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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Friday Reads: Rich Girls

Friday Read: The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “If I Were A Man,” a woman inhabits her husband’s body for an afternoon and uses her position to tell other men that women are just as smart, athletically talented, and employable as they are and as such, should not be judged for things like caring about fancy clothing or marrying the right person, because men have made it so that they have to do those things. Gilman, the author of oft-assigned short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), wrote frequently about women trapped by a patriarchal society. The heroines of her stories are emancipated by finding jobs, launching successful businesses, paying off their mortgages, falling in love with men who are interested in them rather than their domestic skills, and being rescued by cleverer women from the monotony of housewifery. Her writing can be heavy-handed, but her message is clear: women should be valued for who they are as people, rather than for their roles as wives, mothers, and caretakers. (Though if a woman is a natural caretaker and likes being that way, then it’s fine as long as she can make money off it, as one of her characters does when she starts a babysitting service.) Reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman now, over 100 years since she started publishing, I saw how little has changed in our society’s attitude toward women. I also recognized just how much has changed in that, as a woman (of a certain class and race) in the 21st century, I am able to work without question, to live on my own, to be as interested or disinterested in the domestic as I want to be. As a friend recently commented, it’s unlikely that we would be where we are now if women like Gilman hadn’t gotten angry and started writing or protesting. But it makes me sad when I think about how many women I know, myself included, feel far less entitled than their male counterparts, often without even realizing it.

Of the eight or so stories I read in the last week, I found “The Yellow Wallpaper” to be the standout. This isn’t surprising, as it’s Gilman’s most famous story. But what stuck with me was not the prose or her ability to create tension, but the fact that the story is not at all optimistic. The narrator, a woman who has been prescribed a rest cure while suffering from what we now know as postpartum depression, descends into a psychotic state as she imagines that the wallpaper in the room where she spends most of her time is moving. At the end of the story, she is not saved, neither by herself nor anyone else. She is mentally ill and beholden to her husband, who dismissed all of her prior warnings that she was not getting better. Where Gilman’s other stories seem like fantasies about women finding ways to have full lives outside of home and family, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is – in an extreme way – honest about how most women were dismissed by men and suffered as a result. In fact, Gilman herself famously had postpartum psychosis. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was born of that experience.

 

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What have I been reading otherwise? I liked this TNY piece on Chloe Sevigny at 40. She is, unsurprisingly, an all-time favorite of mine. (I was ecstatic to see her in the new Netflix series Bloodline, even though I thought her character was a little blah.) I also couldn’t help but read all about Lilly Pulitzer for Target. From the angry screeds on my Facebook timeline to coverage of disappointed Lilly fans to actual reviews of the Target line and the Lilly aesthetic itself, I reveled in the criticism of this brand that loomed large during my childhood and adolescence and that I myself have come to have a distaste for*. I found this Jezebel critique – ‘Wealth Accompanied by Rejection of Creativity’: Bye, Lilly Pulitzer – especially delicious. However, I’m still fascinated by – and not in a mocking way! in a very real way! – the whole Palm Beach-y, ladies of leisure lifestyle that Lilly is associated with. And for that reason, I also decided to revisit this 2003 Vanity Fair interview with Lilly Pulitzer herself. On a not unrelated note, here is a Town & Country piece on Dorrian’s Red Hand, the ultimate Upper East Side preppy bar. I’ve only been there maybe three times and have run into people from past lives on each of those trips, so their first point is at least definitely true. I’ve also been working my way through the current issue of The Paris Review, by which I mean the interviews with Hilary Mantel, Lydia Davis, and Elena Ferrante. (What a boon to be able to read these three in the same issue!) I’m still “reading” Stoner and I think I might just give up soon? I’m going away for the weekend and I didn’t even bring it with me. Instead, I have Kate Bolick’s Spinster in my bag.

 

*Full disclosure: Growing up, my wardrobe featured, if not a lot of Lilly Pulitzer clothing, a not insignificant number of pieces. Also, I have worn a Lilly Pulitzer dress within the last year. (But! It’s really plain – navy blue, no pastels or cute animals or martini glasses – and my mom bought it for me for my college graduation six years ago and it somehow looks brand new and, I think, it fits my current, very un-Lilly aesthetic just fine.)

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

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

I read The Empathy Exams during my time off from work in late December and early January. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Leslie Jamison’s essays on how we experience the pain of others, not to mention our own pain. Whether writing about the personal – falling in love, drinking too much, getting an abortion – or subjects a bit further flung – Morgellons disease, an extreme endurance race – Jamison’s observations struck me over and over again as honest, intelligent, and enlightening.

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Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Tampa is a book about a female middle school teacher who uses her position to have sexual relationships with pubescent boys. I know that sounds fucked up but, guys, listen to me. It’s really good! I mean, it’s also fucked up. But it’s funny, suspenseful, and very well-written, and those things made for a very enjoyable reading experience.

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How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This was the third time I’d read this book in the last three years, so it’s really hard for me to even try to talk about it objectively. (Not to suggest that this is a space where I would ever talk about anything objectively; it’s not.) I think I’ve written about this book on Emphatic Hands at least two times already, so I’m sorry, I guess, if you’re sick of hearing about it, but you’ll just have to bear with me. I reread How Should A Person Be? both knowing that I was going to see Sheila Heti’s play, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, which is a not insignificant part of this autobiographical novel, and feeling that I needed its guidance. I was at the end of a short-lived but significant (to me) relationship, struggling with how to process a lot of things happening in my life, trying once again to figure out what kind of person I should be. Heti’s exploration of female friendship, relationships with men, art, and identity struck a chord with me once again. There is nothing better than revisiting a beloved book and finding that it still resonates.

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Three Tall Women by Edward Albee

Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women was an unusual pick for our book club in January. We had never before read a play. I don’t read plays often, but when I do, I usually wish I did so more. Three Tall Women examines the life of one woman at three different stages of her life. It was, at times, painful, and I almost certainly would have rathered see it performed on stage, but the subject matter was relevant to my interests as a reader and a writer, so I would say that I’m not worse off for having read it.

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The Story Of A New Name by Elena Ferrante

Oh, boy. I loved this book so, so much. The Story Of A New Name is the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and I think it was my favorite of the three books that have been published. (I wrote about My Brilliant Friend here.) In this novel, the narrator, also named Elena, continues the story of her friendship with the ferocious Lila, whose wedding ended the previous installment. While Lila becomes a glamorous young wife in their Naples neighborhood, Elena forges ahead with her studies, eventually leaving the neighborhood and the city altogether. The urgency and beauty of this book stirred something up inside me. It made me want to experience more of life, to write more (and improve my writing), to be honest with myself and others. I suspect my strong reaction had a lot to do with the highly emotional state I was in for basically all of this winter, but I have yet to meet anyone who’s read these novels who hasn’t been affected by them.

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Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

Actually, that’s not true. My therapist told me that she read Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay and thought it was fine, but felt it was unfinished. I contend that she may have liked it more if she had read the first two books before reading this third one, the penultimate novel in the series. Elena and Lila are adults in this novel, living completely separate lives. Everything I said about The Story Of A New Name could apply to this novel. I read it even more quickly, but was slightly disappointed by some of the characters’ actions and found myself having to try hard to pay attention to passages about political philosophy.

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I have recommended Station Eleven to almost everyone I know since I finished it. I firmly believe that anyone can find something to like in this book. (I think its overwhelming win in The Morning News Tournament of Books is proof of that, though I’m not sure I would have voted for it over All The Light We Cannot See.) Mandel brilliantly bridges the world as we know it today with that of a postapocalyptic future with that of a graphic novel written by one of the main characters. There are maybe a few things I could complain about, but I was in awe of the novel’s construction and it was just a really fun book to read.

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The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

I felt The Flamethrowers was a book that I had to read, but didn’t want to read. Naturally, I ended up really liking it. It’s narrated by Reno, a young artist who moves to New York City in the 1970s. She becomes an observer of the art world, a motorcycle racer, a lover of men. I related to her struggles to adjust to a world that is harsher than she had imagined, to figure out who she is as an artist, and define herself as an individual. I was saddened and disappointed by the men with whom she has relationships. By the end, I wanted more.

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The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum

It turns out my first three months of reading this year were bookended by spectacular books of essays. The Unspeakable includes ten original personal essays in which Daum explores her mother’s death, her decision not to have children, embarrassing encounters with celebrities in Los Angeles, and other topics that she deems “unspeakable.” Some essays were more powerful than others and there was at least one (“Honorary Dyke”) that perplexed me, but I devoured this book over the course of two busy days. I admire Daum’s candor and humor and I aspire to one day write so well about my own life.