Good Books I've Read Lately

The beauty of working in the book industry is I have access to so many books. Discounted books, free books, e-books, audio books, books that haven't yet been published--I have more books than I could ever possibly read. I added yet another one to my to-read pile today.

For whatever reason, I find books tend to go in waves where I'll read ten just okay books in a row and then will all of a sudden be hit with winner after winner after winner. I'm fortunately in one of the latter stretches right now and wanted to share some of these titles with you guys, particularly because several of them are being released in the next couple weeks.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Apparently, Marisha Pessl was considered a literary wunderkind when her first book Special Topics in Calamity Physics came out in 2006. I enjoyed the book--in fact I still have it, which means it has survived approximately 35 book donation purges in those seven years--but I had no idea how hyped the author was until I almost literally stumbled across her display at BookExpo America in May. She was there in support of Night Film, which was just recently released, and based on my appreciation for her debut, I waited in line for 30 minutes to get a signed promo copy. (Apologies to any of my coworkers reading this for slacking off!)

I'm glad I did. I started reading it that night and despite the fact that I was "working" 12 hour days that week (and enjoying all the goodness of NYC in the off hours), I was still cranking through about 100 pages of Night Film a night.

Night Film opens with the apparent suicide of Ashley Cordova, former piano prodigy and daughter of the cult-horror-film director Stanislav Cordova. Scott McGrath, an investigative journalist whose career and marriage were ruined by the elder Cordova, suspects foul play, and with the help of two not-entirely-welcome sidekicks, begins an investigation that leads them deep into the dark world of the reclusive director.

This is not a horror book of the Steven King variety. But it is suspenseful. Intensely suspenseful. In fact, on two different nights while reading this book I had to get up and turn on the bathroom light to keep my mind from ruminating on the shadows in the room. I'm not a person who watches horror films or otherwise seeks out scares, but this suspense simply sucked me in further and kept me up reading because I simply had to know what happened.

In a move that could have come off as cheesy but instead gave the story a dose of realism, the book is sprinkled with fake New York Times articles and recreations of websites. These elements combined with the extensive world the author dreamed up for Cordova almost trick the mind into believing it's a true story rather than a novel.

I suspect we'll be seeing this one on the big screen in a couple years--but the book's always better so I'd recommend reading it now. Just remember to leave a light on.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Wild is the only one of these titles I didn't receive as a publisher promo. It was released in 2012, was quickly chosen as part of Oprah's book club and promptly became hugely controversial in the way that popular travel narratives by women occasionally do. (Looking at you Eat, Pray, Love.)

I read reviews about these two books and I'm baffled because I don't understand what some of these readers thought they were getting. So I'll start with what this book is not: it is not a how-to book, it is not an advice book and it is not the journal of a perfectly happy, well-adjusted young woman who decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) because she thinks it would be the fun thing to do. Quite the opposite. This is the story of a woman who loses her mother to cancer at age 21. The story of a woman left adrift as her abusive father has long been out of the picture, her stepfather marries another woman entirely too quickly and the fragile bonds of her family fall apart. It's the story of woman who treats her husband, the one remaining person in her life, terribly, cheating on him and distancing herself from him until their marriage ends. This is the story of a woman who searches for herself in the beds of strangers and the manufactured euphoria of drugs. And only then, when she has lost so much and made so many bad decisions, is it the story of a woman who hikes the PCT.

The writing is wonderful. As I've learned in my writing adventures, conveying emotion is hard. It's so easy for writing to become overwrought or cheesy, like the literary version of a soap opera on Telemundo. Unlike my poor, sad story, Wild does not come across as a soap opera.

The author's honesty is impressive. I believe memoirs should be read the same way as novels, as a story with complex characters overcoming something that gives the story a narrative arch. That said, I really respect the author for putting herself out there, warts and all. Strayed shows some ugly sides to herself, sides I wouldn't tell some of my closest friends, and yet for the sake of the story, she told the whole world. I respect that.

This book admittedly isn't for everyone. But it was for me. If you enjoy books with flawed characters, fine writing and a large dollop of adventure, it may be for you as well.

We Are Water by Wally Lamb
I love Wally Lamb. Most people know him as the author of She's Come Undone. I however am partial to I Know This Much is True. It's the story of twin brothers, one of whom is schizophrenic and chops his hand off in the opening scene. Uplifting, right?

Lamb's books are like that. He has a way of taking a very complex character, a character who you probably wouldn't want to hang out with in real life, and turning them into someone you'll shed tears over. We Are Water is no different.

We Are Water is the story of the Ohs: the divorced Orion and Annie and their children Andrew, Ariane and Marisa. After 27 years of marriage, Annie left Orion for Viveca, the art dealer who turned Annie into an art superstar. With Annie and Viveca's wedding coming up, Lamb weaves through each family member's story, showing how they're dealing with this change and the forces that led each of them to this point.

It's a sweeping novel that incorporates not only the Oh's struggles, but also the 1963 Norwich flood and the story of an African-American artist named Josephus Jones who struggled to gain acceptance for his work in the 1950s and 60s. Both story lines hugely impact the Oh's modern-day narrative, with the latter proving especially emotional for me.

I'm making We Are Water sound very sad, and in some ways it is, but the characters are each so resilient in their own way, and you grow so attached to them over the course of 500+ pages, that by the end, you can't help but feel hopeful for each of them and their futures together. Above all, this is a novel that makes you think about the bonds that tie people: how they are formed and how strong they really are.

We Are Water will be available October 22.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have The Rosie Project, a bit of a rom-com told from the male perspective. In particular, this male is 40-something Don Tillman, a socially awkward Australian scientist who has decided it is time to find a wife. I can not do the premise justice on my own, so instead I give you the publisher's blurb (courtesy of Goodreads):

Don Tillman, professor of genetics, has never been on a second date. He is a man who can count all his friends on the fingers of one hand, whose lifelong difficulty with social rituals has convinced him that he is simply not wired for romance. So when an acquaintance informs him that he would make a “wonderful” husband, his first reaction is shock. Yet he must concede to the statistical probability that there is someone for everyone, and he embarks upon The Wife Project. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which he approaches all things, Don sets out to find the perfect partner. She will be punctual and logical—most definitely not a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver.
Or a believer in astrology...which means I'd be out. Given that Rosie Jarman is all of these things (probably including an astrology believer), she is definitely out. And yet, when Rosie comes to Don seeking help finding her biological father, Don puts aside The Wife Project in favor of The Father Project, and shockingly, finds he's having fun.

Don Tillman is one of the most charming narrators I've ever encountered in a book and I found myself literally cheering him along as struggles to make sense of his feelings for Rosie. The Rosie Project is an easy and fun read, and I dare you to not fall a little in love with Don as he stretches himself to make friends and find love.

The Rosie Project will be available October 1.

(Whew, writing reviews is hard! It took two weeks to cobble together these feeble reviews. If you like them, I'll keep them coming though as I find great upcoming titles in the book bins. Perhaps not four at a time though... If you'd like to follow along with what I'm reading in the meantime, you can find my Goodreads profile here.)