Book List: The Review Part 3

Here we are, I’ve made it to the end of all of your awesome suggestions! I feel like the Olympic music should play right about now. I thought I would finish around … oh… March? (Ha!) And here we are at the end of June. And you guys are truly amazing because the selections were varied, were fascinating, and were probably all books I would have never thought to pick up unless you had told me so. As promised at the end of this post I’ll give you the top three books that you just can’t miss. If you’ve been following along on this reading adventure, these would be great starter reads. You won’t be disappointed. But without further ado, here we are… with the final reviews.

While I was flying to Houston for work I read the 9th book, The Secret History by Donna Tartt. And holy shit. I have never read a true literary thriller before. I mean, I’ve read crime novels or stories where the suspense is tangible, but this. This will probably be turned into a movie but it really doesn’t have to be. Sometimes there are books where I am excited about the idea of a movie because I would love to see how they interpret it in real life. But with The Secret History, I really don’t care. I am utterly satisfied. And I’m not going to tell you what it’s about because the vagueness of the back of the book saying,

Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life.

… is totally enough to get you started but truly it is just the start of what unfolds. Amazing. I actually got a sore neck from reading for 4 hours straight sitting up in a stupid airplane seat.

The 10th book I read was Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. This story is all about what happens when you stick a bunch of rich people (and some very very poor) into a room a house together under a lot of stress and when they are unable to leave. A lot of you guys seemed to really really love this book. And I thought it was inventive and probably really fun to write. Like a guilty pleasure as a writer: all of these characters, no place to go, seduction, guns, rich people sleeping on the floor in their evening gowns, etc. For my taste the story moved a little slow. Which makes sense because when you are trapped in a house there is a lot of killing time to be had. I felt like some of the emotional responses from the people in the book were predictable, but in general it was very fish-bowl-esque and I enjoyed the voyeurism of it. I don’t know if I would recommend it because I think there are other, more engaging options out there, but I’m really glad I read it.

Sum by David Eaglemen is fascinating. This was the 11th book I read and it’s all about death and what happens to us after we die. This is a collection of short shorts so Kamel and I would read them out loud before bed. Even though the subject matter is kind of dark, they really aren’t disturbing, just thought provoking. Like maybe in the afterlife we live out our actions in condensed amounts of time. Like if we slept for 1150 days during our life, then in our after life we would sleep straight through for 1150 days. Maybe we would fold laundry for 30 days straight. Or maybe we would play basketball for a week. And that’s just one story with one idea. There are lots of them. And this book isn’t about whether or not you believe in God. Or really if you even believe in an afterlife. It’s more myth than theory, but it’s also (if you’re like me) fun to contemplate. I used to think that heaven was full of white puffy clouds and that we’d get to eat candy all day long. Maybe it will be.

The one thing that irked me (because doesn’t there have to be one thing that irks me) was the repetition of the phrase “Afterlife”. It was a little too PC for me. It would have been cool to toss around all of the different words that many different cultures have for the place we go when we die. But that’s a small critique.

The 12th book, and the book I thought would be my first or second, was American Gods by Neil Gaiman. This book is EPIC. I read it on the kindle so I have no real understanding of how long it is, but I kind of never wanted it to end. I could have followed Shadow around forever and ever and ever. And now I hear they are making an HBO series about this and I am so excited!! If you like magical realism, if you are down with the mystical and the extraordinary in our normal lives then you will so dig this. It’s really smart and very well researched which I appreciate. Smart writing is so hard to come by. Writing isn’t just about making stuff up and writing it down, it’s about mixing together the true thing about life with the not-so-true or the things that may not have happened yet. I never really understood the hype behind Neil Gaiman until now. He is pretty freaking amazing.

And last, but not least! The 13th book on the list! What Is The What by Dave Eggers. This was the book I was putting off because it was so massive! And going in I sort of didn’t understand what was going on with the first person memoir style about a Sudanese man, but written by this white guy in the Bay Area. This set up sends all of my red flags waving. I wonder: Is this real? Is this person a real person or is this a collection of a bunch of stories about these time in Sudan and about what happened to many of men and women who escaped and came to the United States? I don’t know.

The story is incredibly engaging, the novel is pretty masterful in its use of flashback and the way the present time is able to hold just as much tension as the horrors in Sudan. It was also an interesting read because, although I know in general what happened in Sudan, this book really breaks down the conflict and gives it a personal edge.

I worry that it is exploiting this story a bit. I worry that it is pretending to be something it’s not. It’s a good read, but something makes me uncomfortable about it. Is this just me? Am I being crazy and over sensitive? Maybe it’s my background: I really do care that if you’re selling a memoir that it IS a memoir. I really do care that if you write something and put it out there in the world you are entering into an agreement and a relationship with the reader. I didn’t totally understand how to read this book, and I think that’s where my general unease crept in. But the story is really really good, so if you don’t care about these things like I do you will totally enjoy it. It’s worth its heft for sure.


And!! My top 3. The big 3 you shouldn’t pass up. My favorites of the favorites that you all suggested (in no particular order) are:

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (Hello… duh.)

A Secret History by Donna Tartt (Blew my expectations AWAY.)

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Eagen (The characters stick with you for…. probably years.)

11 thoughts on “Book List: The Review Part 3”

  1. I still can’t get the characters from A Visit From The Goon Squad out of my head, months later. Such an incredible book (says this extremely picky reader.) I think I have to get on A Secret History next!

  2. A Secret History is one of my all-time favorites – I reread it every few years. I give it to friends as gifts and they usually return it with a shaky smile and ask what exactly made me what to give it to them. Keeps them on their toes! 🙂

  3. Yes! Books! I think I’ll get American Gods and A Secret History on the way home today. Yesterday I went to the bookstore and got NOTHING. Something was really off with me.

    But now I have a PLAN and it was pay day, so this was perfect timing for me.

  4. Isn’t American Gods AMAZING? I like Neil Gaiman’s other work, but I think that one is BY FAR his best. It tackles complex ideas and wraps it up in a compelling, well-written story.

    Ok…confession time…I TRIED Outlander…and just couldn’t get into it. The main character (who’s name I’m now blanking on) just rubbed me the wrong way. AND! I felt bad for her poor, seemingly nice husband back in England!
    Second confession: while I didn’t actually finish reading it, I did go on Wikipedia to find out what happened 😛

    I haven’t read What Is the What for the same reasons. It makes me uncomfortable that it’s a white dude pretending/evoking these horrific experiences.

  5. De-lurking to tell you I picked up Outlander after your rave review (I’d been snubbing it beforehand because an in-law I may not particularly like raved about it. I’m snobby that way sometimes.) and holy crap you were not wrong! Now I’m 200 pages into the 4th book and while the 1st book was certainly the best, the others have kept up the pacing and the characters are all still themselves and I can. not. stop. reading!
    So thank you!

    Also, American Gods is the shit. Never wanted it to end.

  6. I finished Goon Squad last week and I was so underwhelmed. I thought it was simplistic and the characters cliched and predictable. I don’t mean to be snarky or anything. Obviously, a lot of people liked it. I always wonder what I’m missing when I totally think a book tons of people love is poop.

  7. Sounds like you did some great reading there. A Secret History sounds like it might be right up my alley and I’m definitely going to have to pick it up sometime.

    You also may have just given me the push to give Neil Gaiman another go. I have a copy of Neverwhere somewhere that I’ve picked up and dropped probably half a dozen times in the first couple of chapters, so maybe I should give him another go with American Gods. Because magical realism is totally my thing.

  8. I’m glad you enjoyed American Gods. I think most literary people who like fantasy would adore Neil Gaiman. (And if you liked American Gods, you’ll be glad to hear he mentioned on his blog recently that he’s been writing a sequel. Also, his book Anansi Boys involves the sons of Mr. Nancy.) I’m glad you described it as magical realism — I’ve been struggling to find the right words to describe to certain people why they would like Gaiman books, and have failed. I think magical realism might convince them to give it a go.

    1. Oh! And I’ve read a couple of Patchett books, but not Bel Canto. I read State of Wonder and was underwhelmed, but gave her another try with The Patron Saint of Liars, which I LOVED.

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