I have just come back from two weeks of vacation. There are two things you do on vacation: get sunburned and read books. We’ve already discussed the first, so let’s move onto the second.
The Five Forty Five to Cannes, Tess Uriza Holthe. I liked this book! I did not like it as much as I had hoped to, but I liked it. It’s a collection of linked short stories, and enjoyed some more than others. The main story – that of an American millionaire (Chazz) and French waitress (Claudette) who fall in love, but have their marriage torn apart by his manic-depressive disorder – was not actually super compelling. But the side stories – the elderly Jewish woman who sees Chazz in Cannes, or the young Roma boy whose brothers sell him drugs – are sometimes really special. Overall I would give it like three and a half stars, but maybe it was just overshadowed by the other really wonderful things I read?
Sideshow, edited by Deborah Noyes. I got a copy of this because I love circus stories and the “carnivalesque,” as my pretentious comp lit teacher calls it. It totally delivered on that: bearded ladies! Plural! Very small people! Giraffes! I did not find myself super impressed by the writing, but then had to remind myself that it is technically a YA book, and maybe I should stop being an English major sometimes. It is okay not to write papers! Giraffes are great!
Ask For A Convertible, Danit Brown. This has all of my favorite things in it. Israelis! Jews! Israeli Jews! Sweet, awkward teenaged sex! Ruminations on identity and ethnicity and nationality! Weird, morbid, adorable elementary schoolers! Elvis impersonators! I don’t know if you can tell, but I really enjoyed this one, and it is fantastic. As someone who writes and reads, I feel like there are two kinds of really good books: the ones that are so intimidatingly good that you feel like it’s not worth picking up your own pen ever again, and ones that spur you on to pursue your own literary greatness. This was one of the latter, and therefore an absolute pleasure in every sense. I highly recommend it.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz. You may recall that this won a Pulitzer. In light of that, there’s very little praise that I can give it without being redundant; you might be better off just reading some of the glowing reviews it has received from every other literate person on the planet. I will add that my favorite parts are, I think, on pages 199 and 277 respectively. Also, that I have a few (very respectful) questions for Mr. Díaz; having read the original short story, I can’t help but notice that there were a few noticeable changes made in the novelization. Not huge, plot-changing ones, but individual words. (I am not embarrassed to admit that I really do remember the exact wording of the story. It’s that good.) This baffles me. It sounds cheesy, but virtually every sentence in the original New Yorker story was perfect. Why change it? In the time in between the two works, why did “attacked” seem more appropriate than “raped”? I don’t remember the word “toto” being used at all in the original; where did that come from? I recognize that it’s pretty uppity to criticize a Pulitzer prize winning author’s choice of words, but I’d really like to know.
What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn. This is one of those books that I immediately flagged as Something Heather Would Like. Heather, listen: it’s set in the UK, it features a precocious young girl who wants to be a detective, a glum but endearing mall security guard, and an acerbic young woman stuck in a soul-deadening retail job. Actually, this sounds like something you might have written. It was mostly good! It’s one of those books that deals with the numbing nature of contemporary living, and whose characters struggle to throw off the apathy they’ve developed and feel alive again etc. Some of the feeling-alive-again moments were not entirely convincing for me (“You know what, lame boyfriend who I’m only with out of habit and is a symbol of my resignation to a boring life? You’re dumb and I don’t love you!”) but the end is kind of creepy and haunting and well done. It also has an interesting angle of discussing “mall culture,” and the rise of the shopping center in the UK. There are these great little vignettes taken directly from the heads of mall shoppers that are really almost better than the central narrative.
Things I am reading now: Now Is the Hour, by Tom Spanbauer, and I’m Down, by Mishna Wolff. Both have been well reviewed, the former by my favorite blogger and the latter by the whole literary community. So far my feelings are mixed. I will share more later!