I didn't manage to do much writing on this blog over the summer (¯\_(ツ)_/¯), but I did read quite a lot, so now I'm going to write about that! Here is a recap of some of the books I tackled this summer, with recommendations for ALL types of readers (well all types who like either really good books or really engaging borderline-trashy psychothrillers...). This is going to be a bit long, since I've saved up a baker's dozen books to talk about all at once. In the future, I'll try to do more regular book reports when something is worth talking about.
The VERY Good
These are some of the best things I've read recently. I love them all and hugely recommend them.
Alexander Chee, The Queen of the Night - I usually don't go in that much for historical fiction, as it often seems to labor under its author's research and effort to be authentic, to the frequent detriment of plot and character. This book, however, is an absolutely riveting story with an incredibly compelling character at its center that just happens to be packed with rich historical detail about 19th century France. It touches on everything from musical theory to sexual intrigue to political upheaval on a grand scale while never losing touch with the specific humanity of its unique heroine. It's also rare that something so beautifully written is simultaneously so compulsively readable. Basically this book is fantastic and you should read it. It comes out in paperback on November 1, 2016, so soon you'll have no excuse not to.
Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter - As a person at least peripherally involved in food writing, I know how hard it is to write in an appealing but not florid way about food (quite hard, for the record). There's a very delicate balance to be struck between trying to describe the sensual experience in words and not completely turning off your reader or slipping into cliché. While not completely free of occasional triteness, this novel gave me many moments of deep pleasure where the heady prose took me deep into the experience of food, drink, and the whirlwind NYC restaurant world.
Kate Racculia, Bellweather Rhapsody - This book gave me hella nostalgia for my misspent childhood as a brass musician (trumpet!) and choral singer traveling to music festivals all over New England, being nerdy and solving murder mysteries. Okay, so I didn't do that last part, but I certainly loved a good murder mystery even back in high school, so this was an irresistible combination for me. Plus this is just really lovely, charming, clever writing, with an incredibly strong sense of place and character. It's perfect.
Lucy Knisley, French Milk - I've loved everything I've ever read by Lucy Knisley, a writer and illustrator who specializes in autobiographical graphic novels. My most favorite of her books is Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, but this one (her first), is now a pretty close second in my heart. It's definitely an earlier book—her style is rougher, and the narrative is less focused—but I loved it, even so. I happen to currently be planning a trip with my mother, part of which will be spent in Paris (Knisley's Paris trip with her mother is the subject of this book), so it also felt very timely. I just bought her newest book, which is all about her complicated relationship with wedding planning, and I'm very much looking forward to it (although I will NOT be planning a wedding anytime soon, or ever).
The SUPER Disappointing
Emma Cline, The Girls - I had such high hopes for this book. It has so much in its description that I wanted to love: the 1960s, a Manson-esque cult, an older woman looking back at the key moments in her girlhood, elements of a critique of female subjectivity and empowerment...But it just fell flat for me. The writing style was uneven, the main character was overdrawn, the spaces where it seemed to me there were interesting threads to be teased out went by without remark from character or author. Maybe it's nice to leave those open to the reader, but it felt like the book was asking me to do too much of the work. If anyone's looking for smart, engaging storytelling on these subjects, you should just listen to the Charles Manson's Hollywood series on the You Must Remember This podcast and then you should read Joyce Carol Oates or Diane di Prima on being a young woman in the 1960s. Or if it's girlhood and murder you're interested in, see my notes on Tana French's The Secret Place below.
I know it seems lame to reread with so much great new/unread stuff out there, but sometimes you just gotta revisit a personal fave.
The Secret Place - Tana French writes eerie, weird, intriguing, character-driven mysteries set in contemporary Ireland. She has a series of books called the Dublin Murder Squad, of which this is the fifth. I reread it in preparation for the sixth, which is coming out this fall, and in the process I was reminded that this is one of her best. It focuses on a group of teen girls at a boarding school and contains some of the most evocative writing about girlhood that I've ever read. Recommended for fans of Megan Abbott.
Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? - I remembered thinking that this was a remarkable book the first time I read it, but boy, it was even more astounding on re-read. Bechdel is a graphic novelist who made her name with the serialized strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" and the memoir Fun Home (now also a much-lauded Broadway show), which was about her complicated relationship with her father, among many other things. I used to teach Fun Home in my American literature courses when I was in grad school; I think it's one of the best examples of the unique power of the graphic narrative. Are You My Mother? is, perhaps unsurprisingly, about Bechdel's mother, and, more broadly, about psychoanalytic theory, especially the work of Donald Winnicott, and it also stuns me with the complicated work it does with juxtaposition of text and image to convey so many rich layers of meaning, emotion, and depth. Ugh, it's SO GOOD.
The Psychothrillers (Qu'est-ce que c'est?)
I absolutely cannot resist a good page-turner. My favorites in this genre tend to be written by women (including the above-mentioned Tana French) and finding good ones is a challenge in this post-Gillian Flynn world where everyone is trying to write the next Gone Girl (HINT: almost no one can). But there are sometimes winners to be found. The books listed here are all pretty typical of the genre, and the genre relies on going in not knowing what's going on, so I won't say much, but know that they are listed here in order of quality, both of the writing and of the central mystery. (They are all also set in the UK, which may be just a coincidence, or may be a reflection of my undying Anglophilia...)
Ruth Ware, The Woman in Cabin 10
Susie Steiner, Missing, Presumed
Flynn Berry, Under the Harrow
Science Fiction/Fantasy &c.
For a very long time in my youth, this was my favorite genre. I read less of it now, but there are definitely some very interesting things being written.
V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic - This one was a recommendation from a friend that I thoroughly enjoyed. It's been a while since I dove into a completely new fictional fantasy universe. I don't always feel like I have the energy that it can take to buy into the necessary world-building. But this one was painless in that regard and quite entertaining as a standalone story. I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series.
Blake Crouch, Dark Matter - This is one of several books on this list that I got as part of my new membership in the recently relaunched Book of the Month Club. (That's a referral link, in case you're interested. It is 100000% worth it if you're the kind of person who wants to read more new releases.) You may remember this as a feature of garish ads and pyramid schemes of your childhood, but the new incarnation is way cooler than that. This book was picked by Maris Kreizman, who has just been named as their new Editorial Director (DREAM. JOB.) and it's really best to go in knowing as little as possible. It was a fun and VERY fast read and I can't wait until someone makes a movie out of it, because I guarantee that will happen. Recommended for fans of Kelly Link's short stories and Black Mirror.
Glen Weldon, The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture - Glen is a regular member of the panel on Pop Culture Happy Hour, one of my all-time favorite podcasts and a scholar of all things comics. He's also a very fun, funny, and accessible writer; even as a comics neophyte, I felt very welcomed and included by his prose, which is not always the case in deep-dive nerdery. It doesn't hurt that he also has some super insightful things to say about how the culture's changing relationship with the (over-)loaded signifier of the Bat-Man describes the arc of nerd culture toward current complicated trends.
Padma Lakshmi, Love, Loss, and What We Ate - I got a free copy of the Top Chef judge's memoir and have read a few chapters. I keep it at my desk at work in case I forget to bring a book to read during my lunch break. It's *fine,* but her writing style can be way over the top (it seems like she never met an adjective she didn't like) and I'm not particularly driven finish it with any haste.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun - This was another recommendation from a friend, and it makes a lot of sense, since I loved Americanah, but I got kind of a slow start with this book and haven't given it the attention it deserves (mostly because I keep going for the cheap thrills of 24-hour binge reads like The Girl in Cabin 10 and Dark Matter...). But it's at the top of my list for fall, along with Lucy Knisley's new one and Lindy West's Shrill. Keep an eye out for notes on those coming up soon!
PLEASE tell me what you've been reading and enjoying (or not!) this summer. My To Be Read pile can never be too big and there's nothing like a personal recommendation to bump something to the top of the queue.