Things to Read - Summer Reading (2013)


The Woman Upstairs - PLEASE READ THIS BOOK. I can't stop thinking about it and I would love to discuss it. Has anyone else read it? In summary, the book's narrator is a 40-some-year old grade school teacher/artist who becomes friends (somewhat obsessively) with one of her student's families. I know this sounds like a rather lame premise for a novel (I almost didn't read it because of the blah plot summary), but as the narrator becomes more and more obsessed with the family, you become more and more obsessed with the narrator. She's so raw and honest that I ranged from liking her immensely to feeling almost burdened by her clinginess. Eventually the matriarch of the family, an artist, turns on the narrator. Though the book warns you of future deception, the way in which the act occurs is so disturbing that I can't quite get my head around it. Especially since the novel's end leaves all of these lingering questions about what it means to be an artist and how ruthless one must be.

The Flamethrowers - I'm finding it hard to summarize the Flamethrower's storyline. Basically, in the mid-1970s, a twenty-something woman straight out of art school becomes involved with an older rising art star in the 1970s. Then she (somewhat accidentally) becomes part of a violent Italian youth rebellion. And she also breaks the land speed record for women while racing a car on Utah's salt flats. But this makes the book seem complicated and somewhat odd (which, I guess it is). The Flamethrowers is one of the best written books I've ever read. And the main character somehow seems so real despite the surreality of her life (which is odd because I have nothing in common with her, perhaps the other characters are so bizarre that her normalcy makes her relatable). Anyways, it's a wonderful book. Even if I can't explain why.

Where'd You Go Bernadette? - Four unrelated friends all recommended this book to me as a "must read." One of my best friends said it was so wonderful she read it twice. So with praise like that how could I not love it? Except that I didn't. And I hate when I don't like things that everyone else likes (like American Idol and Glee). But I just didn't get it. The book documents the somewhat comic fall of a woman who goes from winning the MacArthur Genius Grant to becoming a cranky introverted houswife who hates everyone and lives in a decaying mansion. I think it's supposed to be funny or at least comically tragic but the whole thing just depressed the hell out of me. Everyone is mean. Even the main character is mean and selfish and whiny. Everyone is whiny. It just made me sad. Of course, I'm also the only person I know who doesn't like Game of Thrones (the TV show) because all the characters are so conniving and evil, so take my review with a grain of salt. And for those of you who loved this book please explain what I'm missing. I'm not trying to be a downer, I simply didn't get it.

Beautiful Ruins - It took a few chapters for me to warm to Beautiful Ruins. The overly contrived storyline originally turned me off - in 1962 a beautiful American actress arrives at a small town on the Italian Riveria, then switch to modern day Hollywood, where a production assistant hopes for a good movie pitch. Plus I found the author's writing a little overbearing, characters quickly become caricatures (for example, take this sentence - "Claire wakes jonesing for data; she fumbles on the crowded bedside table for her BlackBerry, takes a digital hit." Really? Do you know anyone who literally wakes "jonesing for data?" Anyone?) On Facebook, a few weeks ago, an acquaintance was lamenting the rise of intersecting plotline books, where multiple unconnected narratives suddenly converge and how annoyingly popular this form of writing has become. Beautiful Ruins is the ultimate example - so many people, all so different, humanity in its many forms, etc. Nevertheless, I ended up liking the book (though not loving it) more than I thought I would. Perhaps because I read it in Italy or perhaps because, despite all of my misgivings and apprehensions, I ended up enjoying the characters/caricatures (or, as the book's narrator refers to them, "all those lovely wrecked lives"). Or, the most probable reason - simply because it was an easy easy summer read.

Eight Girls Taking Pictures
- In this sort-of short story-collection, Whitney Otto writes about the lives of eight different female photographers, all of whom worked in different periods throughout the twentieth century. Though the book is a work of fiction, Otto (loosely) bases each character on an famous photographer. While Otto does a nice job portraying women's lives throughout the last hundred years - especially the continuing dichotomy between work and family that all women seem to face in some form or another - somewhere along the way I started to loose interest. Perhaps it was just too many stories in a row, or perhaps I found it hard to empathize with women like Tina Modotti and Lee Miller (not that there's anything wrong with these women, I just don't really understand them, and Otto didn't help). On the upside, Otto's fictional portraits made me want to learn more about the real women behind the stories, especially their work. So I've been googling like crazy and taking out LOTS of books from the library - Immogen Cunningham, Grete Stern, Ruth Orkin, etc - I'm fascinated by them all.


The Mansion of Happiness, A History of Life and Death - I really enjoy Jill Lepore's writing for the New Yorker, so I was happy to learn that Lepore recently published a book on a topic as broad as the "history of life and death." And, in the book, Leopore makes some really fascinating points, regarding how narrowly we tend to see our world. For example, a lot of today's controversy over abortion stems from the fact that only since 1965 have humans had readily-available access to photographs of a baby in utero. Further, that our society's whole concept of childhood as a innocent paradise traces itself back to the beginnings of the industrial revolution when the world of adults became "cold, industrial, and grinding." Even our concept of "parenthood" as a distinct stage of life "dates only the middle nineteenth century . . . [because prveviously] [a]n ordinary life used to look something like this: born into a growing family, you help raise your siblings, have the first of your own half dozen or even dozen children soon after you're grown, and die before you youngest has left home."

Regarding the book itself, in each chapter Leopore concentrates on one or two historical figures to illustrate how times have changed, Sometimes this works (as in her portrait of Anne Carrol Moore, America's first children's librarian) and sometimes it doesn't, as Lepore's writing often becomes bogged down in fascinating details and looses a sense of cohesiveness with the book's vision. The writing, though good, is also dense, I found it almost impossible to read while the children were awake. So not exactly a five star review. But still, an interesting look at how our society's views and purposes change. I particularly enjoyed the introduction, where Leopore looks at the predecessors to the boardgame "Life" and how our values develop with the squares on the board (FYI - in the current version, whoever dies with the most money "wins").

The Astor Orphan - The Astor Orphan was one of the quirkiest memoirs I've come across thus far; not sad, not emotionally draining, just pure quirk. Alexandra Aldrich, a descendant of America's Astor family, which at one time was richer than rich, grew up in a huge mansion, surrounded by decaying heirlooms and a father who refused to work. The family squandered their once-substantial fortune and sometimes Alexandra had no idea where her next meal would come from (her dad manages to steal rejected tv dinners from a nearby factory). All of her toys and belongings are relics from past generations. Her once wealthy grandmother is an alcoholic, her mother hates life so much that her presence is almost ghostlike, and her father openly fathers another child with his mistress. All of which takes place in the same estate. The narrator maintains a certain coldness about her situation, so the book is never funny (though it could be) nor outright sad (which it also could be), more along the lines of simply odd, with an underlying sense of the narrator's frustration about the ridiculousness of the adults surrounding her. The Astor Orphan is well-written and easy to read, making it a great book for summer.

Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us - Much like the The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, this book is rather life-changing. On the downside, it's not as well-written as Michael Pollan's aforementioned masterpiece (Moss repeats himself a lot, as if hoping that each chapter will be read as a stand-alone essay). On the upside, it is not as disturbing as the Omnivore's Dilemma. Whereas the Omnivore's Dilemma made me scared to ever eat grocery store meat again, Salt, Sugar, Fat just caused me to realize how much nutritional value we forsake when opting for "convenience food". Unlike the meat-packing industry, junk food doesn't really have many "bad guys" (except, perhaps, the USDA, which basically exists as a tax-payer funded platform for food manufacturers and lobbyists). Rather, most food scientists, through calculated taste tests, are simply designing the foods we enjoy eating (hence why several food scientists agreed to interviews - they're proud of their accomplishments). But, unfortunately, what we crave isn't actually "food" - rather it's a bizarre triangle of salt, sugar, and fat, and as soon as one side of the triangle is sacrificed the other sides become bigger. Without these three ingredients (and a lot of chemical additives) most grocery-store products taste like cardboard. Even when we think food is healthy, it rarely is as easy as we'd like to believe (basically "low fat" really means "more sugar"). An interesting read.


  1. I just got the Woman Upstairs from the library last week. I wasn't looking forward to it because I wasn't a big fan of Messud's previous works. But now I am! I've also read Where'd You Go, Bernadette? and LOVED it.

    I don't know if you've read if but Jill Lepore actually collaborated on a work of fiction a few years ago called Blindspot. It's sort of a colonial era mystery/love story. I thought it was hilarious.

  2. Great book suggestions!!!! Loved reading about all of these, esp the first one!

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