Hi! Happy Thanksgiving/December/early Christmas/Hanukah/winter/whatever you celebrate! I’m feeling very tentatively excited because I really think I can meet my goal of 100 books this year (knock on wood for me).
I have 14 more rapid-reviews for you below. In a perfect world, I’ll have time for two more blog posts before the year is done; the first will be an overly excited one (abundant with rainbow fonts, obviously) about achieving the goal. But I’d love to write a second one about the experience of working through your to-read pile this way, by setting a high but attainable goal, and the pros and cons of keeping it in mind throughout the year. I attempted to read 100 books last year, but I’ve been in very different places, physically and mentally, over the course of these past two years. It’s been an interesting process to say the least. So! Without getting ahead of myself, hopefully we’ll be talking twice more before 2017. In the meantime…
GROUP #1: Books That Are Now Important in Light of Our Political Atmosphere (AKA: Clearly I Can’t Not-Dwell No Matter How Hard I Try)
If I had a quarter for every time I heard someone say “divisive” in the past month and a half, I would have enough quarters to finally do my laundry. Part of this has been referring to the division between rural and urban populations; no one saw Trump winning because no one accounted for the millions of people who live in the middle of America feeling ignored. This book is about those people, and it was a really amazing read. J.D. Vance was born in Kentucky and grew up in the Appalachian region of Ohio, so his book is both a memoir – an insider account of his often violent and troubling upbringing and life in rural America – as well as a sociological study of these people as a whole, and the economic trends that have impacted them the most. I absolutely could not put this down, and highly recommend it to anyone who’d like to gain a greater understanding of a group that, just recently, no one can shut up about.
This was a much lighter read, but still feels important in the wake of the election; Anna Newell Jones was $23K in debt when she realized that, as she was struggling each month to pay bills and rent, she was also somehow able to find room in her budget for a cute new outfit or sushi dates with friends. She embarked on a “spending fast,” where she created a strict list of “needs” and “wants” and spent her money only on “needs” (rent, utilities, groceries, and hair-dye) for one year. She supplemented her income with odd jobs and learned to cut costs from her needs-spending as well. Her story was inspiring, and in only 15 months she had completely eliminated all of her debt on a very, very below-average, entry-level salary. I’ve run out of sentences, but this book was entertaining, offered practical advice on being smarter about money, and it inspired me to start my own spending fast; I’ve been going strong for about 2.5 weeks now and will probably at some point blog about the whole thing.
This book was back on the heavy side, but extremely important in my opinion. Susan Wicklund is an abortion doctor, and this book is about her experience as such, complete with the numerous death-threats she received, the insane lengths she had to go to in order to avoid violent protesters, and the hypocrisy and lack of support that she witnessed on a daily basis. It was both horrifying and awe-inspiring, and Susan comes across as this impartial, single-minded, relentless, and compassionate force of good. The book takes place in the ‘90s, but sadly it seems like women are still faced with the same unfair and unwarranted vitriol in their health decisions. I get angry when I think about Mike Pence talking about punishing women for abortions they’ve had (which, apparently, he’s taken back more recently, but if Trump doesn’t have to fact-check than neither to do); books like this and people like Susan Wicklund are going to be more important than ever over the next four years.
GROUP #2: Novellas/Short Books
What a sweet little book! The Little Prince is a French classic that everyone seems to have read, but it’s somehow escaped me until now. It’s the story of a little prince who appears to a man whose plane has crashed in the desert. The prince tells this man of his lonely journey around the planets, and the creatures he meets all around the universe. It ends beautifully and sadly, and it seems weird that this is kind of a kid’s book, but I liked it a lot.
I’ve never read Moby Dick and I thought that I never would, but after reading this little guy, I’d reconsider. Bartleby is a scrivener who comes to work at a Wall Street law office with a handful of characters working there. The lawyer who hired Bartleby (who is also the narrator) is greatly relieved to find in Bartleby a mild-mannered and hard-working clerk. But after a while, Bartleby stops working altogether, replying to any request: “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer is flummoxed, and even more so after Bartleby refuses to stop coming into work; he eventually vacates the offices, and still Bartleby stays. It’s funny and engaging and maybe I can give Melville a chance based on it.
I loved this story, and it made me realize that I need to read Dubliners and Ulysses. It was beautifully written and engaging and it had that cool quality that books sometimes have where every character in a crowded room is revealed through their brief and seemingly meaningless actions and in an unfolding way. That probably makes no sense, but this story centered on a man named Gabriel who is attending his aunt and uncle’s annual renowned party, fixating on a speech he has to give to the crowd later. His perception of everyone makes them these sort of figureheads, and we’re left to deduce a lot about each person and their relationship to this tense narrator. And then there’s a crazy reveal at the end involving Gabriel’s wife; this is a terrible summary of the story, but it was just really great and you should read it.
This book was pretty good but a bit dryer than the previous novellas I read. The Lifted Veil is about a misfit boy who has always been a bit sickly and a disappointment to his father; his older brother is the picture of health and success and basically everything this narrator is not. However, the narrator has a sort of sixth sense, mind-reading, future-predicting ability, something that he grows to resent, especially after he predicts his brother’s death and subsequently realizes that he will end up with his brother’s fiancé. It’s pretty dark, but the back story is cool, considering the “veil” was imminently lifted on George Eliot’s true identity as a woman. There were some beautiful passages, too.
It’s embarrassing that I’m just getting to this book now – better late than never – but I loved it so much. It’s about George and the eternally endearing Lennie, as they travel around California looking for steady work in order to fulfill their long-time dream of living on a peaceful farm together. The story was gripping, and I couldn’t put it down even as the dread and foreboding increased page by page. Everyone read it. Side note about this grouping of novellas: I enjoyed starting with shorter samples of these authors. They each have more famous stories in their bodies of work, but these stories also tend to be denser. It’s nice to know what you’re getting before delving into a big old classic like Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath.
GROUP #3: Short Story Collections
I really love Alexandra Kleeman’s writing, and this collection of short stories gave me hope that she won’t be quitting anytime soon. Earlier this year, I finished You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, which was one of the more interesting and unsettling books I read this year and probably last year combined. This collection of stories wasn’t so overtly disturbing (no more Kandy Kakes, thank God) but there was definitely a sinister or uncomfortable air to most stories. I really liked the second and third sections, the first collection was a bit more abstract and hard to grasp at times. Overall though, I loved this collection and continue loving Alexandra and am thankful I don’t live inside her mind and can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
I also loved this collection of short stories; one thing I’m appreciating about this 100-books goal is that it’s forcing me to read books that I’ve owned for a while but never felt like picking up for whatever odd reason. I never used to be able to get too into short story collections, but maybe it was always just an acquired taste. Anyway, this one (with an evocative name that embarrassed me to read in public on the subway) was a pretty great collection of stories, mostly about what it is to be a girl (and in one case, a boy) in the world today but also without generalizing all girls in the world today, somehow. One story painted a painful betrayal through the eyes of a dog, another told about the pure cruelty that can be middle school girls toward one who doesn’t quite fit in ways they can’t explain yet; the final story, “Barbara the Slut” was absolutely perfect and heartbreaking. Holmes’ writing is simple and straightforward, without revealing much extra about any situation she is writing; I loved it and didn’t want the stories to end.
I did not love this one as much, and maybe it’s because the classic mystery genre just isn’t my thing. This collection came together in celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Mystery Writers of American. The book comprises stories by various mystery authors, and their one link was the setting; each story took place in a different neighborhood in Manhattan. The book package is beautiful, which makes me not want to get rid of it, but I’m trying not to be so much of a hoarder of books and anything that I rate 3 stars of less on Goodreads, I commit to getting rid of. Maybe if you like mysteries, you’d like this, but I just didn’t really.
GROUP #4: “The _____” Books (I realize that this is a stretch)
This book is about a young girl named Anna, who is living in the countryside of Ireland when she suddenly stops eating on her 11th birthday. The book is narrated by Lib (short for Elizabeth, WOO), who is an English nurse called in to monitor Anna for two weeks, making sure that she’s really not consuming food. Lib is a buttoned-up lady, a widow, and very prone to cynicism; she understandably butts heads with Anna’s family who is encouraging (and maybe capitalizing on) their young daughter’s suffering, and she’s especially suspicious of their stoic and – in her mind – superstitious religious beliefs. The truth comes out about Anna and her self-inflicted and religiously-motivated starvation, but not before inspiring some change and wonder in Lib. I liked this book overall, although it started slow for me and I saw the ending coming.
This was the darkly touching story of a morbidly obese woman and her complicated, once-happy family. The story centers on Edie, a woman with an unhealthy relationship to food. Her husband, Richard, divorces her on the cusp of a second surgery related to Edie’s weight, and the family rallies around her while trying to deal with their own complicated lives. Overall, I liked this book, and I thought it illustrated a Midwestern life pretty well (they all live in/around the suburbs of Chicago). That characters felt very real and multidimensional, even if there wasn’t a ton of plot action.
The Past is the story of siblings who come together once a year for holiday (they live in England so I’m going to take advantage of that and adopt English vernacular) at their grandmother’s old country home. Tessa Hadley writes beautifully, and her nature writing was really poetic – the home where the siblings reunited and where the entire novel took place was remote, a little dilapidated, but surrounded by lush, hilly nature and Hadley brought that to life. The story alternated between the siblings’ perspectives, which I love, and there was one flashback section (called “The Past”) where the reader heard from the sibling’s mother and grandmother. There’s a sort of family secret that comes out toward the end of the novel, but the novel was great before then because it so perfectly captured the feeling of family and going away and falling in love and embarrassing yourself and feeling more conflicting emotions about a person than you ever thought possible. I can’t’ wait to read more Tessa Hadley, she seems gets humans (and once I met her at a book festival and she’s the nicest, most precious English lady).
Alright that’s it! I have 9 more books to read and 17 days to do it. I’m going to have to be strategic, but I have a ton of time off for the holidays. Wish me luck. ◊