Four books I truly loved
Plus romance reads for your TBR and the best purchase I've made this year
Today I’m back to your regularly scheduled programming with four book reviews (spoiler alert: I have a new lifetime favorite), lots of links, and some highlights from my week of travels. In case you missed it, there are now two editions of my new Reading in Public series up in the archives. This post is all about the origins of this project and what I hope to achieve. And in this one I share the three questions I ask about every book I read.
Before we get into the books, I did want to let you know that this is your last chance to take advantage of my three-year-anniversary deal before the offer expires at the end of the month. With this offer, you can get an annual paid subscription for 20% off. That comes out to a little over $3/month! You’ll get exclusive bonus newsletters and podcasts, and support the work that goes into getting this newsletter into your inbox every Sunday.
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This week in books.
This week I read…
A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurriquib. This magnificent collection of essays explores the history and cultural legacy of Black performers and performance in America. Abdurriquib explores specific artists, albums, performances, films, and even isolated moments that have become influential touchstones of modern life. The stories are intimate and personal, but also offer large scale social commentary—all done in some of the most powerful writing I’ve come across in years. If I were still teaching, I would absolutely have my students read these essays as examples of just how evocative and profound writing can be. I can’t think of a single person I wouldn’t recommend this to so add it to your list immediately. Amazon | Bookshop | Libro.fm
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. Another successful Novel Pairings reread in the books! Our episode comparing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with The Golden Compass airs on Tuesday, so make sure you’re subscribed in your favorite podcast player. Amazon | Bookshop | Libro.fm
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I have been slowly (even secretively) reading The Luminaries since late December. It’s a book I’ve always wanted to read, but the length (864 pages!) put me off for years. I decided it was finally time both because Catton has a new book coming out this year and because it seemed like a good exercise for my slow reading practice. This lengthy book reads like a Victorian novel in all of the ways I love: wordy periodic sentences, plot revealed through dialogue, sentences brimming with pitch-perfect characterization, and a little bit of melodrama. The story is set in the mid-1800s during the New Zealand gold rush and begins when Walter Moody stumbles into a gathering he isn’t supposed to be part of. As the men he meets unravel their sordid tales for Moody, Catton invites us into an intricate and almost otherworldly mystery. I loved this reading experience, and I can’t stop thinking about the book. It felt both completely original and beautifully familiar. It had the elegant complexity of a puzzle without playing mind games with the reader. The prose was luscious and offered astute and poignant observations that made me laugh and think and see the people around me a little differently. It’s an utter feat of narrative structure, but it’s also just a great story. This book isn’t for everyone and if you don’t want to slowly make your way through 360 pages of Victorian pastiche before things start to take off, definitely don’t read this book! But for me, this is a new favorite and a book I’m so glad I made the time for. If you’re on the fence about this one, here’s what I wish I’d known going in: 1) Part I is by far the slowest section, but don’t worry if you feel like you’re missing details. Catton summarizes everything you need to know in the last chapter of that section. 2) The book’s momentum picks up quickly after Part I so don’t anticipate that you’ll be reading the entire thing as slowly as you do the first section. 3) I didn’t know much about the structure of the book going in and I loved slowly figuring out what Catton was doing as I read. But had I known more about the structural component in advance, I might have been inclined to read this sooner. I’ll leave it up to you if you want to research more! Amazon | Bookshop
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell. This was the FictionMatters Book Club selection for February and a truly astonishing debut novel. In fact it’s so expansive and strange that I almost can’t believe it got published without the precedent of past success. At its most basic level, the story follows four generations of three families as their lives intersect and impact each other during the formative years of the Zambian nation. Serpell experiments with genre, plays with narrative voice, and defies expectations as she constructs the lives of these characters and ultimately tells the story of the nation itself. The Old Drift is a book that luxuriates in its rambling tendencies and sense of ambiguity, and I loved it for that. Serpell is a writer who refuses to pander and isn’t afraid to unsettle, and I will read everything she writes. Amazon | Bookshop | Libro.fm
Now I’m reading…
This slim story of grief hasn’t gotten much buzz, but I’m enjoying it.
I loved The Trees last year so I was excited to see another of his available on Scribd.
I’ll be finishing Craft in the Real World this week and think I might make it an annual reading experience for myself.
If you are an international reader or just prefer UK covers, you can also order books through my Blackwell’s affiliate page!
Links I love.
I always love reading LitHub’s review roundups. They’re a great resource for anyone who wants to find their next read and those trying to make their own reviews sharper.
This article about subjective age is fascinating.
We’re reading classic children’s literature for our spring semester of Novel Pairings and it’s made me even more interested in the question of what to do about authors with problematic views—especially when they’re writing books for children. The conversations around new editions of Roald Dahl’s books is really interesting.
Five mysteries and thrillers to help you get through winter.
There are two books I loved in last week’s New York Times’ recs.
Romance sales were up 52% last year! Listen to All Things Considered to learn why. And if you want more romance, check out this NYT roundup.
I wish I’d found this before we recorded our Novel Pairings episode on A Wrinkle in Time!
This week in views, listens, eats, and moments of joy.
This horseradish salmon dish is a household favorite.
The most recent episodes of Hard Fork helped me better understand (and feel more rattled by) ChatGPT and the new Bing chat bot.
Louise loved playing with this doll’s stroller at her Bubbe and Grandpa’s house so I got her one to have at home. It’s given us the longest stretches of independent play we’ve seen in awhile—and it’s super cute to watch her strolling her animals and babies around.
Two weeks ago I shared that I bought the Instagram darling Dagne Dover diaper bag for my solo travels with Lou, and I have to admit I’m obsessed. I’d been using a regular backpack as a diaper bag (or my CALPAK belt bag for short excursions) and wanted something that could hold more and help me stay organized. This bag is a game changer! It holds so much and there’s a place for everything. There’s a wet bag, a small pouch for odds and ends (both of which come with adjustable bungee attachments so they don’t get lost), and a zipper so you can access wipes without removing them. In general, they thought of everything I never knew I needed. My mom actually decided to get one for herself for some upcoming international travel because although it’s designed as a diaper bag, if you leave the changing pad out it’s just a really great piece of gear.
Watching Lou bond with her family this past week was magical. It was especially lovely to take her to my grandpa’s assisted living facility and watch her charm him along with the rest of the residents.
I’ve raved about this Biossance serum before, but I have to sing its praises again. After 10 days of barely even washing my face (I’m bad about traveling with my skincare routine), two days back home and using this has made my skin smooth and healthy-looking again.
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I hope you'll say more about Western Lane when you're done. I often dislike child narrators in adult novels, but the premise of this one is intriguing!
I loved this round up, Sara! I don't know that I'll pick up The Luminaries but I'm going to pass this review onto a coworker because the way you describe it sounds right up her alley. I've heard so much praise for the Abdurriquib and you may have nudged me to finally push it up my list.