reading is hard in a pandemic; 4.1.20

Well…I basically said the main thing I wanted to say up in the title so….what now?

In all seriousness, I have found it very difficult to focus enough to read in the last couple weeks, and from what I’ve been seeing on Twitter and hearing from friends that’s not a unique experience, so if that’s the experience you’re having, I encourage you to cut yourselves a lot of slack (in this and in all things). It’s not a vacation, it’s a fucking pandemic (and there are many whose jobs don’t allow spending the significant amount of time at home many are currently experiencing.)

With that in mind, in place of books talk, a list (that will also be in the soon-to-be-sent Pop Culture Pen Pals) of small things that have been bringing me comfort and joy:

  • virtual movie dates with friends
  • French lessons on Duolingo (it turns out I find that ominous owl and the trumpet reward sounds very validating and soothing!)
  • potatoes
  • podcasts like Appointment Television, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Unfriendly Black Hotties, and Overdue, all of which I’ve been listening to long enough that the hosts and frequent guests have started to feel like friends I get to hear talk for an hour a week 
  • four songs from Moulin Rouge! (hint: Ewan McGregor sings in all of them)
  • crocheting
  • this masterpiece edit of movie dancing scenes to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”
  • the return of One Day at a Time (and Kathryn VanArendonk’s writing about it)
  • playing fetch with the cat
  • writing steamy fanfic about Star Trek’s Dr. Bones McCoy (as portrayed by the incomparably sexy Karl Urban)
Leonard Mccoy GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

That’s all I’ve got this week. Stay safe out there everyone.

ch-ch-ch-changes; 3.25.20

Hi friends. I really hope you’re all well, that you’re safe and finding ways to make it through each day. It’s been a couple weeks since you’ve heard from me, because *gestures vaguely* I took a week off to catch up on some reading, and then last week things in the world were just so fast-moving and overwhelming that I just couldn’t make this happen.

I’m gonna be honest: for the last few months I’ve actually been tossing around the idea of shuttering the blog. I’ve never really found the right niche for it, or a way to make it that feels like the right balance of creatively useful and not overwhelming. There are a lot of factors in play, but when I look at the set of writing projects in my life — this, the newsletter, reviews — this is the one that feels most consistently like a chore, is the only one that doesn’t have other creators dependent on it, and is the only one that I’m currently spending money on. I find WordPress frankly unusable without paying for a premium membership, and yet paying for that membership over the last year has been an expense I’ve felt pretty conflicted about.

I’d also kind of like a break from reading every book with a mental tally in my head of what I did or didn’t like about it, what I feel obligated to include in my recommendation, how to articulate the ways in which why I liked to didn’t like it might be different from why someone else did or didn’t like it. 

And yet. I love talking about books, and I’ve loved hearing from friends who have followed this project tell me about the books they’ve read because of it. And now, the world being what it is, with myself and everyone else doing a lot more staying in, why on earth would I cancel my book blog now?

I’ve thought about moving it over to Substack, which is technically a newsletter service rather than a blog (and is also the platform for Pop Culture Pen Pals) and I’ve taken some steps in that direction. If you subscribe via email, there’s nothing you’ll need to do — I’m able to import email subscribers over to Substack easily. If you sometime in the coming weeks get a “double issue” — one from WordPress and one from Substack — that’s why. I’ll probably test it out a couple times before making a decision on a final yea/nay. I may end up taking an extended break, in which case I would suspend my premium membership. The website would still be here, but not at the personalized URL.

I really have no idea what I’m going to do with it. I realize this ‘prologue’ is longer than many posts have been, and a bit grim, it’s a good thing the first book on the docket is a romance novel, and one that I highly recommend!


Unveiled – Courtney Milan

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This was my first Courtney Milan and it CERTAINLY won’t be my last! This story was about such a genuinely unique situation that I’m not sure how to briefly describe it; it really gets into the weeds of regency-era rules of inheritance and parliamentary procedure in a way that heightened the tension for a central romance that was already, ahem, replete with it. Fake identities, complicated plots, and fantastically steamy chemistry! This book has it all, plus a really fascinating incorporation of dyslexia into a time when there wasn’t a name for it. As I mentioned regarding The Duke and I, regency-era books have a tricky line to walk when incorporating disability, and some do better than others. I thought Milan did a good job, but obviously I’m not the final word on that.

Deathless Divide – Justina Ireland

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I raved about Dread Nation about a year ago and have been eagerly anticipating the sequel ever since. And no surprise here, it grabbed me as immediately and effectively as the first one did. It picks up minutes after the first and sweeps us immediately into the zombie-fighting fray. This time the chapters alternate between Jane and Katherine, and I really appreciated getting a closer look into Katherine’s head. Aside from the top-notch action and really well-managed way this book handles the high stakes of a world ravaged by zombies, I really admire the way Ireland incorporates characters’ sexual identities, anxiety, and using the revisionist zombie history as a new way of framing the way people of color (and specifically Black people) lived and were treated throughout history. This book in particular nodded at the ways in which Black people have historically been forced and coerced into being the subjects of medical experimentation. (Marion Sims, often considered the “father of modern gynecology”, is notorious for forcibly experimenting on enslaved Black women, and he’s certainly not the only one.)

Quick note: Although I really enjoy these books, I did come across a Twitter thread by Native scholar Dr. Debbie Reese who explained some of the concerns she and other Native people have had about the first book, which added some needed perspective.

Miracle Creek – Angie Kim

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A legal drama, which is rare for me! But this book made me want to get more into the genre, because it was very compelling. It had been on my list for awhile, but I bumped it up thanks to The Stacks podcast, which I’ve mentioned before and really enjoyed. If you read the book I highly recommend listening to the episode about it because I guarantee you’ll want to talk about it with someone and/or hear other people talk about it because there’s a lot to discuss. The story is centered around a trial set to prosecute a woman for the explosion of a unique medical center, an explosion that killed two (including her son) and injured several others. Kim explores race, disability, parenthood, and grief in very interesting ways and effectively keeps you guessing throughout. I did feel a little disappointed by the ending, but I appreciated the way she handled a large cast of characters, which is something that can easily annoy me if not done well. Also her imagery was really good!

Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward

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I’ve written before about Ward’s exceptional writing, both in fiction and nonfiction. This book, which is about one family’s (and specifically one teenage girl’s) experience of the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina, as well as the storm itself. The storm comprises a small part of the narrative itself, but its impending presence is always there, and there’s an everpresent sense in the book of potential catastrophe, which made it…….a tough read this week. Even though the book’s disaster and our current disaster are very different, the thing I found myself really needing in the last few days was a pleasant escape, which this definitely wasn’t, which is not the fault of the book in any way, but did tamper my response to it. 

Ward’s writing is absolutely gorgeous; vivid and precise imagery fills up every page, and every character was both fully realized and mysterious in their own way. Esch (the protagonist and narrator) and her brothers and friends are all unique and interesting and I deeply cared about them all immensely and immediately.


Okay that’s all for now! I hope you’re all well and safe and keeping it together as best you can. Thank you for your patience while I work this whole blog thing out. I hope you’re finding soothing and absorbing things to read and watch during this time.

so much for snappy; 3.4.20

Hi there! It’s been a busy two weeks for me; last week I put out reviews for The Invisible Man (meh) and Emma (loved it!), and on Sunday Hannah Evans and I put out our February Pop Culture Pen Pals on Succession and The Good Place. Today’s blog post is a little short, because I’m trying to just keep it a little snappier in general, but if you’re really missing me, you’ve got plenty of options!


Angel – Elizabeth Taylor

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No, not that Elizabeth Taylor. I’d never even heard of this Elizabeth Taylor, and had little to no idea what to expect when starting this book. Which is really funny and often quite moving! The main character, Angel Deverell, starts the book as a discontented, imaginative, and sulky 15 year old, who starts writing pretty much on a whim, but decides immediately that she’ll be a famous writer. And it happens! Her bizarre, scandalous books are a hit in a way that feels very recognizable (think: 50 Shades), and she’s rocketed to wealth and success, but not necessarily fulfillment. She’s an odd main character, and we actually spend at least half the book viewing her from the perspective of others, most amusingly her editor and his wife, who I would have read an ENTIRE series about. The final quarter is kind of grim and drags somewhat, which put a damper on my enjoyment, but the sense of humor reminded me of Barbara Pym, which naturally I loved and made me want to read another Pym book because it’s been TOO long!!

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People – Mahzarin R. Banaji & Anthony G. Greenwald

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This book was a common read at my work recently, and I was…underwhelmed. There’s some good stuff in here; Banaji and Greenwald do a great job at explaining the facets of their in-depth research on unconscious bias in an accessible way. The book is very readable, and the pages turn quickly, albeit a little repetitively. The main issue I had with it is that I didn’t feel they touched on the many ways that unconscious biases are often formed, shaped, and reinforced by very conscious policies and practices. I get that that may not necessarily be Banaji and Greenwald’s forte, but I would have gotten more out of the book if that was included.

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement – Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey

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TW: sexual assault

Kantor and Twohey are two of the reporters who majorly broke open the Harvey Weinstein story, after years of open secrets, settlements tied to non-disclosure agreements, and intimidation from Weinstein and his protectors. They also did a lot of the major reporting on Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, and they meticulously track their reporting process in both cases. It’s a gripping book, that despite dealing with extremely heavy material felt almost soothing? That feels weird to say, but it felt similar to me to reading The Martian, in that the book is set up around a series of problem-solving, and it was fascinating to watch them steadily approach a really complex issue with the amount of compassion they had for the survivors. But goddamn, it really is disheartening how many systems have long been in place (and for the most part still are) to allow and cover-up sexual assault, and Twohey and Kantor do a great job at explaining those systems and how they relate to the individual cases they’re reporting.


Okay well I guess this is still over 500 words, so so much for snappy, but whatever!

negative weather feelings, positive book feelings; 2.19.20

Today my weather app told me it was -0 degrees in Minneapolis.

NEGATIVE.

ZERO.

So that’s about where my headspace is. Luckily this week’s books are really good and talking about them will hopefully lift my spirits and yours!


“All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz & Dina Gilio-Whitaker

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I keep wanting to call this book a “primer,” which doesn’t feel right because it’s so in-depth despite being relatively short and very accessible. Each of these chapters could be an entire book on its own (and Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker cite a lot of other work within each one, so if you want to learn more about any given chapter you can easily find more information), from the issues with sports teams using Native people as mascots, to the myth of Columbus’ “discovery,” to misconceptions about casinos. Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker both explain the history of each myth, how and why it originated, and how it persists and impacts Native lives today. It’s really well-written and informative, and though the pages turn pretty quickly, I would recommend taking it a couple chapters a day (especially if the majority of the information is new to you) to really let them sink in. A lot of this history revolves around court cases (frequently resulting in decisions that allow the U.S. to betray treaties with Native nations), and I found it helpful to take breaks so I could keep the court cases and treaties distinct in my head.

Heads of the Colored People – Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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These short stories are excellent and devastating and hopeful, intertwined with each other in a way that flows easily from story to story. A few stories followed the same character, and often a minor character from one story would be prominently featured in the next. They all examine and ruminate on the characters’ experiences of Blackness, class, friendship, the desire to be an individual and where it pulls against the desire to be in community, and a host of other hopes and frustrations. I kept thinking I would take a break “after this story,” and I made that deal with myself…..at least five times without it actually working. The characters were each distinctly realized, and Thompson-Spires’ sharp observations add both humor and depth. A few of the stories felt like they ended a little abruptly, but that’s often how I feel about short stories.

TW: police violence, suicidal ideation, sexual harrassment, eating disorder/disordered eating, child abuse


I feel like I start and end a lot of these posts with my complaints about the weather, but I am a Midwesterner, so….what I’m saying is someone needs to rescue me to a warmer state. Stay warm and happy reading!

Faker + A River of Stars; 2.5.20

Hello again! I took last week off, mostly because I only finished one book, but also because I have fallen down a deep hole of longing for Ewan McGregor from which I may never climb out. 

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These books aren’t terribly similar, but I feel bad about what I’m about to say, which is that I enjoyed the first 80-100 pages of both of them more than I liked the rest of them. I don’t like going long about books that I didn’t overall enjoy but have no capital-p Problem with, so this one is probably going to be a little truncated. Plus, I have many Ewan McGregor gifs to stare at.


Faker – Sarah Smith

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This one was recommended via Carly Lane-Perry’s excellent romance-focused newsletter Kissing Books, which I really really enjoy and I feel bad that I’m bringing it up first (because I’m sure it’ll come up many times in this blog!) in a section about a book I felt kind of ‘meh’ on. I found the characters and writing in this book very engaging, but the book was premised on a version of “enemies to lovers” that didn’t really work for me. Slight spoiler, but if the enemies-to-lovers trope is something that frequently gives you trouble, you’ll probably actually really like this book, because it turned out the hate was really one-sided and based on a misunderstanding all along. What I prefer is when the protagonists really genuinely despise each other at the start, both for the heat it causes and to see how the author overcomes the challenge of making us believe by the end they genuinely love each other. And I do believe these protagonists really loved each other by the end, but they got lovey-dovey pretty quickly and then spent a lot of the book just being in a pretty conflict-free relationship, which is…fine? Sure! But I got a little bored of it, despite liking the characters (Emmy and Tate, coworkers at a construction company, which I just realized I didn’t mention at all before now).

A River of Stars – Vanessa Hua

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I really really liked the concept of this and the main two characters. Scarlett Chen, the protagonist, is a pregnant Chinese woman who has been flown to the US by her lover/boss to stay at a home for pregnant Chinese women so that their babies will be born as US citizens. But then! She runs away! Along with one of the other women, a teenager named Daisy, she wants a life for her and her child not controlled by the child’s father or the owner of Perfume Bay, or anyone else. 

I really really liked the story of Scarlett and Daisy and think I would have loved the book if it had stayed focused on them. But about a quarter of the way through, the narrative started switching between them and the father of Scarlett’s child [Boss Yeung], and occasional input from another character, and I just didn’t find that terribly engaging. I really liked Hua’s writing, and the way she developed the bond between Scarlett and Daisy, but the book had a hard time holding my attention because I just didn’t care about what Boss Yeung was doing, and then the ending was kind of a let-down.


Alright, bye for now! 

Forbidden + Educated; 1.22.20

It’s STILL January????? WHY.

Okay that’s pretty much all I have to say. Thank you for your patience as I shorten these preludes to by a staggering degree because *whew*. I am tired. 

I think a thing I used to do up here is talk briefly about movies/TV I’m enjoying?? Anyways, I don’t think I mentioned that I saw the new Little Women and absolutely loved it and am going to talk more about it with the brilliant Hannah Evans on the next edition of our newsletter.


Forbidden – Beverly Jenkins

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This was my first Beverly Jenkins book, and it’s clear why she’s revered in Romancelandia. Eddy and Rhine, the protagonists in this book, are determined and funny and kind, as are many of the people around them. Eddy is on her way West to start a new life in California when a shyster dumps her in the middle of the Nevada desert. She only barely survives the elements, thanks to Rhine, a saloon owner who scoops her up and gets her to safety. As she recovers and makes a temporary home in Nevada, there’s an undeniable attraction between them that they’re both determined to put aside, primarily because Eddy is Black and Rhine is white. EXCEPT……..he’s actually not. (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the prologue.) Rhine has been passing as white, which has allowed him to build wealth that he primarily uses to support the Black community in the city, but has kept him from fully engaging in the community. But *puts on intensely romantic voice* Eddy might just be too wonderful to stay away from.

I liked the book a lot, in particular the characters and community that Eddy and Rhine are a part of. I did feel that the two protagonists didn’t spend very much time together in the first half of the book, and while I understand the narrative reasons for that, as I discussed a couple weeks ago, the whole ~mysterious connection instant attraction~ thing doesn’t really do it for me, so I felt more engaged in the second half of the book. But I will definitely be reading more of Jenkins’ work, particularly in this series. I haven’t read many in the Old West romance subgenre and I really dug it.

Educated – Tara Westover

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This is one of those books that spread like wildfire, topping bestseller charts and book club lists everywhere. Westover’s memoir about growing up with fundamentalist Mormon parents has inspired a lot of discussions about religion, education, and abuse. She was the youngest of 7 children, with parents who entirely rejected the medical establishment and traditional schooling. They claimed to homeschool their children, but the lessons didn’t pass much further than learning how to read. 

I may have read this book faster than it deserved, but its hard not to — the family is constantly on the edge of calamity, with potential injury around every corner. It’s a harrowing book in many ways, not just the physical risk that the family frequently finds themselves in, but the abuse Westover and several of her siblings endure, and the distress Westover finds herself in upon entering the “real world” and finding that not only does she not have a financial or emotional safety net, there’s quite a bit of knowledge and skills she has to struggle for on her own. Westover is a fantastic writer, and clearly reflective of the challenges of writing a memoir about one’s family.

tw: domestic abuse


Okay that’s all for me today! Go see Little Women!

spoonful of books; 1.15.20

Hello! So something exciting has happened since last week, which is that my first review with the website Twin Cities Geek came out! I reviewed the movie Underwater and though I didn’t think the movie was very good, I’m quite pleased with how the review turned out.


The Ambassadors – Henry James

Image result for the ambassadors henry jamesI was reading this book…….for what felt like forever. I think in reality it was no longer than the time it took me to read The Portrait of a Lady, but the difference is…..I loved The Portrait of a Lady. Every character was distinct and even though the decisions they made often happened at a glacial pace (with a NOTABLE EXCEPTION), there was at least the positive sense that decisions were happening.

The book happens at least 70% (maybe more) within the consciousness of the protagonist, Lambert Strether, a middle-aged man from Massachusetts who’s been dispatched to Paris to retrieve the son of his wealthy fiancee. Chad Newsome, said son, is not exactly ready to be retrieved, having fallen in love with life in Paris and possibly also a married woman. To Strether’s surprise, he becomes wrapped up in the same enthusiasms and ends up needing to be fetched himself. As with James in general, many of his sentences take a good deal of unraveling, which is a process I really do find rewarding, but I think an issue I kept running into with this book was a frequent unfamiliarity with the particular emotions he was trying to portray.

I think I maybe didn’t understand this book, but because I am unwell I will probably reread it sometime in my life and hopefully more of it will stick. If you’re for any reason interested in reading Henry James, while I haven’t read all of his works (YET) I’d encourage you not to be put off by the length of Portrait because I really loved it a lot.

Home – Julie Andrews

2511690I think this is actually the FIRST time that I’ve reread a book since starting this blog, which is BONKERS because I love to reread, but I guess I just haven’t done it in almost 2 years? I first read this as a preteen, and I have a very distinct memory of finding it in my local library shelves and being PSYCHED. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the first memoirs I ever read, and I couldn’t have picked a better one to start with.

This is actually the first of two memoirs, the second of which is called Home Work and came out about 2 months ago. I haven’t started it yet but I have it and will be diving in SOON. Home covers Andrews’ childhood, her start in show business through vaudeville shows around age 12, and her time originating the roles of Eliza Doolittle and Guinevere in the musicals My Fair Lady and Camelot. The book closes just after she has her first child and right before she and her family move to California for her to begin filming Mary Poppins.

As is often the case with memoirs and biographies — in particular those of performers — I found the early childhood stuff a bit tiresome, though Andrews writes it with charm and compassion. Her childhood and teen years were incredibly difficult, both as a result of growing up during World War II and as a result of the adults in her life frequently making decisions about their lives (and thus hers) that didn’t exactly lead to a stable childhood. I wrote more specifically on Twitter about that, and just an FYI this book includes brief depictions of domestic abuse, including sexual abuse. Andrews is remarkably thoughtful and generous towards her parents, while not shying away from the ways she was hurt by their actions and attitudes.

I enjoyed this book most when she was writing about the ins and outs of her work, the ways she’s trained her voice and learned how to create a character and her delight in performance. I’m extra excited to see that play out in the sections in Home Work about Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music and rewatch both of those movies afterwards with that information in mind!!!


So long! Farewell!