OK, so it’s technically February, but accounting’s never been my strong suit anyhow–today, I’m sharing my thoughts on the books I read last month and the ones I plan to read this one. (More book reviews and picks here.)
*Photo credit: A Splendid Messy Life.
Book Club Pick No. 1: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown.
Two stars. I found the format of this book — narrative interspersed with snatches of the father’s draft memoir — troublesome and sloppy. It felt as though the author couldn’t decide how to write the book and therefore wrote it in two modes; the convention does nothing additive to the plot. In fact, a lot of the “writerly” goings-on of the book (the father is a journalist and therefore tosses random writing observations into the mix here and there) only obfuscate. There’s one chapter that begins: “Jonathan hung his favorite Graham Greene quote over his desk: A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one choose that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. The job of the writer, he’d learned over time, was not to try to tell a story in its entirety, but to tell an inevitably abbreviated version in the most interesting way one could.” Harrumph. Not a particularly stirring vote of confidence in the direction of this book — in fact, the quote only served to make me think less of Brown in that I felt the suspenseful moment she’d chosen to start her book was a bit of a cheap ploy. It’s as if she’s saying: “Hey guys! Look, I’m writing a suspenseful book and I’m doing it by starting at the most suspenseful moment — not because I’m telling a great story but because I methodically sat down and picked the moment that would be the most interesting to start from!”
I also found a lot of the imagery cloying and exhaustingly specific. Early in the book, the father recalls a morning spent on the beach with his late wife, Billie: “Billie uses Jonathan’s bent legs as her chair, her long hair draping down his thighs. She studies the surfers bobbing out at the break as she scoops up sand and lets it trickle through splayed fingers, absently picking out rocks and twigs. Jonathan reaches out and takes a strand of her hair, one of the silver threads that are starting to lace through the dark brown. He rubs it gently between his fingertips, testing its texture, testing the temperature of his wife.”
I mean — what have we learned here? What is the purpose of this level of excruciating detail? (Sidebar: I spent a good minute or two trying to imagine a human using another human’s “bent legs as a chair” (???) and came up dry.) I have a strong feeling this could have been excised or edited down to something simpler and more evocative, but have no sense for why it was left in. Are we meant to know that they were once close, physically? Are we meant to understand the reflective tone of the day? Maybe both of these things, but I assure you that neither of these details bear any importance to the remainder of the book.
That said, I thought Brown did a good job of leaving you wondering. I must have changed my hypothesis as to what happened to the mom at least ten times. There’s artistry there. While the book jacket’s likening of this one to Big Little Lies is preposterous, I will say that if you’re in the mood for a whodunit that keeps you guessing, this fills the void.
Book Club Pick No. 2: The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine.
Three stars. It pains me to award this book three stars because the writing is unimpressive and there were some truly disgusting moments in it (Mom, please do not read this book), but I have to applaud it: I could not put it down. It’s a page-turner and an easy candidate for my list of must-read beach reads. The technical problems with this book are many, including the laughably ostentatious and lazy villainization of two of its principal characters. At one point, I just started to laugh at how absurdly evil the author made these people: she couldn’t let you empathize — not even a little bit! — with either of them, which makes for a wildly simplistic worldview: there are good people and there are bad people. Full stop. Life is, obviously, far more complicated. That said, there is a WILD twist in the middle that makes for happy reading. If you’re looking for a mental vacation, this is your ticket. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.
Book Club Pick No. 3: Sisters First by Jenna and Barbara Bush.
Three stars. I’ve written about this before, but I’m omniverous when it comes to the memoir genre; it’s a special form of fiction. This one is middling. The writing is uneven, and I found myself pondering for long stretches of time whether this was a result of bad editing or, perhaps, the Bush twins’ insistence that they write the majority of the book themselves? I especially disliked the theme-driven format, which often sends us elliptically back and forth in chronology, as we shuttle not only from year to year but from twin to twin and are left feeling fuzzy about the details. Still, the book is full of fascinating insider stories and observations about a political dynasty with considerable celebrity, and it certainly paints Bush 43 in an interesting new light that most readers, I think, will find rather alien from his more popular portrait by the public as a dim-witted rancher. I loved the inclusion of emails and letters from their father and grandfather, which made me realize how sad it is that I rarely write letters anymore. (Ya know, when MY biography is written, they’ll need those! HAR HAR HAR.) There were also miscellaneous moments of useful advice sprinkled throughout that I tucked in my pocket for safekeeping. I especially loved this: “As teenagers, when we would come to [my mom] with teenager-sized problems, she always said: ‘I promise. there are very, very few things worth worrying about.’ And she was right. Now, I wonder if her advice was because she had already worried about heartbreaking things and knew what it was to feel overwhelming pain. She saw our anxieties for what they were: childlike.” I am prone to worry; I need to keep Laura’s advice top of mind — see the bigger picture.
I’m partway through Grant’s autobiography, which is intimidatingly long and prone to soporific expanses of military history, but it feels like it’s worth reading. There is enough interesting commentary in there to keep me on the hook, including the premise, advanced early on, that all of life is fated. Do we agree?
I’m also midway through An Odyssey, which is, at least at this juncture, more of a eulogy than anything else: an ode to a deceased father told through the form of memoir interspersed with literary criticism. I have some beef with some of his over-intellectualized interpretations, but he’s a gifted writer who has already taught me a thing or two.
Next Up at Bat.
Novel: The Address, by Fiona Davis. Set just a few blocks from where I live!
Memoir: Then Again, by Diane Keaton.
Twisty-turny Psychological Thriller That Everyone Is Talking About: The Woman in the Window, by AJ Finn. (Ya know, the NEW Gone Girl – Girl on the Train – Couple Next Door…) Bonus points for the cover design, which feels deliciously reminiscent of the yellowed, dog-eared beach reads of trashy summer novels in the 80s.
More Substantive Fare: On Beauty, by Zadie Smith.
What’s on your reading list for this month? Any reactions/disagreements?
P.S. I love this chic checked blouse (under $60!) — the belted waist would be super flattering, but the print is fun and loud.
P.P.S. I wore a striped dress similar to this one ALL THE TIME last summer — with chic sneaks to run errands and with espadrilles out to lunch. While we’re on the topic of warm weather: this is fun and well-priced and just the kind of thing I’d want to wear on a honeymoon/trip to the tropics with Mr. Magpie, and this is just darling — I’d wear it as a cover-up over this sweet suit with these sandals!
P.P.P.S. So fun for a girl/teenager on her first big trip solo! Or, you know, a grown up who likes fun things.