Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Books 2017: Quarter 2

Guys. Where is the year going. July?? Crazy pants.

As you probably 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. You can find my past reviews by clicking on the "books" tag at the end of this post, or be my friend on Goodreads. (You can also just go to the site & hunt down my review feed without being my friend, if that's more your speed.)

ICYMI, the classics I selected to read in 2017 are here.

On to the reviews!


April: The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (1956, 258 pages). 4 stars. A post-World War II English butler getting towards the end of his career borrows his employer's car to take a road trip around the country and visit a (female) former colleague with whom he has had a complicated relationship. The book alternates between descriptions of his exploits and flashbacks to his career as a butler. The theme of the book as best as I can describe it centers around questions of loyalty, grace, and what it means to be a good/great man, particularly as the country and its culture is changing in the aftermath of the war. Beautifully written and worth reading, but didn't change my life exactly..

May: The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan (1989, 288 pages). 5 stars. Four women immigrate from China to the US in the mid-20th century and start a small social group together with their husbands, the "Joy Luck Club." The chapters alternate between telling the various stories of the four women as well as those of their daughters. The effect is a bit like a prism, with the reader getting a slightly different view of some of the same events depending on who is telling the story. Really gorgeously written and kind of a beautiful reflection on the relationships between friends, mothers, daughters, and what it means to be an immigrant, an American, and/or a bit of both. Not the kind of book I normally think of as my cup of tea but I really enjoyed it..

June: The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1879, 796 pages). 3 stars. Guyssssss, I tried. In the past I've been pleasantly surprised at how much I've enjoyed various Russian classics, but man. I just got so bored with this book waiting for something, anything, to happen. I made it about halfway through before I gave up & moved on to something else. I might go back to it at some point but oh. My. God. Just. WHAT. Is this even about.


I've read a lot of stuff this quarter but have not done a great job with keeping up with all of it. So here's what we've got.

The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey. (2017, 370) 5 stars. One of the best books I've read in a long, long time. In the not-too-distant future, a private company called Prime Space is preparing to send a manned space mission to Mars. Three astronauts have been selected: American Helen (fifty-something ex-NASA astronaut, widow, awkward mother), Japanese Yoshi (brilliant philosopher-engineer, passionate yet awkward husband), and Russian Sergei (national hero cosmonaut & recently divorced father of two). In preparation, they will spend 17 months in a simulation of their mission. Specifically designed to simulate the trio's Mars trip with unheard-of levels of realism, the three will be tested as no space explorers have ever been before. You would think this is a science story, and there is some discussion of the science-y parts involved in a Mars mission, but at its heart, this is more of a dramatic character study. The narration alternates between the three astronauts and their respective family members. We see how navigating those relationships--and their relationships with each other--is at least as complicated as getting to Mars, and there are a few other surprises in store as well. Just a remarkably written book with some of the most three-dimensional and compelling character writing that I can remember.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt. (2012, 360 pages) 5 stars. One of the best, most authentic and raw YA books I've read in quite a while. June is a somewhat eccentric 14 year old growing up in the early 80s who has recently lost her beloved Uncle Finn to AIDS. One of his last acts was to paint a portrait of June and her older sister over several months of Sunday afternoons entitled "Tell The Wolves I'm Home," which he leaves to his sister (June's mother)'s family. The story follows June as she deals with Finn's death in the weeks and months that follow, and the interplay between that and the rest of the turmoil going on in her family and their somewhat troubled past. Fantastically written, with such pitch-perfect voice, and so raw and haunting in places it's gut wrenching. I kept waiting for things to veer to dark, disturbing melodrama, but thankfully they never did. There's enough chaos and heartbreak and beauty to be found in a young person's first real encounter with grief and loss (not to mention negotiating friendships and family life in the process) and the author squeezes every last drop out of it.

Penpal, by Dathan Auerbach. (2012, 252 pages) 5 stars. So, every time I try to explain that I like horror, I feel like I have to clarify that I mean GOOD horror, as in smart, clever, primal horror with good writing as opposed to graphic blood-and-guts crap. And I think this book fits that, or at least, it's kind of a hybrid between good horror and a psychological thriller. The story is told in the first person by a man who has gone back and pieced together a number of strange and disturbing moments of his life to try to understand the pattern that emerges. Each chapter functions like a bit of a puzzle piece, and since the pieces are not always presented chronologically, sometimes we get echoes or foreshadowing of other pieces. We also get brief flashes of conversations with his (single) mother about some of these moments, and her words and reactions add to the puzzle. Almost nothing is made explicit, but the puzzle pieces themselves are creepy enough that sometimes I didn't want to read it alone at night (rare) and as the book and chapters go on and the larger implicit story began to take shape, I was like "OH SHIIIIT I do not want to read the end of this book alone." Creepy, clever perfection. Will DEF be seeking out more by this author because check plus plus.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon. (2015, 227 pages) 5 stars. If you're a die hard fan of the Notorious RBG, this is a must-read. If you don't really know all that much about the Notorious RBG, it is also a must-read. Seriously. You think you're impressed with her now? Wait til you get the full story. Just a great read.

The Kind Worth Killing, by Peter Swanson. (2015, 312 pages) 4 stars. A man who has just figured out that his wife is cheating on him with the contractor who is building their new house kills time with a strange woman in an airport bar before the flight they're both on. He makes an off-hand comment about "I could just kill her" or something and then, totally straight-faced, the woman's like, "You should, she sounds like a terrible person, and I'll totally help you." And after that we're off to the races. So, yeah. Completely improbable premise, and that's not even the most improbable moment in the book. On the other hand, I expected to be a total guilty-pleasure trashy thriller, but it was actually really well written and engrossing! The other thing that pushes it to four stars for me was the lack of predictability. There were a number of twists and turns that kept the plot from feeling canned or like just another variation on the age-old adultery-revenge-murder trope. Perfect plan/beach/etc. read.

The Perfect Stranger, by Megan Miranda. (2017, 337 pages) 4 stars. Ie, Megan Miranda of All the Missing Girls acclaim. Leah Stevens is an early-30s ex-journalist who has left Boston and her profession in disgrace to move to a western Pennsylvania backwater and teach high school English. Luckily she runs into her former roommate Emmy right around that time, who, as it happens, is also looking for a fresh start somewhere new. But then one day Emmy disappears without a trace, and a girl who looks eerily like Leah turns up badly assaulted at a lake close to the house she and Emmy shared. Creepy mystery thrills ensue. I enjoyed this book--Megan Miranda is an excellent writer and does a great job of bringing both characters and settings to life. It didn't quite live up to All The Missing Girls, but that's quite a high bar and it was still a fun read.

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. (2016, 301 pages) 4 stars. A fantastic and clever read (as one would expect), but also on the lighter side compared to what she normally writes, which I think is probably a consequence of being part of this "Hogarth Shakespeare" series. In it Atwood takes on The Tempest, wherein an eccentric Shakespearean director & actor, grief stricken by the death of his 3 year old daughter Miranda, is ousted from his position as the director of a small town Shakespeare festival on the verge of staging The Tempest. Years later, though, he has the opportunity to perform it with a band of white collar felons as part of a prison literacy program, and mmmmmm things get a bit crazy after that. File under #metatheater. Amusing and smart, but not as weighty as many of her books.

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes. (2013, 375 pages) 4 stars. Just when you thought I'd read every thriller with "Girl(s)" in the title! In this one, Harper, a Depression-era psychopath stumbles across a house inside which the names of 34 "shining girls" have been scrawled. Harper finds that between the house and sheer will, he is able to travel through time to locate (and brutally murder) each of the shining girls in turn, a task that must be completed carefully and methodically, because psychopath. Meanwhile, twenty-year-old Kirby becomes obsessed with tracking down the asshole who tried and failed to brutally murder her in the late 1980s, eventually throwing in with the hard-boiled sports-writer-nee-crime-reporter who originally covered her assault. Chapter by chapter, their stories circle each other, gradually threading together to give us the full story. Not life-changing and I had a few mild complaints, but certainly enjoyable and pretty well written.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng. (2014, 304 pages) 4 stars. File under "really fantastic books that are just not my cup of tea." We begin the story knowing that 16 year old Lydia is dead, but her family, gathered round the breakfast table waiting for her, do not yet know. The story unfolds in pieces, cutting back and forth between the present--the aftermath of Lydia's death & how her family makes sense of & deals with it--and the decades of events in the lives of herself, her siblings, and her parents that ultimately led up to her death. Really, really brilliantly and beautifully written, but DAMN, it's utterly and relentlessly depressing, without a hint of humor or levity anywhere.

* * *

Currently Reading:
The Talented Mr. Ripley
, by Patricia Highsmith

Currently Listening To:
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
, by Robert M. Sapolsky

Up Next:

And who knows, whatever else tickles my fancy. (Taking future suggestions as always!)

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