Category: Books

Read Any Good Books Lately?

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” 
― Oscar Wilde

A question for your Monday, kittens: do you go through phases in your pop culture consumption? I ask because I’m trying to read as close to 100 books as I can this year and after a strong start, a couple of months ago I just sort of trailed off a bit. I must have been in a podcast kind of mood because the vast majority of my media, entertainment as well as information, has come through audio rather than books for a good couple of months. This is weird, because I LOVE to read.

So, I’m making a concentrated attempt at finishing some of the items on my library list, and I’m looking for recommendations.

I’ve recently finished, “The Power,” by Naomi Alderman, “Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire,” by Kurt Andersen, and “Norse Mythology,” by Neil Gaiman. I’ve been working on, “White Trash: the 400 Year Untold History of Class in America,” by Nancy Isenberg which should be required reading for anyone who ever wants to open their mouth on class or race in America in public. I am also counting down the days to a couple of new romances by Tessa Dare and Lisa Kleypas, who are two of my favorite writers in the genre.

Basically, I read everything. Give me a list of what you’ve loved and why in the comments. Has a particular genre tickled your fancy? I read a few political books earlier this year but have largely taken a break from them because…the news. I am particularly interested in more philosophy or economics if anyone has suggestions, but I also accept trashy bodice rippers, ground breaking YA, and trippy science fiction!

Ruined Women

“Sometimes that’s what happens. No cigarette burns, no bone snaps. Just an irretrievable slipping.” 
― Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects

I am still processing Sharp Objects as a cultural piece and still incapable of finding what I want to say about it as a series. However, in trying to force out some words, there is one moment of the show that has lingered in my mind for weeks now.

In one episode, dissatisfied with her daughter’s clothing in the face of an upcoming neighborhood event that requires a display of carefully maintained artificiality, Adora takes her daughters shopping. Nothing in the store will work for Camille, who covers herself from neck to toe to hid her private pain and after trying to demure or avoid her mother’s gaze, Camille finally flings open the dressing room door in a fit of anger to reveal her body. Adora sees Camille’s self-harm scars, the physical manifestation of Camille’s trauma and pain, and after a horrible pause to take in the tapestry before her the first words out of her mouth are a devastating summary: “You’re ruined.”

That line actually landed on my chest like a punch. I nearly started crying, it felt so quiet and harsh and all encompassing all at once. As Adora quickly shepherds her younger daughter away from her older’s bad influence and bared scars (and delivers a few final cutting comments for effect), Amy Adams’ Camille muffles a scream and sinks to the floor.

This is a deeply personal take, but in considering why I’m still thinking about it weeks later, I think it’s because almost every negative thought or rejection about women (at least as objects or concepts, to say nothing of people) can be boiled down to some element of that idea: you’re ruined. You’ve either done something or had something done to you that has made you less in some way.

You don’t have to look hard to find “ruined” women, we’re in every genre of literature–heck, it IS a genre–and almost every pop cultural narrative you can find. Eve ate the apple and ruined everything. Being ruined is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. Think of Lydia Bennett running off with Wickham and her mother’s hysterics on the ruination of the family, the fall of Madame Bovary, the secret of Lady Dedlock that she will go to extraordinary efforts to keep. When men declare, “I’m ruined,” they are almost always speaking in financial terms. When women say it or it is said about them, it is usually indicating some kind of permanent social death or devaluation that impacts every aspect of her life.

Having consensual sex for the first time? You’ve lost your virginity. Been raped? Don’t get me started on the horrible work society does to convince itself that the woman must have earned or deserved it in some way. Women who cut their hair too short? Insufficiently sexy. Women who try to attract the male gaze? Slutty. Relationship break up? You lost your man. Stay with a guy you shouldn’t? You don’t have any self respect. Cried at work? Couldn’t tough it out. Showed insufficient femininity? You’re a bitch. Make a parenting mistake? You’re a bad mother. Too involved as a parent? You’re an unnatural mother. In every case you’ve “lost” something of value in the eyes of the beholder. Your perfection, non-existent to begin with, has been tarnished and you are the less for it.

It’s not just sexual, even though that’s the easiest route to police and punish women’s transgressions. I think back to the Sunday School lessons I had on chastity and virtue in church with their object lessons. Emphasis on the object. My body and soul were portrayed as gum that once chewed or cupcakes once bitten into were less desirable and holy. God could repair the spiritual damage for sexual transgression, of course…but you can’t unchew gum.

It’s alarmingly easy to be “ruined” as a woman. We might not tar and feather them anymore (at least not everywhere…plenty of woman are still whipped or stoned to death, or raped in punishment), but Sharp Objects also did a deft job of showing how women can be excluded, gossiped about, antagonized, denied support or compassion, or ostracized for their failures too. Affection can be removed, respect can be withdrawn, punishment can be meted out in the court of public opinion, or even just in the dark recesses of our own minds.

I’ve been ruined–in mostly small ways, thank god. I’ve been deemed insufficiently feminine and too deviant for my community in ways that produced isolation and even once made me fear a job might be on the line. I’ve been called a bitch and gossiped about. I’ve left a faith. As an inveterate Type A personality, I have failed at things and felt my self of self and self-worth absolutely crumble. Whether from other people or self inflicted, the concept of being ruined is a powerful one. Rational or not, I fear it.

Less toxic by far, the memory that immediately sprung to mind at Adora’s words were from my own mother when I got my ears pierced at 13. She cried because, as she told me, we put holes in “something perfect.” I remember being really confused and even a little unsettled by her reaction. As an adult, and through this lens, it makes more sense to me now. I was just growing up and this was a normal rite of passage for most girls. It was a small kind of imperfection or change–a little ruination. But my mother still cried over it. It’s impossible not to internalize a life lesson like that.

 

Signal Boost: The Dead Queens Club

Henry has it all: he’s the jock, the genius and the brooding bad boy all in one. Which sort of explains why he’s on his sixth girlfriend in two years. What it doesn’t explain is why two of them—two of us—are dead.

As you may recall, one of my two best friends for over 20 years now, bona fide genius, and absolutely cracking human being all around, had her debut novel picked up several months ago, and it’s due to drop next year. I’ve been impatiently counting down the days until I can shamelessly plug it…and good news, that day has arrived!

If you are US based, you can now enter to win an advanced reader copy (ARC) over at Goodreads!

As someone who had the enormous privilege of being an early reader of multiple drafts, and with whom the author has shared literal years of inside jokes about which wife of Henry VIII we would be, trust me when I say that anyone with any history is YA, history, the Tudors, kickass teen girls, murder, or mysteries is going to gulp this down with a spoon.

2017 in Review: Best of Books

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” 
― Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

I’m on track to meet my goal of reading 100 books in a year again! I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, but the truth is that my reading habits came tinged with both a little bit of snobbery and shame–both the product of a religious upbringing and a genuine desire to be an intelligent, well-read human. I didn’t like to admit how many romances, murder mysteries, chick lit, and easy reads I took in, even though I’ve always read “serious” novels and nonfiction in large quantities.

A couple of years ago I said to hell with it and have tried to document every book I’ve devoured on Goodreads just for the pleasure of keeping a list. I read everything. And more lately I’ve given myself permission to stop reading things I genuinely dislike (or actively hate; to this day I still grudge the hours I spent forcing myself to finish a novel in 2014). The result is unadulterated pleasure in books, and lot’s of ’em.

Favorite Young Adult: The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
A stunning debut novel about race and the fractured personal experiences that make up our collective cultural psyche.

Favorite Guilty Pleasure: The Crazy Rich Asian Trilogy, by Kevin Kwan
This series tells an over the top romp of a story of intertwined families, wealth, and outrageous privilege. The first books is apparently being turned into an upcoming film and I cannot wait!

Favorite New Author: Bill Bryson
He’s been around for yonks but I hadn’t read him until this year and swallowed four of his books in quick succession. His tone is delightful!

Favorite Memoir: The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher
In the words of Lin Manuel Miranda, “Here comes the general, rise up!”

Favorite Romance: The Duchess Deal, by Tessa Dare
She’s one of my favorite romance authors and in her deft hands, the old Beauty and the Beast tropes are re-rendered in a fun and interesting way.

Favorite Nonfiction: After the Prophet, by Leslie Hazelton
A historical telling of the early tensions and schisms of Islam which have continued through to today.

Favorite Novel: The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
I’m ranking this category by most “successful” on me personally. This book is a slow paced, English country house mystery/horror novel in which there are no monsters or gore, and as far as I recall no murders. Jeff still came home late one night to find me wrapped in blankets, on the sofa, with every light in the house on because the ending was so unnerving and scary. This book, alongside Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft are my highest reviewed reads of the year.

What were your favorite, or indeed most loathed, tomes of this year?

Girl Gang Good News Minute

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” 
― Toni Morrison

Excuse me while I brag, but one of my best friends in the world has sold her novel and I’m thrilled! The Dead Queens Club is coming your way in 2019! Believe or or not the concept for this came out of one of our (many and varied) email chains, and if that is my only claim to fame ever, I can shuffle off this mortal coil with honors. I will be plugging this left and right over the next couple of years, so it’s only fair to warn you all now.

But seriously, it’s a fantastic book. Get hyped.

Five Things I Loved in March

“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Another month down, a fistful of good things to love and share! Here are the things I used and abused this March, let me know what pop culture, entertainment, food, beauty, writing, or memes struck your fancy in the comments.

 

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Kimberly Clark Anti-Haul Videos. I found this Youtuber through another Youtuber and have really been enjoying her content. Kimberly Clark is the creator’s drag persona and in it, she makes content that discusses social issues and consumerism in a fun and interestingly POVed way. She’s most notable for her “anti-haul” videos where, instead of hyping beauty products, she lists out products that she’s “not gonna buy,” and more importantly, why not. Jokes, smarter consumerism goals, and fierce af eyeliner. What is not to love?

 

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The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling. This book has been out for years but I only just got around to reading it. I recall it got mixed reviews but I strongly suspect that’s down to this being the opposite of her famous Harry Potter books in every way. Far from fantastical, it’s about a country community facing internal strife and external pressures; it’s gritty, realistic, and there is no magic to save you, much less add a note of levity. Local politics, poverty, and the small heroics and failures of everyday people are the engine of the drama, and the results of

 

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Sawbones podcast. A work pal introduced me to this “marital tour through misguided medicine,” which goes down all the dark alleyways of medical history to showcase where we humans have gotten things spectacularly and hilariously wrong.

 

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Amuse Bouche Lipstick in Pepper, by Bite Beauty. Now that spring has well and truly sprung (thanks, Daylight Savings Time!), I’m back to the bright lipstick after a lengthy sojourn in neutrals-ville. But this switch is recent and of late my go-to has been this shade from Bite, which is the quintessential “your lips but better” for me, a concept I didn’t properly understand before this particular stick came into my life. I’m back on that orange-y red hustle full time, but I still keep this one in my bag. Just in case.

 

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Modern Mercury highlighter, by Estee Lauder x Victoria Beckham. This was my cheat item from my shopping ban, which actually managed to justify. More on that coming soon, but in the meantime, I have been wearing this almost every day since I bought it and remain hopelessly in love with this stupidly expensive item. This won’t be for everyone, and it’s far from a necessity, but I’ve found this rosy sheen about as resistible as a magpie would a pile of diamonds. It is, to put it succinctly, a beaut.

PSA: GLAZE

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
― Jane Austen

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I made it to a book launch? Well, this is the book! Kim Curran is another freelancer and writer I met through Twitter (that and blogs, how else do 21st century friendships began?) and finally got to meet in person at her launch, along with a whole host of other London writers. Let me be blunt, she’s fabulous. So is her book and right now it’s available for a limited time on the US Amazon.com site for $.99. Run, don’t walk.

GLAZE takes place in a near future and tells the story of the powerful social media technology of the same name, a girl who finds herself cut off from it and therefore everything that matters, and the desperate lengths she’s willing to go to belong. As you might expect, that’s when things start to get complicated.

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One of the posters from the launch.

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More importantly, one of the hilarious pun posters some of her friends and supporters made up.