What I Read: February 2019

February 2019

February was a good book month, but I’m at that point in the semester when I find it hard to concentrate for long. I read a lot in bits and pieces, which means I struggle to read anything that requires much brain work. That said, I did manage to read a couple of nonfiction books and a literary novel that engaged my melon. My total for the month was eight books.

Here’s what I read:

Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender–Caroline is a 12-year-old Caribbean girl who has been abandoned by her mother. A perpetual outsider with no friends, Caroline’s life changes when a new girl comes to school. Together the girls search for Caroline’s mother and develop a friendship that begins to grow into something much more.

Euphoria by Lily King–This is a fascinating historical novel based very loosely on some aspects of Margaret Mead’s life. Set in 1933, it’s about three anthropologists in New Guinea. While they are gathering data, they find themselves entangled in a love triangle that threatens their work and their future relationships.

Lies You Wanted to Hear by James Whitfield Thomson–I picked up this book because I’d read that the author published it, his first novel, when he was in his sixties. I love the idea that anyone can become a writer at any age. The novel is about Lucy and Matt’s troubled marriage; any details beyond that give too much away, so I’ll just stop there. It’s definitely not a thriller (and I feel like the jacket copy sort of suggests it is). It’s more of a domestic slow-burn. My one complaint is that the author’s depiction of Lucy often feels like a man’s idea of what a woman would think or do. I thought Matt got a lot more authorial sympathy, but he was the far more flawed character in my opinion.

The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet–I have a weakness for psychological thrillers, and since I’m terrible at predicting plots, almost everything delights me. This one was particularly twisty and satisfying. Caroline and Francis do a house swap for a week of holidays. Once in the new house, Caroline figures out that whoever owns the house knows her…and knows her darkest secret. The plot here is meatier and more serious than a lot of thrillers. I also appreciated all the attention Fleet gives to character development.

The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker–If you are afraid of everything, as I am, then I think this nonfiction book is worth reading. De Becker is a security expert who specializes in helping women avoid and respond to violent (or potentially violent) situations. In a world that still excuses violence against women, I found it helpful to have some specific strategies for recognizing violence and responding to it quickly and firmly. Trigger warning: This book does talk about sexual assault. De Becker is very careful to avoid victim blaming.

Mosquitoland by David Arnold–Mim is traveling on a bus to find her mother. She meets a cast of characters along the way in a thoughtful and action-packed road trip novel for young adult readers. I think the book is even more interesting once you realize it can be read as realistic fiction or magical realism.

Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boyland–I picked this up because of the comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one of my all-time favorites. Unfortunately, I think the book suffers from the comparison because outside of a death and some kids in college, they aren’t really similar at all. I thought the pacing was off in this one, but I still think it’s worth reading for a plot point that raises some really important questions (and shows representation that’s not often included in mainstream fiction). I’m being coy here, but you’ll see what I mean if you read it. I think it would have been a better book if it had just focused on that particular character and topic and left out the murder mystery. Still worth reading.

The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby–I could have an epic rant about this book, but I’ll keep it short. The first half is great. Jacoby makes a compelling case that American has lost its grip in rationalism, the very Enlightenment value the country was founded on. The second half of the book, though, reads like a crotchety old lady yelling at everyone to get off her lawn. And her anecdotes posing as data is exactly the thing she’s arguing against in the beginning! The rants about higher education were particularly annoying because so many of them were ill-informed about how higher ed actually works. Note that I read the older version, not the updated version, so it might have been better in the second edition.

My favorite of February was definitely Euphoria by Lily King.

Happy reading in March.

 

The Minnesota Murderess

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I’ve been working on an article about an arsenic murder trial in Minnesota in 1859. It’s finally published in The Atavist magazine. You can read it here.

It has everything: Murder, poison, illicit lovers, true crime journalism, misogyny, and Victorian sticks-in-the-mud.

Fun fact: One of the primary sources was a bound trial transcript so old and dirty that it gave me hives on my arm.

What I Read: January 2019

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I’ve been sick for almost a month. The upside is that the plague provided some unexpected downtime which I filled with reading (and naps) (and coughing).

I managed to read six books in January. Oddly enough, I read two in a row that were basically the same book. The plots were almost identical. Both involved maritime law, crashed planes, stolen money, double-crosses, international banking, and offshore accounts. I feel somewhat prepared to open an unmarked bank account in a tropical island nation.

The other theme, which I accidentally landed upon, was just crime in general. I just read a lot about crime this month, and it was perhaps a fitting theme for a month that just feels criminal. I know that not all bad things happen in January, but shouldn’t they? I mean, isn’t that what January is for?

I ended the month with a book set in Australia during a heat wave. (And by chance, it was the second book I read this month set in Australia). By month’s end, I was ready for sun and sweat and intrigue in the desert.

Here’s a brief summary of what I read:

I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara–A tragically beautiful meditation on one woman’s relentless search for the Golden State Killer. It’s all the more tragic because the author died before the book was published, and she never learned that police finally caught the person who terrorized California for decades. It’s more than just a true crime story. It’s a deeply personal narrative about obsession and fear. And about what it means to be a woman in a world where women are so often prey for sadistic men. Don’t read it in the dark, though. I woke up every night thinking someone was in my bedroom. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I appreciate McNamara’s respect for the victims. She never exploits them, and that’s so rare in true crime.

The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger–The first of the two books I read about high-stakes financial crime. I just love a good book about rich people behaving badly. This one is well-written and carefully plotted and believable.

There’s Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman–More rich, good-looking people doing bad things in international waters. The plot twists in this one were pretty bonkers–and not all that believable–but it was still a fun chase to the end to find the bad guy. I would say this is the less “literary” of the two books. It’s a beach read for sure.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper–All of my thrillers came from the library at the same time. This one caught my attention because it’s about five women who go into the wilderness but only four come back. I’ll read anything set in a forest or some secluded space away from civilization. I think it’s because I barely want to drive past a campground, let alone stay in one, so this is how I commune with nature. Read it for the setting.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger–I’ve read this one at least five times. I re-read it for a class and was reminded what a beautiful book it is. I really think it’s underrated. Holden is annoying, for sure. But he’s a rich, white teenager who doesn’t understand how to be an adult. Of course he’s an ass. The beauty is in his kindness. You want to bottle it up and save it because we all know he’ll eventually turn into an investment banker in the 1980s, do blow in the bathroom, leave his wife, marry his secretary, invest his money offshore to avoid taxes, run for congress, and at the age of eighty-five make a ridiculously racist and/or sexist comment and wonder why everyone is so sensitive. But the Holden in this book still cares about the world. The world hasn’t worked on him yet.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty–In lesser hands, I don’t think this book would have worked. But Liane Moriarty can do anything. Nine people go to a strange health spa and learn about themselves. It’s more interesting than it sounds, but it’s also weird in ways that work. Not my favorite of hers, but I still liked it.

My favorite for the month was definitely I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

Happy reading in February. I’m already behind schedule. Let’s just blame the groundhog.

Reading While Sick

I’ve been sick for what seems to be the last decade, but a calendar suggests it’s only been about eight days. Nevertheless, illness has been cramping my style. For a while, I was too miserable to even read, which is a new low for me.

(You know how when you go to the doctor and she asks you to rate your pain based on a set of faces ranging from happy to grumpy? The lowest one should just be a book with an x through it. That’s my low.)

Anyway, I’m kind of back, and I started reading again last night. I’m re-reading an old favorite for a directed studies group I’m leading. After all these years, I still adore Catcher in the Rye.

What about you: Love it or hate it?