Virgin Suicides

“So much has been written about the girls in the newspapers, so much has been said over back yard fences, or related over the years in psychiatrists’ offices, that we are certain only of the insufficiency of explanations.” (Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides)

In case you mistrust the title, Eugenides tells you within the first few pages that all five Lisbon girls do end up committing suicide. You read not so that you can see the plot develop, or even glimpse, ghoulishly, the manner in which they chose to kill themselves, but because you keep asking yourself ‘why’, ‘why would they do that’? Eugenides, appropriately, never gets to the bottom of it. He presents his arguments and theories from the perspective of several besotted young men, known only collectively as ‘we’, but in the end concludes that we can only ever guess at the motives of another person.

This book saves Eugenides for me. After The Marriage Plot – perfect until 3/4 of the way through – it took me years to work up the courage to sample another of his works. What if Eugenides just couldn’t write an ending? It would mean that all of that brilliant writing, writing that makes you want to claw your head open so that you can absorb it fully and forever, would be of no use, for it couldn’t produce a book worth finishing. Thankfully, Virgin Suicides ends brilliantly, not with the slow dwindling of the suicide climax, but theoretically, calmly, with Eugenides musing on the change of the American lifestyle and the selfishness and emptiness of suicide.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 243 pages
Ending: theoretical
Incidental Learning: Michigan, 1970’s America
Further Reading: The Writing kept on reminding me of Shakespeare, oddly enough. Sonnet 130 ridicules idyllic descriptions of women, and Eugenides is nothing if not specific, often to the point of grotesqueness. Also reminds me of Roth’s American Pastoral both in its capturing of a time period and in its description of incomprehensible teenage girls.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

“I thought: if I had a view like this to look down on every day, I would have the energy and inspiration to conquer the world. The trouble is, when you most need such a view, no one gives it to you.” (A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan)

a visit from the goon squad coverI’m sure you’ve heard people proclaim “I never leave a book unfinished” like they want you to both award them a scout badge that reads ‘finished every book’, and console them with a gentle back rub. Though I do occasionally power through a book if I’ve dedicated a certain amount of time to it, I’ve never once ended up liking a book for its second half. Every book I’ve started out disliking, I’ve finished disliking, and often actually regretted reading since books and their flaws have the power to upset me terribly.

There’s a saying in librarianship: to each reader their book, to each book their reader. Even if everyone says a book is ‘good’, even if the Pulitzer prize committee says so, that doesn’t mean that you are that book’s right reader. So, in opposition to those martyred book-finishers, I suggest you stop finishing books you don’t like. Put them down, return them to the library, donate them to Good Will, burn them in your backyard. No matter what, don’t feel guilty about not finishing. Instead, joyfully move onto the next book, unencumbered with any pressure to complete that one either.

I wanted to quit A Visit from the Goon Squad about 2/3 of the way through, but couldn’t quite bear to put it down so close to the end. It’s of those ‘nothing but beginnings’ books, a book that attempts to capture a certain time period by zooming in on dozens of loosely related characters, spending just enough time on them to make the reader care, but then denying satisfaction by only hastily sketching their fate. The book kept teasing me with short visits back to earlier characters, then ended with a chapter dedicated to badly-made near future predictions: one of my many reading pet peeves. If only I had put the book down when I realized It wasn’t for me, I could already be half way through the next read, instead of wallowing in the hopeless post-bad-book-blues.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 352 pages
Ending: disappointing
Incidental Learning: Music industry
Further Reading: Reminds me of other just-beginnings books, like Let the Great World Spin (smartly left unfinished), and Ragtime

The Mists of Avalon

“My love for you is a prayer, she thought. Love is the only prayer I know. She thought she had never loved him so much at this moment, when she heard the convent door close, hard and final, and felt the walls shutting her in.” The Mists of Avalon by  Marion Zimmer Bradley

As a kid, if anyone told me that a book was too hard or too mature, it became my mission in life to get my hands on it. On a whim, I insisted on reading Sphere by Michael Crichton aloud to my mom when I was 10. Similarly, when the librarian told me that Puck of Pooks Hill would be too hard for me at an elementary school book sale, I had to buy it immediately. The Mists of Avalon was another one of those early forbidden books. Though I remembered almost nothing of the plot, I treasured the book for years as something mysterious and taboo. Now, reading it as an adult, I see why it was so incomprehensible to me as a child; it is all about the feminine: childbirth, sex, raising children, friendship, etc.

For all I admire what Bradley accomplished with this work – rewriting a male-dominated tale from the female perspective – I have to say that I wish it could have been done a little better, or at least with fewer words. Bradley writes this lengthy novel as if she thinks her readers won’t remember what was said a few hundred pages before, constantly reiterating details and thoughts until the careful reader is exhausted from the repetition. While I love few things better than a long piece of literature, Bradley allows her moral point to eclipse her characters so that she only ends up skimming the surface of motives and feelings, favoring long-winded speeches and arguments over true character development.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 876 pages
Ending: peaceful
Incidental Learning: Authurian Legends
Further Reading: The reading experience reminds me of Ayn Rand, another female writer who places espousing a philosophy above characters.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

“RON: So you’re telling me that the whole of history rests on … Neville Longbottom? This is pretty wild.” (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorn)

HP 8 coverMy top three Harry Potter related dreams are as follows: 1) that Hogwarts exists 2) that there be a new Harry Potter book, and 3) that BBC make a HP TV series that supersedes the movies in every way. Though I’ve known about Harry Potter and the cursed Child for months, I couldn’t bear to let myself get more excited than pre-ordering the book on amazon for fear of being let down. To me, everything Rowling since 2007 has been fiercely disappointing – I cried after staying up all night to read A Casual Vacancy, not because of the dramatic finale, but because Rowling felt the need to prove herself by writing something so starkly realistic and anti-Hogwarts. And don’t even talk to me about Cuckoo’s Calling – I couldn’t get through more than the first few chapters.

About 1/2 way through this eighth installment, it hit me: this is actually book 8 of Harry Potter. This isn’t a Rowling Failure, this isn’t a Phony FanFic, this is it. Perfectly formed: a hint of nostalgia plus a whole new Voldemort-related adventure. A storyline big enough to warrant waiting 10 years, but compact enough to fit into a play format. All of a sudden, my casual reading – sick on the couch with a sub-standard tea – didn’t seem sufficient. This was a reading landmark! Something to be celebrated and something to be savored to the max! It required the perfect tea, the most comfortable chair, and the best my brain could offer in terms of attention. Unfortunately, the book was just too good to fuss with all of those external circumstances, so I finished it just as I was, attempting to summon the required feelings of momentousness between acts and scenes.

So, if you are a Harry Potter lover on the fence about whether to read or not to read – read! And make sure that you are comfortable, full of attention, and have a huge pot of tea.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 308 pages (this is a play, not a novel)
Ending: Ultra satisfying
Further Reading: Reading HP again!

Shades of Milk and Honey

“One must not put trust in novelists, Beth; they create worlds to fit their own needs and drive their characters mad in doing it.” (Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

CoverFresh off a Jonathan Strange binge, I scoured the internet for a read-alike to satisfy my craving for more Clarke-style blending of magic and literature. Shades of Milk and Honey, billed as a combination of Austen and Clarke, caught my eye. Knowing, as I do, that Jonathan Strange already incorporates its own fair share of Austen’s literary style in its pages, I predicted that this work would lean more towards a Regency era lady’s novel than towards Clarke’s complex world building – and I was correct.

Though light fare, Shades of Milk and Honey may be worth reading for those so devoted to Austen that they eat up knock-offs like Longbourn, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, Death Comes to Pemberley, etc, and can stand a bit of a fantasy twist. However, I’d only recommend it if you have a lot of reading time on your hands to throw away on fluff. If, on the other hand, your guard your reading time jealously – only spending it on the the best examples of any genre – save your precious hours for a more tempting read.


Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow Sometime OR Avoid
Length: 320 pages
Ending: As expected: romantic
Incidental Learning: Regency Era Britain
Further Reading: Any of the Austen knock-offs mentioned above

The Magicians

“Are you kidding? That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.” (The Magicians by Lev Grossman)

The Magicians CoverHaving loved Harry Potter since age 11 (I still listen to Jim Dale’s rendition every night before bed), I’m always on the look-out for any book boasting a resemblance to Rowling. Especially intriguing, but also far too commonplace, are the books that claim they are ‘harry potter for adults’. I always hope for something along the lines of Jonathan Strange with a boarding school setting – something literary, where not all the plotlines tie up so neatly. Instead, I usually receive a vaguely magical book with some sex and violence thrown in to ‘grow it up’. Fortunately, The Magicians is a much more satisfactory attempt at adulting HP.

Though The Magicians might not actually be more emotionally mature than its kid counterpart, it’s at least more worldly and delightfully filled with sarcasm, irony, and apathy. Grossman does install some sex and language, to ensure that no one mistakes this for a children’s novel, but it never feels gratuitous or out of sync with the book’s style. The Magicians also emphasizes magical theory, giving our adult-sized brains something bigger to chew on than Rowling’s mostly nonsensical, relegated-to-the-background magic. Presented as a tedious academic experience, Grossman’s magic feels more real and in-line with our grownup expectations.

Recommended Action: Buy BorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 432pages
Ending: Complete in itself until the last page, which leads right into the second book
Further Reading: If you’re looking for other mature fantasy books, try out The Ocean at the End of the Lane and, of course, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

“Woods were tinged with a colour so soft, so subtle that it could scarcely be said to be a colour at all. It was more the idea of colour – as if the trees were dreaming green dreams or thinking green thoughts”

“They looked at each other for a long moment, and in that moment all was as it used to be – it was as if they had never parted; but she did not offer to go into the Darkness with him and he did not ask her.” (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell coverI go on binges of recommending Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell every so often. These readers’ advisory frenzies are usually precipitated by rereading the book, watching the BBC series, or meeting someone with any of the characters’ names. Yet, when recommending, I often lean back on clichés like: ‘I’ve read it three times’, ‘you must read it if you like literature, historical fiction, and fantasy’, or ‘the magic is ridiculously creative’. In a way, I think I love the book too much to form a cogent argument for reading it. Every time I talk about it, I just hope I can make my face and words animated enough so that my audience will gloss over what I’m actually saying.

It is equally difficult to convey my earnest love for the book in print. I could use lots of exclamation points: brilliant writing!!! Unexpected magic!!! Lovely, yet somehow entirely un-romantic conclusion!!!!! Or, I could make a few comparisons: Clarke rivals literature greats like Trollope or Burnett in piercing character descriptions; her footnotes match Infinite Jest in depth and world building; Like Austen, her book is beautifully symmetrical, each character having another to play off of and reveal themselves through. Or, I could talk about her mode of delivery, like when she requires her readers wait 250 pages before introducing the title character and 9/10ths of the book before allowing us to glimpse the keystone magician in her redesigned history of Britain.

The reason why you choose to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell doesn’t matter – if these arguments don’t convince you, do a google search to find ones that do – what does matter is that you grab a copy (borrowed/purchased/ebook/print) as soon as you can.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 1,024 pages
Ending: Hopeful, but entirely un-romantic
Incidental Learning: History of Britain, Napoleonic Wars
Further Reading: After Clarke, you might be spoiled for other fantasy. I’d recommend going to other literature + fantasy authors, like Neil Gaiman or Station Eleven