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

My reading round-up for the second quarter of the year is a little late, of course. I’ve been busy reading other, newer books and writing some things that I hope to show you soon and watching television that I would be better of not watching. (The Crimson Field is really not very good, but it’s a British period drama, so.) Anyway, here are the five books that I managed not to put down between April and the end of June!

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The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

If you know anything about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” you probably know that the narrator – a woman suffering from postpartum depression – goes crazy. The story is very good. And weird and scary and ultimately, sad. It’s also very different from the other stories included in this collection, which are, for the most part, optimistic about women’s ability to overcome societal expectations in late nineteenth century America in order to, in a sense, have it all. (The other stories can be a little hokey, too, but that didn’t bother me so much.)  I wouldn’t say this was a read that I savored or relished by any means – I read it the few hours I had before we were supposed to discuss it at book club – but I did find it to be educational. It made me think about how different my life is from the American woman a century ago, but also how much it is the same.

Here’s my original post about The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories.

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Okay, so. I feel like I say this a lot so I don’t want you to think I’m exaggerating but…this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. (I think?) With Life After Life, Kate Atkinson transported me to another world so completely that I found myself thinking about it and only it during the rare moments I wasn’t reading. I finished the book in under 48 hours. I’m sure I thought about work – a little bit – when I was working, but otherwise I was pretty much just obsessing over Life After Life.

When the novel opens, it is 1910 and Ursula Todd has just been born to a wealthy family in England. Suddenly, she dies. And then she’s born again, with another chance at life. The novel continues like this, with Ursula living and dying and living again slightly altered versions of her life.

Even though I have loved reading Kate Atkinson in the past, I was initially put off by the premise of the book when my friend Katie first told me to read it last year. Katie, I will never ignore your recommendations for so long again.

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People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished From the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Lloyd Parry

I chose this book for my book club to read in the midst of our national obsessions with Serial and The Jinx. I think all of us who read it were just as fascinated by the story of a young British woman who mysteriously disappeared in Tokyo in 1999. While I think that some parts of the book were overwritten, I found People Eat Darkness to be a dark and unexpected journey in the best possible way. I was especially interested in the explorations of hostess culture and the Japanese legal system, both of which play large roles in the book.

Here’s my original post discussing People Who Eat Darkness. 

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Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Every time I read a Dickens novel, it is a special experience. I have, since I was a young teenager, been working my way through his books ever so slowly. The last one I read was Bleak House, back in 2010. It took me six weeks and will probably ruin all other Dickens for me, because I find it hard to believe that he could write something better than that. Dombey and Son, the story of the rise and fall of a wealthy London shipping family, is no Bleak House. It’s not even close. But it is Dickens and if you enjoy reading him, then there’s a lot to like. (My personal favorite thing about this book really had nothing to do with the book at all. Rather, it was the appearance of the phrase “dank weed” at the end of an otherwise very boring chapter.)

Here’s my original post discussing Dombey and Son.

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The Group by Mary McCarthy

As soon as I finished it, I couldn’t wait to tell everyone I know to read The Group. I wrote a gushing post about it a few weeks ago and am still a little high off of devouring it so quickly. I felt I’d been in sort of a reading rut before I picked it up. But more than satisfy my need to actively enjoy what I’m reading, The Group comforted me. The eight women who made up “the group” felt so familiar to me that reading about their post-collegiate lives in New York City felt like reading my own journal entries or having conversations with my closest friends. However, they were living during the 1930s. (Mary McCarthy, who graduated from Vassar in 1933 just like her characters, wrote the novel in the 1960s.) This book, like The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, made me consider how different – and how very much the same – the lives of American women (of a certain race and class) are today when compared with decades past. The Group was so much more real to me, though. The writing is modern and McCarthy didn’t labor like Gilman did to make a point about women’s potential in society. She simply told a story and left it up to us to see what we would see.

Here’s my original post on The Group.

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Friday Reads: Some Progress

Friday Read: The Group by Mary McCarthy

Some mysterious force led me to read Mary McCarthy’s The Group this week. I didn’t know anything about it, though I’m familiar with its author, and the only time I can remember seeing anyone reading it was on an episode of Gilmore Girls. (Rory reads it while waiting to buy tickets for the Chilton formal in the season one episode, “The Dance.”) But I saw it on the shelf when I was browsing at my local bookstore on Monday, looking for something engrossing to distract me from the awful cold I’ve been battling, and felt like I had to pick it up. This was my method for choosing books until about age 16, looking up and down the shelves of the bookstore or library until I felt a tingle looking at a spine or reading the jacket copy. Since then, I mostly know what I’m looking for when I go to pick up a book. The description on The Group‘s back cover was fairly simple: Basically, a group of eight Vassar graduates take on adulthood in the time between the World Wars. I didn’t know if it would be the consuming read I was looking for, but I took it down from the shelf and carried it with me as I continued to look around. The only other book that I considered buying was Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels, but ultimately decided that it was darker than I was feeling. So, I bought The Group and hoped for the best.

I finished it within roughly 30 hours. It begins as seven members of the group watch the eighth, Kay Strong, get married in St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square, just weeks after their Vassar graduation in 1933. They don’t know the man she is marrying, Harald Petersen, and many of them are not even sure that they particularly like Kay. But, they were a group in college and are therefore obligated to be there. This feeling, a sense of obligation to keep up friendships that may not exactly be right for you, was the first of many that I identified with as a young adult. As the book continued – the following chapters, for the most part, focused intimately on one or two of the women – I found that I recognized myself in each woman as she confronted the realms of sex and relationships, career, friendship, and family. (Of course, my white, privileged, East Coast upbringing had a lot to do with my basic identification with these characters, who were all white and privileged and, if they weren’t from the East Coast, very much embraced an East Coast mindset, which was probably much more of a thing in the 1930s than it is now.) In the later chapters, several of the characters become mothers, which is not something I know anything about yet, but I was able to imagine that I would be just as terrified as Priss Hartshorn Crockett – incidentally, one of my favorite character names ever – was of caring for a newborn. During the moments when I wasn’t reading The Group, I kept thinking about how very similar the lives of women – of a certain class – are 80 years later, even though so much “progress” has been made.

The big differences I spotted mostly had to do with attitudes toward sex and careers. If The Group took place today, I don’t think Dottie Renfrew would hastily get engaged to near-stranger out of shame and regret for losing her virginity to a roguish man to whom she develops an attachment. And I don’t think Polly Andrews would have had to settle for a career as a medical technician, where she didn’t have much chance for advancement. In fact, I think all of the women would have a much wider array of career options, though they still might face pressure from their families and romantic partners to pursue certain lines of work. They would certainly still have to deal with sexism in the workplace, though it might not be so obvious today as it was then. One of the characters, Libby MacAusland, is told that she should become a literary agent rather than an editor, because editing is a man’s job. And so she becomes a successful literary agent. If that same scenario were to happen now, it would be more likely that a woman would be told that her character or attitude was not right for the job, and that would be that.

What I loved most about The Group, though, were the character studies and the social history. The women are all easy-to-recognize types, just like the main characters in The Group‘s successor, Sex and the City. But that doesn’t mean that their inner lives aren’t interesting or surprising. And while they grapple with the same problems that women do today, though from a different place in society, their vocabulary and frame of reference for those issues are completely different. I paused often as I was reading to look up literary references, historical events and figures, and even food that was mentioned. That experience alone would have made this an enriching read for me. Luckily, The Group had much more for me to chew on.

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Otherwise…

I finally finished Dombey and Son and was very happy to find the phrase “dank weed” in the text.

And now I’m just getting into Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titanas well as Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic.

What else should I be reading? I’m taking suggestions.

Friday Reads: Very Long

Friday Read: Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

I’ve long been a fan of Charles Dickens, but starting a new Dickens novel is always intimidating to me, as I know it will be about a six week commitment. That’s why Dombey and Son has been sitting on my shelf since I bought it for $6 at a Borders that was going out of business in 2011. I just started it earlier this week, picking it off of my shelf because I had an urge to read a long novel with lots of characters that wasn’t a recent iteration of the “VLN.” (Also, I figured I should read it before I reread Bleak House, which is something I want to do soon.) I’m only about an eighth of the way through and hoping it doesn’t go too deep into the shipping industry or nautical instruments because then I might have to put it down. As usual, I’m delighted by Dickens’ character names and descriptions, which is making reading Dombey and Son more than worth it so far. (Favorite character names: Miss Lucretia Tox and Polly Toodle; Favorite description: “But the Major, with his complexion like a Stilton cheese, and his eyes like a prawn’s…”)

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Other stuff?

Well, I linked to this above, but here’s something on “The Year of the Very Long Novel.” (Vulture)

I read “An Interview With @SoSadToday” last week and this week found out her identity. (The Awl; Rolling Stone)

This profile on Judy Blume made me nostalgic for my days as an adolescent bookworm and made me feel like I should just write the damn book I’ve been thinking about for so long. (NYT)

Jami Attenberg’s essay on viral fame reminded me that internet fame does not sell books. (BuzzFeed)

Pete Wells made me smile during a brutally boring day with his review of Javelina. (NYT)

This piece on the making of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” brought back memories of many a summer road trip with my dad, who is very fond of that song. (WSJ)

I will read anything about New York City’s affordable and public housing situations. “The Plan to Save Public Housing” is new and good. (The Awl)

I usually save music for Mondays, but “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” was officially released this week and I can’t stop listening to it.

On a related note, I read two pieces on Jamie xx and his new album, In Color, this week:

“Taking Shelter in Loud Places” (Pitchfork)

“One Last Rave” (TNY)

And if you read “One Last Rave,” here’s Mark Leckey’s “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore” (which I had never seen before, so!):