I have finally begun reading ebooks! As someone who has always lugged a Rory Gilmore-style selection of tomes around everywhere, I thought I’d be a total convert when Kindles first came on the scene. But for some reason, I couldn’t get fully immersed in one the way I can in a physical book. It just didn’t work.
But when I packed for Thailand (three weeks of travel I was determined to get through with only carry on luggage), I thought there is just no point in bringing multiple books. We were going to a beach, so I was going to read probably at least five, and that’s just too much weight. So, I downloaded a bunch of stuff.
And you know what? It was fine! I’m still not going to read anything serious on an iPhone, but lightweight page turners and comic essays are perfectly fine. In addition to the weightlessness factor, you can read on your phone in the dark, it’s not as rude or attention-getting as reading a physical book, it’s easier to manage while eating, and every time you finish your book, you can just buy another one.
Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading lately, at home and abroad:
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (ebook): I enjoyed this page-turner. It was a good beach read, and the protagonist being an alcoholic woman was a refreshing novelty. Overall, it was pretty Lifetime movie, but enjoyable enough for what it was.
Should you read it? Sure, if you’re looking for a light read.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (ebook): Another page turner I read at the beach. I enjoyed reading this, but it was pretty silly. After the twist, I felt that “Amy” seemed just as constructed and unreal as in the first half, only in a different way, and I kept waiting for a third reveal that never came. The book definitely had more interesting edges to it than the movie, which I watched on the plane home (also the book was mercifully free of any Afflecks).
Should you read it? I don’t know. Of these two, I’d probably recommend The Girl on the Train, even though it’s just a silly mystery and I think Flynn is supposed to be more serious. But maybe that’s why I found this one slightly more objectionable, because the other one wasn’t trying to be more than a silly mystery? This one, I kept thinking of the potential it could have had if Flynn had put more into it.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (ebook): I’m not really sure what to think of Oryx & Crake. There are so many novels in the post-apocalyptic genre, and Atwood’s excellent writing puts this right over the top in the first couple of chapters. She’s brilliant and original, one of those writers that I’ll basically read anything by even if I don’t love the meat of it. Having recently read similar stuff by Octavia Butler and Stephen King (I was sort of idly reading the first few chapters of The Stand as I was reading this, but it’s so bad, I don’t think I’ll ever finish it), Atwood’s superior writing, creativity, and storytelling ability are evident from page one. But I don’t really understand what she was doing with Oryx. Atwood is a feminist writer; she wouldn’t have an Oryx without a real purpose, but I didn’t understand the purpose, or at any rate how that purpose fit with this particular book. Maybe nothing Atwood does can possibly compare to The Handmaid’s Tale, or maybe I just didn’t really get this one.
Should you read it? I haven’t decided yet.
Here Comes Everybody! by Clay Shirky: Shirky tidily explains here how the internet has made organizing and the spread of news effortless and instantaneous, and what that has done to the old gatekeepers who relied on the laboriousness of transmitting information and connecting people. It’s mildly interesting, but probably would have made a better longform essay than a book.
Should you read it? No.
Too Bright to See & Alma by Linda Gregg: I enjoyed some of these poems, but mostly, they didn’t feel that accomplished. Also, jeez, so you got dumped in Greece, get over it. I’ll take your problems.
Should you read it? No.
The Women by T.C. Boyle: This book really benefitted from my low expectations. I mean, it’s by T.C. Boyle, it’s about women, it’s called The Women, it should have been infuriating. But I really enjoyed it! It’s a fictionalized account of Frank Lloyd Wright’s various wives and mistresses and while I thought Miriam was rather a cardboard villain, everyone else seemed real enough and Miriam was so much fun, I didn’t really care that she was a stereotype. I also thought the framing was interesting — the novel is told by a fictional Japanese apprentice of Wright’s helped by his grandson-in-law and the authorial footnotes provide an outside perspective check that kind of tug the reader out of the flow of the story in a neat way.
Should you read it? If it sounds interesting, sure. I mean, I wouldn’t push it on anyone, but I liked it.
Lush Life by Richard Price: Ok, so I really loved Lush Life, and here’s the embarrassing bit where I reveal why: when I first fell in love with books, it was solely because of dialogue. As a little kid, I read dialogue aloud in my room for hours. It was one of my favorite activities. I played all the parts myself. Occasionally I’d rope a friend in to play with me, but their attention span was never as long as mine for it. When I wasn’t at home, I needed to spend my time in the same way, but I was aware of how weird it was, so my memory of childhood summers involves a lot of me reading dialogue aloud in some relative’s guest bedroom in a stage whisper and then the crashing humiliating realization that I had gotten too loud and had likely been overheard.
This worked out well for me in elementary and middle school, where “English class” involved everyone working through a book together by reading paragraphs aloud in turn. Various teachers would even ask me to re-read especially good bits that some other kid had butchered, which probably didn’t help me much socially. Somewhere in all that, I obviously went into acting — I was amazing at cold reads, so I auditioned very well, but then I disappointed everyone as the performance solidified and the promise of my surprisingly fluid cold read didn’t give way to an improvement through repeated rehearsal. It turns out I’m more of a novelty than a performer. I can pick up anything and read it as though I’d prepared, but I don’t get better with practice — only worse.
Eventually, I got interested in the bits of literature that were in between the conversations, but even so, I still mostly read aloud. In college, I had a roommate who put up with me reading my textbooks aloud in the evenings in various accents; she had the patience of a saint. And then somewhere in adulthood, I gradually slowed down and then fully stopped doing this. I don’t actually remember when I stopped or when the last time I did it was, but halfway through Lush Life, I realized I was doing it again — I had been reading all the parts, and doing all the accents, and I was having a blast. Price’s dialogue is such a treat. There’s so much of it, and it’s all so varied — ages, accents, class differences. I wanted to read it all out forever, but this is a pretty short book, sadly.
Should you read it? I can’t say if I recommend it other than the dialogue because I was too carried away to notice much else (except a lot of shitty writing about women, of course), but if you like doing accents, you’ll love this. Otherwise, watch The Wire instead.
Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen (ebook): As business books go, this one was helpful. I find most business books aren’t specific enough to my work to be that relevant, but no matter what you do, you probably have to give and receive feedback. This book is about how to take feedback well, even if you don’t agree with it, which is something I think a lot of people don’t know how to do and would benefit from learning.
Should you read it? Probably skim it. I used to work for my mother in college, and the first time I screwed something up and she pointed it out, and I started to explain why, she stopped me and said, “When you go into the workforce, any time your boss ever corrects you on anything, even if they are flat-out wrong, never offer any explanation whatsoever. Just say ‘got it, won’t happen again’ no matter what. And then do whatever it takes to make sure it doesn’t.” So I did that even though it was hard at first, and you know what? It was some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten, and I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve been professionally successful.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: This was one of those rare novels where I disliked it all the way through and then turned around on it in the last couple of chapters. Overall, it’s a pretty original novel, with some lovely passages, but I didn’t love it. I think the biggest problem with it is that I found it entirely unconvincing. I know that’s one of the laziest things to say when criticizing a book, but it’s my blog, and I don’t care: I just didn’t believe any of this. All of it seemed too pretty or too slick — the constant, heavy-handed motif of people being half hidden in darkness and exposed by beams of light, the thief with no thumbs, the story of the English patient’s violent and inexplicable love affair with a cardboard woman and its super high drama ending, the 21-year-old manic pixie dream nurse in the picturesquely demolished villa. I didn’t buy any of it. None of this ever happened, and these people were not real.
I liked Kip’s backstory, although novels always lose me when they get too into very intricate descriptions of how various mechanical objects work. I really don’t give a fuck how all the bits of a bomb fit together and what all the little pieces are called; if I did, I’d read How Stuff Works, not a novel. But it was very interesting to learn about sappers in general, and Kip was a pretty interesting character, although I don’t for a minute believe that he heard about Hiroshima, fell out of love with colonizing nations, and drove his motorbike poetically off the edge of Italy. I would probably have been more interested in learning why Ondaatje admires Kipling so much even though he was such a massive racist.
Should you read it? Probably not.
Yes Please! by Amy Poehler (ebook): I’ve had pretty good experiences with frothy memoirs by my comedy heroes! I’m always worried that they will make me like the person less, and usually it’s the opposite — I loved Tina Fey more after Bossypants. I loved Mindy Kaling much more after Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Sadly, third time was not the charm: Yes Please! made me somewhat less interested in Amy Poehler. There’s just a lot of nothing here. I think Amy Poehler is a very nice, funny, and talented person whose life has been a great deal of fun and who other cool people have always liked pretty well, and her divorce is the only thing that didn’t go as planned. She seems mostly pretty aware of this, and it doesn’t make me find her any less hilarious, but it just doesn’t make for an interesting story at all. I think she knows this; she spends the prologue apologizing for writing a book in the first place, and she was right to resist the idea of it, as there isn’t anything here that people really need to read.
Should you read it? No, but read Bossypants and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (ebook): I heard Harari on a podcast and I was interested in a lot of the things that he had to say because, frankly, they were the same sort of things that I am fond of saying, usually late at night when drunk to friends who roll their eyes at me. Harari is pretty down on humankind and its achievements here, which I found bracing, but which I imagine most readers would find depressing. The prehistory that Harari sketches out is interesting and informative, but his take on human history is less so, and his thought experiments as to what the future might hold are just that. Which is to say this is neither the most well researched history I’ve ever read, nor the most persuasive speculation about the future, but I do think a lot of what Harari talks about here is right on, and it’s nice to read someone who looks at things from the perspective that people are merely one aspect of all existence and are not the epicenter and raison d’être of everything that was, is, or shall be.
Should you read it? Maybe, but probably not. I’m a misanthrope, and so I like reading other misanthropes, but it’s more of an indulgence than a really healthy way to spend one’s time.
Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien: I’m not really very into war novels, especially non-contemporary war novels, as they don’t feel that relevant anymore as the nature of warfare has changed so much so quickly. And also, if I’m being completely honest, I’m not a huge fan of magical realism. I was super into it for the first couple of magical realist novels I read, but the more of it I read, the more boring and repetitive it gets to me as a literary device — it’s sort of like listening to someone tell you about their dreams. Yeah, dreams are weird, and usually pretty obviously symbolic! You dreamt you flew away from a problem, but in reality, you were not able to so easily transcend it, for you see, humans cannot fly. Deep, man. Once you’ve had a couple of dreams, you’ve more or less had them all, and other people’s dreams (and drug trips) are particularly dull to hear recounted. So this magical realist Vietnam war novel was two times a loser for me, I just wasn’t into it.
Should you read it? No.
Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling (ebook): I adore Mindy Kaling. I love her writing and her personality and her acting. There are a few episodes of The Mindy Project that I do not love or even like at all, but otherwise, she gets an A+ from me, and I’ll read as many of these clever fun essay books as she cares to put out. They’re perfect for reading on your phone while having wine and a cheese plate by yourself at a fancy bar.
Should you read it? I think her first one was better, so read that one if you haven’t, but then if you like it, you’ll probably like this one, too.
I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley (ebook): Crosley’s writing is very dry and enjoyable, but something about her brand of cleverness already feels dated. This book came out in 2008, but what is fashionable in short tart comedic essays changes by the week in our online world. By the time someone publishes an article in an online magazine, 200 people have redefined what comedy is again on Twitter. And to publish a physical collection, well, entire generations will pass you up in that timeframe. Also, I read this right after Sam Irby’s new essay collection, and Crosley sadly just feels like a fossil next to Sam. I still enjoyed this, though, and I’d read more by her.
Should you read it? Well, read these other ones I’ve recommended above and below first, but then if you like this sort of thing, read this, too.
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (ebook): This is a text version of Fisher’s one-woman show and it’s written like she talks, so it takes a minute to get your mind around the rhythm of it. It’s short and funny and makes you wish you had been able to hang out with Carrie Fisher.
Should you read it? It’s really short, so I wouldn’t buy it, but if you see it lying around somewhere, yes.
Blackout by Sarah Hepola (ebook): I’ve been following Sarah Hepola since she wrote for The Morning News fifteen years ago. I’ve always enjoyed the way she writes, and it was really great to read a full length book by her. This memoir of her alcoholism and sobriety is extremely honest and open. It’s also cringe-inducing, in no small part because I relate to a lot of it, and I really wish that I didn’t.
Should you read it? Yes. Especially if you’re trying to quit drinking (or should), or know anyone who is (or should).
We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Sam Irby (ebook): I adore Sam Irby. She is one of the funniest, most original people writing today, and I will read absolutely everything she ever writes, and I can’t express how happy it makes me that she is finding success.
She’s a blogger, too, and it’s interesting that we now have these writers whose lives we follow for years and years, until we feel we know them, and we feel invested in their lives. That Sam fell in love and got married just makes me feel better about life in general, whereas there is no reason I should feel invested in that at all, as I do not know her. This is why blogging is so great, and it’s sad that people aren’t blogging anymore, because I really loved following the stories of people’s lives. You start off reading someone because they write something hilarious about grocery shopping, and ten years later, you find yourself weeping at your computer as if their heartbreak is your own. It’s a weird and selfish way to leach out the best of someone, because you only have to know the most interesting parts of them — the parts they find worth writing down for an audience. You feel kind of like you’d be BFFs if you knew each other IRL, but real friendship involves endless nights of boring repetition and you get to skip all of that.
Anyway. Even if I hadn’t read Sam’s blog, I’d still love her essay collections. This one isn’t quite as brilliant as Meaty, but it’s still really great.
Should you read it? Definitely read Meaty. And then read this one, too. (Both are quite graphic, so you know, head’s up on that.)
The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos: This was boring as all hell, but it’s a translated novel, so probably I missed a lot. I don’t know, if you’re Hungarian, tell me if it’s actually brilliant or something. I found it a total drag.
Should you read it? No.