Every Book I’ve Read So Far This Year (And Whether Or Not You Should Read Them, Too), Part Three

I think the last time I wrote one of these, I was lamenting my lack of motivation to read anything. I’ve felt much more motivated during these past few months, though I continue to acquire more books than I can or am willing to get through. Since July, my life has been all peaks and valleys and nothing really in between. That sort of unsteadiness has not made reading easy, but I’ve been trying! I promise. (Not that literally anyone cares how many books I get through in a calendar year besides me.) Anyway, here are the books I’ve read during the last three months and why I think you might – or might not – like to read them too. 

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July

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

What’s it about?

A group of friends – “the Interestings” of the title – who meet at a summer camp for the arts in the seventies grow up. The novel follows them across decades, as their ambitions, talents, and class shape their lives and relationships with one another.

Did I like this book?

Yes. I thought some of the story was a bit clunky, but I generally found it hard to put down.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yeah! If you’re like me, someone who has been classified as “creative” since childhood, and have struggled with what you’re supposed to do with that creativity and the ambitions and expectations that go along with it, then I definitely think this is worth reading.

Friendship by Emily Gould 

What’s it about?

Two female friends in New York struggle with their relationship when one discovers that she’s pregnant. 

Did I like this book?

Yup! I remember reading it on the couch one afternoon, thinking about canceling plans because I didn’t want to stop reading. It also made me laugh out loud a few times, which is always a good sign.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

One thing I loved about Friendship was how well it portrayed modern female relationships within a certain demographic. Of course, that demographic happens to be my own, which is I’m sure why I related to it. I wouldn’t say you need to be a white, Brooklyn-dwelling woman in her late twenties to enjoy it, but it might appeal to you more if that is the case. 

Faithful Place by Tana French

What’s it about?

Detective Frank Mackey, who appeared in French’s The Likeness, discovers that the woman he thought might have run off on him years ago may never have left their poor Dublin neighborhood at all. When Rosie Daly’s suitcase is found in an abandoned house, Mackey returns to the neighborhood and the family he left behind decades ago to investigate her disappearance.

Did I like this book?

This one is definitely up there with The Likeness, which was previously my very favorite Tana French book.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes, definitely. I love this series and would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good mystery. And in this case, a good family drama. 

Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records by Amanda Petrusich 

What’s it about?

Petrusich explores the small and fanatical community of 78 collectors and the stories behind the music they love. 

Did I like this book?

I loved it. I’ve been obsessed with reading about these collectors and famous 78s since I first discovered The Anthology of American Folk Music – compiled by Harry Smith, from his extensive collection of 78s – when I was in college.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Sure, if you’re big into American cultural history or the origins of American music or record collecting. Or if you just want to read some well-written creative non-fiction.

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August

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

What’s it about?

Everything you ever wanted to know about Scientology. From the story behind L. Ron Hubbard to Tom Cruise, Going Clear does not disappoint. 

Did I like it?

Yes. This book was completely impressive in its scope. And was extremely well-written. 

Should you read it? Why or why not?

If you’ve ever wondered about Scientology, are interested in belief systems and modern religion, or enjoy reading The New Yorker, yes.

*** 

September

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

What’s it about?

This ambition novel alternates between the stories of Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl, and Werner, a German orphan, in the years leading up to and during the Second World War. We learn at the beginning that both end up trapped on the French island of Saint-Malo while it’s under siege and it takes the rest of the book to find out how and why they got there.

Did I like it?

Oh my God, I loved it. So, so much. I’ve talked about my obsession with historical fiction here before, so this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes. This was one of my favorites – if not my favorite – this year. It’s cleverly crafted and the prose is gorgeous. I think the imagery from this book will stick with me for a long time.

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

What’s it about?

A group of children are kidnapped by pirates when their ship traveling from Jamaica to England is captured.

Did I like it?

This was a reread for me, so yes. I’m a big Richard Hughes fan. 

Should you read it? Why or why not?

This book isn’t for the faint of heart. Disasters, abuse, and murder abound. However, Hughes’ examination of the child’s psyche is, to me, incredible and makes A High Wind in Jamaica well-worth reading.

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

Finally! The first quarter of the year has passed and I can share the first of my reading roundups. I did not, as I had anticipated, start this year in reading off with a bang. It’s been hard for me to keep my usual pace, but I was able to get through a bunch of books, some of which I’ll recommend that you read!

JANUARY

hild

Hild by Nicola Griffith

What’s it about?

Hild is a historical novel, the imagined story of St. Hilda of Whitby, an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who became instrumental in converting England to Christianity during the 7th century.

Did I like this book?

Yes. It wasn’t a page-turner, but it’s one of the best examples of historical fiction I’ve encountered in a while. I was really impressed with the period details and the amount of research that undoubtedly went into this book.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I’ve encountered few characters as complex and fascinating as Hild. She’s obviously the main event, but I think it’s worth noting that Griffith does an incredible job developing Hild. Also, the world of the Anglo-Saxons was not something I was intimately familiar with and I really enjoyed getting lost in Griffith’s imagining of it.

I highly recommend this novel to lovers of historical fiction or, even, fantasy, since the setting has a lot in common with something like The Mists of Avalon. 

***

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

What’s it about?

This is about the life of Gary Shteyngart, author of novels such as The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, as told by Gary Shteyngart himself.

Did I like this book?

I did. I liked it more than his novels. I thought it was funny and touching and I wrote a little something about all that here.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

If you’ve read his other work and liked it, definitely! If you’re not a Shteyngart fan, I’d probably skip it. But if you’re neutral and also happen to be a writer looking for inspiration or just like funny memoirs, you should check it out.

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FEBRUARY

Berlin: City of Smoke by Jason Lutes

What’s it about?

This is the second volume in a planned trilogy of graphic novels about Berlin during the Weimar Era. This chapter takes place after the 1929 May Day demonstration, picking up with main characters, art student Marthe Muller and journalist Karl Severing, in addition to several other Berliners. The focus here is not only on the tense political climate, but also on Berlin’s nightlife and party scene.

Did I like this book?

I didn’t like it as much as I liked the first volume, Berlin: City of Stone. (You should start with that one anyway.)

Should you read it? Why or why not?

If you’ve read the first volume, well, you’re probably going to read this eventually. I highly recommend reading the first volume to anyone who is interested in German culture, the Weimar period, or World War II, as I think Lutes does a really fantastic job of portraying what it was like to live in Berlin – across class, religion, gender, and race – in the decade before the war.

***

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel

What’s it about?

Bechdel explores her relationship with her mother and her understanding of herself through psychotherapy in this graphic memoir.

Did I like this book?

I loved this. Many of you may have read Bechdel’s Fun Home, which I liked very much when I read it. However, there were things about Are You My Mother? that I related to on a much deeper level, specifically the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship and the focus on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes. Especially if you’ve ever been in therapy for a significant period of time. Also if you’ve ever had a mother.

 

***

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

What’s it about?

This book, based on the blog of the same name, is a collection of graphic essays about cartoonist and writer Allie Brosh’s life.

Did I like this book?

As I had expected, this book made me laugh. It also made me feel a lot of other things, which I wrote about here. And Brosh’s ability to tell a story in her own unique way makes me feel not-a-little-bit jealous.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yeah! I mean, if you hate reading about someone struggling in the funniest way possible, don’t. But otherwise, yes.

***

MARCH

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

What’s it about?

This novella is the story of how a man was murdered in a Caribbean backwater.

Did I like this book?

I did not. I felt it was heavy-handed and surprisingly boring for a short book about murder. I wanted to think it was good, probably because of who wrote it, but…it was frankly a chore to get through and I’m pretty sure I only finished it because we read it for book club.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

No. For the reasons I stated above.

***

We Think the World of You by J.R. Ackerley

What’s it about?

Frank, a middle-aged London man, attempts to connect with his lover Johnny, a married, working class man who has been jailed for theft, by caring for his beloved dog Evie. In the process, he must navigate relationships with Johnny’s wife and mother and sort out his growing attachment to Evie.

Did I like this book?

Yes? I think. I read this while I was at jury duty on-and-off over three weeks because I was reading a non-fiction book at home, so I had kind of a slow and weird experience with this one.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone. I thought it was a bit difficult to get through and, at times, made me uneasy. But I think if the premise sounds interesting to you, you should give it a try.

***

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

What’s it about?

Oh, God. Okay. It’s about an elderly Chicago man, a Holocaust survivor named Ben Solomon, who decides that another elderly Chicago man, another Holocaust survivor who is a wealthy philanthropist named Elliot Rosenzweig, is actually a man he grew up with named Otto Piatek, a Nazi known as “the butcher of Zamosc.” From there, the reader experiences both a modern-day legal drama as Ben sues “Otto” over stolen property and the story of Ben’s experience during the Holocaust.

Did I like this book?

To be honest, this was one of the worst books I’ve read in a very long time, if not ever. It’s not all bad, but…much of it is. The way the story is told is ridiculous, as most of the stuff that takes place in the past is told in dialogue. Pages and pages of dialogue. Also, the history is super basic. (Like a character who is supposed to be smart asks what a ghetto is because she doesn’t know. And that’s just one offensive detail.) And I could have done without the legal drama, which seems jammed in here merely because the author was looking for a way to make this about the law, as he himself is a lawyer.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Nope. Don’t do it. If you find yourself wanting to pick it up, just call me and I’ll recommend another book. (Even another book in the same genre, if you want!)

Emphasis On: Little Failure

Since starting Emphatic Hands, I have tried to find a way to write about things I like in brief. That rarely works out. But I’m going to try it from now on, once a week, every Tuesday. (Haha, I hope.) “Emphasis On” – shut up, I needed a title – will consist of brief, one-paragraph reviews of books, music, films or television. First up, Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure.

 

 

I suppose that I’m a casual Gary Shteyngart fan. (I have a hard time relating to contemporary male writers, so this is a big deal!) I follow him on Twitter, have read one of his novels – Absurdistan – in its entirety, and have read plenty of his fiction and non-fiction in publications such as The New Yorker and Travel + Leisure. I recently finished reading his memoir, Little Failure, and I thought it was very good. I enjoyed the experience of reading it more than I did the experience of reading Absurdistan. I am generally a fan of his style – this is a meaningless word, really, but I can’t find the word I’m looking for, so I’m sticking with this for now – and humor and found that these things, applied to writing his own life story, worked extremely well. I’m not saying you’ll definitely like it, but I think you should read Little Failure if you have read any Gary Shteyngart previously, whether or not you liked it. Also, read it if you have felt like an outsider as an adolescent or artist and/or have overbearing parents who do not easily or straightforwardly express emotion.

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

I wrote some mini-reviews of the books I had read in January, February and March a few months ago. Here’s the second edition of that, covering the months of April, May and June.

Did any of you read anything great this year that I should read and review in the next one? I’m looking for suggestions!

APRIL

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro (2012)

What’s it about?

There are fourteen stories by Alice Munro in this collection. If you are a Munro-head, then you already know that these stories are usually about people, most often women, whose lives, which are lived almost entirely in Canada, are invaded by some kind of sadness. If you are not a Munro-head, well, now you know what this book is about.

Did I like this book?

I did. There is something about her writing that always satisfies me. I’ve learned so much from her ability to say a lot with a few words, her dialogue and her structure. This isn’t to say that I model my writing on hers, but reading her as a writer has been truly helpful in my development. And reading her as a reader has almost always been enjoyable. I had read a bunch of these stories in The New Yorker during the past few years and liked most of them even more upon second reading.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes, I think so. There are other collections that I like better. (Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage or Runaway are my favorites.) But I think that you can probably read any of her collections and get a sense as to whether or not you’d like her writing, if you’ve never read her before.

Tenth of December by George Saunders (2013)

What’s it about?

There are ten stories in this collection. I guess most of them are satirical in nature.

Did I like this book?

More than I thought I would! I had never been able to finish a George Saunders story before reading this book for my book club. After trying to read one of his stories in Best American Short Stories 2012, I cursed his name and declared him overrated and horrible. Of course, this story ended up becoming one of my favorites in the collection. I still found his particular style grating at times, but reading so many of his stories in a short period of time made me respect and appreciate his work. I think I would read another one of his collections.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I wouldn’t just like, recommend this to anyone. For example, if you are my mom, who enjoys reading murder mysteries almost exclusively but sometimes enjoys other stuff, I would say, “NO! Don’t read this!” But if you’re someone who likes being challenged by the fiction you read, or has always wanted to read George Saunders, or has liked reading George Saunders in the past, then I would say, “Yeah, go for it.”

MAY

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker (1962)

What’s it about?

This book is about Cassandra Edwards, who is hyper-intelligent, insecure, paranoid, gay, and trying to ruin her twin sister Judith’s wedding. (I think I’ve read the description of this book so many times, because I had considered reading it for so long, that I originally wrote it out almost verbatim here.)

Did I like this book?

Eh, I feel ambivalent about this book. What I liked about it: the interesting structure, the extreme intelligence of the characters, the exploration of very complicated family dynamics. What I didn’t like about it: Cassandra (almost everything about her). It’s still really difficult for me to like a book when I find the main character unlikable. I wanted to be on her side throughout the novel, but her actions and general way of being made that impossible.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I struggled though this, but I definitely learned from this novel in terms of structure, mechanics, and writing an interestingly unlikable protagonist. I don’t think I’d recommend it, though.

The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier (1963)

What’s it about?

This is a memoir. A young Swiss journalist and his artist pal set out to travel from Geneva to the Khyber Pass in a really shitty car.

Did I like this book?

Parts of it. I found the details about the Balkans and the Middle East in the 1950s to be fascinating. I found that I didn’t care about Nicolas or his friend Thierry as much as I cared about, say, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote the Introduction to this book, in his travel books.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I wouldn’t bother. Unless the subject seems terribly interesting to you, but I’m not totally pleased that I spent almost a month reading this.

JUNE

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

What’s it about?

This Pulitzer Prize winner is about the  journey of Jun Do, a man who grows up an orphan and faces danger, violence and death as he climbs the ranks in totalitarian North Korea.

Did I like this book?

Well, since I didn’t finish it, I’m going to say that I didn’t. The prose was beautiful, but I just couldn’t get into it.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I mean, you’re going to anyway. So go right ahead. And then please convince me to try it again? I hate not finishing things.

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford (1947)

What’s it about?

This coming-of-age novel follows a brother and sister duo, Ralph and Molly, through their childhood in California and on their uncle’s Colorado ranch.

Did I like this book?

Oh my gosh, yes! This portrait of two children who exist uneasily within their family and the world at large is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. There is a lot to love about this book and I’m sad that it seems to be mostly forgotten. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Jean Stafford and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes. I think this novel is unique in its intelligence and unexpected brutality. It is definitely worth reading. Also, it’s not a huge commitment, as it’s pretty short.

The Likeness by Tana French (2009)

What’s it about?

Dublin Detective Cassie Maddox goes undercover as a murdered woman who looks like her twin.

Did I like this book?

Oh, boy, was this ever a page-turner! Yes, I did like this a lot. I thought it was a very smart thriller and a perfect summer read for those who aren’t big fans of “light reading”. Actually, it was perfect read for the rainy weather in June.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Do it! Especially if you’re in book club with me and haven’t started it yet. Our meeting is next week-ish!

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)

What’s it about?

Jim Dixon is an underqualified junior professor at a second-rate English university. During the course of this novel, he must navigate the horrible sea of academia, put up with his on-again off-again girlfriend who is recovering from a suicide attempt and write a lecture on “Merrie England” while trying to remain in the good graces of Professor Welch and steal Welch’s pompous son Bertrand’s girlfriend.

Did I like this book?

This was a re-read for me. I love this book. So, so much. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, right up there with The Dud Avocado.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes, yes, yes. I think we can all find something to relate to in Jim.

(All images via newyorkbooks.com)