July Reading Recap: Hot Reads and Hot Takes
Thanks for your patience! We are well into August, and it’s about time I shared July’s book reviews. Here are last month’s reads from DNF to four and a half stars, twelve books in all.
1. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
On one hand, this book is important, but on the other hand, boring. The introduction was so strong, I felt so fired up to read more, and then with the first chapter my eyes glazed over with all the economic talk. I wanted to want to read this, but I lost the willpower.
Also, the fact that this book was published in 2014 complicates the reading experience. The doomsday talk about extreme weather and natural disasters is upon us, which is scary. The solutions she calls for are still not happening. And I think of 2014 as being the “before” time in two ways: before Trump, and before Covid, which makes a lot of the evidence she discusses seem dated, no matter how compelling or relevant it may still prove to be.
2. No One is Talking About This
Patricia Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy is both the funniest book I have read, and also incredibly poignant. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
This novel, however, is a different story. Twenty pages in I had no idea what was going on. It was too abstract for my taste. DNF.
3. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens was not what I expected. I wanted to read about Homo sapiens’ time on earth that was shared with other human species. Instead (as the title suggests) the author tells a brief history of Homo sapiens with a specific angle: our species learned how to share an imagined reality, and thus a lot of what we take for granted today, and perhaps denote as “truth” is not biologically sound. For example, human rights, money, and gender are part of our imagined reality.
I don’t find this angle all that compelling. Even if I’d never gone to college and examined the debate between essentialism and social construction, I’m pretty well aware of how much present-day society is socially constructed as opposed to borne from biology. It’s not new to say racism or patriarchy are social constructs.
But if I find a book that explains how Homo sapiens survived when other species of the genus Homo didn’t, I would be game to check it out.
4. The River at Night
I picked this up as a recommendation from blogger Modern Mrs. Darcy, but I find her recs are hit-or-miss. She endorses plenty of mediocre fiction, this novel being one. The writing is just bad.
Take the first sentence: “Early one morning in late March, Pia forced my hand.” The last four words are strong, but that entire phrase beforehand weakens it. Early, one, late—so vague! After reading Good Company (see below) I couldn’t stomach this.
5. Dear Miss Metropolitan
I received this book via a Goodreads giveaway from the publisher Henry Holt & Co.
In short, I didn’t like this book. The writing style was experimental, and it didn’t work for me. I stuck with it to the end, but “sticking with” a book is never the reading experience one hopes for.
I found none of the characters’ personalities or experiences relatable. That doesn’t have to be a barrier to enjoying a book (who doesn’t read to learn at least a little?) but again, the way language and photography were used proved to be an insufficient bridge.
I will say the author is more skilled than I am even able to appreciate. The writing is full of beautiful moments.
6. The Firekeeper’s Daughter
The cover for this book is gorgeous! I couldn’t resist reading this young adult Native-literature novel for pure fun. I wanted a relaxing read that would carry me away with a great story. I found it disappointing primarily because the writing was clunky. Not simple, but clunky. It told the story but detracted from the experience.
The relationship between Daunis and Jamie is written in a confusing way. One minute she wants to kiss him, and the next she’s avoiding him, and it’s never clear how or why her feelings change, let alone his.
Similarly, Daunis shields her mother from hardship with the explanation that her mother can’t handle the truth. But Boulley doesn’t show the reader how or why that’s the case. There was a lot of “telling” and not a lot of “showing.”
I think to keep this book in the YA genre, Boulley alludes to sex in the vaguest way possible, so that I’m not sure until after the fact—pages later—that sex is what actually happened between the characters. This just fed the confusion.
I liked Daunis. I liked reading about a young woman who is not very girly. I appreciated all the Ojibwe culture that Boulley incorporates into the story. There are relatively few Native novels published today, and even fewer with teen girls for narrators, which makes this book all the more disappointing for its shortcomings.
7. Other Words for Home
In this free-verse middle school novel, Jude moves from Syria to live with her uncle’s family in Cincinnati. Salient themes include bravery, identity, and home.
Midway through the book Jude reaches a point in adolescence when it is customary to don her headscarf in public. I found this to be a teaching moment: I didn’t realize that this moment is a time of celebration for young women who share Jude’s culture. For Jude, putting on her headscarf is a good thing and shows that she is maturing. When white strangers would come up to her to say that she doesn’t have to wear that “here,” it hurts her feelings and cements the idea that the people around her have no understanding or acceptance of who she is or where she comes from.
8. Winter Counts
David Heska Wanbli Weiden
This was a great story. I enjoyed being in Virgil Wounded Horse’s head, noticing the things he noticed, thinking and drawing conclusions in his particular way. I found how he and María balanced each other out to be quite realistic, both embodying different types of strength and influencing each other.
The pace is slow at first, but the build to the climax is just right. For the most part I found the ending satisfying, although I have mixed feelings about the last sentence. (Perhaps it keeps option open for a sequel?)
Trigger warning for violence, with a particularly gruesome instance on pages 290-292.
9. Boys & Sex
It’s another volume of strong writing from Orenstein. (I read and reviewed her prior book Girls & Sex last month.) Reading this gave me more compassion for (some) boys for all the pressure they have to prove their masculinity via the sex they have and how they talk about those experiences with other boys.
The biggest take-home is the necessity for parents to talk to their sons about sex. This would alter expectations and show boys alternatives to toxic masculinity and the miseducation they get from porn. As it stands, Orenstein’s research shows that for boys sex is just another form of competition and status, whereas it needs to be about intimacy instead. Boys AND girls would be happier for it.
10. Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002
This was the perfect before-bed book, the kind to read when you’re nearly ready for sleep but want a few more minutes of consciousness on your own terms. The challenge with reading at this point in the evening is to remember what you read the night before. Here, there is no plot and only one character to keep track of: perfect. And it’s very funny of course, because it’s David Sedaris. I found it interesting to gradually absorb Sedaris’ maturation as an individual and in his career over the course of the pages. I’m curious what a later volume of diaries by him would show?
11. The Final Girl Support Group
After reading and loving Hendrix’s previous novel The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, which I would describe as humor-horror, I couldn’t wait to read his new release. However, Final Girl was more serious and less satirical than I expected. I definitely enjoyed this, but it wasn’t as fun as Southern Book Club. Instead, it was action-packed, fast-paced, and intense. Different but good.
The end is overwritten and preachy. Hendrix hits the reader over the head with the moral of the story. But when he finally revealed the villain, it made the perfect statement.
12. Good Company
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
In this novel Sweeney examines what happens to a family and their closest friends when an old secret comes to the surface.
Sweeney writes well, making for an immersive, compelling reading experience. The story is told from alternating perspectives, allowing the reader to hear the thoughts of one character at a time in detail.
I liked Flora, although I found her at times to be pitiable. Margot on the surface is the more successful friend, although I don’t know that I would want to be friends with her. Ruby’s point of view is such a teenager’s line of thinking, and such a contrast to all the adults’ perspectives.
The climax of the story was perfect. I got chills! And with a story like this, how can it end? Sweeney manages to come full circle, mimicking the shape of the found object that started it all.