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.

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Every Book I’ve Read So Far This Year (and Whether or Not You Should Read Them, Too)

When I started this blog back in August, I had intended to post book reviews of each book I read.

That didn’t happen for a number of reasons, the most influential being that I’m too lazy to write full essays about every book I read. So, I’ve decided to do a little roundup every three months of what I’ve read – using Goodreads to help me remember what I’ve read – and whether or not you should read these books, too.

 

JANUARY

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

What’s it about?

This is Jessica Mitford’s autobiography, covering her childhood with her famous aristocratic family in rural England, her socialist rebellion, marriage to her cousin Esmond Romilly and their adventures in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and pre-World War II America.

 

Did I like this book?

Yes. But I had a few problems with it. (You can read a little about that in this post.)

 

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes, I can think of a few reasons why you should read this book. You should read this book if you, like me, are an Anglophile and are therefore intrigued by the Mitford sisters. You should also read this book if you generally like engaging and funny personal essays or 20th century social history.

 

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

What’s it about?

This is a tough one to describe, but it’s basically about a fictionalized version of the author trying to write a play, have friends, talk about art and figure out how a person should be (duh).

 

Did I like this book?

Yes. I actually wrote a whole post about how much I liked it.

 

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes, I think so. My book club read it and many of the members disliked it. (Like, a lot.) But we had a great discussion about the book and many of its themes and I think you should read it simply because it will make you think. (Like, a lot.)

 

FEBRUARY

The Best American Short Stories 2012 ed. by Tom Perrotta and Heidi Pitlor

What’s it about?

Well, it’s a book of 20 short stories, so it’s about 20 different things.

 

Did I like this book?

On the whole, I liked it a medium amount. But that’s because I liked some stories and disliked others, so.

 

Should you read it? Why or why not?

If you like short stories or you want to try reading them for the first time since grade school, sure! I say go for it. There were quite a few stories (ahem, George Saunders) that I found difficult to get through. But there were also many stores that I really, really loved. (I would say Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters” is reason enough to buy this book because I don’t think you can find the whole story online.)

 

NW by Zadie Smith 

What’s it about?

It’s about a few people who grew up in the council estates of Northwest London and that has affected each of them.

 

Did I like this book?

I know “hate” is a strong word and all, but I feel OK saying that I hated this book. I wrote a whole thing about how much I didn’t like it. But then my book club discussed it and I hated it a lot less.

 

Should you read it? Why or why not?

No. I know, I know. You LOVE Zadie Smith. I do too. But I’m telling you not to read it. This book made no sense. Re-read White Teeth instead.

 

MARCH

Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor

 

What’s it about?

It’s the sequel to A Time of Gifts, so it’s the continuation of Fermor’s account of walking from “the hook of Holland” to Constantinople in the early 1930s.

 

Did I like this book?

Yes. It provides a really interesting picture of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire just before World War II. And like, reading about somebody WALKING across Europe is just really awesome. Especially when they are as beautiful a writer as Fermor.

 

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes, but definitely read A Time of Gifts first. (I thought that A Time of Gifts was maybe the better book, anyway.) If you like 20th century European history or travel writing, this is a must-read. And if you like travel reading and have never read any books by Fermor, pick this up immediately!

 

The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy

What’s it about?

An American girl named Honey Flood goes to London and seduces an older writer in order to get something that she very much wants.

 

Did I like this book?

Yes. I loved loved LOVED Dundy’s first novel, The Dud Avocado, which I read last year. (I can confidently say that it’s one of my favorite books ever.) I liked this book not quite as much, which means I loved it.

 

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes. I would read The Dud Avocado first, but that’s just my opinion. The Old Man and Me is a great first-person narrative and is full of plot twists – and plenty of comic relief – that will make you want to keep reading.

 

The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes

What’s it about?

In the early 1920s, a young Welsh aristocrat seeks to escape the attention surrounding him after he’s suspected of murdering a child. He ends up at a cousin’s castle outside of Munich just before the Munich Putsch. This is the first book in an intended trilogy called The Human Predicament. Hughes published the second novel, The Wooden Shepherdess, but never made it through the third.

 

Did I like this book?

Yes. I devoured this one, which surprised me because it looked like it was going to be pretty long and dense.

 

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes. It was a very engaging read and had all of my favorite things: characters with interesting names, English aristocrats in the 1920s, Germany in the 1920s and murder. Also, it’s the first novel I’ve ever read in which Hitler is an actual character, so there’s that.

 

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

 

What’s it about?

Grann’s search for the city that British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett sought on his last journey through the Amazon, as well as for evidence of Fawcett’s demise. (Fawcett, his son and a friend disappeared during the 1925 journey and were never heard from again.)

Did I like this book?

Yes. I didn’t really want to pick it up at first but then I did and I couldn’t put it down. (I tweeted about that and David Grann responded to me and I almost cried.)

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes. This is a really great example of creative non-fiction. I promise you’ll be hooked once you start reading.

Reading How Should A Person Be?

 

After I started this blog a few months ago, I posted a couple of book reviews. Then I stopped posting book reviews because I felt that no one was reading them. And now I feel like, who cares? I’m going to start posting them again because I like to talk about what I’m reading. And if I can’t have a dialogue with other people about that, then I might as well have a dialogue with myself. I’m pretty sure I’m thinking like this because I read Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, though it could also be the years of psychotherapy.

When I first heard about this book, I didn’t want to read it. I definitely didn’t want to like it. The entire premise of writing “a novel from life” sounded pretentious. However, I changed my mind about that for a few reasons. Firstly, my friend Rachel had raved about the book and Sheila Heti in general. The book was recommended to me on Amazon during this time and it was only then I decided to buy it, along with like ten other books because I recently got Amazon Prime for no reason other than I wanted my brother’s Christmas present to arrive on time. But really, I had started writing a lot more around that time while simultaneously going through what I’ll call a philosophical phase, so the book sounded much more appealing to me while I was in that state of mind.

Anyway, I started reading it almost immediately after I’d finished Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which is a very engaging memoir that I thought lacked any real emotional honesty. Though how much emotional honesty can one expect to get from an upper class British woman writing in the middle of the twentieth century? Anyway, it left me feeling wanting. Within the first few pages of How Should A Person Be? I think I found what I wanted, which was a lot of weirdly beautiful and honest and reassuringly self-indulgent introspection.

When confronted with the question of the title, the narrator, who we come to assume is the fictional Sheila Heti, says, “For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too…You can admire anyone for being themselves. It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it.” Immediately, I realized that she’s just like us, but more thoughtful and forthcoming regarding her insecurities.

Now, every review I read about this book mentioned that one of Heti’s inspirations for this novel was watching the Greatest Scripted Reality Show of Our Time, The Hills. Knowing this, I could see the parallels. Like The Hills, the book has almost no plot, though there were times when I expected I would discover a plot, especially at the beginning. But as I read further, I realized that Heti was, in one way or another, scripting her life and editing it for the audience’s enjoyment. (How long should it have taken me to realize that, when the book’s subtitle is ‘A Novel From Life’?)

We’re all deeply interested in our own lives, which are never as interesting to anyone else. I’m apparently so deeply interested in my own life that I, like many others before me, decided to write about it on the internet. We pull out the best parts and dramatize them for others all the time. We’re the stars of our own stories, though that version of ourselves is neither who we really are, nor who we appear to be to others.

Sheila Heti is the star of her own story – or novel or play or email or whatever form this story takes as it’s told – which is why, before I picked up this book, I thought I might find it contrived or overly cute or self-indulgent. But I found something much deeper in How Should A Person Be?  than I could have found in any recent reality TV show. (Ha, duh. I know.) Her explorations of modern female friendship, the creation of art, and the way the past and the future influence our present struck me in such a way that I’ve been thinking about them since I finished the book a few weeks ago.

I’ll end this here as I didn’t want to write a full-on essay about this book. (Essays require too much thought/planning/finding of quotes, and I haven’t even attempted writing anything academic in years.) I just wanted to talk about how much I liked it and want others to read it! So, if you’ve read it or read it in the future, please please tell me because obviously I’m dying to talk about it.