Sunday, August 6, 2017

Books 31-40: What I Did On My Summer Vacation

I'm sure this comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me, but the first thing I pack for any trip is books. I tend to pick out clothes the night before, but I start picking out books a week or two in advance, or sometimes even longer. If I'm driving, like I did on my vacation two weeks ago, I bring extra books, because then I have choices. When I'm flying I have to be careful, and a lot of times two to four books end up in my carryon because I worry about the weight of my checked baggage.

Anyway, this all means that at the end of my vacation I had a stack of completed books:

Summer reading

but before I got to them I had to finish Book #31: Matthew Bruccoli's exhaustingly comprehensive biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Some Epic Sort of Grandeur. I've been curious about Fitzgerald's life since I read Therese Anne Fowler's Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was based on Zelda's life, and I've had this book for a while, but was waiting for a time when I could devote myself to getting through it, because it's a giant book.

I'm not kidding. The paperback is over 2 inches think. If I lived in a Lifetime movie, I could bludgeon someone to death with this book.

That's why I said it was exhausting. Fitzgerald kept journals for his entire life, and Bruccoli does a fantastic job of combining them with letters, publishing files, other people's diaries and letters, and other contemporary sources to paint a full picture of what Fitzgerald was doing whenever anything he wrote was published, and how his ongoing changes of circumstance shaped his life. If someone taught a college class just on Fitzgerald, this biography would be the main textbook, but reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's entire life on a month by month basis from college to death was mentally draining.

At one point, close to the end, I posted, "I just want F. Scott Fitzgerald to die" on Facebook, and I meant it.

And then he did.

When I finally finished that, I wanted something light, so I went for some young adult fiction that looked interesting:

32) Karen M. McManus' One of Us is Lying. The premise of this mystery seems simple: five students enter detention alive, and four of them leave that way. Something happened in the room, but what? And why? I enjoyed this book a lot, even if I did figure out a few of the plot twists before they were revealed.

Bronwyn, Addie, and Cooper all say they were framed, and didn't do the identical thing they all got detention for: having a cell phone ring in class. Nate perpetually has detention, so his presence there isn't a surprise. And then there's Simon, a social outcast who runs an online gossip website at their high school. Lots of people hate Simon, and by the end of detention Simon has died from a severe allergic reaction. The questions start immediately: Why were all the epi-pens missing from the nurse's office? Who planted extra cell phones on the other four students? The questions intensify when the police discover that Simon was planning to publish stories about his four detention-mates the next day. Was one of them willing to kill to stop him? And are the others in danger now?

This was a fast read, but very engaging. I enjoyed it.

33) I didn't enjoy C.L. Hodges' As The Sun Smiles as much. I bought it because the author was one of our student staff members, and I wanted to be supportive, but the book feels disjointed and in need of better editing. There are interesting ideas here, but the execution could use some polish.

Part coming of age story and part dystopian glimpse of America's future, this is the short story of a family in present day Knoxville, and their struggle to survive as society collapses around them. It's very introspective, with the protagonist frequently ruminating on his place in the world and in his family, to the point that it often takes a backseat to the actual plot.

34) Fiona Davis' The Dollhouse is heavy on plot, with the narrative shifting back and forth from chapter to chapter between the present day, when journalist Rose Lewin becomes consumed with the life of her mysterious neighbor, Darby McLaughlin, in their condos in the former Barbizon Hotel for Women, and 1952, the year that Darby arrived at the Barbizon to become a secretary in New York City.

Pursuing the rumor that Darby was involved in a long ago fight where a hotel maid fell to her death, Rose begins crossing ethical lines as her own life disintegrates, digging deeper into Darby's past even as she loses her relationship, job, and home. Meanwhile, in 1952, Darby struggles to fit in among the hotel's other female guests, the secretaries, models, and editors who all want to make it in the Big Apple. When a maid befriends her, inviting her out to see the nightlife and all the excitement that the city has to offer, it feels like Darby's whole life is about to change, and it does, but not in ways she ever could have imagined.

This was an engaging, fascinating read, and a perfect book for summer.

35) Tim Johnston's Descent was also an engaging read, but I feel like it wrapped up a little too conveniently.

The Courtland family is on vacation in the Rocky Mountains, but when the kids, Caitlyn and Sean, go out for an early morning run only Sean comes back, badly injured by a truck. Caitlyn is gone, taken, the only trace of her a disconnected phone call to her father. As the family, the sheriff, and the town search for answers, the lives of everyone involved unravel under the stress, guilt, and loss.

This was a little bleak, and, like I said before, the ending seemed a little too convenient, but it was a decent read.

36) Amazon informs me that I purchased John Green and David Levithan's Will Grayson, Will Grayson in 2015. That I'm just now reading it in 2017 tells a horrible story about how many unread books there are on my "To Be Read" pile, doesn't it?

Will Grayson and Will Grayson don't know each other. They both live near Chicago, but they go to different schools, have different friends, and have different problems until the night that they meet by chance, and their lives are suddenly and rapidly intertwined. Before you know it, Will Grayson is dating Will Grayson's best friend, who is writing the most epic high school musical ever about his friendship with Will Grayson. There's laughter, tears, and lots of heart, and this is overall an amusing read for vacation.

37) F. Scott Fitzgerald's I'd Die For You is a collection of "lost" (according to the title; they all exist in the collections of his papers so I argue that "unpublished" would be a better word) stories.

There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about unpublished works of famous authors, centered mostly around Go Set A Watchman and, to a lesser degree, Summer Crossing, but the difference here is that these are stories Fitzgerald attempted to publish. Publishers just didn't buy them, or sent them back for revisions that he disagreed with. A lot of these are darker in tone than the short stories that Fitzgerald was known for, but a few of them could have benefited from the editorial changes suggested.

38) Emma Clines' The Girls tells a story the public almost feels like it knows: in a hot long ago 1960's summer in California, Evie, a confused, outcast teenager falls in with a group of older kids at a commune, where they live with their hypnotic leader, a spiritual guru. In the present day, an older but not necessarily wiser Evie reflects on that summer, and the horrific murders that ended it.

Rather than focus on the cult leader, Clines focuses on the women around him. They struggle for position, for survival, and in Evie's case to figure out their place in the world that they've built on their strange ranch. Does Evie belong there, or is she just visiting? As the summer ends, tensions build, friendships fray, and Evie finds herself on the road to a terrible act, unable to turn away.

This was a fast, intense read.

39) Earnest Cline's Armada also tells a story that the reader may think it already knows, introducing us to Zach Lightman, who has grown up among the geeky relics of his deceased father's science fiction addiction.

Zach has spent enough years playing video games to recognize the flying saucer that appears outside his high school one day, and then to recognize the government spaceship that comes to get him. They're both straight out of "Armada", the video game he plays for hours a day, and where he is one of the ten best players in the world. Now, Zach discovers that the aliens are real, and the video game is a training program for people to fight an interplanetary war. It's just like in that old movie Zach's father loved, and that's why Zach is both enthralled but also immediately suspicious. What's going on here? Why are these aliens attacking? And what does it have to do with the mysterious conspiracy Zach's father filled his notebooks with before his accidental death?

This was another fast, good read.

40) I started Howard Frank Mosher's North Country before my vacation was over, but it's taken me this long to finish it because I didn't really enjoy it. The story of Mosher's road trip along the entire length of the US-Canada border, I was hoping for something like Theroux's Deep South, but this book lacks the warmth or context of that one, and is instead a pretty straightforward point by point description of what Mosher encountered on the road.

Overall, my vacation picks for reading turned out pretty well.


Mrs. Splapthing said...

I like Bruccoli with cheese.

Justin Bower said...

Thanks for the review of North Country, sounds like it's nto what I wanted it to be.

I thought Armada was disappointing. It came off as less homage and more just a rewrite of The Last Starfighter.