2015 is over in 38 days.
With a little over a month left in the year, this is typically about the time that I start to exhibit a panicked recommittment to my annual reading goal.
A goal I have not met once in the three years that I've been attempting it.
Every year since I started this blog I have attempted to squeeze 50 books in before New Year's Day. And for the past two years I have failed miserably. This year though, with the help of an audiobook subscription, several long flights to and from east coast weddings, and so many great new books out, I've already beaten my previous record.
Over the past four months I've tackled the good, the mediocre, the practical and the books that I couldn't wait to be done with. Like, as in I literally increased the reading speed of audiobooks to almost 2x their recorded pace so that I could get through them faster. And it was still too long.
But I digress... here's my take on what I've been reading (and listening to) lately.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
I spent the better part of August and the beginning of September deeply immersed in the world of The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer's 2013 novel about a group of friends who meet at a summer camp for creative teenagers in the '70s. The Interestings covered some of my favorite topics: growing up as a creative kid in a New York City suburb, the relationship between creativity and talent, trying to make it as an artist in New York City, feminism in the arts, jealousy, the inevitable priority shift from friends to family as you age, and the many historical milestones of the past 50 years.
However, despite the fact that these are areas of great interest and the fact that the characters and their world seemed wholly formed and real, the book was missing a few things for me. There were no outstandingly pretty lines or fresh, deep thoughts about any of these topics, two things that I feel had to exist to warrant the vague comparisons to Franzen's Freedom. And there was no closure or release... the book went out with a sigh without any identifiable growth in its characters from their teenaged selves. But I guess, maybe that was the point? That being said, I did appreciate its dedication to not give into easy plot pits, its honesty and its relatability. All things considered, The Interestings is a pretty legit summer read, perfectly capable of allowing the reader to escape into another world without having to think too hard about it.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
One of the great shames in my life as a reader was that I had never read Vonnegut. That is, until this summer. I read almost all of Slaughterhouse-Five in one sitting on the flight back from New York to San Diego earlier this summer when Ryan and I were returning from a wedding and I loved every minute of it. An absurdist novel about time and fate and war and death, Slaughterhouse-Five had me captivated like I haven't been captivated in some time... it's been a while since I read anything in one sitting. It made me feel like a teenager again, when all there was to do in the summer was lay around and read in the air conditioning. More importantly, reading this book left me feeling like I had eaten a really nutritious, satisfying meal, as opposed to the cheap feeling I usually get when I read novels these days and walk away feeling like I just ate potato chips for dinner.
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
I honestly had no idea what The Gift of Fear was about when I downloaded it on Audible, only that Amy Poehler raves about it in her books of essays, Yes, Please. Now that I do, let me break it down for you: this book is about making you terrified to watch something as benign as Pretty Little Liars in the dark when you're home alone at night, especially if there happens to be a full moon.
Well, not that situation specifically of course, unless you're specifically me.
Bottom line: this book had me walking around for weeks, wide-eyed and terrified after listening to several hours of horrific true life tales of girls who were raped, attacked, kidnapped and murdered, many in the places they feel safe.
On that uplifting note, if you ever, like I did, had a crippling fear of home invasions, do not read this book: it will make it hard to be home alone for a while. It does nothing to help you with irrational fears. In fact, it instead tells you that by walking around constantly afraid, you're actually ruining your fear reflexes by distracting yourself constantly, Boy Who Cried Wolf-style. Which just makes you afraid of being afraid for fear that you're burning out your fear reflex. Did you follow all that?
If however, you have a problem firmly saying "No" to strangers (as I definitely do not) in seemingly harmless situations, even when your gut is telling you that something is off, then yes, let this book scare you a little. Personally? I can scare myself just fine, no Gift of Fear necessary. But! This book would make for a great graduation present for high school girls headed off to college!
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
WTF. Look, I know that's an anti-hipster, anti-psuedo intellectual response to anything Miranda July-y, but seriously: what in the actual fuck is this book?
I, like many a wannabe literary twentysomething, liked July when I read her short stories and essays or saw her films during my early twenties. I thought there was deep, unusual meaning in the weirdness, a brave freedom in the provocative subject matter. But now? A decade later, having read her first novel, The First Bad Man, the summer before turning 30? I honestly can't even. Related concern: am I getting less cool?
Though I typically try not to spoil books when I write reviews, I don't mind spoiling this one because I hope it will prevent other readers/listeners from unwittingly having to suffer the same uncomfortable, awkward experience that I endured. This book is about Cheryl, a middle-aged woman who, if there were such a thing, would be a high risk on the Baby Snatcher Watch List.
Cheryl, who spends most of her days telepathically talking to babies and arranging her kitchen according to her OCD tendencies, has an infatuation with a 60-year-old man who is dating a 16-year-old girl. The first major conflict of the book is that the couple (for some highly inexplicable reason, because neither of them know Cheryl very well if at all) want Cheryl's blessing so that they can engage in statuatory rape. She gives it, then starts seeing a therapist who is open with Cheryl about her own involvement in a BDSM relationship with another doctor at the practice who is cheating on his wife. The therapist makes Cheryl pee in takeout containers during their sessions because the bathroom is too far away. Next, Cheryl's married bosses's 20-year-old daughter moves in with Cheryl because Cheryl has not read The Gift of Fear and therefore cannot say, "no."
Cheryl and the daughter develop a wordless understanding that both of them would like to beat the shit out of each other on purpose and they spend months participating in their own private Fight Club on the kitchen floor. Obvs they develop romantic feelings for one another, the daughter gets impregnated by a random coworker at Ralph's, they raise the baby together and then the daughter peaces out and leaves Cheryl to be the kid's mom. The end.
The worst part? I left out the weird stuff. You've been warned.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
Definitely the buzziest book of the summer, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is an entire book about... tidying up. Well, decluttering, if you want to be really accurate. And it is, in fact, life changing.
Praised and discussed by book clubs and lifestyle blogs everywhere, it's not hard to get the main gist of the KonMarie Method. The gist is this: Kondo tells you to gather all of a category of one thing in your house (for instance, all of your clothes, all of your towels, all of your purses), pick up and hold each item individually and ask yourself, "Does this spark joy?" If the answer is no, toss it. This book is against the old method of going through your house room by room and offers no storage solutions. In fact, storage is the antithesis of the KonMarie method.
Instead, this is truly about thinning out your belongings so that only possessions that spark joy remain. Sure, there are parts of the book that are sort of weird and OCD-ish, mostly cultural differences like talking to your possessions and being concerned for the way they feel when they are stored a certain way. But for the most part, this book does two very important things very well: it inspires and it gives you permission to get rid of belongings you may otherwise feel like you need to keep out of obligation, fear or practicality. And while I haven't KonMarie-ed my house just yet, I definitely plan to purge this year!
Will I Ever Be Good Enough? by Karyl McBride and Ghost Mothers by Kathryn Rudlin
I read two non-fiction books this summer about the relationship between mothers and daughters: one by accident and one on purpose. Will I Ever Be Good Enough? was my accidental find, and perhaps one of the most eye-opening books of my adult life. This is one that I will read again and will happily recommend to other women who are interested in exploring the sometimes complicated dynamics of that relationship.
Ghost Mothers, on the other hand, was read with very non-accidental intention. After researching more on Dr. Karyl McBride and her writings, I learned that she trains others in how to execute her recovery methods. One of her trainees happened to live right here in San Diego and I learned that she had written a book as well. More actionable than anecdotal, Ghost Mothers is a nice next step for those readers who related to WIEBGE?.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
After reading Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham's efforts in this genre and finding them very enjoyable (with the sole exception of Dunham), I figured I had to get over my fear of listening to Mindy's voice for hours on end and give her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? a shot on Audible. And I have to say: I'm glad I did. This book was a sweet, funny, easy summer listen that gave me a new respect and appreciation for Kaling. Even her voice grew on me after a while and now I understand why so many girls wish she was their best friend: Kaling is like that sometimes annoying, often entitled, and occasionally blunt and bratty friend that is nonetheless bright, hilarious, empathetic and completely lovable. Which is reason enough to make me genuinely look forward to her next book, Why Not Me?.
Big Sur by Jack Kerouac
Another embarrassing confession: for all the poser protestations and proclamations during my youth that I love Beat writers and Bukowski, I have never read Kerouac. While in Big Sur earlier this fall, I picked up a copy of his novel by the same name and was immediately drawn into his world. Kerouac writes pretty lines, he writes with an honesty that is hard-fought and a kindness towards others that too often goes unrecognized. And Big Sur is a heartbreaking book, one where the reader can witness Kerouac's final descent into madness, where his life really starts to unravel before he died a few short years later. Now that I've finally read the Beatnik-est writer of all, I only want to dive further into his bibliography and read everything I can get my hands on. But to be honest, I'm glad I read Big Sur first: it's humbling for the idealistic reader and reminds us that the pedestal we put him on created the fall that literally killed him.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Fortitude. I recently read an article about why it's important to finish the books you start, to see a book through even when you would rather walk across burning coals than read (or listen to) another sentence. It helps instill fortitude, the author argued, and I have at various points in my life, agreed with her. My personal philosophy on finishing things has wavered over the years, from being hellbent on finishing books even if I hated them to deciding life was too short to read something I didn't like. But I stuck with H is for Hawk for the same stupid reason I downloaded it in the first place: pride. I'd heard about Macdonald's memoir, particularly the audiobook version which she herself narrates, from several notable authors, book sellers and publishers on a few early Best of 2015 lists. So I downloaded it. And I was proud.
The book, which describes Macdonald's grief over the sudden loss of her father and her decision to buy and train a goshawk as a coping mechanism, was supposed to be a very acclaimed, intellectual read. And I was very smug with myself for buying such a highbrow book. Sure enough, at the beginning of the "fall" months, I decided that I loved the mood set by Macdonald's British accent and her descriptions of nature in the UK, while I was sweating out San Diego's eternal summer. But that was only for the first hour or so. Very quickly I realized that I still had ten hours of audiobook to go and it was becoming fairly obvious that this book would never really have a point.
Unfortunately, I was right. Between her long tangents about the mentally unstable author T.H. White (a long-dead, closeted homosexual sadist with pedophile tendencies) whom she was obsessed with throughout the book, and her existential crises about her aversion to death in spite of the reality of using her hawk to kill, I can honestly say I walked away from this book with nothing. Not one thing... well... except fortitude, of course. I feel bad for Macdonald's loss and she seems like a super sweet (if not a tad eccentric) lady, but this book was not for me.
2015 '50 Books' Progress: 13/50
With a little over a month to spare, I managed to exceed the total number of books I read in both 2013 AND 2014 (note: not combined)! Thanks audiobooks! Here's to inching towards 50 in the remainder of 2015!