The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland was the SBC selection for May 2017. Visit the SBC Page (linked above) for more books we’re reading/have read.


This novel took me forever to read. I started with the audiobook on May 5, but couldn’t get into it. Then I got the paper book thinking that maybe that would grab me better, but still I labored. The writing is beautiful, spare, poignant in its simplicity, but before I was fifty pages in, I decided to quit reading. I set the book on the kitchen table, and “Pulitzer Prize” glared up at me from the cover, so I made myself open the book again and keep going.

Despite the writing, despite the characters so realistically flawed, despite the kind of pacing that I usually love, which allows me to luxuriate in the language, the book remained a slog for me until the last page. Maybe the plot is just too much like real life: slow and accidental, full of poor choices and in the end meaningless, or at least pointless.

The “Pulitzer Prize” written on the cover on its own wouldn’t have carried me through the novel. Four sentences (or two sentences and two fragments) a little more than a hundred pages in gave me the boost necessary to keep me reading:

“Though he looked like any other Bengali he felt an allegiance with the foreigners now. He shared with them a knowledge of elsewhere. Another life to go back to. The ability to leave.” (113)

Although my life experiences are dramatically different from Subhash’s, I could relate to the experience of being in a place where so many others feel at home, surrounded by people for whom the possibility of living anywhere else simply doesn’t exist. For me, the possibility of leaving the place where I am is not only a possibility; it seems almost an inevitability. But since I’m not at home where I am anyway and never have been, this brings me comfort. It’s the prospect of staying in one place that’s unsettling to me.

I know this isn’t quite what Subhash is feeling in this moment. He’s not a perpetual stranger but rather has returned home a stranger because circumstances have cut him loose from the bonds that held him to that place, to those people. Even though the situation was different, those sentences spoke to me nevertheless and kept me reading.

However, the promise of those sentences was never realized for me. I don’t regret reading the whole novel, but I probably could have stopped at any point and been no worse off.

Bookends: June 2017

It’s finally strawberry time in Massachusetts! We’ve picked four weeks in a row and brought home a total of sixty-one pounds of strawberries.

I froze a bunch of them and gave a quart to a friend, but we ate most of them fresh. Gorging myself on seasonal, locally grown fruit has become a summer tradition for me. Next up: cherries!

In addition to eating fruit, I’ve also devoted Summer 2017 to doing lots of projects around the house and yard that I’ve been putting off. I’ve spent the month scheduling electricians, learning how to use tile adhesive and grout, deciding I don’t want to regrout my shower myself, trying to get other professionals to call me back, choosing paint colors, having mulch delivered, having trees removed, planting other trees, and weeding and weeding and weeding. It’s been surprisingly rewarding, but I do not regret procrastinating for the past six years.

I’ve also been doing a TBR List Declutter here on the blog. Each Thursday, I post the titles of ten books that are on my TBR, why I added them in the first place, and whether I’m keeping them or taking them off of the TBR. At this pace, it will take me seventy-five weeks to go through all of the titles, provided I don’t add any more. (spoiler: I’ve already added more.)

But wait! That’s not all! When not wrestling with my to-do list or my to-read list, I’ve been doing two Instagram challenges!

The first is Book Riot’s Riotgrams challenge. I started strong, but kind of lost my gusto as the month progressed. One of my favorites was the one for Day 24: Tiny Books. My son helped me with that one, choosing the background and holding the little dictionary up for the photo.

The other Instagram challenge was a progressive capsule, which I learned about from @loritironpandit but which originated with Karen at Sustainable Fashion Chat (@sustainablefashionchat). It’s pretty simple. I just kept track of all of the clothes I wore for the month to see how much of my wardrobe I actually use. I posted photos of myself periodically, usually with a book in front of my face. My friend suggested that we could start an #outfitwithbook hashtag. Here’s one of those photos:

I’m not much into fashion, but I do care about what I wear, and this challenge really was helpful. In the end, I wore a total of twenty-four items of clothing during June, including shoes but not including socks, underwear, night clothes (or even knight clothes), or workout/yardwork clothes, and determined that I can get rid of a lot of the clothes I own right now.

To see all of my posts for these two challenges, visit my Instagram: @imperfecthappiness.

And I read a few books. Not as many as usual, but still not a bad number for all of the other stuff I’ve been doing (and my total would have been one better if I’d not done May’s Bookends a few days late and included Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne on last month’s post, even though I finished it on June 2. Way to cheat Future Charity, Past Charity.):

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Bookends: May 2017

May found me celebrating my daughter’s twelfth birthday and realizing that there’s less than 1.5 inches between her height and mine, writing and mailing our homeschool annual reports to the school district, removing my first tick (from myself; I’ve removed them from both kids in years past), having our front yard dug up by the gas company, and watching the gypsy moths chew holes in the leaves on all of our trees.

It’s been an eventful month.

Something I’ve not been doing this month: blogging. I’ve thought up some really cool book-related ideas for the blog, but none of them have gotten to the implementation phase. In the next month, I’m hoping to revise and relaunch my Cavalcade of Classics list and kick off a weekly feature to whittle down the number of titles on my TBR from “ridiculous” to merely “aspirational” and to give me some direction in choosing which books to read next.

But in order to move forward, we must first examine where we’ve been. I’m not sure if this is true, but it sounds like a meme, and that’s just as good. In this spirit, here’s what I read in May:

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Bookends: April 2017

April in Massachusetts was a stop-and-start process towards spring. We heard spring peepers peeping, watched the maple trees bloom and then make itty-bitty seeds, and now we’re seeing leaves galore. The lilacs and cherry trees are in blossom, and I can smell flowers on my walks around the neighborhood. And unlike last year, there’s been no late freeze (knock on wood), so it’s likely we’ll have LOCAL PEACHES this year!

What kind of monster looks at bunnies and thinks good things about coyotes?

I also see bunnies, bunnies, and more bunnies, which I bet thrills the coyotes and foxes in the neighborhood. The small-dog owners and keepers of outdoor cats aren’t thrilled about the predators traipsing around, but I’m a fan. Small furry creatures are adorable and I love them, but they spread deer ticks, which are awful already this year, so we can benefit from having a food-chain-related way to keep the furry population in check. I also like hawks and falcons.

Another wonderful thing about April: Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon! To read about my progress during the readathon, check out my wrap-up post.

Here’s some of what I finished reading in April (funny…I felt like I didn’t read much this month, but my list argues against that):

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Bookends: March 2017

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One of the things I love about Massachusetts.

My time in central Massachusetts, experiencing the discourtesy people here call “direct,” has been six years of cultural fatigue. There are things that I love about the area, but the people are consistently prickly. Yes, people can be impolite anywhere and in a surprising variety of ways, but most places I’ve lived and visited, the rudeness has been shocking in part because it happened so infrequently. In Massachusetts, discourteousness is like an element: living here, we swim in rudeness, whether we participate in it or not.

Late in March, my family spent a week in California. From the moment we landed, the difference was obvious. Sure, we lost thirty minutes in the rental car place because the guys working there were inept, but at least they were friendly. Everywhere we went, people smiled, they were cordial, they spoke kindly to one another. I felt little to none of the social anxiety that clings to me in Massachusetts. For the first time in ages, I felt like I could exhale.

Going to San Diego was like jumping from a polluted river into one that ran with fresh, clean water; coming back has been the opposite experience. Just this morning I observed a cashier and her customer openly ridicule another customer for thinking the cashier had given her a friendly look. “She thought since you looked nicely at her that meant it was her turn!” said the first customer, and she and the cashier brayed together as the second customer apologized and got back into line. If the three had been friends, I could understand it as rough but good-natured joshing, but I saw nothing to indicate that these people knew each other.

On the plus side, this kind of interaction makes travel even more appealing. Time to put our passports to work.

Aside from this unpleasant but not unexpected welcome back, March has been wonderful. Not only did I spend a week in a place that felt like home, but I got a lot of reading done, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching my children write and illustrate their own books and stories.

My seven-year-old has moved from filling journals with his stories to typing them out on legal-sized paper on the Smith Corona my dad used in graduate school in the early 1980’s. My son will kneel on a chair at the dining room table, typing for hours and yelling at anyone who tries to interrupt him for something as trivial as dinner or bedtime. All he needs now is a bottle of scotch, an overflowing ashtray, and a fedora.

Something to look forward to: Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon is April 29! I’m especially excited because this time around, a goal of the readathon is to raise money for Room to Read, a non-profit focusing on literacy and girls’ education across Africa and Asia. To learn more about this part of the readathon and to donate, visit the Dewey’s Room to Read campaign page.

Reading through the night won’t be happening for me on April 29, but I plan to clear my schedule at least for the daylight hours. If I take part, I’ll post about it here and on Instagram.

Until my children finish their masterpieces, I’ve had to content myself with what’s already on the shelves. Here’s some of what I finished reading in March:

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Bookends: February 2017

Well, what do you know? It’s March. I’ve been so distracted by the crazy rollercoaster weather here in New England the past couple of weeks and so consumed with the books I’ve been binge-reading in March so far that I totally spaced on doing the February Bookends.

Here are the titles I finished reading in February:

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Bookends: January 2017

January was a very good month to immerse oneself in fiction. To do this, one needed only turn on the news, but, always one to choose the path that’s less likely to give me palpitations even if it requires a little more effort and better lighting, I opted to immerse myself in novels and short stories.

Towards the end of the month, I participated in the 24 in 48 Readathon. It was my first time with this particular readathon, and it only bolstered my burgeoning love of the “athon” philosophy of reading. Binge-reading generally seems more of an antisocial escape than a social activity, but with the magic of the Internet, it can be both. What a world we live in.

Here’s is the list of titles into which I escaped in January:

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January 2017 24 in 48 Wrap-Up Post

Well, the 2017 24 in 48 Readathon, January edition, has come and gone.

I’ll use the official 24in48 closing survey as a guide for my wrap-up:

How many books did you read? Pages?

I finished two books, The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike (325 pages) and Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (436 pages). I also read about ten pages of Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, so my page total is about 771. And I listened to a little less than an hour of As You Wish by Cary Elwes while I took a constitutional, but I’m not going to attempt to convert that to pages read.

How many hours did you read?

I didn’t keep close track, but I estimate about twelve hours total, maybe fourteen. Some stuff came up that kind of derailed my reading plans (real life is always trying to push into my reading time), so I didn’t spend as may hours reading as I would have preferred.

What do you think worked well in this readathon?

I like the surveys, and I like the 24-in-48 format. I liked reading about the challenges, although I didn’t keep up with them myself.

What do you think could be done to improve the readathon for next time?

Couldn’t say. I didn’t follow the challenges or the social media presence all that well, but I think that’s my thing, not something anyone else needs to improve.

Will you participate in a future 24in48 readathon?

Absolutely. Anything to give me an excuse to bury myself in books for a weekend.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters is the second and last book I finished for this year’s 24 in 48 readathon, matching my “finished” total for Dewey’s Readathon this past October. I cheated a little and read for two hours past the official end of the readathon, but I’m counting it anyway.


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From when I started the book at breakfast-time on Saturday.

This was the second book in a row that I finished reading at 2am, sitting on the floor of the bathroom with the door shut so my late-night reading wouldn’t disturb my spouse, who is much better about observing a healthy, consistent bedtime than I am. He’s also much taller than me.

I’d read very little in the way of crime dramas/murder mysteries until a few months ago when I began feverishly making my way through Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. I can’t say with certainty that the commonalities I see between this book and French’s books is also something in common with the genre in general, so I’ll just keep to what I know. Beukes does all of the things that I love about French’s writing, and she does them even more. Like French’s characters, Beukes’s characters are distinct personalities, but they’re even more clearly—yet still subtly—drawn. Both authors weave their characters’ personal lives and a broader cultural commentary into the murder investigation at the core of the novel, but Beukes does it in a manner even more seamless and emotionally authentic. Reading this novel, I was constantly blown away by the virtuosity and subtlety with which Beukes writes.

The biggest difference between French’s novels and Broken Monsters is that Beukes puts no brakes on the bizarre. But while the novel gets really, really weird, Beukes still takes the reader along with her. I happily read bizarre fiction, but there’s usually a self-consciousness about it, a constant awareness that I’m reading something bizarre. But with this novel, the weird just kind of snuck up on me so that, by the time I was really aware of just how weird it was, I was already in it.

I think what made the difference for me was the emotional authenticity that Beukes retains throughout all of the really off-the-wall stuff. There’s a scene towards the end of the novel in which Gabi says something to Layla that makes total sense but I completely didn’t expect. I hesitate to use the word poignant because that implies a level of sap that this scene does not possess, so I’ll just say that the exchange reveals the depths of the love between mother and daughter in a way that’s so surprising in its emotional truth that I cried just a little. Granted, it was almost 2am and I’d been sitting on the tile floor of my bathroom reading for nearly four hours, so perhaps I was in a more vulnerable emotional condition than if I’d been curled up comfortably on the couch and reading well-rested, but while I might not have teared up, I think I would have been surprised and the scene would have retained its emotional truth in either situation.

Two quotes stood out for me. The first, which I’ve truncated significantly because I don’t want to give too much away, stands out because it feels true to how our culture responds to attention-seekers at all levels, especially in this Internet-fueled, post-truth age:

“Just keep giving him attention. Even if it makes you an accomplice to his [expletive]ed-up fantasies.” (405)

And the second just made me smile because I’ve thought it so many times myself (minus the comma splice, of course):

“Hell isn’t other people, it’s other parents.” (316)

To any of my mom-friends who are reading this, I don’t mean you.

The Graveyard Apartment

This is the first book I finished for the 2017 24 in 48 Readathon! I cheated a little and started six hours early, but hey…I finished the book! I’ll post book reviews here on the blog, but if you want the play-by-play, take a look at @imperfecthappiness on Instagram.


img_20170121_091957.jpgOverall, this book was pretty good. It wasn’t super-spooky, but I sat up late to read the whole thing in one sitting (with a break to put the kids to bed) because it was easy to read and because I found the deeper issues in the novel compelling.

There were no huge surprises, horror-wise—an apartment next to a graveyard, misbehaving electronics, weird noises, spooky happenings, a trip to check out city records about the history of the site. There were some things that were unclear or just dropped without further explanation, like the bird and the dark little figures. Some of the language was cliched or otherwise uninteresting, but I have a higher tolerance for this sort of thing in a translation. I found myself wanting to ask my friends who speak/read Japanese to read this and tell me if the word choice was any more skillful in the original Japanese.

One of the biggest things that gave me trouble was that the motivation of the antagonist(s) was unclear. Did they want to drive out the tenants (if so, why make it difficult to leave)? Did they want to kill the tenants (if so, why drag it out)? Are they targeting the one family specifically (if so, why all the collateral damage)? As another reviewer mentions, are they the spirits of dead people or are they malevolent spirits of some other, mythological type? Are they limited in power, as the beginning of the book suggests, or are they omnipotent, as they seem to be by the end (although they apparently still need the elevator)? It seems like the author can’t decide.

Two things kept me interested in this novel. First, the author did an excellent job of maintaining suspense. The action took almost too long for me, but not quite. That’s good suspense.

Second, there’s this intersection of the personal haunted past of the main family in the story and the haunting of the building. Read More