Well. That was a bust. I’m talking, obviously, about 20 Books of Summer. I had the best intentions–truly, I did. And I did read 14 books. It’s just that most of them were not on the stack I had intended to read.
(Yes. I’m aware today is the first of November.)
What happened? Kinda the same thing that always happens: I got distracted by other books. I started off really well. I read Piranesi, and then I decided to re-read Crow Lake next. And then my copy of Carol Shields’s essays on writing, Startle and Illuminate, came in the mail, so I veered off the stack for a minute to read it. Next, I read Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. So, three books from the stack, one of them with a review, even! I also started picking through Le Guin’s The Wave in the Mind, which turned out to be that kind of book–something to pick through rather than read straight through.
And then things went off the rails. Not going to lie. The same thing that always happens to me, happened. I couldn’t look at my stack without feeling sort of burdened. Resentful, even. Why had I picked so many serious books? It was summer! Nobody wants to be serious in the summer, if they don’t have to be. And the world was (is) dark enough, so find pleasure where you can, right?
I wanted comfort from something I knew would be funny, so I decided to re-read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. (Full disclosure: I’ve always preferred the movie.) It held up, in parts. Some moments were a bit cringe-y. On the one hand, I feel like *shrug*, “Those were the times!” And on the other I feel like, “Come on, Nora, really?” But then there are also moments like this:
“Because if I tell the story, I control the version. Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much. Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”
When I finished Heartburn, I wanted something else that was funny. And by a woman. I’d never read any Jennifer Weiner, and I’ve heard she’s funny, so I decided to buy Big Summer. Is it okay to call a book cute? It was cute! It was also smart. Smart and cute, with a mystery at the core.
Next I moved on to Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours, which I’d had on my Kindle for a while. Last year I re-read The Middlesteins, and years ago I read and enjoyed her novel All Grown Up, so I figured I couldn’t go wrong. I was right; Attenberg is sharp and funny, and this novel about a dying patriarch (who’s a horrible person) was well-paced, wry, and entertaining. One thing I love about her writing is that she’s really unafraid of letting her characters screw up. So often you can just feel a writer pulling back right at the moment when things could truly go all to hell for the protagonist. Like, “I’ll just send them to heck. That’ll be enough to raise the stakes.” I mean, it’s hard. Writers love their characters, mostly, and don’t want to make them look too foolish. Attenberg doesn’t pull any punches.
And then I got Covid. My husband and I both had pretty mild cases, but even so, the thought of reading something really heavy failed to appeal. Somehow I came upon Katherine Center, and after a short investigation on Goodreads, I found that several readers whose opinions I trust–people I wouldn’t have guessed enjoy rom-coms at all–really enjoy her books. Her book Get Lucky was on sale and felt like a low-risk choice. It’s about a woman who loses her high-paid advertising job, moves home to Houston to live with her sister, and on a whim decides to be her sister’s surrogate. Yeah, I know. But Center manages to avoid cliché and sentimentality like–well, I was going to say “the plague.” She also insists on giving her characters a happy ending–but not without making them earn it first–and often a very different happy ending than the one they were after when the book starts. After I finished Get Lucky I did a little research, and I learned that Center struggled for eight years writing literary short stories and getting rejected again and again until her sister suggested she write a book about motherhood–the book that became her first novel. I also came across her essay “Read for Joy,” and I found myself nodding hard in agreement. Not that I don’t love me some serious literary fiction (you can probably tell by my high-minded eloquence), but I’ve become a better reader–and a better writer–by reading more broadly than I ever would have imagined back when I read and wrote nothing but short stories. Later in the summer I picked up another of Center’s books, How to Walk Away, about a woman who is paralyzed in a plane crash. (Yeah. I know.) I’m telling you, she’s good. She’s funny. She doesn’t make it easy for her characters to get that happy ending, but she manages to avoid melodrama.
Next up was Sara Gran’s The Book of the Most Precious Substance. The blurb says, “A mysterious book that promises unlimited power and unrivaled sexual pleasure. A down-on-her-luck book dealer hoping for the sale of a lifetime. And a twist so shocking, no one will come out unscathed.” Um. Okay. Gran herself called the book erotic, which is a better description, but if you’re looking for cheap thrills, you won’t find them here. It’s a cerebral sort of erotic, and it’s also melancholy and intelligent, with a peek into the world of rare book dealing. A fine distraction while we all wait impatiently for the return of Claire DeWitt.
Last summer I read Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot and was just blown away, so when I saw she had a new book, The Latecomer, coming out this summer, I bought it on pub day. Lots of writers can churn out a book a year, but as it turns out, Korelitz had been working on The Latecomer for years when she decided (in some despair) to set it aside after she pitched The Plot to her editor on a whim. Her editor gave her a two-book deal and told her to go immediately and write The Plot, which she did over a period of about four months. When she finished that book, she went back to The Latecomer and was able to resolve the problems in the narrative. And thank goodness for that, because The Latecomer, the story of a couple who have triplets via IVF in the very early days of the procedure, is one of my favorite books I’ve read so far this year.
Remember a few paragraphs ago (this is getting long) when I mentioned Jami Attenberg? I also read her memoir/book on writing, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home. As one of those people who immediately looks up author interviews as soon as I’ve finished any book I enjoy, I have a large collection of books on writing. I am always interested in the how, even though I know that writing techniques and routines of my favorite authors are individual and no more likely to be effective than those “what I eat in a day” videos are at helping me to lose weight. And remember what I said about how Attenberg is so great at letting her characters mess up? Here’s her very real advice on writing (and life):
“How lucky we all are if we can find that one thing we love. Even if the downside is that we miss it when it’s not around; or feel a sense of disappointment in ourselves if we can’t achieve it on any given day. But forgiveness is another thing to learn, forgiving ourselves for not always being our best, for not always accomplishing everything. Add forgiveness to the arsenal of skills we need to acquire in order to survive everyday life. Forgive ourselves for being human.”
The one thing Yoli loves is her big sister Elf. But Elf doesn’t want to go on living. That’s the basis of the plot of one of my favorite books of all time, Miriam Toews All My Puny Sorrows. How do you write a book about suicide that’s laugh-out-loud funny and even joyful at times, while also being completely devastating? This was my third time reading this book, and I love it more every time I read it.
Okay, wrapping up the books I read this summer: Assassin’s Apprentice and Royal Assassin, the first two books in the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. I’ve had these books on my list to read for years, and most likely I never would have gotten to them because…well, fantasy isn’t my thing. I have an open mind, but there are so many books and so little time! As it happened, I got my husband–who was not a reader–one of The Witcher books for Christmas. (He’s played the game, and we’ve watched the series.) He ended up reading them all, so when his birthday rolled around in April and he had finished that series, I decided to buy him Assassin’s Apprentice. He is now finishing book nine of Hobb’s 17-book series that make up The Realm of the Elderlings, as I limp across the ending of the third book, Assassin’s Quest.
This list doesn’t include the three or four books I abandoned, but I’ll (spare you and) save those for another (possible) post. I hope your summer went well, and that your autumn is cruising along as well as can be expected these days!