Reading Resolution: “The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater” by Alanna Okun

20. A debut novel: The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun


List Progress: 1/30

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting had three things going for it to guarantee it would catch my eye:

1. I am a crafter (crochet and cross-stitch) who loves to talk about crafting.

2. I have always found the idea of the “Boyfriend Sweater Curse” (that if you knit a sweater for your boyfriend, the relationship is doomed) fascinating.

3. The author, Alanna Okun, has my relatively rare first name that I almost never see in the wild, at least not spelled the same way as mine.

So really, I had no choice but to read this book. And for a nice, cozy start to my year of reading, I’m glad I did.

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is a collection of autobiographical essays detailing Okun’s relationship to her own crafts of choice (knitting and embroidery) and how they have influenced and interacted with her personal relationships and path in life. If you are a millennial woman with a crafting passion, anxiety, a burgeoning authorial career, a hair-plucking habit, a family history of mental illness, a history with New York City, and the first name “Alanna”, it is bound to resonate a lot. (Seriously, it was kind of spooky how much I have in common with Alanna Okun.) If you’re anyone outside of those demographics, I’m not so sure. Okun’s writing is so personal and specific that I’ve seen reviews where readers were disappointed that the book was not a deeper dive into crafter culture. I can certainly understand that frustration, and I would love to see a book that dives into the knitting world in greater depth, but I enjoyed The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater for what it is. It very much feels like a debut novel, like these were the stories that Okun had to tell right off the bat for herself, even if they might not appeal to all people.

Nothing in here was mind-blowing, but not everything has to be. Sometimes it’s just nice to hear someone’s fairly eloquent thoughts on yarn and their relationship with their sister.

Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you’re a crafter. I’m not sure if this book would serve as a good introduction if you don’t already have some sort of crafter background.

Reading Resolution Year in Review

I just sat down to look at my list and come up with my Best and Worst books that I read in 2018 and came to a really nice conclusion: I read a lot of good stuff this year. There have certainly been years where even the middle of my list was not that good (looking at you, 2017). But I feel like even the “worst” books of my 2018 are just ones that I have some issues with, nothing that I felt was a complete waste of time. So here’s a fairly positive sum-up of what I read in 2018:

Best Book: On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman. Maybe it’s my upper-middle class white upbringing showing, but this non-fiction study into over-policing in urban black communities was eye-opening and really great. If you’re ever in the mood for a solid piece of non-fiction that doesn’t read like a textbook, I would recommend it. (Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith is a close, close second.)

Most Enjoyable Book: Behrouz Gets Lucky by Avery Cassell. Of everything on my reading list, this is the one that I’ve picked up and reread parts of over the course of the year. A cozy mix of queer BDSM erotica and domestic fluff, it’s not the most riveting or best-written book, but damned if I don’t love it.

Worst Book: Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu “Worst” feels like far too harsh of a term for this novel, but it just really didn’t do it for me. The main characters manage to be so indecisive that I stopped caring what decisions they ultimately made. Some good parts, but the bottom of the list from a good year. (The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu also graces the bottom of this list for having one of the most rushed endings I’ve ever seen.)

Biggest Surprise: The Shining by Stephen King This was my first King, and with this as my intro, I’m ready to try some more.

And that’s been my year in reading! My friend and I are making some slight adjustments to the categories for the coming year, and I’m excited to hit the ground running with some great books! And thank you to everyone who has read along with me!

Reading Resolution: “The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories” by Osama Alomar

6. A book written in the Middle East: The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Alomar

List Progress: 25/25!!!

So for a random find on the library shelf, this ended up being a pretty pleasant read, but if I’m being honest about what drew my eye to 2017’s The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Alomar, it’s that it was short and I wanted to finish my reading list. But “short” would turn out to be a more central idea for this book than I would have thought. Alomar, a Syrian writer, is well-known for working in the “very short story” medium, flash-fiction that is less structured than poetry, and varies (at least in this book) from a few pages, to no more than a single paragraph. At the collection’s bests, this is just enough space to paint a vivid image that speaks volumes beyond the wordcount. At its worsts, the stories become tossed off thoughts that sound like an overworked sermon trying to force a parable.

Originally written in Arabic, The Teeth of the Comb was translated into English by CJ Collins and Osama Alomar himself, which feels like an important aspect when dealing with such concise work that could easily be shifted through word choice. Some of my favorite pieces in this collection are the very, very short ones that are simply one line of set-up, one line of imagery, and one line of conclusion; those are where Alomar really shines. The stories on the longer end of the spectrum can easily overwork their imagery or metaphors, occasionally speaking about big flowery concepts in a way that feels like a parody of overly dramatic poetry. But by their very nature, you don’t have to dwell on the rougher ones for too long and can move on to the next. This book was perfect for reading on the train, where I could snap off a few without feeling like I had to move as slowly as working through poetry.

I don’t know if the ratio of good to bad was enough to send me seeking out more of Alomar’s work, but as a single volume, I’m glad I spent the time on it, and it felt like a solid way to round out 2018. Here’s to a bright new year of reading!

Would I Recommend It: Yes

Reading Resolution: “Doubt: A Parable” by John Patrick Shanley

14. A play: Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley


List Progress: 24/25

Trigger warning for child abuse.

As I’ve been working more and more as a playwright over the last year, I feel like my perspective towards reading plays has changed. I no longer read them the same way as I would novels, but spend more of my time wondering how it would appear on stage, what an actor could bring to the table and how the pacing would work to see it all in one sitting. This especially comes to mind with this show, Doubt: A Parable, by John Patrick Shanley. The script is strong, but I would say this is absolutely an actor’s play, the script forming the bones for a strong performance to be built around. Because if you didn’t have strong actors in these four roles, this play could be a slog to sit through.

Almost all of Doubt is private conversations, interspersed with the occasional sermon delivered to the audience. Set in 1964 Brooklyn, the play takes place at a strict traditional Catholic school. The principal, a very, very traditionalist nun, comes to suspect that the more liberal-minded and approachable priest has started molesting one of the boys, the school’s first ever black student. A younger nun who is caught between the two and the boy’s mother round out the entire cast, and each role is incredibly rich and leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

Interpretation, and the titular “doubt”, are the main themes of the play as a whole, navigating an emotionally fraught situation with complications from all sides and no clear answers. At one point the younger nun asks the priest why he uses made up stories as parables in his sermons, rather than drawing truth and meaning from real events. He answers that fiction can have a more clear meaning and message, since real life is so rarely narratively satisfying and conclusive. And for a show with so many question marks, Doubt is very satisfying. I would love to see it on stage at some point, though I hesitate about the 2008 film adaptation, as the sparseness of the script works so well and could be cluttered with a full movie context. But I am intrigued to see and try and keep wondering, which means this play very much succeeded for me.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

Reading Resolution: “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas

20. A book we read in high school/college and hated:
 The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

List Progress: 23/25

I was originally going to do Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen for this slot, as I had a class in high school where I was very annoyed with the teacher. But while browsing the Classics shelf in my local library, my eyes fell upon this book and I felt a rush of pure literary rage from my adolescent self. It was eighth grade, I was homeschooled for the only year of my academic career, and my mother’s favorite book was The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

I loathed it.

More specifically, I loathed all four of the protagonists and sided completely with the villain, to my mom’s dismay. But with fourteen years, a lot of maturity, and some more nuanced understandings of feminism, classism and character development under my belt, it is time for me to dive back in.

Let me start off: I still hate D’Artagnan, Athos and Porthos as people (I have a grudging fondness for Aramis). They are pretentious, misogynistic, violent, incompetent, hot-headed jerks who follow codes of honor and law when it suits them, and make the lives of all around them more difficult. They are terrible, terrible men (and given how clearly this is conveyed at points, there feels like a strong element of satire here from Dumas). But I have grown enough as a reader in the intervening years to be able to acknowledge that they can be interesting characters.

I had a lot more fun than I expected with The Three Musketeers, because above all it is a quick-moving action story with a lot of races against various clocks and court intrigues. When the book treats the Musketeers as pieces on a game board, moving them quickly around as tools of the plot, I can get caught up in the fun of the chase. It is when the narrative tries to make me care about the “nobility” of Athos or the heartbreak of D’Artagnan that it loses me and I start cheering for Milady.

Milady de Winter is the best part of The Three Musketeers and I will challenge anyone who disagrees with me to a duel. She’s a cunning, devious villain who can get her way out of almost any snare, and the narrative clearly finds her the most interesting as well. Near the end of the novel, there are over six chapters where none of the protagonists appear and the plot focuses entirely on Milady getting out of prison. It is great and I literally groaned when the “main” plot resumed.

I had fun reading The Three Musketeers, which was not what I expected. I don’t think it was mind blowing or vital to read, but there were a lot of points where it was fun. If you’re willing to read over 600 pages for some fun, I’d say give it a try, but there are probably better places to get that experience. And Milady de Winter 4 Life!

Would I Recommend It: Ehhhh, a soft yes.

Reading Resolution: “The Whale Rider” by Witi Ihimaera

7. A book written in Australia/Oceania
: The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera


List Progress: 22/25

So let’s talk about Chosen One narratives. Characters who are destined to do incredible things and whose fates are written in the stars. A lot of times this trope can be a lazy shortcut to justify why a character has to be involved in a conflict; the writer doesn’t have to properly motivate them to fight the good fight, they just Have To. I don’t generally mind it as much as some critics do, but I can see where the argument comes from. But I also think books like Witi Ihimaera’s 1987 novel The Whale Rider show that it can be done well.

The Whale Rider tells the story of Kahu, a young girl who is the eldest great-grandchild of her Maori tribe’s chieftain, Koro Apirana, and if she had been born a boy, she would have been considered destined to be the tribal leader of her generation. The story is told by her uncle Rawiri, a young man seeing the Maori way of life change around him and his niece fight for the love of the great-grandfather that she adores. Kahu seems attuned from birth towards the traditional Maori ways of life, and may have inherited the ability from her namesake ancestor to speak to whales.

I saw the 2002 movie adaptation as a teenager and remember really enjoying it, though I can now see that the film shifted the perspective to make it more from Kahu’s point of view, whereas Rawiri feels like the more fleshed out and real character in the novel. He lives away from Kahu for years at a time and comments on how life differs in the big cities of Australia and Papua New Guinea from the small New Zealand village that he grew up in. Kahu seems so absolute in her beliefs and convictions that it is Rawiri who feels more human with his doubts and questions. Kahu feels larger than life, and I agree with Ihimaera’s decision to let the narrator marvel at her from the sidelines like the reader rather than position the book through her eyes. It makes the Chosen One trope of her life sit a lot more comfortably, if it does rob Kahu of some detail.

I know very little about Maori culture, but Ihimaera weaves it in very smoothly as a natural part of the plot, educating without info-dumping. The parts about Maori culinary culture in particular were really interesting and inspired some trips down the wiki rabbit hole. All in all, I’m really glad I read this one and I will be interested to go back and watch the movie sometime soon.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

Reading Resolution: “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn

23. A 2017-2018 New York Times bestseller: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

List Progress: 21/25

Sharp Objects is entertaining. Its prose moves quickly, its very immersive into the lead character, and the imagery is very evocative. Sharp Objects is also very brutal towards female characters, obscene in its depiction of youthful sexuality, and depending on how you read it, quite sexist. It is a very entertaining book and I enjoyed reading it, and I am left wondering what that says about me.

Sharp Objects is the 2006 debut novel by Gillian Flynn, who made it big with Gone Girl in 2012. It was recently developed for a HBO mini-series starring Amy Adams, and any discussion of my reading the book has to be prefaced with the fact that I watched the entire series before picking up the novel. (I will try to keep this from being a “who did it better?” review.) Going in knowing all of the major events and twists, I had a slightly backwards approach to a mystery story, but I like to think it helped me analyze how the story itself holds up under scrutiny. Not that the plot is really the point (no pun intended).

The story follows Camille Preaker, a reporter who is sent from Chicago back to her small hometown in Missouri to cover a series of brutal murders of young girls. She has to sort out the facts of the case while dealing with her passive-aggressive Southern belle mother, her passive stepfather, and her hellion thirteen year old half-sister, as well as flirting with the big city cop sent down to work on the case. Camille’s backstory is a grab-bag of traumas and pretty much any trigger warning out there should be applied to this book. It is not for the faint of heart and earns the title “pulpy” in every sense of the word.

Through the eyes of this damaged female protagonist, and written by a female author, the story could perhaps be considered a deconstruction of stories about violence against women, about how much our fiction and our news cycle love Pretty Dead Girls. But I’m not sure if it is or not. Camille undoubtedly has a great deal of internalized misogyny, and I can’t quite decide if that is an intentional trait written into the character or a trait that Flynn herself shares. To paraphrase a line from Slings & Arrows, it feels more like something that shows us brutality, rather than teaches us about brutality. But it also shows us the ripples of that brutality, so maybe it is worthwhile as a message? I don’t know if I can say.

The mini-series tones down a lot of the stories uglier traits, smoothes it into more of a police procedural mold, and is better at some aspects of the story but much worse at others. The book is grosser, but in a way that feels very (again, no pun intended) pointed. The book wants you to be disgusted by the factory hog farm, but the redneck teenagers, by the promiscuous thirteen year old. Even if just through the necessity of casting an older actress to play the half-sister, the show cleans up some of the grossness, and possibly in the process, normalizes it.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was entertaining.

Would I Recommend It: Yes. Trigger warnings for murder, rape, self-harm, underage sex, torture.