Recent-ish Reads

When I'm at home and not otherwise occupied (meaning, not vomiting or watching the Olympics or season 4 of OINTB), I've been reading. Pregnancy insomnia, plus sauna-type weather outside, plus part-time work grant me ample time to catch up on books that were published years ago. I've been diving into books that keep me enthralled and distracted from nausea, heat, and swelling feet. That said, here's what I've been reading recently-ish: 

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

This book's swirling tale of family dysfunction kept me up until the wee hours of the morning. I'm still not sure if it's more of a plot-driven book than many I've read or if there was something truly captivating about the writing. My suspicion, sadly, is the former. It turns out, not surprisingly, that my standards are much lower when I have little ability to concentrate. I wondered how the author generated so many of the particular plot elements: lamp-inflicted violence, boarding school tug-of-war, an obsession with President Nixon, an almost-kidnapping in Africa, and an experimental jungle-prison. At some points the sub-plots dragged on longer than necessary, but otherwise I found the borderline (or across the border) pathological characters fascinating. Guaranteed to make you feel better about your own family! 

 

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

Interesting, but nothing special. I read the bulk of this book on one plane ride, and while it kept me amused, I would not say I was particularly impressed. Straub encapsulates the struggles of a family on the verge of collapse through the novel's two-week portrayal of their vacation on a Spanish island. The characters weren't particularly quirky or endearing, but there was something about it nonetheless that made me want to see how the vacation ended. 

 

The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits

After a long wait for the Kindle version of this book from the library, I was finally able to read it! It's a series of vignettes, or diary entries, that are somewhat connected and mostly interesting. I wouldn't say the rest of the book was as captivating as the first 10% (which I read as a Kindle sample), but I nonetheless enjoyed reading about Julavits' exploits. As a sometimes-snob about books, this line about observing another family's collection of not-so-literary books in their vacation home struck me:

"I defended the family, knowing them not at all; bookshelves of summerhouses are filled with dishy nonsense, I said. They indicate how a person understands time that is meant to be wasted." (157) 

 

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

At long last I got around to reading this book that everyone raved about four years ago. The format was not what I expected; rather than resemble a typical novel in structure, it was more reminiscent of a collection of short stories, all of which were tangentially related to the titular character, Olive. As the chapters unwind, Strout reveals Olive's fraught relationships and the accumulating impact of her presence on fellow town members. I found myself struggling at times to get immersed in each story, especially for those stories in which the connection to Olive was not immediately clear. Despite the format, I enjoyed the book, though perhaps not as much as some. 

 

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

I picked up this book after finishing Olive Kitteridge, and I have to say, I liked it even better. It's my favorite of the Strout novels so far, though I'm only partway through Amy and Isabelle, one of her earliest books. Strout rendered the relationship between the two brothers (the Burgess boys of the title) in a complex way, avoiding too much partiality. The linear plot assisted in making the book more compelling, and it is definitely one I would recommend. I started to see common elements among the Strout novels character and plot elements: aversion to Jews, homophobia, homes in New York and Maine, suspicion of fundamentalist Christians, fraught marital relations, and more. 

 

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Meh. I'm not sure what all the hype was about. The novella chronicles the relationship of a semi-estranged mother and daughter while the daughter, Lucy, is hospitalized; Lucy's husband, ever so irritatingly, won't visit her, and so she is left with only her mother to keep her company for a few days. I finished it, but I felt that something was missing. If you loved it, please tell me why! 

 

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

One of David Sedaris' recommended books (he recommends a book each time he goes on tour), this is a true gem. As the central family keeps getting dealt a progressively appalling fate, I found myself pulled in, unable to to take a break from the horror they were experiencing. Told from the perspective of the younger brother in an Indian family, the book chronicles the family's move to the US and subsequent difficulties they face. It highlights immigrant struggles, yet it does so much more. At the same time that I couldn't stand how the mother was reacting to her circumstances, I understood her impulses and sympathized with her conflicted feelings.  A heartbreaking, yet irresistible read. 

 

The Opposite of Everything by David Kalisch

After reading a compelling article in the NY Times by the author, I downloaded the sample of this book and enjoyed the first 10%. Yet the book became progressively trite and intolerable as it continued. I really should have given up on it, but I finished it anyway, hoping that it might redeem itself from its vapidity. It did not. 

 

Dietland by Sarai Walker 

Thriller meets feminist bildungsroman. Walker weaves the story of Plum, a fat twenty-something in New York City, into a larger narrative about a terrorist plot to reform media coverage of women while killing off misogynists and rapists. It is an unlikely coupling, but one that works exceedingly well. At times the media commentary feels a bit heavy, but it's so insightful that it's not bothersome. I heard about the book from reviews like this one that highlighted Walker's social critique of the mainstream media's typical portrayal of the female form. I am glad I picked it up when I did; as I grow larger every day (due to the fact that I am creating life!) its perspective on the female body was refreshing. For instance, take Plum's wrenching realization:

 "I’m every American woman’s worst nightmare. It’s what they spend their lives fighting against, it’s why they diet and exercise and have plastic surgery—because they don’t want to look like me.” (Loc. 1406)

Similarly, I have enjoyed the Kindle sample of Lindy West's new book, Shrill, as well as the recent episode on This American Life entitled, "Tell Me I'm Fat.

 

You'll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein

After reading Jessi Klein's article "Get the Epidural" (there's a longer version of the essay in the book) and hearing her interviewed on Fresh Air, I had to read her book. I'm glad I did; it was entertaining, enlightening, and resonated deeply. This comment about being called "ma'am" was one of many incisive yet amusing moments: 

"Men don’t have to deal with the fact that at some point in their early midlife, they will find themselves tossed into a linguistic system that will let them know, in no uncertain terms, that in the eyes of the world, essentially, they’ve begun to die. When you’re called sir, you’re being called the same thing that James Bond is called." (Loc. 2167)

 

In Progress ... 

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout

I'm a few chapters into this early (1998) Strout novel. While it definitely feels like an earlier book, I'm enjoying reading about the unfolding, complex relationship between the titular mother and daughter. 

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I think I meant to read this several years ago, but I'm just now getting around to it. There was no waiting list for the Kindle version at the library, so I downloaded it and began reading it this week. So far, I'm intrigued. 

Thanks for reading! 

Join me over at Goodreads to see more recommendations!