Friday, June 25, 2010


*Part 2 will post shortly following this one. Book reviews are always long-ish, and I've also farmed some of them out. And thanks for being patient; I know it's been a while.

Summer Reading lists are everywhere.

NPR, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Boston Herald, Barnes and Noble, Oprah.

You can't get past the first week in June without seeing what feels like 8 million "Must Read Summer Reads." Sometimes, the lists are good. But sometimes, it's just a collection of Jennifer Weiner or Jody Piccoult novels for women who want to attempt to read on a beach after 8 mojito margaritas. Which is fine. That's probably the only way to get through and understand a Jody Piccoult novel anyway.

For me, I like a little bit more coherence for my summer reads. But, I'll be honest, I also don't want to read Edwig Danticat or whatever else Oprah is trying to tell me will "level" me and change my life. Not over the summer anyway.

In the summer, I want to fall in love. And lately, I've been lucky. Because there are several books (most not about love) that have perfectly fit my summer literary longings. This, of course, means they might not suit yours. Which is why I want to trade. I'll tell you mine, you tell me yours. Will be summer book swingers on the quest for the perfect fling. But I have to warn you. Because, sometimes what starts out as a fling becomes a deep, maddening love.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

It was 1 of the 5 finalist this year for the Man Booker Prize which, if you don't know, is basically the British Pulitzer. It's a big, big deal. And the fact that The Little Stranger was a finalist is an even bigger deal. Because it's definitely NOT an Oprah Book. Or even a Man Booker book in the traditional sense. Because it's not some geo-political, post-post modern, New Yorker type tripe.

It is a thick as a brick, Victorian style, claustrophobic, absorbing, obsessive, possessive novel. Be warned now: This book will OWN you. And I mean this in a good and a bad way. Because, honestly, for about the first 200 pages, it's slow. Not a lot happens. But, for some weird reason, you can't abandon it entirely.

Full disclosure: I can leave books. No, really. I can start and then NEVER finish a book. If it loses me, it loses me. Sorry. I love reading more than 99.9% of the population, but life's too short to read all the good books out there, so if something isn't working, I move on. There are too many other treasures waiting.

Which is why my first few days with The Little Stranger were just so...well...strange. I wasn't absorbed, and yet I couldn't pull the plug. It had gotten inside me somehow in an uncomfortable "It is my duty to see this through" kind of way. And then I got to "the event." You never see it coming. Ever. But the book turns. It pulls the rug out from under you in an all too believable and engrossing way. And're done. You realize that the book owns you from then on. (As if it didn't really all along.)

What follows is a brief publisher's synopsis. But my two cents: Just go buy it. Now. And don't give me lip about it still being in Hardback. Use a Border's coupon or buy a used copy offline. The Little Stranger has earned your money.

The Little Stranger follows the strange adventures of Dr. Faraday, the son of a maid who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. One dusty postwar summer in his home of rural Warwickshire, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline—its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more ominous than a dying way of life? Little does Dr. Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.

The Millennium Triology (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) Steig Larsson

I've already referenced this in an earlier post, so this review will be brief. But, at the time of the aforementioned post, I had yet to read the third and final installment. So, now having finished The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, I can tell you, firmly and unhesitatingly, that you should read the series.

I am a marquis sales skeptic. All those years of "classical" education and Faulkner and Proust have inevitably turned me into a detestable book snob. But I like Steig Larsson. And I like these books. And yes, they aren't great literature. But, really. Who cares? The stories are great. They move. They absorb. They are fruitful for discussion. You stay up all night finishing them and you think about them later. And, really, isn't that what Proust is supposed to do too? So, fuck off if you think you're too good for these novels. You probably shouldn't be reading this blog anyway.

For those of you who don't really know what the series is about, it's technically about a shadowy, anti-social, haunted girl named Lisbeth Salander and a hyper-active, amiable journalist-come-detective named Mikael Blomkvist. Over the course of the three novels, we see how they come together to solve the mystery of a friend, only to be lead into the mystery of Lisbeth's past. But, really, that's not what they're about. If I had to condense it down, I would say the trilogy is ultimately about "social justice". Is social justice ever possible? Really? Because, ultimately, how do you measure it? Who dispenses it? And is it possible to maintain your morality in the face of the injustice the starts it all in the first place?

What would Lisbeth Salander say?

The Magicians Lev Grossman

His name really fucks up my shit. I mean, it is one letter away from being Les Grossman, who, if you've been living under a rock, is this guy.

Also known as Tom Cruise. Les Grossman is his character from Tropic Thunder that got him that Golden Globe nomination. So yeah, Lev Grossman the author of The Magicians has a problematic name. Word to the wise, Lev: pseudonym.

Turning to The Magicians, I am not really sure how to feel. Because I'm not in love. Not at all. But I'm not repulsed either. It's more tepid than either of those emotions.

The best way I can explain it is this. Think back to being 17. You've moved past feeling attracted to Tiger Beat teen idols and are suddenly conscious, all the time, everywhere you go, of Men. Like, you find yourself out to a nice dinner with your parents and you see but don't really notice the floppy haired boy from the rival high school sauntering in with his Chuck Taylors and shit eating grin. Instead you are fixated on the guy in the corner. He's maybe 35 and is wearing a non-descript but crisp white business suit, talking quietly into his cell phone while he scribbles something adult and important on a napkin. Then, he clicks his phone shut just before getting up to hug the tall slender woman in the red dress who is late, and as they sit down, before he hands her the wine list, his fingertips kind of graze the outside edge of her hip. It's nothing really. This gesture is not inappropriate in any real way, and she probably barely registers it at all, but for you, it's like the single most erotic thing you've ever seen in your life and all you can do for the rest of dinner is sit sulkily across from your parents and watch that man out of the corner of your eye while you burn up inside. Then, the next day, you're at the beach and the same boy with the Chuck Taylor's who was also there at the restaurant comes up and talks to you and says he saw you last night and don't you have some of the same friends? You kind of remember him, but he's nothing compared to the man in the white shirt. But he's here and you're at the beach, and he wears Chuck Taylors which is a good sign, and he is really cute in the truest sense of the word. So you give it a go.

This is how I feel about The Magicians. Not that The Magicians is a cute book. It definitely is NOT. It's basically a book about the dark under belly of magic and magical worlds. It's what Harry Potter and Narnia would be if they were infected with all the problems of 21st century American greed, mal-content, and post adolescent angst. It's the anti-Narnia then. But for all it's attempts at philosophizing and maturing the "supernatural young adult genre," it still feels juvenile. The writing feels, at times, pre-pubescent. Don't get me wrong. It's not a Bad Read. There's a lot of good stuff here. It is worth a day or two of your time. But that's about it. Because, at the end of the day, it's a bit too precocious for it's own good. It tries to be just a tad more grown up than it is. It's a little like the boy in the Chuck Taylors.

1 comment:

  1. Alright, I will confess a secret: I am afraid to read books. It's a rational fear, really...They consume my entire being. I haven't completed any book, though I've started quite a few, since The Deathly Hallows. My book/Potter fever had me unconsciously narrating my breakfast in the style of J.K. Rowling. (I'm an excellent imitator, by the way.) I must add, however, that it happens with movies too. Star Wars comes to mind. (Nerd alert)

    Now, I must also add that I have read quite a bit in the past few years, although it all falls under the umbrella of Musicology and related academics.

    I'm not sure these days if I prefer nonfiction or am scared to dive back into fiction. I did try to read "The Raw Shark Texts" by Steven Hall, a Memento-esque and critically acclaimed novel, but it was just one of those books that had to be shelved.

    That said, my continuing non-fiction list is as follows:

    1. "This is Your Brain on Music," by Dan Levitin.
    Like the other books on this list, this is one I have yet to finish, but it is so. good. This book combines two of my very favorite interests, music and brain neurology. There's also a good smattering of psychology and anthropology in here as well. This book answers, to the best science can understand it today and in a language that is academic yet comprehensive to the layman, questions like how jingles get stuck in your head and why pop music sounds the same.
    Get it.

    2. "My Booky Wook," by Russell Brand.
    Listen to his interview with Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" and admire his mastery of the English language and extremely quick wit, with charm to boot. I'm not one for memoirs but comedians get it right.
    Listen to it.

    3. "Bonk: The Mysterious Coupling of Science and Sex," by Mary Roach.
    Okay, okay, this also combines two of my favorite things: sex and awkward scientists. If the title alone doesn't get you, Roach's casual yet intelligent approach will. Sorry, there are very few illustrations.

    And finally, check out my *partial* wishlist, if you like, on Amazon ( to see what's what.

    And Leanne, excellent post, especially the bit about seeing the 35-year-old guy. You took me right back to Chili's in 10th grade. Definitely want to check out your first two recommendations. Side note: Have you checked out