Sunday, July 27, 2014

2014 Summer Reads

I know summer isn't technically over yet, but the Summer Reading Program at my library wrapped up on Friday. The past couple of years I've only finished about 3 books during SRP, but in my defense, I was in grad school at the time. This year I was able to rack up a lot more reads by listening to audiobooks at work and in the car. My goal was twelve and I'm stupidly proud that I reached that goal.

I didn't really think too much about what books I was going to read, but I ended up with a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction, young adult and adult novels. Here's a quick run-down of my summer reads:

1- Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. 
This is a sweet romance between two outcast teenagers growing up in the '80s. I felt like it pretty accurately captures the physical feeling of falling in love as a teenager. Nothing graphic, don't get me wrong. One moment that has stuck in my mind is the first time that Eleanor and Park hold hands, and Eleanor wonders if her hand has sprouted extra nerve endings or if she has always been able to feel so much. Definitely recommend.

2- Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. 
Astonish Me really seems to pull back the curtain on the inside world of the ballet. It's a work of fiction, but it seems very real. Rusakov has to be based on Mikhail Baryshnikov. The book is the story of ballerina Joan, who helps world-famous Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov defect. Joan later retires when she becomes pregnant and marries her high school sweetheart. Okay, my description sounds kind of boring, but the book is very good, I promise.

3- Just Kids by Patti Smith.
Patti Smith makes New York in the '60s seem like a magical place, where one could run into Jimi Hendrix in a stairwell or Allen Ginsberg at an automat. I kind of wish I had a time machine. My only complaint about this book is that I listened to the audiobook. Smith reads the audiobook herself, and I think the book could have benefited from having a professional narrator. Occasionally, Smith's emotions come to the surface and the audiobook takes on a certain quality, like you're hanging out with Smith and she's telling you stories from her youth. But for much of the book, Smith's narration barely rises above a monotone. I would definitely recommend checking out the print version of the book though.

4- Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. 
Holy moley. This was a difficult one to get through. There was a point in the prologue where I thought "there's no way I can make it through this book." But I did make it through, and it is a fascinating story. Fascinating in the way that car crashes are fascinating. This is the true story of a hospital in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, where everything that can go wrong goes wrong. They lose power, and with it the air conditioning. Then the generators fail. Rescue efforts are slow to materialize and inefficient. And then the doctors start euthanizing patients. YEAH. Honestly, this one was hard to get through, so I would totally understand if you want to skip it. I did recommend it to a cousin who is in nursing school, since this book is full of questions about medical ethics.

5- Stardust by Neil Gaiman. 
This is a sweet fairytale romance. I saw the movie years ago and really enjoyed it. This was a really quick read (or "listen" in my case) so I would definitely recommend this one as a nice summer read.

6- Go Down Together by Jeff Guinn. 
I first saw the late '60s film version of Bonnie and Clyde's life of crime sometime in high school. I was on an old movie kick, because I thought being into old movies made me cool. I was never very good at recognizing what made people cool in high school. Anyway, I found the movie fascinating. And then a couple years ago there was a made-for-TV movie. It struck me as odd that we're still portraying B&C in such a glamorous way. It's weird. Gritty reboots are so popular now, I thought someone would tackle the Bonnie and Clyde story in a more realistic way. Then I heard about this book, and I knew I had to read it. Honestly, I found the real story more fascinating than the glamorous version. From the societal factors that lead to Clyde's criminal career to Bonnie's deep embarrassment over the incorrect notion that she smoked cigars (photos had been discovered of her posing with a cigar in her mouth). Bonnie was more worried about people thinking she smoked cigars than people thinking she was a murderer. Anyway, highly recommend.

7- The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. 
Another fairytale novella from Gaiman. Honestly, I wish this had been longer. I would love an expanded version or a sequel where we learn more about the Hempstock women. They're fascinating characters and I would love to know more about their mythology.

8- Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. 
This was another hard one to get through. I love love loved Code Name Verity. LOVED. This book was also fantastic, but the gritty descriptions of torture experienced in the Ravensbruck women's camp was difficult. I had to take a break from it for a little while. It gets dark.

9- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. 
I read this book because I enjoyed Anderson's Wintergirls. Not sure which I liked more. This book describes high school freshman Melinda's slow recovery after she's raped at an end-of-the-summer party. Oh, spoilers I guess. Melinda doesn't actually describe what happened to her until about half-way through the book. At the start all you know is that she's now a social outcast for calling the cops to said party. But I knew the secret going into it, and it didn't disrupt my enjoyment of the book at all.

10- Paper Towns by John Green. 
I liked it better than Looking For Alaska. But this book is basically Looking for Alaska plus a scavenger hunt. And manic-pixie-dream-girl Margo is barely in the book, so she didn't get on my nerves nearly as much as Alaska did. So if you've read The Fault In Our Stars and you want to read more Green, skip LFA and just go right to Paper Towns.

11- Notes To Boys by Pamela Ribon. 
Oh man. If I hadn't been too shy to even talk to boys in high school, I'm sure I would have written some notes like this. The overly-dramatic, somebody-love-me-please attitude definitely reminds me of me in high school. Reading this book a single thought kept popping into my head: "I am SO glad I'm not a teenager anymore!"

12- In Between by Kate Wilhelm.
This was a weird one. It's a mystery about two ghosts who solve their own murder. Ghost detectives. Doesn't really sound like my usual thing, right? It's not. I listened to this audiobook specifically because it was only three discs long and I knew I could finish it before SRP ended. I mean, I'm sure if ghost mysteries are your thing you'd like this book more than I did. But I prefer my ghost stories to be more haunted house horror.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Novels of Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl, Sharp Objects, and Dark Places

Gillian Flynn likes to write dark, weird stories. And I love her for it.

Last year I read Gone Girl because, well, who didn't read Gone Girl last year. I'm not usually one to read something just because everyone else has, but my mom kept telling me to read it so I eventually gave in. I was not disappointed. I spent my formative years staying up late reading my mom's copies of Stephen King and VC Andrews novels, and my fondness for those authors is probably all you need to know about why I've become a big Gillian Flynn fan. Recently I went back and read Flynn's earlier novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places.

These mini-reviews are in the order in which I read them. Also, some very minor spoilers.

Gone Girl
I read this book almost a year ago, so my memory is a little foggy. What I do remember is that this book has a super dark ending. The bad guy wins! Several of my coworkers who have read this book complained that they didn't like the ending because they felt that the characters deserved some sort of comeuppance for all the terrible things they do in the book. To which I say, eyeroll. Okay, I guess that's not really something that gets said. My library's book club read Gone Girl this month and a coworker had to cover the meeting despite not having read the book. She told me that the only thing she knew about the book was that it had a bad ending. My response was that the ending wasn't bad, it was perfect. It just wasn't a happy ending. If you're looking for a happy ending where justice is served and everyone lives happily ever after, it's probably  a good idea to just stay away from anything Gillian Flynn has written.

Sharp Objects
I don't think this was my favorite of Flynn's novels, but it is a super fast read. I tend to get distracted really easily and not finish what I started reading, so any time I breeze through a book in a week's time I have to give the author credit. Sharp Objects is the story of a Chicago journalist returning to her hometown in Missouri when a girl goes missing just a few months after another girl was murdered. Serial killer in a small town, you know the drill. This was Flynn's first novel and I don't think it's as well structured as her other two. The big reveal isn't that surprising and happens sort of abruptly. But it is a good read and I would recommend it if you're in the mood for a mystery with disturbing family dynamics.

Dark Places
Speaking of disturbing family dynamics, this book pretty much takes the cake. You'll have to read the book yourself, to say more would be way too spoilery. In January 1985, Patty Day and two of her young children are brutally murdered in their home. The youngest child, Libby, manages to escape through a window and survives. Patty's teenage son Ben is arrested and convicted of the murders. This book is told from alternating viewpoints, Patty and Ben in 1985 and Libby in 2009. In the present day, Libby is realizing that the testimony she gave in 1985 when she was 7-years-old may have been coerced, and maybe her brother didn't kill her family after all. The book then shares Patty and Ben's viewpoints on the day leading up to the murders. It's a really interesting way to tell the story, and I really like the way the exact same event is interpreted differently depending on who is the viewpoint character for that chapter. However, I think this alternating structure is why it took me longer to finish this book. When a chapter ends on a cliffhanger, I'll often pull the "just one more chapter" thing to find out what happens next. But when a chapter ends on a cliffhanger and I know I'll have to read at least one additional chapter about completely different events before I can find out what happens, it's a lot easier to say "whatever, I'll just pick this up tomorrow night." It's especially bad if the cliffhanger is at the end of a Patty 1985 or Ben 1985 chapter. The book is essentially structured as Libby 2009, Patty 1985, Libby 2009, Ben 1985, Libby 2009, Patty 1985. If I want to find out what happens next to Patty, I have to read three more chapters. I mainly read in bed, so that's a lot to ask of someone who is falling asleep. This is a complaint that's really specific to me and my reading style, I still highly recommend this book. I think I actually like it better than Gone Girl.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Quarter Life Crisis (Literary Coping Mechanisms)

New Year’s Day found me watching football with my husband, sister, and parents in my aunt’s (recently renovated) basement. Surfing 2013 best of/worst of lists on the web brought me to this reading list for your quarter-life crisis . At 29 I may be a little late for my crisis, but I’d hate to miss it. And of the 29 books on the list I’ve already read (and liked or loved) seven. Seven!! How random, no? So I added the whole lot to my goodreads list and jumped in. Here’s progress as of the last day of January:
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayer  Loved this. Strayer is the no-longer-anonymous “Sugar”, advice columnist atThe Rumpus. The book is a collection of her articles slash sort of a memoir? Anyway, she totally reaffirmed my faith in humanity, in myself, in the kindness of strangers and the possibility of transcendence. But, like, without being too squishy about it. Basically it made me feel like the movie I Heart Huckabees makes me feel which is really nice. A super lucky first pick from the list, it made me hungry for more.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn  Captivating. Everything and everyone in this novel is so f*cked up. I think I’d been held back a little in my fiction consumption, sticking to older classics and favorites from younger years. The brutal description of grown people with grown (granted highly unlikely) problems was refreshing and reassuring. I’ve got a sense now what the “quarter-life crisis” book list is bringing to the table and I like it.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri  Pretty good read about a first-gen American with Indian parents straddling old world expectations and new world dreams. Spoke to my need to please my family in a sort of blind, subconscious loyalty way. Apparently teen rebellion is just a detour on the way to still not establishing your own identity. Or maybe that’s just me? I don’t know, blame it on the quarter-life crisis.
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut  Memoir about a perpetual traveler’s early adventures. The author speaks about himself in both the first and third person in a way that really added to the narrative – how he both identifies with his younger self and also doesn’t even recognize that young man. I didn’t love this one, but the suspense in the last third of the book pulled me through it. The author’s struggles to save a suicidal friend cut pretty close to home, and made the book feel really honest to me. Maybe too honest? A bit painful really.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke  Literally a handful of letters Rilke wrote to a young poet who struck up a correspondence with him in 1903. Loved, loved this collection. Rilke is like the mentor you’d always want. Distant and objective but almost unbelievably compassionate. A strong proponent of solitude. Which I think I could use more of. The introduction was probably 20% of the book, but valuable to set the scene. I read the whole book in an evening and am considering putting it into some kind of annual rotation. Maybe a nice book to read every New Year’s Day? Or a birthday tradition? After 15+ years of watching Sixteen Candles on my birthday it may be time to step it up. 
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollingsworth  Enjoyable novel about a young, middle class gay man in London in the early 80′s. He’s found lodging in the home of a wealthy MP, the father of a school friend. The book intimately follows his first romances, his inevitable spiral into the coke-fueled, secretive gay life of the young and rich at that time. Then AIDS. Because that’s the 80′s. In a way it was all a bit predictable, but the up-close experience of the protagonist keeps it from feeling stale. I liked the book, but I was kind of depressed by the end. Which did not put me in the right frame of mind for…
Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy  The blurb made this sound like a sort of self-help book spoof full of surprisingly helpful insights. Unfortunately it seems to be… philosophy. Not my genre. Like, at all. I’m about 2 chapters (not that it seems to have chapters?) and I’m going to put it to the side. On principle I want to finish the entire list honestly, but this one might have to provide filler in half-hour segments between the rest of the selections. Unless it really turns around. I think I may not be deep enough for this kind of self-evaluation. Or perhaps I just haven’t had enough therapy. Regardless this one isn’t doing it for me.
And so, onward!
p.s. I’ve previously read Hyperbole and a Half, Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, The Marriage Plot, Love is a Mix Tape, Of Human Bondage, The Good Earth, and The Joy Luck Club. Interestingly the first three in the last 18 months, the fourth and fifth roughly seven years ago and last two over ten years ago. If I’m still enjoying the quarter-life crisis project after I’ve finished the others I may reread the last four with older eyes more wisdom.
p.p.s Full disclosure, this entire thing was also posted at Go Mighty. With which I've finally initiated contact after 4 months of thinking about it.