August 30, 2012 § 19 Comments
Every now and then, one of my booknerd friends will send an email asking for recommendations. A few folks will chime in with their latest picks; someone will loop in another friend or two; and before we know it, there’s a 20-person virtual book exchange going on in a mile-long email thread. These emails take the place of a formal book club for me, because I’m better at title-swapping than synchronized reading.
It’s very candid – there are always a few “You liked that? I hated it!” exchanges – but also very civil. No one is ever like, “Your taste in books is as bad as your taste in men, WHOREBAG.” Well, not often.
So, here we are — the summer book stack has dwindled down to almost nothing. To save a few emails, I’ll offer up my report here on what I’ve read and liked lately in exchange for any ideas on what might be good to read next. All these books have one thing in common: I almost didn’t read them, but I’m really glad I did.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl)
Almost didn’t read it because: The title. Just in case you, like me, are an idiot and take titles literally or have mini-seizures at the sight of math words, let’s go ahead and get one thing straight: IT’S NOT ABOUT PHYSICS. Don’t freak out.
Quick plot summary: The narrator’s a shy, smart teenage girl named Blue who lives with her professor father. Blue and her dad move to a new town; Blue meets a charismatic/sexy/strange film teacher and the popular/smart/hot kids who follow that teacher around; Blue falls in with the super-cools; intrigue ensues.
Why I’d recommend it: This wins as my favorite of the summer. Juicy story, great characters, beautifully written. Quirky and different, in a good way. (I know, it’s not new. It came out in 2006; I received it as a gift a year and a half ago; and I just now got around to reading it.) If you liked the mysterious-band-of-students thing in Donna Tartt’s masterpiece, The Secret History, you might like this. Not that the two books are much alike, just that there’s that similar element.
Note: This book is dense. Blue annotates her thoughts and conversations with various historic, literary, scientific, and cultural references, which are fun to trace but occasionally a bit distracting. Give it several chapters before the story really coalesces and gets going. It’s worth it. The plot keeps twisting, right up to the end.
The Age of Miracles (Karen Thompson Walker)
Almost didn’t read it because: The backdrop to this coming-of-age story is a natural disaster of sorts, the gradual but catastrophic slowing of the earth’s rotation. Normally, anything remotely space-like would turn me off. (Sci-fi is not my bag.) But I was delighted to find that the author treats the science stuff very carefully, and the whole thing feels completely realistic — no aliens or anything.
Quick plot summary: Imagine how disorienting it would be if we could no longer tell time by the steady turning of the earth and the reliable light and shadows of each season – if 7 a.m. were as bright as noon or as dark as midnight. That’s what happens in this story, narrated by 11-year-old Julia. When days and nights become longer, life’s daily tasks come unhinged from their circadian rhythms. Pair that with the process of turning from a child into a teenager (talk about coming unhinged), and it’s a fascinating tale, plainly and beautifully told.
Why I’d recommend it: The personal story trumps the planetary one (though the latter is undeniably haunting). This is Julia’s version of how life changed after “the slowing.” As she points out when describing a blossoming friendship: “What happened after that has been well recorded elsewhere. But I doubt that [his] name has appeared in any account but mine.”
(PS: Check out some great insights into this one from my booknerd friend Laura H. in her summer reading wrap-up, too.)
The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach)
Almost didn’t read it because: The first thing I heard about this book was that it was “about baseball,” so I kept putting it off. No. This book is as much about baseball as The Age of Miracles is about planets. You can enjoy it even if you are as athletically inclined as I am (meaning, when someone throws a ball at you, you duck and scream at them to stop throwing balls in the library).
Quick plot summary: Henry is a baseball phenom recruited from his small town to a prestigious college, where he’s taken under the wing of an older teammate named Mike. Parents, roommates, friends are all added into the mix, and relationships get all tangled up. (That’s a ridiculous oversimplification of plot, but I’m trying not to give anything away.)
Why I’d recommend it: I’m a sucker for college stories, what can I say. The friendships I made in college are, to this day, some of the central relationships in my life. It’s fun to be immersed in that world again for a while. I may not have been as crazy in love with this book as some were (there was one important relationship where the chemistry just didn’t seem 100% real), but I really enjoyed it.
This Bright River (Patrick Somerville)
Almost didn’t read it because: Well, I knew I was going to read it, but I was unsure whether I’d like it, because I committed to reading it without having much clue what it was about. I loved Somerville’s ballsy, funny, honest article in response to the negative (and erroneous) review his book received in The New York Times – so much so that I wrote him a note and swore I’d read his novel. He wrote a brief message back. I thought that was awesome. So I bought the book.
Quick plot summary: Ben and Lauren, both in their early 30s, each find themselves back in their Wisconsin hometown after all sorts of bad shit goes down in their lives. (Oversimplifying again, sorry. Trying not to get into spoiler territory.) They meet again, having not been acquainted since high school, and as they get to know one another, we get to know more about what happened to each of them. Secrets emerge. The first third or so of the novel feels slow – not bad-slow, just slow – as we meet the cast of characters; then it picks up momentum and turns into quite a thriller.
Why I’d recommend it: When this one really gets rolling, it’s hard to put down. I stayed up until 1 a.m. finishing it. Somerville does a nice job of showing multiple points on the spectrum between simply flawed (human) and truly mad (dangerous). I loved this line: “I thought about how people are, how men are, where monsters have been imagined from…” The worst things in our imaginations all have their origin in something real. Word.
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Almost didn’t read it because: EVERYONE is reading it. When everyone is reading something and raving about it, I always worry I’m headed for disappointment if I read it and find that it actually sucks.
Quick plot summary: Nick and Amy have been married five years when Amy goes missing. And that is all I’m going to tell you.
Why I’d recommend it: It didn’t suck. In fact, it was deliciously twisted and easy to read. Reese Witherspoon bought the movie rights, I think, so we’ll get to see this one on the big screen, too.
The Chaperone (Laura Moriarty)
Almost didn’t read it because: I feel like I’ve read more bad historical fiction than good. (Ye olden thymes, they get on my nerves.) I was skeptical.
Quick plot summary: Before she becomes a movie star, a teenage Louise Brooks is chaperoned on a trip to New York in 1922 by her 30-something neighbor, Kansas housewife Cora Carlisle.
Why I’d (kind of) recommend it: I didn’t love this book to pieces, but I ended up liking it more than I did at first. At the beginning, the metaphors were feeling a bit heavy-handed and trite. For example, Cora is repeatedly irritated by her corset – it leaves marks on her skin, it restricts her mobility, etc. GET IT? She is a woman who is being RESTRAINED! Housewifely repression! But I enjoyed the story more as it went on and the characters developed a bit. An entertaining read.
And Two More…
I grabbed these two in a hurry at the bookstore when I was on my way out of town for the weekend, had nothing to read, and intended to buy The Age of Miracles, then realized it wasn’t out yet.
What Alice Forgot (Liane Moriarty) – The premise: Alice wakes up in a hospital after a gym accident she doesn’t remember. In fact, the last thing she recalls is being 29 with an adoring hubby, a bun in the oven, and an all-around peachy life. Now, all of a sudden with no memory of the past decade, she’s 39 with two kids, her husband hates her guts, and her other relationships are pretty screwed up too. I wouldn’t rank this one up with the others, but the story was entertaining. A good beach read. I mean, who doesn’t feel sometimes like the past decade just flew by in a blur? Plus, there’s a good cautionary tale here for married folk: don’t turn into an asshole.
The Red Book (Deborah Copaken Kogan) – Meh. This one didn’t do it for me. I bought it because I saw “college reunion” in the description. I just couldn’t connect with the characters, who seemed rather shallowly developed, or their predictable stories. That said, I did finish it. And these days, if something totally blows, I have no qualms about giving it 100 pages and then putting it down. So, that’s something, I guess.
So there you go. And on that note, I could use some tips on what to read next. Ideas?