Books: What I’ve Read This Summer

Another season is over, which means it’s time for another book round-up. I might start doing these monthly, since it’s a bit challenging to write capsule reviews of about 12-13 books at once. At any rate, here we go . . .

July

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan (novel)

I love Jennifer Egan. She writes innovative and challenging novels, and Look at Me is no exception. The main focus of the story is Charlotte, a model whose face is completely transformed after a car accident and reconstructive surgery. Although Charlotte tells most of the story, the narrative also jumps back and forth to the point of view of other characters. It challenges you to think about the way things look versus the way they really are.

An interesting bit about the novel is that it was written well before 9/11, but features a character planning some massive terrorist attack. Although the comparison wasn’t Egan’s intent and she had no way to know what was going to happen when she wrote the novel, it’s impossible to read it today without immediately leaping to 9/11 and making those comparisons. But, she has a note in the back asking you not to do that, so try not to.

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

Since I just confessed my love for Jennifer Egan, it might go without saying that I do not love Dean Koontz. Odd Thomas was the first novel I’ve read by him and it will be the last. Sure, it’s a plot-based, fast-moving thriller, and despite the fact that I hated it, I couldn’t put it down. But, ugh. It was like being lectured by an old man, through the voice of a clueless 20-year-old character. So many things bothered me about the book; it’s not even worth going into it. In case you’re wondering why I read it — it was a pick for book club.

Absurdistan: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart

I first read Absurdistan in 2006, when it was first published. I remembered it as being an epic tale of adventure, starring an obese Russian man who ends up in the middle Absurdistan when he’s denied re-entry to the US. During his time there, Absurdistan breaks out into a civil war and things get weird. The novel felt less gigantic on second read but much more satirical. Maybe I was too dumb to catch it as a 20-something?

Like Egan, Shteyngart is one of my favorite writers. He’s self-effacing (there’s a character based on him in the book) and very funny.

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

I’m not single, in the sense that I have a partner, but I don’t ever plan on getting married, and for that reason, Kate Bolick’s Spinster resonated with me. It’s part memoir and part biography of some of the single ladies who have inspired or influenced Bolick (she calls them “awakeners,” which I have to admit, I find corny). The writers she profiles include Charlotte Perkins  Gilman, Edith Wharton, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Maeve Brennan. It’s worth a read, even if you’re not a spinster or don’t plan on going through life unattached.

August

The Buried Giant: A novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant is Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantasy/Arthurian novel. It’s about an older couple journeying to find their son while a strange mist coats the land that makes it hard to remember things. Before reading the book, I saw Ishiguro speak about it at the Free Library, and all people were going on about was how there’s a dragon in the book. Some man was really flipping offended about the dragon.

Although it has all the trappings of a fantasy novel, the book is still very literary. Along with the theme of memory, there’s the question of the value of love. There’s a tale of a couple who need to cross a river, but the boat can only fit one at a time. Only couples who can prove their love is true can travel together. The concept of the promise of undying love is found in another Ishiguro novel, Never Let Me Go, in which two clones hope to escape the death that is pretty much guaranteed them because they truly love each other. As in that novel, there’s the hope that love can conquer all, but not the guarantee.

The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel by Garth Stein

Here’s another book club read. The Art of Racing in the Rain is written from the point of view of a dog on the last day of his life. I had to wonder about the narrator choice, since it limited the writer’s choices and made the narration so very simplistic. The book is somewhat heartbreaking, and not only because you know the dog is going to die. Denny, Enzo’s owner, has been dealt a rough hand (things get better for him, though). His wife’s family is awful, his wife’s cousin accuses him of rape, and he has to fight a custody battle to get his daughter back from  his late wife’s parents.

Although it seems like such as simple and wholesome book, it’s actually been banned in some schools, because of the rape accusation part. I also took issue with that part. There are so many instances of women being raped in real life where they are not believed or where they have to really fight to be listened to that to have a character crying wolf about rape in the book felt irresponsible to me.

Oreo by Fran Ross

I first heard about Oreo, which was published back in the 1970s, on NPR this summer. There’s a new edition of the book out, with an introduction by Danzy Senna, who wrote Caucasia, which is one of my favorite books. Oreo the book is one of those “forgotten classics” that resurfaces every decade or so (the version I read was actually published about 10 or so years ago, and didn’t have Senna’s intro).

Oreo is the nickname of Christine Clark, the daughter of a black mother and a Jewish father, who lives in Philly in the ’70s. Yeah, you’re going to think her nickname is Oreo because she’s black and white. But, that’s not it. Her grandma wanted to call her Oriole, but everyone heard “Oreo,” so that stuck.

The book’s a picaresque, meaning that Oreo is a scrappy hero who goes off on an adventure.  It’s modeled after one of the great Greek hero stories –that of Theseus, who sets off to find his father after years of living with just his mother. Ross even provides a handy guide at the end so you can see how Oreo’s story overlaps with that of Theseus.

In the intro to my copy of Oreo, the writer suggests that the reason the book didn’t do well when published (it was Fran Ross’ only novel, although she was a writer for a short-lived Richard Pryor sitcom) was that it was ahead of its time. Its intense satire and identity themes were just too much for an audience to take back then. I think that’s probably true, and for that reason, I really hope it finds its audience today. The world needs more stories featuring strong female characters who aren’t going to take it.

The Joy of Less by Francine Jay

In case you didn’t notice, I’m going through a bit of a minimalism phase right now. I tore through The Joy of Less pretty quickly and would recommend it to anyone looking for a guide to cutting back and cutting the clutter. I’d particularly recommend it to people who find Marie Kondo and her Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up to be a bit too much.

Jay  has her own method of decluttering which she calls “streamline.” (It stands for Start over, Trash/Treasure/Transfer, Reason for each item, Everything in its place, All surfaces clear, Modules, Limits, If one comes in—one goes out, Narrow it down, and Everyday maintenance.) Unlike Kondo, she recommends taking a room by room approach to clearing out, and she walks you through tidying up each room in your home.

The part of the book that I think I got the most from was this piece of advice: Enjoy things without owning them. I’m beginning to learn that I can appreciate the idea of an item or looking at pictures of items more as much as (if not more than) owning those items.

Stuffocation by James Wallman

Stuffocation continues the own less, do more theme. In it, James Wallman describes different methods of living that people have tried to get more out of life. He talks about the minimalists, who love counting how little they own, he talks about Thoroeau, who spent all that time in the woods, only to get bored of it and return, and he talks about a family who’s given it all up to live the rustic life, encountering plenty of challenges along the way.

His ultimate argument is that, in this era of over-consumption (what he calls stuffocation), investing in experiences is becoming more valuable and more enjoyable than investing in stuff. I agree, and I think we’re really starting to see a shift away from the stuff-filled life, at least among many people.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

I think I first read about the Dud Avocado in Vogue about two years ago. At the time, I thought, that seems like a great read. But, then I forgot about it until I saw a copy on the shelf at a used bookstore this summer.

Similar to Oreo, the Dud Avocado is a book that keeps coming back into the public’s mind. It gets republished every so often and a new stream of think pieces and critiques are written about it. The story is about a young woman who travels to Paris, has adventures, learns about herself and the world around her, and comes home more mature. It’s a quick and enjoyable read and it’s part of the reason why I’m studying French right now.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids ed. Meghan Daum

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed is a collection of essays written by childless (or child-free) writers about their choice not to have children. While some of the essays are exactly what you’d expect — women and men describing terrible childhoods — a number of them make pretty sharp arguments. My favorite essay in the book was written by Lionel Shriver. In “Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later,” she focuses on the fact that her generation’s focus on “me” and living for pleasure has the very real consequence of leading to the decline of specific (European/white) cultures. It’s a contrarian point of view and I think she argued it well, even though I don’t agree with her point.

I also really enjoyed the argument behind “Maternal Instincts,” in which writer Laura Kipnis points out that the so-called maternal instinct women are supposed to have innately is actually a social construct that came about with the Industrial Revolution.

There are many reasons why a person wouldn’t want kids and many reasons why people want them. The book helps shine a light on what it’s like to be in the no kids camp and lets people see that it’s more than being one of the three adjectives in the book’s title.

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