Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Books Update: Quarter 4

Congrats on making it through another year, you crazy diamond, you! This year I read 80 books & over 32,000 pages. We're now at the tail-end of quarter 4, so let's talk about what I've been reading over the last three months.

As you may or may not already know, I've been reading a classic a month for the last two years. It started as a one-year project in 2014, but I've enjoyed it enough to keep going with it & will probably continue until it starts to feel like a chore.

These were my last three classics of the year:

October: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oliver Wilde (1890, 166 pages). 4 stars. This was my spooooky Halloween read! Young, beautiful, innocent, naive Dorian Gray sits for a portrait for an artist friend, who proclaims the painting his best work. Dorian is suddenly struck by the horrible thought that he will age and lose his beauty while his portrait will remain beautiful and youthful forever. In a fit of panic he desperately prays that his and the painting's roles should be reversed, so that the painting ages while he stays young and beautiful. Not only does his wish come true, but the portrait also begins to reflect the condition of his soul. Creepiness and philosophy ensue. The writing is clever and gorgeous, and Wilde is a master of dry wit & witty repartee, plus it's less than 200 pages so pretty easy to knock out on a plane ride or similar. But, it is worth mentioning that it's still not a light read. Some parts of it are quite dense and heavily philosophical (I found myself carefully re-reading many sections because I didn't catch or process it all the first or second time around), so definitely something to save for when you are fully alert and not distracted.

November: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens (1861, 505 pages). 4 stars. This book could almost be a companion to Jane Eyre, and after reading it, I understand why John Irving featured those two books together the way he did in The Cider House Rules. I was surprised by how much I actually enjoyed it. Yes, there's still the barrier of it was written in the 19th century, so not every little detail makes sense all the time (what was the deal with the green gloves at the wedding?), but it was still a really well-written story and a cleverly plotted mystery with a bigger point to it. Worth reading.

December: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey (1962, 325 pages). 3 stars. This was definitely a very clever, well-written book & I can see why it's become a classic. I'm also glad I read it because it's so iconic and now references to the story and characters make more sense. On the other hand, it dealt with subject matter that is not my favorite (mental institutions, physical mistreatment/abuse of people by those with power over them) and just was generally not really up my alley.


I have read a lot of stuff lately but here are the titles I most highly recommend:

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff. (2015, 392 pages) 5 stars. Amazing. I actually think the marketing copy included a pretty decent summation: Every relationship has two perspectives, and sometimes the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. The relationship in question is that of Lotto & Mathilde, madly in love and married at the tender age of twenty-two after knowing each other for all of two weeks. The first half of the book tells the story of their marriage from Lotto's point of view, and though the writing is utterly gorgeous and the characters dynamic and multi-dimensional, it's on the darker side, without much in the way of comic relief. The second half, though, is Mathilde's story, which fills in a lot of blanks in sometimes jaw-dropping ways. (Fans of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, this is why you'll love it.)

The Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Farrell. (2013, 306 pages) 5 stars. Sean Farrell is one of my favorite new-to-me authors. In this book, an unnamed protagonist time traveler decides after inventing his time machine around age 18 to throw a birthday party for himself at an abandoned hotel on a certain day in 2071, where the only guest is himself. Every 365 days (according to his local experience of time), he travels back to that particular time and place, the result being a party with dozens of guests, all the same man, just at different ages. All is well and good until at age 38, he learns that another version of himself, just slightly older than he currently is, has been shot and killed at the party. Of course, eyeing his much-older selves, the 38-year-old protagonist's first response is, "This is impossible." And theirs is, "Which is why you have to figure out how to stop it from happening." A fascinating story that I couldn't put down because I HAD to figure out what happened.

Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman. (2015, 320 pages) 5 stars. National Book Award short list. OMG, I don't really know what I can say about this book without revealing huge spoilers. The story alternates between two different aspects of 15-year-old Caden Bosch's life: His normal, 15-year-old-kid life wherein he attends school, builds video games with friends, and vacations with his family, and a more mysterious one where he is part of the crew of a sailing ship run by a stereotypical pirate captain and spends his days using his drawing skills to guide the ship's mission to the Marianas Trench. We get no explanation about the relationship between Caden's two lives for many, many creepy and intriguing pages. I was engrossed in this book from the first page and kind of wanted to scream every time I had to put it down. Also the most brilliant depiction of [key social issue/spoiler] that I've ever read.

Slade House, by David Mitchell. (2015, 238 pages) 4 stars. All of David Mitchell's books are entwined to a certain extent with many characters reappearing or at least making cameo appearances, but Slade House has a little more of a direct connection with The Bone Clocks, which is probably my favorite David Mitchell book. The book has five chapters, each of which details a particular person's experience stumbling upon the mysterious, eponymous Slade House & its eerie inhabitants. Short, quick, & gorgeously written (though maybe not quite up to his usual standard), & a must if you enjoyed Bone Clocks.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. (2006, 146 pages) 4 stars. Shirley Jackson! I am absolutely obsessed with her right now, thanks to The Haunting of Hill House and Head Full of Ghosts. After The Haunting of Hill House (which I was inspired by A Head Full of Ghosts to read), I am on a major Shirley Jackson kick. (And if you do read A Head Full of Ghosts, you MUST read this one before or after. Sisters Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood live in their family's remote ancestral home with their sickly Uncle Julian after the rest of the family died from arsenic poisoning. The poisoning (via the sugar bowl, with berries) was blamed on Constance, and although she was acquitted, the entire town now loathes the family. Although Constance and Uncle Julian are housebound, Mary Katherine still ventures into town for supplies (thereby suffering the wrath of the townspeople). All is more or less well until the day that Cousin Charles comes to visit and changes life for everyone.

Dumplin', by Julie Murphy (2015, 375 pages). 4 stars. Super cute YA wherein young, confident Texan woman of size and Dolly Parton aficionado Willowdean Dickson ("Dumplin'" to her mom) furiously navigates changing friendships, boys, work, body image, and her relationship with her mother. I love this book for just having a main character who is a) fat and b) does not hate her body. The author flipped the script in a few other ways too: There is a hot boy to crush on, but what sets the plot rolling is not WD pining after a dude who will obviously never like her back, but the fact that he pursues her. And, instead of the Hallelujah Chorus, Hot Crush's reciprocity incites voices of insecurity and body ambivalence in WD's head. And instead of the non-conventionally-hot girl desperately making herself over to catch a dude's eye, poor WD finds herself the object of TWO dudes' affections, which really freaks her out. Obviously, the solution to all this is for WD to enter the super-hyped-up beauty pageant for which her small town is known, and which (OF COURSE) is run by her high-strung, body-conscious mother. Hilarity and feels ensue; also bonus points for all the fun Texas details. (Except for the part about driving from somewhere in southern TX to Odessa in two hours. Just, no.)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin (2014, 272 pages). 4 stars. This short, lovely gem of a book follows the eponymous widower bookseller/book snob and sometimes-misanthrope as he meets and pursues a lady publishing rep, raises a mysterious orphan girl left in his store, brings literary culture to a multifaceted cast of characters in his tiny town, and generally negotiates the trials and mysteries of life. Reading the synopsis, I kind of went, "Oh, it's 'Up' with books," and there are maybe some parallels here & there. But, it's a lot less comedy/wacky character study (though there are moments of humor) and more a gorgeously written, beautifully crafted love letter to the world of books and reading and how they change our lives. Sad in places and a little tragic, but in the inspirational-and-uplifting kind of way, not the ugly-cry-wreck-you-for-a-day kind of way.

A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny (1994, 280 pages). 4 stars. So the plan was to read one chapter a month each night in October (as is apparently the tradition), but the early chapters are maddeningly short, so it ended up only taking me a couple of weeks. In it, Jack the Ripper & his dog Snuff spend October preparing for some sort of mysterious, supernatural "Game" which is intended to come to fruition on Halloween night. Details are slowly revealed over the course of the story. Other participants/involved persons include Count Dracula, Frankenstein & his monster, Sherlock Holmes, & a werewolf. Snuff narrates. Short, cute, entertaining, & very Zelazny.

The Accident Season, by Moïra Fowley-Doyle. (2015, 280 pages) 4 stars. Each October, an Irish family becomes incredibly accident prone, which can mean anything from a few bumps and bruises to grisly deaths. The "accident season" that Cara and her step-brother Sam are 17 & her sister Alice is 18, Cara's childhood friend Elsie suddenly begins appearing in all of her pictures. Spine-tingling creepiness ensues. A perfect October read--eerie and haunting, a mystery that grips you from the first page, and gorgeously (not to mention spookily) written all around. (THANK YOU JESUS, once again, for well-written teens.) I have a couple of quibbles with the wrap-up, but honestly, if I hadn't read so much excellent "literary YA" lately, I might have given it five stars. Curl up with this one on All Hallows' Eve if you're looking for something creepy & clever to devour for sheer entertainment.

* * *

Currently Reading:
The Monsters of Templeton
, by Lauren Groff

Currently Listening To:
, by Stephen King

Up Next:

We will see what monthly classics 2016 brings me, but in the mean time, I have the following stacked up on my nightstand and/or in my Audible queue:

Taking future suggestions as always. :)

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