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.
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?
I ended up finishing 90 books this year, which is far more than I usually read. I have no idea what changed in my reading life. Did I spend less time doing something else? Did I use my time better? Did I learn how to read faster? I honestly have no idea. But what a wonderful reading year it was!
It’s too hard to choose my favorites, so instead I’ll list some books I loved within specific categories. I’ll also include my one-sentence blurbs.
Do less dumb stuff so you can do more smart stuff.
Best Literary Fiction (Tied)
Institutionalized racism hurts people.
Family is hard.
Best Creepy Read
This woman’s revenge plot is messed-up (and totally deserved).
Best Ripped From the Headlines Novel
It’s hard to know why people do horrific and tragic things.
Best Sci Fi
It’s easier to solve a space mystery if you have more than one body.
Funniest Book (Tied)
Extroverts are very tiring, especially if you are married to the queen of them all.
Humans are confusing to space aliens.
Best Historical Fiction
Love for a child grows in even the most challenging circumstances.
Happiness, as a concept, functions to marginalize people in ways that are insidious and dangerous.
What were your favorites of 2018?
As usual, it was a sprint to the end of December, but I survived and even managed to do a fair amount of reading.
In the month of December, I read five books:
The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen–This one was pure escapism. I love a good book about domestic drama, especially if the twists are ridiculously over-the-top in a Lifetime Movie kind of way. I think this one is best read without knowing anything about the story. I’ll just say it’s about marriage gone wrong.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne–I really loved Boyne’s previous book, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. I liked this one just as much, but the main characters in the two books could not possibly be more different. Cyril Avery in The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a delightfully plucky narrator who wins your heart as soon as you meet him. Maurice Swift in A Ladder to the Sky is a deliciously unrepentant sociopath and plagiarist. The comparisons to Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley are apt.
Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction by Chris Bailey–This is a helpful book if you need a reminder about all the things you let hijack your focus every day. The second half of the book, about creativity, was particularly helpful to me. I sometimes forget that you can’t be creative if you never let your brain “un-focus.”
A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell–This is another domestic thriller filled with middle-class people behaving badly. Lot of secrets and unrealistic plot twists make the book enjoyable–as long as you don’t expect anything too deep. I read a lot of psychological thrillers, and I thought this one presented one of the more original plots. I haven’t seen the movie. Let me know if you have.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard–I love all of Candice Millard’s nonfiction because she knows exactly how to perfectly merge together facts and narrative. Everything she writes is just so propulsive–even when you know the outcome to the story. This one is an interesting portrait of Churchill in South Africa as a young man. He sounds like an unsufferable ass, but that explains a lot about his later life. My brother doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll be getting my copy in the mail. Nobody tell him that Churchill does escape.
Happy reading in January!
I’m currently reading two things:
First, a stack of student papers fifty-three miles high. I’m counting the days until I’m done with those–not because they are bad but because I’m just ready to let my brain have a break.
Between papers, I’m reading John Boyne’s newest book, A Ladder to the Sky. It’s everything I hoped it would be. It may end up being my favorite book of the year. I can’t wait to get back to it.
November was a rough reading month for me. I found myself reading more articles, probably because I can read them in one sitting. I’ve also been listening to more podcasts, something I do when I can’t concentrate on books.
Nevertheless, I did manage to read a few and I enjoyed most of them. Here’s my November list:
1. Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage–Hanna’s father loves his sweet angel and would do anything for her. Hanna’s mother sees the real Hanna, a diabolical, plotting, scheming, bad-seed of a kid. The underlying message here–that kids are sometimes just rotten–is troubling, but I always like a book that’s willing to complicate an archetype. I’ve read so many books about wealthy white families with troubled children who just need love and understanding. Hanna has no redeeming qualities at all. There’s nothing misunderstood about her. She’s a living nightmare that suggests no matter what you do as a parent, you might just be at the mercy of your kid’s biology. The fact that I find that a satisfying narrative might say more about me than the book itself!
2. An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena: A group of strangers converge at a remote mountain lodge in the midst of a snowstorm. Nobody is getting in or out as the storm rages around them. One of the guest dies the first night. Then another dies. Then another. Is one of them the killer or is there a maniac lurking in the shadows? The novel was quite obviously an homage to Agatha Christie, and while I didn’t love the ending, I appreciated the atmosphere.
3. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher–What happens when you take a bunch of people with low self-esteem, undiagnosed personality disorders, delusions of grandeur, and underdeveloped social skills and put them to work in the same place with limited resources? You get Payne University, a pretty searing (and disturbingly accurate) satirical portrait of academia.
4. The Secret Place by Tana French–Eight girls in a boarding school, one murder. Somebody knows something she isn’t telling. I’ve liked some of Tana French’s books, but I’m in the minority because I don’t love everything she does. I think sometimes her books are a little overwritten and then style gets in the way of substance. In this case, I think the balance between style and plot was good. The Likeness is still my favorite, though.
5. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker–Two girls meet in college, make art together, and struggle to figure out who they are in a world that doesn’t make sense to either of them.
Here’s a longform article I admired this month: “Blood Cries Out” by Sean Patrick Cooper.
Here’s a bookish podcast that never fails to make me laugh and cringe (linge?): Double Love.
Happy reading in December!