Book Report

Last Septemper-ish I decided that, if I wanted to become a better writer, I should also become a better reader.

I love to read, love, love love reading.  I devour the written word like some sort of starved literary animal and I’ll read absolutely anything I can get my hands on.  Books, magazines, the back of cereal boxes, even “the fine print” of credit card applications.

Unfortunately, I’m also a freakishly fast reader.  I dont want to get into pages per hour or test scores here, so let’s just leave it at freakish. And while this was a fantastic trait to have during college, it’s also a very expensive one when you consider living in a place with no English-language libraries.

So, I do what any I can.  I pick and choose my books carefully.  I mostly skip chick lit and pop lit, unless its something I really can’t resist because they don’t usually last me more than an hour or two.  I read a lot of classics because they are good and cheap (usually less than $2 dollars to download).  I reread my favorite books over and over again, I borrow from Chris’ massive Terry Pratchett, Neil Stephenson, and historical novel collections and I consume free online newspaper articles and blog posts at an absurd rate.

And of course, when people ask me what I’d like for Christmas/my birthday, I unabashedly request e-book gift cards.

I have no shame.

Luckily I have way-too-generous parents who indulge my habit and so, for the past 6 months or so, I’ve managed to read a fair number of books that aren’t classics (yet) or from the shelves of our home.

At some point I realized that the best literary bang for my buck was those stodgy award-winners and critically acclaimed novels and non-fiction pieces that most people seem to hate and a few people seem to love.  They are usually pretty long and pretty complex so it takes me longer to digest each page.  Chris would also argue that they are also usually pretty depressing.

Depressing or not, they are usually award-winning for a reason, because they are really, really good.

So, I thought I’d share some of the books I’ve read over the past few months and highlight a few of my favorites (and least favorites) because, for me, reviews are usually so helpful in figuring out whether I might like a book or not.

I find that my favorite books tend to get both really negative and really positive reviews from real readers.  To me, that’s usually a sign that the story is provoking in some, possibly uncomfortable way, that I may not like it the whole way through but that I’ll continue thinking about long after I put the book down.   Keep in mind though, that’s just my definition of a good book, you might feel differently about some of the books on this list.

So without further ado, a sample of my reading list from the past few months:

Freedom Jonathan Franzen

Just finished this and loved it.  I’m already thinking about when I’ll read it again to really pick it apart and analyze the whole thing.  If you like complicated and sometimes unpleasant characters and slightly wacky rifts of modern American life that highlight the absurdities of normal, this is the book for you.

Also, if you are sick of these sorts of post-Modern American family tragedy in which the last page is as depressing as the 215th, this is the book for you.  It’s not sunshine and rainbows the whole way through but there is a happy-ish, if somewhat unrealistic, ending.  This isn’t one of those books that leaves you with a cliff-hanging ending to make you keep thinking about it, you keep thinking about it for everything you read the whole way through.

The Warmth of Other Suns Isabel Wilkerson

This is a non-fiction piece detailing the period of black migration from South to North from approximately 1930-1970 through traditional non-fiction reporting, thousands of anecdotes and in-depth biographies of 3 different people who migrated from South to North between the 1930s and the 1950s.

Pros: This book is painstakingly researched and well-written, you’ll learn more about the South under Jim Crowe than you’ve ever learned before and, perhaps more surprisingly, how hard, dangerous, and unfair Northern cities made life for those families that migrated.    The biographies are, for the most part emotional and gripping-tragic and happy by different turns.

Cons:  At times, this book feels a bit academic, which, to be fair, is probably where it got its genesis.  One other minor qualm I had was that, for some strange reason, the author repeats over and over-almost thesis style-several points that seem to almost distract from what could be several profound conclusions.  It’s also strange to me because the author writes so well and passionately about her Southern subjects, there’s no need to break up the narrative to make such overt thesis statements so many times-the stories speak for themselves.  The author also mentions repeatedly how the migration drastically changed the course of history for many Northern cities and for the whole South and, as a sort of urban planning and city-nut, I would have liked to read more about that phenomenon.

All in all though, I highly recommend this book, there is so much to learn from reading it.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Stieg Larsson

One of the pop lit books that made it on to my reading list.  I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo about a year ago and a) hated the torture of reading it; b) couldn’t put it down; c) vowed never to read the rest of the series.

But, at some point, in a fit of weakness I read the second book and it felt a little like torture (I have a weirdly, nearly visceral reaction to stories of gross injustice and wrongful accusation, they twist my stomach).  I wasn’t going to read the third until my father-in-law recommended it, he said it was much easier to read than the first two.

Guess what, it is.  This was by far the least ulcer-inducing of the three books in the series, it’s worth reading to get your sense of closure-or at least as much of one as you’ll ever get.

A Thousand Acres Jane Smiley

A 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner that is something of a middle-America twist on King Lear.  This book is like an epic-forceful and wearing.  You read it and you think you must have aged 30 years somewhere in there.  The book ends and you sort of feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, in a good way I think. It’s the story of a successful farmer, his 3 daughters and the tragedy that unfolds after he decides to hand over the reigns to his children and their husbands.  It’s powerful, it’s captivating, its a classic tragedy.  There’s betrayal, wrongful accusation, sex, lust, greed, attempted murder, incest, mental illness-this book has it all and it’s well-written and hard to put down.

Read it if you like Shakespearean tragedy, avoid it if you prefer happy endings.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot

I almost didn’t go for this book as it made all of the book club lists everywhere and sometimes that’s a bad sign.

In this case though, its on all of the book club lists because it is great read and I’m glad I read it.  This book will make you think you’ve missed your calling and should have become an investigative reporter.  The author has a way with words that renders even the most dry scientific terms, the most painfully awkward human interactions a pleasurable thrill to read.  It’s an insanely in-depth and well-researched piece that just flies along and makes you feel like your riding along in the backseat of the author’s beat up old car.

You might read the back cover of this book and think, so what’s the big deal?  Doesn’t matter, read it anyway.  You’ll be surprised by, if nothing else, the sheer strength of the writing.

Lark and Termite Jayne Anne Phillips

I loved this book for the almost magical, mystical quality of the story.  It’s the story of two children, Lark and Termite, growing up after the Korean War, their aunt whom they live with, and their mother’s husband fighting in the Korean War.  As the point of view shifts each chapter from one character to another, the story deepens and pulls you deeper into the metaphor and the mystical quality of the characters and their relationships to one another.

As the New York Times books review puts it: “Jayne Anne Phillips renders what is realistically impossible with such authority that the reader never questions its truth. This is the alchemy of great fiction: the fantastic dream that’s created in “Lark and Termite” is one the reader enters without ever looking back.”

Lost in the City Edward P. Jones

I picked up Lost in the City in a fit of homesickness for D.C.  It’s a series of short stories that takes place within D.C.’s vibrant black community over the course of several decades. As is sometimes the case with short stories, it took me a little bit to get into this book but by the end I couldn’t put it down.  The characters make this book, they are engaging and at once familiar in their their thoughts, their justifications, their strengths and their weaknesses.  The short plots seem almost like window dressings through which to view them.  These are stories that explore the human condition, how people react to kindness shown, trust given, opportunity thwarted, and tragedy realized set against the rich backdrop of D.C.’s black community of yesteryear.  Some of the stories are just purely brilliant and you’ll want to read them over and over again.

Interpreter of Maladies Jhumpa Lahiri

This is another book of short stories, this time all of the characters are Indian diaspora living in the U.S.  I liked this book, the stories were wonderful and kept me interested, but when I got to the end I almost felt surprised, as if there should have been something more.  I enjoyed this book but it didn’t hit me in the gut in the way I thought it would.  In terms of collections of short stories, I think that, while Lost in the City was harder to get into, I felt more strongly about it and thought about it longer after I finished it.

Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro

Ok, I’m just going to come out and say it, I did not think this was a great book.  Sure the idea of raising children to become organ donors who will ultimately die after a certain number of donations holds a sort of morbid fascination for some people but frankly that premise is not even enough to make this a great book.

Perhaps part of the problem is how unrealistic the premise seems today.  Maybe this sort of scenario seemed scarily conceivable 40 years ago as transplants were becoming a more viable medical treatment, but these days we know that scientists are getting close to growing organs from cells in labs-no human clones necessary.

But that’s not what really bothers me about this book.  What bothers me is the characters,  they seem sort of like stock portraits of stereotypical traits.  You’ve got the misunderstood boy, the brash and charismatic girl whose deeply insecure, etc, etc.  I don’t mind a deeply unrealistic plot if the characters and their interactions somehow make it interesting and relevant.  Here we’ve got your predictable love triangle drawn against a morbid and mysterious backdrop.

It’s a creepy read with enough mystery to keep a reader interested, but it was not my favorite book.  (Although the movie version apparently go pretty good reviews?)

NurtureShock Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

I read this one soon after I found out I was pregnant but honestly, its so darn interesting I’d recommend it to anyone who is at all interested in child development and/or behavior.  The research is convincing and, with some thought, surprisingly intuitive and logical.  As much as the authors claim their findings out to be “shocking” in the beginning, by the end you almost wonder why we didn’t all know this stuff already.

I found the entire book so fascinating I think I read it in half an afternoon.  There was just so much to learn and so much food for thought.  It not only made me think about how we want to raise our kids but about how I thought and acted as a kid as well.

One thing I loved about this book is that I learned something from every chapter that I can easily imagine putting to work as we parent Thumper and any of his siblings.  As the authors explicitly state, this is not a parenting manual but nor is it purely theoretical without practical application.  Most of the topics covered in this book don’t require massive parenting overhauls, but rather very simple changes in the way we communicate with kids.

The Girl Who Played With Fire Stieg Larsson

Ugh, torture.  Pure, can’t-put-it-down, literary torture.  See review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest above.

Olive Kitterridge Elizabeth Strout

This book one the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 and for good reason, I think book is in my top 10 of favorite books of all time.  I love this book so much, I’ve already read it 3 times since September.  It’s a series of 13 interconnected short stories surrounding the main character, a seemingly brusque, hard, difficult woman, named Olive Kitterridge.

Read this book, it’s beautiful.  It’s at times heart-breaking and depressing but also funny and hopeful.  You’ll hate Olive in the beginning and love her by the end.  And after all of the tragedy and pain in the first 12 stories, there is even a quietly happy ending in the 13th.  I could go on and on about this book but just trust me, its a keeper.

The Corrections Jonathan Franzen

This book, like Franzen’s Freedom details the lives and breakdowns of one nuclear family spread across the country.  The characters can be repulsive and, as in Freedom, none of them are comfortably pleasant or “good” though you can’t help rooting for and hating them in turn anyway.  This is a darker more despairing book though than Freedom. There will be no redemption for these characters, only deeper more painful levels of self-realization.  This is not a book with a quietly happy ending but it’s worth reading anyway I think.  It’s a big, sweeping American family tragedy that on one hand seems bizarre and on the other feels all too familiar.

The Good Daughters Joyce Maynard

Daughters switched a birth, perfecting a new breed of strawberry, achieving financial independence by drawing sketches for a best-selling sex manual, it all happens in The Good Daughters but I doubt you’ll care how realistic these devices are while you are reading this book.

This isn’t an amazing book but its a thoroughly entertaining read and the way Maynard draws life on a farm is beautiful.  I’d recommend this as a beach read I think.

The Commitment Dan Savage

I’ve loved reading Dan Savage’s column since I was a college kid at Madison scouring my weekly copy of The Onion (founded in Madison!) for things to do on the weekend.  I picked up this book knowing full well I’d read it too fast to be worth the money but I didn’t care.

And surprisingly, I still think this book was worth paying for.  It’s a softer less snarky side of Dan Savage and reads like rom-com in which all of the wrinkly weird imperfections of real life just make it better.  It’s sweet without being cloying and just a fantastic story of real life love and the sacrifices and compromises we make to be with and give the best we can to those people we love most.

Brothers Yu Hua

I liked this book about two brothers growing up during the Cultural Revolution and coming of age and then middle age during a time of explosive economic growth for China.

Translated from Mandarin, the book retains a very Chinese dark sense of humor, a certain “theater of the absurd” quality that perfectly reflects the topsy-turvy “anything goes” economic ethos you often feel here.  In fact, I think that’s the real success of the book, a certain wry and goofy reflection upon just how utterly bizarre the last 30-40 years have been in China.  Boys who once witnessed the torture of their mothers and fathers have grown up to become millionaires-riding around in fancy cars but perhaps still wearing 5 kuai peasant shoes on their feet.  This satirical read is entertaining and reads much faster than you’d think it would.

Little Bee Chris Cleave

I picked this up at O’Hare airport on the way back to China, having already exhausted supply of books I bought before we started the trip.  Despite favorable reviews, I wasn’t expecting much from this book and I think I finished it within an hour or two of take-off.

It’s an engaging and easy read–a good book but not a great one.  The story and the characters will keep you captivated but I think the strength of this book lies with the narration from Little Bee.  The premise is that she learned “the Queen’s English” not through natural interactions but through reading books while held in an Immigration Detention Center for two years.  This provides the justification for why her speech in this book is at once both beautifully poetic and bracingly straight-forward.  It’s this voice that made the book for me.  If for nothing else, Cleave deserves praise for creating a character with such a unique, beautiful, and powerful way of speaking.

Phew, ok that was long!!  I’ll stop here for now and save the rest for another day.  Happy reading!


3 thoughts on “Book Report

  1. I thrive on non-fiction, which is a shame because the 400+ pages a week I read for law school are all non-fiction. That being said, my two most recent must-reads are Cleopatra: A Life (Stacy Schiff) and The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present: When Everything Changed (Gail Collins).

    Both are phenomenal writers (Pulitzer Prize-winner and former/first female NYT Op-Ed editor), but even better, they’re both _funny_. I highly recommend both — I’ve blow off homework and sleep for each.

  2. I share your pain of being a scary-fast reader. My boyfriend said that I devour books the way Cookie Monster eats cookies (he accompanied that observation with a very accurate impersonation of the Cookie Monster too). I usually finish the book I bring on a trip about halfway through the plane ride.

    I find that really long, meaty books help me feel a bit more like I’m getting my teeth into something. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke, and the Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian all are amazing and lasted me over a week. Wow, judging by my two food metaphors in as many sentences, I really am like Cookie Monster.

  3. I WISH I was a freakishly fast reader. Instead, I’m freakishly slow! My husband is a fast reader and he’s always 10 – 15 books ahead of be. I always feel so behind! After I finish the book I’m working on now, I’m definitely going to pick up Freedom by Franzen. My problem is that I’ve joined a book club, and while I love the chance to hang out with women who are outside of the Embassy bubble, the books they pick are mostly in the chick-lit category – with the exception of the Henrietta Lacks book.

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