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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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

I feel like I say the same thing every time I post one of these things: I am way behind on reading. But so far this year, I’ve been in an actual reading slump. Very few books have been able to hold my attention. I was only able to finish reading three books that I’ve started in the past three months. Yikes! Realizing that makes me feel more than a little disappointed in myself. Now I’m really going to try to get some serious “beach reading” done this summer, even though I highly doubt I will actually go to the beach.

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APRIL

HHhH by Laurent Binet

What’s it about?

This book is supposedly about the two men – one Czech, one Slovak – who killed Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi official who organized much of the Holocaust. (“HHhH” stands for “Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”.) After several chapters, the book becomes not only about the history, but also about the narrator (or the author himself) trying to write this fictional account of how Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis killed Heydrich.

Did I like this book?

Not as much as I thought I would. I’d wanted to read HHhH when it was published here in 2012 and finally got around to picking it up this winter. I think any reader of this blog knows, at this point, that I read a ton of fiction set during the World Wars. It was hard for me to get into this book because of its unusual structure. However, I appreciated reading something that was as much about the process of writing historical fiction as it was about the actual history.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I think yes, if you’re a fan of historical fiction, like reading about this particular period, or (I guess) post-modern fiction. If you’re interested in reading a book about someone trying to write a book, I would suggest a non-fiction book instead – Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.

 

MAY

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

What’s it about?

A woman named Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed up on the shore of a remote island off of the Pacific coast of Canada. The lunchbox contains several items, including the diary of a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl called Nao who, before she commits suicide, has decided to write down the story of her 104-year-old grandmother, a Buddhist nun. The reader is taken back and forth between Nao’s past in 2001 and Ruth’s present, where she is trying to unravel the mysteries of Nao’s family.

Did I like this book?

Yes. It’s sort of hard to summarize but I guess I liked the way the book blended past and present and played with philosophy, especially Buddhist thought. I also was very compelled by all of Nao’s chapters. Even if I was bored with Ruth’s story from time to time, I remained committed to reading because I wanted to catch up with Nao.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I have been recommending this book to tons of people, so yes. I think there’s something for everyone in here? I didn’t like everything about A Tale for the Time Being, but had a generally positive and thought-provoking reading experience.

 

JUNE

Broken Harbor by Tana French

What’s it about?

In Tana French’s fourth “Dublin Murder Squad” novel, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy and his partner are assigned to solve the murder of a young family of four who live in a half-empty housing development outside of Dublin. Mystery abounds.

Did I like this book?

Well, yes. I mean, I’ve never not been amused by a Tana French novel. I read The Likeness last year, followed by In the Woods. This is now the third book of hers I’ve read. I was left a little unsatisfied at the end of the book but was generally very entertained the whole time I was reading it. (I still liked The Likeness the best, even if it’s basically The Secret History, but in Ireland and with undercover cops.)

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I think this much-better-than-your-average murder mystery makes for a great summer read. A “beach read,” even!

 

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

I wrote some mini-reviews of the books I had read in January, February and March a few months ago. And then I wrote some more about the books I read in April, May and June. So, here’s the third edition, covering the months of July, August and September.

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

July, August, September Books

JULY

A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement by Anthony Powell (1951-1955)

What’s it about?

In this first volume of this twelve-novel cycle, the narrator, Nick Jenkins, navigates public school and early adulthood in Britain. His story is intertwined with those of schoolmates Templer, Stringham and Widmerpool.

Did I like this book?

I found this book difficult to get into at first – it can be kind of boring – but started enjoying it more as I got to the second novel in the volume. By the time I finished it, I was ready to move on to the second volume but…I had other books I’d planned to read this summer, so it will have to wait.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

If you like a challenge, go for it. Also, I would recommend this to anyone who is into early- to mid-twentieth century English society. (I assume that you are if you’re reading this blog post.)

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (2012)

What’s it about?

This is Caitlin Moran’s memoir/feminist manifesto.

Did I like this book?

Yes! I read it while I was in San Francisco and I absolutely flew through it. There are a few bits I would complain about, of course, but I found Moran’s personal essays to be very funny and unsurprisingly full of very good advice.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes! It is magnificent and every woman should read it. (Because there are too many women who are not “women”. You know?) Men should read this, too. Maybe more than women.

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (2013)

What’s it about?

A Chicago family is affected by their mother’s obesity.

Did I like this book?

Yes. I was actually kind of surprised. I had read a lot about this book right after it came out and didn’t think I would pick it up, until someone loaned me a copy. I thought it was funny and devastating and a very interesting portrait of modern family dynamics.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

If you’re a literary fiction fan, sure. (If you haven’t read it already.) I’m not sure it’s a book I’ll be raving about in years to come, but it was good and worth a few days of my reading time.

AUGUST

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence (2013)

What’s it about?

A boy, who happens to be the son of fortune teller, gets hit by a meteorite and lives. He makes unlikely friends, goes on an adventure, etc.

Did I like this book?

Nope! There are a lot of reasons for this. I hated the voice. I was not a fan of the prose. And most of all, I thought the story and characters leaned much too heavily on the work of other authors and familiar coming of age tropes. I mean, there are parts of the book that are basically essays about Kurt Vonnegut novels. Also, I think one of the characters was wholly lifted from About a Boy.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

No. See above.

In the Woods by Tana French (2007)

What’s it about?

Dublin Murder Squad detective Rob Ryan gets the chance to investigate the disappearances of his childhood friends when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods where he last saw his friends.

Did I like this book?

Yes. Just as well-done and suspenseful as The Likeness. Rob wasn’t as likeable a narrator as Cassie, who appears in this book as his partner. However, I thought that the story was compelling and just the right amount of crazy.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes. I think Tana French’s novels are lovely distractions from heavy reading, but are literary enough to satisfy the snobs among us. (I consider myself a snob, I guess.)

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (2011)

What’s it about?

Jon Ronson sort of accidentally investigates psychopaths: who they are and how we diagnose and treat them.

Did I like this book?

I did. I thought the individual stories Ronson tells and the storytelling in general were interesting, though I did struggle to figure out how a few of the chapters fit under the umbrella of the book’s premise.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yeah. I mean, everyone wants to know more about psychopaths! And this book is especially good if you want to constantly wonder if your friends, family members or self are psychopaths all the time.

Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin (2011)

What’s it about?

The author moves to Paris with his wife for a job at an advertising firm. Hilarity ensues.

Did I like this book?

I think I loved it? Now that I think about it, there wasn’t anything particularly special about it. But it ended up being one of those books I wish went on for longer, which is something kind of special. It was just funny and charming and, for me, relatable, since I was in Paris during the same time as the author.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

If you like personal essays and travel memoirs, definitely read this. Also, if you’re an American who has spent any significant amount of time in Paris, definitely read this.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (2013)

What’s it about?

This is a medieval fantasy starring a musically gifted, unusually talented teenage girl. The story features murder and dragons that take human form.

Did I like this book?

Eh. I found myself liking it toward the end, but I just wasn’t into the world, which surprises me because medieval fantasy worlds are my jam. It’s not that it wasn’t well-planned. I just think it would have captured my attention more if I had read it as a kid rather than as an adult. (Though, I am saying this as an adult who is totally into young adult fiction so that’s probably not true.) Also, I didn’t like the main character that much. That was a pretty huge problem.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Unless you’re a big YA fan who has been meaning to read this, I wouldn’t go out of my way to pick this up.

SEPTEMBER

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

What’s it about?

It almost doesn’t matter. This book is about so many things. But it’s mostly about this dude who gets tangled up in a group of sweetly, intelligently alternative Classics majors who turn out to have a dark side.

Did I like this book?

Oh my God. I was so obsessed with this book while I was reading it that the whole experience feels like it wasn’t real. And I was so sad as I was nearing the end of it, it felt like I was losing a friend. Those, by the way, are my two favorite feelings to have about books.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes. The prose is wonderful, the story is batshit crazy, it takes place on a college campus and there are characters who speak Latin (and also write their diaries in Latin). And, again, the story is crazy.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989)

What’s it about?

A family of carnival freaks. I don’t think I need to say any more.

Did I like this book?

This book is one of my all-time favorites. I just finished rereading it for the first time since college.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

A very emphatic yes. The writing is spectacular, as is the Binewski family’s carnival world. This book is almost as old as I am and everything it has to say about society and humanity is still relevant. If you read this book and don’t like it, please tell me. You’ll be the first person I know who hasn’t liked it. (Full disclosure: I know three other people who have read it).

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)