Below is reading list for the upcoming year, which I hope will miraculously transform into reviews as I finish each book. I read primarily contemporary literary fiction, but I am, of course, partial to memoirs as well.
2013 Reading List!
The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
From Amazon: The New York Times bestseller and the USA Today #1 Hot Fiction Pick for the summer, The Chaperone is a captivating novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 and the summer that would change them both.
Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will transform their lives forever.
Review: I read this one for my book group and I must admit I found it pretty damn flawless. The story is a good one– a Wichita housewife decides to volunteer to accompany a local girl (spoiler alert– it’s Louise Brooks!) on her first trip to New York. Yes, our heroine has her own reasons for wanting to be in NYC, and I’m not the type of reviewer that reads and tells, but this was a really, really satisfying read.
Cartboy and the Time Capsule by L.A. Campbell.
From the book’s Amazon page: In the tradition of Diary of a Wimpy Kid comes Cartboy and the Time Capsule by L.A. Campbell, a laugh-out-loud debut novel about sixth-grader Hal Rifkind—unfortunately nicknamed “Cartboy”—and his horribly historic, hilarious year.
Hal hates history class—it literally bores him to tears. But his father is a big history buff, and unless Hal gets a good grade this year, he’ll never get his own room. Sixth grade gets off to a horrible start when history teacher Mr. Tupkin gives the class an assignment to write journals that will be buried in a time capsule at the end of the year. Things get even worse when his dad makes him take his neighbor’s old shopping cart to school, earning him the nickname “Cartboy.” What else could possibly go wrong? Read Hal’s journal to find out!
Filled with photos, drawings, and timelines, Hal’s time capsule journal chronicles a year in the life of the hopelessly hapless Cartboy.
From me: I often think it must be weird for authors when people who’ve read their book say “I could have written that!” because I imagine the response would be “but you didn’t, dumbass, I did!” (Yes, I spend a lot of my time having imaginary conversations with authors. You should hear the one I had with Shakespeare the other day. He’s a bit of a dick.) But as I was reading Cartboy, I kept thinking how similar my sense of humor is to the author’s. I laughed many, many times, and it was a really fun, funny and satisfying read. My 11 year old is reading it now, so he’ll have his own comments eventually, but for now you’ll just have to take my word for it. Enjoy!
Indiscretion by Charles Dubow
From Amazon: Harry and Madeleine Winslow have been blessed with talent, money, and charm. Harry is a National Book Award–winning author on the cusp of greatness. Madeleine is a woman of sublime beauty and grace whose elemental goodness and serenity belie a privileged upbringing. Bonded by deep devotion, they share a love that is both envied and admired. The Winslows play host to a coterie of close friends and acolytes eager to bask in their golden radiance, whether they are in their bucolic East Hampton cottage, abroad in Rome thanks to Harry’s writing grant, or in their comfortable Manhattan brownstone.
One weekend at the start of the summer season, Harry and Maddy, who are in their early forties, meet Claire and cannot help but be enchanted by her winsome youth, quiet intelligence, and disarming naivete. Drawn by the Winslows’ inscrutable magnetism, Claire eagerly falls into their welcoming orbit. But over the course of the summer, her reverence transforms into a dangerous desire. By Labor Day, it is no longer enough to remain one of their hangers-on.”
Review: I want to say that I disliked this book a lot, and I will say it. But with the disclaimer that I read it in two days (on my Kindle), then told all my friends about it (in my defense, I have very few friends) and then ordered a copy for my mother, because she doesn’t Kindle. So it obviously struck some sort of chord in me. The story is compelling enough– everyone is beautiful, it takes place in the Hamptons and NYC and Rome and Paris and there’s an affair. But the novel suffers from male midlife crisis myopic ennui, and ultimately there is no there there. And yet, I have to repeat myself, because I am a woman of a certain age, I could not put it down. And maybe that’s enough.
The Watchmaker’s Daughter by Sonia Taitz.
From Amazon: The Watchmaker’s Daughter tells the story of a child of two refugees: a watchmaker who saved lives within Dachau prison, and his wife, a gifted concert pianist about to make her debut when the Nazis seized power. In this memoir, Sonia Taitz is born into a world in which the Holocaust is discussed constantly by her insular concentration camp-surviving parents. This legacy, combined with Sonia’s passion and intelligence, leads the author to forge an adventurous life in which she seeks to heal both her parents and herself through travel, achievement, and a daring love affair. Ironically, it is her marriage to a non-Jew that brings her parents the peace and fulfillment they would never have imagined possible. Sonia manages to combine her own independence with a tender dutifulness, honoring her parents’ legacy while forging a new family of her own.
Also, the author is a friend of my friend Susan, and she highly recommended the memoir to me.
Review: I raced through the book, the story was so familiar to me, and yet, one I’d never heard quiet like this. Sonia grows up in NYC, attends yeshivas and Barnard, and navigates her parents’ love- her father’s is fierce, although he administers beatings and her mother’s is reserved. Sonia’s mother worshipped her own mother, risked death in the concentration camp to be with her and Sonia’s reluctance to spend time with her in the kitchen, going for walks, is a mystery for her. I loved this memoir because it reminded me so much of the immigrant experience in NYC, as well as of the child’s search for self in the mainstream media. The chapter where dark-haired Sonia seeks out a Hollywood role model among the blondes is one of my favorites. I highly recommend this one.
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
From Amazon: This beautifully crafted novel follows Bit Stone, the first child to be born in the late 1960s on an upstate New York commune called Arcadia, from childhood through the year 2018. An introspective youngster who can often go months without speaking, Bit “watches life from a distance.” He can see how hard his parents work to make Arcadia successful, but he can also see that the self-indulgent commune leader frequently fails to live up to his own ideals. As the backbreaking work, continual poverty, and near-constant hunger work to undermine the once-flourishing sense of community, Bit’s family leaves the commune to make their way in the outside world. Bit becomes a photographer and teacher but is always anchored to the place of his childhood, even marrying the emotionally damaged daughter of Arcadia’s guru, but happiness proves elusive, both for him and for the greater world, as a flu pandemic sweeps the globe. Groff’s second novel, after the well-received The Monsters of Templeton (2008), gives full rein to her formidable descriptive powers, as she summons both the beauty of striving for perfection and the inevitable devastation of failing so miserably to achieve it. –Joanne Wilkinson .
Review: I admit, I resisted this book. It was a pick for my book group, and whenever one of the book group members sends out an email suggesting some books, for some reason I transform into someone who I think I want to be and respond with “sure! I’m up for anything!” which is usually a lie, but one I can think I can live. But I want the books that I read for book group to be a stretch, to be the things that are not a natural choice for me, but still within the real of possibility in that they’re not written by Jodi Picoult. So, I was on board with Arcadia. And at first I regretted it. The writing is pure poetry, the descriptions enthralling, but I am a plot-driven reader, with some self-diagnosed ADHD and The Bachelor competing for my attention, so in the beginning I was frustrated. But then I started to live the narrative. It’s crazy, of course, and hyperbole, because at no point was I living on the commune, I was still ensconced in the West Village. But still. Still, the narrative spoke to me in a way that was unexpected and very page-turney. And it made me think that sometimes poetry pays off. Don’t tell anyone. But still, commune living has no appeal for me whatsoever.
Breed by Chase Novak was described as Rosemary’s Baby in reverse, which I’m guessing means that the kids are normal and the parents are the not-normal (no offense to Satanists!), so I’m looking forward to picking up a few tips.
Review: I loved the premise- NYC parents battling infertility, go to extremes (and Lithuania!) to become pregnant and great news! It works! But bad news! They sort of become not-exactly human in the process. Oh, don’t worry, their kids are adorable (well, two out of three). So the premise is great, but the execution is not so great. It didn’t feel suspenseful, which with that kind of set up is sort of amazing. I also didn’t care about any of the characters. Even so, it was a page-turner. I judge books by how much I think about them once I’m done reading, and on that scale, I have to give Breed one star. (On a scale of zero to the galaxy)
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles has been recommended to me far and wide, first of all by my friend Stacy.
From Amazon: Set during the hazy, enchanting, and martini-filled world of New York City circa 1938, Rules of Civility follows three friends–Katey, Eve, and Tinker–from their chance meeting at a jazz club on New Year’s Eve through a year of enlightening and occasionally tragic adventures. Tinker orbits in the world of the wealthy; Katey and Eve stretch their few dollars out each evening on the town. While all three are complex characters, Katey is the story’s shining star. She is a fully realized heroine, unique in her strong sense of self amidst her life’s continual fluctuations. Towles’ writing also paints an inviting picture of New York City, without forgetting its sharp edges. Reminiscent of Fitzgerald, Rules of Civility is full of delicious sentences you can sit back and savor (most appropriately with a martini or two).
Review: There are times when I wish I were a real book reviewer (or at least had one on staff) and reading The Rules of Civility was one of those times. I can’t say that the book was flawless, but I can say that there were so many sentences that I highlighted greedily, so many phrases that I’ve seen incorporated into my own speech (“Slurring is the cursive of speech”) and so many aspects of this book that I thoroughly enjoyed that after finishing it, I promptly ordered a copy for Mama. She can’t read mine because I’m a Kindle girl now.
The book is a love story, for sure, but it’s also a romance about New York City and youth and life and you must read it. I loved this book so much that when I was in the middle of it (well, at 66%), I started reading another book to forestall the inevitability of the book ending. The best book I’ve read in 2013 so far and I’m very worried that everything will be downhill from here. Maybe I should stop reading.
Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman. I am so sad about this book. Because it is 86% fantastic humor and 9% not-quite-there poignancy and whatever the remaining percentage HORRIFIC BELLY BUTTON SEX SCENE.
From Amazon: “Tom Violet always thought that by the time he turned thirty-five, he’d have everything going for him. Fame. Fortune. A beautiful wife. A satisfying career as a successful novelist. A happy dog to greet him at the end of the day.
The reality, though, is far different. He’s got a wife, but their problems are bigger than he can even imagine. And he’s written a novel, but the manuscript he’s slaved over for years is currently hidden in his desk drawer while his father, an actual famous writer, just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His career, such that it is, involves mind-numbing corporate buzzwords, his pretentious archnemesis Gregory, and a hopeless, completely inappropriate crush on his favorite coworker. Oh . . . and his dog, according to the vet, is suffering from acute anxiety.”
Review: Overall, I liked it a lot. Except for the belly button sex scene (OMG) and middle age man pathos.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
From Amazon: Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor. This haunting novel about the dilemma of passivity vs. passion has become a modern classic.
Also, my 14 year old really enjoyed it, so I’m in!
Review: I admit that I’m not a huge YA fan but this was an enjoyable read. It’s a story, told in epistolary format, of a quirky boy, his family (an older football player brother at Penn State) and pretty pseudo-feminist sister with an abusive boyfriend, and his friendship with two older kids at school. It’s both very, very funny and heartbreaking. Just like high school. I liked it a lot.
Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed
From Amazon: The people who orbit around Renn Ivins, an actor of Harrison Ford-like stature–his girlfriends, his children, his ex-wives, those on the periphery–long to experience the glow of his fame. Anna and Will are Renn’s grown children, struggling to be authentic versions of themselves in a world where they are seen as less important extensions of their father. They are both drawn to and repelled by the man who overshadows every part of them.
Most of us can imagine the perks of celebrity, but Little Known Facts offers a clear-eyed story of its effects–the fallout of fame and fortune on family members and others who can neither fully embrace nor ignore the superstar in their midst. With Little Known Facts, Christine Sneed emerges as one of the most insightful chroniclers of our celebrity-obsessed age, telling a story of influence and affluence, of forging identity and happiness and a moral compass; the question being, if we could have anything on earth, would we choose correctly?
The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich. I’ve been a fan of Louise Erdrich since I was a teenager, so I was thrilled that the won the National Book Award for The Round House. I suggested it to my book group and they all nixed, so I retreated to my corner to mope. And then Wendi tweeted that it was her favorite book of 2012, and that gave me the courage to read it on my own. Or at least to download it on my Kindle.
From Amazon: One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe’s life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.
The Light of Amsterdam by David Park, was recommended to me by my friend Oprah.
From Amazon: It is December; Christmas is approaching and the magic of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities beckons. A father looks for himself in the past, struggling to deal with a recent divorce, his teenage son in tow. A single, selfless mother accompanies her only daughter and friends for a weekend-long bachelorette party. And a husband treats his wife to a birthday weekend away, somehow heightening her anxieties and insecurities about age, desire, and motherhood.
Anxieties and insecurities about age, desire and motherhood?! I thought you’d never ask!
Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison. Kathryn Harrison is one of my favorite modern writers and I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything that she has written. Just books, though, I don’t mean that I sneak into her home to peruse her diary. And since this novel is set in Mother Russia, I assume that I have yet to read it only for reasons of deferred gratification.
From Amazon: St. Petersburg, 1917. After Rasputin’s body is pulled from the icy waters of the Neva River, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Masha, is sent to live at the imperial palace with Tsar Nikolay and his family—including the headstrong Prince Alyosha. Desperately hoping that Masha has inherited Rasputin’s miraculous healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks her to tend to Aloysha, who suffers from hemophilia, a blood disease that keeps the boy confined to his sickbed, lest a simple scrape or bump prove fatal.
This could prove dangerous for a hypochondriac like me.
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