May Showers = Read Your Face Off

May has been grim in Scotland: sideways rain, inside-out-umbrellas, hours in the library hiding from the drizzle outside. It has given me the opportunity to read, and read, and read. Of the dozens of books I gobbled up this past month, there were some winners. In order of very best to kind of great:


HOPE: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander is my kind of hysterical. For one, it is totally cringe-worthy: a paranoid Jewish father who finds Anne Frank, alive and geriatric, squatting in his attic. Auslander’s protagonist is riddled with Holocaust guilt; he simply never suffered enough, despite his mother’s PTSD from a war that ended before she was born. This novel is bitingly funny, crisply rendered, and impossible. Loved it. 


Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is a rich, sensual, serious novel about a small Mississippi family facing Hurricane Katrina. Like most National Book Award winners, this is a coming-of-age story; the 15-year-old protagonist is poor, pregnant, and desperate for the smallest sign of tenderness. That said, the girl-narrator is strange and bright, and brings Greek myth and a fierce setting into her narrative without a trace of self-pity. Gorgeous stuff. 


Blue Nights by Joan Didion (pictured above) was not an easy read. This is a memoir about grief, whereby Didion, now nearing the end of her writing career, meditates on motherhood, mourning a dead daughter, and her own fragility. Harrowing accounts of waking up on the floor bleeding out of her head and watching her daughter die in four different ICU facilities are stitched together to fashion a kind of dreamy meditation. This book is slender and cryptic, but a testament to a Joan Didion’s prowess as memoirist numero uno. 

The Year So Far: Reading to Stay Sane

I just moved to Scotland, exactly one week ago. For the last month, I was in a kind of jittery work-errands-winter haze. I needed something to stem my moving-across-the world anxiety, to stay sober and save money, to prepare for a big writing period (that’s what I'm doing here) and generally ignore my perpetually twilit Canadian scene. So… here are the two novels and two memoirs that got me all the way to the UK:

It Chooses You (a memoir) by Miranda July

I had my hands this book for two days, and in that time, I slurped it up. It was about the thousands of ways you can ignore the writing you are supposed to be working on, and instead find a true, sparkling, heartfelt project in your favourite distraction. Miranda July interviews unknowns who are hawking things in the Los Angeles Penny Saver. They are also people who do not use computers. Other themes include marriage, strangers, and death. Love. This.

Love and Shame and Love (a novel) by Peter Orner

Peter Orner wrote one of my favourite novels ever, The Second Coming of Mivala Shikongo (the NYT calls that one haunting) and this one was quirky, cute, gorgeously written and fucking depressing. Here is a family of men whom women hate– for no reason! They all seem funny and smart and rich, and still their wives and girlfriends just ditch them and cheat on them and dream of bludgeoning them with kitchen utensils. Poor patriarchal Jewish family from Chicago! Why can’t my cute single friends scoop you up?

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (memoir) by Nick Flynn

This is going to be a movie this year about a stoner who’s dad is homeless. When I was reading, it felt very 2005, when memoirs were really Eggers-hot, and when you could divide a book into little poetic chapters and a big fancy publisher still thought it made for a real book. Shallow, I thought. Sentimental. However, since then, when I see a homeless dude, I suddenly know things: about sleeping on a steaming vent, or spraying down an old ladies for head-lice, or how easily a drunk bleeds out. I guess this book stayed with me. Brutal cover, killer title.

Out Stealing Horses (a novel) by Per Petterson

When my partner was in Europe without me and I was feeling REALLY sorry for myself, I turned to this stoic Norwegian novel to make me feel useful. I wasn’t lonely! I just needed a stern list of tasks, a pot of coffee to brew and a fire in the pot-belly and some lumber to chop down. This old guy in his old cabin is nostalgic in the sad way, but after he chopped things down, we both felt a lot better. There are some mega-dark and sad bits, but that can’t be unlike a winter in Scotland or Canada… can it?