What I Read and Loved in May 2023

Despite being exhausted since it’s nearing the end of the school year, May was a great reading month. I ended up reading a lot of nonfiction. I didn’t plan that, but nonfiction is always welcome. Some readers seem hesitant to read nonfiction, but there’s so much good stuff out there, especially now. Nonfiction recommendations will be an upcoming blog post, so stay tuned.

Here’s what I read and loved in May!

What I Read

Maybe an artist book cover

Maybe an Artist: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Montague
Format: Print

Maybe an Artist is a cute YA graphic memoir about a Black woman whose cartoons get published in the New Yorker when she’s just 22. I enjoyed this quick read, but I wanted more depth. Even though this book is meant for a young adult audience, I thought the author could have filled in a bit more backstory. 

Happy place book cover

Happy Place by Emily Henry
Format: eBook

One of the things I appreciate about Emily Henry’s books is that I know exactly what I’ll get: well-rounded characters, witty dialogue, and a slow-burn love story. In Happy Place, the characters are a group of college friends who have gathered at a cottage in Maine for their annual vacation. Harriet and Wyn are the novel’s protagonists, and the two broke up several months before the trip. However, they haven’t told their friends, so they try to hide their breakup until they make it through the vacation, the last they’ll have in the cottage they’ve come to love that will soon be for sale. 

My favorite part of Happy Place isn’t the romance but the relationship between the six friends at the story’s heart. It was nice to see the challenges and complexities of adult friendships realistically explored. I also liked the book’s structure, which includes flashbacks throughout Harriet and Wyn’s relationship. That’s not a technique I always enjoy, but it worked well here. 

Though I was eager to read this novel, I wish I had read it in the summer because it’s the perfect summer read. If you’re looking for something light but thoughtful for your summer reading, give this one a try.

The eden test

The Eden Test by Adam Sternbergh
Format: eBook

When her marriage is in crisis, Daisy arranges a surprise getaway for herself and her husband, Craig. They’ll be out of the city at a remote cabin where they’ll participate in a program called the Eden Test to save their relationship. Craig doesn’t want to be there at first, but the two settle into a rhythm and start making progress. But Daisy is an actress who has a lot of baggage. And Craig has some secrets, too. 

Despite some heavy-handed imagery, The Eden Test is a total page-turner from beginning to end. The twists and reveals made this thriller unputdownable. This book is the perfect choice if you need some fun and escapism. 

I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki book cover

I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki
by Baek Sehee; translated from the Korean by Anton Hur 

Format: Print

I was researching mental health books to purchase for one of the libraries where I work and came across this title about a Korean woman struggling with depression. She visits a psychiatrist and starts recording their sessions, the transcripts of which make up this book. I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at therapy, but something about this book didn’t work for me. Even though some of the therapy sessions were quite vulnerable, I never felt fully invested in this story. Of course, that could be my issue instead of the book’s, but either way, I’m glad I read this, even if I didn’t love it.

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
book cover

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell
Format: Audiobook

In Cultish, Amanda Montell explores the vocabulary used in religion, midlevel marketing, fitness, and other high-control spaces. The parts about fitness were the most interesting to me. It was fascinating to hear how the language used in SoulCycle and Crossfit worked to convince people to pledge their loyalty. Other sections of this book were a bit slow, but it’s a worthwhile read if you’re interested in language. 

How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing book cover

How to Keep House While Drowning:
A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing
by KC Davis

Format: Print

I follow KC Davis on TikTok, where I learned about her book. She answers questions her viewers have about keeping up with household tasks and lets us into her own messiness. I appreciate the subtitle of her book because a gentle approach is exactly what Davis brings to the table. Davis’s vulnerability when discussing her mental health struggles and how she continuously advocates for those who have a hard time doing routine tasks that come easily to others makes this book such a gem. (I also mentioned this book in a recent post about messiness.)

Monsters: a fan's dilemma book cover

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer
Format: Print

In Monsters, Claire Dederer raises a question: what are we to do with the art of monstrous men? She discusses Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Ernest Hemingway, and other famous artists. Dederer also brings several women into the conversation, such as J. K. Rowling and Doris Lessing. I found this book to be thoughtful, well-written, and engaging from beginning to end. I highlighted many passages along the way, a sign that a book will stay with me. I highly recommend this title if you’ve ever wondered how to approach art when the artist has broken your trust.

What I Loved

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

WEBSITE: Substack

I’ve followed several writers on Substack for a long time now, but it wasn’t until recently that I started exploring the site. My friend Mary writes a wonderful newsletter, and I also love reading Anne Helen PetersonKatelyn Beaty, and Sara Hildreth a.k.a. FictionMatters.

I wanted a place to share original poetry and discuss other poems I like, so I started my own newsletter called Andrea Is Writing. I’d love it if you subscribed.

What did you read in May? What things brought you joy?

5 Steps to Help You Choose Books You’ll Love

I’ve been doing library work for nearly 18 years. Something I see a lot is a patron wandering around, completely lost. Sometimes a student needs a book for a class, but they tell me they don’t know what they want or where to find something they might like. When I worked in public libraries, someone might ask me where a new, popular novel was located without realizing the waiting list was 100 people long and that it would take months for the book to appear on the shelves. Even devoted readers sometimes struggle to find a book they’re excited to pick up. In today’s post, I want to share some strategies for choosing books you’ll enjoy. Of course, you’ll never love every book you read, but you can learn to select books that will most likely be satisfying. Let’s dive in!

Ask Yourself These Three Questions

If you’re struggling to choose good books, it helps to know yourself as a reader. For example, I used to purchase classic books I thought I should read, but they collected dust on my shelves. Other times, I picked up the latest bestseller and didn’t understand the hype. Now that I know who I am as a reader, most of the books I choose end up working for me. Here are some questions to ask yourself. Jot down your answers so you can refer back to them later.

  1. How do I want to feel when I read?
    • Do you want to feel engrossed or relaxed? Would you like to be swept away or planted in reality? Our feelings have a lot to do with how we enjoy and experience books, so it benefits us as readers to consider how we feel and want to feel when selecting a book.
  2. What do I need right now?
    • I can’t handle a biography or 700-page novel when I feel overwhelmed. I tend to like lighter books in the summer and weightier books in the winter. Pay attention to what you need when you choose a book. If you need some escapism, choose a book focused on plot. If you need a vacation, try a book set somewhere you’d like to travel. Reading is fun, but it can also be an act of self-care when we consider what we need out of our books.
  3. What are my book words?
    • Book words are an idea from Kendra Adachi (a.k.a. the Lazy Genius). She says, “Book Words are words in book descriptions that make you go ‘Oooohhhh, I think I’ll really love this.'” Some of my words are dark, mysterious, atmospheric, enlightening, complex, well-developed, literary, and poetic. The words that are NOT for me include speculative, fantastical, inspirational, scary, and saga.

After answering these questions, you can start to think in specifics like this:

“I want to feel relaxed, so I need a short, lighthearted book that is funny, sweet, and touching.”

That type of specificity will help you (or your bookseller/librarian) find a title that’s sure to be a good fit.

Pay Attention to Blurbs

Cover blurbs can be helpful if you think about who rather than what. Blurbs are valuable when I think about the author writing them and not so much about what they actually say (because who knows if the author even read the book they’re blurbing). When I see a book that has a blurb by Celeste Ng or Roxane Gay on the cover, I know that book might be similar to their work. If I’m skimming a book cover and see a blurb by an author whose work I don’t like, that tells me the book I’m looking at might not be for me. 

Judge the Book by Its Cover

Through the years, I’ve discovered many excellent books because of their beautiful cover designs. Sure, you can’t always judge a book by its cover, but the cover art can often give you clues about what the book is like with just a glance. If I see a spaceship or a dragon on a book cover, I know that’s not a book I’ll enjoy. Consider what book covers draw you in and search for similar designs.

Be a Quitter

DON’T TORTURE YOURSELF BY READING A BOOK YOU DON’T LIKE. (That statement is worthy of being in all caps.) It’s easy to fall into the trap of reading things we feel like we should read, but that tends to make reading a chore rather than a life-giving activity. Unless you need to finish a book for a class or other commitment, put down books you’re not enjoying so you can find a title you’ll genuinely want to read. 

Find Your Book People

There are several people I know whose book recommendations I take seriously. They understand me well, and we tend to enjoy the same type of writing, so when they tell me to check out a particular title, I prioritize it. My local indie bookstore has a Staff Picks section, and I’ve discovered a couple of employees whose recommendations are always spot-on for me, so I scan the shelves for their names every time I’m there. Your book person might be someone on Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok. They might be your neighborhood librarian, a podcast host, or your best friend. To find your book people, search on social media for books you enjoy and find accounts that have recommended those and other similar titles. Librarians and booksellers love giving recommendations, so feel free to ask next time you browse. Your bookish soul mates are out there somewhere, I promise.

What advice would you give readers searching for their next book? What advice has been helpful in your own reading journey? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

10 on a Theme: Messy

Earlier this week, I read The Eden Test by Adam Sternbergh. It’s a thriller about a couple whose marriage is falling apart. I thought, “Their relationship is so messy.” And since I love reading about messy people and situations, I was delighted by the messiness. That thought inspired this post. So today, I’m sharing ten books about relational, mental, or physical messiness. I’ll start with one of my all-time favorites.

Gone girl book cover

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I read Gone Girl shortly after its release in 2012. Before that, I’d only read a couple of mysteries or thrillers. I only picked up Gone Girl because it was getting so much hype. But, as I read it, I understood why.

The story follows Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple who look perfect on the outside. When Amy vanishes, Nick is the prime suspect, though he swears his innocence. As with any good thriller, nothing is quite as it seems. The Dunne’s relationship is incredibly messy, and reading about it made me realize how much I like stories that show behind-the-scenes glimpses of seemingly idyllic lives. We’ve all got our messes; some are just more obvious than others. 

Now is not the time to panic

Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson

Frankie and Zeke are two misfits who come together one fateful summer. They’ve never fit in, but they find acceptance in each other. When they create mysterious posters and hang them all over their small town, rumors and fear-mongering immediately follow, causing repercussions they could never have anticipated.

Everything feels so intense when you’re a teenager. The lows are lower, and the highs are higher when you’re young and trying to figure out who you are. It’s easy to make a mess of things because you sometimes don’t know any better. But, you learn as you live, and Frankie and Zeke spend many years wrestling with what they learned from the messes their art created.

Yellowface book cover

Yellowface by R. F. Kuang

Have you ever spilled something and had to use a thin, non-absorbant paper towel to clean it up? As a result, the mess sometimes gets worse, even though you’re trying to tidy. June, the protagonist in R. F. Kuang’s Yellowface, knows a lot about trying to clean up a mess. When her friend Athena, a fellow writer, dies in her presence, June takes the printed manuscript she finds on Athena’s desk. She’s just going to edit the novel but then claims the work as her own. The mess June created threatens to bury her alive when the book becomes a huge success. June quickly learns that you can’t hide from the chaos you create for yourself. This page turner is one of my favorite reads of 2023 so far.

Little fires everywhere book cover

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Shaker Heights, Ohio, was designed as a sort of utopian paradise. The city was meticulously planned, and the impressive homes belong to the most successful residents, including Elena Richardson and her four children. Mia and her daughter Pearl are new to Shaker Heights and rent a house from Elena. The two families quickly become enmeshed, but the messiness of a controversial custody battle and Mia’s unexplained past cause ruptures that aren’t supposed to happen in Shaker Heights. If you like novels with large casts of characters and stories full of messy drama, you’ll love this well-written gem.

She said book cover

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement
by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

A sentence about halfway through The Eden Test struck me: “How weird that the person who transgresses has the freedom of being unburdened.” I thought about that idea concerning She Said and Harvey Weinstein’s crimes. 

Many women were preyed upon by Weinstein; his abuse continued for years. Yet he still made money, had famous friends, and got thanked by Oscar winners. Weinstein made the messes, but his victims had to live in the filth. And yet, they told the truth. Kantor and Twohey pursued a story that involved people far more powerful than they were and gave survivors a chance at justice. She Said is a powerful book about women raising their voices.

The recovering book cover

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison

I don’t drink alcohol. That’s true for several reasons, but chief among them is the knowledge that alcoholism has deeply hurt some of the people I love. The messes from addiction can be the most damaging because they affect everyone in the addict’s orbit. Decisions made decades before can still cause pain, even if the one who caused the pain tries to clean up the mess.

In The Recovering, Leslie Jamison explores her own relationship with alcohol while also discussing how substance abuse affected beloved writers such as Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace. This brilliant, well-written book seamlessly blends memoir and criticism. The Recovering is one of those books that continues speaking to me years after I’ve read it. Jamison’s writing reads like poetry.

Transcendent kingdom book cover

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

The Recovering talked about true stories of substance abuse and the consequences of it, but Transcendent Kingdom is about a fictional family scarred by addiction. The novel revolves around Gifty, a Ghanaian immigrant who grew up in Alabama with her mom and brother. When her brother overdoses on heroin, Gifty turns her scientific interests toward addiction research. She’s studying neuroscience in California when her mother arrives to stay with her. Her mom has been a shell of herself since her son’s death, and the two women have to wrestle with their loss and how their religious faith seems to have failed them. Transcendent Kingdom is a stunning novel about the messiness of grief, disappointment, and separation. 

Jesus and John Wayne book cover

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

There are few topics more controversial or divisive than religion and politics. Believers and voters cling tightly to what they believe to be true and often try to persuade others to join their side. But, unfortunately, religion and politics create messes when one fuels the other. Kristin Kobes Du Mez explores this in her brilliant book Jesus and John Wayne.

Du Mez unpacks decades of religious and political movements and shows how entangled evangelicalism and conservative politics have become. A mess inevitably follows when people begin loving power more than they love their God or their fellow citizens. This book is a must-read if you don’t understand how so many evangelicals could love a man as messy as Donald Trump.

How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing
by K. C. Davis

Most of the other books on this list focus on internal messiness, but How to Keep House While Drowning addresses the physical messes in our homes. What I appreciate most about K. C. Davis is her focus on people struggling with mental health. The messiness in our homes can often mimic the messiness in our heads. But, according to Davis, messiness is morally neutral. Her book is full of brief thoughts about dealing with the messes we make, even when our minds are also cluttered. 

Salvage the bones book cover

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

In Salvage the Bones, a poor Black family in Mississippi is trying to prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. Esch is a fourteen-year-old girl who’s pregnant and dealing with morning sickness. Her father isn’t around much, and her brothers are mostly left on their own. This family is dealing with the messiness of addiction, a natural disaster, and no parental supervision. While many novels are about the wealthy and elite, Jesmyn Ward’s story of poverty in the rural South is a reminder that stories need to be told about all kinds of families and situations. 

Those are my ten messy books. What titles would make your list? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What I Read and Loved in April 2023

I was on spring break the first week of April. My only plans were to read. I picked up my first book but couldn’t get into it, so I tried another. I couldn’t get into that one either, so I tried again. This cycle happened about five or six times until I gave up. Even though the month started with a reading slump, it was short-lived, and I persevered. I’m so brave.

Anyway, here’s what I read and loved in April.

What I Read

Home therapy book cover

Home Therapy: Interior Design for Increasing Happiness, Boosting Confidence, and Creating Calm: An Interior Design Book by Anita Yokota
Format: eBook

Home Therapy features some beautiful interiors that I thoroughly enjoyed. I wanted more emphasis on the ideas in the subtitle, however. Most of the designs in this book feel out of reach for most people.

Beware the woman book cover

Beware the Woman by Megan Abbott
Format: eBook

Jed and Jacy, a recently married couple expecting their first child, travel to the middle of nowhere to visit Jed’s father. At first, Jacy is thrilled to learn more about her husband and his late mother. Her father-in-law likes her immediately, and the fact that he was a doctor gives her a sense of calm since she’s pregnant. However, as more and more unwanted attention is given to Jacy and her unborn child, she begins to question her own thoughts and concerns.

As usual, Megan Abbott delivers impressive suspense that builds slowly with every page. I like the facet of the book a lot, and I also appreciate her commentary on motherhood and bodily autonomy. While this novel’s ending felt rushed and clumsy, Abbott fans will still find a lot to enjoy here.

Thanks to NetGalley for an early copy of this book. Beware the Woman releases on May 30th.

Above ground book cover

Above Ground by Clint Smith
Format: eBook

Clint Smith’s new poetry collection is full of gorgeous and playful meditations on parenthood, love, and family.

Your emergency contact has experienced an emergency book cover

Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency by Chen Chen
Format: Print

Chen Chen’s poems are both topical and timeless. He addresses recent events, such as the pandemic and the Trump presidency, but he also writes about evergreen topics like family, belonging, and falling in love.

Love in the library book cover

Love in the Library by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Format: Print

I no longer work in elementary schools, and I don’t have any little ones in my day-to-day life anymore, so I rarely pick up picture books. However, this book has been in the news lately, which put it on my radar. It tells the true story of the author’s grandparents meeting and falling in love in a Japanese internment camp. The illustrations are beautiful, and the story is touching and meaningful. I’m so glad I read this.

How to love the world book cover

How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope edited by James Crews
Format: Print

I’m taking part in the Unread Shelf’s monthly challenge to read more of the books I own. April’s theme was “delight,” so I knew this poetry collection was perfect. As with any anthology, there are so-so pieces, but overall, this book is full of delightful poems and writing. Some poets featured include Joy Harjo, Tracy K. Smith, Amanda Gorman, and Jane Hirschfield.

The laughter book cover

The Laughter by Sonora Jha
Format: eBook

I discovered this book while scrolling through the new arrivals on my library’s Libby app. The cover caught my eye, and when I read the summary, I couldn’t click “borrow” fast enough.

The Laughter is the story of a white, middle-aged man who’s an English professor in Seattle. He becomes obsessed with his Pakistani colleague and her nephew. The story is told from his perspective, which is great if you like unreliable narrators like I do. This book becomes increasingly tense as it moves along, and I loved every minute.

What I Loved

EVENT: Trevor Noah’s Off the Record Tour

My book club read Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime a few years ago, so we decided to see him when he came to town. I’ve never been to a comedy show with this large of an audience before, and I was surprised about how moved I felt to be part of such a massive number of people all laughing at the same thing. Noah was hilarious, and the night was so much fun.

MUSIC: New albums from JOSEPH, The National, The Hold Steady, and Josh Ritter

My musical cup was running over in April. The new JOSEPH album is fantastic, and I’ve also been listening to long-time favorites like The National, The Hold Steady, and Josh Ritter.

What did you read or love in April? What are you looking forward to in May?