Books We Loved, Aug. 2018
Amy Mason Doan, The Summer List (Graydon House, 2018)
Everyone’s always trying to find the perfect summer read. The summer after I graduated high school I read Summer Sisters by Judy Blume, and every year since I’ve eagerly scoured bookstore shelves for something that would match it. I always came up short—until now. The Summer List by Amy Mason Doan is exactly the book I’ve been trying to find.
I’m not the first to compare it to Summer Sisters, and indeed it gives off that vibe—teenage best friends grown up and apart, estranged for a reason we don’t discover until we’re well into the meat of the book. It alternates between their teenage years and the present, when they’re indulging Casey’s mother in a scavenger hunt she’s staged to bring them back together. We don’t know why she’s chosen a scavenger hunt, at least not at first, but we do learn right off the bat that she has some reason to believe it’s her fault they haven’t spoken in seventeen years and has chosen this particular time to try and heal the rift.
The friendship between the girls is organic and natural, while strong plot lines and interesting twists keep the story moving along. The periodic flashbacks to an unnamed character added even more interest—even if I hadn’t wanted to read all the way to the end to find out what happened with Laura and Casey, I would’ve kept reading just to find out who that mysterious character was and how she fit into the big picture. And when I did, it made absolute sense. This is the perfect book to read during the waning days of summer.—CJH
Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (Penguin, 2018)
Miss Eleanor Oliphant is a thirty-year-old office worker, and she is completely fine with her rigid routines and solitary life. She finds other people irritating, and her blunt judgmental honesty and social awkwardness mean that she has no friends or social life—just her routines and her weekend pizza and vodka.
When an elderly man falls in the street, Eleanor is reluctantly involved in helping him, and this starts a chain of events that pushes Eleanor into the world of other people and the confusing illogical ways of friendship and social connection.
An unremarkable coworker is Eleanor’s first budding friend, and we see her world through his eyes as she struggles with the most mundane of tasks, like trying to order a drink in a pub, or call a taxi, without offending people.
Eleanor Oliphant is similar to other quirky, awkward characters in popular books like A Man called Ove, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and The Rosie Project, but with a dark base of abuse, crushing loneliness, and alcoholism that is hinted at throughout the book.
This is a story that pulls you in with its hopeful storyline and the assumption that most people are inherently good. I loved this story and read the entire book in one day.—DS
Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (Grand Central Publishing, 2017)
Pachinko is a pinball game of chance played in parlors, one of a few businesses Koreans born in Japan may own as foreign nationals. The adjusted pins randomize wins and losses, a useful metaphor in Min Jin Lee’s survival story about the outsider Koreans and their descendants trapped by birth in Japan. They grapple with wars, political allegiance, cultural and religious conflicts, and decades of discrimination and abuse.
In 1910, Sunja is an innocent girl in Japan-annexed Korea who is seduced by a Japanese yakuza, a crime syndicate member. Heartache, perseverance, divided loyalties, nationalism, and misogyny follow the four generations of Sunja’s family as their evolving identities try to make a home in a foreign land. Unable to put down this dynamic tale of relatable characters, I finished its five hundred pages in a matter of days.—AA
Lionel Shriver, Property: Stories between Two Novellas (Harper, 2018)
Property presents Lionel Shriver’s short stories and two novellas. I’ve concluded that the properties of the title refer to both the physical possessions and the personal characteristics of an individual. Smart and biting, Shriver is astute and unsparing in her observations of the minutiae of our cultural flotsam and social niceties. Her protagonists are enough like us to make us squirm. Self-aware, sophisticated liberals, their very awareness traps them into ineptitude. Afraid of being disliked, self-conscious about being petty, or apologetic about their own good looks, the women that populate Shriver’s work often end up negotiating for their rights half-heartedly, paralyzed by their introspection or disbelief.
My favorite, and the reason I bought the collection, is “The Subletter,” an examination of two impoverished American writers living in Belfast, vying for space and so much more in a shared apartment. The jaded take on the Yankee fascination with Irish heritage is caustic but hilarious. Here’s a line about the tendency of expats to embroil themselves in discussion about the political conflict in Northern Ireland: “But then, political consternation was like sex: arousing to partake in, embarrassing to watch.”
Once again Shriver has hit on a painful truth, one that currently applies to our own divided nation in the time of Trump.—GM