Review: Stone Butch Blues

It’s the end of January and I still haven’t finished reviewing all the books I read in 2017! There’s just one more after this, and then I’m back on the level (at least, as of this writing; by the time this goes up I may have finished another couple of books).

I’m in a few book clubs and lots of the books I read last year, especially towards the end, were book club selections. One of them is a bunch of random nerds on Discord and the theme is vaguely YA and SFF; another is the Austin Feminist Science Fiction club; the last one is a Facebook book club co-founded by one of my blogger friends. This one has no particular genre or focus, and so we tackle a pretty wide variety of books. Past selections that I’ve mentioned here include Madonna in a Fur CoatThe Road to Mecca, and Passing.

A cover of "Stone Butch Blues" by Leslie Feinberg, featuring a black and white portrait of Feinberg with their left hand on the side of their face, looking thoughtful.

Author: Leslie Feinberg

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.27 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Jess Goldberg, a young butch lesbian growing up in the McCarthy-era US, navigates gender, sexuality, and the labor struggles from the 60s up until the AIDS crisis of the 80s.

Content warning: I’ll quote from the book’s introduction directly.

Dear reader:

I want to let you know that Stone Butch Blues is an anti-oppression/s novel. As a result, it contains scenes of rape and other violence. None of this violence is gratuitous or salacious.


Recommended audience: Anyone interested in the history of the labor movement in the US; anyone interested in the history of racial justice in the US; anyone who needs a “GLBTQ+ 101” reader

In-depth thoughts: This book was a heavy read, but somehow compelling. Even through the worst of what Jess experienced I felt pulled along; I needed to read more. Would she be okay? Would her friends, lovers, coworkers be okay? How would everything turn out? As we get to know Jess and her strength and determination, we also meet a wide variety of characters who move in and out of her life, from sympathetic union leaders to hostile coworkers to mentors and lovers and co-conspirators.

Centered as it is on the American gay and lesbian and black communities and the labor movement in the 60s and onward, the language includes slurs and slang that might not come up in EFL classrooms (or then again, they just might). Either way, Feinberg’s style is otherwise crisp and direct, so context should make things fairly clear. At the same time, to say that the book is centered only on social justice issues is unfair. Really, the book is centered on Jess. If it’s an activist novel, it’s also in at least equal measure a character-driven bildungsroman with the beating heart of a human being desperate for love, family, and contact.

If you’re interested, Feinberg made Stone Butch Blues available for free online. You can download a PDF from hir website at the previous link, or order a hard copy from

London Calling: The Elvis Dead

Like other trips, I was up unnecessarily early. I didn’t have anything to pack outside of an extra t-shirt for sleeping in, so I didn’t have anything to do with all that time except shower.

The morning in Stockholm was sunny, though biting cold. I got through customs and to the gate in good time and then slept for the flight, only to wake up to an afternoon in England that was dismal and dreary.

Trying to get from the airport to the hostel proved to be the trickiest bit—which train to take, where in the hell to switch to the tube at Victoria South. Plus then I got off a stop too early and had to push my way down Oxford Street (Circus?) and then tiny little roads closed off to vehicle traffic for construction and improvement. None of this was helped by the fact that I hadn’t yet figured out how to turn on roaming data; how lost we are without GPS and instant Googling! There was at least enough free WiFi to make things as manageable as they would be if I had a dead tree map to stop and check once in a while. But I still paced up and down Dean Street for good measure, unable to find the hostel for ten minutes or so, blocked as it was by aforementioned construction.

Despite a relatively old facade, on the inside the hostel was bright and modern and white with saturated color highlights in a neon color scheme lifted straight out of peak 90s Nickelodeon: turquoise, purple, lime green, red, and (of course) orange. I was checking in a full hour later than the estimate I gave them, but it didn’t matter. A chatty Italian (?) showed me to my bunk, bottom in the corner. I futzed around a little—told my motor-mouthed guide that I wouldn’t need the missing under-the-bed wire locker just to end the interaction as soon as possible—and then decided to take advantage of the happy hour prices and also have some dinner. I warmed up with a beer and had a tough time adjusting when everyone was so friendly.

“Do you want any suggestions?” a fellow American woman (*guitar riff*) asked upon seeing me hesitate. Truthfully, I knew exactly what I wanted; I just blanked for a moment on the exact name of the beer I was meaning to order. I stumbled through English like I’d never spoken it before in my life.

“No, I…okay, good.”

I forgot how aggressively social hostels are. But the American woman (*guitar riff*) was undaunted. “You want one of my fries? They’re real good.”

“Fuck yeah, starches!” Things that remind me how to speak English: potatoes.

I also noticed the name of the beer I wanted on the bar menu: London Lager. YOU WILL BE CARDED IF YOU LOOK UNDER 25, the sign warned. Jake the bartender didn’t ask for my ID. Finally, I’m an adult! Jake pressed the receipt from the drink into my hands and instructed me to hold on to it so I can redeem it for my free happy hour beer.

“Now, where’s my lucky lighter?” he asked no one, then patted around his pockets until he retrieved a cigarette lighter and somehow used that to open my beer.

“Does that make my beer lucky?”

“Sure. It’s my lucky kitten lighter.” He showed me and sure enough, one of those hazy, gauzy animal photographs you see on jigsaw puzzles and spiral bound notebook covers had been wrapped around a disposable lighter.

I sat at the edge of a black faux leather couch to sip my beer and read a bit (Where’d You Go, Bernadette?). Someone asked if he could sit with me and in his maneuver between my legs and the table my beer went off the edge. My would-be couch companion was apologetic and offered to buy me another one. I waved it off.

“Look, there’s still a whole bottle left.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Don’t worry about it. Let’s just go get some napkins.”

He beat me to the bar so I just sort of hung around while he negotiated the cleanup with Jake the bartender. One of the other hostel patrons overheard our conversation about buying me the beer and laughed and said something about that maybe being part of the strategy? or something? and I waved it off because I wasn’t sure if what it sounded like what he was implying was really what he was implying, and if I was right, then I think he had it all wrong. Jake the bartender had brought out the mop and Beer Spiller had set to mopping the floor (a little over-enthusiastically for such a small puddle) and wiping down the table, and then vanished back into the hostel crowd, never to be seen again. He must not have wanted the other end of the couch that badly.

Instead, I was joined by an American and three dudes from Barcelona, all way into the football match. And that was the moment I realized I’d gone full European—my first instinct, upon writing, was to call it “football” and not “soccer.”

The American might have been the boyfriend of Benevolent French Fry Woman, or the woman who is clearly his wife? girlfriend? might have just resembled Benevolent French Fry Woman. Either way, she spoke with the Barcelona guys in normal, regular English while her life/traveling companion used condescending Teacher English: slower, overly enunciated, emphasis overly stressed, slightly too loud, an aversion to contractions. He attempted Spanish in the most American accent imaginable. I didn’t insert myself in the conversation but I laughed quietly at his Spanish behind my book.

I finished the first beer and ordered dinner when I claimed my second (free) beer at the bar. The menu promised carmelized vegetables in some kind of sauce but they were very much raw, and quite oily. But it was cheap and good enough, so can’t complain!

I tried to convince myself to make small talk with the American sitting next to me, ask him where he was from and maybe bond over that, maybe find someone who wants my extra ticket to the show, but of course I didn’t. Instead, I finished eating and went back to my room to charge my phone. Relying constantly on WiFi for Internet access was really eating up the battery and it was already just at two-thirds, even though the show wasn’t for another four hours. I settled into the extremely squeaky bunk bed and got some writing done while I waited.

Equally annoying to my phone situation was trying to find a good, grimy dive bar to drink in. Or there were plenty of grimy dive bars in the neighborhood, just not enough of them—no room at the inn. The first place I tried was perfect, but the drinks were dishwater weak and there was a 10 GBP minimum charge on cards but you couldn’t keep a tab open, and to boot there weren’t any seats available, so I just stood around with my 10 GBP Long Island that was far and away a gussied up cup of coke with my hat and coat still on. The next place that looked promising, with live jazz advertised, was full up and I got turned away at the door. (Or, maybe I wasn’t swank enough for the owner’s taste. My outfit was an abundance of paisley and an orange knitted cap that’s cute but slightly too big for my head so I probably looked like a fat psychadelic escapee from a Dickens novel.) The walk around SoHo in search of drink was pleasant in terms of people-watching and atmosphere, at least, and topped off with a Hare Krishna procession. It was nice to be out among people. (“Is this what Södermalm is like on the weekends?” I thought to myself. “Is this what central Stockholm turns into?” Because it’s the rare occasion that I’m out in town at 9.30 PM on a weeknight.)

Eventually I decided that what I wanted—what I had been envisioning in my mind’s eye, a place to have a drink and be able to sit down and slough off my winter stuff and feel like I was actually somewhere, and read cozily and people watch and maybe chat a bit—was the bar attached to the hostel. It was disappointing in theory, since I wanted to go out and be in London, not the international bubble of a hostel, but perfect in practice. Even better: the till froze up and it was impossible to pay by card for an hour or so, so I had a free drink (Kopparberg perry, weird to go to London and then have a Swedish drink) to make up for the world’s saddest Long Island.

In an ideal world I would’ve schmoozed and found someone to go with me to the show, but that’s life. In a way, though, it was maybe better for me to go alone. I had no idea that I would love the show as much as I did, and I might have been self-conscious about enjoying myself so much in front of a semi-stranger/fake date. Other audience members? Whatever. Someone who I’m at least slightly obligated to be social with? I don’t know you, maaaaaang, I’m not comfortable being rowdy around you.

Because the show was AMAZING. It’s possible that I fooled myself into thinking it was better than it was, otherwise it would have been a waste of time and money and cope to overnight in London just for one show. When the alarm had gone off that morning, I have to admit that I wasn’t feeling it. If something had turned up that would have forced me to cancel the trip, I would have been relieved. (I would have later regretted it, but in the moment….) It would be quite easy for me, in the moment and in retrospect, to greatly overstate the quality of the show in order to make me feel like I hadn’t done something expensive and frivolous—but really, upon objective (“objective”) reflection, it was a fucking good show.

Kemp is just a funny guy with good stage presence and good banter. He did a warm-up and a closer as himself (rather than in character) and was absolutely charming, and took audience not-quite-heckling well. Before the show, he handed out a few leis to audience members (“You’re officially part of the show now. You don’t have to do anything, just give those back to me when I ask you to.”) and chose poorly in one of them: dude would later not give up the lei, just fuck with him, so he had to abandon ship and bolt back to the stage. Same dude later drunkenly enthused during the closer: “I don’t like anything.”

“Okay, well then mate, that’s rough.”

“No! No…I don’t like anything, but I liked this.”

Cue the audience awwwwws, and Kemp’s awwwwws, and then:

“It’s kind of hard to remember that he’s a twat, now, innit?”

There’s only one video preview of the show available online, a clip from “Fast Fringe” uploaded last August where he performs the hand-sawing scene (“You Were Always on My Arm”). I considered embedding it here for a preview but I decided against it because Kemp’s singing is just not up to snuff in that clip. I don’t know if it’s because the audio quality is dodgy, because he had blown out his voice in earlier performances (he admits as much in interviews, that he went “too hard, too fast” during Fringe and that a necessary interlude to go back to work ended up saving his voice) or if he just got better at singing between then and now. So Google if you like, I guess, but the clip is underwhelming. His singing alone was good, I’ll say (maybe better than just “good”), and his Elvis impersonation and American accent were pretty damn passable. The fact that he was often full-on belting while engaging in the most over-the-top, intense physical comedy (see: Ash’s hand becoming possessed and the ensuing struggle with it) was all the more impressive. Lots of good falls, and those are hard to do. All of that coupled with pretty clever costume “changes” (read as: progressive destruction of his shirt), low-budget one-man special effects (spritz bottle full of Karo syrup? red-dyed water? to bloody himself as necessary, applications of temporary hair dye or other “transformation” make-up as needed worked well into the physical bits) and the equally low-budget props made for a really well put together show.

I had also chosen, completely by accident, one of the best possible seats for the show. There were two components two it: Kemp’s stage performance and the screening of the actual movie. My seat was front row, stage right—right in front of the screen. I had a clear view both of the movie screen and of Kemp, rather than being blocked by a sea of heads (no sloped floor or stadium seating here; it’s a small dinner theater venue). And any front-row seat in the middle or on the other side would have no view of the actual screen, since the stage thrust out a couple of meters in front of the screen, so Kemp himself blocked the line of sight between the audience and the screen for maybe a quarter of the audience.

But maybe more importantly, I’d actually seen Evil Dead II. When I originally booked the tickets, I was surprised at how quickly they’d been snatched up. Were there really that many Evil Dead fans in the UK? It struck me as lowbrow and grossout and slapstick in a distinctly American way—not the dry witticisms you usually associate with British humor. As it turned out, at least if polling-by-audience-decibel-level can be relied upon, something like a full third of the audience hadn’t seen the movie before tonight’s show, including the couple sharing a table with me. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying the show even half as much as I did without knowing the references and in-jokes. And that’s not to diminish Kemp’s performance, either: like I said, it was a stand-out piece of physical comedy paired with vocal prowess.

As it was, I hung around the photo op because obviously this merited a photo! And Kemp was extremely warm and friendly with everyone (even when it got weird, like with a woman who also very clearly fancied him and got really kissy-close with him in one pose) and let me babble incoherently at him for what felt like an eternity:

“I came in all the way from Stockholm for the show and it was totally worth it.”
“Aw, really? Thank you so much!”
“Well I mean, I also haven’t been in London in like twelve years, but y’know…”
“Right, well there’s that too.”
“But this is one of my favorite movies and you absolutely killed it, I loved it.”
“I’m glad! You want a photo with the chainsaw?”
“Nah, I’ve got a fab manicure I don’t want to fuck up, but just a regular photo’s fine.”

The guy behind me in line who volunteered to snap photos of me kind of sucked at it (so many are blurry and useless) but made up for that by taking a LOT, including while I was running my mouth. Hence the candid along with the actual posed shot.

The author speaking to Rob Kemp as Ash from Evil Dead 2.

The author posing with Rob Kemp as Ash from Evil Dead 2.

My room at the hostel was only half-full: me, a Catalonian woman, and another American dude. This was a much easier social than before, and we had a perfectly pleasant chat about the Brexit referendum and Sweden and taxes and The Lion King before turning in at 2 am or so.

The journey back was unremarkable, except that my flight was delayed FOREVER. First an initial delay at the gate, then a further one after we had boarded (busted toilets), and then a THIRD one because, for real, the air traffic controllers couldn’t find their headsets. But I had plenty to read with me and nothing to do the rest of the day, so I just cozied up with a book. I didn’t have a whole row to myself this time, and didn’t really sleep on the flight (despite only getting 5 or 6 hours the night before), but again: when your default flight is 8 hours, 2 hours is NOTHING.

Once back in Stockholm, I then proceeded to be incredibly unproductive. But that’s another matter entirely.

Book Review: Foxlowe

I finished Eleanor Wasserberg’s Foxlowe in September 2017 but somehow failed to write about it here until now. This is not because Foxlowe is a forgettable or unremarkable book; far from it. The lack speaks more to how busy I was (or how poorly I managed my time) and to the backlog of reviews I had to plow through.

The cover of Foxlowe, by Eleanor Wassberg. A crumbling estate is flanked by leafless trees while a large orange sun (or full moon) sets behind the house in a white sky. Orange leaves flutter around the edge, as if blown off the trees by the wind, and everything is surrounded by dark blue and gray clouds along the edges. Everything is done an art deco stylized vector graphics style.

 Author: Eleanor Wasserberg
My GoodReads rating: 5 Stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.38
Language scaling: C1+
Summary: The decline and fall of the commune (or cult?) known as Foxlowe, as told by the young woman Green.
Content warning: There is some pretty serious child neglect and endangerment implied throughout, but Green’s voice and perspective keeps it from being sensationalized.
Recommended audience: Gothic literature fans; people interested in cults and fringe religious movements
In-depth thoughts: I might have seen Foxlowe appear on other book blogs here and there, but the one that tipped me to really wanting to read it was Juli’s review at A Universe in Words. The best way to get me interested in a book is to give me a little taste test of it; if the best idea in the world is executed poorly, I won’t be bothered, but if I like what I read I won’t let it go until I find it. So to that end, I appreciate that Juli always includes a little blurb from the novels she reviewed.
I cannot emphasize enough how amazing Wasserberg’s prose is. How do you write someone who grew up removed from society, who doesn’t have the same cultural frame of reference as everyone else, who lives in a world with Solstices and The Bad and no schooling and Spike Walks? How will they sound when they finally have to join the rest of the world? The voice that Wasserberg gives Green is a perfect balance of cultural ignorance and personal insight. Green might be uneducated and only semi-literate, but she expresses herself precisely and eloquently (if, sometimes, somewhat disconcertingly). It’s perfect for who she is and what she’s experienced.

At Foxlowe everyone has two names. One is a secret, meant to be lost. For most, it worked like this: first they had the one they came to Foxlowe with peeled away like sunburnt skin. Then a new name, for a new life.

I used to get jealous of the Family with their secret outside names, while I only had the one, like half a person. Sometimes an old name would slip, strangled at a syllable with a blush. This was a sign to watch for, in case someone might wish to be become a Leaver.

Now I am doubled that way, named twice, but for me, it’s worked in reverse: my new name came later, on the outside, like putting on that crusty old skin that should be lying on the floor.

 Needless to say I loved this debut from Wasserberg and I look forward to what she has to offer in the future!

My Favorite Novels of 2017, According to GoodReads

I’ve already tackled the best nonfiction I read in 2017. Now it’s time for the best novels.

A cover of John Okada's "No-No Boy," featuring the title in large red sans-serif text on top of a charcoal side portrait of a Japanese man facing right, eyes downward, against a light blue background.
Image courtesy University of Washington Press

No-No Boy, John Okada. I don’t know how I missed this novel until now. Okada deals with the unique struggles faced by Japanese-Americans in the post-war years, which coincide with the universal struggle of children to live up to their parents’ expectations—or escape their influence.

A cover of Eleanor Wasserberg's "Foxlowe," featuring a monochrome illustration of a house flanked by two leafless trees with a large orange sun (or full moon) in the background. Orange leaves surround the image, as if blown off the trees, and dark blue and black clouds frame the entire thing.
Image courtesy Fourth Estate

Foxlowe, Eleanor Wasserberg. Another reason I do this annual round-up is to make sure I didn’t miss cataloging any important reads on the blog and somehow I missed talking about Foxlowe! A review is forthcoming, but the short version is that Foxlowe documents the decline and fall of a commune (or cult?) in a rambling old house called Foxlowe, from the perspective of a young girl who grew up in it and then finally left. I’d like to thank Universe in Words for bringing this book to my attention, because I don’t think I would have heard about it otherwise.

Cover of Akwaeke Emezi's novel "Freshwater."
Image courtesy Groove Press.

Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi. For years, my reading has focused on classics I somehow missed or overlooked in my education, so I’ve been missing out on new releases for a while. Freshwater was the first bleeding-edge new release I’ve read in a long, long time, and it was worth it. A potent reminder that new classics are coming out every day.*

Cover of Meindert deJong's "The Wheel on the School" featuring a watercolor illustration by Maurice Sendak of five young boys and one girl in traditional Dutch clothing standing in front of a yellow wall, pointing and looking at a stork flying against a clear blue sky.
Image courtesy Harper Collins.

The Wheel on the School, Meindert DeJong. I haven’t reviewed this one here yet because I only read it on Christmas Eve. More specifically, I only re-read it on Christmas Eve. This is one of my favorite books from childhood, and it didn’t disappoint upon reading it again as an adult. (In fact, I’m sure I got much more out of it now than I ever did as a child.) What is, on the surface, a simple story about Dutch children who want storks to come back to their little fishing village of Shora is about so much more: about community and compassion and the importance of wondering and having dreams.

So that wraps up the best in reading for me in 2017. What were the best novels you read? I’d love to hear about them! Comment here or let me know on Twitter.

*indicates a book I received free of charge from NetGalley in exchange for a review; the review was already posted elsewhere

My Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2017, According to GoodReads

I enjoy GoodReads’s little “Your Year in Books” widget they roll out at the end of every year, but my favorite thing to look back on at the close of a year (or more accurately, the beginning of every new one) is how many 5-star books I read. That was only four in 2015In 2016, I handed out only five. I was a little luckier (or maybe a little more generous?) in 2017 and handed out eight. Seven if you don’t count a re-read of one of my favorite childhood books.

This year I’m splitting the nonfiction and the novels into two different posts. Part of it is because I have slightly different criteria for 5-star reviews in fiction and nonfiction, and part of it is because I read enough 5-star books this year that a single post dedicated to all of them would border on unwieldy. This first installment covers the best nonfiction I read in 2017.

Politics and Social Justice

The cover of Kate Moore's "Radium Girls: The Dark History of America's Shining Women"

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Kate Moore. I had already known about the radium dial-painting disaster as a footnote in the history of radium and nuclear science, so I was glad to see the topic get its own full treatment. The radium dial companies’ continuing priority of profits over worker health, and their subsequent refusal to accept blame for so much suffering and to make it right, remains relevant today, nearly 100 years later. Moore’s research is exhaustive, which can sometimes make for overwhelming reading, but it all deserves to be chronicled.*

The cover of Sarah Kendzior's "The View from Flyover Country," featuring a view of the St. Louis Arch through a window.

The View From Flyover Country: Essays by Sarah Kendzior, Sarah Kendzior. I enjoy her writing for De Correspondent, so I bought an ecopy of this essay collection (predating the 2016 election) to have  as subway reading.


Black and white cover of May Sarton's "Journal of a Solitude," a shot of an empty desk light by a lamp from outside a window.
Image courtesy W. W. Norton & Company

Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton. Walden was one of my favorite books I read in high school, and one that deeply influenced me. With the account of Thoreau’s stay in the woods fresh in my mind, I picked up this up at a library sale years ago. But much as I wanted to read it, I somehow dropped off after a few pages every time I attempted until I read it during my trip to the US this summer. Maybe it was a question of needing enough time to get into it; maybe it was a question of age or life path. But I’m so glad I hung on to this book through countless library down sizes.


The cover of John Kerstetter's "Crossings," featuring bullets and scalpel in an "X" shape.
Image courtesy Crown Publishing, Inc.

Crossings: A Doctor-Solider’s Story, Jon Kerstetter. Kerstetter’s account of growing up on, then off, then on an Oneida reservation to become a doctor and then a medic in the US army until he suffered a stroke (an aspect of his life curiously absent from the subtitle or marketing text) is gripping and sometimes heart-rending reading.*

A cover of Ester Blenda Nrdström's "Amerikanskt," featuring a college of vintage photographs, including a young woman in denim overalls and a white bucket hat.
Image courtesy Bokhåll.

Amerikanskt, Ester Blenda Nordström. Much like America Day by Day, I found this account of Nordström’s travels throughout the United States in the 1920s fascinating, both as a snapshot of an America long gone by and also as the perspective of an outsider and first-time visitor.

Part 2, featuring the best novels I read last year, coming later this week!

*indicates ebook copies I received free of charge from NetGalley in exchange for a review; reviews were already posted elsewhere and I genuinely loved these books.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 11: Bethlehem, PA

My baby-est, littlest cousin—my maternal aunt’s only child—turned 21 this year.

I was 10 when she was born, and I remember thinking to myself, “One day she’ll be 10, just like I am, and I’ll be 20.” At the time, it was barely fathomable to me that I’d ever be an adult (or that the wriggling red mass I was looking at would ever be “big” like me). I don’t remember if I had that same thought when I turned 21: “Someday Haley will be as old as I am now, and I’ll be…even more of an adult.” It’s a thought I could easily imagine myself having. In any case, that’s the reality of it now. She’s 21, and a junior in college—a period in my own life that doesn’t seem ten years ago, and yet it obviously was!—and before you know it she’ll be in her thirties, and married (or not!) and a mom (or not!), and I’ll be even older…

Speaking of my family, Day 11 of the trip was dedicated mostly to lunch with Mom’s side of the family. This would normally include Haley, but she was at the shore, so not this time.

It was a Sunday, and Mom suggested that I could go to church with her before we leave for lunch, and I more or less gracefully dodge that bullet.  I spent most of that morning doing some more cleaning and then reading by the pool.

Some books in my collection I had been clinging to since high school or thereabouts, because I really wanted to read them (or maybe more accurately, really wanted to be the kind of person who would read them), but could never get around to it. One of those was the Illuminatus! trilogy omnibus; I ditched that one because I’m definitely no longer a 14-year-old girl with a crush on a pretentious snob of a classmate. Another was Journal of a Solitude, which I bought at a library sale (the library that’s now reaping the benefits (?) of my book hoarding tendencies) on the premise of “woman alone in the woods.” This was right after I had AP English Language and Composition and fell in love with Walden and so a lady version of the same thing held a lot of appeal for me.

I decided to take a break from the boxing and the repacking and the sorting and sit with Journal of a Solitude out by the pool. It was summer, so it was basically peak beauty when it comes to the flowers and the landscaping.

A clear blue in-ground swimming pool with red-orange tile edging on a sunny day, with flower bushes and green trees in the background. Green flowering landscaping featuring black-eyed Susans and a bush with pink flowers.

Not pictured are my absolute favorite flowers: some huge red hibiscuses just off-camera to the left in the first photo. But they had their moment before my trip and so there was only a couple of sad, drooping blooms left by the time I arrived..

This time Journal of a Solitude stuck with me, really stuck. I finished it on the bus to Albany and ended up giving it to Homesteader Friend, my host in Maine, because it seemed like exactly her thing. I was glad I held on to that book for as long as I did, because I’m glad I finally read it, and I hope Homesteader Friend gets something out of it herself.

Black and white cover of May Sarton's "Journal of a Solitude," a shot of an empty desk with a typewriter, lit by a lamp from outside a window.

Anyway, Mom only took the time to change out of church clothes and then we were off to visit my grandmother at the senior home for a little before meeting everyone else (my aunt, my brother and his wife, and my “aunt” Doris) at the restaurant. My grandmother just turned 90 this year, and she’s still “with it,” but has it a little rough getting around. Her hearing also isn’t the greatest so you have to slow down your speech by a third (and also crank up your volume by a third). We talked a little bit about how I’m doing in Sweden, and how she’s glad that I’m not in Korea anymore.

We had lunch at an Italian place that my mom and her sister habitually take their mother out to, because it’s close by and it’s easy for her to maneuver and they have food she likes. There were enough of us that we had a large table in the back to ourselves. I had a lot of the same conversation again with Aunt Donna (actually my aunt) and Aunt Doris (my grandmother’s best friend and accepted friend of the family): what I’m doing in Sweden, good thing I’m not in Korea anymore, etc. I also get a very belated birthday card.

Aunt Doris was keen to know what life is like in Sweden, and it was hard to know exactly what to tell her. Everything about my life is pretty banal and not that different from the US, except that I don’t drive. I landed on the story about going to the doctor on New Year’s Eve to get a small piece of metal out of my foot and how it was less than $10 US for a quick (but necessary!) visit that took all of five minutes. The conversation was immediately sidetracked by the insane state of the American health insurance system and how much that kind of visit would cost with their respective insurance plans. We also talked about my brother’s Instagram, which his wife hates (“anyone who doesn’t know you or your weirdo sense of humor will just think you’re an idiot”) and which, according to Aunt Donna, Haley loves (“she gets it, John, she thinks it’s hilarious”).

After lunch, Mom and I stopped at one of the vineyards between my grandmother’s and home. We don’t get a bottle but I get a wine slushie, which I sipped for the rest of the drive home.

There was more cleaning once we got back home. The books were basically all done by this point; now I was up to my eyebrows in knick knacks and mementos. I also tried to get together jewelry stuff to either mail back to myself or to give away to crafty friends. The whole time I was home it simultaneously felt like I didn’t have enough time in the day and that I also didn’t get anything done, the worst of both worlds. But now Musikfest was over and there was nothing left for me to do except take care of my stuff and see Best Chemist Friend.