Sara’s Halfway There Summer Reading Challenge Update

July 25, 2023

​​​Ok. This is Sara, reporting for Summer Reading Challenge duty. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Read a Book by an Academic Authority on a Folkloric Subject – Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell – I technically read this one right before the Summer Reading Challenge actually started, but I want to talk about it anyway because HOLY SMOKES. It’s written by Amanda Montell, who is a linguist rather than a folklorist, but the whole time I was reading it (…in a spa…on my 5th wedding anniversary…because I literally couldn’t put it down), I kept thinking that it was incredibly folklore-y. Her argument is that language itself constructs belief, ideology, and an us vs. them attitude. The whole thing is fascinating and compulsively readable, but the concept that has stuck with me most is the “thought terminating cliche,” which is a phrase designed to shut down further thinking, conversation, or analysis. The thought terminating cliche acts as a kind of ideological period to a thought – a “semantic stop sign” if we’re being fancy – and saying it or hearing it is a signal to stop questioning, or even thinking, about something. Examples are things like “boys will be boys,” “God has a plan,” or “that’s just the way it is,” but they can also be specific to an individual or group. I was particularly fascinated to read that many thought terminating cliches masquerade as folk wisdom, truisms, or religious mantras, but what sets them apart is that they’re actually loaded language used to soothe cognitive dissonance and quiet dissent. Montell didn’t come up with thought terminating cliches, but her discussion of it as it pertains to cultish thinking was really eye opening.
  • Read a Book Mentioned on the Carterhaugh Blog – Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron – I reread this one to prepare for the paper we gave on it at the “Norm and Transgression in the Fairy-Tale Tradition: (Non) Normative Identities, Forms and Writings” Conference at Brown last month, and it’s just such a brilliant, innovative book. In Cinderella Is Dead, the “Cinderella” story is used explicitly as a means of totalitarian control but also as a map for revolution. I think Brittany and I love this one so much because we’re always saying “Hey, fairy tales are flexible and slippery! They can be used for good and evil and whimsy and xenophobia and self-expression and healing and social exclusion! Fairy tales have never been just one thing!” Kalynn Bayron gets it.
  • Read a Feminist Fairy-Tale Retelling – Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre SullivanTangleweed and Brine is a short story collection of feminist fairy tales reminiscent of Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue. Objectively, I think it’s a good book and a great collection, but it wasn’t quite my exact cup of tea. Although I have to say, I did absolutely adore the last story, “Beauty and the Board,” in which Beauty makes a pact with a beast through a Ouija board to save herself from an unwanted marriage. *chef’s kiss* My super subjective opinion: the stories as a whole were at more of a simmer than a boil, with a Iot of…contemplative body weirdness, whereas my favorite writing tends to be a little more gothic or extra in its sensibilities. Tangleweed and Brine struck me as less dread glamor and more “women are super subjugated, let us consider this directly but quietly through the fairy tale.” I think many of you will really enjoy it.
  • Read a Book with a Blue Cover – Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age by Katherine May – This was a lovely book of essays by Katherine May. Basically, it’s May’s account of weathering and learning to emerge from pandemic quarantine, largely through an emphasis on the natural world. It’s deeply informed by her experience of autism and also beautifully written. Here’s one of my favorite passages: “Deep play is a labyrinth and not a maze, a twisting path with no destination. The walking is the thing. You are the walk. There is no end to it. Your only reward is more of the same–more wells to fill with your attention, more fires to tend. And every now and then, for reasons beyond your control, those fires will go out.”
  • Re-read a Favorite Childhood Book – A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – This is just the weirdest book. I still love it so much. When I was about nine, I used to carry it with me everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. I remember reading it (for the upteenth time) in the stadium between track and field events at the 1996 Olympics. As a child who didn’t grow up in a Christian household, a lot of the religious stuff flew over my head at the time, and re-reading it now, I definitely could have done with that dialed down a bit, but I still resonate with L’Engle’s message that art and science and love are all desperately needed. Also, I love prickly, difficult Meg and Calvin, who is gifted at communicating with all kinds of people, and sweet, upsettingly competent Charles Wallace.
  • Read a Book Under 100 Pages – Red by Chase Bergrunn – This book was flipping awesome. Brittany already wrote about it extensively last week, so I won’t belabor it, but if you love Dracula, vampires, and/ or gorgeous feminist poetry, GO GET THIS BOOK. It was a super quick, powerful read, and knowing that the author, trans poet Chase Bergrunn, was in the early stages of her transition as she wrote it makes it even more impactful. (Also, quick PSA: have you checked out our Dracula series on Wondrium and Audible? You can watch/ listen with a free trial, and if you send us a picture of your review, we’ll send you a custom Dracula grimoire page!)
  • Puzzle Through a Book That Challenges You – The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk – Oof. This was a difficult read for me. It could definitely qualify as #2 in the Summer Reading Challenge (Finish a Book You Started and Liked, but Somehow Keep Drifting Away From and Never Finishing) since I had to put it down for a few weeks, but I’m aiming for a different text for each category for now. In a nutshell, this book is about how trauma reshapes the body and the brain. I’m not at a point where I feel ready to discuss this in depth in public, but let’s just say, I’m in this photo and I don’t like it. That being said, this is a powerful, useful, and ultimately pretty validating book, especially the work it does to expand the scope of what trauma can look like (i.e. PTSD can be found in populations other than/ in addition to veterans.) If you’re curious about how trauma works, this is a really important read.
  • Read a Creature Feature – Mortal Follies by Alexis Hall – Alexis Hall is, hands down, one of my absolute favorite writers, and when he announced that he’d written a book narrated by Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I may have audibly shrieked. (Yes, I picked a fairy as my “creature” for “creature feature.” Fight me.) Mortal Follies is a sapphic Regency romance by way of Shakespeare and fairylore. Yes, you read that correctly. It was hilarious and outrageous and sweet, and Puck’s narration was pitch perfect and incredibly delightful while not overwhelming the actual story he was telling. Go read it. Tell you friends. Do Puck a solid.
  • Read a Book You Own but Have Never Read – Tales from the Hinterland by Melissa Albert – Loved it. Perfection. I have no notes. Ok fine, I’ll say something useful. Tales from the Hinterland is a collection of literary fairy tales, based on the fictional fairy tales alluded to in Albert’s first book The Hazel Wood. You don’t need to have read The Hazel Wood to enjoy the hell out of Tales from the Hinterland. First, it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen, and it’s 100% worth getting the hardcover. Everything from the imagery and font on the cover and title pages, the borders around each fairy tale (they’re different for every story!), the stunning and evocative illustrations is just…unreasonably gorgeous. And the fairy tales themselves are Gothic fairy-tale splendor. Dread glamor galore. These stories have sharp edges – they are not nice or neat or comforting. Instead, they’re startling, bloody, and studded with exquisite imagery. It’s the kind of book that made me cackle with glee, not because the stories are funny (they’re really not) but because they are so much.
  • Read Your Best Friend’s Favorite Book – Square Haunting by Francesca Wade – I’m still going to read one of Brittany’s favorites (Thornyhold by Mary Stewart), but Deborah Sage, who rarely recommends books, told me I had to read Square Haunting, and I didn’t take that lightly because she’s always right. Square Haunting is an absolute tour-de-force, and I’m still thinking about it obsessively, weeks after finishing it. It’s a collection of biographies of five women writers and scholars who all lived in Mecklenburg Square in Bloomsbury, London, between the two World Wars. So, it’s a biography of these women – Hilda Doolittle (better known as H. D.), Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Ellen Harrison, Eileen Power, and Virginia Woolf – and how they were fighting for freedom and self-definition as women and thinkers but also a biography of a place that could give them a space to become themselves. Some of these writers I already knew and loved. Sayers’ Gaudy Night has long been one of my favorite detective novels, and apparently it’s often considered the first feminist detective novel, and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Mrs. Dalloway had a huge impact on me in my early twenties. But I’d never even heard of Eileen Power, who is an absolute icon. I might write a whole blog post about her sometime, but in short, she was fabulous and fashionable, extremely brilliant, and was a dedicated proponent of creative public education, especially about the history of everyday people. In a lot of ways, she was really aligned with the aims of folklore. The whole book was incredibly moving, thought-provoking, and brilliant. Fun fact: several years ago, I stayed in Mecklenburg Square during a really important, turbulent time in my life, and it was absolutely wild realizing it was the same place that all these incredible women lived during crucial periods in their lives, too.
  • Read a Book You’re Embarrassed to Read in Public – Sex Talks by Vanessa Marin and Xander Marin – I grew up in an era when the extent of sex ed was an assembly in which we were shown an extremely graphic slideshow of STI-riddled body parts and then served hot dogs for lunch. (I’m not even making this up. This actually happened.) Oh, and we were told repeatedly to never have sex before marriage because then we’d be like chewed gum, and what man would ever want used gum? How helpful and constructive! So I’ve always been simultaneously enraged about the truly egregious lack of sex education and the systemic shaming around sex, and kinda traumatized by the experience of growing up in that kind of shaming environment. As a result of this legacy, I make a point of reading books like Vanessa and Xander Marin’s Sex Talks but am still vaguely embarrassed about it. Anyway, this was a solid, readable book that emphasizes very doable, practical communication skills, and I really hope more sex ed programs swap out the dreaded slide show (is that even still a thing?) for reading this book.

I read a bunch of other books that didn’t fit or overlapped with other categories. Some of my favorites include How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (kind of a nature + modern art version of May’s Enchantment), Yellowface by R.F. Kuang (Omg. Gripping. Wild. Horrifying. I read it in less than a day), The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik (the whole Scholomace series is just perfect), and Enter the Body by Joy McCullough (Shakespeare heroines retelling their stories! SO GOOD.)

What’s your favorite book of the summer so far?

Yours in mischief and magic,

Disclosure: We are affiliates of and may earn a commission if you click through any of our book links and make a purchase. Thank you for supporting independent bookshops!

Add A Comment