Reading Roundup: July/August

Some books are particularly good to read in the summertime. Typically I do most of my reading on subways and bus commutes, but summer offers new venues, like beaches or road trips. Because I was out of the house so much more for work and play, only a few books were good enough bring home to my couch–that meant I was reading en route but the book was too good to put down when I got home, despite other temptations like television and sleep.

Books worth reading on the couch

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile. As predicted earlier this summer, I continued to really love this book–seriously, just stunning writing. It made me really feel how little I know I know about agriculture and the rural South despite living in Southern cities for the first 24 years of my life. I’ve never been interested, but the author makes rural life fascinating, beautiful, and terrifying.
But the ending though. So abrupt. And poor Ralph Angel never really evolved in this story. Maybe that’s the point–some sad combination of his circumstances and his choices continually kept him from growing into the person he desperately wanted to be, and if it’s wearying to the reader to watch him fail at everything he tries, that is likely the intent. Maybe I should just deal with my feelings about that. But it’s the only aspect of this gorgeous novel that is hard to love.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. A prequel to Practical Magic, which was published more than twenty years ago. Look, unpopular opinion or not (probably not), I think the film adaptation of Practical Magic is better than the book. But I still enjoyed the book, a romantic and quasi-Romantic fantasy about beautiful and powerful women, transformative and life-threatening love, and magical interpretations of natural phenomena. The Rules of Magic is much the same, plus a little nostalgia for midcentury New York. It was a cheesy, charming read that I started reading on the train to New Jersey, continued on the beach, and then kept reading when I got home all warm and drowsy from the sun.
“What are you reading?” asked my gentleman friend, dropping by for a nightcap.
“A sexy witch book,” I told him. That’s pretty much it.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I started this earlier in the summer–it’s not a difficult book, just a long one. The hardest part is getting through the early chapters, in which dozens and dozens of characters appear for the first time with three names apiece, and then the Battle of Austerlitz which itself appears confusing and chaotic as it is experienced by the characters, in addition to being the first time we meet some of them. After that, it’s an absorbing read–a miss-your-subway-stop read–as characters scheme and seduce in the drawing room and on the battlefield. Closing the book made me miss the characters I’d spent 900 pages with, so I’ve been watching the recent BBC adaptation (which is astonishingly tight, in part because it makes some subtext into text) and look forward to sitting down with the cast recording of Natasha, Pierre, and the Comet of 1812 and following along with the lyrics, as I did for Hamilton.

Books to read in bars

Yes Please! by Amy Poehler. Happenstance brought about several consecutive afternoons of killing some time in a bar, having a drink alone while waiting to meet up with friends. On these occasions I was happy to have this playful, occasionally silly book on my phone rather than the enormous tome of War and Peace on the counter. This may be faint praise; there are some rough spots where the author is not quite as clever about racism and intersectional feminism as you’d like to see your heroes be. But I did love the chapter about the creation and production of Parks and Recreation.

Books to read on the road

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter. Do I mean Krysten Ritter of Jessica Jones and Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23, two television series I love? Yes, I do! Is she a good writer? Well, this book is intended to be a gritty and suspenseful thriller, not a literary masterpiece. It was not as gritty as the cover promised, but it was interesting enough to merit a spontaneous read-aloud on two hour-long legs of a road trip. I highly recommend this as a form of entertainment! I skimmed along and just read the juicy bits, and I am sure I missed a few relevant plot points, but we had more than enough material to milk all the hard-boiled one-liners, bar scenes, and surprise twists for all they were worth–and complain aloud to each other about the loose ends. A+ reading experience, would repeat with a different thriller.

The Floating World, by C. Morgan Babst. Not completely intentionally, I ended up reading most of this either next to the water or in transit, where the grassy marshes and pastel seashore houses of New Jersey reminded me of the long lakeside stretch of I-10. The Floating World takes place in New Orleans in the three months after I moved away from that city: 2005, Hurricane Katrina, then Hurricane Rita.
As a caveat, I tend to shy away from media about New Orleans. I have my own cherished memories from living there fresh out of college, when everything in the world was new, and it’s hard to make space for other visions. Parts of Babst’s vision is strangely like mine, and it rankles. Some of the young characters dance on Frenchmen Street and go for burgers at Port of Call, like I did with my roommates. They think about the light and the river and the weight of history. The narrator goes in for first-year M.F.A. turns of phrase–one kiss is described as “his tongue fluttered on her palate” and I almost threw the book away. I think the author’s next novel is going to be stunning. I can’t tell if this one displeased me because of the writing or my jealousy over a city that hasn’t existed the way I knew for twelve years. But I still read it hungrily, and sadly as news coverage of Hurricane Harvey began to come in.

Books on my nightstand (in progress)

A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. My gentleman friend had a copy of this one our recent beach trip, while I had The Floating World. We each finished reading our respective apocalypses side-by-side in the comfort of our room on a day of nonstop rain. Then he lent me A Handmaid’s Tale for the ride home. I had read it twice but it’s been about a decade, and I’d forgotten how vivid and dense with detail it is. I watched the first six episodes of the Hulu series, and there are so many tiny details that I thought were imagined by the showrunners–it is a beautifully designed show–but which actually appear first in the text. It’s weird to say that I’m enjoying it, but I am. As Atwood says in the new introduction, it’s an anti-prediction: telling this story is supposed to keep it from happening.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I’m obsessed with the Twitter bot–out of context, lines from the book sound like prophecies from a gay sea oracle–but I didn’t get very far when I first started reading the book several years ago on a trip to Mexico. I’m hoping to audit a course on the novel that is offered by my workplace–if not, I can’t promise to power through when I have a stack of ARCs and previously owned books to choose from.

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