In What I Read Last Month, I recap the previous month’s reading and shamelessly copy and paste from my Goodreads reviews. You can read previous months’ What I Read… by clicking here. Disclaimer: Amazon links are affiliate links, but despite wanting to support writers by buying books, I get most of mine from the library.
Can we talk for a moment about how I wrote this post before going away for the weekend on the 8th, then completely forgot to publish it? I returned home to a sick child, who proceeded to convalesce from the flu for an entire week. Sometimes the non-writing/reading life intervenes…
Anyway, my 2018 reading list is off to a great start. I enjoyed all three of my January reads enough to give four stars — a rare treat in both quantity and quality.
These three books could not be more different. If you’re wondering what to read next, one of them should suit you.
Brunch Is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party by Brendan Francis Newnam & Rico Gagliano
This book made me laugh out loud more than any I’ve read recently. Both snarky and earnest, it blends practical advice with humor for a quick-reading primer on relaxed hosting.
As the authors point out, most of us set the bar too high for our dinner parties. Really, your friends don’t care how clean your house is (except the bathroom). You don’t need world-class cooking skills. You just need to gather an interesting combination of people around the table for food and conversation.
This book inspired me to say, “yeah, you know, I should really just have people over more often. Forget waiting until I finish painting the dining room.”
The current-day political and pop culture references keep me from giving Brunch is Hell five stars. I almost feel like the authors expect the book to be obsolete five years from now. They’re writing for the present moment, which is great, but I would’ve preferred a more timeless approach.
When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago
Many of my favorite memoirs take a deep look at a smaller slice (chronologically speaking) of the author’s life. When I Was Puerto Rican covers a relatively long period of time: from the author’s early childhood until her admittance to New York’s Performing Arts high school. As the title suggests, this is the complete story of the author’s identity as a Puerto Rican. When she comes to the continental US at age 13, she realizes she must leave behind the Puerto Rican jibaro and become something new.
Not knowing much about life in Puerto Rico, I enjoyed experiencing it through the author’s eyes. I also appreciated the perspective she gave on issues that seem cut and dry to the rest of us. For example, privacy (she didn’t enjoy having her own room at first, because she missed sleeping crammed in with her six siblings) and nutrition (from the Puerto Rican perspective, the US government’s attempt to “educate” people on what to eat seems laughable).
Because this book tells the story of Santiago’s Puerto Rican life as a whole, I felt the lack of deeper exploration on core issues. For example, she frequently describes dissociation: allowing her body to exist in one space while her consciousness retreats elsewhere. This implies a need to protect herself from trauma. It remained unclear to me whether this trauma was from living in a large, poor family with parents who fought frequently, or from something bigger. Did Santiago feel her trauma was greater than that of peers in similar situations? She describes her envy of schoolmates with idyllic lives, but those classmates also seem to inhabit a different socioeconomic class.
The author could have answered these questions in a book solely about her relationship with her mother. Instead, I wondered: did the author view her mother as an abusive person, or as a woman who did the best she could in her circumstances? Did she respect her, or just fear her? She describes trying to feel close to her mother, and rarely achieving it. Does she view this as an inherent trait of her mother’s, or as a byproduct of external factors? In the end, I wished I knew more about this complex relationship between the two most central characters.
All in all, I enjoyed this book because I enjoy hearing others’ stories. A reader looking for a book about something specific — a plot-driven versus character-driven story — will likely find this one unfulfilling. It’s part of a trilogy, and I get the idea the set of three may cohere more completely than this book does as a standalone. That said, anyone who appreciates immigrant stories, Puerto Rican culture, or learning about others’ lives will like When I Was Puerto Rican.
Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s one of those rare finds that comes together on all fronts: unique and vivid characters, rich descriptions, well-constructed setting, good pacing, and a nice balance between lightness and drama.
The reader can really disappear into the world of Howl Mountain, and the characters feel present and real. While I found the ending a little neat, that didn’t bother me much.
The author has a few tics — words or descriptions that recur often enough to stick out — and I got distracted by the frequency with which characters belched through their teeth or spat on the ground. I also raised an eyebrow once or twice when I didn’t quite believe our hero Rory would’ve made it through. He certainly has nine lives.
None of this substantially decreased my enjoyment of the book, though. It was well done, and one of my favorite reads in recent memory.