Saturday, April 19, 2014

Recent Reads

Reading for reviews is pleasure reading. It doesn't feel like work. But sometimes scheduling and commitments mean I have to put my personal reading list aside. Of course I can't help myself and often I'm reading two or three things at a time. Here's what I've been reading for me, lately: the things I sneak in between review books.


Night Film by Marisha Pessl

I don't read thrillers. I'm too much of a fraidy cat. But if all thrillers could be this good, I might have to change that rule. Night Film had me hooked from the first chapter.

The book follows journalist Scott McGrath as he tries to investigate the possible murder of the Ashley Cordova, daughter of Stanislaus Cordova, a horror film producer and legendary recluse. Cordova's daughter is found dead of apparent suicide. As McGrath and his two research assistants begin to investigate her death, it's hard to sort fact from rumors about the mysterious Cordova family. McGrath uncovers evidence of the occult, as well as horrifying secrets behind the walls of the family compound. There are elements of the typical detective story here, but they're used creatively and described in Pessl's beautiful language.

Night Film kept me in suspense, particularly as I neared the end of the book. The night I finished it, I could not stop reading, nor could I turn out the light. I had to find out what happened. Completely enjoyable and different from what I normally read.


10% Happier by Dan Harris

Dan Harris, journalist for ABC, writes this account of dealing with his personal demons (drugs, anxiety, and a stressful career) through meditation. This book was a nice mix of science, personal history, and honest skepticism.  Harris describes how he came to his practice and the many paths he tried along the way. There's nothing prescriptive, here, only what feels like a journalist's inquisitive eye on a subject that has a reputation for ineffability and sentimentality.

I really liked this one, too. But I listened to this one while I walked the dog, and Harris' voice began to grate, a little. Small nitpick. It was a worthwhile and easy read.


The Object Parade: Essays by Dinah Lenney

What if your life was defined by the objects you own? That's the premise of Dinah Lenney's essay collection, The Object Parade. Lenney writes of everything from a metronome to an old dog collar, and each offering is a beautifully written meditation on what kind of meaning we give to things. Of course, it's not the things that take center stage, it's Lenney's life, family, losses and ambitions. She ends the collection with an essay about the objects she didn't choose, and it is as compelling as the things she did.

I loved, loved, this book. (Full disclosure: Lenney is my editor at LARB. But I would have loved it anyway.) This is the kind of collection that uses specificity to speak to the universal. Lenney writes with crisp prose that is easy to enjoy. I found myself so conscious of the objects in my life once I read it. Much like I felt about the media we consume over a lifetime telling a story when I read John Leonard's Reading For My Life last year, this book made me consider what my legacy of things will be. I can't stop thinking about it, in fact.

You should read this book. That's all I'm saying.



The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

I read this book because it won the Tournament of Books over at The Morning News. And I read it as an homage to my 11th grade self, who wrote a single-spaced ten page research paper for AP US History about John Brown and Harper's Ferry. Because what's more fun to a teenage girl than John Brown?

I kid. Learning about John Brown during that project taught me a lot about history, and writing the long paper over Spring Break, 1996 was part of cutting my writer's teeth. But I wasn't sure McBride could make the story compelling for a modern reader. Here's the thing. I get why McBride has won so many awards. He manages to take the serious story of John Brown and tell it through the eyes of Onion, a young boy (posing as a girl) traveling with Brown and his men. It's about the voice.

At times this book felt over-the-top to me, but in a way that jives with what I know of Brown, himself. Even in the days immediately following his failed raid on Harper's Ferry, he became a figure of legend. McBride would have you believe that he saw the creation of his legend as his primary goal--maybe even more so than success in his raid.

It's been so long that I didn't remember everything that happened at Harper's Ferry. But McBride's novel had me wanting to know more, and Onion is a superb narrator. I enjoyed it.

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