Every Book I’ve Read So Far This Year (2015 Edition), Part Three

As some of you may know, I had a lot of time to read during the last few months. Even though I was furiously looking for a job during part of that time, I still had a ton of time to do anything my heart desired. And it turned out that mostly what my heart desired was to read. Reading, as an activity, was easier for me than most other things that could have occupied my time. Even after I knew I had a job lined up, reading was a way for me to escape my anxiety about the present and the future. In short, it helped me get by. (In a very pleasant and rewarding way.)

Here – almost a month after I would have liked to post this, because I am without a personal computer right now and also writing basically anything has seemed unmanageable to me – is everything I read in the third quarter of 2015.

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So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead by David Browne

I’ve written quite a bit here before about how the Grateful Dead has been a band that has fascinated me for almost my entire life. I would never consider myself as knowledgeable as the average fan, but I do really enjoy the history and culture and much of the music of the Dead. After I watched The Other One, the recent documentary on Bob Weir, I found myself looking for a more comprehensive history of the band. That ‘s how I got to Browne’s book, which was released a few months in advance of the Dead’s Fare Thee Well performances.

I had read – and enjoyed – Browne’s Fire and Rain a few years ago and trusted that this book would go down just as easily. And it did. Browne tells the Dead’s story by focusing on important days in the band member’s lives and careers. His method isn’t necessarily innovative, but it serves him well in that he’s able to provide a comprehensive and detailed history in under 500 pages. (I could easily see a history of the Grateful Dead ballooning to twice the size. Their five decades of existence provides almost too much stuff to write about, what with their evolving personalities of the band members, rotating cast of followers, wonderfully inconsistent and powerful live performances, and collisions with important moments in American history.)

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the phenomenon of the Dead.

Here’s my original post on So Many Roads.

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Never Mind, Bad News & Some Hope (Patrick Melrose Novels #1, #2 & #3) by Edward St. Aubyn

I got through the first three of Edward St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels back in July. These specifically were published in quick succession between 1992 and 1994. (The final two novels in the series – Mother’s Milk and At Last – were published in 2005 and 2012, respectively.) The series is well known for being autobiographical and each novel focuses on one pivotal day in the life of St. Aubyn’s alter ego, Patrick Melrose.

In Never Mind, Patrick is five. The story is told from several perspectives – Patrick’s, that of his dissatisfied and cruel father, his alcoholic mother’s, and those of several visitors and staff members at the family home in the south of France. The short book is horrifying – in one passage, we see from Patrick’s perspective as he is brutally raped by his father – but also beautiful and very funny. When I was done, I wondered how St. Aubyn managed to pull it off.

Bad News is equally as dark as its predecessor. Patrick, now in his early twenties and addicted to heroin, has flown to New York to retrieve the body of his father, who has died. He spends a day and a night in early 1980s Manhattan searching for drugs, hallucinating, alternately fending off and seducing girlfriends via telephone, embarrassing himself in the company of others, and spending money on food, wine, and taxis seemingly because he can. Bad News reads like a fever dream and made me squirm often. However, St. Aubyn once again infused the unpleasant with beauty and humor that made the novel a more than worthwhile read.

Some Hope was my favorite of the three Patrick Melrose novels I read. Patrick is twenty-eight, sober, and attending a fancy party in the English countryside. He is coming to terms with the world at large. The novel explores the shallowness of the English upper class and, while it does grapple with some heavy things, felt lighter to me overall. After finishing Some Hope, I was satisfied enough to put the Patrick Melrose Novels down for a while. I look forward to reading the last two later this year.

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The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins

Who hasn’t read The Girl On the Train yet? It’s the Gone Girl of 2015. I’m not going to tell you anything because, I think, it’s better to go into this book knowing absolutely nothing. (I knew absolutely nothing going into it. Had I known anything at all, I may have been discouraged from reading it.) I think, if you like thrillers and you like getting wrapped up in unreliable narration and you like not being able to put a book down, read The Girl On the Train. Then come and talk to me about it. I have a few things to say.

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Red Rising & Golden Son (Red Rising Trilogy #1 & #2) by Pierce Brown

I dove into the Red Rising trilogy at the recommendation of my roommates, who had both been talking up the first book for a while. Red Rising, the first novel, was not hard to sell to me. However, I found it very tough to get into.

Red Rising is the story of Darrow, a “Red” who lives in a colony beneath the surface of Mars, mining a substance that will allow for terraforming above, ensuring humanity’s survival outside of Earth. Darrow eventually discovers that the surface of Mars is already hospitable and home to a society of upper classes. (Classes are divided by color.) He and his fellow Reds have been living in ignorance for their entire lives. And that…is all I’ll tell you! It takes a while to pick up, but about 100 pages into Red Rising, my expectations were blown away. In spite of its weak beginning, Red Rising is an incredibly fun, suspenseful read. It does contain some tired themes and devices, but I think it’s a book that most fans of “young adult” science fiction and fantasy would enjoy.

I liked Golden Son much less than Red Rising but it wasn’t horrible. It just seemed like it was written in a rush and I found myself distracted often. However, I was still very attached to many of the characters and needed to see it through. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what the final book of the trilogy brings.

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The Secret Place by Tana French

I’ll start off by reminding you that I’m a Tana French fangirl. Her previous novels have provided some of my favorite reading experiences in recent years. I think that all of her work is well written, well plotted, and generally some of the best stuff out there in the mystery genre.

The Secret Place, though practically un-put-down-able for me, didn’t measure up to my French favorites. (The Likeness is definitely my #1, followed by Faithful Place.) The book takes place at St. Kilda’s, an all-girls school outside of Dublin attended by Holly Mackey, the daughter of Faithful Place narrator Frank Mackey. The girls at the school are haunted by a murder of a boy from the neighboring all-boys school the year before and Detective Stephen Moran – another Faithful Place character – gets in on the reopened investigation. French is wonderful at characterization and dialogue and she absolutely nails the way the teenage girls in The Secret Place think and act and speak. However, some of the plot mechanics didn’t work for me and in the end, I was left disappointed by the whodunit aspect of the book.

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Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War is a poorly written science fiction novel about a man who, at age 75, gets his consciousness transferred into a superhuman version of his younger body and becomes a part of an intergalactic army that fights aliens in order to secure habitable planets for the human race. It’s also pretty fun. This was an easy, breezy vacation read for me – and also the first thing we read for the sci fi/fantasy book club I joined – and a decent diversion from real life.

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Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz

This was a book that I badly needed to read.

During the summer of 1965, Linda Rosenkrantz recorded conversations that she had with two friends in East Hampton. She turned those conversations into Talk, a book that I believe is a “novel” only in the sense that the names in it are not those of real people. It is entirely comprised of dialogue – conversations between Marsha and her friends Emily and Vincent. They are all approaching or just over thirty. They all make art of some kind. They are concerned with the small-ish scene in which they exist, their romantic relationships, their childhoods, their futures. They all have experience with psychoanalysis, which informs many of their discussions.

I read this during an incredibly introspective period, when I was spending most days alone, making plans only so I would have a reason to talk to someone. I wasn’t depressed, but I also was. I was truly between jobs and I felt like I was just waiting for life to begin again. I found the discussions in Talk relatable and helpful in organizing my own thoughts and feelings. And I’m certain it’s a book that I’ll return to in the future.

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All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m saying that before I say anything else because I don’t want you to get turned off by the description, which was something that happened to me. I’d read a lot about this book before I picked it up and I didn’t think I could handle it. Turns out I could.

Yoli, a woman who grew up in a western Canada Mennonite community, narrates All My Puny Sorrows. She deeply admires and loves her sister Elf, a famous concert pianist who is hell-bent on killing herself. When Elf tries to commit suicide again, Yoli searches for a way to help her sister, her family, and herself.

This book is beautiful, honest, funny, tragic, and a hundred other things. Toews perfectly captures the pain that comes with loving other people.

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The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Of course I loved The Story of the Lost Child. Over the last year, I devoured the three prior books in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and told everyone I’ve ever known that they had to read them. I went to a midnight release party for this one and was quoted on The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog. If I – or someone else – haven’t sold you on Ferrante by now, then…I dunno. Maybe you won’t ever read her. Or maybe you will read her, but just in the future?

As this last book begins, Elena and Lila are grown women with children. Elena is preoccupied by her affair with Nino Sarratore, her childhood crush and Lila’s former lover. Lila is preoccupied by her computer business. Their lives eventually collide again when Elena moves back to Naples and both give birth to daughters around the same time.

I don’t know that I can really compare this to any of the other novels. Now that I’ve finished reading the series, they seem like one wonderful, extremely long book in my mind.

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Perspective

“It’s really put a lot of things in perspective for me,” I said, lifting the dainty glass of punch to my lips. I took a sip and put it back on the bar with shaking hands.

“Are you serious right now?” he asked.

“Yes?” I said, unsure why he would think I wasn’t being serious, considering I was talking about how unsteady everything in my life has been after losing my job. 

“OK, I just wasn’t sure if you were doing a bit or something.” He was laughing. I felt my face getting hot.

“Anyway,” I said. I shook my head and tried to remember what exactly I thought had been put in perspective.

Black Cherry Soda

A few weeks ago, I saw artisanal black cherry soda for sale at an ice cream parlor in Los Angeles. I was reminded, like I always am when I see black cherry soda, of the time a guy texted me and asked if I wanted to come over that weekend to “help [him] cat-sit and make black cherry soda.” This was six years ago.

He and I had been on one not-too-terrible OkCupid date – my first ever – a few months earlier and while he continued to, every so often, text me to see if I wanted to hang out, I hadn’t seen him since then. I would have gone on a second date with him if he had asked soon after our first one and with a specific plan. But the further away from that first date we got without seeing each other, the more I thought about the things I hadn’t liked about him. He was late and he mentioned his ex-girlfriend multiple times and he didn’t have cash when it came time to pay our dinner bill. And then when he did contact me after our date, he always texted me on like, Friday at 4 o’clock to ask what I was up to that night. After he did that a few times, I was annoyed, but always responded with something like “maybe another time” instead of just asking him to make plans with me in advance.

By the time he texted me about cat-sitting and black cherry soda, I had lost interest in hanging out with him at all. I had known that for some time. However, I was reluctant to cut ties with him, as his was the only male attention I’d been receiving regularly. I was also nervous to tell him that I didn’t want to date him. So I told him that while I still wanted to be friends, I was dating someone else. All of this, of course, was untrue.

He asked me why I hadn’t told him that earlier. I said that it – my starting to “see” my imaginary boyfriend – had “just happened.” He said he was disappointed but also wanted to be friends. Actually, I could be making that up. He definitely wasn’t hostile though. But after his last text, I blocked him on Gchat and hoped that he wouldn’t text me again. He didn’t.

“Maybe I should have gone on that date,” I said to my friend Stephanie, as we sat at the Los Angeles ice cream parlor. I had just related the story to her. “It’s definitely the most creative date I’ve ever been asked on. I’d like, die to be asked to do anything now that wasn’t just grabbing a drink or whatever.”

“Maybe you should have gone,” she said, dipping her spoon back into our bowl of vanilla and espresso ice cream.

“But I don’t even like black cherry flavor.” And then I remembered something. “Oh my God, but also,” I said. “I heard later – maybe a year later – that this guy was dating a friend of a friend of mine and that he was horrible. Like emotionally abusive.”

We both expressed our dismay and agreed that perhaps I’d dodged a bullet. But I still feel guilty about lying to him. That was a dumb thing to do.