Recommended Reading: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

I know, I know: this was the it book of 2012, and I am late to the party.

It’s a pretty rad party.

Gone Girl is part mystery, part comedy, part domestic drama, and entirely, viciously delightful. Amy disappears on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary, and police attention begins to swirl (inevitably?) on her attractive husband with the flimsy alibi. But nothing turns out how you think it will.

Highly recommended, especially as a highbrow beach read.

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Recommended Reading: Shift, by Hugh Howey

When Dust comes out this August, I’ll be first in line to buy the complete Silo trilogy, without even reading the last one first. These books are just so fun—suspenseful, inventive page-turners.

My practice is never to reveal spoilers, and I won’t start here. So really, I can’t say too much about the plot because you must read Wool first. Shift answers some of Wool‘s questions and will leave the reader with many more to ponder before the final installment comes out.

If anyone out there has read Hugh Howey’s other novels, I’d love to hear what you thought of them!

Recommended Reading: The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex didn’t land on my radar until graduate school, when I devoured the novel in two days, reading on the T, in line at the pharmacy, in the kitchen. I stayed up late. I cried. And then I read it again.

So it was with eager fingers that I turned the first pages of The Virgin Suicides (1993), the first of Mr. Eugenides’s three published novels.

I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s very, very different from Middlesex; it doesn’t share the sweeping scope of family, history, and geography. Instead, the focus on the girls feels almost claustrophobic; the reader is hemmed in, drawn to the inevitable, macabre conclusion the book’s title suggests.

I’d never seen this style of narration before: first person plural, never broken. The middle-aged men who look back on the Lisbon sisters and their own younger selves act as archaeologists, excavating and archiving objects and memories in an attempt to come to terms with the tragedy in their hometown. Because the narrators are just as bewildered as the reader, the novel sidesteps the available easy answers, the laying of blame.

And it’s Eugenides. The writing is breathtakingly beautiful.

Recommended Reading: Life Class and Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

One of the many gifts my father has given me is sharing his lifelong interest in World War I, that brutal period in history that often disappears into its sequel’s shadow. The war was terrifying in its intensity, its stagnation, its sheer totality. And it also produced some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century before an entire generation of young poets, novelists, painters — an entire generation of young men — was wiped out.

[Which is not to say that that women didn’t suffer didn’t the war, or that there were no incredibly talented women writers and artists of the period; see my earlier post on Anna Akhmatova.]

Some other time I’ll write a post on my recommended reading on the war, but for now, let’s talk Pat Barker.

If you haven’t read Ms. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), drop everything and make a run for your neighborhood bookstore. The trilogy is complex and marvelous, focusing especially on the war’s psychological effects on soldiers. Particularly masterful is the way Barker blends fact and fiction; her characters interact with historical figures like Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. Readers with STEM proclivities will appreciate her fine understanding of scientific and medical concepts.

As you might imagine, I was delighted to run across Ms. Barker’s lastest book, Toby’s Room (2012), in our local library a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until I read the jacket copy after I finished the novel that I realized that Toby’s Room is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (2007), which I promptly found and read next. I say ‘a sequel of sorts’ because the timelines in the two books overlap, as do the characters, though the focus shifts among them. I would describe the two novels as companion pieces.

Both are concerned with trauma—emotional and physical, resulting from war and from domestic life—and its relationship to art. Once again, Ms. Barker’s characters blend seamlessly into a landscape populated by very real figures. Of particular interest is the work of Henry Tonks, which I won’t say much more about in order not to spoil the plot of the books.

“Composed in a shine of laughing”

This week I’ve been thinking about some of the opening lines to Mrs. Dalloway, one of my top-five favorite books of all time, because really, these lines are as close as prose ever comes to poetry. Specifically, I’m thinking of:

And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh, as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge!

My son turned two this weekend, and because I was in the hospital for so long, I didn’t have the energy to throw him the little party we had planned. So instead, the three of us drove to our favorite beach, and just after it opened, we found ourselves with blue, blue skies, a crisp wind off the waves, and a warm tidal pool for H to play in. What a morning, indeed.

Fortuitously, today’s poem-of-the-day email from The Poetry Foundation brought just the right poem to my inbox: Marie Ponsot’s “Between,” a short, elegant poem about and for her adult daughter. It’s so lovely, a deft meditation on both parenthood and childhood that makes me wonder what it will be like to look at my own son in twenty, thirty years. For me, this is the eleven-line poetry analogue to Mrs. Dalloway, a way of seeing the past through the lens of the present, the everyday, the home.

Recommended Reading: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple

If you love Arrested Development, you’ll love this book. And there’s no way it won’t be made into a movie in a hot minute.

Maria Semple wrote for (perhaps still writes for?) AD, and her hilarious send-up of Seattle upper-middle-class culture both makes me want to move there and also makes me feel better that I don’t live there already.

I’d like to tip my hat to my friend Katie, who mentioned a few weeks ago that she was reading a book she took out from the library, at which I thought: “Hey! The library! Not just for Elmo videos!”

So, the next time we went in for Elmo videos, which are next to the new (read: 2012 and forward) releases, I picked the book with the great title and decided to run with it.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is nearly epistolary, with occasional interpolations by the narrator, Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, and that alone makes my heart sing. I love a good epistolary novel. The Coquette, one of the earliest American novels (1797, if my first year in grad school serves me well), is a great read, and if you haven’t read Griffin and Sabine, go immediately to your nearest bookseller and take it home with you.

Anyway. I don’t want to give away the plot, as usual, because, as the title indicates, it’s also something of a detective novel. Positively delightful, fast-paced, witty, and with enough talk about Antarctica that I heartily recommend it for the beach this summer.

Recommended Reading: Fludd, by Hilary Mantel

My husband, bless him, knows very well that the presents I like best are books. For my birthday the first year we were married, he picked out Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and for my first Mother’s Day, it was Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel. Forget brunch and overpriced flowers: I’m all about Cromwell and Anne Boleyn.  As a bonus, he gave me enough time away from my beloved son to devour the book in two sittings.

Since it appears I’ll be waiting a while for the third installment, my last birthday brought with it A Place of Greater Safety (very long, and to be embarked upon when my beloved son decides to sleep through the night and past 5:00a.m.) and Fludd. [And the new biography of Leonard Cohen, which I can’t wait to get to, and The Song of Achilles, so good I read it twice, and a few other gems.]

Fludd is a slim volume (under 200 pages), with a cover design I can’t quite get behind, but it’s a gem of a novel. Ms. Mantel regards her characters with an unsentimental but ever-interested eye, transforming, like her creation Fludd, the frustrated men and women of cold and grimy (and fictional) Fetherhoughton in subtle and not-so subtle ways. Ms. Mantel’s mordant but quiet wit suffuses the novel, which I highly recommend.

Fast Read: Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook

My husband and I have been out together, sans bebe, a grand total of once this year, and it was to see Silver Linings Playbook. We were surprised that Bradley Cooper can really act (though we shouldn’t have been — he’s hilarious in Wet Hot American Summer) and agreed that Jennifer Lawrence is pretty rad.  As we left the theater, we talked about how we felt like we’d seen a good movie; not a flick, not an art-house piece (we like those too), but a good solid movie.

So we bought the book.

I zipped through it in about two and a half hours on Saturday night (can you tell we have a toddler?). It’s different from the movie, of course; Pat Peoples is more disturbed and more interesting the book, but I think the other characters—particularly Pat’s father and Tiffany—are fleshed out more in the movie.

Still, the book is an engaging picture of mental illness and the glories and lows of fandom, with some very funny passages to boot. Lit geeks will love Pat’s short reviews of classic American novels. My favorite:

Maybe Puritans were simply dumber than modern people, but I cannot believe how long it took those seventeenth-century Bostonians to figure out that their spiritual leader knocked up the local hussy. [. . .] I know we were assigned Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter back in high school, and if I had known the book was filled with so much sex and espionage, I might have read it when I was sixteen. (Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook, 57)

A quick read, with short chapters; might be perfect for beach season, especially if you’re taking turns chasing a toddler.

Recommended Reading: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping is one of those books that’s impossible to read quickly. Every sentence is meticulously designed, flawless in execution, exquisite. In fact, the writing is so good that I feel self-conscious even attempting to write about it.

I’ve had the novel on my nightstand for at least a year, walking slowly through its passages. I stopped dog-earing pages long ago, because almost every page contains something I’d like to add to my commonplace book. I’ve had Gilead and Home, Ms. Robinson’s subsequent novels, socked away for ages, but I think I’ll let this one ruminate for awhile before I jump in. (Ms. Robinson is also a noted essayist, and I’m looking forward to reading her essay collections, too.)

Though tragic occurrences populate the novel, it wasn’t the events that made me cry (as they did, in, say, Tell the Wolves I’m Home). As I finished the novel last night, I was moved to tears, not only by the beauty of the language, but also by the portrait of Ruth, the novel’s narrator-protagonist, which is slowly revealed, page by page. She and her family are viscerally real.

I don’t want to say more. Housekeeping deserves a quiet and careful reading, and will reward its reader with a lake’s worth of depth and delight.