Summer Reading

“August is the Sunday afternoon of summer.” That’s what one of my co-workers said to me once a few weeks ago. And boy, is it ever. As summer is now rapidly approaching the state of officially “over” (especially if we consider September to be the equivalent of Monday morning), it feels like a good time to do a Summer Read Recap of books that especially stood out to me.

Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

Well, I just loved this book. I think the last time I fell this hard for a work of character-driven, straightforward literary realism was… maybe The Corrections? Anyway, this novel has definitely deserved all the praise it’s gotten so far–it’s a delightful, absorbing read that was a true pleasure for me to tear through on yet another long plane ride. The main reason I enjoyed this book was the main character–I REALLY related to her in a very personal-feeling way: her sense of humor, her struggles, her so-called mistakes, her ambiguous feelings about returning to her childhood home vs. living abroad, her wry observations about American culture (this in particular absolutely MADE the book for me). Basically, this book contained a wonderful perspective for me to sink into and escape in over the course of a few days. Isn’t reading amazing?! The opportunities it gives us to walk in someone else’s shoes! It makes me think of this quote by the poet Mary Ruefle that I absolutely love (and yeah, Mary Ruefle probably ranks for me as the #1 best discovery I made this summer), about reading and its effects on us:

“In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again… That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult.”

Yay reading! Also, the things this book has to say about race in Africa & the U.S.A. are also very interesting and relevant. An ambitious, risky and highly commendable work.

Speedboat (Renata Adler)

What a weird book–pretty much the opposite of the “straightforward literary realism” I was just praising. Speedboat is narrated entirely in seemingly unrelated, fragmented anecdotes, one after the other, was first published in the 70’s and has received a lot of attention after being republished last year. I would definitely call this a short story collection rather than a “novel”–one of the “chapters” even won the O. Henry Short Story Prize (“Brownstone,” a good stand-alone piece which has a killer last line: “The truth is we are probably fighting for our lives.”)

On the level of the sentence, this book is impeccable: the writing is consistently very strong and clear and I found myself underlining phrases on almost every page. Overall, though, I finished this book with a great sense of relief, happy that it was not any longer. This was truly an innovative and strange reading experience, but to be perfectly honest, I now find myself struggling to remember any one truly specific, singular anecdotes from it. Maybe that was the point? To have everything blur in together?

It’s also a good possibility that this is the kind of book that needs more time for my poor brain to absorb and appreciate–my initial impression of Lydia Davis didn’t consist of over the moon praise either, but since then my feelings about her work have changed DRAMATICALLY (I assigned oh so many of her one-sentence stories to my students to read this summer!). Maybe that’s the point of difficult, innovative literature–it takes time to truly sink in.

Here are some of my favorite sentences from Speedboat that I was able to type up and save:

“I often wonder about the people who linger over trash baskets at the corners of the city’s sidewalks… Sometimes I think they are writers who do not write. That “writers write” is meant to be self-evident. People like to say it. I find it is hardly ever true. Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all.” (pg. 28)

What is the point. That is what must be borne in mind. Sometimes the point is really who wants what. Sometimes the point is what is right or kind. Sometimes the point is a momentum, a fact, a quality, a voice, an intimation, a thing said or unsaid. Sometimes it’s who’s at fault, or what will happen if you do not move at once. The point changes and goes out. You cannot forever be watching for the point, or you lose the simplest thing: being a major character in your own life.” (55)

There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots. At a slower pace, in a statelier world, the equations are statelier… But here, the inevitable is being interrupted by strangers all the time… Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta; they are shuffled and dealt, then they do or they do not come out.” (170-171) [Is this perhaps the book’s mission statement? To present “shuffled stories” like solitaire, because we no longer live in a stately, slow-paced, plot-driven world? Wow, if this is what Adler thought during the 70’s, I wonder what on earth would she think now…]

Severina (Rodrigo Rey Rosa)

I LOVED THIS BOOK! I didn’t take any notes about it though!! Damn, that’s why I need this blog–if I don’t write about a book right away, the specific things I loved about it just… fade away into the ether. But broadly speaking, this book has many great things going for it:

  • It is extremely short
  • Borges plays a very important role
  • One of the main characters is a book thief (i.e. a shoplifter)
  • It is filled with unexpected twists and turns
  • It reminded me of/made me rediscover this essay I read once long ago and still love oh so much.

That is all.

Personae (Sergio de la Pava)

Another challenging read for me. I didn’t “get” most of this book while I was reading it, but I got it at the end… I think. Overall, I still by far prefer A Naked Singularity (the #1 book I would recommend to pretty much anybody, apart from Hawthorn & Child). Nontheless, Personae is a cool follow-up: a very ballsy, avant-garde book involving dead bodies, detectives, musicians, really freaking dense philosophy, the legacy of One Hundred Years of Solitude in Colombian literature and the fucked-up legacy of Colombian violence for rural peasants. So yeah, this is not really the kind of book to read when you are super exhausted and busy most of the time (as was the case with my life when I read it, which is maybe why I struggled). It’s the kind of book where you really need to Pay Attention and Use Your Brain. It’s probably the weirdest book I’ve ever read, structure-wise, since Wittgenstein’s MistressAlso, it didn’t help that the main chunk of text in this book was a Satre-Beckett-like play, a style that has never really been my cup of tea. But I really liked the final section, and the other part about the guy swimming in the ocean (very David Foster Wallace-esque). Like he says in this badass interview, this book isn’t perfect, but it effectively achieves what it’s clearly aiming to do: a work of fiction that is decidedly innovative, broken and new. Sergio De La Pava is definitely still the man. Kudos to him for writing something that is so decidedly “anti” novel–even anti-short story collection.

Favorite quote (didn’t jot down page number, sorry!):

“Is the artist cursed, blessed, blessed to be cursed or cursed to be blessed? Just plain cursed, Antonio came to believe. How else to characterize an activity that in no apparent way benefited its creator but rather functioned more like a just-shy-of-mortal injury every time it was engaged in? There was simply no way to tell.” 

The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)

I read this book because I wanted something light and non-stressful to read on a long flight, as well as when I was getting my hair colored. So, okay, in that sense The Goldfinch definitely served its purpose as a Lite Summer Read. I also ended up reading the whole thing–I didn’t give up or throw it across the room in disgust, so that’s something to consider too. Um… what other positive things can I say about this book… I guess there’s definitely a lot of Things That Happen in terms of Moving the Plot Along. I suppose that’s the main reason I kept reading it: because I knew that every chapter or so there would be a BIG LIFE CHANGING event, and that helped me not be bored. I suppose it’s reminiscent of a jam-packed 19th-century novel in that sense.

However, this event-driven tendency made the parts in which nothing happens (namely the final section in the hotel room) all the more notable for how much they dragged and felt so unbelievably tedious. For example, we get this loooong section of the main character all suicidal in a hotel room being like waaah where’s my passport, and then his friend shows up and is like lol I have it your problems are all solved. WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THAT SECTION. Other than having the main character be in the hotel room forever while his best friend did all the interesting stuff? Basically, this book made me feel like I was reading a vague Charles Dickens homage: you have a bland, flavorless narrator surrounded by a quirky supporting cast who are essentially what drive the book forward and make it readable.

Ultimately, I don’t think I’m as hysterical or as scathingly hate-filled as James Wood was about this book… but I definitely am like wtf this won the Pulitzer? Ultimately, I just don’t… get it. I mean there’s parts where the language is good. Nice use of details. And yeah, again, I finished it. But it like turns into a bad action movie at the end. And why does Boris the Best Friend get to do all the interesting stuff? I kind of just wanted him to be the narrator. And why are all the female characters so DITZY and annoying and pointless ninnies? What was the point of his crush on the manic dream pixie girl? WHY does it end in this loooong expository essay-like ramble? Apparently some people found it very beautiful and moving, to have the book summarize its themes in the last 20 pages, but to me it just felt like the author hitting me over the head, forcing the Big Important Themes of the previous 750 pages down my throat.

Again… whatever it is about this book that made it intoxicating and unforgettable for other people… I just didn’t get it. Maybe I just have an icy cold heart of stone. Maybe I’ll meet someone who loves it and can passionately make an argument about its virtues who’ll make me reconsider. In any case, kudos to the author for writing something this long and plot-driven, which I imagine is exceedingly difficult to do. Ultimately this wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m definitely still interested in checking out her other books, specifically The Secret History.

The Buddha in the Attic (Julie Otsuka)

Beautifully poetic and daringly original. So concise. Every word so well chosen. It’s almost like reading a prose poem. Historical fiction at its finest. You can really tell that she worked like a mother****** on this, editing every word down until all that’s left is essential. It must have been an incredible effort, writing in a plural, communal voice and sustaining it over the course of the entire work. I am probably never going to forget this book. As a bonus, I gave my summer students this excerpt and most of them loved it as well. As an extra bonus, Junot Diaz included it on his syllabus.

Friendship (Emily Gould)

A pleasantly light, guilty pleasure novel that 100% fulfilled its purpose as a Classic Summer Read: something easy, effortless and entertaining. This book isn’t perfect but it was a good distraction, and cathartic in a way that HBO’s “Girls” never is for me. Or maybe I just prefer Emily Gould’s melancholic tone. Or maybe I just, like, relate more to Gould’s older characters. Ultimately, I liked this book because I derive a great deal of pleasure from reading about people coming oh so close to screwing up their lives beyond repair, and then somehow, someway, slowly but surely creep back towards redemption. It makes me feel more hopeful for myself and my own silly little life… : )

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