Sunday, January 22, 2017

More Books, Books, BOOKS! Reading Roundup II

Following on my previous post, I've listed below most of the books I read for the remainder of 2016.  I did not bother to include every book - rather, just the more interesting or noteworthy.  As you can tell, I read almost exclusively fiction and memoirs and nearly all female authors.  I choose the former on purpose but not the latter - it just almost always ends up working out that way!

The Expatriates, by Janice Y. K. Lee.  I had read Lee's novel, "The Piano Teacher," a long, long time ago, before I had ever been to Hong Kong, much less lived here.  Both novels are set in Hong Kong, though in different time periods.  I liked "The Expatriates" much, much better. I think it is a  stronger and more compelling novel (despite the potential bias, given my personal connection to the city now).  Without giving too much away, I'll just say that it is a gripping story that follows three women at different crisis points who find their lives inevitably intersecting in a tiny community.

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout.  Strout is a fantastic writer, probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning book "Olive Kittredge."  I found her newest novel just as engrossing.  The novel is almost laughable in its simplicity - like a very spare stage design for an intense play, the book mainly chronicles the conversations between a formerly estranged mother and daughter, as the daughter is in a hospital bed recovering.  Oh, this novel had me at one of the singular and striking lines I've read in a while: "Loneliness was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden in the crevices of my mouth, reminding me."

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalathini.  I struggle with my reaction to this one, because from a purely literary perspective, I think this book was a remarkable accomplishment.  Kalathini is the late neurosurgeon who penned this memoir when he received the stunning diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in his early forties. His memoir is unequivocally beautiful - his prose shimmers like poetry, showcasing  a lifelong love and reverence of literature.  And this work does not profess to have any answers, but rather is the equivalent of the author howling into the void, trying to figure out what to do when a life so full of promise is cut so tragically short.  How do you react when you run out of time?  However, I found it so painful that, given barely a year to live, the author spends so much of his time trying to continue to be a surgeon, and embarking on the daunting journey of writing a book.  At the same time, I recognize the hypocrisy and judgment in my critique - what I think about the author's choices should have no impact on how I feel about his work product.  And yet, I can't seem to separate the two.  Perhaps the value of this book is that it helped me realize, in the strongest and most visceral of ways, what I would do if I were to run out of time.

Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik.  I picked this book up because I felt like Ruth Bader Ginsburg had received a lot of internet and media love of late, and while I was somewhat familiar with Ginsburg's work on reproductive rights for women (having written an extensive health law paper on maternity leave in the US), I was interested in getting a broader picture.  This is a very readable and approachable biography that manages to tell a great story about a remarkable woman and also turns what can easily be boring, technical legal arguments into an interesting story.

Miller's Valley, by Anna Quindlen.  Told from the perspective of Mimi Miller, of the Miller family who has lived in the Miller's Valley for generations, this book explores the meaning of home and identity.  When the valley must be flooded and their house buried under hundreds of tons of water for a dam, Mimi unearths (in more ways than one) what it means for her family's identity to be separated from the physical landmarks and possessions that have defined her family for generations.  Because it's Quindlen, the book is a tender coming of age story handled with perfect subtlety and depth.

The Gene, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This book is very technical and science-y, though Mukherjee does an exquisite job making it as accessible as possible.  I will admit I got a liiiiittle bit bored at parts, especially when Mukherjee launches on a long science lesson comparing and contrasting Mendel's pea experiments with others who came before and after (it brought back powerful memories of drawing Punnett Squares in 7th grade biology), but overall it was such an informative read.  It's always good to understand (at least a little bit) about genes, those pesky little things that make us who we are.

American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld.  Clearly not one of Sittenfeld's best works, and sooo incredibly long, but I thought she did a great job telling the story of Laura Bush while cleverly never directly coming out and saying so.  It's a fun way to learn tidbits and facts about the former first lady without reading an (undoubtedly) drier and more boring biography.  I suppose reading a biography would ensure you would get actual facts, however, who needs those nowadays?

A Certain Age, by Beatriz Williams.   Apparently loosely based on the opera Der Rosenkavalier (I enjoy opera but am not enough of an afficionado to recognize plots), this story follows a love triangle between an unhappily married wife (Theresa), her younger lover (Boy), and the young woman who is also the object of Theresa's brother's (Ox's) affections.  The book was thoroughly enjoyable (I love all of the details from this flapper and art-deco crusted period of New York), however, while this was an entertaining read, I must admit that "One Hundred Summers" remains my favorite of her books.

The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson.  Ohh, this one was surprising to me.  I picked it up somewhat reluctantly because I thought it would be very boring and slow, and the title and the cover (I know, you're not supposed to judge a book by either of those things) made me think that I could be in for a long slog.  However, while the story is not very fast paced, the author does a remarkable job transporting and immersing you in that era.  If you're feeling the need for a Downton Abbey fix (in literary rather than visual form) this might just be the ticket.

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang.  The premise of this three part novella is very intriguing - a woman's nightmares suddenly leave her unable to eat meat, much less to prepare it or look at it.  The book then proceeds to examine what happens as her "disease" takes hold and how it impacts the family members around her.   My favorite chapters were in the beginning, when I felt instantly sucked into the story.  From there, it gets a bit wild!  The author has a voice that reminded me a bit of Murakami.

Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler. Danler's debut novel/memoir focuses on a year in her life starting out as a server/waitress in the thinly-disguised Union Square Cafe.  She takes us into this dim world of alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine, love triangles, and food - starting as a naive newbie at the very bottom, and eventually crawling her way to both a better understanding of herself and the industry.  I liked both the story and the writing - it is akin to a female take on "Kitchen Confidential" with more lyrical prose.

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. This book is great and was listed on the NYT bestseller list for a long time.  The author is passionate about science and is so unabashedly weird.  She is also, emphatically and decisively, a beautiful writer.  The book is as much about plants and science (in many ways, this book is a love letter to trees - I promise you will never look at a tree the same way again) as it is about human relationships and love (all kinds of love: love for friends, family, lovers, hobbies, work). These are all things we need more in our world. 

The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware.  If you're a fan of fast thrilling reads by the likes of Tana French, Ruth Ware may be a good bet.  I read this book in one sitting because I wanted, no, needed, to find out what happened to the woman in cabin 10?!  I am going to check out her first book, "In A Dark Wood," at some point when I want to just sit down and be locked into a book for about seven hours non-stop.

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, by Sarah Hepola.  This book is quite painful to read - unstinting in its honesty, and unflinching in its confrontation of the author's haphazard experiences and repeated attempts to break off her abusive relationship with alcohol, it offers readers a first hand perspective into the world of alcoholism.  It belongs up there with Caroline Knapp's seminal, "Drinking: A Love Story," which remains one of the best first-person narratives on this disease.  In our current society, the dangers and evils of alcohol are downplayed (especially in comparison to cigarettes and narcotics), and alcoholism remains so little understood, and so stigmatized, despite its pervasiveness.   Oddly, it remains a disease that many people attribute to a problem of self-control or willpower, as opposed to addiction.

Every year, I find there are books that get raved about and praised hotly, or suddenly appear on everyone's must-read lists... and then I get the book and all I can say in response is, "huh?"  These were two books that I saw pop up a lot, and I read them (or read as much of them as I could) and I found them lacking.

The Girls, by Emma Cline. This book was on so many lists!  Loosely based on the Manson murders, this fictionalized account switches between the 1970s and modern day, told from the perspective of a then girl/now middle aged woman who recounts her experience and entanglement with a cult.  Cline had some beautiful lines in the book, and the plot had all the promise of something interesting and great, but I could not get into the story.  I found all of the characters rather unrelatable, and while I appreciate that Cline skillfully weaved a theme of sexual longing, desire, exploitation, frustration and exploration consistently throughout the book, I frankly found it insufferable.

Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam.  This book was also on lists and lists!  I was already put off by the title, but picked it up because it had the look of a possibly juicy, quick read.  The book focuses on the challenges that two best friends face as their lives continue to take different turns and they have to come to terms with the fact that their relationship is changing and may never be the same.  I didn't even finish the book.  I think I barely got about a quarter of the way through.  I thought the characters were flat and one-dimensional and the whole story lacked depth.  These women just didn't feel real to me.

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