Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

OK so I wasn’t particularly interested in this book until I read an author interview with Mallory Ortberg, whom I love unreservedly. But GUYS. This book is bonkers and hilarious. Lockwood writes with such humor and energy, and her religious descriptions are just fantastic. (There’s an early bit about Lutherans and their love of banners and also mayonnaise salads that had me in stitches.)

Patricia Lockwood is young for a memoir, but when your father is a former Lutheran minister turned married Catholic priest, well, I guess you might have a lot to talk about. And she pulls this together beautifully, not focusing on any one person but instead crafting a narrative of family–love them or hate them–and religion and how the two can intertwine and split. Lockwood’s father is certainly a character–boisterous, large, a penchant for wearing fading boxers and nothing more–but Priestdaddy doesn’t shine the spotlight on him all the time. Thank goodness, because her mom is equally as delightful and just as unique.

The back end of the book takes a more serious tone as Lockwood considers voice and writing and the role of religion (past and present) in her life and how it affected her childhood and general upbringing. But it still has that certain bounce to it, those quick-witted lines that made me say, just one more chapter, until I was actually done. This book was a pure delight.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi; aka WELL NOW I’M OBSESSED

Really, three posts is a lot to churn out, especially after drinking so many mimosas at brunch, which is why it’s a good thing that I saved What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi for last, because HOLY SHIT I AM SO IN LOVE WITH THIS BOOK. (Also I literally finished it this morning, and since I’m trying to babble about books in the order I read them, it just makes sense.)

I’d read some Oyeyemi before, enough to like her but not be actively obsessed. Part of my problem is that I started with Mr. Fox and I just didn’t have enough footing with Oyeyemi to have faith and patience. Even now, after reading more of her work, that one still seems way more ambitious and boundary pushing than her other books. I’m really excited to give it another read. (And, looking back at my GR review: wow I had a lot of thoughts.) But then I read Boy, Snow, Bird (GR review here, if interested) and was like oh I get it now. And then I didn’t read anything more by her until my friend was like OYEYEMI OYEYEMI OYEYEMI HERE READ ICARUS GIRL and it was like DAMN IT I HAVE WASTED SO MUCH TIME IN AN OYEYEMI-LESS LIFE. 

So. You know. I’m into this, now. And What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is just, well, I really hate the phrase tour de force but it is fucking appropriate. This collection of short stories is elegant, beautifully written, the best kind of off-kilter, and overlapping just so. The threads skip in and out of stories, main characters from one showing up as side characters in another, and all delightfully weird. Magical realism done by a master. How do I pick a favorite? It’s like asking me to pick a favorite dessert. (I have a lot of dessert thoughts too. Like, how can I be expected to choose between strawberry-rhubarb crisp and a really perfect yellow cake with dark chocolate icing? I can’t. Give them both to me with a side of just-baked chocolate chip cookies.)

The titles alone are just swoon-worthy. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea”? “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society”??? “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think”?????  But each story is deliciously unsettling, not even skirting that edge of weird but diving right in so that everything just seems normal. I love it. In this particular moment, I think the story I loved the most is “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” The puppets are simply perfectly surprising and the plot unfolds with such complexity. Rahda and Myrna get along and don’t in such a unique way. Actually, that’s a fair point about all the relationships in this book: they develop in such unique ways. There is such effortless diversity of sexuality and families and race and personality and it all sticks the landing.

 

When you have no social life you get to read a lot.

I’m trying to read more nonfiction, or, well, not more, just some. I recently read Lesser Beasts by Mark Essig and oh my god??? It was so good???? (My Goodreads review here.) But it was very encouraging to read nonfiction (but not biography) and really enjoy it. Makes me feel like there’s hope for me yet. (Also, seriously, Lesser Beasts was really delightful and I never expected to say that about a microhistory of pigs, of all things.)

When I picked up Essig’s book, I also grabbed The Creative Spark by Augustin Fuentes. (My Goodreads review here.) This one wasn’t quite as fun, but still very interesting and Fuentes does a great job of making his text accessible to the average reader. At times it can feel like he’s beating a dead horse when talking about the timeline of our evolution, but honestly I needed that because some of those dates/milestones just refuse to stick in my head. His angle is really interesting: that it wasn’t environment that drove us to develop, but straight-up our own creativity that spurred our evolutionary jumps. I think this encompasses a lot; it’s a pretty broad thing to say Oh our own creative impulses pushed us over these hurdles when I feel like there were surely other motivating factors, but I’m not mad at this overarching umbrella that he proposes. I also think he, not directly, but definitely agrees with Essig’s note that a scholar calls agriculture the worst mistake in human history, in that he agrees that that really is the lynch pin, the turning point in our nature. A lot of changes come purely from us realizing that we could stay in one place and own shit.

The most interesting chapter by far is about religion. Fuentes’s angle is kind of chicken or the egg in regards to which came first, god or religion, but I like that. Very little about early religion is fossilized and so we’re left making a lot guesses. As such, there’s definitely room for interpretation there and the idea that we had to reach a certain milestone/point of development in order to start questioning and develop religion is immensely reasonable. Like, sure God was there the whole time but until we started seriously investigating our environment we were not in a position to even posit that. My religious thoughts/leanings aside, this makes a hell of a lot of sense.

I guess Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose is also nonfiction, but it is personal essays so it feels a bit different. (Goodreads review here.) The first essay, “Heart Museum,” is just stunning in its easy beauty, the facility of the stream of consciousness, and how Chew-Bose effortlessly invites the reader on this meandering journey. There’s something about her grasp of imagery and putting into words those feelings we all struggle with. I think what really got me, which isn’t even the best bit by far, was how Chew-Bose described the difference of writing in bed from writing from bed. How you lie on your back, laptop on your chest, double chin in full force, and Chew-Bose calls it pawing at the screen like an otter. A fucking otter. It’s perfect and lord knows I can relate to that. Some of the middle essays are a bit weak (which I imagine is why they’re in the middle) and come across as soft pitches that you know will be accepted due to past hits. But when Chew-Bose is good, she makes me want to dig up a highlighter and scribble hearts in the margins. Her essay “Since Living Alone” is a brilliant look at how we change by ourselves, and resonates with changes in my own life since I’ve started living alone. There’s a sense of loneliness and being almost grateful for that, for knowing that you can have that and it’s not a bad thing. Really this was such a lovely book. I’m sending it to a friend in hopes she’ll enjoy it too.

Up next: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi (which definitely deserves it’s own post because MY GOD.)

 

I’m really bad about timely updates.

So I’ve been a bit lax about updating as I finish books. Oops. But, since I last posted, I’ve read five books, so I’m SUPER BEHIND on writing out my thoughts. But [rolls up sleeves] time to get to work.

First, it’s a beautiful day today and I want to go sit outside and tan/give myself skin cancer, but I’m going to get through this first. Although, “get through this” sounds unpleasant, like I don’t enjoy talking about books I’m reading/have read. Which is a hideous lie. I just sometimes worry that my thoughts aren’t, well, very intelligent? Or, rather, very surface level. But sometimes I don’t want to think too deeply about what I’m reading, which is kind of a shame.  So I’ll try to dig a little deeper in my memory to make this worthwhile, although most of these books are back at the library, so I can’t dig through for additional quotes.

First, up: Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler. (My Goodreads review here.) I was introduced to Gerstler by a college poetry professor telling me that one of my winter poems reminded her of Gerstler’s “Bear-Boy of Lithuania.” Which I definitely took as a compliment. And then I never checked out any of her writing again. So, that’s not great. But I didn’t love Scattered. I enjoyed pieces of it, the Womanishness section was excellent, and there’s a great line about ball skin (“Fascinated by (but not covetous of) their crepey ball-skin, crenulated like brains, or walnut hulls, or iguana hide on a rich dude’s shoes”), but overall I don’t know that I was in the right place for this collection. It felt very, well, contemporary in a way I wasn’t expecting. But by contemporary I mean casual and brash and lots of youthful exuberance–almost overboard, if that makes sense. The writing was very energetic and full of imagery, but I think it’s one I need to check out again in six months. (But, entirely unrelated to the text: the cover and interior illustrations are GREAT. I want the mermaid ones tattooed on me.)

I think, with a bit more closer reading, I might have some coherent thoughts about form and the interplay of time, how what I’m thinking of as more “modern” poems might engage with our social trends and the evolution of culture. Especially the Womanishness section–I think there’s a lot to unpack there if I had the patience and, really, inclination at this time to do a little heavy thinking. There’s also likely an interesting angle to take with the title and how the poems reflect a sort of “at sea” feeling, a sense of being lost and not put together, of maybe feeling adrift until we can put ourselves back together.  I’m not ready to dig like that, though, so this line of thought will have to wait.

Next: Marie Brennan’s Cold-Forged Flame. (My GR review here.) This novella was a lot of fun and really just perfect for poolside reading. At only 100 pages, I didn’t mind being dropped into a world without any information, same as the protagonist, and left to discover things with her. Really, it hits a lot of notes that are good for me: magic, strong female character capable of defending herself, did I mention magic?, and hints at interesting world-building beyond what we can see. (Guys, there’s an island that is only visible/reachable during certain times and I’m really here for that.) I enjoyed the writing–crisp, evocative, and pace-pushing–and am now eager to read Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series.

Up next: The Creative Spark (Fuentes) and Too Much and Not the Mood (Chew-Bose).

 

 

 

 

The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixen

Well, this was a long one. Four. Hundred. Pages. (And rest of the trilogy are even longer!) Written by Liu Cixen, translated by Ken Liu, The Three-Body Problem is a tightly packed near-future science fiction story. First-contact stories are very hit or miss, with me, but this one really landed. Cixen fleshes out the idea of “contact as symbol,” which is an angle I didn’t know was so interesting.

My Goodreads review:

Wow. Wow. This books is dense but very gripping. You’re aware that yes, it’s four hundred pages, but it hardly feels that way when you’re reading. While I understand hardly any of the science, while it’s being explained it feels very accessible and present in very easy language. Granted it means pretty much zip to me, but I can appreciate the difficult in writing about niche subjects without alienating the reader.

I also appreciate that this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. It comes to a natural pause in the momentum of the narrative, with things placed neatly in order. It’s clear to see how it will continue, but no one is left in the clutches of an evil alien or potentially about to die in an explosion. It gives me time to sit with this and think about just how society in Three-Body Problem came to be the way they are, and if I’d make a different choice than Ye Wenjie.

The slow build-up to the reveal that we’ve had first-contact was great and perfectly paced. Starting with Communist China and jumping ahead to present day, opening like a strange government mystery and then switching direction to alien contact, it was seamlessly executed. I don’t want to say too much because the way it all unfolds is A+!

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Ken Liu

So The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is kind of a beastly size but lighter than you’d expect. (I mean that literally. The physical book looks like it should be a five pound paperweight but it’s pretty reasonable. Great paper choice, there.) The stories it contains, however, are anything but light. They’ll break your heart a bit and make you think more about technology and science and how society evolves than you ever have before. The way Ken Liu plays with narrative and history is masterful.

This is truly an impressive collection that trends toward science fiction with a healthy dose of heartbreak. The last quarter of the collection is where things really get heavy, where Liu doubles down on blending science fiction with history. The atrocities revealed in “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” and “The Man Who Ended History” are all too real, even as they’re surrounded with purely fictional aspects. There is no transportation system under the Pacific Ocean and there is no way to travel back in time to witness the past, but prison labor and terrible working conditions and wartime atrocities are well documented (respectively). Liu frames his stories beautifully, keeping them grounded to a certain degree while also skewing perception.
The earlier stories are a bit lighter (in comparison), but my god does Ken Liu have a way with words. “The Paper Menagerie” may feel less stressful as it concerns a mother-son failed relationship, but I was still in tears by the end of it.
(Side note: It’s actually really interesting to have read this while also reading Three-Body Problem. They have similar tones and looming fears of the end of the world and technology. There’s an edge of terror that accompanies them both. Reading them simultaneously has been really neat!)
How do you describe the gut punch of history in the later stories? When you realize what Lilly Dyer’s father really does in “The Literomancer” and you fully understand the consequences of Lilly’s actions? Or the working conditions described in “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel,” which might cover a nonexistent tunnel, but you know that such things have happened before and continue to happen today. The final story, “The Man Who Ended History,” is the strongest, naturally. It explores the present’s connection to the past, how we approach it and how we disavow it. Because we cannot access the past, it is easy to set it aside and forget, but in this narrative Liu doesn’t let us. It’s unsettling in an important way and like the various interviewees in the story, we are required to have an opinion.

Waking Gods, Sylvain Neuvel

When I read Sleeping Giants earlier this year, I was blown away. It felt so new and unique and my god I couldn’t believe I had so thoroughly enjoyed an epistolary-style novel. My Sleeping Giants review is here, but in short: on the short list for one of my favorite books of the year.

But honestly, Waking Gods doesn’t strike the same chord.

My Goodreads review for Waking Gods:

I found Sleeping Giants to be something of a revelation. The format, the pacing, the plot, the characters–I loved it all. Waking Gods, while good, doesn’t strike the same enthusiasm as before. I’m not sure if it’s because the charm of an epistolary novel wore off or if I’m just not as in love with the direction as before, but this left me a bit cold.

I think I miss the sort of exploratory feel of Sleeping Giants. Waking has more action, more violence, and the stakes are higher. It stepped from science discovery to practical application, which, fine, makes sense, but it’s not what I’m here for.

It wasn’t the worst, or I wouldn’t have finished it. I really did enjoy aspects of Waking Gods! I found the personality of new Rose and her struggle to figure out what happened to her and why she feels so differently from how “original” Rose felt to be compelling. The epistolary structure, while getting a bit bland, wasn’t even that offensive! Kara and Vince were still together, growing into each other in a way that didn’t feel like either of them had sacrificed too much of who they were. Alyssa makes an appearance and for some reason in my head she’s Madame Poison from Wonder Woman??? (That’s certainly not how she is in the book, but I think there’s a shared pragmatism and ruthlessness to be argued.)

Maybe–OK, probably definitely (and, spoilers here)–part of why I didn’t like it as much is because they introduce a child, immediately kill off her (nonbiological) parents, and then kill Kara, her biological mom. And it’s almost certainly to do with how, hmm, dropped into place, almost, Eva is. Obviously she couldn’t have an active role early in the book, but she feels so convenient and it bugs me.

The twist at the end that reveals what’s going on with the biological weapons of the “gods” was kind of interesting, as was how Rose solved the problem. But really,  the way things were supposed to go according to Mr. Burns, before his people changed things, is the book I want to read. Something about allies and conversation and helping each other grow, not building robots and feeling threatened and then using said robots.

The end scene definitely sets up for the third book, which I will still keep on my radar. I’m interested in how this series ends, but hope it’s just a trilogy. Based on the strength (or lack thereof) of Waking Gods, I don’t see how anything longer is sustainable.