My Summer Reading, Part Two

Summer reading, part two! 

We Were Liars: I ordered this for my daughter Sophie, who went through an Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew phase, and this is certainly a thriller with a complicated structure and surprising twist ending. There’s also a certain stylistic glossiness here, from the characters’ names (Cadence, Mirren) to the aura of wealth and privilege that pervades the setting and the dysfunctional family dynamics in the idyllic summer retreat off Cape Cod where the Sinclair family heads each year. Of course, nothing gold can stay, and while this is definitely aimed at a teen crowd, it was a great summer read for me too.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats: This was another recommendation from a friend, and another direct hit! There’s an element of mystery here, as a distinguished New York lawyer, father and husband suddenly vanishes, and his daughter sets out to explore Burma, his native country, in an effort to find where he went and ultimately, who he was. The exotic setting and unfolding love story are evocative and drawn with precision and restraint; you never feel overly flooded with detail or sentiment, but instead, entranced by the calm and charm of the different voices and perspectives. Great book club choice too.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Six years ago when it was released and won the Pulitzer Prize, this book was everywhere, and I’m sure I bought it once it appeared in paperback and somehow never quite finished it. I’m glad I waited, because I think I had a much richer reading experience with it after teaching my Latin American lit class a few times, and especially after teaching about the dictatorial Trujillo era, which is referenced repeatedly in Oscar Wao. Diaz cuts and mixes 20th century history and culture with ebullience, many footnotes, and a generous sense of the tragedy and illumination in the lives of his characters, spanning from the streets of Newark to the Dominican Republic and the shadows cast in each.  

The Signature of All Things: A Novel: What an amazing, feminist, vivid character Gilbert has created in Alma Whittaker, the intrepid, envious, brilliant botanist at the heart of this book. Alma is raised by a blustery and intimidating father and a stoic and intellectual mother on their enormous estate outside of Philadelphia. The Whittaker fortune is rooted in medicinal plants, sparking Alma’s botanical obsessions and providing opportunities to talk about great explorers/scientists from Captain Cook to Charles Darwin. While there are some indelible male characters in this book, the story belongs to Alma herself: her passions, her ambitions, her faults and her triumphs. Can’t wait to read more fiction from Gilbert.

My Summer Reading, Part One

As I slowly ease back into blogging after my summer hiatus, my one regret is that I haven’t been keeping track of what I’ve read this summer. That’s been a great habit for me in 2014, between this site and Goodreads, and I’m trying to get back into the swing of it now that I’m gearing back up for the new school year. As I look back, it’s reassuring to see that despite my hectic working pace this summer, I managed to squeeze in some wonderful reading.

And now, for some brief bulleted reviews of books I read this summer:

Fangirl: Rainbow Rowell does such a great job of writing for young adults and understanding what that means; this story of two sisters struggling to navigate the transition to college, establishing independent identities, and better understand their complicated relationships with each other and their parents, all such classic dilemmas of the young person learning what it means to be an adult. But Rowell resist the easy devices and makes her characters vivid, funny, modern and layered.My daughters and I enjoyed this one equally, and if you’ve ever read Harry Potter or fanfiction (especially if you’ve read both), I’d highly recommend this one.

Attachments: This is Rowell’s first novel, and it’s ultimately my favorite of hers to date–a novel that does a better job with romantic comedy than any movie I’ve seen recently, one so seemingly suited for the screen I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie already. Beth and Jennifer are best friends and office buddies who trade their chattiest updates and innermost thoughts via email during the workday, never suspecting that Lincoln sits a few floors below, lonely and slowly falling in love with what he reads. If you like romantic comedies that manage to be touching and sweet as well as funny, this is a great pick. Note: it’s billed as “adult” rather than “young adult,” but bot hof my 12-year-old girls read it and loved it–nothing inappropriate, in my opinion.

The End of Eve: A Memoir: I’ve read almost all of Ariel Gore’s books, and this newest memoir is a sterling example of why I love her writing much: her lyrical style and evocative imagery are captivating, but it’s her commitment to emotional honesty and self-reflection that keep me coming back. She manages to maintain her journalistic eye in the midst of traumatic personal situations, such as the period she spent caring for her abusive and terminally ill mother, which happened to coincide with Gore’s realization that her girlfriend and co-parent was falling back in love with an old flame. Read it, read it, read it.

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel: I read this after a colleague raved about it on Facebook, and I’m so glad I did! This novel is as intricate, beautiful, and carefully wrought as the scale model of a Paris neighborhood built by a father for his blind daughter, Marie-Laure, to help her navigate the outside world. World War Two is looming on the horizon, and the family eventually evacuates to a walled city on the southern coast of France, where Marie-Laure must learn a new geography amongst various forms of chaos and upheaval. While she is growing up, an orphaned boy named Werner is growing up in an orphanage in Germany, developing his fascination with radios and technology, which eventually lands him in the Nazi military, tracking the French resistance and bringing him directly into Marie-Laure’s path. Again, an immersive reading experience that lingered with me for days.

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Aside from creating one of the bestselling series of books, ever, that millions have enjoyed around the world, J.K. Rowling is also to be commended for her…..pluck? Gumption? Whatever you would call the quality that has led her to keep pumping out the novels she wants to write, even as the world clamors for more in the series she has vowed is finished.

Her first post-HP novel, The Casual Vacancy, was not a huge hit with the critics, or with her most diehard HP fans. Although I found a fair amount of value and substance in reading the book, it was definitely bleak–an entire novel set in the world of the Dursleys, with casually vacant denizens of the kind of town that gives towns/suburbs (people) a bad name. Definitely a bold career move for someone who made her mark in such a magical way.

Perhaps as a result of the backlash to her first effort, or just to escape some of the ridiculous effects of being who she is, Rowling published her next novel under a nom de plume, and The Cuckoo’s Calling received excellent reviews but did not garner many sales–until her mask was revealed, against her will, and booksellers raced to put a “written by J.K. Rowling” sticker on the cover.

Cuckoo is a detective novel, clearly the first in a series, about Cormoran Strike, an ex-military down-on-his-luck private investigator who stumbles into a mystery surrounding a glamorous fashion model’s controversial death. Aided by Robin, an extremely competent temporary secretary who clearly will be sticking around for the next book, Strike manages to solve the case, but not win back his volatile fiancee. Formulaic? Maybe, if you’re a connoisseur of the genre (which I am not). Beach book? I would say certainly so, entertaining and absorbing without being too bleak. Rowling-esque? Absolutely, if you consider the tightly knit intricate plotting of the Potter series, which also featured puzzles nested inside mysteries. I don’t think I would have picked it up without the Rowling name on it, but I’m glad I did, and look forward to the next book in the series–as long as Robin gets to develop into the wonderful investigator she obviously could be.

Review: The Monuments Men

As much as I’ve read and watched about World War II, there seems to still be so many stories I haven’t heard, dark corners of the battles yet to be illuminated. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the book upon which the recent film is based, tells the saga of preserving artwork and architecture in the midst of the bloodiest war the world had ever known.

We travel from Normandy to Hitler’s bunker, great underground salt mines stacked with Renaissance masterworks to Eisenhower’s office at Versailles, following the Monument Men themselves as they struggle to identify landmark buildings and important paintings and save them from destruction by either side. I really enjoyed this book and the guiding principle that this cultural and artistic legacy embodied the very civilizations the soldiers were fighting to protect. If you know a dad who’s a WWII buff, this would be a great Father’s Day gift!

Review: Fin & Lady

In a recent Top Ten Tuesday over at The Broke and the Bookish, the topic was Books To Read If You Like These TV shows, movies, plays etc. What a intriguing challenge, right? But I couldn’t come up with anything, so I didn’t participate. Then, my copy of Fin & Lady arrived, a book I’d ordered after a glowing recommendation from my sister-in-law. “I loved it so much,” she said, “it really reminded me of books like A Separate Peace or The Catcher in the Rye.” On that basis, I couldn’t resist!

Once I’d finished it, Fin & Lady really reminded me of two other books: Beautiful Ruins, which I read and reviewed in January and Breakfast at Tiffany’s , which takes place in the same time and setting, with a girl-about-town central character. There’s certainly a coming-of-age aspect with Fin, who begins as a child and progresses through adulthood as the book progresses, and it’s really his story that is being told to the narrator. Just as with Beautiful Ruins, I wish I had read this book a month or so from now, because I think it would read very well on a sunny beach or poolside somewhere, partly because at one point, we travel to the Mediterranean, but also the book never gets quite deep enough to mar a lovely sunny day. I don’t feel like I ever really got inside of Lady’s head, but then again, no one in the book seems to either. As much as she and Fin are tied together, even in the title, everyone in the narrative is really revolving around Lady, who spins erratically on her own axis.

Book Blogger Confessions

inspired by Let Your Voice Be Nerd

Which book, most recently, did you not finish?

I gave up on The Luminaries recently; there’s some beautiful writing in there, but it just got so…..tedious? I got a hardback copy from a bookish friend who quit it after 100 pages, and I’ve since heard from two other bookish friends that they also gave up, so I feel more vindicated in quitting forever.

Which book is your guilty pleasure?

I don’t subscribe to this idea necessarily today, but I will say that during the same period of my life when I was acing standardized tests and writing about Jane Eyre and Man and Superman , I had also read all of the books in the VC Andrews series that started with the epic Flowers in the Attic .

Which book do you love to hate?

This will probably be one of my more controversial answers, but I absolutely can’t stand The Road and I enjoy advertising my dislike of it.

Which book have you read the most?

I’m sure one of the ten books that stuck would be the answer here, and my hunch would be something written by Stephen King or L.M. Montgomery.

Which book would you hate to receive as a present?

Honestly, I often feel awkward when people give me books they love or expect me to like, because then I feel a lot of pressure to love the book the way they did, or live up to whatever they thought I would enjoy about it. I know, this is a weirdo answer. Real talk.

Which book made you the angriest?

Handle with Care: A Novel: this book is notorious in my house because the horrible, stupid, terrible ending made me so angry I had to hide the book in the basement before getting rid of it for good. Don’t ever read this book.

Which book made you cry the most?

Toss-up between Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Which book cover do you hate most?

I don’t necessarily have strong feelings about genres of covers, but I do have definite attachments to the covers I remember reading for the first time, and I hate when books get re-packaged with garish covers just to tie in with movie adaptations.

Review: Orphan Train

Orphan TrainOrphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For seventy-five years, groups like the Children’s Aid Society rounded up impoverished urban children, many immigrants, and put them on trains out to the Midwest, where families could adopt them and most often, immediately put them to work as indentured farm/house labor. This began in 1853 and lasted until around 1929, and Christina Baker Kline has chosen this fascinating experiment as the historical context for Orphan Train,
her novel about Vivian, a former orphan train child now 91 years old, and Molly, a teenager in foster care struggling to navigate the difficulties of her life.

Kline clearly did her research, and pairing Molly and Vivian together is a neat device for crossing the generations, each character giving the other inspiration and perspective. Molly is half-Penobscot Indian, a welcome inflection of diversity for young adult literature. However, only in the flashbacks of Vivian’s childhood and adolescence do we get anything approaching a three-dimensional character, and even then, there are some plot twists along the way that are hard to find credible. Molly is a great protagonist for teen girls, but her boyfriend, Jack, and Jack’s mother, Terry, are fairly cardboard, and Molly’s foster parents are mere caricatures. Maybe eliminating some of the minor characters would have allowed Kline to focus more on deepening the major ones.

Kline includes some photos at the end of the book culled from her research into the orphan train children, and they are absolutely haunting; there are certainly many more stories that could come from this era, and perhaps on those pages, these children will finally be heard in a compelling and powerful way.

If you’re looking for historical fiction with a young female protagonist, may I recommend Code Name Verity, which I’ve also reviewed?

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Review: The Interestings

The InterestingsThe Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I could probably tell you that The Interestings: A Novel is another book in the tradition of which the best example is probably The Great Gatsby: outsider character who stands in for the reader, obsessed with a group of glittering and talented young people and the world that revolves around them, until we realize that perhaps all that glimmers is not gold or authentic or the source of happiness after all.

But that wouldn’t really express why I loved this book so much, why it pierced me in a way that recent other bestsellers (ahem, The Goldfinch) didn’t quite, as much as I enjoyed and appreciated them. Sometimes you read the right book at the right time, and it resonates with you, and that’s that.

Jules Jacobson is a social worker in New York City, with a rambunctious daughter, a depressed husband, and multimillionaire friends named Ash and Ethan, friends that date back to years at a hippie utopia summer camp that has marked all of them into adulthood. Ash is a feminist director, Ethan an incredibly successful animator, and Jules struggles not to be consumed by her envy of their lives. As the book unfolds, we move back and forth in time and see behind the facades of each character’s lives, raising questions about how we navigate growing into adulthood and realizing that the dreams we had, the creativity we thought made us special, might not survive into a life filled with baby strollers and writing rent checks.

What I loved about the book is that by the end, it’s not some kind of cataclysm that gives the characters more clarity–the book spans from Watergate past September 11th, so it would have been easy to do–but instead, actual moments and fumbles towards maturity, towards being satisfied with the quiet joys and burdens of life.

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Review: An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of KatherinesAn Abundance of Katherines by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of charm in An Abundance of Katherines, which is kind of a funny thing to say about a book that includes a hunt for feral pigs and the grave of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but I stand by it. The story of Colin Singleton, former child prodigy and dumped by 19 girls named Katherine, is delightfully particular, including his best friend Hassan and their road trip to Gutshot, Tennessee. But what John Green does best is writing these eloquent, hyperverbal teenagers with quirks for day who are also wrestling with the classic adolescent questions: who am I becoming, do I like that person, and if not, what can I do about it? Do you have to leave your home behind to have adventures? Are we trapped in our own ruts or can we break out? These characters are no exception, and I enjoyed watching them fumble through their own little self-discovery challenges.

If you like John Green’s other work, I’d recommend this one, though I still think The Fault in Our Stars is the best place to start.

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Review: Tiny Beautiful Things

Confession: I’m fascinated by advice columns, and pounce on new ones by my favorite columnists as soon as they appear. What people are willing to reveal in the context of seeking help, the desperate situations they find themselves in, the complicated and nuanced ways in which lives can go awry: I can’t get enough, and each columnist satisfies a different type of curiosity for me. I’ve learned about sexuality from Savage Love and dysfunctional relationships from Dear Prudence, and even way more than I ever thought I’d know about cloth diapering from Amy’s Advice Smackdown. The best columnists also provide a master class in developing distinctive voices as writers, which helps provide a natural transition into personal writing about marriage and parenting (I’d highly recommend Savage’s The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family and The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant to anyone).

Dear Sugar at The Rumpus is a wonderful example of how an advice columnist can give insightful responses while also becoming a three-dimensional voice in her own right. Sugar shares as much with her readers as the writers share with her, while still maintaining the kind yet forthright voice and advice they seek. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is a collection of Sugar columns and responses, many familiar and others new, but it really reads like a memoir, one aimed directly at you, one that resonates deep in your heart and gives you the gift of indelible phrasing and bottomless compassion.

Turns out Sugar’s alter ego is writer Cheryl Strayed, write of the immensely popular memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage), which I read and loved a few years ago. If you read and loved Wild, you should get yourself some Tiny Beautiful Things.