Some Thoughts on and Beyond Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday

IMG_1426

Image from Cupcake

I was so excited to share my purchases from Saturday’s bookstore trip that I completely forgot to tell you that I finally finished Becoming! I am happy I read it. I loved Michelle Obama’s voice and her approach to her life as a political spouse. I appreciated how she wanted to keep things in perspective for her family. Since I’ve already written two posts about the book, I’m going to stop there. The last thing I will say about it is that you should read it if you haven’t already!

Once I finished up Becoming, I was finally able to move on to one of the titles I borrowed from the library a few weeks ago: Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. Based on what I’ve read about the book, I had certain expectations about the level of writing and the plot. And wow, did Halliday deliver some quality writing. Her sentences are thoughtfully written and beautifully crafted. Her characters are complex and yet somehow familiar. They feel like people I could have known or people I could be. I know she’s written short fiction before, but I am amazed that this is only her first novel.

That being said, this book stumped me a little. I knew from reviews that the plot was not straightforward, but I was prepared to figure it out as I read. I’m not sure I did. I think I see the points at which the three sections of the book meet, but I’m not confident. Maybe I’m not supposed to be, and perhaps that’s the point.

A lot of readers may be frustrated by a novel like this because it seems more like three novellas or stories in one. I think at one time, I would have been frustrated because it’s not straightforward. Over the years, I have gotten more patient with and more curious about experimental forms of writing and plot.

Maybe part of that patience comes from the fact that Halliday is a woman? This is something I’m going to have to process a bit more, but I think that most of the “non-standard” novels I’ve read have been written by men, and I often get annoyed with them.  I often find that they write books that are “out there” for the sake of being provocative, rather than focusing on creating a compelling narrative. Am I missing the women who are doing this? Or have readers traditionally given male writers more flexibility on how they can write?

These questions dominated my initial interest in this book, which was Halliday’s relationship with Philip Roth.  Based on what I know about it, their affair is somewhat reflected in the text, but I think this is indeed fiction and not a thinly veiled biography. In the end, the book as a whole, a thoughtful and well put together narrative, won out over gossip and speculation. I like how Halliday was able to use her own experiences as inspiration but made the story into something else entirely.

I may need to put this one on my “to reread” list. This is something I do when I enjoy a title or when I know I can get more out of it on a second read. With Asymmetry, it’s a little of both. I found each section to be full of delicious language that I wanted to pore over and savor. Moving from one part to the next jolted me out of my usual middle-of-the-novel complacency, which I liked. It’s definitely the type of book worthy of a reread.

A Perfect Saturday at the Bookstore

IMG_1892 copy

I have had a gift card to a local bookstore in my wallet for over a year now. My parents gave one to me and one to my fiancé the Christmas before last. Since then, it has been torturing me. I imagine it has been calling out “use me! Think of the books!” But I resisted its pleas. My bookshelves are packed with titles I haven’t read yet, and I’ve started to store the overflow under my dining room table. I live in a New York City apartment, so there is only so much space I can use for storage.

IMG_1893.jpg

IMG_1895

But then my fiancé came up with a perfect excuse to use our cards: We should read a book together! We have never done this before, and I was excited when he suggested the idea. We could have gone to the library (you know how much I love the library) and borrowed the book, but we read at very different paces. I’m not sure when we’d actually be able to return it.

And so, on a beautiful New York Saturday afternoon, with the trees budding and dogs playing in the park and everyone shedding layers and enjoying the sun, we took a walk down to the bookstore. Well, he walked. I skipped. I was pretty excited.

Here’s what I bought:

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
This is the title my fiancé suggested reading together after he heard Wilkinson interviewed on WNYC. Spy novels are not my go-to reading material, but as I said, I was pumped to read something with my partner and try something new! I don’t know of too many spy novels written by women of color, or people of color for that matter, so I am glad that this genre is on its way to no longer being dominated by white men.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
I knew I was buying this as soon as I saw it on a table near the front of the store. So many people have told me how great this book is, and I love the cover! I am also trying to incorporate more novels in verse into my reading life. I read Joy McCullough’s Blood Water Paint last year and was thoroughly engrossed, amazed at how I could be so invested in a story with so few words on the page.

Every Body Yoga by Jessamyn Stanley
I have a love-hate relationship with yoga. I always feel great after a class, but I usually end up falling over at least once, and I am always comparing myself to the other people in the class who look like pros. I like Stanley’s message that everybody, literally every body, can do yoga. It’s refreshing to see someone tackle the idea that yoga is for one kind of person who looks and moves a certain way.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin
From what I’ve heard of this book, it falls into a category I like to call “smart fun.” It’s written well but is still funny and an easy, enjoyable read. It’s the kind of book you could take on vacation, but feel like you’re engaging your brain. Sex scandals involving politicians are not new, but I am curious to see how Zevin approaches the topic. I also love books told from multiple points of view.

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
Historical fiction is my catnip. It combines my love of reading and great story-telling with my fascination with history (yes, I am a nerd, thank you). I have not read much historical fiction/fantasy, but I think this is the perfect place to start. I also had no idea who Wilson was until this book came out recently. Based on what I’ve read about her and her work, I may have found a new favorite author.

On Reprioritizing Reading

nathan-dumlao-1099564-unsplash

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

 

Has it ever taken longer than you expected to finish a book?  That’s what’s happening with me and Becoming.  I respect Michelle Obama so much, and am enjoying her story each time I get to it, but it’s just taking me forever to get through.  Part of it has do with the fact that it’s been a long couple of weeks at work, and I am exhausted when I get home and just want to go to bed rather than read for too long.  Another part is that, starting recently, I’m writing more about books than I am actually reading them. Which is ironic, right?

 

Obama seems to be the queen at handling busy schedules and making sure she keeps her priorities straight.  Yes, she has a team to help her with all this, one that grew as she became more successful and in the public eye, but the way she addresses this shows some internal conflict.  I was struck by her anecdote about hiring a chef to make meals for her family. While she knew it would mean healthy meals for her family, it also meant taking advantage of a level of wealth and privilege that a lot of people do not have, and grappling with that.  Her family’s health and convenience won out, but I appreciated seeing her weigh the balance and make the decision even if she struggled with it.

 

Everyone has packed schedules these days, each new thing to do a piece in a constantly changing puzzle.  How do we balance the necessities with the fun and relaxing aspects of life? No matter your income, there always seems to be more to do.  For me, reading books blurs the line between necessary and relaxing, and not doing it on a regular basis leaves me feeling like something’s missing.  Paying someone to cook for me so I can read is a little extreme and unrealistic (I can’t pay for that, and I like to cook), but I can make other changes in my routine.  I don’t have to watch something on Netflix tonight.  I can put down my phone and the endless Instagram scroll and pick up my book.  

 

Do you have any tricks that help you make time for reading?

 

5 Great Books By Women, About Women, That You Should Read

timothy-l-brock-1128491-unsplash

Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash

I am still reading Becoming, which I posted about a few days ago.  But while I’m wrapping that up and gathering my  thoughts on it, I wanted to share some books I read last year I thought you might enjoy! I have always tried to prioritize reading books written by women, even before taking on this year’s project, and there are so many wonderful titles out there that I can’t help but highlight a few extras.

 

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

This book focuses on friendships between women and how they can be wonderful, fulfilling, and complicated all at once.  It was fascinating to read about some of my favorite authors and their writing processes and support systems, and I’m thinking a lot about that as I integrate writing back into my life with this blog.  I love the fact that Mirdorikawa and Sweeney are writing friends. The introduction by Margaret Atwood is also great!

 

The Amputee’s Guide to Sex by Jillian Weise

I have never been a huge poetry fan.  It usually feels over my head. But this slim volume packed an emotional punch that I really appreciated.  I have mild cerebral palsy, and it is difficult to find books with characters and voices that I can relate to when it comes to navigating dating and sex when you have physical differences.  Weise is bold and brave in her honesty about finding and maintaining physical relationships with partners. It is a level of honesty I crave when I read.

 

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland

What I initially thought would be a fun, laid-back read quickly turned into a smartly-woven tale covering mental health, domestic abuse, love, and family.  Lovejoy Cardew is smart but guarded, and I loved following her as she overcame her past to create a happy future for herself. Plus, the story takes place mostly in a bookstore, which was fantastic.  Because, come on, who doesn’t love a bookstore?

 

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I was excited to read this one when I heard that the protagonist was a female attorney in 1920’s Bombay.  Massey’s writing is intelligent and gripping, and Perveen Mistry is a strong woman who is not afraid to use her brain. I am so excited for the second book in the series to come out in May.

 

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

This is a great pick if you have a long weekend coming up when you know you just want to curl up with a good, long book.  I loved the two timelines between contemporary and 1660’s London, and I learned so much about a Jewish community there that I never knew existed.  Ester and Helen are both fighting for respect for their academic achievements, and Kadish weaves their stories together beautifully.

 

What are some titles by female authors that you’ve read?  Are there any that I should add to my TBR?  I am really enjoying reading only women so far this year and seeing the diverse stories we have.  I would love more suggestions!

giphy

Via GIPHY

Current Read: Becoming by Michelle Obama

 

IMG_3007 copy

It was raining most of the afternoon, so I had a lazy Sunday reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming.  I feel like this book has been staring at me since I got it on pub day, screaming, “Read me!”  I am so glad I moved it up in my TBR. It lives up to the hype. But I am also feeling incredibly self-conscious, because this woman has accomplished so much in her life, and while I think I’m doing pretty well (good job, good relationship, supportive friends and family, all that good stuff), this book is giving me a lesson in perspective.  I’m not sure Michelle Obama gets to have many lazy reading afternoons anymore, or that she ever did.

 

I’m about half-way through, and I’m sure I will have so much more to write once I finish the book, but there are a few ideas I want to put out there now.  One is that Obama never lets you forget her roots, and she makes it very clear that each individual’s experience matters. She takes pride in her family and their work ethic and example, and makes sure the reader knows it.  Her writing puts the American family, and what it means to be an American family, into perspective.

 

I grew up in an upper middle-class,  predominantly white town and went to mostly white schools.  I was taught from a very young age that I had strengths, and that I had opportunities.  Coming from a black, working-class family in Chicago, this was not how Obama was raised. Her parents were clearly supportive and wanted her to succeed, and worked incredibly hard to help her get there, but they did not have the safety net that I had that allowed them to tell their children to find themselves, even if it meant taking a pay cut.  They had to work harder, and I know that race played a huge role in that. This isn’t to say that my parents did not work hard, and that I don’t either, because we do, but white privilege is a real thing, and I’m glad that Obama highlights it. 

 

Another point she won’t let me forget is that there is no one “black experience” in America, and that everyone deserves to be seen as individuals, which I know is a challenge for many to do.  It is a sad and unfortunate part of this country that we need to grapple with. Obama shows us two very different lives just by comparing hers to Barack’s, and yet there is a tendency to group all people of color into one narrative.  Individuality is not allowed or expected.  But if we granted everyone the right to their own stories and lives, I think we’d have a much richer, deeper experience of each other, and I think Obama is trying to show readers how valuable that can be.

 

And the thing is, she is so nice about it.  She is able to lay out her story as it was and draw attention to the unfairness of certain parts of our system without pointing fingers or prescribing blame directly.  The book provides a safe space for open and honest reflection about how race and class and gender are discussed in this country.  This woman has overcome a lot of barriers, and she is going to make sure your remember that.  

 

But there is so much more to this book, and I’m not giving it enough credit by focusing this post only on issues of race and class.  It is a major component, but not the whole thing.  Obama has dealt with both adversity and success with a dignity most of us can only hope to emulate, and she still knows how to have a good time and connect with others.  As a woman, she had been the target of many criticisms yet still continues to live her life and be an example to her two daughters.  I am so excited to finish this book soon and write down some more thoughts on it later.

giphy-2

Via Giphy

 

Some thoughts on and beyond The Dark Bride, by Laura Restrepo

flavia-carpio-770955-unsplashPhoto by Flavia Carpio on Unsplash

I read this book in February before going to Colombia on vacation.  Whenever I’m lucky enough to travel outside the US, I always try to read books by authors from the countries I’m visiting.  I was especially excited for this trip because this was my first visit to South America, and I know I have only just begun discovering amazing works from that part of the world.  An obvious author to read would have been Gabriel García Márquez, and while I’ve read Love in the Time of Cholera and loved it, I knew I wanted to read something by a female author.  Actually, I knew I needed to read one, given my reading project for the year.  Some internet research led me to a great article about female Colombian authors, and that’s how I found Laura Restrepo and The Dark Bride.

The sentences in this book twist and turn, and I got lost in them more than once and would have to double back to make sure I absorbed the nuanced language and emotions.  There is so much packed in about life, love, identity, and family that I would find myself pausing mid-paragraph to let the words marinate in brain for a little while.  Restrepo introduced me to a society of oil workers and prostitutes that I would not have known otherwise.

This book takes you into the world of people who work very hard for very little.  They experience a lot of love, death, jealousy, and poverty, which is a world away from what most tourists, including myself, see from their tropical beach vacations and the candy-colored streets of Cartagena.  I did get glimpses of “real life” when I visited a local market, but I was with a guide, and it was very clear that I was separate from the people working there. Class and race are complicated topics in the US, and but I didn’t know what to expect in Colombia.  The intersection of Spanish, indigenous, and Caribbean culture has led to a diverse population with its own unique hierarchy that I was unsure how to navigate and yet simultaneously felt familiar. Whiteness is valued and respected highly there, and much of the wealth lies with that population.  But at the same time, I feel like there was a higher level of diversity than I am used to, even in New York. It was a different and somewhat uncomfortable experience for me to stand out for being one of the few light-skinned people in a room. And I am pale and sunburn easily and have red hair, so I REALLY stood out.  Or at least, that’s what it felt like. For all I know, no one noticed me at all and I need to work on being less self-conscious and more comfortable being in diverse spaces.

I was also very conscious of the women in Cartagena.  Short dresses in heels were everywhere, along with stores selling bikinis and accessories for the beach.  It’s a different kind of woman than those I read about in The Dark Bride. These women have formed their own small community and rely on each other for support in a society where their presence and professions are frowned upon but tolerated.  They come together and fight a government attempting to exploit them. It was bittersweet to me to read about this camaraderie. I have close female friends and feel a strong bond with them, but women are so often taught to compete against one another when it comes to looks, wealth, and marital status.  There is a fend for yourself attitude that can be exhausting, and I wonder what life would be like with that level of commitment to a group of women. The portrayal of prostitution was also interesting to me. On the surface, most of the women defended their livelihood and their decision to stick with it, but how much of that is actual choice and how much of that is circumstance?  How much are any of our choices driven by circumstance? It makes me consider the debate about if prostitution should be legal. I am all for protecting women and advocating for their health care, but when I think about the women who did not choose prostitution, is legalization the way to go? I do not have any answers to these questions, and it is a much more complicated topic than what can be addressed in a blog post (or at least, this blog post).  But this book pushed me to grapple with these questions in a way that I hadn’t before, which made me enjoy the experience of reading it even more. I’m looking forward to reading more of Restrepo’s books and learning more about her country through her writing.

 

NYPL just made my day

IMG_1885Imagine this for me, will you?  You open your email on your lunch break, dreading the amount of spam in your inbox because of that one time you bought a sweater from that random site (and had to return it because the material was super itchy, by the way).  You start to select every new message, expecting to trash it all when….what’s this?! An email from the library?! Hooray! A new book is ready and waiting for you to come claim it and take it home and love it before passing it onto the next person.  You do a little dance in your seat, drawing looks from your co-worker in the cube across the way. But you don’t care, you have new stuff to read!

 

Sound familiar, or is this just what I did today when I found out that not one but TWO of the books on my hold list were ready for me?  Floating through the rest of the afternoon, I left work as soon as I could and stopped by the library on my way home, where I found Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, & Criminal in 19th Century New York by Stacy Hornand Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday waiting for me.  I don’t know if this counts as a #libraryhaul, because it’s only two books, but I’m super excited to have these to add to my TBR for the next few weeks.

 

I wanted to read Damnation Island because the subtitle grabbed me immediately.  I love reading historical nonfiction, especially about New York. I am also curious to learn more about the progression of mental health care in the US.  I think historical context matters a lot in conversations of social policy. How did we get where we are now? How can we learn from our mistakes? When I walk through the city every day, I see so many homeless people who are clearly mentally ill.  There is one man in particular who rants and raves at imaginary people most of the time, and I wonder what can be done to help him. A friend who works with a lot of mental health patents once told me that this is a sad reality for many people with mental illness.  The system is not designed to care for them, and they don’t get the help they need. I am interested to learn more about that. And to focus more on the theme of my project this year, I hope Horn spends some time focusing on women’s experiences. Women seem to be labeled as “crazy” at an alarming rate even now, so I imagine their lives with true mental illness were horrific in the 19th century.

 

Asymmetry fulfills a little of my voyeuristic curiosity, since I am a big book nerd and was so intrigued by the author’s relationship with Philip Roth.  But as I read more about the book, I realized that it was much more than auto-fiction. Halliday is playing with structure and storytelling, and I am excited to read it!  I don’t know too much more about the book than that, so I’m looking forward to checking back in and sharing my thoughts soon.

 

Okay, I have a confession to make….I have lived in New York for nine years now, and only joined the library last year!  Isn’t that crazy? I always looked at my ever-growing stack of books I own and felt like it wasn’t fair that I couldn’t add to them.  But then I’d stare at my shelves, full of unread books, and think “there is nothing to read.” Joining the library fixed that. It injects a freshness into my TBR pile that I sometimes desperately crave.  I will continue to own and hoard books, but I plan on being a library member for a long time.

giphy-1

Via GIPHY