Wires and Waves Reads

Wires and Waves Reads: Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased

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It feels a bit like cheating to declare a book a favorite after only reading it once, but that is what I am going to do. Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased resonated with me on multiple levels, and I am sure that it is one I will come back to often. Conley grew up in Arkansas in a very religious Baptist family. As a teenager, his father accepted a calling as a pastor.Everyday secular activities and attitudes were considered to be of the devil, so his parents took his homosexuality particularly hard. When Conley first goes off to college, he is relieved. He can and does read all the books he wants, even sharing his favorite, The Picture of Dorian Gray, with his mother, with whom he is very close. He makes friends who know nothing about his very religious upbringing, and they do normal things like discuss literature, watch movies, and explore their campus. Most importantly, however, he can start to digest and accept his homosexuality outside of the confines of his small town and conservative family. After he is sexually assaulted and the assailant outs him to his family, he is sent to Love in Action, a conversion therapy program. It is just as terrible as you might imagine. At this center, homosexuality is compared to awful things like pedophilia and diseases like alcoholism. Conley is encouraged to blame his homosexuality on his parents or grandparents, and he is forced to give up all wordly interests, including his love of literature and writing.

Conley’s story is not just a cautionary tale of conversion therapy, although it serves this purpose well. It also explores the concept of identity as a whole and what makes up a person. We are not just our families, our religion, our friends, or our interests. All of those things are integral and intertwined in making a person, and Conley explores those themes beautifully. We are also not what people say we are, but it takes a lot of courage to dig out from under those expectations and stereotypes to become who we actually are. This does not just apply to the counselors and his family, as Conley makes it clear that faith also defines him in some ways. Conley writes so poetically that it made the hard parts even harder and the more illuminating parts even more so. I also really loved Conley’s relationship with his mother, as it shows that good people sometimes make bad decisions because they are trying to fill others’ expectations as well. I recommend this book to all the people in the world. Amen.

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Xtina’s Favorite Books of 2016

I read 42 books this year! I am pretty proud of myself, considering I took a few very busy courses and had a constantly-moving toddler to wrangle. It helped that several professors required heavy reading. Below is a list of some of my favorite books I read this year. Some were published in 2016, and some were published in 1964. I’m not an ageist.

You can read my reviews here if you feel so inclined.

The Best Book that I was obsessed with as a kid but never actually read

Harriet the Spy- Louise Fitzhugh

The Best Book I read and then subsequently could not stop thinking about

The Mothers-Brit Bennett

The Best Book I read that made me fall in platonic book-love with the author

Modern Lovers– Emma Straub

The Best Book I read about Brooklyn that was written in prose

Another Brooklyn- Jacqueline Woodson

The Best Young Adult Book

I’ll Give You the Sun-Jandy Nelson

The Best Continent and Generation-Spanning Book I read

Homegoing- Yaa Gyasi

The Best Book I read that acted as a window into a situation I know very little about

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel– Firoozeh Dumas

The Best Book I read about undocumented immigration that should be required reading for anyone who forgets that undocumented immigrants are people

Gaby, Lost and Found- Angela Cervantes

The Best Book I re-read that blew my mind again

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire-J.K. Rowling

The Best Book I re-read that reminded me that perfection is not real

The Giver – Lois Lowry

The Best Book I read that surprised me in a good way

Simon vs the Homosapiens Agenda– Becky Albertalli

The Best Book about Grief

The Thing about Jellyfish – Ali Benjamin

Wires & Waves Reads: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

I read my first Anne Tyler novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,  in the summer of 2010, after having been introduced to her by one of my greatest friends and one of my kindest professors. Her most recent novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, is her 20th, but she certainly isn’t fizzling out. This novel, like all of her others, centers around a family and the heartbreaks and stories that make it unique. Some might be turned off by such a description, but Tyler’s characters have an authenticity that is hard to come across when writing about such typical or mundane topics.

Tyler perfectly captures the American family without relying on stereotypes or predictability. Each character is nuanced and full of surprises, and this novel is no different. Abby Whitshank is painted as the loving matriarch of the family and, while that description fits, she is much more than that. She is adept at keeping secrets, though she is far from cruel. In fact, she’s the least cruel or selfish person in the family, but she isn’t perfect.

The novel begins with their distant son Denny calling to tell them he’s gay, with Red, the father, replying, “Oh, what the hell.” They don’t hear from him again for several months, though not from a lack of trying. Abby, a social worker, has always had a difficult time connecting with her own son, a man who left home at 18, returning home sporadically with news of a different job, always with a different girl. While the novel unfolds chronologically, Tyler indulges in many tangents regarding the family’s history. In this way, the reader is able to learn things about the Whitshank family that even Abby doesn’t know. As Red and Abby get older and more forgetful, their four children come together to take care of them. However, the four children don’t get along very well, so this makes things more tense around the house, a home built by Red’s father that is a character in its own right.

A Spool of Blue Thread is a comforting read, but it isn’t lighthearted or cheap. Reading Tyler’s books feels like seeing my best friends after months or years away. The fact that they are the same friends I had in high school and even middle school only makes our friendship stronger and more meaningful. Most importantly, those friendships, just as Tyler’s novels, are never boring or superficial.

Wires and Waves Reads: Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band

I finished Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth)’s memoir a few weeks ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve also been listening to Sonic Youth nearly non-stop ever since. She spends the second half of the book describing what was going on in her life during the writing of a particular album and/or song, so it’s interesting to listen to the songs in that context.

The first half of the book somewhat chronologizes her life and her dissolved marriage with Thurston Moore. I initially felt like the book was too revealing, but I grew to love her confessional writing style. I love how unapologetic she is about her feelings, which is obviously a victory for her considering her people-pleasing nature. I wouldn’t call myself a Sonic Youth super fan, but this book may have turned me into one. I appreciated how she described the inspiration behind songs and albums–a music lover’s dream.

The Best Books I Read This Year (2014)

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I read a lot of books this year. As of today (12/19), I have read 58, which may not seem like much, but take into consideration the fact that I did most of that reading between August and now. I read some pretty terrible books, but I also read some great ones. Some were published in 2014 and others weren’t. I re-read old favorites and gained new ones. I didn’t do as much writing as I would have liked, but we’ll call this year an intake year, a learning year. Without further ado, I present to you the best books I read this year.

The Funniest and Most Thoughtful 

Yes Please– Amy Poehler

 Amy Poehler is hilarious. We all know it. We also know that she is exceptionally thoughtful and intuitive as well as a grade-A badass. Her book, Yes Please, testifies to that in a grand way, but it doesn’t feel like something we’ve heard before. She writes serious essays, joke-y essays, and talks a lot about how much she loves her children and her friends. She writes about her time with the Upright Citizens Brigade, SNL, and the in-between times. She writes about the difficulty of going through a divorce as well as the importance of a strong work ethic. I love her. Many funny books are not as thoughtful as this; she’s the greatest.

The Best Self-validating and Encouraging Book on Feminism

Bad Feminist- Roxane Gay

 Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist is another book that is both funny and thoughtful. She talks about rape, Beyonce, the Bachelor, playing Scrabble, race, and prejudices. She acknowledges the ways in which she “fails” as a feminist, which is the takeaway message of her book. I blogged about it here.

The Best Book about Adult Female Friendships

Friendship – Emily Gould

Okay, a lot of books exist on this topic. Many are good. Many are incredible. However, this one gets the intricacies of female friendship more right than many other similar novels I have read. The main characters, Bev and Amy, are ridiculously close and dependent upon each other, but they aren’t constantly braiding each other’s hair or talking about boys like the stereotypes lead you to believe. I don’t know, maybe some best friends do do those things, but Friendship felt much more similar to any friendship I have had.

The Best Book by a Mountain (the band, not the animal)

Wolf in White Van- John Darnielle

To be fair, I haven’t read any books by actual mountain goats and John Darnielle is the only consistent member of the band the Mountain Goats, but this really was one of the best books I read this year. There’s always a worry when someone you love crosses over to something else, but I wasn’t that worried since he is such an accomplished songwriter. His book, though, feels different than his music. Sean Phillips, the protagonist, is quiet and closed-off, rarely divulging his emotions even as he describes tragedy after tragedy. Read my review here.

Best One about a Family

Everything I Never Told You– Celeste Ng

I read a lot of books about families, so this is an important one. Some creep at the library asked me what books I like to read. When I said fiction, he said, “Oh, like Tom Clancy or John Grisham?” I wasn’t concerned about being a book snob, but I didn’t want to tell him what I did like. If I had, I would have said something along the lines of “dysfunctional families/complex relationships.” Ng tells the story of a family’s unraveling after the favorite daughter dies in a mysterious accident. Her prose is so precise and poetic that it feels like an intrusion upon something sacred. Read my review here.

Best One about a Sad Kid

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets- Evan Roskos

This is another favorite topic of mine. Do you remember the first time you read The Perks of Being a Wallflower? How Charlie’s pain was both so exquisite and precise, and how his joy was laden with trepidation? Roskos’ book has all those same feelings. However, it doesn’t feel like another Chbosky novel (but when can we get one of those?). I want to give this book to high school Christina so she feels validated or at least less alone in her emotions and her obsession with dead poets.

Best Non-required Required Reading

I am Malala- Malala Yousafzai

This book is so important. It gave me an quick education on Pakistan and Middle East issues as well as the selflessness of Malala. I suppose we all already knew how selfless she was, but I had no idea that she and her father had been speaking out in favor of education for a long time. It would be easy to just call her brave, and while she is that, she is so much more. She loves her home and her people, and she believes that they deserve the best. She is doing incredible things.

Best Book about Fanfiction (by my favorite author)

 Fangirl- Rainbow Rowell

If I could  marry any writer, it would be Rainbow Rowell. She is the most incredible at capturing frustration with relationships and oneself in a way that feels so real it’s like watching your life play out on the page. In this book, she tells the story of Cath and Wren, twin sisters once bound by Harry Potter-like fan fiction whose college experience tears them apart. Where Wren acts out, Cath retreats. All of Cath’s expectations about college turn out to be cruel fantasies; pretty soon, the only thing she can do without feeling like a failure is write Simon Snow fan fiction.

P.S. In the book, Cath is working on “Carry on, Simon” which is her own full-length fan fiction novel. Bits of the story are included at the beginning of each chapter. WELL……Rowell is publishing a book next year called….Carry On. I am so excited. I’ve never read fan fiction, so I kind of feel like a phony, but I love her.

The Best Book about Angry Teenage Boys

 Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe– Benjamin Alire Saenz

I didn’t know what superlative to give this one. The “angry teenage boys” bit is somewhat misleading. Only one teenage boy is angry (Ari). Dante is sometimes sickeningly happy. When Ari and Dante meet the summer after sophomore year though, they hit it off. Ari learns important lessons about love and honesty from Dante, and his incremental release of his anger feels so, so significant. Also, I love reading books where the parents aren’t just Charlie Brown adult-type characters. Ari and Dante’s parents are just as complicated and just as integral to the story as the boys themselves. This book was so good. That is all I can say before I start crying.

The Best Book that Dismantles the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” idea

The Beginning of Everything- Robyn Schneider

For the record, I hate the phrase “manic pixie dream girl.” I think it’s a way to diminish girls who are feminine, cute, and funny as weak. Being feminine, cute, and funny is cool. So is being feminine, hot, and serious or not as feminine, beautiful, and sarcastic. All variations of women are great. Except murderers. I digress. In this book, Ezra Faulkner (named after Ezra Koenig, GUYS) is in a car accident that renders him unable to play tennis. In turn, his friends abandon him. When he meets Cassidy Thorpe, she helps him to realize important truths about himself. Except he didn’t really need her to realize those things and she has her own issues to deal with. So BOOM, YA fiction trope busted.

The Best other Book by my Favorite Author about Landline Telephones

Landline– Rainbow Rowell

Remember the good old days of landline phones? Despite what old professors think, I have used many such phones in my lifetime (YES, I KNOW WHO THE BEATLES ARE). In Rowell’s most recent book, she tinkers with the idea of a failing marriage in a unique way. No, she doesn’t cheat on her husband. No, she doesn’t leave him to travel to India and do yoga with guys in puka shell necklaces. After her husband Neal takes the kids to his parents for Christmas without her, workaholic TV writer Georgie falls into a slump, staying at her parents’ house in her high school bedroom. One night, her phone rings and it’s Neal. But not Neal. It’s Neal from the past. This premise sounds silly, but again, Rowell wins at depicting complicated, loving relationships without relying on common stereotypes. I could read this every day.

The Best Book about Haiti

An Untamed State- Roxane Gay

Again, to be fair, this was the only book I read about Haiti. Gay’s first novel tells the story of Mirelle, a Haitian-American who is kidnapped when she visits her parents in Haiti. The following weeks are difficult to read and, eventually, devolves into a kind of numbness that mirrors Mirelle’s own numbness. This book was hard to read, but in an important way. Gay makes the bad even worse by pairing it with reflection scenes in which Mirelle’s tenacity, stubbornness, and love are apparent in ways she cannot express during her kidnapping. Phew.

The Best Book about Nigerian Immigrants

Americanah- Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Well, we all know Adiche now because of Beyonce’s sampling of her in “Flawless.” But did you know that she is actually flawless? And she was never even a member of Destiny’s Child. In her book, she follows Lagos teenagers Ifemelu and Obinze as they fall in love and grow up, grow apart, and move around the world. Although Ifemelu moves to America, she never feels quite American or accepted, and she can never escape the memory of Obinze, the man who was supposed to follow her but never made it. I would rank this book up there with Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland in the way it captures the difficulties that immigration and differing ideals can have on a relationship rooted in the same upbringing. Although I’ll never know how Ifemelu feels, I caught a glimpse of her difficulties. As such, I would recommend this to anyone and everyone looking to expand upon their own experiences (which should be everyone, right?).

Wires & Waves Reads: Wolf in White Van

Title: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2014)

Reading level/interest age: 16+

In Wolf in White Van, Sean Phillips documents how he came to be where he is now. “Now” is purposely vague, as the novel is told backward, revealing more details as it goes. One of the first things about which readers learn is Trace Italian, the subscription-based “choose your own adventure” style game in which players must escape post-apocalyptic California and make it to a fortress, Trace Italian, in the Kansas plains. Because of the intensity of the game, players often become too attached, causing some to go too far. Lance and Carrie, two Florida teenagers, were two such players whose playing ended in disaster. Sean created Trace Italian while recovering from a tragic accident that is divulged at the end of the novel. The novel speaks to isolation, particularly teenage isolation, and the arbitrariness of death and survival.

Darnielle’s novel is articulate and quietly intense. It’s personal yet vague in its emotions. Every word feels labored over, but the result is a fluid, easy read. Sean is a difficult protagonist, but his strength is derived from his difficulties. He knows who he is and why he does the things he does, but he is also baffled by his actions and tangential thoughts. Trace Italian is a simple game, but it has the power to lure people in, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Darnielle is an incredible songwriter and, apparently, a flawless writer. I loved this book, and everything else I read feels cheap now.

Wires & Waves Reads: Rainey Royal

Title: Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

Publisher: Soho Press (2014)

Reading level/interest age: 16+

Rainey Royal is a terrible person, but she can hardly help it. Her father Howard Royal, the famous jazz musician, treats their five-story New York City home as a waystation for his acolytes, which consist of mostly female musicians. Before her mother left for an ashram in Colorado, she was having frequent “sleepovers” with Howard and his best friend Gordy. Gordy has always been eerily attentive to Rainey’s needs and lately, he has been slipping into her room at night to give her back rubs. The whole situation causes Rainey to act out, and rightly so. She decides that the only way to gain control over her life is through her sexuality. She finds strength in making men want her. Her best friend, Tina, has her own set of problems, and Rainey can’t decide if she wants to live in ignorant bliss regarding Tina’s clarinet lessons with her father or confront her and lose the only person in whom she can completely confide. Rainey’s obsession with St. Catherine is interesting, as St. Catherine was often faced with a similar temptation, although her reaction of temperance and devotion was the polar opposite of Rainey’s.

Rainey Royal follows Rainey from her early teens to her mid-20’s, which is a relief. Rainey and her family situation are so unbearable at times that I wasn’t sure I could handle it. Landis straddles the line between oversharing and holding back, creating a tension mirrored in Rainey’s personality. The reader knows some things, but not all. Landis weaves that tension into her prose, often juxtaposing freedom with captivity or restriction. The novel was written in parts, and it feels that way, particularly toward the end. However, the fact that some chapters can stand alone does not diminish the novel’s cohesiveness.

I was convinced I hated this book during the first thirty or so pages, but somewhere along the way I became enamored. It’s frustrating and it’s uncomfortable, but it is also authentic and wrought with beauty and tension.

Things I Never Told You- Celeste Ng

When sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee goes missing, her family is bereft. Lydia has always been their star; the future doctor her mother would never be, the popular boy her Chinese-American father never was. After she is found dead at the bottom of the lake in their neighborhood, each member of their family wonders what happened, what they could have done, replaying their entire lives before them. Her father, James, the college professor who tried to become as American as he could by studying cowboys and Americana, starts to question her popularity when he learns that all the friends she said she had claimed to have never really known her. Her mother, Marilyn, who somehow became the housewife her mom wished she’d be even though she dreamed of becoming a doctor, refuses to believe Lydia could have killed herself. Her older brother Nath, who is leaving for Harvard soon, looks for someone to blame for Lydia’s death. And finally, there’s Hannah, the littlest sister who is always overlooked.

Celeste Ng’s debut novel is a story about families and the ways in which they let each other down, pick each other up, and expect too much of one another. By writing about a mixed race family in the 1970s, Ng manages to write a quintessential novel about the American family that will likely become a classic. Because the story is set in the 1970s, it feels like a time capsule of a different time in America, a time where racism was more blatant than systemic, where interracial marriages were looked down upon by some. The relationships are complex and true to life. Nath and Lydia have each others’ backs, but they also resent each other. Marilyn and James love each other, but their decades-long misunderstandings have driven a wedge between them that their daughter’s death only illuminates. Every character is both selfish and selfless, identifying Lydia’s best interests so she can be successful, yet forcing upon her their own dreams and goals. Family dynamics are difficult, and Ng captures that perfectly. They are some of the most difficult relationships we have, yet they are also typically the closest and/or the most difficult to sever.

Ng’s prose is poetic, her sentences like Mary Olive poems: simple, vivid, and honest. Additionally, the formatting of the story makes it feel like a dream, as if the reader is in the same haze as the Lee family. The truth—or at least part of it—is given away at the beginning of the novel, and it unravels from there. However, it doesn’t feel like being cheated, but rather, the way the story should be told.

(Content retrieved from http://www.christinarosereads.tumblr.com)

Bad Feminist (Wires & Waves Reads)

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If you follow Roxane Gay on Twitter, you probably have a good idea of what her book is like: smart, acerbic, raw, honest, and humorous, with a good dash of pop culture (see: her live-tweets of the Bachelor). She’s smart without pretension and funny without attacking anyone. Her description of social media, to me, aptly describes her: “Social networks also provide us with something of a flawed but necessary conscience, a constant reminder that commitment, compassion, and advocacy neither can nor ever should be finite.” (“When Twitter Does What Journalism Cannot,” pp. 265).

Her newest book, Bad Feminist, is a collection of essays ranging from things like politics, gender, race, pop culture, and sexuality. She examines these topics closely and critically, calling writers, musicians, and the regular person out on their BS; she does this without being an A-hole, which is nice.

This book feels and is deeply personal, but it is also hyper aware. At times it feels a bit too casual and there are rare moments of tedium (such as the Scrabble essay), but it is an overall refreshing and all-encompassing collection. Gay calls many writers out on their lack of attention to marginalized or minority groups and therefore never neglects to direct her message to that audience. As a white cisgendered woman, I never felt excluded. In fact, I understood many of these essays to be calls to awareness for other groups. I try my very best to understood and accept all groups, but I am not always the best at it. Also, I am human.

Gay nails that point home throughout Bad Feminist: she is only human. She tries her very best, but she is flawed. She is not a perfect feminist, woman, or human. I do appreciate her devotion to the idea of the “perfect” feminist and what feminism actually is.

“At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better.” (“Bad Feminist: Take Two” pp. 315-16)

“My favorite definition of ‘feminist’ is one offered by Su, an Australian woman who, when interviewed for Kathy Bail’s 1996 anthology DIY Feminism, said feminists are ‘just women who don’t want to be treated like s**t.” (“Bad Feminist: Take One” pp. 303)

Wires and Waves Reads: Fall Book Releases I’m Looking Forward To

 

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Fall has become my favorite season because it means a welcome respite from the heat and a slew of incredible book releases. Some of my favorite writers and people are releasing books this September. 

Lena Dunham– I’m not sure if you’ve heard of her? She’s kind of popular, I think. She’s also one of my most favorite people. She’s funny and self-deprecating and honest. She doesn’t shy away from much, but it isn’t because she’s ostentatious or attention-seeking. She’s honest about what life is like and what people are like. Say what you will about GIRLS, but it is a very authentic depiction of a particular portion of the “millennial” generation. Anyway, her book of essays Not that Kind of Girl comes out in September, and I am excited for her wry, ascerbic wit to re-read again and again (after my GIRLS marathons, of course). Also, how great is that cover? The title makes me laugh every time I read it, and the cover is straight out of a 1980s self-help book. So great.

 

Meg Wolitzer– Wolitzer wrote one of my favorite recent novels, The Interestings. In it, she captures a friendship fraught with sexual tension, lies and truths, mistrust, envy, and pure devotion, and it all centers around art. Her next book, Belzhar, is a YA novel about a teenage girl who uses Sylvia Plath’s writing to endure difficult events. I love Wolitzer, Plath, and young adult fiction, so I’m sold. Also, there is a Joy Division shirt on the cover. 

 

John Darnielle- You probably know Darnielle as the creative force behind the band the Mountain Goats. He has always had a penchant for storytelling in his lyrics, so I’m excited to read his novel Wolf in White Van. This is what his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux had to say about it:

 

There are many things worth singling out for praise in Wolf in White Van:the unforgettable main character, Sean Phillips, who has been isolated by a disfiguring injury since age seventeen; Trace Italian, the intricate game within the novel that Sean created and runs; the interplay of real and imagined worlds, which is both complex and heartbreaking; the structure of the storytelling—audacious, brilliant, and never anything but convincing and unreasonably suspenseful; the prose itself, which is precise and beautiful and (forgive me) lyrical. But the greatest and perhaps most unexpected satisfaction is the quality that encompasses all these things, that this is simply a magnificent novel, weird and dark and wonderful, adventurous and spellbinding in the way of any great piece of literary art.

What are you reading right now? Let me know. I’m always looking for new books.