What I Read: April 2019

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Another semester is done and in the books! It’s a good thing because it really cut into my reading time.

Here’s what I read in April:

  • Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
    A surprisingly calming and meditative book about how messy the world is. No surprise that we feel anxious all the time, given that we live in a garbage fire. Matt Haig presents essays on anxiety (and related topics) along with lists and observations that are poignant and often funny. This is definitely not self-help (that’s a compliment), but it will make you feel a little less alone on this planet.

 

  • Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
    When your brain can’t think anymore, an Hercule Poirot mystery is just what it needs. I’ve already forgotten the entirety of the plot, but I enjoyed reading it. It was like a cup of tea on a rainy day.

 

  • Adele by Leila Slimani
    I loved Slimani’s previous novel, The Perfect Nanny, which is why I grabbed this one from the library. It’s tough to read about someone who is ruining her life because of her sex addiction, but I appreciated Slimani’s depiction of what the depths of addiction really look like. It’s not sexy in the slightest; it’s tragic.
  • Proust and the Reading Brain: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf
    Human brains were never meant to read. That is, our brains didn’t evolve to read; we simply invented reading out of pure ingenuity. And what a wonderful invention that was! I love nonfiction that tells a good story humans, history, and brains. This is a great intro to reading and what wonderful things it does for us and our brains.
  • The Narrow Bed by Sophie Hannah
    I generally love Sophie Hannah’s books without reservation. This was my least favorite in the series, though. It’s still worth reading if you are committed to reading the whole CID series (as I am). But I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting place. It’s sort of an odd book about a comedian (who doesn’t really seem to be funny) who may or may be targeted by someone who may or may not be murdering pairs of friends. The ending was cartoonish.
  • Our House by Louise Candlish
    I adore family psychological thrillers set in England. This one might be the best I’ve read in that sub-genre for a long time. After separating, Fiona (Fi) and Bram Lawson agree to take turns living in their family home (rather than having their kids moving between house and flat). Everything is going swimmingly until Fi comes home early one day and discovers that Bram has sold the house, taken the two million pounds from the sale, and fled. Subsequent chapters shift between Fi’s story (as told to a podcast) and Bram’s story (as told in what might be a suicide note). I picked up on a few twists early, but the ending was stunning and perfect. I stayed up really late finishing this one.

So that’s April 2019. My favorite book for the month was Our House by Louise Candlish.

Happy reading in May!

What I Read: March 2019

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I can’t believe another reading month is behind us. Here are the seven books I read in March 2019:

Family Trust by Kathy Wang–Stanley Huang is dying. The question now is who is going to inherit his fortune? His second wife or his children from his first marriage? Complications ensue when Stanley’s family begins to suspect he doesn’t have any money at all. Good family saga, set in Silicon Valley, about a Chinese-American family coming to terms with their own mortality.

My Pitch: If your rich dad is dying, hurry up and visit. 

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The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman–I think Lolita is a masterpiece, but I’m conflicted about that opinion because it’s a book about a grown man who assaults a child. Can I love a book about something so horrific? I haven’t found a satisfactory answer yet, but I am glad I read this nonfiction book about Nabokov and the true story that inspired Lolita. Sally Horner deserves to be remembered in her own right.

My Pitch: Sally Horner deserves her own crime podcast.

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The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar–Jonah Hancock is an unhappy widower and merchant who has come into possession of a mermaid corpse. That coveted mermaid leads him to the lauded courtesan Angelica Neal, a woman he dearly wants to make his wife. Set in the late eighteenth century, this historical novel is excellent from beginning to end.

My Pitch: Mermaids are always bad luck.

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The Other Woman by Sandie Jones–Adam and Emily are the perfect couple, but Adam’s mother Pammie is the mother-in-law from hell. I guessed the twist ending–and it’s a bit contrived–but it’s still fun to read about all the ways Pammie inserts her monstrous self into her son’s marriage. I read this over Spring Break, and it was perfect for vacation. It didn’t tax my brain in the slightest–and that’s a compliment!

My Pitch: Don’t forget: You are marrying his mother too.

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The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani–I’ve read enough of Kakutani’s New York Times book reviews to know that she’s cranky. Rightfully so, given the era we’re living in. I agreed with almost everything she says here about truth (and the lack of it in civic discourse), but it felt more like reading a blog post that summarized the state of world affairs. The writing is elegant, and I do hope she writes more books.

My Pitch: The death of critical thinking is the death of reason is the death of truth. Good luck, us.

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As Long as We Both Shall Live by JoAnn Chaney–Matt and Marie are happily married with two grown daughters. While on a mountain hike, Marie falls off a cliff while taking a selfie. Matt looks increasingly suspicious, especially after police discover his first wife died under mysterious circumstances. I guessed the twist on this one too, and while the plot is pretty unrealistic, I appreciated the author’s attempt to make the characters believable. Enjoyable read.

My Pitch: Never marry a guy who is a sandwich shop salesman.

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Come With Me by Helen Schulman–Amy Reed works for a Bay Area start-up. Her boss is a Stanford whiz-kid who has figured out how to explore multiverses. With this software, Amy can finally see how her life would be different if she’d made different choices. I liked the book just fine, but I was deeply disappointed by how little of it is about the multiverses. It’s really just a book about a marriage on the rocks. I think it’s been pitched wrong.

My Pitch: You’ll mess your life up in every iteration of the multiverse, so just chill out. 

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My favorite book of March was The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar.

Happy reading in April!

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.

 

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.

What I Read: December 2018

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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!

What I Read: November 2018

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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!

Other books about rotten children that I liked: We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver and The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing.

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.

Other books about unhinged academics that I liked: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and Kill Your Darlings by Terence Blacker.

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!

What I Read: October 2018

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Oh, October. You were so cruel. You gave me very limited time to read. And when I did find the time and energy, I didn’t love most of what I read. That often happens to me when I’m too busy to really savor books, so please accept all of my opinions with the knowledge that I’m a tired and cranky old crone.

How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price–The perfect book for anyone who has found herself spending upward of an hour a day mindlessly watching a fashion blogger try on clothes from Target. (I mean, just for example.) If you had any doubt that your phone (and your tablet) is ruining your mind, this book will be the final nail. We all have to put the devices down more often. We are messing up our brains.

The Fact of a Body by Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich–A beautifully written braided narrative that balances the author’s memoir of her own abuse with the details of a tragic murder case. I found myself wanted more on the murder case–and a stronger take on the justice system–but that might reflect my preference for nonfiction (especially about crime) over memoir in general. I did watch Season 2 of Making a Murderer after this, and the pair make good companion pieces. 

This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff–This is a comedy-drama set in a dysfunctional workplace that I thought would be fun, but it turned out to be a lot like working in an office: not that exciting. Ultimately, the whole thing just didn’t come together for me. I became unnecessarily (and weirdly) hung up on how much information one character’s doctor openly provided to a co-worker. (Maybe what I wanted was a comedy-drama about HIPAA.) The characters felt two-dimensional at times, especially Rosa whose boss-character swung from Michael Scott to Leslie Knope to Montgomery Burns and back again. If you work in HR, read it. I suspect it might hit closer to home.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay–A horror story about a family (Eric, Andrew, and daughter Wen) who just want a quiet vacation on the lake. When some post-apocalyptic nutbags show up claiming that one of the family members has to kill the other to stop the world from ending, the family is understandably freaked out. I loved the suspense of not knowing how (and why) someone in the family murdering another could possibly save the world. I also liked the tension the author creates by never letting readers forget the invaders might be right or they might be totally insane. The ending didn’t pay off for me, but if you like your horror thoughtful and creepy, then this might be for you.

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler–Here’s another beautiful book by Anne Tyler. This one is about Willa Drake, a woman who has spent her whole life doing what men tell her to do. When a woman she barely knows calls on her for help, Willa leaves her home and husband in Arizona to go to Anne Tyler’s beloved Baltimore to play devoted grandmother to a child she’s never met. I loved how skillfully (and very subtly) Tyler shows all the ways that what we do in our early lives seeps out into our later lives. Willa’s triumph feels like the triumph of all women who have never been allowed to assert their independence. This book was my favorite of the month.

His Favorites by Kate Walbert–This one is about a teenage girl who makes a really stupid mistake, one that has life-altering consequences. Away at boarding school, she becomes the victim of a manipulative male teacher who targets her and a number of other “broken” girls who are too shattered and unsure of themselves to realize he is grooming them. I’ve read a lot of books lately about male predators, and this book is a fine addition to that sub-genre, but I didn’t feel like it brought anything new to the table. That said, I think it packs a huge punch in under two hundred pages. And it exactly pins down the structure that allows rape culture to thrive. (Hint: We’re living in it.)

Happy reading in November!