Bookish Brains Issue 11

Letter from the Editor:

Salutations, dear reader! September went so rapidly, and now autumn is settling upon us. My reading month was more sparse, as my classes are quite demanding. I suppose it’d be more accurate to explain that I’ve been reading heavily all month, but rather than leisurely reading, my time has been spent on academic reading. Likely, October will be much of the same for me as well, until November when my semester comes to a close. However, I did manage to read a few books, which I’ll discuss in this issue: Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri and When the Tiger Comes Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo. I’ve also got a great list of upcoming October book releases that you won’t want to miss!

Hope you had a lovely month (whether you read anything or not) and enjoy your October!


Currently Reading

The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Via my mother’s recommendation, I borrowed this audiobook through Hoopla to listen on my drive to our family camping spot this month! I didn’t finish it during that trip, so I’ve been intermittently listening to this on breaks, drives, and occasionally before bed, and I’ve found it quite comforting. The narrator, Mike Grady, has a very calming voice and an English accent, so the tone is pleasant yet meandering (and at times, nearly puts me to sleep).

The book itself contains some remarkable information. Recently published, it expands on our relationships to trees and nature, beginning with an exploration of our human senses and why our bodies have biologically adapted the way they have. Thereafter, he discusses the science regarding communication with trees, and at the current section I’m at, he relays the medicinal properties of various tree leaves and bark.

Though I could hardly recite the book’s information accurately verbatim, I am taking away some overarching themes which have been insightful. I can see how this would be an ideal book to highlight or underline within, noting the factoids and specificities he shares. However, for my purposes–which is merely the refuge from straining my eyes at books and computer screens, and allowing my mind to wander through an imagined forest–I’m pleased with this audiobook experience.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Last month, I read A Psalm for the Wild-Built and wanted to read another science fiction novella, so I checked out this other Chambers piece. Taking place in the future, this one is set mostly in space as the narrator recounts the mission she and her crew embarked on. I’m merely a few dozen pages in, but I’m already really intrigued by it. My understanding is that Chambers’ mother works or worked at NASA and thus consulted her expertise in creating this universe.

I’m still not sure why it’s entitled To Be Taught, If Fortunate, but I’m already pretty invested! The first-person narration is quite conversational, and the initial page or so foreshadows a mysterious circumstance. The “technology” the astronauts use is really fun to imagine, and the tone is “informative” yet casual. I hope I like this one a lot, and I’m looking forward to spending a good chunk of time with it this weekend!

[Post edit: Read my review here!]

Recently Read Mini Book Reviews

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

  • Fiction
  • Published 2021
  • 160 pages

Divided into brief chapters demarked by location, Whereabouts is a wandering meditation on one woman’s ambivalent position in an unnamed city in Europe. Forty-five years old, the narrator slips between present-moment and reflections of the past, detaching her mind from her surroundings while situating her physicality deeply in her weekly haunts. Written originally in Italian and translated by Lahiri herself, this elusive novel plays with the duality of identity, the mirrorlike yet shadowy essence of presence and absence.

Though somewhat brushing against a plot in the latter half, Whereabouts is more contemplation than story. The narrator gradually moves towards a transformation at the close of the novel, but the bulk of it is dedicated to musings and memories, especially of the narrator’s late father and overbearing mother. Moreover, a past lover and current friend breezes across the narrator’s path occasionally, compelling her to question their unusual relation to one another.

What I appreciated most about this novel was its tone and language, which embodied a quintessential stagnant melancholy of familiar surroundings and uninspired apathy, the passive yet vaguely yearning sensation of wanting yet not wanting, of existing yet not existing, of connect yet disconnect. The brief vignettes were a perfectly suited companion for my distracted mental state this month, and I felt both invested yet not invested in the narrator–quite on theme.

Certainly, I would recommend this work to those who are drawn to these accounts. I imagine some readers will leave this book feeling utterly unchanged and moved to moodiness at best, while others revel in the astute urban solitude of an aging woman. Personally, as I mentioned above, this book was just enough and not too much for the odd space I occupied this month, and thus I was quite appreciative of Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest piece.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

  • Fantasy
  • Published 2020
  • 128 pages

Set in an arctic environment, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain gives breath to oral tradition and legends of history. A traveling cleric named Chih is tasked with visiting villages and recording family ancestry, and when Chih arrives in Anh, delighted to ride a mammoth with the upbeat local guide, suddenly tigers appear and corner the cleric and their counterparts in the mammoth’s stall. With nowhere to turn but towards their wits, Chih entices the hungry tigers by recounting what they know of the tigers’ origins. However, with the generations the story has morphed, and the tigers are not always pleased with the human-made edits to their powerful tiger ancestor’s tale of her scholarly lover. Only by capturing the tigers’ wonderment will Chih and their cohorts make it through the night…

Before I picked this up, I didn’t realize that it was a follow-up novella to The Empress of Salt and Fortune, though as the summary asserts, this novella can stand alone. Having not read the former, I had no trouble understanding the context of this story, although I can imagine having read the first may have enriched the experience.

The characters in this book are rich in personality traits; Chih is non-binary, and while at first I thought they were going to fall into a rather passive bystander role, Chih finds the courage within themself to face the tigers with conviction. The tigers can shift between human and feline form, and I enjoyed this fluidity, especially in the story of their tiger ancestor and her sapphic relationship with a scholarly human.

Additionally, the quality of storytelling shines, as Chih and the tigers juxtapose their renditions of their history, sharing a back-and-forth of passed-down versions. All listeners have a stake in the story and express which series of events they prefer or assert as truth. Elevated by Vo’s elegant prose, this aspect was truly enticing.

However, while the storytelling element was a strong center to this novella, I found the conclusion a bit lacking. Not only did I want more from Chih’s end to the story, but I wanted more of a finale to the tigers’ account. It wrapped up rather quickly–which, to some extent, is the nature of a novella–but I was left feeling a lingering splendor from the universe.

Despite that I wanted a bit “more” from the ending, I still enjoyed my time reading it and would recommend it to others, and moreover, I am now interested in reading the other works from this Singing Hills cycle.

Watch my September wrap-up on my channel, Slanted Spines!


Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes

Burning Girls by Veronica Schanoes

This is a book I currently have checked out from the library and am interested in reading if I have the opportunity!

Summary from Tor:

In Burning Girls and Other Stories, Veronica Schanoes crosses borders and genres with stories of fierce women at the margins of society burning their way toward the center. This debut collection introduces readers to a fantasist in the vein of Karen Russell and Kelly Link, with a voice all her own.

Emma Goldman—yes, that Emma Goldman—takes tea with the Baba Yaga and truths unfold inside of exquisitely crafted lies. In “Among the Thorns,” a young woman in seventeenth century Germany is intent on avenging the brutal murder of her peddler father, but discovers that vengeance may consume all that it touches. In the showstopping, awards finalist title story, “Burning Girls,” Schanoes invests the immigrant narrative with a fearsome fairytale quality that tells a story about America we may not want—but need—to hear.

Dreamy, dangerous, and precise, with the weight of the very oldest tales we tell, Burning Girls and Other Stories introduces a writer pushing the boundaries of both fantasy and contemporary.

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Another collection of short stories I have checked out from the library! I love the title and hope to explore the stories soon.

Summary from Bookshop:

A failed boxer painting nails at the local salon. A woman plucking feathers at a chicken processing plant. A housewife learning English from daytime soap operas. A mother teaching her daughter the art of worm harvesting. In her stunning debut story collection, O. Henry Award winner Souvankham Thammavongsa focuses on characters struggling to make a living, illuminating their hopes, disappointments, love affairs, acts of defiance, and above all their pursuit of a place to belong. In spare, intimate prose charged with emotional power and a sly wit, she paints an indelible portrait of watchful children, wounded men, and restless women caught between cultures, languages, and values. As one of Thammavongsa’s characters says, “All we wanted was to live.” And in these stories, they do–brightly, ferociously, unforgettably.

Unsentimental yet tender, taut and visceral, How to Pronounce Knife announces Souvankham Thammavongsa as one of the most striking voices of her generation.

New Book Releases

What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J. A. Chancy

What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J. A. Chancy

Summary from Bookshop:

At the end of a long, sweltering day, as markets and businesses begin to close for the evening, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude shakes the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. Award-winning author Myriam J. A. Chancy masterfully charts the inner lives of the characters affected by the disaster–Richard, an expat and wealthy water-bottling executive with a secret daughter; the daughter, Anne, an architect who drafts affordable housing structures for a global NGO; a small-time drug trafficker, Leopold, who pines for a beautiful call girl; Sonia and her business partner, Dieudonné, who are followed by a man they believe is the vodou spirit of death; Didier, an emigrant musician who drives a taxi in Boston; Sara, a mother haunted by the ghosts of her children in an IDP camp; her husband, Olivier, an accountant forced to abandon the wife he loves; their son, Jonas, who haunts them both; and Ma Lou, the old woman selling produce in the market who remembers them all. Artfully weaving together these lives, witness is given to the desolation wreaked by nature and by man.

Brilliantly crafted, fiercely imagined, and deeply haunting, What Storm, What Thunder is a singular, stunning record, a reckoning of the heartbreaking trauma of disaster, and–at the same time–an unforgettable testimony to the tenacity of the human spirit.

  • Genre: Literary fiction
  • Release date: October 5, 2021

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins

Summary from Bookshop:

Since my baby was born, I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things. a) As much as I ever did. b) Not quite as much now. c) Not so much now. d) Not at all. Leaving behind her husband and their baby daughter, a writer gets on a flight for a speaking engagement in Reno, not carrying much besides a breast pump and a spiraling case of postpartum depression. Her temporary escape from domestic duties and an opportunity to reconnect with old friends mutates into an extended romp away from the confines of marriage and motherhood, and a seemingly bottomless descent into the past. Deep in the Mojave Desert where she grew up, she meets her ghosts at every turn: the first love whose self-destruction still haunts her; her father, a member of the most famous cult in American history; her mother, whose native spark gutters with every passing year. She can’t go back in time to make any of it right, but what exactly is her way forward? Alone in the wilderness, at last she begins to make herself at home in the world.

Bold, tender, and often hilarious, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness reaffirms Watkins as one of the signal writers of our time.

  • Genre: Literary fiction
  • Release date: October 5, 2021

Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief by Victoria Chang

Dear Memory by Victoria Chang

Summary from Bookshop:

For poet Victoria Chang, memory “isn’t something that blooms, but something that bleeds internally.” It is willed, summoned, and dragged to the surface. The remembrances in this collection of letters are founded in the fragments of stories her mother shared reluctantly, and the silences of her father, who first would not and then could not share more. They are whittled and sculpted from an archive of family relics: a marriage license, a letter, a visa petition, a photograph. And, just as often, they are built on the questions that can no longer be answered.

Dear Memory is not a transcription but a process of simultaneously shaping and being shaped, knowing that when a writer dips their pen into history, what emerges is poetry. In carefully crafted missives on trauma and loss, on being American and Chinese, Victoria Chang shows how grief can ignite a longing to know yourself.In letters to family, past teachers, and fellow poets, as the imagination, Dear Memory offers a model for what it looks like to find ourselves in our histories.

  • Genre: Memoir / Letters
  • Release date: October 12, 2021

How High? — That High by Diane Williams

How High? -- That High by Diane Williams

Summary from Bookshop:

These stories depict ordinary moments–a visit to the doctor’s office or a married couple’s hundredth dance together–but within the quotidian, Williams delivers a lifetime of insecurities, lusts, rejections, and revelations, making her work equally discomfiting and amusing. With unmatched wit in every sentence, Williams captures whole universes in a story, delivering visionary insights into what it means to be human.

Williams’ devotees will be newly enthralled by her elegantly strange, bewitching stories in How High? — That High. Those who have yet to meet “the godmother of flash fiction” (The Paris Review) will find an extraordinary introduction in these pages.

  • Genre: Short stories / Humorous
  • Release date: October 12, 2021

The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon

The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon

Summary from Bookshop:

Liselle Belmont is having a dinner party. It seems a strange occasion–her husband, Winn, has lost his bid for the state legislature and they’re having the key supporters over to thank them for their work. Liselle was never sure about Winn becoming a politician, never sure about the limelight, about the life of fundraising and stump speeches. Now that it’s over she is facing new questions: Who are they to each other, after all this? How much of herself has she lost on the way–and was it worth it? Just before the night begins, she hears from an FBI agent, who claims that Winn is corrupt. Is it possible? How will she make it through this dinner party?

Across town, Selena is making her way through the same day, the same way she always does–one foot in front of the other, keeping quiet and focused, trying not to see the terrors all around her. Homelessness, starving children, the very living horrors of history that made America possible: these and other thoughts have made it difficult for her to live a normal life. The only time she was ever really happy was with Liselle back in college. But they’ve lost touch, so much so that when they run into each other at a drugstore just after Obama is elected president, they barely speak. But as the day wears on, Selena’s memories of Liselle begin to shift her path.

Asali Solomon’s The Days of Afrekete is a deft, expertly layered, naturally funny, and deeply human examination of two women coming back to themselves at midlife. It is a celebration of our choices and where they take us, the people who change us, and how we can reimagine ourselves even when our lives seem set.

  • Genre: Literary fiction
  • Release date: October 19, 2021

Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique

Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique

Summary from Bookshop:

When Fly and Stela meet in 21st Century New York City, it seems like fate. He’s a Black American musician from a mixed-religious background who knows all about heartbreak. She’s a Catholic science teacher from the Caribbean, looking for lasting love. But are they meant to be? The answer goes back decades–all the way to their parents’ earliest loves.

Vibrant and emotionally riveting, Monster in the Middle moves across decades, from the U.S. to the Virgin Islands to Ghana and back again, to show how one couple’s romance is intrinsically influenced by the family lore and love stories that preceded their own pairing. What challenges and traumas must this new couple inherit, what hopes and ambitions will keep them moving forward? Exploring desire and identity, religion and class, passion and obligation, the novel posits that in order to answer the question “who are we meant to be with?” we must first understand who we are and how we came to be.

  • Genre: Literary fiction
  • Release date: October 19, 2021

For more editions of Bookish Brains, check out this page!

To read book reviews by Slanted Spines. visit this page.


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