Recent Reads: Seating Arrangements, Home Front, and The Girl Who Played With Fire

seating arrangements, home front, the girl who played with fire

Seating Arrangements (Maggie Shipstead): For some reason, I tend to read a ton of books like this – books where a group of over-privileged, dysfunctional white people gather at some idyllic New England setting (always on the water) for a big event (typically a wedding) that reveals just how screwed up they all are. Given that, it’s clear I like the genre – but I didn’t like this book very much. The story is told through the perspectives of various family members but especially focuses on the patriarch, Winn, who is one of the most pathetic and out-of-touch characters I’ve encountered recently. The focus on Winn ruined the book for me; had Shipstead developed some of the book’s more likeable figures instead, I think I would have enjoyed this more.

Home Front (Kristin Hannah): If you ask me, Kristin Hannah is the new Jodi Picoult – she writes books that are incredible readable, that you can’t put down, and that you still nonetheless realize are a bit heavy-handed and cliche. Home Front, about a female helicopter pilot who is deployed to Iraq, felt a bit like Army Wives to me – that is, cliched and something that would appear on Lifetime (okay, I’ve never actually seen Army Wives, but this is what I’d imagine the show is like). I admit that I did tear up at multiple points, but overall I thought the book slipped into corniness too often. I’ve also noticed that Hannah’s stories tend to feature certain recurring characteristics: broken relationships between spouses, uber-bratty teenage daughters, and letters from loved ones received after their death. This doesn’t make Hannah’s books bad, per se, but I feel like she should try for a bit more creativity rather than falling back on the same devices.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson): This book started out really slowly; I’d say the first 200 pages or so were rather uneventful. For instance: did we really need to hear so much about Lisbeth’s solo travels, particularly given that they didn’t have much relevance to the main plot line? However, once the central mystery was revealed, the story kicked into gear and the book became difficult to put down. The Girl Who Played with Fire was also fascinating in its reveal of Salander’s past, helping explain why she is the peculiar way she is. Overall, the book was uneven, but the exciting latter half made it a pretty good read.

(Reading 27 new-to-me books is part of my 27 for 27 list. These are books #10-12. Look here for books #1-3, #4-6, and #7-9)

All images via Goodreads

Recent Reads: On Chesil Beach, The Art of Fielding, and The Newlyweds

It’s summertime (for grad students, at least), and that means I finally have time to read for pleasure once again, which is a glorious feeling. Here’s a look at what I’ve been reading lately:

on chesil beach, the art of fielding, the newlyweds

On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan): This was a strange little novel; it’s just over 200 pages and I’ve owned it for years but never managed to read it despite its brevity. The book takes place over the course of one night – the main characters’ wedding night – with flashbacks to how they met. To get through this book, you have to resign yourself to the fact that it’s not about a plot (nothing much really happens), but more about creating a sketch of the two main characters, of their emotions and quirks and inexperience. Overall, I kept getting the sense that I was supposed to find the book much more profound than I actually did. In fact, the only part that struck me as particularly thought-provoking came on the last page of the book, with this line: “This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing.” That’s good stuff. The rest of the novel? Not so much.

The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach): At one point last summer, seemingly all of my friends were reading this book (and raving about it). Needless to say, I had high expectations going in, and this is the rare book that met them. I was a bit hesitant that this would be too much of a “baseball book” for me, but it’s not at all – yes, baseball is a huge part of the story, but the book seems to use it more as a metaphor for life in general, which I liked. The book tells the story of five people – three baseball players, the school president, and his daughter – at a small liberal arts college is Wisconsin. Harbach creates five well-defined and memorable characters, and I was totally rooting for all of them, messed up though they were. I also loved the novel’s ending, which is becoming something of a rarity for me these days; it wasn’t wrapped up perfectly neat and tidy, but the resolution was quite satisfying.

The Newlyweds (Nell Freudenberger): This novel tells the story of Amina and George, who meet online and wind up marrying, with Amina emigrating from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York to be with him. Having just taken a course on immigration law, I was distracted the entire time I was reading this novel – I kept thinking about everything I’d learned from class about citizenship and visa requirements (cough, cough, law nerd). In any case, I was initially fascinated by the strangeness of George and Amina’s relationship and by Amina’s attempts to adjust to life in the US. I finished the entire book in a day, unable to stop reading because I had to know what would happen next. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed – Amina became increasingly unlikeable, and the novel seemed largely unresolved at the end. I couldn’t help but think there was so much more story Freudenberger could have told about the fate of George and Amina’s marriage.

(Reading 27 new-to-me books is part of my 27 for 27 list. These are books #7-9. Look here for books #1-3 and #4-6)

All images via Goodreads

Recent Reads: Sweet Tooth, Winter Garden, Firefly Lane

I made it one of my goals this year to read 27 books (for my 27th year…get it? So deep), and I’m currently about two books behind the pace I need to keep. However, the end of the semester is in sight (thank god), so hopefully I’m about to become a reading machine (of non-legal books) once more. Anyway, here’s a look at books four, five, and six:

sweet tooth, winter garden, firefly lane

Sweet Tooth (Ian McEwan): I’ve read lots of McEwan’s work, and he has a style that I find distinct – and that I enjoy – but that I struggle to describe. Maybe it’s that, even when describing mundane events, the prose is so smooth and detailed that I can easily become engrossed in it? I’m not sure, but I do like his writing. And I liked Sweet Tooth, although the I found much of the book slow moving and I felt like many of the references to events in 1970s England were matters I couldn’t fully appreciate or understand. This book was a slow burn, but I especially liked the last chapter which, through a neat narrative trick, makes you rethink much of what came before.

Winter Garden (Kristin Hannah): This book tells the story of two daughters learning about their mother, Anya’s, past in Russia. It strongly reminded me of another book I read recently, The Storyteller, in that both novels revolve around an elderly woman telling her descendants a horrific story about surviving an atrocity during WW2 (here, the Siege of Leningrad; in The Storyteller, the Holocaust). And as with The Storyteller, I found the historical portion of the novel much more compelling than the novel’s present; even though it’s difficult to read about the conditions in Leningrad, you won’t be able to put the book down. I was ready to declare that I loved this book until I got to the very ending…there’s a “twist” that seems unnecessary. The book should have ended a few pages earlier, with the conclusion of Anya’s story and her reconciliation with her two daughters. The development that follows is ridiculous and cheapens the story’s power.

Firefly Lane (Kristin Hannah): After reading two Kristin Hannah books back-to-back, I can definitely say I liked Winter Garden much better than this one. The problem I had with Firefly Lane was that it’s a story about two best friends, and one of them is extremely unlikeable. It’s hard to enjoy a story where you find one of the main characters to be selfish, insensitive, and just annoying. This book also reminded me a lot of Judy Bloom’s Summer Sisters – two best friends, one “good” and one “bad,” and a guy who seems to love both of them at different times. However, Summer Sisters was much better executed and more compelling; this novel seems lacking in comparison. Firefly Lane is an easy read, and it’s entertaining enough, but I didn’t like it much.

(Reading 27 new-to-me books is part of my 27 for 27 list. These are books #4-6. Find books #1-3 here.)

All images via Goodreads

Recent Reads: Gone Girl, The Midwife, and The Storyteller

gone girl, midwife, storyteller

Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn): This was the most addictive book I had read in a LONG time (probably since I speed-read through the Hunger Games trilogy a few years back). It’s also a deeply unsettling but meticulous psychological portrait of a marriage and two very (VERY) messed up people. And even though I was expecting some twist, was looking for the clues, was sure all was not what it seemed, when it finally happened – when the other shoe dropped midway through the book – it still shocked me and blew me away. Fantastic read.

The Midwife (Jennifer Worth): After Call the Midwife became one of my favorite television shows last fall, reading the book on which it was based was a natural next step. What’s fascinating about this book is that Worth is writing about a time that was really not so long ago – 1950s London – and yet the world she describes seems completely foreign. Reading about the job of the midwives and the impoverished yet colorful community in which they worked is totally fascinating. Worth has written two other books about her experiences as a midwife, and now I want to read those too.

The Storyteller (Jodi Picoult): Like Gone Girl, this is one of those books that you can’t put down – I was completely enthralled. The story is a gripping one; I especially found the portions of it told by Minka, a Holocaust survivor, to be the engrossing (and, though it might go without saying, the most haunting). Because it’s a Jodi Picoult novel, there was naturally a twist at the end, and because I knew it was a Jodi Picoult novel, I was anticipating the twist and actually figured it out pretty quickly. Between that predictability and between the novel’s rather abrupt ending (I wanted to find out more about what happened to Sage and Leo!), I can’t fully love this book. It was really good, but not quite great.

(Reading 27 new-to-me books is part of my 27 for 27 list. These are books #1-3)

(Images via Good Reads)

Summer Reading Roundup (August)

My summer of reading wrapped up this month (here’s what I read in June and July). I ended up reading a total of nine books, which isn’t bad considering that I probably read two books over the course of the entire previous year. My goal is to keep this up over the coming months…but we will see how that shakes out, given a little thing called “law school.” In any case, here’s what I read in August:

Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayes: Frances Mayes is one of my favorite travel writers – she makes you want to drop everything and move to Tuscany. Her writing is utterly charming. I love how she makes everyday details – cooking pasta, gardening, shopping for linens – seem extraordinary. I also got a kick out of her chapter on Sicily, having visited there myself last summer. I loved that she expressed some of the same things I had thought too (though, of course, far more eloquently than I).

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann: I read the reviews for this book and then bought it a few days later because it seemed like a must read. This was definitely a page turner, and the story developed into something I didn’t quite expect; the book jacket suggested it was the story of friendship over time, but it turned out to be a more complicated psychological drama. Klaussmann is amazing at creating a sense of time and place – the details she includes make you feel like you are there, spending summer on Martha’s Vineyard. And I loved the way she switched between the perspectives of different characters, slowly revealing answers as she went along.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: This story drew me in from the start and, after I was finished, I decided this is the best book I have read in a long while. Morgenstern does a terrific job of writing with a tone that conveys the magic and mystery of a circus; her descriptions were wonderfully detailed and beautiful. She truly conjures up a world that feels magical. I also thought the love story between Celia and Marco, two magicians trained since childhood to duel against each other, was beautifully written. My one (minor) complaint: the world of the circus is shrouded in mystery, and while this adds a distinctive quality to the book, it also meant the ending was a tad vaguer than I would have liked. Other than that, this novel was brilliant.

What did you read this summer?

(Image sources: Kobo Books, Caroline Bookbinder, and Good Reads)

Summer Reading Roundup (July)

My summer of reading is progressing quite nicely and, this month, I kept up my theme from June of reading a diverse selection of books. This month’s books included: a culinary memoir of an American expat in Paris, an historical novel set in 17th-century Netherlands, and a modern classic of Russian literature. Here’s what I read:

The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz: I love David Lebovitz’s blog, so I was excited to finally read his book – and it was as wonderful as I expected. I enjoyed his anecdotes about the quirks of Parisian life, and I cannot wait to try some of the recipes that are sprinkled throughout this book. This is one of those books I simultaneously had to keep reading and yet dreaded reading fast because I didn’t want it to end. Very good, and very funny.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier: This book has literally been on my “to read” list for years and now I can cross it off – and I’m glad I finally read it. It’s an understated and quiet novel, yet I could not put it down. It’s totally compelling. Griet, the protagonist, is fascinating – the way she seems like an average girl, just a quiet servant, and then you figure out how complex she is. Also, the book’s last sentence killed me; it was pitch perfect (trust me on this, but don’t skip ahead to the end just to check it out).

Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: Another book that has long been on my “to read” list. In a nutshell, the novel’s premise is: the Devil comes to Stalin-era Moscow; chaos ensues. Intriguing, right? Though I read the introduction and footnotes, I feel like I would have appreciated this story more if I had a stronger grasp of Soviet history, particularly under Stalin. In fact, sometimes I felt like everything I was reading was one gigantic metaphor, yet I couldn’t always put my finger on what it was a metaphor for. Nonetheless, this was such an original, witty, and humorous story and my paragraph write-up can in no way do it justice.

What are you reading this summer?

(Image sources: The Sweet Life in Paris, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Master and Margarita)

Summer Reading Roundup (June)

One of my goals for this summer? Read, like a lot. I’m doing pretty well so far. This month, my book selection was diverse, to say the least: a comedic memoir, a work of historical non-fiction, and a fictional story of romance. Here’s what I read in the month of June:

Bossypants by Tina Fey: A quick and easy read. It was funny, but I expected…more, somehow? I love Tina Fey, but I didn’t love this book as much as I was sure I would. What I did love, though, were her anecdotes about working on SNL – for instance, how the sketch where she and Amy Poehler play Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton came together. Fascinating stuff.

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff: I love reading books about historical women in power (think Catherine de Medici, Marie Antoinette, etc), so that’s why I picked this up. It’s fascinating to learn about how Cleopatra’s image was shaped by the men who wrote about her after her death, largely to satisfy their own political agendas. Also, as a history nerd, I found it fascinating how the author approached constructing Cleopatra’s history when so much of the source material needed is either missing, incomplete, or clearly biased.

The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan: This is a love story, told through dictionary entries. It sounds gimmicky, but it’s beautifully done and was my favorite book this month. It’s also interesting to try to piece together the whole story through these fragments and scraps. This is the kind of book where I pause and read a sentence over again several times because it’s just so on point. And for the record, my favorite entries were halcyon, ineffable, and punctuate.

(Images via Babble, Washington Independent Review of Books, and Macmillan)