Nov 9: Slumps

I used to have very long reading slumps. Once I had one that lasted nearly a year. Like a lot of people I had one at the beginning of the pandemic that went for a few months. For me, a reading slump doesn't mean I don't read, it can manifest in a lot of ways.

I may not read fewer books but I spend less time reading in a slump. But for me it's never really been about time, it tends to be more about how I feel. Am I excited to sit down and read or do I think, nah I'm not feeling it tonight?

I have had more than one slump where I could only really read books that moved quickly. I would read thriller after thriller after thriller and not really be able to get any progress on anything else. Even if I didn't particularly love the books, I needed to feel that propulsion to be able to spend time with it.

Sometimes a book can singlehandedly pull you out of a slump. And sometimes I'll surprise myself by reading something relatively difficult and dense even while I'm in the thick of a slump. They are unpredictable.

These days my slumps are smaller. I just pulled myself out of one, which is why you'll see a lot more books than usual in the What I've Been Reading section. (It is actually abbreviated, I have finished two more books since that I will put in next week so as not to guarantee that not a single person finishes reading this week's send.) I kind of prefer the smaller slumps to the year-long ones, since I get to enjoy myself more, but always knowing another slump could be just around the corner is tough.

New Releases

O Beautiful
From the critically acclaimed author of Shelter, an unflinching portrayal of a woman trying to come to terms with the ghosts of her past ...

As of now, this is the last release off my Best of 2021 list and I'm thrilled to see it out in the world. It had to be the first on my list this week. Yun's debut, Shelter, was very impressive and she's even better here. It is a book that makes a real effort to capture the feeling of the post-#MeToo moment, a thing lots of books and articles try to do but few actually succeed at.

Our protagonist, Elinor, has just changed careers and is trying to get a foothold in journalism. She has hung all her hopes on one assigned magazine piece, to examine the way the influx of workers for the oil boom has thrown a North Dakota town for a loop. Elinor is still quite green, her only real qualification is her childhood spent growing up in North Dakota, she has fallen into the job thanks to an assist from a former professor who is also her former lover.

Elinor means well, and she thinks she knows what she's getting into, but she is also an absolute mess in ways she has not dealt with. And being an absolute mess means that even a small hurdle can turn into a huge problem. Over the course of the book, Elinor has to figure out how to write this story but she is also constantly confronted with her own past, her shortcomings, her failures.

It's a fantastic, very readable novel about insiders and outsiders, about race and gender and class, about the way all these things can come together to create a powder keg that could blow at any moment. I won't say it's not a stressful read, but when you're finished you know just how impressive it is.

Love in the Big City
Love in the Big City is the English-language debut of Sang Young Park, one of Korea’s most exciting young writers. A runaway bestseller, ...

A slice-of-life novel in stories about a young gay man in South Korea. We still don't get much LGBTQ+ lit in translation so any new arrival is a cause for celebration.

This is a mostly melancholy look at friends and lovers and breakups. It's the kind of novel you get about straight 20-somethings in NYC all the time, so it's a breath of fresh air. While Korea is not a fully safe or friendly place to be openly gay, the novel uses this mostly as context and doesn't give us much by way of queer suffering.

I loved how frank and not-always-romantic this was, particularly around STI's. When one appears, it is treated practically instead of as some kind of tragedy, a lot like real life.

The Sentence
In this stunning and timely novel, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich creates a wickedly funny ghost st...

I am just getting started with Erdrich but since this one was coming out I figured I would give it a try. It's an unusual book, for sure, and I expect it'll have a wide variety of responses. It's set over the course of a year, in Minneapolis, in Erdrich's real life bookstore, from November 2019 to November 2020. And yes, it is set in the real world in real time so the pandemic and the BLM protests are all major elements. For me, this was the trickiest part. It wasn't even the pandemic, but the protests still felt like a fresh wound and they're a major element of the novel, so it was hard to read those sections.

The structure varies, never quite falling into a rhythm. We start off with the backstory of our protagonist, Tookie, who ended up in prison thanks to an unusual turn of events, and now works as a bookseller. This is definitely a book for people who cherish the indie bookstore experience, it may not hit the same if you don't. (Tookie's tastes are on the highbrow side, that's for sure. Someone give her a fantasy novel or a cozy mystery!) The most interesting storyline is Tookie's worry that the ghost of a customer is haunting the store and the ups and downs of her relationship with her husband and stepdaughter.

Reviews seem pretty split, I'm in the middle, but I can see exactly what the elements are that made this not great for me but would really elevate it for others.

What I've Been Reading

It was a much busier reading week this week!

These Toxic Things
A dead woman’s cherished trinkets become pieces to a te…

Stars: 3
Shelves: AOC, Mystery, Audiobook
Release Date: It's out!

This is another one that I expect will split readers. It's got a unique protagonist and an interesting premise, and the question is whether you feel like it delivers.

Mickie has just moved back in to the garage apartment in her parents' house after a failed relationship. With her boss. Again! So much of that lately! But it surely fits Mickie who is, let's be clear, spoiled as hell. She eats the food out of her parents' fridge, she almost never wears her own clothes but mines her mother's closet. This becomes important for the plot, but it's also just nice to see a character who feels like a very recognizable person.

Mickie is a digital archaeologist working for a startup that creates Memory Banks, digital memory archives with stories and pictures and holograms. It's a cool idea to work from, and gives Mickie a reason to get deeply invested in the life of her new client Nadia, who owns a small antique store in Los Angeles.

There is, obviously, a murder. And as Mickie dives into the stories of Nadia's life and becomes a part of the small community around her, she starts to feel threats coming from all directions.

I didn't think this one stuck the landing, instead I felt that it undermined everything it had been trying to say about the threats women face every day. It's also one of those stories where I constantly found myself nitpicking things. (Why is Mickie at this store every day for weeks when all she seems to be doing is taking a single set of pictures each day? Why doesn't she just take them all at the same time?? Literally what is taking you so long, Mickie???) And this is one of those things that tends to really vary based on the individual reader.

The audio was solid. Funny story: the audiobook I listened to right before this had the same reader but it took me a while to realize it because she so effectively adjusted her voice for the different first-person characters. Noting for myself that Susan Dalian is a new fave.

Devil House
Gage Chandler is descended from kings. That’s what his mother always told him. Now, he is a true crime writer, with one grisly success--...

Stars: 4.5
Shelves: Crime, Best of 2022
Release Date: Jan 25, 2022

Oh was I excited to read a new horror novel by John Darnielle. BUT. TWIST. This isn't a horror novel! And yet I am still immensely satisfied with this novel. A big swing from Darnielle, whose previous novels were certainly ambitious in tone and structure, but still compact. This is a 400+ book with a few books inside it, with shifting narrators and stories, playing in true crime and coming-of-age and metafiction. This is one of those "go into it cold if you can" books, as is so often the case with this type of unusual structure.

It is also one of those Stick With It books. It took me a little while to get into a rhythm. I was feeling rather slumpy when I started and for the first 100 or so pages I was feeling fine but not really in love. But I love a book that shapeshifts, and I found myself more intrigued as time passed. Of its seven sections (told in ABCDCBA format), there was even one where I was like, "Wait, what is happening?" But in a good way. I couldn't tell where we were going from one section to the next. They all connect organically but I couldn't figure out why one story was stopping and now another was starting, but I enjoyed the ride more and more.

And then it all came together. In a narrative about narratives there's always room for tricks, because we all know that the creation of narrative is an exercise in choosing what to say and what not to say. It's been explored in all kinds of novels from Trust Exercise to Atonement. It can be tricky to pull off and there are almost always some readers who get annoyed because they prefer a straightforward narrative. So let's be clear: if you would like a straightforward narrative, this is not the book for you. The themes are laid out quite clearly, the groundwork is all there, and for me that final section had me on absolute tenterhooks, as Darnielle slowly oh so slowly got me to his final destination. After such a long and strange voyage, it was a hell of a finish.

I do not want to dive into the specifics because I want you to have the pleasure of going through this book bit by bit. But at its heart it's about nostalgia, about the stories we hear as children on the playground that become legend, about the Satanic panic (yes that cover is there for a reason), about the hysteria that can thrive around a crime, about the way we subsume the stories of terrible crimes to become our entertainment. So even if not horror, right up my personal alley.

The Bedeviled
Maggie Caine and her family leave New York to visit the Caine family home, an old farmhouse in Ohio, which her husband has just inherited...

I am always looking for some interesting 70's horror and this one caught my eye since I'd already planned to eventually read Cullinan's THE BEGUILED. It has a lot of the themes you see in 70's horror while not feeling at all like a retread.

Our narrator is Maggie Caine, a middle-aged housewife, married to a man she doesn't particularly care for. She cares about her two children, teenaged Duff and 10-year-old Frannie, and yet she seems to hold them, and everyone, at a remove. One of my chief pleasures was how different the family and parenting norms were, you would never see a first person narrator who is a mother write this way now.

Maggie's husband Jack is dissatisfied with city life and decides to move them all back to the land, to his family homestead, after it becomes vacant upon the death of the elderly relative who lived there. There are more than your fair share of 70s horror stories about this, but seeing it through Maggie, who doesn't feel any particular compulsion to leave, is a nice twist on the familiar story. Jack, who decides he's going to write a novel, would normally be our protagonist, blithely ignoring the rest of his family as they slowly get sucked into destruction. But here it's Maggie, who sees more clearly than anyone else just how everything is going wrong.

Duff, a scrawny, bookish high school senior who plays the flute, begins acting strangely not long after their arrival at the old house. The neighbors are odd, and Maggie keeps catching them in lies. The town has whispers of Satanism as well as a shrine that was allegedly the site of a miracle, but the priests are not convinced the miracle was wrought by God. And Maggie begins to see what she thinks might be visions of a man in a union uniform, a man she begins to believe is her husband's grandfather, General Caine.

Maggie writes from just after the events of the book, and often foreshadows what lies ahead. Cullinan is excellent about doling out these little insights, which let you know terrible things are coming but also distract you from the terrible things you didn't get warned about which surprise you along the way. There are some excellent twists and plenty of subversions of the usual tropes. The priests here are relatively useless as religious practitioners, and they don't seem to think these stories of Satanism are actually true. Maggie herself is a nonbeliever and lapsed Catholic, not one to go looking for an exorcism. Because Maggie has a limited point of view, we don't get too bogged down in the lore or the reasons, we just get to see things through her, even as she starts to realize she cannot trust her own perspective. This unreliability also helps to explain many of Maggie's choices, which would be hugely frustrating in a protagonist who was fully aware.

A real gem, I'm glad to have found it and now I have more of an incentive to read more from Cullinan.

I read the new audio edition from Valancourt Books, and found narrator Linda Jones a great fit for the material.

“Titillating. . . . Krantz sweeps readers into a narrative that seduces and educates in equal measure. . . . [OPEN] offers an alluring an...

Stars: ???
Shelves: Memoir, LGBTQ
Release Date: Jan 25, 2022

Every so often I read a book and have THOUGHTS but the book has no Goodreads reviews and it feels unfair to throw such a giant review at it. (Often books I read, even pre-release have dozens of reviews already when I get to them. Other times I'm the first. There isn't much rhyme or reason to it.) So now I will throw my THOUGHTS at all of you. They will be very long, I apologize in advance.

The first big problem with this book is that it isn't what it says it is. The full title is Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy, just so we are all on the same page. It isn't all that uncommon for marketing to reshape what a book really is, even though this often backfires when people don't get the book they expected. But it's not just the marketing team here, the book isn't what Krantz says it is, it's not the book she decided to write. That book was a deeply documented journey through her forays into nonmonogamy.

Instead this is a book about a very very bad relationship where nonmonogamy (along with BDSM) is used as a weapon to manipulate Krantz by her partner. That the word "liberation" is in the subtitle makes me cringe because what Krantz experiences is the opposite. She is limited, pulled back, made to be less. Even if she is dating and sleeping with other people, this is nothing like liberation.

This is actually a fairly common introduction to nonmonogamy, to have a partner who behaves badly be the one who brings you in, where that person uses nonmonogamy to justify their own bad behavior. That person gets to do basically whatever they want, while the new partner is told they will have freedom while actually this isn't about them at all. And when that new partner starts to try things on their own, the reins are quickly pulled back because really this is just a system where a selfish person gets an excuse to be selfish.

To be clear, this is not how nonmonogamy is supposed to work. Just like how any bad monogamous relationship is not supposed to involve possessiveness, manipulation, and abuse. Monogamy can be used as a weapon in its own ways, too. It is not about the relationship system, it's about the person.

Krantz, though, doesn't see it that way. That leads me to the other big problem. It is the one I run into most often, where the writer does not have enough distance from the subject to see it clearly. There is certainly value in documenting something as it happens or not long after it happens so it's as clear as possible. But it took me a good ten years or so to get a better view on very difficult parts of my life, to realize that the narrative I'd created at the time wasn't the whole truth. And this can make a memoir frustrating when you see how the memoirist is missing the actual story in their story.

As a book about nonmonogamy it has its issues. It is part memoir and part explainer. (Sometimes the explaining is excessive, like the use of a footnote to explain what a "they" pronoun is.) But this shifts significantly as we go forward. For the first third or so this relationship is presented as mostly healthy, as something loving where they're exploring together, where they're finding their boundaries and confronting their issues. Except that to me it was just a nonstop pile of red flags. (At the start of the book, Krantz is 27, they are the exact kind of red flags you overlook at 27, to be fair.) I couldn't understand how this bad, unhealthy relationship was being presented as almost a model of how to explore nonmonogamy.

Eventually, by the last third, we get regular chapters and even footnotes to Krantz's arguments and conversations with her partners and others finally explaining to us how his tactics are manipulative and even abusive. But for me it felt like it came much too late. She had practically endorsed all of this for so long, that even if finally coming around to see things clearly accurately reflects her own experience, if Krantz's goal is to also explain/present a story of nonmonogamy, she hasn't done a very good job of it.

A relationship where nonmonogamy was practiced badly is not the right vehicle to explain nonmonogamy. It could have been an opportunity to talk about how nonmonogamy can be weaponized, but it wants to be something else. It also takes a strangely limited view of nonmonogamy. A significant portion of it is about swinging, which I found surprising. It's much more common among older people than younger ones.  To be clear, there are a wide variety of ways to practice nonmonogamy and swinging is one of them. But for the millennial set, especially queer millennials, it is pretty uncommon.

Swinging also has a lot of very problematic heteronormative and even transphobic views. It is almost entirely cis people having heterosexual relationships. Even if the women are queer, their experiences with other women exist only with men to watch them. (EW. Like I guess I don't want to kink shame and I get that kink can revolve around the very systems that oppress us but still it made me deeply uncomfortable, particularly the terminology used which I will not repeat because it was gross.) The men cannot exhibit anything less that masculinity. And gender is defined as genitals constantly, I can't imagine a trans person feeling safe with this crowd. It's tied up very deeply in patriarchy and marriage and I found all of that very strange, given Krantz's queer community and her desire to tap more deeply into her own queerness. But see, that's what happens when everything about this story is rooted in her partner's wants and desires. Of course that guy likes an environment where "his girl" (EW EW) is always going to be there for him at the end of the day, where he is welcome to keep an eye on her, where everyone in the group knows that his relationship with her is the dominant one but he can still mess around with whoever he likes.

To be clear, I have all these THOUGHTS because I am nonmonogamous. It's why I read this book. I feel the need to see how we are being presented to the world and say whether it is accurate. The vast majority of representation is people "trying it out" because they feel like it will be an interesting story and there is some of that here, although Krantz feels a deeper connection to the concepts of nonmonogamy than most people who undertake this kind of experiment. Hilariously the conversations that happen within nonmonogamous communities, not the ones that you see in pop culture at large, focus almost entirely on examples of good relationships, on how to communicate well, on how to be ethical, it is very aspiration/inspiration. So there's a pretty stark divide between pop culture representation and the way the community sees itself. (If you read this book and watched YOU Season 3, you would think that all nonmonogamy is swinging and I promise you it really is not.)

I am not saying that Krantz is not nonmonogamous enough. What I am saying is that the end of the book is the beginning of the story she meant to tell. (This is also one of the critiques I find comes up most often with memoir.) Only when she is out of this terrible relationship can she really start figuring out what nonmonogamy is for her. Only then does she have the ability to try things freely and learn what works for her and then explain it to others who may be curious. She doesn't yet have enough distance behind her to see it with a clear eye.

My main concern with this gap between what the book says it is and what it is, is that it is going to be an extremely tough read for someone who has been in a relationship where they were manipulated and abused. And that is not what they are going to expect, and I wouldn't blame them at all. The content warnings here are significant. There is a lot of sex described in detail (though despite all the words like "titillating" in the copy, I didn't find it all that sexy or shocking) but more than that there is disordered eating, gaslighting, emotional and physical abuse, including sexual assault. And these are regularly recurring elements, not something that just pops up on the side, they are the bulk of the book.

For me it was a truly wild experience to read. So much so that I started texting my reactions to one of my partners as I read. (Yes, dating me is fun.) Most of my texts were all the red flags of the Terrible Boyfriend. I couldn't understand how this clearly awful guy was the hero of the book. It took a very long time to see that she might finally start to see him as the villain. It was hugely frustrating, even though I realized that Krantz was focusing on how she felt at the time, how all these things felt like pros rather than cons. For a long time it felt like this deeply unhealthy relationship was being held up as a model. Finally, at the end, Krantz admits that many of her readers of the manuscript didn't like her partner and that this upset her, she wanted to write about him with compassion and insisted he was a good person who didn't mean to be like this. I am just going to leave that for you and just add that for me, after reading this entire memoir written by a person who still cares about this man and insists he doesn't mean it, is that he is an absolutely horrible human being with no redeeming qualities. So.

It is hard for me to rate this because I don't know exactly what to rate. It isn't what it said it is. But it's captivating, I blew through it in two days. If it had been a weekend I probably would have read it in one sitting. Sometimes Krantz's prose was on the flowery side for me, but I admire her efforts to fully document this period knowing she'd like to write about it. She even has actual transcripts of conversations to throw in, and she certainly does a good job of putting you in her headspace at the time as you go. It is surprisingly comforting to read a memoir by someone who has gone to extreme measures to be as accurate as possible about every single conversation. I don't think Krantz did what she set out to do, but the thing she actually did instead is one of the most detailed portraits of narcissism and manipulation in romantic relationships that I've ever seen. I don't really know where I end up with this book, I don't even know if or how to recommend it. But I can certainly say that I could not put it down.

(This is the first time I have been truly grateful to have this newsletter, because all those thoughts desperately needed to get out of my head.)

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