My January Reading Journal

2019 is here. Of course, a new year brings new books. I have lots of galleys to get to that are about to break my shelf, so I talk about several upcoming releases below. But I also go back in time for some classics. Here are some thoughts about my reading from the first month of 2019.

Mary Laura Philpott’s I Miss You When I Blink: I started this one in 2018 and finished it on the first day of 2019. This memoir-in-essays is so good and rounded and enjoyable and fun and heartwarming and sad. Haha. There is an essay for anybody here. Philpott discusses her health, her family, and her insecurities in such an honest and affecting way. I really loved the first few essays. They hit a note of sentimentality that I can’t resist. They are also quite funny. But the back half also is really strong. I especially like the ones about her move to Nashville and her decision to care for her self. The essays are connected by the theme of identity. Philpott shows that while it’s not easy, we are always in charge of shaping who we are—and who we are to become.

Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things: First official read of 2019 and what a doozy. Arnett’s novel will undoubtedly make my year-end top 10 list. This story about the Morton family is so unusual and original. Jessa is the star of the book. She’s broken in so many ways. The story’s focus is largely on how she takes over the family’s small taxidermy business after her father who is sick with cancer kills himself. Jessa struggles to understand the complexities of people, including her own, so she finds comfort in piecing together animals that are, well, dead. This book is so dark. Some sections are brutal, especially some of the later ones about how Jessa’s brother’s kids get animals for the shop. But it’s also such a funny read. I can’t stress how eccentric it is. My closing thought about this book is that Arnett very beautifully examines how our relationships, both the seemingly beautiful and the difficult ones, often define our lives. We can’t ever escape who we are. I hope to cover this book in some capacity when we get closer to its release date.

A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window: The first 200 pages are as slow as molasses. They were very difficult to get through. Skim. Skim. Skim. Miss nothing. Skim some more. But, once something actually happens, the book takes off and turns into something that is hard to put down. I’m not sure it all works. Unreliable narrators aren’t really my thing, but I found the reclusive Anna Fox to be interesting. This story is ultimately different enough that it works pretty well—even if I guessed pretty much everything before it happened. I think the movie will be great. As for the book, well, it’s fine—if only the first half could’ve been condensed to maybe 20 pages...

Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House: I guess I should start by admitting that this is my first McCracken book. I know everyone loves her, and now I understand why. This book had me feeling it all. Peggy and James have such a beautiful relationship. I love the way they develop. I always really love all their quirks. From Peggy’s snobby (and wonderful) attitude to James’ giantness, I found myself taken by their enchantments. While this book is a love story, it’s also very a story about otherness and how we all have our afflictions that set is a part. I’m greatly looking forward to her new novel coming next month.

Molly Dektar’s The Ash Family: I picked up this debut on accident, not really sure what to expect. It turns out that The Ash Family is one of the most pleasant reading surprises I’ve encountered in the past several months. Dektar’s novel follows a young woman named Berie who is unclear of her future. After running away, she encounters a charismatic man named Bay who convinces Berie to follow him to the commune where he and “his family” live. At first, things are okay. Berie is taken in and given attention. She discovers she might be on a path to uncovering her purpose. She gets close to the natural world and has a few moments of peace with herself and her life. But, then, boom. This mess gets freaky. Dice, a creepy, power-hungry leader, appears, and we see that this secret commune in the foothills of North Carolina is more of a cult than a community. Dektar dives into how power can manipulate us and how desperate we can be to belong. I plan to cover this one in some capacity, so I’ll this short. This is a great first novel. I mean, I think it’s too long, but it’s really, really engaging and nicely written. I imagine it’ll be a pick for a lot of book clubs. It definitely should be.

Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying: Devastating novel, but somehow uplifting by its end. Grant, the accused, is innocent of murder, but society refuses to accepts the man’s innocence. Jefferson, a teacher, comes to town and is the one who is allegedly instilling to Grant a lesson before he’s put to death. It’s the opposite, though. Grant teaches Jefferson and many others what it means to live (and die) with grace. This is a transcendent work of literature. 

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers: Hmm... I’m not sure if I like this novel or if I don’t. I do like the setup. A contagion-like sleep begins to plague a town. It’s scary for many reasons, but one of the most frightful things is that no one knows anything about where it comes from, how it spreads, or if there is a way to stop it. I like all this. It’s ominous. It’s interesting. What I’m not as sold on is the execution. There are too many characters, and while these people seem real and dynamic, I didn’t ever felt like I truly knew them. Maybe that’s actually part of the writer’s intention. These are ordinary people being haunted by an unordinary situation. I think the novel is at least 100 pages too long—more like 150. Some chapters interrupt the flow of the narrative and left me confused. Several of these mentioned sections feel like Walker is talking to us instead of her telling a story. Still, she has one heck of an imagination and I’ll be ready for her next book when it drops. Oh, and that last chapter is dynamite.

On to February with Mary Miller and others...

Bradley Sides