I’ve been reminded by several people in the past week or so that it’s been “a while” since I’ve written a blog post. At this point, I think most people just assume I’ve abandoned the blog for good. Wait four months between blog posts? NBD. Slip to five months? I’m clearly hanging it up.
Here’s the thing: if given the opportunity to write a blog post about a mediocre book or read another mediocre book, I’m just gonna read another mediocre book. Priorities. But guess what? I actually read a decent book this week! And that, I figure, is worthy of blog resurrection.
196 pages (hardcover)
July 11, 2017
Why I read it: It was an Amazon Best Book of the Month and an Indie Next List pick for July 2017 . . . and it was written by the executive editor of one of my favorite hipster magazines: the now defunct Lucky Peach.
What it’s about: Ruth is a thirty-year-old ultrasound tech, who has just been unceremoniously dumped by her fiancé for another woman. Her dad—a successful, well-liked, charming history professor on the one hand . . . and a philandering drunk on the other—has been suffering from lapses in memory that are presumed to be the early stages of Alzheimer’s. At her mother’s behest, Ruth agrees to move home to L.A. to help take care of her dad for a year. The book is her journal of that time.
I take notes while I’m reading, so I can write these witty and quotation-charged reviews. (You’re welcome.) My first note on this book reads: “I’m going to love this book.” It’s from the first five pages, and it’s right around when I read this passage:
Traffic is worse than usual on the 101, but festive at least. Every window is rolled down. To my right, a tan man in an also tan Escapade has a Christmas song playing. It’s the one that starts like the Pachelbel Canon in D and then some kids start singing On this night! On this night! On this very Christmas night!
He is blasting it, tapping his cigarette out his window to the tune.
You know the song, right? It’s Trans Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Canon” (this one). I don’t know why, but that description really tickled me.
Sometimes, you get an inkling early on that a book is going to be good. When you’re wrong, it’s a huge disappointment (this happens all too often, sadly). But when you’re right? What a treat!
Here’s why I was right in this case:
— The book has quirk. In fact, it has quirk in spades. An example? Sure:
Sugar ants have crawled into the space beneath my laptop keys. This happened after I ate a Popsicle over my computer. They’ve taken up residence and now they won’t leave. For a week they’ve been my tiny advisers.
I’ll type, “What color blouse,” and wait for an ant to come up. If it crawls out from “R” that means “Red” and if it crawls out from “P” that means “Purple,” and if it is a yes or no question, I’ll wait for the ant to crawl out of either the “Y” or “N” or accept whatever comes closest. (I’ve taken “A” for “No”; a “Z” has stood for “Yes.”) The questions tend not to be serious, because—even to myself—I prefer not to appear insane.
— It also has random food factoids (because Lucky Peach. Duh.), disguised as normal, everyday talk, like this:
Today I cooked clams, which I’d never done before. I read you’re supposed to put them in water and throw in a handful of cornmeal, to encourage them to spit out their dirt, was what I read. The clams spat and spat, coughing, like they were afflicted with tiny clam colds.
— It is brimming with charm, but never crosses the line into schmaltz (a tough balance to strike). Ruth’s journal is loosely fashioned after a notebook her father kept about her when she was little. The entries are moments—memories—of cute little-kid things like this:
Today you asked me where metal comes from. You asked me what flavor are germs. You were distressed because your pair of gloves had gone missing. When I asked you for a description, you said: they are sort of shaped like my hands.
— And to top it all off, the book clocks in UNDER 200 pages! Hallelujah! In those 200 pages, it manages to deal with family issues (father/daughter, father/son, husband/wife, mother/daughter, as well as familial responsibility and obligation, generally), relationship issues (dealing with break-ups, getting back on the horse, fear of getting hurt), loss (especially dealing with the loss of someone who is still here).
The material is not light, but the book never feels heavy or grim. The quirk really goes a long way in accomplishing this feat. Khong’s writing is different and a bit weird (two things I can dig), and she is adept at highlighting sweet, unique, and oft-overlooked examples of love.
* * * * *
Last time I wrote and said that I’d read a bunch of books that weren’t worth reading, I got ding-donged for the titles of the not-good books, so people could avoid them. Sooooooo, here are some books I’ve read recently that are *fine*. Nothing wrong with them—I finished them all (which is saying a lot these days)—but nothing to rave about, either. In order from best (of the worst) to worst, here they are:
April 25, 2017
432 pages (hardcover)
I’ve read all of Backman’s other books (links here), and they’re all pretty light and enjoyable. And they’re all exactly the same (old curmudgeon turns charming, featuring a precocious kid). I figured I knew exactly what I was getting with this one, and it would be a good, lazy summer book. Plus, it was an Amazon Best Book of the Month and a Library Reads List selection for April, so I figured it had to at least be decent.
The book is about a hockey town. What is a hockey town, you ask? It’s a town that is cold AF, where all anyone cares about is hockey. Sounds nightmarish to me, but that’s beside the point.
Anyway, the hockey team in this particular town hasn’t been good in a very long time . . . until now. They are currently gearing up for the semifinals, and the kids on the team are treated like heroes. Which means, of course, that at least one of them is probably going to be a real asshole.
Spoiler alert: one of them is a real asshole.
The book is about how the town deals with the real asshole. It looks at hero worship, sexism, and right v. wrong. And it is nothing like Backman’s usual fare (aside from the character-driven nature of the book). Does that make it bad? No. It just wasn’t the cute tear-jerker about a grumpy old person that I was expecting. It’s much heavier. Backman does heavy O.K. He does cute tear-jerkers about grumpy old people better.
The Sun is Also a Star
November 1, 2016
This is a YA book that was on, like, all the lists last year. It’s about two teenagers who meet by happenstance one day in New York City and fall in love. Daniel is a good Korean kid who is headed to his Yale interview to make his parents proud, and Natasha is an undocumented Jamaican immigrant who is on a mission to save her family. Unfortunately, the day they meet and fall in love happens to be the day before Natasha’s family is scheduled to be deported.
The book is short and quick and sweet. It was the PERFECT book for me to take on a recent beach trip. Daniel and Natasha are both likable characters, and the premise (though utterly implausible from start to finish) is super sweet.
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
June 13, 2017
I don’t usually read mysteries or thrillers or whodunits. But this was an Indie Next List pick, a LibraryReads List selection, and Sullivan was the Goodreads Debut Author of the Month. And it’s set largely in a bookstore! I decided to give it a shot.
But let me be forth-coming: murder mysteries are not my thing. I don’t like creepy (I had to stop watching Dexter on Netflix, because it was giving me nightmares). So, it would also be fair to say that I am not the best judge of murder mysteries. Feel free to take the rest of what I have to say with a grain of salt.
In the first third of this book, there’s a suicide in the bookstore and a gnarly, gruesome multiple murder scene where the killer uses a hammer on his victims. Gross. But that comes with the territory, doesn’t it? Even for me, it wasn’t that bad.
What was bad is that it was pretty obvious who the “Hammerman” was. There was no plausible red herring. And, to make matters worse, there was this bizarre and complex system by which the dude who committed suicide left his favorite book-seller notes to uncover the mystery behind his death. But when you really think about the system, it just wouldn’t work.
Nevertheless, it was a nice change of pace for me, and I liked that it was set in Denver in a bookstore that bears a striking resemblance to the Tattered Cover. It’s not the greatest writing ever, but it’s readable and fast-paced.
May 30, 2017
320 pages (hardcover)
This was an Amazon Best Book of the Month for May, and, fun factoid!, it was written by the dude who plays Liz Lemon’s barista boyfriend in the “Cougars” episode of 30 Rock.
The book alternates by chapter between a ten-year-old named Joan Lennon Sully who has HSAM (highly superior autobiographical memory) and her parents’ famous actor friend, Gavin Winters. Gavin has just suffered the sudden and unexpected loss of his boyfriend, Sydney. He is not in a good place, so he comes to stay with Joan’s family to get his shit together.
Joan notices a bracelet that Gavin is wearing and mentions the date, day, and circumstances surrounding the first time she saw Sydney wear an identical bracelet (Sydney was a childhood friend of Joan’s mom, who set Sydney and Gavin up on their first date). Through Joan’s memories of Sydney, Gavin is able to learn more about his lost love . . . including some suspicious activity in the last few months before his death. In exchange for sharing these memories of Sydney with him, Gavin promises to help her write a song for a competition she hopes to win so she can be as memorable to others as they are to her.
Yes, this is a book that seems like it would be quaint and trite and a little sloppy. It is all of those things. It is not particularly special in any way (and the ending is legally implausible at best), but it’s readable.