Three good books not for bedtime.

station-eleven_612x380_31I’m binge eating disaster lately. I mean, in my reading habits (but probably elsewhere, too). The past three books I’ve read have been about the apocalypse and I enjoyed them all. But not all horrors are not created equal, so in order:

  1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel // I cry frequently when reading. It’s kind of embarrassing. But I think a good book is one that makes me laugh, loud and rude. A good book is one that makes me choke a little on myself, happy to be so sad. Station Eleven did both. It’s the story of a traveling theater troupe performing Shakespeare for rustic villagers twentysome years after the world has ended from a nasty avian flu. This may be the nerdiest book I’ve ever read. The performers motto is from Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient” and the entire book traces mad circles around King Lear (my favorite) and falcons cannot hear the falconers and every other sentence contains a reference and somehow, it all works brilliantly.
  2. The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Cary // Sometimes, I have a hard time parsing how good or whatever a book is because I just read it too fast. That’s the case here. I read The Girl With All The Gifts today and I freaking loved every moment. Set in dystopian future England, it’s the story of a zombie girl genius who has no idea she’s a “hungry,” as they call it. The book’s title is a translation of the name Pandora and flesh-starved Melanie is the metaphoric gifted girl, whose real gift I can’t say because of spoiler alerts. I can’t decide if this should have been the first one on the list or if I’m still living in it a little, but damn, was it good.
  3. Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich // A recommendation from a friend brought me this strange book and once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. This should be the lynchpin in this list, the one that solidifies the trend: literary, obsessively referential, cynical and politically-affected post-apocalyptic tales published in the last year. Odds Against Tomorrow is about a finance jackass who’s a little less jackass-y than his coworkers but far more brilliant. He is also clearly suffering from very, very bad anxiety (which I suppose is supposed to be his tragic flaw?). But I ended up just really, really wanting him to get a therapist. Lame way to end a novel, but still.

What a lazy, biased series of quasi-reviews of really great books. Whatever, I’m not a critic. Five stars for all.

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Things I read that I loved: ‘Bobcat and Other Stories’ by Rebecca Lee

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 5.55.20 PMMy boyfriend gave me Bobcat as a gift. He saw it on my Amazon wish list and decided to get it for me. He didn’t buy it because of the reviews or the book blurb. He bought it based entirely on the cover illustration. He didn’t tell me that when he gave it to me. He told me later, after I had already drank it down like a shot. I told him I loved his gift. I meant it. Rebecca Lee writes with such airy precision. Every story in this collection left an impression in my brain, something faint. A thought I knew I would return to.

But my favorite story in the book isn’t the title story (though that one is very, very good) but rather “Min.” Like all Lee’s stories, this one feels global in scope, located firmly in place and time (with all the politics that implies). Like all Lee’s stories, it also transcends the immediate and gestures toward the timeless, towards truths. In “Min,” a woman (a student of feminist theory, no less) travels to China in the late 1980’s with her male friend, Min. When she arrives, she is given a task: to find his future wife. The plot doesn’t play out like I expected. But in her search for Min’s perfect wife, the narrator comes across this:

Earlier that day I had found a sheet of paper on which Min’s grandmother had written her definition of the “superior woman.” At the top of the page it said, “Formula for Woman, According to Dignity.” The formula was “Has excellent posture, which is two-thirds contentment and one-third desire.”

Oh! Oh. It’s almost too obscure to be wise. But it is wise, I think. Two-thirds contentment, one-third desire. The golden ratio for a dignified person. Neither restless from desire nor lazy from contentment. This is a person who burns slowly like a candle, not rapidly like a forest fire or embers smoldering and soft, flickering out.

I took stock of myself after reading that paragraph. I realized that my contentment is too small. My desire isn’t too large—that isn’t my problem. My posture doesn’t suffer from excess of desire. I don’t ache from it. It doesn’t cripple my steps. But my contentment? That’s another matter.

But go read this book. It’s lovely. It’s smart. I almost wrote a fan letter to Rebecca Lee—that’s how much I like it.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I’ve recently re-discovered my love for historical fiction.

Part of this has to do with my internship. The biggest perk of working at a publishing house is the free books. Sometimes I get galley copies, sometimes I get actual, real, published books. A week ago, I read Savage Lands by Clare Clark, which I will post about soon.

However, today I want to write about Water for Elephants. I had only heard good things about this book, but until I saw it in a friend’s bookshelf, I never really bothered to look at it. I think I was put off by some remnants of lit major snobbery–you know, it’s not a good book unless the author has been dead for 50 years, or it’s about suffering, or it’s written by an old white dude.

Yes, yes. I realize how wrong this all is. But I occasionally still feel pangs of guilt that come with pleasure reading (college may have messed me up). And Water for Elephants really is pleasurable reading. It’s fun and fast and exotic and sensual and fun.

It’s also well-written.

Anyway, here is the basic premise: A 93-year-old man stews quietly in a nursing home. His mind is slowly slipping away, until the arrival of a circus awakens something long dormant. Switching back and forth between the 1930s and present day, we learn how Jacob ran away from Cornell veterinary school to join the circus after being orphaned only to meet a cruel, hateful equestrian trainer and his glittering, glamorous wife. There is love, death, violence, sex, and more than enough squalor.

I don’t know if this really counts as historical fiction, but I fell in love with Gruen’s depiction of 1930s America. I also happen to be fascinated with freak shows and the cult of the supernatural that arose during that era, so Water for Elephants sated all sorts of cravings I didn’t know I had. Plus, it helped start up a conversation on the train–another 20-something girl had just started reading it when she noticed me mid-way through–which is always a pleasant surprise.