One thing I have been loving with absolute abandon this summer is reading. I have been absolutely devouring books — mostly novels, many of them mysteries (you know how I do). My favorite place to read has been sitting on my patio with a glass of wine or a whiskey drink just at sunset. It’s divine, I tell you. Reading late at night in bed or lazily throughout the morning, with coffee, is also very, very good.
Let me warn you now, though, that what I am about to share with you are not what anyone would call “book reviews.” I do enough academic writing about books at work that here on the blog I prefer to share my thoughts and experiences about them with very little intellectualizing. I hope you will forgive me.
Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn
My mind kept hearkening back to Gone Girl after I finished it, so I managed to check out both this and Dark Places so I could continue delving into the dark and compelling characters Gillian Flynn creates. I’m a little obsessed with her right now, in fact. I loved this book, and the length of it (it’s a pretty quick read) inspired me to choose it for my summer class on detective fiction. The narrator of Sharp Objects is fascinating and, in some disturbing ways, relatable. One thing I really enjoy about Flynn’s writing is the prose: crisp, quick, witty, and wry. She strikes just the right note for this genre, in my opinion.
Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn
I read Dark Places next and really enjoyed it, too. The 1980s obsession with Satanic cults certainly rang some bells for me — I quite vividly remember my own (paranoid & mentally ill) mother’s obsession with same. The characters and the Missouri communities Flynn creates are so vividly realistic to me I feel like I cam practically smell them coming off the page. Recommended.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
I’d been meaning to pick up this book for a while, after having read some friends’ comments about it online. I found it didn’t go very quickly for me, partly because I never really connected with any of the characters (I don’t believe I need to like the characters to like the narrative, but in this case the characters only barely interested me, to the point where I couldn’t even drum up much emotion when one character is attacked by an anaconda and another character has to wrestle and hack said anaconda to death), and partly because I found the colonizing relationship between the American scientists in the book and the Amazonian people among whom they were living to be, well, highly problematic. You can take the girl out of the West-Coast-radical graduate program, but you can’t take…well, you know the rest.
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
I wanted to read and love this, but I abandoned it after about 20 pages. I didn’t dislike it — the abandonment had a little something to do with running out of online renewals from the library — but I didn’t find myself compelled to go on, either. I think I’d like to try it again, but not right now. There are other things that are more enticing at the moment.
Room, by Emma Donoghue
I knew nothing about the content or plot of this novel before I began, but I became absorbed so quickly and so irrevocably that I stayed up late one night, starting it when I got into bed around 10:00 and not being able to put it down until 2:00 or so — and then only reluctantly. The next morning, instead of getting up, I stayed in bed until 2:00 in the afternoon finishing it. At one point I got up and made coffee, but otherwise: read, read, read, must read. I do love it when that happens. The narrator is often unbelievable and/or overly precious (it’s narrated by a 5-year-old-boy), but I was able to overcome any objections on those counts due simply to how gripping the story was. Plus: I was reading it the same week Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight were rescued. Life and art collide in a terrifying, all-too-real fashion.
The Talented Mister Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
I chose this novel for my summer class without having read it — purely on the basis of the Matt Damon/Jude Law film I’d seen years ago. Well, plus I felt it was high time I read some Patricia Highsmith. It did not disappoint. As is always the case, the novel is richer and more complex than the book. Highsmith’s voice is delightfully crisp on the page, her prose both witty and dark. She makes Tom Ripley frighteningly real and surprisingly sympathetic. But then again, a lot of sociopaths are quite charming. I can’t wait for my chance to read the four other Ripley novels. Recommended.
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett is a favorite of mine even though I haven’t read all that many of his novels — no one could ever believe I hadn’t read The Thin Man. Well, shut up all of you, because now I have! It’s the classic Hammett noir: lean and efficient prose, quick dialogue, twists, mistaken identities, and double crosses. And lots and lots of cocktails. But then he goes and makes it funny, too! My boyfriend and I happen to be watching some Veronica Mars lately, and I now see a lot of Nick and Nora Charles’ influence on the snappy (and often inappropriately flirty) dialogue between Keith and Veronica.
In the Woods, by Tana French
Let me say first of all that I wound up loving this book, and I shall make it my mission to read her follow-up novels just as soon as I can (though I have stacks of other books for both work and fun standing between me and that plan, dammit). I loved Rob and Cassie, the detective team at the center of this novel. The plotline was gripping and the storytelling seemed realistic in its use of detail, but not tediously so. The inclusion of entire interrogation-room dialogues, for example, lends the air of an authentically long investigation. The pacing reminded me a bit of The Killing, in fact, in that I felt we really were following the murder squad detectives through all the steps of their work. And yet the pacing still felt fast and I found myself anxious to get back to the book whenever I wasn’t reading it. The only negative, for me, is French’s prose style. I almost put the book down after reading the first three sentences:
Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses.
I’m glad I didn’t. (It isn’t all like this.)
I started this and finished it this morning, in another marathon reading binge. I’d heard so many good things about it and finally my library’s copy was available. I enjoyed reading it, but a good many things about it also annoyed me. I never read Eat Pray Love, but I sort of have a suspicion that this is the hiking version of that story, i.e., a privileged white lady who’s having some problems goes off somewhere to “find” herself. From what I hear, though, I take it that Cheryl Strayed is much less … that woman than Elizabeth Gilbert is.
On another note, if you’ve known me for very long at all, you know that my love for the mountains of the west, the Sierras and the Cascades in particular, is deep. The High Sierras from Tahoe to Yosemite are where I spent many summers as a child and teenager, where I first camped, fished, learned to rock climb, found bear tracks, hiked in the woods both with my family and — occasionally, secretly — alone. The landscape of those mountains is (and this is difficult to describe, but) where my heart feels most at home — the only place in truly longs for. If you’ve read this book, imagine my feeling upon reading the section entitled “Range of Light,” where Strayed reached the High Sierras, and the events that ensued.
Well then. I have just started John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (a rare foray into young-adult fiction for me, not counting Harry Potter and Twilight) and it is calling me back to its pages. If you’ve read any of the above books, I’d love to hear your opinon!