I remember how excited I was when I posted the March-April edition back in May, and I thought, “Cool, now when May is over, I can just start posting these monthly.” Ha ha ha ha ha! I’m so funny.

As usual, we will start with the highbrow stuff. Let’s do non-fiction, since that’s my shortest list.

Non-fiction

The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes
This was a book I’d been meaning to read for years but never got around to. I think it finally went on sale on Kindle or something, which is how I finally forced myself to read it. I read Shlaes’s biography of Calvin Coolidge, which was pretty good as far as biographies go. I really don’t like biographies because they tend to start with the dawn of time and take at least four chapters before the subject has even been born, and then they tell you what the subject ate for breakfast during their formative years and yada yada yada. I think I will never read another biography as long as I live (except for Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography, which I intend to read but may not because my husband bought the hard copy and I find it so hard to read actual physical books anymore…but I digress).

This book is not a biography, thank goodness, but a quite interesting history of the Great Depression and the expansion of federal power. It’s a favorite of political conservatives because it’s critical of FDR’s New Deal, but it’s not a simplistic criticism. For example, the government takeover of utilities allowed more people to have access to electricity faster than it would have otherwise. And nobody is a straight-up villain in this tale, but most of the political figures have ulterior motives. Quelle surprise! Anyway, well-done if you like that sort of thing. 4/5 stars

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
I might not have read this book except it was for a book club, and someone mentioned there was polyamory. Nothing with polyamory in it could be totally boring! Anyway, this book explores the feminist origins of Wonder Woman. Interestingly enough, Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, who was a feminist but also kind of a jerk in real life. Lepore mercifully spares us most of the years covering the time when Marston’s and his female friends’ ancestors were crawling out of the primordial ooze, but gives a pretty decent sketch of early twentieth century feminism and the issues it was concerned with. Marston lived with two women (well, mainly two women), with whom he had children, and…let’s just say it was a very interesting family arrangement. I guess everyone was cool with it because they were all consenting adults and whatnot, but they failed to record a lot of sleazy details, so posterity will never know for sure. Anyway, the book is as much about the women in his life–Sadie Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne–as it is about him. Margaret Sanger shows up a lot. I think, technically, the story might have made an excellent long article and makes a slightly less excellent full-length book, but that’s mainly because I’m a big picture kind of gal. Fortunately, it’s not a long read, and the less-interesting parts are easily skimmed. The interesting parts are interesting enough. 3.5/5 stars

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright
If you’re like me, you’ve never expected to want to know how to run a drug cartel. But I heard the author of this book interviewed on a podcast and suddenly became very interested in how drug cartels work. As it turns out, the rules of economics apply to the drug trade as much as they do to other industries. This is a very accessible book for the layperson, filled with anecdotes as much as statistics. It covers human resources, infrastructure, competition, supply, demand–everything you need to know if you’re thinking about becoming a drug lord! Be forewarned that the author is pro-legalization, a position I am largely sympathetic to, but not always completely sold on. (Confession: I am mostly sold on it most of the time, particularly after reading this book.) 5/5 stars

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
This is another book I’d been meaning to read for years, mostly because I was fascinated by the personal story of Hoffer, who wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while working as a stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940s. (For real!) I finally broke down and bought the book when someone mentioned it again in the context of Trump voters. Hoffer starts by discussing the appeal of mass movements and their potential converts, then goes on to describe the life cycle of the mass movement. His thesis is that the motivations behind mass movements are interchangeable, regardless of goals or values. It’s a relatively short, accessible tome, philosophical rather than scientific in nature. However, judging by current events, it appears to be scarily accurate. 5/5 stars

Fiction

Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin
A character-driven novel about a woman’s relationship with her Episcopalian priest father, who is prone to long episodes of depression. Much of the story is told in flashback, as Margaret (the daughter) recalls the effect of her mother’s abandonment on both her and her father’s lives. You might appreciate it more if you have a religious background. Or, if you like books about religious people despite not having a religious background, you will probably appreciate it just fine (unless you only like books about nuns solving mysteries and whatnot). I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never not had a religious background myself. I loved it. 5/5 stars

The Collected Stories by Conrad Aiken
The only Conrad Aiken story I’d ever read before this was “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” which is probably one of the best short stories ever written. If you’ve never read it, you must. (Unless you hate short stories, in which case, don’t bother.) And yes, I read this mainly because I got it on the cheap on Kindle. I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, but I’m glad I did, because Aiken actually wrote several other excellent short stories. There are a lot of them in this collection. I didn’t like all of them, but many were on par with “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” in my opinion. Perhaps you might like one of them even better! 4/5 stars

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
I was never interested in seeing the movie based on this book, and I must say that it never occurred to me to read the book the movie was based on until one day, I just got a wild hair and said, “Why the heck not?” Fair warning: Don’t read this book looking for something uplifting. It’s pretty much the opposite. This is a big fat downer of a book, narrated by the mother of a teenage boy who executes a mass murder at his high school. It answers the question “what do you do when your kid is a sociopath?” (SPOILER ALERT: You don’t do anything. You’re pretty much screwed.) It alternates between flashbacks and current time as more of the story is revealed, but you know from the beginning that nothing would end well. As I said on Goodreads, “This book was horrifying. I could not look away.” You’re either into that sort of thing, or you’re not. 4/5 stars

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
I’d heard this book was a feminist classic, and it always shows up on lists like “50 books every woman must read” or “50 books by female authors everyone must read.” So when it showed up on my Kindle sale list, I said, “Sure! Sold.” What can I say? I think I will just copy and paste my Goodreads review:

The chapters are hundreds of pages long with no natural breaks; you either have to read for hours at a time or randomly pick a place to stop and then come back later and think, “Now what was she talking about? Oh yeah, right. She’s using an awful lot of words here. Are they really all necessary? I feel like we’ve covered this.” Which is probably the point, or whatever, but man alive, it was tiring. Which is not to say there’s nothing interesting here. There’s lots of interesting stuff here–it’s a very long book, or at least it seems that way. Am I glad I read it? I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve finished, and what I feel most is relief.

I had to read a few romance novels afterward to recover. 3/5 stars

Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron
William Styron’s big claim to fame in our house is that he wrote Set This House on Fire, a book I checked out of the library about 10 or 12 years ago and ended up buying because Mister Bubby spilled water on it. I’ve never read it. Correction: I’ve never read more than about 20 pages of it. I’ve always meant to, especially since I paid $14.99 for it. For some reason, I have not. If only it were on Kindle, like Lie Down in Darkness was. (But if my kid had spilled water on my Kindle, that would have been a lot more expensive.)

I read Sophie’s Choice (also by Styron) a few months ago. If you’ve read Sophie’s Choice, you will recognize the story of this book: A Southern family deals with the aftermath of a daughter’s suicide. It’s told in a series of flashbacks. Styron has a knack for writing some poignant stuff. He also has a knack for putting compelling pieces of writing in the middle of a lot of crap I couldn’t care less about. I guess one either loves Styron or thinks he’s overrated. I’m starting to think he might be overrated, which is a shame because $14.99 for an overrated book I’m never going to read is kind of galling. 3/5 stars

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
I tried to read this book a couple years ago and couldn’t get past the 20% mark. So many H names–Heathcliff, Hareton, Hindley–it was hard to keep track. And the story didn’t seem to be going anywhere. A lot of people love Wuthering Heights, and it was bugging me that I hadn’t finished it because isn’t that long, and I felt that I should just power through it and see what all the fuss is about. I’m glad I did because now I can make an informed statement on Wuthering Heights, which is this: Wuthering Heights sucks. Every single person in this book sucks. It’s not interesting. I don’t understand why people like it unless people are possessed of an imagination that allows them to imagine that they’ve read a different book than I did. Or as I said on Goodreads: You’d be better off listening to the Kate Bush song. It will take a fraction of the time, and you will enjoy it 100x more, even if you hate Kate Bush. 2/5 stars

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
I put off reading this book because it sounded like a downer to me: a boy’s mother is killed by a freak accident caused by his best friend. (I’m spoiling nothing here. You find this out very early.) That’s just too sad. On the other hand, it was supposed to be a great book–or so I’d heard. Judging by the Goodreads reviews, I’d say this is the kind of book you either love or hate. I ended up loving it. I loved the character of Owen Meany. The narrator I could take or leave, but Owen was the best. It’s a long book, but it didn’t feel as long to me as, say, The Golden Notebook (or Wuthering Heights, for that matter). Which is not to say that it’s a riveting page-turner that I couldn’t put down. It’s a long story that the narrator takes his time telling, but I found the story-telling entertaining and compelling enough that I enjoyed the long read. I guess you will know after reading 100 pages or so whether this book is for you. Don’t bother reading the whole thing just to find out how Owen Meany got John Wheelwright to believe in God. Long story short: life is horrible, and also miraculous. 5/5 stars

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
I read this novel while I was in Japan this summer. I’d been meaning to read some Murakami for some time but couldn’t decide which book to choose first. Murakami is always showing up on lists like “50 really cool books everyone should read” or whatever, and I guess The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of his more popular ones, so I checked it out. I found it enjoyable enough. It’s pretty weird, but let’s face it, a lot of Japanese stuff is weird. (To us American rubes, I mean. I’m sure the Japanese take it all in stride.) The narrator’s wife goes missing suddenly–just doesn’t come home after work. The simplest explanation is the one he gets–she was having an affair and has left him for another man–but for some reason, he just doesn’t quite buy it. Too many people show up giving him the idea that there’s a lot more going on. I became emotionally invested in solving the mystery. Or rather, not solving it, but discovering the solution. (This is not the sort of literary mystery that can be solved by deductive reasoning. It’s just too weird.) I was somewhat disappointed. As I said on Goodreads: “Intriguing, but in the end, I wasn’t sure what the crap I’d read.” If anyone’s read better Murakami, I’d be happy to give him another shot. 3.5/5 stars

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
This one is about the Salem witch trials. The narrator’s mother is a devoutly religious woman, but she’s also a fiercely independent thinker, and she doesn’t take crap from anyone. As you can imagine, this does not go over so well with 17th century Puritans. I actually enjoyed this more than I thought I would. The setting is vivid, and the characters are compelling. It would make for a good book group discussion (and undoubtedly has, many times over): When is your integrity worth your life, and when is your life worth your integrity? 4/5 stars

Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre-Ambroise Choderlos deLaclos
I really liked the film Dangerous Liaisons with John Malkovitch and Glenn Close, which I saw a million years ago. It’s not edifying, but it’s certainly entertaining, and it’s even a compelling story. I can’t say the book is edifying either, and it’s less compelling than the movie, which alters the ending considerably. The novel is epistolary, not my favorite form, but it’s pretty good reading up to the end, which has nothing in the way of redemption. It’s pretty dark. I felt like I’d just read a tale of two sociopaths, and I didn’t know what to make of it. 3.5/5 stars

Grendel by John Gardner
Another book I’ve been meaning to read since college, which was when I read Beowulf for the first time. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I’d really read Beowulf in college, or if I’d just skimmed it and relied on the professor’s lecture to fill in the gaps. I thought I should re-read Beowulf, in any case, in order to better appreciate Grendel. I don’t know if it helped, actually, but I did come away with a new appreciation of Beowulf. I found Grendel a bit…what’s the word? At the risk of sounding like (or actually being) an unsophisticated rube, I found it a bit pretentious. It was interesting enough, off and on. The idea that Grendel is fighting against his nature and destiny–to be a monster–is compelling, but while I was reading it, I kept thinking, “Oh, give it a rest, Grendel.” I thought it would be impossible for me to dislike a 174-page novel, but this one just didn’t do much for me. 3/5 stars

NW by Zadie Smith
I read this for a book group. It’s about four young Londoners who grew up in the same neighborhood–or went to the same school, or something–and have grown apart, but are still tangentially in each other’s lives. The writing is James Joyce-ish, particularly the first section. I liked the writing, but I didn’t like the characters, and the story felt inconsequential, despite a number of dramatic events. It was enough to interest me in reading something else by the same author, but I don’t know what I should choose. Do you have an opinion? 3/5 stars

Consenting Adult by Laura Z. Hobson
Hobson wrote Gentleman’s Agreement, the classic novel about anti-Semitism, which I’ve never read but have always meant to. I probably wouldn’t have picked this novel up except that it was cheap on the Kindle, and you know what a sucker I am for the cheap Kindle book. It is based on Hobson’s own experience as the mother of a gay son, who comes out to her during a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. The narrator and her husband are secular, liberally-minded people who know homosexuals and are totally cool with people being homosexuals, but are nonetheless devastated to learn that their son is gay. It’s very interesting, from a historical perspective–it was published about 40 years ago–given that societal attitudes were so different, and even the scientific perspective was only starting to change at that point. Anyway, the story is primarily the mother’s, but also the son’s. Definitely worth reading. 4/5 stars

The Room by Jonas Karlsson
This is like Kafka meets The Office. Bjorn is an ambitious bureaucrat looking to make a name for himself at his new job. On his first day he discovers a mysterious room–actually a very ordinary room, but for some reason it intrigues him and becomes his favorite place. It turns out he’s the only one who can see it. As far as his co-workers are concerned, it doesn’t exist, and they think he’s crazy. But he knows he’s not crazy. He begins to suspect there’s an elaborate conspiracy against him. How high up the organization does this conspiracy go? This is a short novel. I thought it was very funny. It also has the distinction of being the second Scandinavian novel I’ve read that is not thoroughly depressing. (The first was A Man Called Ove, which I reviewed in an earlier edition of MBC–Jan-Feb, maybe?) 4/5 stars

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
This is a book I actually didn’t intend to read because I’d heard mixed reviews, and, you know, as a Mormon there’s only so much polygamy crap I can deal with. But you guessed it, it was cheap on Kindle, so I figured what the hey. There are actually two books here. One is set in modern times, narrated by a young man who was kicked out of his polygamist community (one of the “lost boys” who are abandoned because the religious leaders don’t like the competition for young wives) but returns when his mother (a 19th wife) is arrested for his father’s murder. This story alternates with the story of the “original” 19th wife, i.e. Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s infamous nineteenth wife who sued him for divorce and went on a national speaking tour against polygamy. The historical story is told via a series of “historical documents” such as journal entries, letters, academic papers, etc. (The documents are fabricated; it’s just a story-telling conceit. I mention this because so many reviewers seemed miffed about it.)

I found the historical story more compelling than the murder mystery, which was funny because I thought it would be the other way around. As a Mormon woman, I’ve read more than my fill of books and articles about church history and polygamy; if I never read another word, I’d probably be better off. But the “historical documents” really get inside the heads of the people who practiced polygamy and examine things like faith and doubt. The narrator of the murder mystery is not given to introspection, so there wasn’t much in the way of insights into modern polygamy. The mystery itself seemed to resolve rather abruptly, just because it was time for the book to end. There was also a romantic subplot that I didn’t find particularly compelling. 3/5 stars

Well, that will do it for the highbrow stuff. Stay tuned for the next installment, where I review the lowerbrow stuff.

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