Here’s a quick roundup of what I read in July and August. Please don’t judge my Best of the Month.
1) Identical, by Scott Turow: Look, if your stuff has been made into a Harrison Ford movie, I’m buying your books. Turow also wrote 1L, which helped scare the shit out of me before my first year of law school (verdict: it really is like that, but you can handle it). There is a lot going on here, including a good, old fashioned Greek blood feud. After 25 years in prison for murder, Cass Giannis is about to be freed. His identical twin, Paul, has become a prominent politician and is now running for mayor. That seems like an opportune time for Hal, billionaire brother of the murder victim, to publicly implicate Paul in the killing.
2) Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee: I’m just going to say it—I liked this. I know everyone’s all upset about Atticus, but without giving too much away, that is the entire point of the book. One of the bumpiest landings into adulthood is the realization that your parents are real people with their own motivations, history and flaws. To Kill a Mockingbird is so great because it hits on a big truth. I liked this because it hits another.
I’ve mentioned Mockingbird, the biography by Charles J. Shields, a few times in this blog, and here it comes again: Harper Lee never wrote another book after TKAM because she couldn’t handle the expectations. It was too much for any person to live up to. Every time I read a negative review of this book, it cuts me a little, thinking about that.
3) The Vacationers, by Emma Straub: This was a light read about a Woody Allen-esq New York family enduring forced togetherness on a vacation to Mallorca. Each member of the family faces a crossroads: recent graduate Sylvia prepares to leave home for the first time, while her older brother Bobby tries to find his way back. Jim is adjusting to a retirement that may not be as voluntary as he’s lead people to believe, and matriarch Franny struggles to find her place amid her changing family dynamic.
Unrelated: I primarily picked this up because I have had Mallorca-envy ever since Kyle and Mauricio yachted (yachted?) off the coast on the last season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
4) Clapton, by Eric Clapton: I give him points for being honest. It must be hard to portray yourself in what you know is an unflattering light, and to fight the urge to justify your actions. Clapton sticks to the truth--I was young, I was rich, I was selfish. The result is an unsympathetic narrator and a lot of good stories. George Harrison and Pete Townsend make frequent guest appearances. So does George’s wife, who eventually ends up married to Clapton. He wrote Wonderful Tonight about her, which is a fun fact until he reveals he was actually annoyed she was taking so long to get ready, sat downstairs, and strummed it out in anger. So that’s that song ruined.
5) Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins: How to even start with this one? An 8th Century king has a pretty good thing going until grey hairs start popping up. That’s a problem, since the country’s custom is to kill the monarch at the first sign of aging. He escapes, meets Pan, marries an Indian woman and sets off on a search for immortality. While practicing transcendental meditation, he and his wife are banished to different planes. Meanwhile, in the present day, a waitress from New Orleans tries to replicate a three-hundred-year old bottle of perfume that she can’t get out of her head or nose.
6) Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin: You have probably heard of this perpetual bestseller about an American climber who lost his way during a failed attempt to summit K2, wandered down the mountain in treacherous conditions and found himself in a remote Balti village. The mountain people of Afghanistan saved his life, and through the course of his recovery, Mortenson noticed children running their own school, outside, without any kind of materials. He vowed to return and build them a proper school, and did, many times over. This book is the story of his foundation, his efforts to raise funds and navigate complicated tribal politics, and the concept of fighting terrorism through education.
7) Three Cups of Deceit, by Jon Krakauer: Sorry, sorry, sorry to those of you who loved the prior book. Krakauer loved Greg Mortenson too, to the extent that he donated huge amounts of his personal wealth to support his projects. Krakauer was pretty annoyed, then, to discover that Mortenson was never lost on his return from K2. He was not alone, sick or near death, and he never stepped foot in that Balti village until much later, when it had been chosen as the optimum location for a school. Huge amounts of money were diverted to Mortenson and his family for personal use. Several stories from the book—including an anecdote about Morteson’s kidnapping by the Taliban—were made up from whole cloth. Krakauer. Is. Pissed., and I kind of am too.
8) The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver: This is one of those books that you hear about and maybe the title sounds familiar, but it’s just sort of orbiting around you and you never quite get around to reading it. I am so upset with myself for not pulling the trigger on this sooner.
In 1959 the Price family, lead by fanatical Baptist preacher Nathan, leaves the American South for the Belgian Congo, where they are to stay for one year as missionaries. The narrative is shared by the four Price daughters: Rachel, horrified to be pulled away from her social world, Leah, determined to please her unpleasable father, Adah, introspective and frail but with an inner world that surpasses anything around her, and Ruth May, whose simple act of playing with the local children does more to build bridges than anything accomplished by Nathan.
One thing I’d like to note is that when I really like a book, it’s because it made me feel things, not because I agree with everything in it. I don’t have a negative opinion of missionaries. I certainly don’t have a negative opinion of Baptists, of which my grandmother, the single loveliest person you will ever meet, is one. I think this goes back to the point from Under the Banner of Heaven, which is that extremism can start with a genuinely good thing and take a strong left turn.
9. Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple: I am a re-reader. If I like a book, once is not enough for me. It’s why I hoard my books, refusing to loan them out or give them away. I’m sorry, but I’m going to need that again. Bernadette is a reclusive certified genius. Elgie is her brilliant, somewhat distracted husband. Bee is her charming, precocious daughter. Seattle is her hell. When Bernadette disappears, it’s up to Bee to figure out there where, when and why. Told through found documents, a format for which I am a sucker, Maria Semple delivers exactly the kind of wit and satire you’d expect from someone with writing credits on Arrested Development (and Clarissa Explains it All!).
10. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng: Lydia is the darling daughter of the mixed-race Lee family, which is nearly destroyed when she is found in the local lake. The rest of the novel is the Rashomon Effect in action—how everyone has their own truth and the ways in which the same events take on a completely different meaning depending on your perspective.
11. I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson: I love books. I’ve made my way through some classic films. I’ll do opera. I like plays well enough. So I hope it’s okay for me to admit—I’m not that into art. I’m sorry, I know it’s important and it’s my deficiency and I should work on it, but art just does not light me up inside. Despite that, this book about extremely artistic twins and their extremely artistic mother who are alternately trying to get into and out of art school still did it for me. I loved the writing. It’s something more than a normal narrative but less than stream-of-consciousness. The plot (to me, anyway) is pretty straightforward, but the structure and the writing are so lovely that I just flew through it. Despite all the art.
12. The Woman Who Stole My Life, by Marian Keyes: Stella, working class Dublin mother of two, starts out with nothing, gets everything and then loses it again. That’s where we find her—divorced, back in Dublin, alienated from her son. How did she get there? Which woman was the real Stella? I read this on the way home from vacation (apparently it’s the fourth-best selling book in Stockholm this week) and it was perfect plane-fare. Not too fluffy, not too much work.
13. What She Left Behind, by Ellen Marie Wiseman: There were a lot of similarities between this story and Orphan Train—foster child with a troubled past delves into a history project and in learning about the lives of those who came before, ultimately discovers herself. It’s a format that works,
and I enjoyed reading about the asylum system in the early 20th Century and beyond. For a long time, asylums were a place to stash people—those with physical disabilities, women suffering from post-partum depression, indigents with nowhere else to go. They entered the system and then circled the drain for years, with no mechanism for medical review, actual treatment or discharge. It’s horrible, and horrible things are usually worth owning up to, so I’m glad someone wrote about this mostly ignored topic.
And the best thing I read this summer…
14. As If! The Oral History of Clueless, by Jen Chaney: I don’t care, okay?! I’m not here to impress you! I was in fifth grade when Clueless came out, and if there was a more glamorous person on the planet than Cher Horowitz, I’d like you to find her. This oral history combines existing interviews with original content to get into the nitty gritty of how the movie was written, casted, funded, filmed, distributed and received. By the way, that couple making out in the pool at the Val party while someone vomited next to them? That’s how they met and they’re totally married now.