We’re halfway (or 45 books) through the year! I’ve been experimenting with more frequent blog posts instead of quarterly book reviews, and I’ve been remembering more of the key details as well as keeping the entries shorter and more manageable to read.
I want to experiment with something new again. I’m going to keep the posts short and more frequent — I’m just going to group the books in thematic categories. I am focusing on American literature this month (stories that take place primarily in America and/or deal with the American experience), so I hope there will be some common threads between them.
[You’ll notice a very highly-rated book on this month’s blog that technically I did not finish until 1 July. It just didn’t fit the theme for next month…]
This space is nothing if not a place to play and experiment. So enjoy June’s best reads (and it was a monster month!) and get ready for a taste of red, white, and blue at the end of July!
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimmage (Haruki Murukami): It’s sad to admit that I’ve never read any of Murukami’s books. I mean, 1Q84? Really, Sarah?
I’m glad I started here with Tsukuru. Always passionate about building subway stations, Tsukuru never felt like he was special. In fact, his four best friends all had colorful names — his was nothing. The book opens with his confession that he’d like to kill himself, but hasn’t yet found the best way. At that point, you’re sucked into his world. You’re done for.
Murukami’s writing is lauded for it’s timeless, hypnotic quality. He plays with time, space, and conscious in a way that makes the writing feel like a fairy-tale or like an alternate reality. More than anything, he has a way of looking at the world that makes anything — even a subway station — take on an elegant, magical quality.
House With Swimming Pool (Herman Koch): Koch is a deliciously-twisted Dutch writer who deals in unreliable narrators and creepy subplots. I devoured his novel The Dinner last year and couldn’t wait to start his next book. House follows Dr. Marc Schlosser and his wife and two daughters on a summer vacation along with one of Marc’s famous actor clients.
Told from Marc’s point-of-view, it’s unclear as a reader when you are getting the truth, and I found myself wary of Marc, despite the disgusting thoughts he confesses to you, the reader. The vacation is not all it promised to be, so Marc and his wife have to figure out how to proceed. Koch’s writing gets mixed reviews, especially from people who want predicable, redeemable characters. Marc is neither. And that’s why this is such a fantastic book.
The Children Act (Ian McEwan): I’m a McEwan fangirl — if there is such a thing — and was not disappointed by his latest work, The Children Act. I’ve written this before and I’ll say it again — McEwan writes female characters better than any other contemporary male author I can recall. He’s also able to weave the stories of his characters with key, modern issues (in this case, does a 17-year-old boy have the right to refuse medical treatment based on his religious beliefs?) in a way that neither overpowers the other. Like Koch, McEwan is a literary tour-de-force and his work isn’t for everyone. But if you like perfectly truncated prose and complex characters, this book is for you.
White Dog That Fell From the Sky (Eleanor Morse): Isaac sneaks into Botswana in a hidden compartment under a hearse, then is dumped in a field. This is 1970s Africa — he has just escaped apartheid, but with no refugee papers, it’s unclear how he will support himself. He lucks upon a friend from primary school and then finds a job as a gardner for an American ex-pat.
It goes downhill from there.
I have a soft spot for historical fiction but had yet to read anything from this setting and this time period. This book only scratches the surface of the experiences of refugees who fled South Africa, but it was richly written and I felt like I could taste the dust in my mouth and feel the soles of my feet crack in the summer heat.
Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan): Every now and again I need a bit of a romp with a book. Sometimes I’m not willing to share my dessert fiction with you, but try as I might, I really enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians. Kwan’s first novel follows Rachel Chu and Nick Young, a seemingly normal couple who travel to meet Nick’s family and friends at a family wedding in Singapore. Nick has forgotten to mention that his family is one of the richest in Asia, so rich that they are hidden from most Singaporean society. Hilarity, multi-lingual insults, and high-end shopping ensue. This, my friends, should be your next beach read.
The Smartest Kids in the World (and How They Got That Way) (Amanda Ripley): I might need to focus on nonfiction later this year because it seems that I’m recommending far fewer nonfiction books these days. C’est la vie.
S and I read this book together, as we were equally intrigued by the title. The book follows three foreign exchange students who go to Finland, South Korea, and Poland, respectively — all countries that are outperforming the United States educationally. There is no silver bullet, no one concept we can import into the American school system to fix its many ills. Nor are these other systems without their challenges. Rather than give a definitive picture of what education might be, it reminds us that there are many ways to accomplish noble goals, and rather than clinging to our way, it would behoove Americans to lift our heads and look around for some new ideas.
Happy reading, my friends. I hope this summer brings you hours with the books you love!