My July 2017 reading recap has to start with how this crazy month both ate into my reading practice and made me love reading again. At the end of June, I started a new job that had very specific and brutal hours that ultimately I could not adjust to since I am so sensitive to losing sleep. But there were a few weeks there where I was working about 20 hours there and still had all my regular freelance work, so it was 15 hour days for enough days to wear me down. Anyway, I decided to pursue other opportunities, and now reading (and writing) have come back into my life. When that happens, an intense crush of reading deprivation, it makes me love reading even more, crave it even more. Which is a good thing because for those days when I was chained to my MacBook for 13 hours straight, I sought out the quiet peace of a book rather than watch TV.
Can I just say, it is so nice to unplug and read? Even though I have been reading on my Kindle more, there is a beauty to shutting down your computer, turning off your phone, and just losing yourself in a story.
This reminds me of my life before I started working in the book world. Reading was escapism for me then, mostly, and that’s what it was like for most of July. Ultimately, it does the trick of reminding me why reading is my passion. And that’s a damn good way to get out of a slump.
I also added a new bookcase to a corner of my office next to my desk as part of the ever-shifting bookshelves in my office. About once a month I come up with a new way to rearrange and organize my books, which leads to huge piles of books everywhere and often a crushed toe when a huge hardback doorstopper slams down on my foot. I needed more shelf space, so I moved most of my DVDs and Blu-Rays down to the basement and reclaimed this “media case.” I put the shelf next to my desk. The only thing that really fits in these bookshelves are trade paperbacks, and so I’ve been staring at all these backlist titles all month since hardcovers won’t fit on the narrow shelves. It made me crave reading older books, not the latest frontlist, the current bestsellers, the hardcovers you see displayed in the front of the shop. This shelf has thus been hugely influential in helping me decide that I want to read more backlist titles and see what I’ve missed (or read and want to revisit, now that Goodreads will let you count a book twice as two separate readings.)
These are the books I read this month…
Part 1: Books Read in July 2017
(1). The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn (2017). 368 pages. Literary fiction.
– Read July 7, 2017, eBook
I read The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn for work. I pitched the idea as a reading group guide for EBSCO NoveList as I thought it would be a good book for discussion. The novel was pretty hyped as a 2017 new release, and I originally pre-ordered it before canceling. Ultimately, I read it as an eBook on my Kindle Voyage. The novel is written by Sarah Dunn, who also wrote The Big Love as well as many scripts for TV, including American Housewife. The domestic life and marriage are definitely her beat, and The Arrangement fits snugly in that genre.
The story centers on a married couple, Lucy and Owen, who have fled Brooklyn and moved into their Upstate New York country home in a quaint small town that is on the cusp of becoming the next victim of gentrification by New York’s young, liberal couples and their kids, all of whom have spectrum-y quirks and hipster names. One night, Lucy and Owen’s friends from the city come over for dinner. The couple boast about a trend circulating for polygamy and the benefits to stale and strained marriages. Initially, Lucy and Owen are horrified, but Lucy eventually convinces Owen to enter into a six month open marriage experiment (“The Arrangement”). The arrangement changes their lives and marriage in unexpected ways that stop just short of fully devastating.
I feel pretty lukewarm about this novel. It was choppy. There were secondary characters introduced in minor vignettes. It was also hard to believe Lucy’s feelings towards Ben, a man she has an affair with during the arrangement. The satirical commentary on the town of Beekman felt lazy and expected. Overall, I was pretty disappointed in this novel. 1/5 stars.
(2.) The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics (2015). 224 pages. Memoir.
– Read July 14, 2017, Library
I included this political memoir in my July article in Book Riot, “Books to Read if You Love Veep.” I almost put this short book down for good. When I shoved the bookmark in and closed the covers sharply, I was frustrated. It felt like Swaim had drained any insight out of his story. Rather than say anything profound, he told his story in the most boring, safe way possible. Well, I’m so glad I resumed reading it. Even though it’s only 200-odd pages, this memoir accomplishes a great deal.
For me, the most interesting part was how Swaim evolved as a writer when he was forced to shed his deft, elevated writing in order to please the governor’s audience. Being a freelance writer, I definitely understand how sometimes you have to shove aside your own eloquent tendencies and just write a keyword-heavy landing page for a plumbing company because you need the dollars. Being a professional writer means you have to know how–and when–to adjust your style. Swaim took a while to master the right tone, and that journey was compelling.
So while this is a memoir situated in politics, it’s also a memoir about being a writer and a writer’s coming of age when he realizes he has to cast aside his rhetoric and elevated prose. It’s almost like the Bildungsroman of a professional writer, from the wide-eyed excitement we feel at the beginning of this trade—”Wow! I’m getting paid to write!”—to the down and dirty tricks of using platitudes and empty metaphors to stretch out a three paragraph minor thank you letter. Swaim thought he was the writing master, but Sanford’s folksy, unpretentious style taught Swaim a lesson, too.
One of the most chilling moments comes when Swaim reads some emails between the governor and his lover. Swaim feels almost nauseated when he realizes that the emails, in the governor’s own writing, resemble some of the idiosyncratic expressions and phrasing Swaim uses every day to ghostwrite Sanford’s speeches:
“The worst thing about them, for me, was that I couldn’t help feeling I’d written them myself. They were laden with words and phrases from my list, which I had hardly bothered to consult anymore, so thoroughly had I internalized it.” (p. 160)
The memoir is peppered with insights like this.
I do want to address Swaim’s final pages, in which he scrutinizes himself for being naive enough to be fooled into thinking that politicians can be trusted. Of course they can’t. But for Swaim it seems like there is no middle ground, and I found his rhetoric closely aligned to the anti-government paranoia that helps get people like Trump, a moron with no public office experience, elected. Being a politics nut and having worked on a presidential campaign, I know to be wary of anyone in public office. Perhaps if Swaim had not worked for a such a disgraced politician (who, it should be said, is now back in office as a representative in Congress), he would agree that finding better candidates rather than surrendering all hope for government might be more productive. Surely the answer can’t be to send someone like Trump to the White House out of such a bleak nihilism. I think we can do better. 4/5 stars. (Review adapted from my Goodreads review.)
(3). Ill Will by Dan Chaon (2017). 480 pages. Mystery/Thriller.
-Read July 30, 2017, Hardcover *Pre-ordered
I pre-ordered this huge book based on the cover alone. I mean, look at it! I am often in the mood for a dark thriller, and this novel delivers. And boy is it a heavy book.
I mean that literally—according to Amazon the hardcover edition I have is 1.4 pounds—and figuratively. There’s a lot to this story. The novel is a lot. And I don’t think all of it, the many layers, the ideas, the narrative techniques, I’m not sure it quite works, but at the same time I don’t think it could have come out any better. It’s quite impressive that the novel holds together as well as it does. And indeed, it is riveting. Except for some parts in the middle, which seemed to sag, I flew through this novel, breathless at times. It’s the fastest I’ve read a novel in a long time (at 450+ pages!), and sometimes you just need to flip through a book.
I think what holds me back from giving this a higher rating is the ambiguity was a bit much. Without giving any spoilers, Tana French’s outstanding debut novel, In the Woods, was a subversive mystery novel because it retains some ambiguity and denies a clean resolution to every storyline. Ill Will was very similar, attacking the idea that memory is foolproof, or that memory can ever be uncovered. It’s just, I felt like that theme was a bit too heavy handed throughout the story. Sure, some mysteries remain in our lives. I have them, too. But there’s a way to weave that in there without being such a pervasive force, something that slams you over the head. I guess what I’m saying is: ambiguity can be a powerful motif, but when it’s laid on so thick you can choke on the glue fumes, that’s not subtle. That’s a big, crashing, loud Theme that you can’t ignore.
I also felt like this novel was too long and kind of unpolished. It is told from the POV of several main characters, yet very few of them do you ever really know. Dustin is one of the central characters if not the main character, but I also did not find him compelling at all. He became space boy, possibly mentally ill, delusional, and just plain weird. But it didn’t really work for me. As someone with a mental illness, I felt like Dustin’s character was almost so hard to pin down and diagnose (which several characters, not just the reader, attempt) that his cluster of symptoms was unbelievable, as if someone cherry picked features of mental illness and added them like a collage. Yet his character felt hollow, even though his POV made up substantial sections of the book. I actually felt Aaron, Dustin’s son, to be the most fully developed and engaging perspective. It was interesting to get different characters’ reads on the other characters, though, reinforcing that idea that truth is often unknowable, that how you present yourself in your stream of consciousness and to others does not match up. As if you are convinced you are wearing a green sweater, but someone else remembers it as red.
These are just my initial impressions. I am glad I read this book, and I have a feeling that in time I’ll be even more impressed with it than I am now, giving it a high three. It is a book that digs into you. It is unforgettable. 3/5 stars. Adapted from my Goodreads review.
Part Two: Goodreads Challenge Check-In: July 2017
Current progress: 23/100 books
I am still holding onto my 100 book goal for this year even though I am not doing that great with my challenge. According to the stats tracker on the site, I’m 35 books behind—a number to make your head spin. I am hell bent on reaching it, though, so obviously in August I have a lot of catching up to do. One thing that I discovered earlier this year that I like are Kindle Singles or other shorter works like a novella. Here’s the genius hack with these shorter titles: they still count as a book that you have Read on Goodreads. So I am going to concentrate on finding some of these to get some more Reads. Cheating or dirty trick? I choose the latter.
The stats as they stand as of today (August 2, 2017 — Day 214 of 2017):
151 days left in this year
21 weeks and 5 days left (I’m rounding it up to 22)
I’ve read 23 books this year and have 77 left until I hit my goal.
That works out to 3.35 books a week.
A parting shot…
How was your July 2017 reading month? Any recommendations? How’s your Challenge? Leave a comment below!