I’ve been cleaning out my bookshelves in preparation for our move East, bidding final adieus to textbooks that have been gathering dust since 2004 (“but what if I need to reference Coleridge?” “I might want to look up something in Critical Theory Since 1965, you never know…”), and making non-trivial decisions about which books I must have on my much-smaller bookshelves in New York, and which I can — or should — let go. (And, I’ve been taking great pains to re-sell or donate the latter so they have a second life! If you’re local to Chicago, considering donating to Open Books, a literacy non-profit that will take your gently-used books and use them to help teach others to read! They had a dropbox convenient to me, too, at Halsted and Chicago!) As with most closet cleanses and bedroom purges, it’s best to be quick about it, or you wind up — as I did — thumbing through old books from high school, pausing over cryptic notes in the margins, lingering over old birthday cards and notes-to-self and ticket stubs I’d used as bookmarks. The detritus of my life as a teenager, a collegian, a graduate student, a child, then a child-posing-as-an-adult, and then–yes, it’s true, an adult — all of it fluttering out of the pages of these yellowing, dog-eared books. How funny, the way the books I read and loved are in their own ways time capsules to a different era, a different headspace, a different me, and not only because of the flotsam and jetsam stuck between their pages, signifiers of those times, but also because their subject matters and plotlines and heroines mirror my interests and aspirations at those times. I found a pair of books of Elizabeth Bishop poems — a poetess I hadn’t thought about in, say, a decade? — that had once meant so much to me, with their stark, highly-detailed, New Englander texture. I remember marveling over their coldness, so different from the flowery confessional or romantic-type rhyming pentameter I’d formerly classified as “poetry.” I found a sequence of Evelyn Waugh books I’d read cover-to-cover on a binge while trying to impress smarter classmates in my early college years, longing to be able to say: “Oh, I’m re-reading Waugh right now.” (Ugh.) I thumbed through my copy of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the daunting subject of my M.A. thesis, and grimaced: I should have taken on something smaller, easier, more manageable, something I could actually wrap my head around. But my tidy notes in the margins brought back the feeling of genuine intellectual exertion, and I longed for it — momentarily. And then there were easier books, happier books read on the beach (including my favorite beach reads) that brought back the feeling of vacation and escape, of caipirinhas on my honeymoon, of girltalk with my friend E. on the beaches of Delaware, of lazy afternoons spent poolside at my parents’ home in Florida.
When all was said and done, I think I shed about 10 books.
Oh well: I’ll make it work somehow. There are worse things than to be surrounded by books you’ve lovingly collected over decades of life.
And with that ode to the book under our belts: October’s Book Club Picks. But first: a sorry confession. After whipping through nine books last month, I barely muddled through four this one. Between moving to New York and beginning the weaning process, the amount of time I’ve allocated to reading has, sadly, dwindled, so I didn’t even get through all the books I’d set out to. Still, my reviews on what I did read (including a surprise entrant):
Book Club Pick No. 1: Startup by Doree Shafrir
Three stars. The lovely and smart Grace of The Stripe recommended this book to me, and I’m glad she did. The personas that populate it — namely “the start-up bro” — are eerily spot on, and it’s impressively accurate in its representations of the nitty gritty of startup finance, product design, and early stage company culture. Shafrir handily deflates the over-hyped, over-glamorized startup bubble with a true insider’s know-how. My two frustrations with it? First, the verisimilitude she strives for in her dialogue, which, yes, seemed realistic for the millennials exchanging it — i.e., littered with “like,” “yeah,” and profanity — but was absolute drivel to read. I left the book promising myself I’d double down on my efforts to strike the word “like” from my vocabulary. It’s a wretched filler word and a sad reflection of the lazy way we speak to one another nowadays. I’m also not sure what it achieves from a literary standpoint aside from the fleeting thought: “OK, this seems realistic.” My second gripe with the book is the insanely over-simplistic ending, which essentially boils down to: “all white men are evil and not to be trusted.” It felt like a lazily tacked on finale to a book that bore a lot more promise in terms of navigating the cultural nuances of one of the most powerful and scrutinized sectors in the modern economy. The plot was disposable, but the depiction of start-up life were juicy and well-done.
Book Club Pick No. 2: Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Four stars. I loved Olive Kitteridge, so I was excited to take on Strout’s latest collection of short fiction, its cheesy title notwithstanding. As with her earlier work, Strout charts a pattern of loss and destructive behavior — often played out in familial dynamics — in her sprawling network of interrelated short stories. Strout is exceptional at character study, and this collection does not disappoint: the way she paints people, their quiet dramas and discoveries, is nothing short of breath-taking. They are believable, yet inscrutable; there is nothing pat or cartoonish about them, no matter how fleetingly they enter the plotline. She is able to conjure round characters within the span of a paragraph, while lesser writers unwittingly churn out flat characters over the course of many chapters. I felt this collection was more heavy-handed than her prior, though — at some point, I felt like she was bludgeoning her readers with the same patterns of dark and abusive behavior followed by shattered familial relationships. My sister said she found streaks of hope scattered throughout the collection, but I left it with a bitter taste in my mouth. Strout is the Edward Hopper of literature: all is sparse, lonely, angular, played out across big, unwieldy planes. Definitely worth a read, though — it did win the Pulitzer Prize, after all!
Book Club Pick No. 3: The Girls by Emma Cline
Five stars. Epic. Easily one of the best books I’ve read in the past five years. Cline’s prose is astoundingly rich, intricate, ornate — and it seemingly came out of nowhere: this is Cline’s first novel. The sheer accumulation and precision of detail in this work is mind-boggling, while also deeply appropriate given that much of the book recounts the busy inner life of a teenager coming to terms with herself and her sexuality. She captures the hyper-sensitive awkwardness of girlhood to the letter, and I found myself underlining every other sentence, nodding my head, puzzling over how Cline had captured those sophomoric emotions and thoughts just right. The haunting plot is also deftly built and framed: within the context of interacting with a girl teetering on the edge of bad decision-making, the protagonist looks back on her youth, when she got caught up with the wrong crowd (#understatement), ominously joining a cult against the backdrop of the the mutinous and wild 1960s. Everything about this book is perfect. (And, also, very creepy.)
Book Club Pick No. 4: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Two stars. I felt a little awkward reading this given its outright caricaturism of Asian culture, but I needed something light and easy after Cline gave me the creepy crawlies, and this one came recommended by a friend as a solid beach read. It was like cotton candy — sweet, airy nothing that turns cloying and sticky after awhile. It was an overlong, flimsily designed love story shot through with anecdotes of obscene wealth and name-dropping: the book felt like a long chain of vignettes revolving around private jets, mansions, designer gowns, insane jewelry, celebrities. I’ll admit that it was a nice mental vacation coming off of Cline, but it ended up taking me a long time to finish: it grew tedious.
October Book Club Picks.
Several of these are leftovers from last month’s selection I didn’t quite get through, with a handful of newcomers. We’ll see how well I fare this month:
Shakespeare’s Kitchen by Lore Segal. A set of interrelated stories, several of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, focused on the relationships of professor Ilka Weisz, a recent transplant to a think tank in Connecticut.
Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser. At the suggestion of so many of you lovely bookworms in response to this. I had to buy it, even though it’s not available in Kindle format, because it takes place on the Upper West Side, where we plan to live in NYC! The crib notes: “At each stage of her courtship―from her first date with “Mr. Latte” (a near-disaster) to her first uneasy dinner at his parents’ home, from intimate suppers in her Upper West Side apartment to his first attempt at cooking for her―Amanda supplies menus for the meals they share: more than one hundred well-balanced and well-seasoned recipes that will leave you satisfied yet wanting more.”
Please share your thoughts on the books above!
ALSO: What are you reading?