Where the Light Gets In by Kimberly Williams-Paisley
Publisher/Year: Blackstone Audio, 2016
Narrator: Kimberly Williams-Paisley
Length: 5 hours, 26 minutes
Source: Personal copy
What it is: A memoir about Kimberly Williams-Paisley’s complicated relationship with her mother, Linda, who was diagnosed with an early-onset rare form of dementia called Primary Progressive Aphasia in 2014.
Why I read it: I know Williams-Paisley as an actress, but I also follow her on Instagram just to see what she’s reading — it turns out we have very similar tastes in literary fiction! I love memoirs and this one seemed interesting. I was curious to see what kind of book she’d write (also: she strikes me as the type of celebrity who could believably write their own book rather than have it ghostwritten).
What I thought: This is a sad and illuminating memoir. In a relatively short period of time, Linda went from securing million-dollar donations for large foundations to being unable to speak and needing full-time care. Self-conscious at first, the family finally (and with Linda’s consent) decided to be honest with people about what was happening. Williams-Paisley is blunt about her anger and grief over seeing her mother’s decline, though she’s also honest about how she’s somewhat removed from the situation, living out of state with her own family. Much of the day-to-day caregiving fell to her father, who took on the role to the point of burnout in order to keep Linda at home — rather than an assisted living facility — for as long as possible. The book ends with the family in kind of a weird limbo: Linda’s dementia is progressive, but she’s also gone past all of the markers for life-expectancy with this disease. It’s uncharted territory for them.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
Publisher/Year: Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Source: Personal copy
What it is: Told from five different perspectives in two different timelines, the book is a modern-day dystopia in which abortion and IVF treatments have been outlawed in the United States and a personhood amendment has been passed, granting more rights to embryos than the people carrying them. Single would-be parents hoping to adopt are also out of luck, as only married couples are now allowed to apply.
Why I read it: Reproductive rights + feminist dystopia = my name written all over it. I also loooooove the cover.
What I thought: I’ve seen a lot of references to The Handmaid’s Tale regarding this book, but though it has similar themes regarding reproductive rights, it’s not quite an accurate comparison. The concept of this book is, in many ways, more terrifying because it’s the current political climate taken to its natural conclusion (ex: some states really do keep trying to pass personhood amendments). But while I wanted to love the book, I’m really sad to say that I did not. I’ve read countless books with rotating narrators and shifting chronologies, but the timelines and perspectives in this book were confusing. It took me about half the book to really figure out what was going on. Save for a handful of truly stellar sections, the story took too long to coalesce into something meaningful. I can appreciate the experimental structure, but I don’t think the payoff was worth the effort, especially in the first half.
“I Give You My Body . . .”: How I Write Sex Scenes by Diana Gabaldon
Publisher/Year: Dell, 2016
What it is: Diana Gabaldon, the woman behind the Outlander series, gives a master class in writing sex scenes. She includes excerpts from her own novels and then breaks them down, analyzing the reasons why they work so well. She also breaks down different types of sex scenes, running the gamut from the down and dirty to sex scenes that don’t have any sex at all.
Why I read it: I’ve actually never read any of the Outlander books, but even then, I’ve heard about how well she writes sex scenes. I picked this one up because I heard Gabaldon discussing the book on the Authorized: Season 2 podcast on Audible. It just sounded really fascinating. There are tons of writing books out there, but not so much on this particular topic.
What I thought: Gabaldon makes a distinction between writing sex scenes and writing erotica, and this book is not about erotica. She focuses a lot on setting the mood and the scene, and her examples show the subtleties of her style choices. It was an interesting read, and although it’s fairly short, it contains a lot of good advice on writing in general.
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
Publisher/Year: Courtney Milan, 2014
Narrator: Rosalyn Landor
Length: 10 hours, 54 minutes
Source: Audible Romance Package
What it is: Frederica “Free” Marshall is a headstrong suffragette, journalist, and newspaper publisher. Edward Clark is, by his own admission, a scoundrel who cannot be trusted. Free’s newspaper and entire livelihood is being threatened by a powerful aristocrat, and Edward approaches her to offer his assistance, confessing up front that he’s doing so only to seek revenge on the man who ruined him years before. This is Book 4 in the Brothers Sinister series, but I just jumped straight into this one; the Brothers Sinister are mentioned a couple of times, but it’s not a big part of the story.
Why I listened to it: Hel-lo? Feminist historical romance. That, and it was universally adored by my friends the year it came out. It’s been on my TBR list ever since.
What I thought: I think this might have been my first historical romance novel, and I was hooked. Milan is a talented writer who pays attention to detail and carefully fleshes out her characters’ backgrounds. Free is a feisty feminist and Edward Clark is a rogue with a soft spot, and together, they talk about everything from exclamation points to living with PTSD. Seriously. And yes, there’s well-written sex. *fans self*
I was in Austin this past weekend doing a panel for Nasty Women, but I had the first day of the festival all to myself. One of the big events I’d been dying to attend was the panel with Jeffrey Eugenides and Claire Messud. It’s a six hour drive from South Texas up to Austin, and I used the opportunity to finish listening to Fresh Complaint, a collection of stories written between 1988 to 2017. With the exception of the title story, most of the stories had been previously published in other places.
Early in the panel, Eugenides bemoaned a common description he’d been seeing in reviews of his book: it’s about depressed middle-aged men. “It’s not just about that,” he protested. “There’s a story about two older women, and there’s a story about a Pakistani teenager.”
Yeah. About that.
Ayelet Waldman suffered from severe mood swings for years. She went through a lot trying to get a diagnosis — she was even misdiagnosed as having bipolar disorder for a few years — and she dutifully participated in therapy and tried almost every medication out there. That worked to varying degrees, but it was all taking a toll on her life and her marriage.
In the midst of this, Waldman heard about an experimental treatment in which people microdose with LSD. At about 10% of a typical dose, people who microdose don’t feel any of LSD’s trippy effects and instead begin to experience…nothing. The doses are too minuscule to cause any discernible mood alteration. And yet, the little research that does exist on microdosing points to its usefulness in treating mood disorders and illnesses like PTSD.
A Really Good Day is part memoir, part investigation on the LSD and drug laws in the United States. Waldman, a self-described nerd and chicken when it comes to breaking the law, chronicles the events that led to her finally receiving a little blue vial of diluted LSD in the mail from “Lewis Carroll.” As a former lawyer who often represented clients accused of drug-related offenses, Waldman had personal experiences with drug laws that gave her book some unique insights.
Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova
Publisher/Year: Algonquin Books, 2016
What it is: Khosrova takes readers around the world to examine the cultural and religious significance of butter. She also looks at the history of butter making and its subsequent commercialization, then turns her focus to contemporary butter artisans. Only about half the book deals with butter’s history; the other half consists of butter-filled recipes.
Why I read it: Because butter is awesome.
What I thought: I’m glad to be alive now and not back in the day when butter sold on the market was filthy and sometimes loaded with rocks to make the butter seem heavier. But in all seriousness, the science behind butter making is really interesting, and Khosrova packs a lot of information into a few chapters without making it too dense. As someone who travels a few times a year, I kind of want to start hitting up butter artisans from now on to see what I’ve been missing out on!
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2013
Narrators: Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and 164 others
Length: 7 hours, 25 minutes
What it is: Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever in 1862. A grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln was said to have entered his son’s crypt in the middle of the night to be alone with him. On the other side, in the Bardo — a Tibetan term that refers to a sort of in-between place between the living and the dead — Willie Lincoln doesn’t understand what’s going on and why his father won’t take him home. Several other people, who are buried in the cemetery and are stuck in the Bardo alongside Willie, are touched. A plan takes shape as to what should happen next.
Why I listened to it: I preordered the audiobook partly because of the hype, but mostly because Nick Offerman and Carrie Brownstein are narrators. I was also curious about how an audiobook with 166 narrators would sound.
What I thought: I know this is an unpopular opinion because everyone raves about George Saunders, but I don’t get the hype. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have its moments; there were parts that genuinely made me laugh, and there were several parts where the grief is palpable. It’s a unique spin on historical fiction, and I could appreciate what he was trying to do, but I just couldn’t get 100% on board with it. As for the 166 narrators thing, it’s…a lot. I do think that Offerman and Sedaris, whose roles are bigger than everyone else’s, were perfectly cast, though.