Beach time! That means those of you who don’t have a rabid fear of water may be in need of a beach read. (Those of you who are like me are in need of heavy medication when visiting a beach.) I’ve been consuming books like Costco snacks these days, in part because of my startling discovery: reading books is about a googleplex times easier than writing them. Plus, if you are reading you can convince yourself you are doing “research” for your novel and not hiding because of your crippling fear of failure.
I’ve read 22 books so far, and lucky for you, I have opinions about all of them (and only 1 of them is about Willie Nelson). I’m in a new phase of reading books that are newly published. Heretofore, I’ve never paid one ounce of attention to that, but now I’m getting off on reading books in the same week they are published. Because HIP! TRENDY! CUTTING EDGE!
So, readers at the beach, by the pool, and in the camp carpool line, this list is for you, lovers of the word.
- What Remains, by Carole Radziwell: It’s a memoir about Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and John Jr. penned by a current real housewife of NYC. The first few chapters are nauseatingly self-indulgent, but it picks up speed. I felt dirty reading this, my interest being purely prurient. Then I found out the author is now a real housewife. What can I say?
- Little Failure, by Gary Shtenygart: Heavy, heavy Russian immigrant-y. Full of angsty stories about how his parents berated him as a loser and his massive struggle to reconcile an early childhood in Cold War with the demands of his new Queens community. Confirms the prevailing myth that a miserable childhood is fertile soil for a young artist. I didn’t feel dirty when I read this, but I did feel a little stupid since Shteyngart is spends a lot of time telling readers how fucking smart he is. That hurt my feelings a little bit.
- Son of a Gun, by Justin St. Germain. Memoir. Riveting story of a son trying to make sense of his mother’s murder. Set against the backdrop of the wild west (OK Corral and Wyatt Earp’s myth looms large here), St. Germain ties his family history’s own violent, love-thirsty lurches for fulfillment with those of the heroes and anti-heroes of the Wild West.
- Salvage the Bones, by Jessmyn Ward. This book was a dark and murky gumbo. The writing was insanely metaphoric—one critic said Ward never met a metaphor she didn’t like. The intense imagery worked though—this book is set in the few days before Hurricane Katrina decimated the rural areas that were destroyed in its wake. There are graphic descriptions of dog fights that wrenched my heart, but what lingers is the pulse of love and loyalty among the siblings and citizens of this little world that was almost devoured by the storm.
- Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan. A light-hearted look at how her mother got the fucking short end of the stick because she was stable, mature whereas her father was flashy and charismatic. (I get a little tired of Corrigan’s father-worshipping). Corrigan views her mother from the lens of her own stint as a nanny to grieving children during a trip to Australia. Full of truths that resonate for all of us with one parent who got to be “fun” and another who was stuck slipping bologna sandwiches into too-small Ziploc bags.
- Splitting the Difference, by Tre Miller Rodriquez. Memoir. Her husband had a heart attack in bed one lazy Sunday morning. It’s as heart wrenching as you can imagine, with some spicy elements, including the “rough” sex they enjoyed and the portal into a dashing NY lifestyle of a young gorgeous couple with no kids. To this day, I wonder if her deceased husband’s mother read the book and if so, what’d she think about their whip-tastic sex life.
- Heartworn Memories, by Susie Nelson. She’s the daughter of legend, Willie Nelson. Her childhood had some sucky parts as her dad shouldered his way to fame and her mother and step-mothers descended into alcoholism. Pretty sure this isn’t in print anymore and I’m not loaning my copy out, so you’re on your own here.
- Cut Me Loose, by Leah Vincent. Okay, she got kicked out of her ultra-orthodox Jewish family for passing notes with a boy. Horrible, right? Of course. The read takes us through all of that and the dozens of marred relationships, as Vincent staggers through her life sexing and trying to find a true connection after being cut off from her entire support system. Frankly, it was exhausting to read and I was dying for something redemptive to happen for the final third of the book. It finally did.
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, By Karen Joy Fowler. This one blew my mind—there’s a secret revealed a quarter of the way in, and it was as stunning as the passage in Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible where the youngest daughter gets bit by the snake. I’m not an animal lover (which I recognize as a severe deficiency in my character), but this book made me want to be one. Read this if you like original material delivered in a unique voice.
- House Girl, by Tara Conklin.Certain passages of this book transported me to the antebellum South, where plantations spread across the land and enslaved people were forced into unspeakably cruel conditions. I admire the scope of this story, but I felt too removed from it. There’s large chunk that is all letters, which was a good device to get the reader information, but it kept me too distant from the soul of the story. Wait until it comes on video.
- Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. No, it’s not hot-off-the-press, but thank god I read this. It’s the story of resilience that is unfathomable. I lost so many hours of sleep reading this book—I could not put it down. This book has the immediacy that House Girl was missing. Prisoners of war are so fucked. If you want to read about one who survived an insane ordeal, starting with a terrifying plane crash into the ocean and weeks lost a sea, only to be rescued and tortured by sadistic Japanese soldiers, well, pick this up.
- Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham. Her father committed suicide, and now she wants to make sense of it. One sort of wants to wish Wickersham “good luck with that.” But she valiantly puts pieces of her father’s past together and what emerges is a picture of a man under pressure to outrun demons, some past some current. Her dad had a ticking bomb inside of him, all the scarier because no one seemed to know. Avoid this if you have a depressed parent or spouse, but if you are in a solid place, give it a read. The writing is good, though the story is a downer.
- Someone Could Get Hurt, by Drew Magary. It’s a comedy book. Picture your favorite blogger (besides me, or I could do in a pinch) whose best posts are witty observations on the absurdity of modern parenthood and the children it serves. It’s funny with just enough poignancy to keep me from writing him off as just another jokey dude. See? I can read light and funny books.
- Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead. Calling all would-be ballerinas. For anyone who’s lost her toenails because of pointe shoes or sobbed because the head of the Boston Ballet told her she was too fat for his company, this book is for you. I couldn’t get through Seating Arrangements, but I loved the language and the story here. Sweaty ballet sex with a Russian defector? Yes please.
- Picking Cotton, by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. Rape survivor accuses the wrong man. After his conviction, the awful truth comes out—an innocent man is serving time for a crime he didn’t commit. Now he must rely on DNA evidence to clear his name. Okay, all of that is compelling enough, but get this: this memoir is written by the rape victim and the falsely accused man. I read it in one day. The forgiveness, heart and humility at the heart of this book brought me to my knees.
- There Goes Gravity, by Lisa Robinson. Hands down, this is the most fun read of the year so far. Who doesn’t want behind-the-scenes dish about the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin? While those bands peaked before my time, Robinson’s book is a rollicking ride through the ego, riches, and career vicissitudes of musical greatness. My favorite chapters were the stars who rose in my time—Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson—but the whole thing… rocked! (Confidential to Lisa: Where is your profile on the mega-stars of country music? See Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash. Or just Willie Nelson.)
- Round House, by Louise Erdrich. A hefty piece of literary fiction, this one. This story had some of my favorite elements: child protagonist, legal gray areas, and a rich sense of a place I’ve never been (Indian reservations in the Dakotas). Like Son of a Gun, the story concerns a son’s search for truth about violence perpetrated on his mother, but in this fictionalized account you get much more, including meditations on Indian/tribal rights and vengeance.
- The One and Only, by Emily Giffin. I already reviewed this book so I won’t belabor the point. I have some things to say about why Giffin commands so much press/buzz when the better writer, Jennifer Weiner, has only a fraction of her following. That rant, which involves discussion of the supremacy of long blonde hair, latent anti-Semitism, and Aryan beauty norms, so you have that to look forward to.
- The Next Best Thing, by Jennifer Weiner. An entertaining read about the realities of running a Hollywood show. Jennifer’s plucky heroine is admirable in her quest to bring “real” looking women to the small screen. I got a little sick of her constant moralizing about it, but overall I enjoyed this glimpse into grueling life of a show runner on a debut series.
- Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. So much to say, but what you really want to know: Is it worth it? The novel is 700 pages plus so it’s a commitment. It’s not a microwave hot pocket, it’s a sit-down-five-course meal with wine accompaniments. Bottom line: it’s worth it. The writing is every bit worthy of that Pulitzer it won. The plot is intricate, but not overly so. The characters were so well drawn, that I swear one day I will run into Boris in the airport. Make the commitment. Support the contemporary, women-authored masterpieces.
- Vacationers, by Emma Straub. This book is coffee gelato smothered in whipped cream and thick hot fudge. Topped with a cherry. It’s totally delightful and surprisingly rich. Deeper than the back cover leads readers to believe. It’s a book where everyone has a secret that is slowly revealed. How Straub shifted among so many points of view without pissing me off is a mystery. I’m buying this for my mom before her trip to Spain next month.
- We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart. I yelled at this book. I couldn’t help it—it shocked me so thoroughly that I yelled, “STOP IT! SHUT UP! NO WAY!” when a certain plot point was revealed. It’s a heart stopped. The language is unique and the story will curl your pedicured nails. So well done. BONUS: I tweeted the author gushing about the book and she tweeted me back. “Thank you,” it said. Read this.