Bookstore Review: Book Culture in New York, NY

Karsten Moran for the NYT

Book Culture is the type of store you know you’ll love before even stepping inside. There’s something intrinsically lovely about nearly every independent bookstore, but Book Culture’s racks of discounted gems and fierce “Shop Indie” sign out front (picture below) set it apart from the rest.

Inside, the store is pretty massive. On the first floor, bookish tchotchkes crowd shelves and library-style bookshelves line the walls. Almost immediately, I fell in love with a tote bag with two cats sleeping on a neon pink book titled “A Tale of Two Kitties.” Unfortunately, I was not at Book Culture to browse. I had a mission: find my required summer reading. Thrilling, I know.

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Normal People by Sally Rooney

Ok, yes, I finally caved to the hoards of Glossier-wearing, Man Repeller-obsessed NYC cool girls and picked up Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel, Normal People. Don’t worry, I didn’t buy it just for the gram (but I did post a picture of it, in case you’re curious), I bought it for “research,” which is code for “Dad, I really want to visit Ireland.” Plus, when an author is called “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” I feel an obligation, as a member of said generation, to give it a chance.

When Rooney’s editor called her “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” I think they were referring to the fact that reading Salinger feels like a status symbol. It says, “See? I’m cultured. I only checked SparkNotes once during 10th grade English.” I’ve only read Nine Stories and my biggest claim to fame is that he mentioned my school by name in Catcher in the Rye. I’m not any sort of literary expert, but I think calling people phonies and posting your vacation read on Instagram is pretty much the same thing.

Here’s the best part: Rooney’s characters mock this cultural charade in their very book. When discussing book readings, protagonist Connell says, “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.” I have a feeling he and Holden would be two peas in a pod.

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The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

I’ve grown as a reader since the time I read Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen. This bittersweet realization came to me while reading her latest, The Gilded Wolves. Fantasy novels have always been a favorite of mine because of the vivid worlds they allow me to dive into, which is why I loved Chokshi’s debut. Unfortunately, three years later, her fifth novel falls flat.

“History is a myth shaped by the tongues of conquerors.” 

I am not a fan of overly-poetic prose, especially when it’s hiding simple meanings. It leads me to skim and takes me out of the story because the writing feels juvenile. For instance, the sentence above basically expresses the common saying “history was written by the winners,” but wraps it in overly loquacious phrasing (see- I can write with SAT words, too!), which makes it feel like the writer is trying to prove their skills. I wish they would display their story-telling abilities in ways other than whipping out a thesaurus, because everyone can do that. Writers I love tend to show their skill instead of telling us all about it. As a thirteen year old, I appreciated the vocabulary practice. As a sixteen year old, not so much.

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Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

As soon as you pick up Why We Broke Up, you can tell it’s something special. Its thick pages that seem more suited to coffee table photography books make the book feel ridiculously heavy for only 350 pages. But, these pages are worth it: a quick flip through reveals beautiful illustrations by Maira Kalman before each chapter. Kalman also illustrated the dust jacket and the physical cover underneath it. Furthermore, instead of reviews on the back cover, there’s breakup stories from famous authors, such as Neil Gaiman, Brian Selznick, Sara Shepard, and more. This endearing quirkiness is essential to the atmosphere of the book, which at times feels uncomfortably authentic, like snooping through someone’s diary and discovering a bombshell.

This strangeness is best made sense of by considering author Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket. A Series of Unfortunate Events, his beloved children’s series is fantastically bizarre (as is its Netflix adaptation) and was one of my favorites in elementary school. After reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, I thought I was well prepared for his quirks when I began Why We Broke Up. I was sorely mistaken.

“The thing with your heart’s desire is that your heart doesn’t even know what it desires until it turns up. Like a tie at a tag sale, some perfect thing in a crate of nothing, you were just there, uninvited, and now suddenly the party was over and you were all I wanted. I hadn’t even been looking, not for you, and now you were my heart’s desire.” 

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

The first half of Naomi Alderman’s The Power reads like a feminist revenge fantasy. Teenage girls suddenly have the power to electrocute people through touch. Even better, they can transfer this power to older women. The societal tables have turned and women now hold power over men. This flip, especially in a reality where my fundamental rights, such as access to healthcare, are being stripped away by sexist politicians, feels scarily gratifying. Alderman leans into this feeling to weave a story about gender that, despite the wealth of great feminist novels, has never been told before.

“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.” 

I am sixteen, the same age as one protagonist, Allie, at the start of the novel. I found myself salivating over descriptions of men being afraid to walk alone at night. I cheered when women took to the streets blowing up cars they were not allowed to drive. When women leered at men and men lamented this unfairness, I thought, it’s about time. The sane part of me knows that men do not deserve to be punished for society raising them to be assholes. But, the part of me that Alderman manages to catch in a rush of “equality” relished the flipped script. Maybe this is what makes The Power so captivating. Contrary to contemporary feminist novels where women are stripped of their voice or bodily autonomy, women gain power and use it to punish men.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

When I read for school, I annotate like crazy. My books are filled with underlines and highlights and circles and notes crammed into margins. However, I’ve never annotated a book that I’ve read for pleasure. It felt perverse, like I would tarnish the integrity of the story. But, when I read The Secret History, it felt criminal not to underline, at the very least. Some of Tartt’s sentences were too beautiful not to record. So, I treated her debut like a book I was reading in school, circling words I didn’t know and underlining important fragments. Now, my copy resembles a diary. I don’t know if I’ll keep annotating after The Secret History. Maybe I was just doing it because I finished school a week ago and hadn’t yet switched that part of my brain off. But, maybe Tartt changed how I read in a fundamental way. I hope it’s the latter.

The Secret History came out in 1992, so it’s not a new book. Furthermore, although I think it’s set in the 80’s, it has a timeless air to it. Despite this, I felt a deep connection to the story’s setting, a preppy liberal arts college, which felt eerily familiar to my equally preppy boarding school. Our dining halls are even both called Commons! I felt myself so unexpectedly nostalgic for my school that I looked it up on Google Maps street view and “walked” around campus after reading certain chapters. This quintessential New-England feeling is, in my opinion, the strongest aspect of the book.

“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” 

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Bookstore Review: The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, NY

In January, I promised content that feels more personal. Four months later, I’ve finally figured out what that means: Bookstore reviews. Bookstores have been a huge part of my life since I was little. Warwick’s Bookstore in La Jolla, California is the reason I began reviewing books! When I road-tripped from San Diego to Brooklyn in 2015, I stopped at an independent bookstore in each town I visited. Now, I’ve decided to translate that knowledge into talking about independent bookstores I’ve visited and loved. I want to make this a monthly thing to highlight the maximum amount of bookstores possible, so stay tuned! This month, for my first review, I’ve chosen to to highlight The Golden Notebook.

I chose the Golden Notebook because it is the bookstore I know best. The store is owned by my dad’s partner and I work there during school breaks. Although I am a lover of all bookstores, the Golden Notebook will always have a special place in my heart.There is nowhere I’d rather curl up and read a book more than the nook in the children’s section or upstairs by the classics bookshelf.

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Five Books to Get You into the “Game of Thrones” Spirit

Game of Thrones is back for its final season! I am so excited (and terrified) to see what’s in store for my favorite characters this season, but I know that once the show is over, I’ll be in serious withdrawal. To mitigate this feeling, here are some fantasy series that bring all of the magic, intrigue, and romance that Game of Thrones is known for to your very own hands. Hopefully, you can find a new favorite to binge between episodes or after the finale.

I am proud to say An Ember in the Ashes is one of the first fantasy series after Percy Jackson and Harry Potter that I truly fell in love with. Tahir’s world-building is truly incredible (and has only gotten better three books in) and her diverse ensemble of female characters is admirable. If you loved the family relationships in Game of Thrones, particularly female relationships, I promise you’ll devour Tahir’s debut fantasy series.

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March Wrap Up

What I’m Up To

March was a full month for me! The first half of March I was on spring break, but I came back to school on the 19th, which coincidentally was also my birthday. School has been busy, but it’s great to be around friends and semi-warm weather.

What I’m Reading

I don’t normally read nonfiction, but I was given this book as a Christmas gift and I’m always excited to learn more about art history. So far, I’ve been loving Krysa’s vibrant profiles of female artists, which are each paired with an artistic prompt for the reader to explore individually.

What I Blogged About

Reflections on Turning 16: I turned 16 on March 19, so I took the chance to reflect on my growth as a person and Book Reviews by Ava’s growth as a blog.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras: Contreras’ novel debut was incredible and her chronicle of two teenage girls during a time of intense civil conflict was both gripping and poignant.

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Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

I’ve been meaning to read Fruit of the Drunken Tree since before it came out. It sounded like everything I would want in a novel: class struggles, complicated female narratives, captivating writing. But, I just never got around to it. Until, one fateful day halfway into spring break. I had binged all The Bachelor I could bear, and finally decided I needed to read something before my brain turned to mush. Luckily, Contreras’ debut, which was conveniently available at my local bookstore, does not disappoint.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree follows two girls whose paths briefly cross: Nine year old Chula, who spends her days daydreaming and terrorizing family and neighbors alike from her Bogotá townhouse, and thirteen year old Petrona, her nanny plucked from eternal poverty in the slums on the outskirts of the city. They meet at the height of coke-kingpin Pablo Escobar’s reign over Colombia. While the two girls are coming into their identities as women, they are also grappling with where those identities fit into their distinct socio-economic classes. But, although their identities are in constant conflict, the two girls seem to develop a strange kinship.

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