Thursday, November 3, 2016

Books: 2016 Quarter 3

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.

2016 Classics: Quarter 1

2016 Classics: Quarter 2

Here's my third set of classics of 2016:

July: Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs (1959, 289 pages). Abandoned. I made it about 10 pages before I seriously thought I was going to throw up. I might try again at some point but I just found myself going "Ew ew ew!" & really really wanted to read something different, and since this "read all teh classix!!!!" project is supposed to be fun and not drudgery, that's what I did.

August: To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf (1927, 209 pages). 3 stars. This was a really pretty, gorgeously written book in the sense that impressionist paintings can be really pretty and gorgeous and give you a sense of something indescribable, even though it looks like chaos up close. It was also one of the most painfully boring books I have ever read. The entire thing is about this one family and their friends, and they are going to go the lighthouse, or maybe they're not, and maybe people are going to get married, or maybe not, and there's a lot of angst and anxiety about it, and really about life in general. 99% of what happens takes place in people's heads, which, yes, is about as unhealthy as it sounds.

September: Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein (1961, 528 pages). 4 stars. I'm actually really glad I read this, partly for the cultural references but also for the literary gift that is the character of Jubal Harshaw. Yes yes Valentine Michael Smith was born on Mars to human parents and then orphaned and raised by Martians whatever whatever but it's the brilliant and lovely Southern doctor-slash-lawyer who becomes his sort of advocate and liaison who ends up stealing the show. It got super weird and a little incoherent toward the end, but was also kind of shockingly progressive in a lot of ways when you consider it's a white dude writing in the late 50s/early 60s.


OMG you guys. *So* many amazing reads to share with you this quarter!! Here were my favorite reads for July through September:

All the Missing Girls, by Megan Miranda. (2016, 384) 5 stars. Haven't had enough mystery/thrillers with 'Girl' in the title?? Not to worry! Having spent 10 years clawing her way out of & away from the depressing, dysfunctional Appalachian backwater where she grew up, 28 year old Nicolette Farrell is called back to her hometown to help her older brother deal with her alcoholic, senile father's deteriorating health and financial situation. The town is haunted for her by the mysterious disappearance of her best friend Corinne not long before Nic's own departure, and she's barely arrived before her younger neighbor--whom her high school ex is now dating--also mysteriously disappears. The twist with this book is that most of the story is told in reverse one day at a time, from day 15 back to day 1 when Nic first arrives. You get the beginning frame (the message from her brother to come home, some basic set up about her life, the trip back to her home town), then flash forward to two weeks later, where the story starts going backwards. After day 1, it flashes forward again to wrap things up. I was skeptical at first, but I have to say that once you get your mind around it, the author pulled off the backwards storytelling brilliantly. As soon as I finished it, I flipped back to the beginning for a second read which was AMAZING.

Girl Through Glass, by Sari Wilson. (2016, 289 pages) 5 stars. Yes, ANOTHER "Girl" book! At least this one involves an actual girl (as opposed to grown women who for some reason keep getting referred to as girls). The story flashes back and forth between the story of young Mira, an incredibly driven 11-year-old ballet student in late-70s New York with a messed up family and dreams of becoming a professional ballerina, and present-day Kate, a forty-something ballerina-turned-dance history professor trying to sort out her own life and disturbing past. It's not a light read, and some parts were truly disturbing. On the other hand, it's really, really, really brilliantly written, and gripping in a way that I don't usually find these types of stories. My dance/ballet training/experience was quite limited, and the author did an amazing job of making that aspect of it feel incredibly real (and, at times, profoundly upsetting); I'd be curious to hear what someone thought of that part who had actually done ballet at such an intense level as a child/young teen.

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis. (1991, 399 pages) 5 stars. This book is absolutely unlike *anything* else I have ever read in my life, which is saying something. It is also absolutely, 100% the most upsetting, disturbing, nausea-inducing book I have ever read, by an incredible margin. That said, it is not for everyone, or even most people. Imagine the most grisly, graphic, horrifying, over-the-top depictions of sexual violence, up to and including dismemberment and murder. Got it? Throwing up in your mouth a little? Well, the scenes in this book are almost guaranteed to be worse than whatever it is you've just managed to dream up. So why five stars? Because Bret Easton Ellis is brilliant. The book has a clear mission, a clear point, and (yes, partly through the soul-destroying, horrifically graphic scenes), it achieves that mission masterfully. I am absolutely glad I read it, just for its sheer brilliance and singularity, but I can't imagine I will ever put myself through it again and I would not blame anyone for quitting part way through or skipping it altogether. Definitely, definitely not for the faint of heart (or stomach).

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Walton Leslye. (2014 320 pages) 5 stars. Ava Lavender, born into a family with a long history of making foolish romantic decisions, is born with the wings of a bird. Her father never knew she existed and her mother, terrified for her daughter's safety, keeps Ava at home with her, neither of the two ever leaving the house. The book tells the story of Ava's family, flashing back and forth between generations (Ava's, her mother's, and her grandmother's), with a particular focus on Ava's own bizarre life in their little 1950s/60s town. This book is industrial-grade magical realism, and the writing itself is absolute poetry. Think of it as One Hundred Years of Solitude meets The Night Circus.

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman. (2014, 262 pages) 5 stars. Something is causing people all over the world to fly into a gruesome homicidal, then suicidal rage. The prevailing belief is that the violent madness is caused by seeing something, perhaps catching even just a glimpse, of some kind of creature. Those who have not yet been driven mad have locked themselves in their houses, covering windows with boards or blankets and wearing blindfolds any time they must leave the safety of their houses or let others inside. Just as the global catastrophe was beginning, Mallory found herself alone and pregnant. Four years later, she lives in terror, alone in a house in Detroit with her two children. She knows that there is safety out there, but it will require a day of negotiating a boat down the nearby river, with the children, all of them blindfolded, with nothing but their ears to rely on. The story flashes back and forth between the trip down the river and the events four years before leading up to the children's birth. This book 100% wins at the psychological, high-tension & -suspense game of being absolutely terrifying without ever "showing" anything. It was so brilliantly and cleverly written and so excellently paced that I could not put it down.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. (2014, 336 pages) 5 stars. In the not-too-distant future, a super bug has wiped out ~99% of the population, & technology has been set back about a hundred years. Small populations of people live in isolated communities, and somewhere in the midwest, a tiny orchestra-cum-theater company spends the year traveling around to entertain them. The book flashes back and forth between the sometimes sinister, sometimes quaint apocolyptic present and the past events that led up to it, focusing on a particular cast of characters whose various connections are slowly revealed. Beautifully & fantastically written. The Night Circus (yes again) meets Twelve Monkeys meets pretty much anything by David Mitchell.

My Best Friend's Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix. (2016, 336 pages) 5 stars. I loved this book, but I have this very strong suspicion that it's the kind of book you either absolutely, 100% love or think is utterly stupid. In the fall of 1989, juniors Abby, Gretchen, Margaret, & Glee are best friends, until Gretchen goes missing in the woods one night and things get very, very weird very, very quickly. Little by little, Abby is forced to include that, obviously, Gretchen is possessed by a demon. She'll do anything to save her oldest, dearest friend, up to & including recruiting a Jesus freak power lifter and taking the devil on herself with nothing but the power of E.T., roller skates, The Go-Gos, and Phil Collins. Dark, disturbing, and completely hilarious, this book is more than anything else a love letter to the 80s & the secret lives of teen BFFs.

You Will Know Me, by Megan Abbott (2016, 352 pages). 5 stars. Megan Abbott is my current literary obsession. Her style will not be for everyone, but I am plowing through her body of work and find most of it un-put-down-able. This book is about 15-year-old gymnast Devon Cox and the hurricane of family, friends, dreams, relationships, and intrigue that blows up around her as she pursues her dream of becoming an Olympic gymnast. Weeks before her elite qualifying meet, the boyfriend of one of her coaches is killed in a car accident and Devon's entire world devolves into chaos. The interesting part is that the story is told not from Devon's perspective, but that of her mother. Opinions will probably vary as to whether this is really YA or not; it is definitely very dark and disturbing in places, and while Abbott does a great job writing the teens, so much of the story is bound up in adult relationships (and adult perceptions of teen relationships, and vice versa) that it might be one of those books you can't really, truly grock until you're well through young adulthood & out the other side.

Dare Me, by Megan Abbott (2012, 290 pages). 5 stars. Okay, here is the thing about Megan Abbott. You either just kind of "get" what she's trying to do end up transfixed by how brilliantly she does it, or you don't, in which case you'll probably find the premise of most of what she writes to be ridiculous and/or melodramatic and/or boring. (And I suspect a lot of which camp one falls into has to do with your gender, and what your high school crowd was like, and how much time you've spent around teen girls as an adult.) Because I can describe the premise, but it really just will not in any way do justice to the writing. If Gossip Girl were actually realistic, and really brilliantly written and plotted, with characters so achingly authentic and rich they practically jump off the page, maybe you'd have something like a Megan Abbott book. In a world that pretty much belittles & mocks practically everything that your average teen girl is into, her voice is incredibly refreshing.

Run, by Ann Patchett (2016, 304 pages). 4 stars. This book chronicles 24 hours in the lives of the Doyle family and Doyle-adjacent (former Boston mayor Bernard Doyle, his two adopted college-age Black sons Tip & Teddy, an unknown Black woman who saves Tip from being hit by a car, and her young daughter Kenya). Doyle really wants his sons to go into politics. They're interested in other things. The woman who saved Tip may or may not be the boys' birth mother. All Kenya wants to do is run. I think a lot of people would probably give this one five stars. It's more of a character study than a story, which isn't my cup of tea, really, but it was incredibly well-written with great characters and and very moving, so four stars for that.

Dark Matter, Blake Crouch (2016, 342 pages). 4 stars. An entertaining sci fi thriller built on ideas like Schrodinger's cat, quantum superposition, & the multiverse. If you have, like, actual knowledge about those topics, you might fnd yourself asking some tough questions, but the story itself doesn't require too much of the casual pop-science fan. Jason Dessen is a relatively happy, middling-successful physics professor married to a middling-successful artist with a 15-year-old son; then one night he is abducted by a mysterious stranger, injected with something, and wakes up in some kind of high-tech hangar to find that 1) he is a wildly successful physicist who has accomplished an absurd breakthrough, 2) he's apparently been missing for 14 months, and 3) almost all the rest of the details of his life are different. The rest of the book is Jason trying to learn how to wield his incredible breakthrough invention and get back to his old life. I have to admit that with maybe 15% of the book left, I still had no idea how he was going to wrap it all up.

Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella (1982, 272 pages). 4 stars. I've wanted to read this book for years but could never find it, so I was pretty excited to finally find a Kindle copy for cheap. It's the book that the film Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner was based on, which I have always loved, so I was curious to read the original. Firstly, it's just really gorgeously, poetically written. Particularly for those of us who grew up in the 20th century in a flyover state, particularly listening to baseball on AM radio, the language and anecdotes bring a tear to the eye. Secondly, I was surprised to see that the movie tracked so closely with the book. They compressed the timeline a bit & replaced JD Salinger with the fictional Terrance Mann, but it was a remarkably faithful interpretation. The only thing I didn't love was the way it kind of romanticized/whitewashed the "good ol' days," back when life was good/simple/wholesome/relaxed/etc. etc. Still, a beautiful, heartwarming love letter to baseball, family, & dreams.

The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2), by Tana French. (2008, 466 pages) 4 stars. I have shunned Tana French for years because I read In the Woods like nine years ago and hated it. Though, perhaps I should go back and read it again (still have my copy, actually) because I picked up The Likeness based on recs from friends and it was excellent. In a nutshell: Dublin detective Cassie Maddox was so messed up by the murder case at the heart of In The Woods that she transferred from the murder squad to domestic violence where people die at least less often. Then one morning her boyfriend/murder squad cop calls her to a murder scene in a hysterical panic. She arrives to find 1) her old boss from when she used to work undercover and 2) a murdered woman who is a dead ringer for Cassie and using an identity that Cassie and Frank made up years ago for Cassie to use while working undercover as a college student. They have no clues whatsoever and the girl has no known family, so instead of announcing her death to her four housemates (suspects all, naturally), they announce that she was stabbed and "in a coma," then send Cassie back to the house to play the part of the dead girl while feigning coma-related memory loss and doing investigate-y undercover stuff. Yes, it is a little melodramatic and yes, you have to accept the premise, but it's a really well-written, entertaining story and an excellent character study. Plus, having been in Dublin recently, it was fun to actually understand all the slang and know a lot of the locations in the book.

* * *

Currently Reading:
, by Keren David

Currently Listening To:
Sharp Objects
, by Gillian Flynn

Up Next:

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


  1. You've got me convinced to read Station Eleven. I own it on Audible and just have been waiting for the right mood. But your description of it being part Night Circus is pushing me over the edge.

    I'll be interested in hearing what you think of Sharp Objects. I really liked that one, but I also related way too much. Gillian Flynn has an interesting mind for sure.

  2. Um, probably not a great sign that the only book I've read on this list (so far) is "American Psycho"... and that like you I really enjoyed it... "I'm into, oh murders and executions mostly. It depends." Brilliant.

    And always appreciate your other suggestions for books less likely to cause night terrors!

  3. I have attempted Naked Lunch twice and still haven't finished it, ugh. I wasn't sure reading American Psycho would be worth it since I've already seen the movie but you may have convinced me! Bird Box has been recommended to me by several others...on my list.

    1. I haven't seen the movie, but I've heard it's sort fundamentally different from the book because the book relies on an unreliable narrator. Definitely Bird Box!!

  4. Bird Box was fantastic! Stayed up way too late finishing it. The part in the attic...holy f. Great rec.