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.



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.)



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.



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 NW by Zadie Smith

I mentioned on Friday that I didn’t like NW, Zadie Smith’s recent novel about the lives of thirty-somethings who grew up in the council estates of northwest London. (Um, actually, I could be wrong. Still not sure if this is what it was about.) I still don’t like it. And this surprises me!  I don’t generally dislike many books I read, even though I read a lot of them. I’ve been trying to think of why this is so often the case.

Some possibilities:

1. It could be that I’m more inclined to put down a book that doesn’t draw me in after a hundred pages or so because I have less time to read now and would like to spend that time reading something I’m really into. (Not that this isn’t difficult and kind of anxiety-producing for me. I still feel ambivalent about putting down Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows this fall after having been really excited to read it.)

2. It could be that I’m just not thinking about these books enough. When it comes to most other culture I consume – music, television, etc. – I’m usually very content to say that I liked something and move on. I guess I’m inclined to ‘like’ anything recommended by friends or publications I read. (This recent realization has led me to become extremely aware of and concerned about my post-college lack of analytical thinking. As well as my general agreeableness.)

3. Or it could be that, after years of practice, I’ve gotten very good at picking out the books I’ll probably like (out of all of the books ever published in the English language). Also, I’ve been free of reading lists for a while now, which helps in that I haven’t been forced to read anything I really, really didn’t want to read.

I read NW with my book club. the books I’ve tended to like the least or dislike entirely have been books I’ve read with said book club. We choose books by a process of nomination and voting so I think we usually end up with a book that most people are happy to read. However, we’ve discovered recently that the books in the past year that have been almost universally disliked — including NW — have ended up sparking much more interesting conversations than the books we’ve generally liked.

Discussing exactly why none of us really liked NW on Monday night made us really pick the book apart. And it made me really think about and verbalize the real reasons I didn’t like it. It wasn’t just that I was bored during certain parts or that I was confused and upset by the ending. I think that I was genuinely disappointed that this book was not the important novel that I imagine Zadie Smith aimed for it to be.

The main characters — Leah and Natalie — fell very flat for me. I found many of their choices in the novel to be confusing and I didn’t come away with a good sense of exactly who either of them were supposed to be. Some of my favorite characters, many of whom appeared in the novel only briefly – for example, the drug-addicted mistress of a secondary character – were my favorites simply because they were actual CHARACTERS who did and said things that made sense for them to do.I felt the most engaged with the novel during the parts where Smith displayed her very well-known, wonderful ear for dialogue. (I mean, I haven’t spent much time in London, but I watch a lot of British television and  I really felt like I was there.)

And I felt the most hopeful that the novel would succeed when I was connecting with a particular character. For example, during the novel’s second distinct part, in which we spend a day with a doomed man named Felix, I felt invested in that character and was interested in how his story would connect with Leah’s story, which was the first part of the novel. I felt the same way through much of the novel’s third part, which is the story of Natalie’s life told through a series of over one hundred vignettes. But as her story got longer it became more and more disconnected from the first two parts and by the end of it, there weren’t very many pages left to tie everything together, which is where the novel went off the rails and then ended in a spectacularly confusing crash.

And now I have no choice but to compare NW to that empty train in Sweden that a cleaning lady recently crashed into an apartment building.

Bottom line: Read this book, but only if you want to be disappointed and utterly baffled. But honestly, I think you should all just read or re-read White Teeth instead.

Friday “Roundup”: Love At First Sight

I was stuck inside for most of today, working from home. (But really, really working all day, which is why I’m just posting this now.) This is what I look like home alone in a not-quite-blizzard:

Anyway, I didn’t have a lot of time to read fun things to link to this week because I was mostly trying to finish books in my down time. Actually, mostly trying to finish one book in particular, NW by Zadie Smith.. I ended up finishing it last night and ugggghhhhh I can’t believe I didn’t light it on fire when I was done. I hope to post a review after I’ve verbally expressed all of my frustration to the good ladies of my book club on Monday night.

I also read a great short story in the Best American Short Stories 2012 collection called “The Sex Lives of African Girls” by Taiye Selasi. (You can read it online if you happen to have a Granta subscription.) I was heartened to read in her commentary that this was the first piece of fiction that she had finished in like eight years or something. (She was lucky enough to have Toni Morrison read her story before anyone else, which will not be the case for me should I ever finish anything again, but whatever.)

The only thing I can really think of that I really liked on the internet this week…

Love at First Sight by Jane Marie (Rookie): Boy oh boy, do I wish Rookie had been around when I was a teenager! I’m very glad it’s around now, anyway. This piece was informative and relatable and I think that all girls should read it for it is full of really good advice.