July Reviews

July is the epitome of summer break- it's the only month of the year where I don't have to teach at all. That being said, our July was PACKED between traveling to Canada, a quick Vegas trip, lots of local activities, and time with friends. I did manage to read quite a bit though, and here are some quick thoughts on what I got through: 

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
238 pages
I wrote about this book here

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
218 pages
After listening to Jamison's memoir Addicted, I was curious to learn more. This collection of essays is about her time developing as a writer, struggling with addiction, moving in and out of relationships, and just generally trying to get a handle on her life. 

Verdict: I found these essays emotional, honest, and well-written (I love her voice and syntactical structure). At times she frustrated me, with the choices she made, but that was the realistic part: people mess up. Badly. And then they have to decide what path to take afterwards. 

Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard 
267 pages
This is the story about a group of people in Atlanta in the early 1960s who are all connected to a plane full of people who are killed in a crash. Most of the characters are rich, white, and attached to the art world, and we see how they act out in times of grief. There is also a young African American boy named Peidmont who ends up embroiled in the drama, with a tiny slice of racial commentary thrown in. 

Verdict: This is one of those books that a lot of people seem to like but I borderline hated. I found the characters boring and under-developed, the storyline dull, and the writing nothing terribly special. I understand that Pittard was trying to comment on class and social standing, but I thought the way in which she chose to propel her message just fell flat. 

Chemistry by Weike Wang
211 pages
The unnamed narrator of this coming-of-age novel is a bright chemistry student who is working on her PhD, only to sort of self-sabotage, in a variety of ways. She finds herself at a dead-end academically, confused romantically, and lost personally. We watch her try to fix things, only to come up short, and end up needing a new plan. 

Verdict: I have to preface my next statement with the fact that I found this a quick, compelling read that I think mirrors what a lot of smart kids feel as they try to approach life after college, whether just undergrad or beyond. Nonetheless, I often found myself yelling at the narrator (in my head, of course) that she was frustrating me and then instantly feeling bad, since not only was what she was feeling natural, but there was clearly some mental health concerns sprinkled in. Anyway, I appreciated the writing, the connection the science, and the ambiguity of the ending as well.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawling by Hannah Tinti
372 pages
Loo and her father move around the country constantly for much of her childhood, always ready to pack a bag in a matter of minutes, when he gives the word. Eventually he decided to settle down, and they buy a home in the town where her dead mother grew up. Loo and her father have a hard time adjusting to a permanent residence, but there are bright spots as well, as they start to develop some roots. The narrative flips back and forth between their present situation, but also the past, where the origin of each of the bullet hole scars on Samuel's body are revealed. 

Verdict: I loved this novel even more than I thought I would, becoming attached to the characters and appreciating Tinti's melancholy, insightful prose. The pacing was nearly perfect, except at the end, and I equally enjoyed the past and present stories consistently. It was an absolute pleasure and was probably my favorite from the month.

Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann
163 pages
I picked up this quick little guide that McCann puts together for developing authors that always as him for advice. He give tidbits of advice on things like tackling the blank page, finding an editor, not being "a dick," reading aloud, embracing failure, developing characters, and many other topics.

Verdict: I'm a big McCann fan, even more so after seeing him on a book tour many years ago, so I loved that his humorous, honest, witty voice really shined on these pages. I found it useful on two fronts: as a sometimes-aspiring writer, but also as a teacher. I plan on using it in the classroom with my students this year!

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
224 pages
(This book is represented by the blank spine in the above picture, since I recently lent out my copy to an old student). This short story collection focuses on refugees to America and what it means to adjust, whether it's in the beginning of someone's journey or many years later. The stories show what a struggle starting over can be, and stay, and also what connections back home sometimes look like.

Verdict: It's safe to say that I will read whatever Nguyen writes, at this point (The Sympathizer was amazing). While the stories and characters are fascinating, his writing is the quintessential example of what "crafted" looks like. I also appreciate reading this in an era where it seems so many don't possess sympathy for those trying to restart their lives- it's something all people should read.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
472 pages
This sci-fi mystery thriller was something that was somehow selected for our English department book club... definitely not something I'd choose in real life. Crouch tells the story of Jason Desson who, basically, end up entering this complicated world of parallel universes where he has to figure out a way to get his old life, with his wife and son, back. 

Verdict: Sigh.  *Literary Snobbery Forthcoming* This book just isn't for me; it's a mass market paper book that you'd see in a display box at the airport with the author's name written in huge print and quotes raving about it from US News. The characters were mostly weak, the plot contrived and at times silly, and the writing lacking severely. This is not my thing. 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
289 pages
The narrator of this novel decides she's going to take a year off from life, primarily through combinations of different sleep and psychiatric medications that she doses herself with. Her parents are recently dead, she quits her job as an art gallery receptionist, and she is constantly trying to avoid her supposed needy best friend- things just aren't going well. As the novel progresses we see the character become more and more addicted to drugs and obsessed with the idea of sleeping her year away.

Verdict: I would say I found about 2/3 of this novel fascinating and felt empathy for the character's obvious depression. The other 1/3 was full of a slight boredom at hearing, once again, the character go over her plans for inducing as much sleep as possible. I will say that Moshfegh is a very talented writer (I've read her novel Eileen as well), and I think she's going to outlast her "hot up-and-comer" status and be around for awhile. 

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs
333 pages
Hazel's surrogate grandfather, a celebrated mathematician, has mysteriously died and has left her with an important clue regarding his death. She begins investigating, other findings leading her on a wild good chase around LA, all the while she must attempt to get her personal life under control. There are twists and turns, revelations from the past, and a surprise ending.

Verdict: Despite this novel sounding captivating through it's synopsis, it actually ended up lacking a bit in complexity, depth, and development. It has so much potential and is a neat idea, but it just fall short.

2,787 pages 

1 comment:

  1. Could not agree more about Nguyen and "The Refugees" (also just finished it myself a few days ago). I love your comment about how it is "crafted"--that is exactly what I was thinking too but was not eloquent enough to come up with that term. I really think he's going to be one of this era's most enduring and memorable writers. I restrain myself from grabbing people on the street and saying "read this author!".