Wednesday, March 5, 2014

February reading

On my last round up post someone asked how I'm managing to read so much, which makes a lot of sense because I'm definitely getting through more books these days. The secret is a new bus commute that's about an hour each way, so, sadly, I have no tips to pass along (other than trying to encourage people to check out public transit?). I try to reserve my commute for reading. It can be tempting to start checking my email on my phone, but I don't do it unless there's a five alarm emergency going on at work that really can't wait an hour. Messing around on my phone makes it feel like a time I need to fill, rather than a time I get to use, which is how I want to see it.

TransAtlantic - I loved this book. It consists of layers and layers of history, centered around Ireland but involving multiple historic and fictional characters. The three main threads are the first non-stop transatlantic flight, Frederick Douglass on a book tour in Ireland and George Mitchell helping broker the Good Friday Agreement. I can't imagine how much research it must have taken, but it ends up feeling effortless in the best way possible. The writing is lovely, of course, I'd expected nothing less after reading and loving Let the Great World Spin a few years ago.

Dept. of Speculation - This is a slim, beautiful piece of writing. I kept stopping to underline phrases and then re-read paragraphs. You can easily tear through this one, but I wanted to slow down. It's a simple premise - tracing a woman's adult life in bits and pieces but the voice is perfect - humorous and honest and beautiful. The plot is not the point. I liked the lack of detail, the way the writing felt like memories and the way the timeline played out with occasional jumps. I re-read it within a week of reading it, because it felt like it was over too fast.

The Dog Stars - This is my FAVORITE book I've read in ages, I think. It is an apocalypse novel, which I'm prejudiced towards, but even if you don't love reading about a post-disaster world, you could love this book. One of the things I enjoy about dystopian novels is the landscape - the eeriness of a world so sparsely populated, the cities silenced and abandoned. This novel focuses on the actual landscape rather than the usual rubble. There are lots of descriptions of quiet rivers and canyons and forests. There is a lot of fishing. I was more than half in love with the narrator, who pilots around in an old Cessna and carefully wraps his old dog Jasper in lovingly scavenged quilts. The language feels exactly right for the character and the writing is beautiful in a completely non-flowery way.

Garlic and Sapphires - I read Ruth Reichl's other memoirs a few years ago and really enjoyed them (and now want to re-read them because I can't remember everything). In this latest one, you get a behind the scenes glimpse of her life as a food critic, which entailed numerous disguises. Did I sometimes feel the agonizing over the deeper meaning of her disguises was a little tiresome? Yes, but it seems like it was a real issue to her. I was (gleefully?) surprised that she was willing to dish so much dirt on her NYT colleagues. Her original restaurant reviews are sandwiched in between the chapters where she discusses researching them and it was a good structure for the book.

Cool, Calm & Contentious - A book of humorous essays. I love humorous essays, especially autobiographical ones and I enjoyed most of these. For a crazy dog person, I have to say that I did not love the ones about her dogs. I think there are some thoughts that should remain internalized and the voices you give to your dogs are probably included.

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites - I read a lot of memoirs and I still cringe a little when I try to criticize them. Memoirs are a special class of writing because they're dependent on a combination of events, writing and character. You don't have to have all three things going for you. I do think they are fair game for criticism, particularly when written by an established author, but it's difficult because it's easy to sound like you're saying I just don't like this person. But I just didn't like this memoir. It felt both exhaustive and superficial to me and it turned out to be less about indulging appetites than denying them, as the author describes thinking about food but rarely eating it due to a deep desire to be thin. This could have been interesting, but because the denial wasn't really acknowledged with much depth, it just ended up feeling like an unexplored issue. Similarly, there are chapters and chapters about difficult relationships without any real intimation of what exactly is making them so difficult. I felt uncomfortably squirmy when the author described routinely crying in restaurants all over New York, but then, I have a fear of crying in public that probably borders on emotional repression, so maybe that's just my baggage.

The Dinner - This was a pretty intense book. There isn't much I can say about it without giving it away and it's a book that really shouldn't be given away. Which leaves me in a bind. The story took a really dark turn pretty quickly and I considered abandoning it, which is saying something, because I routinely read books about serial killers who hide victims behind wall paneling. This is a different kind of disturbing. I loved the writing, I enjoyed the structure of the book and I was impressed that the author could pull it off, frankly. But I'm not sure I would recommend it to anyone I know.

State of Wonder - A science fiction-y novel set in a Brazilian jungle. I enjoyed the crazy plot but I wasn't particularly moved by it.

Jack Reacher series 1 - 6 - These are re-reads for me. The series sometimes has a miss but on the whole I love the declarative sentences, the detailed descriptions of weaponry and the occasionally unbelievable plots. And no, I did not see the recent movie because I was horrified by the idea of compact, dark haired Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher.



31 comments:

  1. I just read The Dog Stars and LOVED it too. It made me want to walk up into the mountains and stare at the stars, wonder what it's all about. I also loved Let the Great World Spin, so I am adding Transatlantic to my list.

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    1. YES, me too! That book just *felt* so good.

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  2. The Dog Stars is easily the best book I've read in several years and I've found that very few people have heard of it. I'm glad others are finding it. Peter Heller has a new book coming out in May and I can't wait to get my hands on it, especially since it is partially set in New Mexico, where I have been living the past couple of years.

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    1. Oh, good to know! I'll have to keep my eye out for that!

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  3. I loved The Dog Stars and am proud that the author is a fellow Coloradoan! I also "enjoyed," if one can say that about such a sinister book, The Dinner. I have been interested in The Dept. of Speculation, too!

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    1. Sounds like we have similar taste, so I bet you would love Dept. of Speculation! The writing is gorgeous.

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  4. Tom Cruise is no Jack Reacher

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    1. Yeah, I felt like that was just an insult! But then, I have no idea who I would cast (notoriously terrible at theoretical casting decisions because I can never think of any actors that seem right for anything).

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  5. Uh oh-- I just started The Dinner and after reading your blurb I am quite terrified! I do NOT do scary books/movies so maybe I should just put it down now? Thanks for the other recommendations!

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    1. Oh no! Don't let me discourage you! It isn't keep you up at night scary or anything. Disturbing is a much more accurate way to describe it. You don't need to do scary to enjoy it. It is TENSE, because you are curious about the decisions the characters will make, but no one is jumping out from behind things, you know?

      More thought provoking than scary,maybe? The central plot premise is one I have a big issue with, which is what made it so disturbing for me. I'm not sure everyone would be as upset by it, although anyone would find it upsetting.

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  6. I know it's strange, but after reading this list I am most interested in reading The Dinner. I think I will give it a whirl since I'm still in a dark place from We Need to Talk About Kevin. Plus, I know it's all the rage right now, but have you read The Goldfinch? It actually is a really great book,...which can partly be attributed to the fact I had absolutely no clue about the plot.

    And also thanks for all of your wonderful posts. They are so sincere, useful, and wonderful that I get so excited every time I see you update in my Feedly.

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    1. Ha! I think it's because I couldn't give anything away so it ended up reading like a teaser!
      I haven't read the Goldfinch yet but I am currently 256 on the library wait list, so maybe sometime in the next three years?

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  7. I have just added The Dog Stars to my want to read list on Goodreads. Thank you for sharing! :)

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  8. I wish I could read on the bus or in a car. I am, as ever, thankful for my 10 minute walking commute, but it would make other trips far more pleasant!

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    1. Yes, I am so lucky that way! No motion sickness at all in my family. My parents loved road trips with two kids obsessed with reading. The only issue was arguing with us about why you can't have the interior car lights on when driving at night.

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    2. I ended up listening to all of the second Lord of the Rings book on our way to Florida on discman when I was 17...it was 20 hours long. Thank goodness now for podcasts, at least. Those do keep one rather busy.

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  9. I just started an hour+ long bus commute into downtown Seattle and I can't even manage to look at my phone without getting carsick, let alone read a book! I love your attitude about using this time rather than filling it. Right now I'm able get caught up on my favorite podcasts, so it's not a total waste. Adding The Dog Stars to my goodreads list!

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    1. Oh, I'm always so sad to hear that! At least we have podcasts now! I'm incredibly lucky not to have any motion sickness at all.

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  10. Reading your book round-ups is always inspiring. I've been making a conscious effort to read more when my son goes down for his naps rather than just mindlessly scrolling through the Internet - the time goes slower, and I actually feel refreshed. "The Dinner" looks right up my alley, and looks like you piqued everyone's interest as well:)

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    1. Yes, I find reading so much more refreshing than phone scrolling! It's tempting to just check instagram, but I always feel better if I use the time to read.

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  11. Just wanted to you to know how much of a comfort and inspiration your blog is to me! I moved to LA for graduate school and always enjoy your posts & their honesty. I always refer to your reading, food, and money management posts! Thank you! xx

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  12. I finished Dept. of Speculation last night a loved it. Did not like The Dinner.
    My husband reads all the Jack Reacher books, but they are not what I like to read. He said the movie was terrible. I have Transatlantic on my kindle and remember I need to read the second half and Let the Great World Spin. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was pretty good, if you haven't read it.

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  13. I just started the Dog Stars and am loving it. Such a beautiful read. Thanks so much for your book posts. Your recommendations have ended up being some of my favorites the last couple of years!

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  14. the quilts! the quilts killed me. and the enviro-descriptions really were fantastic - i loved that peter heller got to roll out all of his outdoor-writer skills for this. i don't think novelists have to be religious about sticking to what they know, but it can be so satisfying when they do (see also norman rush and his writing about living in africa).

    i am one commute in on the goldfinch - my own library number finally came up again - and am pretty skeptical. will report back again in a few days.

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  15. also, your description of the dinner totally intrigued me and i just finished a library copy of it - you're right, the writing is impressive. perhaps we shall have to have a secret conversation about it so as not to spoil it for potential other readers (though like you, i'd have a hard time recommending it to someone).

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  16. I've just come across your blog and am loving it, so am reading older entries - and I too couldn't STAND Kate Christensen's book - it was poorly written and not insightful (in a meaningful way - she thought that she was insightful, but she wasn't) and I really didn't like it! RE: state of wonder - I love, love Ann Patchett but couldn't warm to this book - I agree, it was missing its heart or something. I also felt like she missed an interesting discussion re: fertility and aging - as in, where do we stop? Thanks for the great post! I'm off to check out some of these other books. You should read Ann Patchett's new non-fiction book, "This is the story of a happy marriage" - it's a compilation of her essays - so beautifully written and moving.

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