This summer I’ve been reading physical books, after ten years of NOT reading many physical books. In completely original news, I blame Netflix, smartphones and Kindle for this lapse.
But then I joined a book club populated with really smart people who totally read the books we’re assigned. Since joining, we’ve tackled some fascinating titles like Hillbilly Elegy, Gentlemen of Moscow and We Were Eight Years in Power. It’s easier to bring a physical edition to meetings and bookmark pages with post-it notes so I can share my thoughts. So, the book club has done a great job rekindling my passion for that lovely dusty scent of pages turned, but also, a horrible turbulent airplane ride triggered Mal de Debarquement. Screens were really tricky for a couple of weeks; reading an actual book, however, calmed the vertigo down. So I went on a bit of a tear.
Here’s what I’ve recently read:
Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter
I love pairing travel with a book that can increase my connection with my destination. I read All the Light We Cannot See in Paris a few years ago. The city and particularly the Louvre took on a different sheen during my visit, and reading about Paris in the 1940s made the streets look different, and frankly, a little foreboding. We went to Italy this summer, and while there I read Walter’s lovely, funny and wise book about an Italian innkeeper, a beautiful American actress who is dying, the filming of Cleopatra in Rome and modern-day Hollywood. Sounds disparate and odd, but the author creates a wistful tone that keeps you turning the pages. Bonus: the overriding philosophy of the book is both romantic AND stoic at the same time, which fits my own framework. AND the cover is gorgeous.
Gretchen Rubin Marathon (The Happiness Project, Better Than Before, The Four Tendencies)
The New Yorker once referred to Rubin’s books as the closest real world example of this hilarious cartoon. I can relate. I don’t find daily living very easy. Routines are not my strength. I waffle making decisions about simple things. which can lead to procrastination. I prefer fresh adventures, big moments, new sensory experiences and unique journeys to day-to-day life. Rubin has described her ideal existence as being a monk with the same unchanging daily routine, which pretty much makes her my polar opposite. What she’s figured out is that we all fit into four different “tendencies”: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger and Rebel. These tendencies inform how we keep habits, which is a key to happiness. Habits include regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, meeting work goals and being organized. The Upholders seem to hold all the cards in today’s productivity crazed world. They meet both outside and inside expectations, and are able to generate the unlimited energy and mental resources to complete all their goals and keep all their habits. I am a Questioner, which explains my annoying dithering about decisions and endless quest for research. My twins are both Upholders, and understanding this about them has helped me actually be a better parent.
Still, what I mostly take from her writing? Modern life is easier for an Upholder.
Station 11, Emily St John Mandel
The best book I’ve read in years is this dystopian novel set (mostly) years after a horrible flu wipes most of humanity off the planet. This probably sounds unbearably grim, but there is so much beauty and hope in the writing that it practically drips off of the page. Much of the plot features a traveling troupe of actors and musicians performing Shakespeare and Beethoven to the few exhausted survivors eeking out a pre-industrial revolution existence, and their poignant motto is “Survival is Insufficient.” Sound too wacky, genre or sad? Would it help if I told you it was a finalist for the National Book Award? This was in 2014, which, considering All the Light We Cannot See was ALSO a finalist and neither book actually won? 2014 must have been a particularly awesome year for fiction.
Into the Woods and The Likeness, Tana French
I like mysteries, and I’d heard French was known for her modern, literary fiction take on the genre. I really enjoyed Into the Woods, which was spooky, atmospheric and included one particular passage that still gives me the chills to even think about (it’s set in the titular woods). I must warn you that this book includes a child murder victim, which I normally can’t deal with, but the book avoided sensationalism. BUT, I couldn’t finish The Likeness. I could not suspend the disbelief needed to make the premise work. I appreciated the character development, writing, and liked the idea of a clique of really smart, sensitive academics devoted to each other living in a beautiful old home. But there’s just something about the idea of a doppelgänger that I can’t personally accept. Someone who looks exactly like a detective is murdered? And they have no moles or tattoos or freckles to distinguish them? And the detective goes and lives with the clique who knew her intimately to see why she was murdered? I just couldn’t buy it. Maybe it’s my annoying Questioner personality at work again. Supposedly The Likeness was inspired by The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, which I have never read. Maybe I should? I feel like I should read The Goldfinch first. Advice welcome. Regardless, I will read French again, because I love the Dublin Murder Squad characters.
Less, Andrew Sean Greer
One of the women in my book club recommended this as our “light read” because the list in 2018 was pretty serious stuff. Then the month we read the book, Less won the Pulitzer, ha! I loved this hilarious, poignant and unabashedly sweet novel. The main character is an author named Arthur Less who decides to travel around the world to mark his 50th birthday–and escape an ex’s wedding–by using as many random free invitations and third rate literary fellowships as he can. For example, in New York City, he takes the assignment of interviewing an unexpectedly ill, lowbrow yet very famous science fiction author named H. H. H. Mandern in front of hundreds of his fans.
“Arthur Less?” the white-haired woman asks in the green room of the theater, while H. H. H Mandern vomits into a bucket. “Who the hell is Arthur Less?”
This book travels vicariously with the hapless Arthur as he bumbles through the value added tax system, various misadventures in Morocco and India but also some well-earned triumphs. Less is winning and likable, and I loved the character’s optimism and sheer doggedness in spite of literary snobs and his own low esteem. And the VAT bureaucracy.
What have you read this summer? Any thoughts on these books? Any recommendations of books you’ve read and loved?