Still Love Summer: July & August Books

Hi friends. I’m busy mourning the end of summer, the greatest season of all. I had another busy two months and therefore am STILL pretty behind on my reading goal! Surprise! I didn’t have too many free weekends in August, and I thought that some of the travel time might translate into lots of books being read, but of course that’s not how it worked out. I guess now’s as good a time as any to bring on the colder weather, so I can spend weekends in coffee shops with warm drinks and big piles of books. I’d rather be reading in the sunshine 😥 but enough of that, my July and August reviews are below!

book #32: sweetbitter by stephanie danler

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of this book by now. Stephanie Danler’s debut novel took off when it came out two years ago. Everyone and their mother reviewed it (a publicist’s dream) and she got blurbs from some huge authors. More recently, it became a Starz original series, which I think is also a hit (and they dumped a ton of money into the advertising budget, because they had the subway stations wallpapered for a while there). ANYWAY. All of this to say that this book blew up, and I’ve been wary of it for 2+ years for that reason. And you know what? I didn’t like it. Or, I should say: I didn’t like most of it. Since finishing it, the more I think about it the more frustrated I get. Tess, the main character, moves to New York City from Ohio, so she can really ~start living~~ and such. Okay. She lands a job in “New York’s best restaurant” in Union Square as a backwaiter, on track to become a server. She integrates herself into the restaurant culture (namely, drinking and doing tons of drugs after her shift every night with the rest of the staff), falls in love with the wrong person, and just makes some generally terrible decisions for reasons that aren’t clearly motivated by anything. She becomes disillusioned and hurt in a short period of time, and kind of puts it all on the line at the end of the book (I really do not understand why she does what she does at the end of the book… Howard… you know what I mean if you’ve read it. Why?!?). The best parts of this book, for me, were the restaurant scenes as she’s learning to navigate the mayhem that is a kitchen. Danler is great at writing that chaos and palpable stress of serving good food to hungry customers. The worst parts of this book, for me, were the ridiculously overdone, stereotypical “New York” moments. There are several references to “her life never really starting until she arrived,” and one specific part where she simply can’t remember something from her past, because… it happened in Ohio, and… her Ohio years just weren’t real? Or something? I hate that. New York is great, yes, but it is not the end-all, be-all and I dislike the mentality that nothing else matters but this place (which, frankly, forced me to kill not one but TWO cockroaches during Fourth of July weekend, so… Tess can have it.) It’s a quick read about a self-destructive, hyperbolic girl that provides an authentic look into a New York City restaurant. So I recommend it to you if that piques your interest.

The city does sleep, the windows darken and the streets vacate. New York dreams us. Wild, somnambulistic creatures, we move unhurried toward our own disappearance at dawn.”

—page 316

book #33: fever dream by samanta schweblin

What an odd, haunting, creepy little book that gave me goosebumps and had me nervous to be home alone! This book is about two women, Carla and Amanda, and their respective young children, David and Nina. The book starts with a chilling conversation between Amanda, who seems fragile and vulnerable, and Carla’s son, David, who is whispering in Amanda’s ear as she recounts events leading to that point. It’s a frightening way to kick off a book. Amanda begins telling David about a recent afternoon she spent with Carla at her rented vacation home. In the memory, Carla starts telling Amanda about David, and how six years earlier, he ingested some kind of poison. Carla took him to the “greenhouse woman” to see if she could save him. According to Carla, the woman switched half of David’s soul with another, and ever since he’s been drastically changed. It’s brilliantly structured, because the reader learns about this intense fear that Carla has of her own son, through Amanda, who we know is recounting the story directly to this dreaded David. Ah! We understand she’s not safe, but we don’t know why, and as time seems to be running out, we understand that Nina, Amanda’s daughter, seems to be missing and has maybe undergone the same procedure that turned David into the monster he is. Creepy, creepy, creepy, and a very good read. Schweblin fits several different story-lines into this short book, creating a feeling of dread and suspense as the reader slowly gets the sense that all of this is somehow connected, and leading to some horrifying something happening just outside our purview. Read this book if you like quietly-nightmarish, subtly-scary sequences that build and build until you’re questioning everything.

It’s a mistake to talk about me right now. How is the walk, in your body? I walk quickly; I like it when my breathing grows rhythmic and my thoughts shrink to the essential. I think about the walk and nothing else.”

—David in italics, page 56-57

book #34: circe by madeline miller

I finished my second Madeline Miller novel and was blown away, again, by her skill and character-developing abilities. I will say that I found Circe to be a bit slower than The Song of Achilles, but I’m also realizing that it’s rarely a good idea to read a bunch of different books by the same author back to back (I had a similar experience with Celeste Ng). It’s hard to just read the books and enjoy/understand them for what they are, without fixating on how they compare or differ. So anyway: Circe. Once again, this book was the retelling of a character from Greek mythology. I had heard of the legend of Circe before (shout-out to the Gemma Doyle Trilogy) but I basically knew nothing about the woman. The story begins at Circe’s birth, to her nymph mother, Perse, and her father, Helios, the Sun God. She grows up neglected and bullied by her siblings, until she discovers that, while she may not be a God, she does have the ability to perform magic. It starts when she transforms a mortal sailor into a God using flowers and herbs. She later uses her powers in a jealous fit, earning herself eternal exile to the island of Aiaia. Here, Circe hones her magical abilities and encounters gods and mortals alike. I think her time in exile on the island would have been more gripping for me if I knew more of the stories associated with Circe in the first place. For example, I didn’t know that she was known for turning sailors to pigs; the rationale for this behavior, in Miller’s novel, makes perfect sense but I had no preconceived notions about that story, and didn’t necessarily know to anticipate that action from her. However, I thought the ending of this novel was really, really satisfying. I just couldn’t get quite so into the in-between as I did in The Song of Achilles. But that’s okay! Circe is a bad-ass woman with a strong moral compass and an enviable sense of control over herself and her fate. I’d still highly recommend this book, maybe just brush up on Circe as a mythical figure before you start reading.

I felt the currents move. The grains of sand whispered against each other. His wings were lifting. The darkness around us shimmered with the clouds of his gilded blood. Beneath my feet were the bones of a thousand years. I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. Then, child, make another. He glided off into the dark, trailing a ribbon of gold behind him.

—page 282-283

book #35: unclean jobs for women and girls: stories by alissa nutting

Based on the only novel I’ve read by her, and now this short story collection, I love Alissa Nutting. I love her weird and grotesque sense of right and wrong and poetic justice. I loved this collection, which was filled with generally very short stories about women in fantastical places (the collection kicks off with a group of humans in a boiling, garlicky broth, tied up like chicken carcasses but still alive. If that gives you any idea). And while none of the scenarios themselves were necessarily relatable, all the women in the stories were in the ways they were having to adapt and settle and make do and fight for more. The story called “Dancing Rat” is about a woman who works on a children’s TV show costumed as a mouse, who has a morbid and toxic relationship to the leading girl on the show, and can’t stop thinking of having children herself though she’s not sure she can conceive. “Ant Colony” was the disturbing story of a beautiful, vain actress who must start hosting an ant colony in her newly hollowed-out bones. “Corpse Smoker” was another particularly dark and twisted story about a man who took “hits” of dead people’s burning hair to experience their memories; that one was only a few pages. While a lot of these stories took on disturbing subject matter, they were all very funny. Alissa Nutting has the skill of recognizing the world’s greatest fears with laser precision, and highlighting the sometimes absurd ways that we attempt to hide or cope with those fears.

Some people in Hell are nice. They just happened to have done a very reprehensible thing at one point. I killed my husband once, for instance. But I felt bad enough about it to also kill myself.”

—page 134, from “Hellion”

book #36: the captives by debra jo immergut

I did not like this book. I couldn’t get into Debra Jo Immergut’s writing style, and found it difficult to read (sometimes just for the sake of being hard to understand, it felt like). The story was told from two perspectives, Frank Lundquist who was a therapist at a minimum-security women’s prison in upstate New York, and Miranda Greene, an inmate at the prison and Frank’s patient. In the first few pages, we find out that Frank knows Miranda from high school, and elects not to mention this conflict of interest in order to continue treating her because he had a crush on her in high school. It’s clear that she doesn’t recognize him, so they continue their sessions. Miranda is using Frank and his obvious favor of her for prescription pills, which she stashes for the suicide she’s planning. As this somewhat slow plot is developing, we get a ton of back story on both Frank and Miranda’s lives. We learn all about Miranda’s childhood as the daughter of a one-term Pennsylvania Senator, and the tragic loss of her sister at a young age. We also learn about Frank’s divorce, his ex-wife’s new life, and his younger brother’s struggle with heroin addiction. Neither of these backstories are particularly useful to the reader, and more often than not made me exasperated with the story as a whole. It’s a short book, but I felt like – somehow – way too much was crammed in while not enough was actually happening. The author was clearly trying to tie these backstories into the characters main stories, but it just didn’t work for me and made everything more confusing. There’s a pretty big twist that I won’t ruin, and if Frank’s character was developed more convincingly it could have been a strong twist. However, it felt very far-fetched and not in line with Frank’s character to me. One more random complaint, while I’m at it: neither the cover nor the title fit with the narrative, either. That annoyed me. I’m bummed because I had high hopes for this one, but it ended up feeling like a waste of my time. Oh well, that’s bound to happen at least once a year. On to the next one!

book #37: in a lonely place by dorothy b. hughes

I really loved this book. Dorothy Hughes was an author, famous for her “hard-boiled” crime novels. She (and this novel, in particular) is also credited with the birth of American Noir. I’m not a big mystery reader, and I only have the most basic understanding of what Noir is as a genre, but I know enough to know that Dorothy Hughes was really great at it. This story centers on the main character and narrator, Dix Steele. Right off the bat, the book opens on Dix’s drifting aimlessly around Los Angeles, and eventually stalks a young girl walking home. He’s a disconcerting narrator, prone to sudden bouts of rage, typically induced by noises or interruptions or really anything that makes him feel out of control. He also lives off a small allowance from his uncle back east, but the money is never enough and he’s perpetually disappointed, awaiting the recognition and money and fortune that he feels is his due. When he reconnects with an old friend from the Air Force, Brub Nicolai, and his wife Sylvia, Dix learns that Brub is now a police officer in LA, and that he’s been on the case of a strangler terrorizing women for several months now. I won’t want to give away any spoilers, but this book is a page-turner that also gets deep into the psychology of this specific character, Dix, as well as the rage and misogyny of post-WWII America. Dix’s entire life post-war was trying to match that feeling of importance, competence, and adrenaline of the war – a thrill that he only could only achieve through getting away with committing heinous crimes against women. After I finished this book, I did some research on Noir, and learned about the two archetypes that women are typically allowed to occupy in these stories: the “femme fatale,” who is typically a bombshell who leads to the main character’s downfall through her beauty and her refusal to conform to society’s expectations of her as a woman; or the “good woman,” who embraces the typical women’s role and offers the males a safe escape from the dangers of the overly sensual femme fatale. Dorothy Hughes’s play on both of these stereotypes is empowering and brilliant, as the two female characters in this story were the best (in my opinion, but also just objectively). I highly recommend this book, even if you’re not the biggest mystery person.

He didn’t understand Sylvia. She was too many women.”

—Dix, page 43

book #38: a little life by hanya yanagihara

JUUUUUUDE. My entire review of this 814-page novel could easily just be me exclaiming Jude’s name forever. Because that’s how this book made me feel. But of course, I have a lot of other thoughts too, so here we go. This book was a National Book Award Finalist in 2015, and Hanya Yanagihara has generally gotten a ton of media attention (including a late-night interview, which never happens for literary fiction authors). I’m always wary of books that have blown up like this, because I’m scared there’s no way they can live up to the hype (see Sweetbitter, above). But this one… WOW. The paperback is more than 800 pages but it was a page-turner and I found myself constantly wanting to re-immerse into the lives of these characters. The short synopsis of A Little Life is that it’s the story of four friends (Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude) who meet in college, move to New York City after, and stay close through the next 3-4 decades of their lives. We get a bit of backstory about each of the main characters, but the novel gradually settles on the most mysterious, private, and tragic character: Jude St. Francis (JUUUDE!). Through ingenious writing, Yanagihara very gently takes the reader through Jude’s childhood, one tiny, vague piece at a time, until the full story of this character comes together like a beautiful, devastating puzzle. I don’t want to give anything away – one of the great pleasures of reading this book was coming to know Jude more deeply through his past but only at his very secretive pace. I’m just never, ever going to forget Jude St. Francis. I’ll leave it at that. AH, JUUUUUDE! Sorry. This book had a profound effect on me and my emotions, more than any book I remember reading in the past couple of years. My copy looks like it was dropped in a puddle or left out in the rain because of my tears, I’m not exaggerating. And I felt myself remain in a particularly fragile emotional state after I finished reading certain sections. It made me think about life and friends and love, and what matters and what doesn’t, and what people grow to regret and how people cope with losses big and small, and how nothing is fair but everything is still so beautiful, and how that’s maybe the most unfair thing of all. This is a really terrible review, and I’m sorry for that, but I can’t do this book any more justice than just saying that you have to read it. Set aside 3 weeks and just go for it. It’s heavy and wrenching and an emotional roller coaster, but it was so, so, so good.

‘The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you – not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving – and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad – or good – it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.'”

—Jude, to Felix, page 240

There had been periods in his twenties when he would look at his friends and feel such a pure, deep contentment that he would wish the world around them would simply cease, that none of them would have to move from that moment, when everything was in equilibrium and his affection for them was perfect. But, of course, that was never to be: a beat later, and everything shifted, and the moment quietly vanished.”

—Jude, page 201

He experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with other people he loved.”

—Jude, on Harold and Julie meeting his friends, page 145-146

book #39: a simple favor by darcey bell

This book was meh. I had high hopes because the trailer for the movie adaptation starring Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick looks so good. It may be one of those rare cases where the movie is actually better than the book, because this novel just didn’t do it for me. I didn’t like the writing style, I found many parts unconvincing, and I was able to guess the twists for the most part, which is never a good sign in psychological suspense books. The story is told from three alternating perspectives: Stephanie, a perky, lonely mommy blogger and widow with a very twisted secret; Emily, the beautiful, cold head of PR for a high-end fashion brand who seems to up and vanish off the face of the Earth; and Sean, Emily’s Wall Street-working husband who may have a motive for Emily’s disappearance or death in the form of a large life insurance policy. There were a lot of references to Patricia Highsmith in the book, so maybe this novel was a spin-off of one of hers (I’ve only ever read The Price of Salt)? There were some solid twisty elements that worked; at one point, Bell does a great job setting the story up so that each character discovers something incriminating about the others that they weren’t supposed to, and I was temporarily enthralled trying to figure out who knew what, and who knew that the others knew what. But other twists seemed to be included for the sake of shock value without furthering the plot at all, especially related to Stephanie’s character. Some chapters were posts from Stephanie’s blog, and I know I’m nitpicking at this point, but I have a really hard time believing that Stephanie’s blog was successful and being read by thousands of women, based on those “post” chapters. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’m not getting too into the plot here, but I’m definitely interested in finding out how the movie differs from the book. It did read very cinematically, so that’s promising.

“We can control how we think and feel.”

—page 207

So that’s that. I have quite a bit of catching up to do now – only four months left in the year, and 36 books left to read in order for me to meet my goal of 75 books this year. I think that means I need to read 1 book per 3.4 days. Remind me not to dive into any more 800-page books in the next four months, will ya? (no regrets, though – JUUUUDE!) ◊

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