Friday, September 28, 2018

Recent Reads | August + September



This is about to be a lengthy one...

Normally I only list off one month of reading at a time, but I reached the end of August with a half-completed draft and a stack of half-finished novels I wanted to include, so I lumped August and September together into one post with the intention of resuming normal-length posts in the future. I read 16 books in the last two months (the 14 listed below plus two Agatha Christie mysteries) -- not bad by any means. As usual, I read a mix of literary fiction, nonfiction, short story collections, and essays.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
Difficult to get through but impossible to put down. Tara Westover recounts her life growing up in a hyper-religious Mormon family in Idaho, where preparation for The Second Coming was an ever-present priority, school was shunned as a weapon of the Government, and modern medicine and doctors were seen as unneeded and dangerous. Westover is an excellent writer and does not shy away from chronicling the toll of physical and emotional abuse, particularly when used by family members. Despite the questionable truthfulness of the book (feel free to google to see mixed reports), I found it a fascinating read, and worthwhile for its firsthand perspective on how abuse can shape a person's view of themself and the world, even after they move away from it.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America by Beth Macy
A fascinating explanation of how the opioid crisis started and spread, focusing on small towns in Virginia where the spread of drugs was first unnoticed then explosive. Macy connects the different types of drugs people use: often first Oxy, then after getting hooked -- purposely or accidentally -- spiraling off on to other pills and eventually heroin. Macy doesn't only look at the users' side, but also at the dealers' and the pharmaceutical industry's roles, as well as the various treatment methods available and their effectiveness. Through it all, Macy weaves personal stories with facts, making for a heartbreaking, horrifying, frustrating, but necessary read.

To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder by Nancy Rommelmann*
To the Bridge is journalist Nancy Rommelmann's investigation of the 2009 crimes of Amanda Stott-Smith, who dropped her two children over the side of a bridge, killing one of them. Rommelmann goes back through time, tracing Amanda's life from teenagehood up through "present" (when the book was being written) and chronicling her life as it was known by her friends and family. Though Rommelmann remains neutral in her recounting of the events, she includes her own ever-changing emotional reactions to the narrative as well, telling how she pitied Amanda's backstory while simultaneously harboring resentment and anger for her actions. A mother's murder and attempted murder of her own children is a difficult crime to grasp, and Rommelmann thoroughly navigates this particular case with both heart and professionalism, making for intriguing reading.

If You See Me, Don't Say Hi by Neel Patel
If this debut short story collection is anything to judge by, Neel Patel is an up-and-coming author worth noticing. Each of these short stories is a bluntly honest tale of true human nature, the good with none of the bad held back. Some of the characters follow traditional paths while others rebelliously break them, but they all face weighty situations that show who they really are on the inside.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
A story of how money changes people, how sudden wealth can destroy the community within a family that was bound together by a shared poverty. A short but fully immerse read.

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence
I adored this one. Two hundred and forty pages of a librarian talking about books she loves that gave me a tbr list 20 titles longer and a deep desire to spend all day at my local library. Would recommend to anyone who’s ever gotten emotional over a book.

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter
A solid thriller. As it's a celebrity-written book I was skeptical going in, but the storyline is compelling and well-paced, and doesn't fall apart at the end like so many thrillers do. I read the narration in Krysten's voice the whole time, which makes me think an audiobook version would be a good idea too.

Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything by Anne Bogel
Reading People is Bogel's well-researched collection of various personality and strengths tests that are used to explain people's inner workings but are often misunderstood or misused. Having done many of the tests in the book, I was interested to learn more about them and how they're actually supposed to be used, and bonus: I found out I may have previously mis-typed my MBTI results and spent the afternoon after finishing this book furiously researching the different types to find my correct one.

How To Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
I always enjoy reading Caitlin Moran's writing, in large part because it's so evident just how much Moran loves doing it. Her delight in her own work makes reading her books and essays, even if they cover hard topics, a joy to read. How To Be Famous is no exception. Though it's a follow-up to How To Build A Girl, you don't have to have read the first one to read this one. How To Be Famous is a continuation of the story of Dolly Wilde, a young music magazine columnist who unexpectedly finds herself famous after an unpleasant one night stand with a narcissistic comedian. Moran weaves musings on how women are perceived in the wider world into the story, and the end result is a fun-loving tale that pokes at some of the ills of the modern, more privileged world.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Labelling this as a novel isn't quite right, nor does it really feel like a short story collection. Rather, it's a 400 page series of thoughts, short stories, and facts that intertwine together. While the writing is beautiful - the translator did an excellent job -- I feel like at times it was overly technical, and I often found my mind wandering whilst flipping through the pages. Nevertheless, I feel that though I personally didn't much connect with it, it is objectively a good book with plenty of thoughtful content on the transient and fragmentary nature of life.

Conceivability: What I Learned Exploring the Frontiers of Fertility by Elizabeth L. Katkin
Part memoir and part information guide, Conceivability tells of globally sought solutions to infertility, told through the eyes of Katkin. Katkin follows her own chronological fertility journey, telling what she tried and what did/didn't work, then dives into the science behind the processes and how doctors across the globe tackle the issue differently. As I've never desired to have my own biological children, I have to admit I was a bit baffled the whole time by the never ceasing need to have one's "own" children -- even to the point of picking an egg donor over adopting -- but nevertheless, I found Conceivability to be an interesting book about a topic with which I wasn't previously familiar.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Morrison's books are difficult to review: they're incredibly well written, but the subject matter is often so bleak that normal review phrases don't apply. The Bluest Eye is not an easy book by any means; it centers around race, poverty, and child rape, and the creative choices Morrison makes in humanizing certain characters despite -- or maybe because of -- their actions does not make it any easier. While it's important to read hard things and Morrison is a superb author, this is not a book to be flippantly picked up.

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao
Girls Burn Brighter took Instagram by storm earlier this year, and I'm a little late to the party. As much as the setup seems like something I'd enjoy -- a tale of female friendships spanning the globe against the backdrop of current issues -- I found most of the characters to be one-dimensional and the ending anticlimactic. 

The Radical Element by Jessica Spotswood
I rarely read YA fiction, but I read this as one of the Diverse Book Club's September selections. I was a little disappointed, but I think it's more due to my misconception of the book rather than the book itself. As a short story anthology based on real life events, I thought each chapter would be about a real person, but instead each chapter is about an imagined person set in a real time period or situation. Additionally, the inclusion of magical realism in some but not all of the chapters was surprising to me, and didn't always seem like a good narrative choice.


*I received a free copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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