My March Reading Journal

The first quarter of 2019 is over. It’s safe to say this year is a stunner in terms of all things literary. Here’s a recap of the books I took in during March:

Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River: Once Upon a River was my very first Setterfield. I enjoyed it, especially the first 50 pages or so, which focus on a child washing up on shore and villagers trying to find out who she is, where she’s from, and why she looks so perfect in “death.” There’s a hint of magic in play from the beginning. The rest of the book continues in this same sense of mystery and magic. In the middle, there’s a lot going on. Too much for my personal taste—a bit too many characters, some extra, unnecessary twists and turns, etc. The end brings it all back together. Overall, I think the book tells a really creative story, and I was glad to have been able to spend some time on the mysterious Thames with Setterfield.

Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho: I don’t think I read this novel at the right time. I’ll probably revisit it in the future. It has all kinds of elements that I admire. It’s eerie, quiet, and haunting, and there’s so much left unsaid in the white spaces. But it just wasn’t clicking for me. One think that bothered me was the lack of chapters. I need breaks, and there are too few for what I prefer. I know this is petty, but it’s me. Yeah, I’ll be back to it when I’m in a different state…

Stephanie Land’s Maid: Land’s debut memoir is a brilliant work of literature. The story, which is largely about Land’s life as a struggling young mother who finding work as a maid, is such an American one. It feels timely, but it’s also classic in its analysis of the American Dream. The book is affecting as it weaves the story of Land and her daughter, Mia, with those of Land’s clients. One repeated point Land makes is that money isn’t really the answer. It’s something else. It’s opportunity and hope. This book made me very angry at times. Some people lack empathy and are truly cruel. Maid makes me want to do better. I’ll be recommending this spectacular memoir throughout the year.

Jeff Zentner’s Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee: Zentner’s debut, The Serpent King, is my favorite YA novel of the 2000s. His follow up was good, and this one is solid. I admire how he captures the South so beautifully and how he creates such real young voices. This novel is a little lighter than I was expecting, but that’s not bad. Buford, the dog, is great. Delia’s struggle to get to know her dad through her art is sweet. It’s all sweet really. Josie and Delia are quirky—very quirky actually—and they are likeable as is most of the cast. One topic that Zentner approaches with particular emphasis is teens weighing college anxieties. As someone who deals with kids the same age as the characters in this novel on a daily basis, I can assure you that he nails it. Teenage years are anxious times. Zentner writes of these years with precision and grace.

Chloe Aridjis’ Sea Monsters: Okay, I’ll begin with the good: the cover is perfect. Now, I’ll move on. Sea Monsters is about as dreamy as literature can get. It’s a little too untamed for me to love it, but I do think it’s written very beautifully. Some passages are stunning. The actual story, though, is difficult to follow. Set in Mexico in the 1980s, Luisa, a freedom-seeking teenager leaves home. For what you ask? Well, I’m not really sure. There’s a guy named Tomas she follows around, and there is a group of Ukrainian dwarfs she seems interested in. I never could catch where it was going. Another thing I struggled with is the voice. Luisa doesn’t sound like a seventeen year old. There’s a lot of movement and strangeness, and it all kind of swirls together. Like I said, it’s dreamy, full of hazy and blurred ideas and symbols. I love the strange and the weird, but I couldn’t get into this one.

Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish: Yep, I read this book probably 5 times each year. I know that’s sort of crazy, but I love this novel more than words can say. I’m drawn to stories involving magic and those about issues of masculinity. This one has both. AND it’s a slim story, which is another plus. The last 30 pages are among my favorite in all of literature. Edward and William Bloom, in all of their messy and complicated lives, are comforting. A perfect book—and a lifetime top 10 for me.

Mindy McGinnis’ Heroine: McGinnis’ story of a rising, teenage softball protégée named Mickey Catalan is fantastic. It’s also brutal—like just about every other book by this author. With Heroine, which is McGinnis’ best novel, the author dives into the opioid crisis. Here, young Mickey has a terrible car accident. To help with pain, her doctor prescribes her Oxy. The drug soothes her pain, but it also gives her a certain high she can’t find without the help of the drug. She soon becomes addicted. She pursues the drug. People willingly sell it to her. At first, the impacts seem light; however, as the novel slowly progresses, so, too, does her addiction. Mickey pretty much abandons her softball friends and her family and finds a kinship in a small group of others who are addicts. Pills become needles, and heroine becomes the drug of choice. There’s tragedy within these pages. The insightful novel will show readers just how common drug addictions are—and how easy it is to wind up in a situation like Mickey’s. Eye opening, moving, and heartbreaking, this is an important book. I hope it finds a wide readership.

Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway: McCracken’s latest novel is wild, wacky, and wordy. All of these traits are to the extreme. I’m sure the level of eccentricity will be seen as too cute by some readers; others will love it. I’m in the middle. There’s a lot going on. The first chapter about a woman named Bertha being found (surprisingly) alive in a cemetery with some very strange bowling equipment is a good gauge for if readers will like the rest of the book. The energy from page one doesn’t cease. I tend to like quieter stories, but McCracken is a fantastic writer of characters. There’s a lot to admire (there’s some really beautiful prose), but there’s a lot else to weed through. I’m looking forward to seeing what this writer releases next...

Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie: Just like with Wallace’s Big Fish, I read this play a handful of times each year, too. The sadness is comforting to me somehow. Yeah, I know that it’s strange to find sadness comforting, but that’s me. Oh, Tom, he’s just so confused and complicated. That’s what I like about him. The same is true for Amanda and Laura. The Wingfields are real, and so is every word of this masterpiece of American drama that dissects the American Dream. It’s, in my mind, the great American play, and I look forward to visiting it again in the coming months.

Chia Chia Lin’s The Unpassing: This novel features intimate narration at its very best. Young Gavin and his sister get meningitis, but only Gavin survives. What follows is his and his family’s reaction. Spoiler: it’s heartbreaking to read. The story also feels bare, just like the Alaskan landscape Lin plants us in. The Unpassing is about how loss breaks us—how it rips us apart from those living and the things we live for. The writing is spare, and the whole feels like a poem. It’s a beautiful, haunting novel. I have a lot more to say; I’ll save that for my formal review. 

Karen Russell’s Orange World: No writer has inspired me more than Karen Russell. She’s my favorite of favorites. I’m not a fair critic of her work, but, for what my biased opinion is worth, this collection is another masterpiece. Each story explores the unknown while also dissecting humanity’s core. Russell is at her best when she looks at home and monsters. Both are on display here. “The Bog Girl,” “The Prospectors, & the titular story are my current favorites, but they’ll all likely cycle through as being a favorite at some time or another. I’m hoping to interview Karen, so I’ll have more to say then.

Bradley Sides