Our country. What a mess. I’m in shock and in mourning and I’m not dwelling on it yet. But I’ll be ready in 2017 to fight, to stay informed, to stay open-minded and empathetic and loving, to take comfort in the fact that I’m far from alone, and to make sure that my voice, as a woman, is heard. Not dwelling! Let’s talk about books.
I’ve completed 15 more since I last wrote (remember when I used to write 400-word reviews after every single book? Ah, to be young and ambitious again…) and I liked almost all of them. See below for more 5-sentence-or-less book reviews.
TRIO #1: Award-Winning Books
Aw, you know who loved this book? President Obama. *crying and not dwelling.* Gilead was a beautiful, short little Pulitzer-prize winning book set in a small town in Iowa (so much love for Iowa even though we voted for… not dwelling, not dwelling). The story was written in the straightforward voice of an elderly preacher writing one long letter to his young son toward the end of his life. The narration simultaneously drips with regret and love for the world. There’s a kind of non-linear narrative as the man reflects on his entire life after the Civil War, and all of his love and hopes and dreams are funneled into his young son as he considers all of the life landmarks that he will miss in the boy’s life and all the beauty he hopes his son will witness – this is a run-on sentence but this book is beautiful, read it.
Damn, the universe isn’t letting me not dwell on this, is it? I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t read this book earlier, because I loved it so much. It’s about the developing corruption of small-town politician – Willie Stark – coming up in the political world in the south, told from the perspective of Jack (I thought he seemed Nick-Carraway-esque) who serves as Willie’s press agent and kind of right-hand man. It won the Pulitzer in the forties, I believe, and it seems sad that a book like this could still be so relevant. Let’s chalk it up to a testament to Warren’s acumen as a writer of politics and the human experience.
This technically didn’t win an award, but it was nominated for a Pulitzer so I’m counting it. This was my first Louise Erdrich novel, and it was a beautiful, interwoven story about several different characters on a Native American reservation in a small North Dakota town called Pluto. The story shifts perspectives, flashing back to a violent murder that took place in the town long before, which comes back to haunt the involved parties. Erdrich writes really beautifully, and impressively captures three very distinct, very different characters on a deep, human level. I’m looking forward to reading more of her books.
TRIO #2: Crime-ish Books? (Can anyone read this color? Sorry)
Everyone knows what this book is because it’s been everywhere you look since this summer, so I may have an unpopular opinion when I say that I didn’t really care for it. Parts of it were absorbing, but overall I thought that such a compelling and macabre topic would make for much more of a multifaceted page-turner. I thought it partially delved into the intricate complexities of female friendship, but Cline could have gone further. I remember being interested in Evie and her gradual shift from average and expected to the risk-taker obsessed with Suzanne and the ragtag community she joins. Plus, I’m normally a fan of the alternating timeline but I felt frustrated with the flash-forwards of the older, “present-day” Evie – they didn’t add much for me.
This book is coming out in a couple of months, and it was that good kind of creepy. The story follows the British Kate, as she decides to partake in an apartment swap with her Bostonian cousin whom she’s never met. Kate had recently gone through a traumatic experience wherein her unstable ex-boyfriend killed himself as she hid in a closet attached to the room; leaving the country to explore a new one is her way of sort of jumping head first into reclaiming her life from anxiety and agoraphobia. Perspective flips between three (maybe four?) different characters, quickly making it clear that everyone is a little sketchy and no one can be trusted. This book was the kind of realistic creepy that makes you pause when you get home, wondering why your room feels like someone has been in there since you last left, even though you know the house was empty…
I probably am breaking the laws of my reading challenge by including Wildalone, because technically I didn’t finish this book, but I also take great pride in the fact that I didn’t finish because it’s normally very hard for me to do that no matter how much I’m hating the book. I really, really didn’t like this one though. The author’s writing was very beautiful, but the main character’s love interest was aggressive and controlling and seemed like he was always minutes away from raping the main character, which I wasn’t really feeling. So I got halfway through, cringed through the parts when he argues with her adamant “no,” and closed it for good. I strongly disagree with romanticizing sexual assault, and that feels especially important now that a certain someone who’s been accused of sexually assaulted many women is going to be leading our country (NOT DWELLING NOT DWELLING).
TRIO #3: Non-Fiction
I stumbled upon this “Last Interview” series at the Melville House tent at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and I fell in love. They publish these little volumes of 3 – 6 interviews with prominent literary figures, including the last interview they gave before dying. Kurt Vonnegut’s was, unsurprisingly, hilarious. One interview included in the book ended up revealing, in this very convoluted way, that Vonnegut was interviewing himself. But ultimately, it was a revealing collection and I loved seeing how Vonnegut’s perspective, sense of humor, and tone shifted as he grew older and not necessarily wiser.
This was the other collection I purchased at the Brooklyn Book Festival. I had no idea that Ray Bradbury was such an unwavering optimist who loved life so deeply. Fahrenheit 451 is one of my favorite books (I’m due for a reread) and I read his short story collection, The Illustrated Man, but I feel like the Ray Bradbury from these interviews didn’t necessarily show up in his writing as much as, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s entire personality seems to be ever-present in his. Reading his interviews was also an interesting experience because I got the sense that he was never exhausted by life or dreading death. It was a really beautiful and insightful collection of interviews, seemingly put together with a lot of thought and care.
I LOVED this one. I love reading about music, and this was about the intersection of music with a host of other things, making it more compelling than your average music blog. The book was broken up into different sections, comprised of chapters revolving around one artist, album, concert, or festival. She covered a diverse array of music, from Tyler the Creator to little-known punk bands (that I meant to write down and look into). She talked about R. Kelly in a way that very few people talk about R. Kelly, and succinctly sums up the genre-wide changes taking place in emo music. Jessica Hopper is very smart and this book was both entertaining and fascinating.
TRIO #4: Alternating Storylines
This is the first book I read in the Penn Cage series, though there are already three books out featuring this main character. Oh well, I started with this one, and it was insane. The book is a brick, with more than 800 pages, but it doesn’t seem daunting as you’re reading it because you’re constantly left needing to know what’s going to happen next. Thinking back on it, I’m realizing the story only takes place over the course of a couple of days, but there is so much happening and Iles effectively turns this two or three day period in Natchez into an entire universe. Anyway, super quick, run-on summary: Penn Cage’s father, Tom Cage, is the saint doctor of Natchez and has been taking care of any and all residents of the town for as long as anyone can remember, but he gets caught up in some sketchy things dating back to the Civil Rights era of the south involving the Klan, a more dangerous offshoot of the Klan called the Double Eagles, and the mob; Penn delves into the past and his father’s secrets in order to save this man he’s realizing he doesn’t even really know.
This might be my favorite book of the year so far. Homegoing was the beautiful story of half-sisters from Ghana who never met, and whose lives are drastically different when one marries a British colonizer while the other is sold into slavery and sent to America. Each chapter is a snippet from the life of the following generation, and it brings the reader all the way to present day. The parallels between the two families couldn’t be more different, but the thread that attaches each member to the next is powerful and awe-inspiring. Gyasi’s writing is unbearably beautiful (shoutout to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which she attended!) and I could talk for hours about this book – read it, read it, read it.
This, like The Girls, feels like another book that’s been all over the place for the past year or two. It’s the story of an abrupt and young marriage between Lotto and Mathilde, two graduating seniors at Vassar University. Lotto is like my worst nightmare of a person – a boisterous, pompous, loud and extroverted actor turned screenwriter – and Mathilde seems to balance him with her cool, quiet, maybe calculating and possibly vacant presence. The story is clever as it weaves through their married life, the ups and downs, the things they hide from each other, share with each other, and won’t acknowledge to each other or themselves. It’s well-written, and the character’s back stories are very interesting (especially Mathilde’s childhood… whoa), but I guess I just couldn’t totally embrace the fact that people like these two – quoting Shakespeare, working their way through college as a prostitute) actually existed in the world.
GROUP #4: Free-for-All with No Discernable Pattern
It’s been a while since I’ve reread Fitzgerald, and it was time. This book is about Amory Blaine, the disillusioned, smart, lazy, good-looking boy of a main character and his time at Princeton and then immediately after in New York; my favorite part may have been Amory’s relationship with his mother. Anyway, the book feels like this sort of aimless, wandering story that I imagine really accurately reflected this era in America. Amory is relatable, equal parts self-destructive and overly confident, and the book mostly feels like a looping cycle of Amory becoming infatuated with a beautiful girl, being disappointed by her inability to live up to his impossible and romantic expectations, then feeling hopeless and disillusioned until the next girl comes along. Even though as I’m describing this it sounds pointless and numbing, Fitzgerald could write about the most average grocery store visit and it would be poetry.
This book is about three different women from Germany and their roles before and after the rise of the Nazi party and World War II. There are obviously tons of books about World War II out there, but I loved this one for its unique focus on the fringes of the war rather than the devastation that took place during it. Shattuck kept me hooked while shifting between three resilient and very different female narrators, two of whom were directly linked through marriage to the men responsible for an attempted assassination of Hitler in 1944. Marianne was the moral compass, leader, and pillar of strength for the group, as she took in women and children after the war. She was good almost to a fault as she left little room for understanding those who may have been swept up in the initial promises of Hitler and the Nazi party, like Ania, who worked at a Nazi training camp for years. Then there’s the beautiful Benita, who falls in love with an ex-Nazi soldier after her husband dies trying to kill Hitler. The book is complex and beautiful and made me think about Germans of that time in a very different manner.
This was my first foray into the world of Chuck Klosterman, whose name I have seen everywhere but whom I had not yet read. The book was basically a collection of Klosterman’s thoughts, some of which were funny and insightful, some of which seemed pointless or unnecessarily biting and cynical. Overall it was entertaining, but books like this sometimes bother me. We, as the reader, are asked to believe that all he has to say, including his many complaints about women, is important and worth reading. I think people read this book and rave about how it bends genres and defies expectations and aptly speaks to the State of The World; then there’s this trend I’ve noticed where this same type of person might read Lena Dunham’s book and call it whiny. Not to insist on a double standard in the world of written word, but a book like this kind of brings that issue to light for me – I think I liked it though.
The Vegetarian was a disconcerting book, broken up into three different parts, rotating between narrators who were all directly linked to, Yeong-hye, who is the main character but whom the reader never hears from directly. In the beginning, Yeong-hye’s ex-husband starts by talking about how un-extraordinary and then how embarrassing he finds this woman he married; then her brother-in-law talks about his growing obsession with her due to this colorful and graphic dream he’s been having; then, finally, In-hye, who is Yeong-hye’s sister, and the ex-wife of aforementioned brother-in-law who ended up cheating on her with her sister. Throughout the whole book, Yeong-hye is descending into this sort of madness that begins with her having a graphic, murderous dream. She awakens and decides not to eat meat, a decision that apparently very negatively impacts everyone in her life based on their insane overreactions (I know the feeling, am I right mom and dad? (Hopefully they read this…)) What begins as vegetarianism quickly morphs into a self-imposed ban on food and eating and spirals downward from there. It was odd but lovely and it made me think; I’m going to need to re-read it eventually though, because I was finishing it as I found out the Election Day news, making it a bit hard to focus on anything this week.
So that’s it! Some of those definitely got up above 5 sentences, but some books defy 5-sentence-descriptions, you know? I have 25 more books to go in 50 days, and I think I can do it. I’ll see you back here after the next 15. ◊