A good reading list should be as balanced as our diet: filled with nutritious niblets of several genres, with some servings of pure alcohol, caffeine and chocolate in good measure (or mainlined, whatever.) Biographies, sagas, mysteries, and classics are the food groups of literature, with romance at the top of the pyramid to provide those sugar highs we occasionally crave. A little of everything for any diet is on this list. What these books have in common is they are all beautifully written, with characters so real you expect to look up and find them in your bedroom (or car, or kitchen, wherever you happen to be reading). For the most part, they’re not even new books; but books that I happened to love this year.
What is not on this list is Fifty Shades of Grey (or Fifty Shades of Awful, by my estimation.) Don’t get me started on that trilogy of tragedy.
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
This book takes you into the mind and struggles of a hermaphrodite, Callie. When was the last time you were there? Ya huh. It’s a family saga that spans three generations, beginning in Smyma in the early 1900′s, and their harrowing emigration to Detroit. It’s filled with colourful characters and poignant moments, and made me ponder the strong relationship between sexuality and identity. It kept me reading into the wee hours; Eugenides deserves his reputation for being a master storyteller.
When God Was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman
Life rarely makes sense. And so it goes for Elly, the heroine of this book. A traumatic event shapes her early years, and as the book unfolds its repercussions are felt, again and again. The book is as quirky as Elly herself. It’s beautifully written, charming and funny in spite of itself.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
She’s best known for her award winning Bel Canto, but my personal favorite of Patchett’s is still The Magician’s Assistant, by the by. A hint of mystery kept me turning the pages of her latest novel, set in the jungle of the Amazon, as the protagonist, Marina, discovers the wonders of the Lakashi people deep in the heart of the rain forest.
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
A story before its time, Wharton depicts societal norm as the joke that it really is. Ellen, the protagonist, challenges standards by leaving her loveless marriage. When she meets Newland Archer, who is newly engaged, Ellen and Newland begin a lifelong game of cat and mouse, and a love for all time. If you read one classic this summer, or ever, choose this.
Your Voice in My Head, by Emma Forrest
This memoir by Forrest reminds us that life is filled with ups and downs, and that no relationships are easy. As she spirals into sadness, Forrest finds a light in her therapist; when he dies from cancer she is left wandering in the dark once again. Her hostile and lonely world make for beautiful passages, and a wonderful memoir leaking with truth and life.
Here are the books that are burning a hole in my bedside table, and I’m excited to devour them this July, come sun or what may:
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt (Back to my tomboy days with some country and western. And the author happens to be too chilled for words, great non-vibe from this guy.)
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan (Oooh so excited for this one.)
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway (Why have I not read this book?!)
The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman (When my tenth friend told me to read this, I put my hands up in surrender. I surrender!)
I’m hungry just looking at them. Read ‘em and weep. Or read ‘em and eat. Whatever you do, fold yourself into the pages of a delicious dessert this summer. Happy summer reading.
I heard about it on Twitter, which should have given me pause. But since I had an hour to kill and a handy new e-reader on which to burn money, I thought I would flaunt 2012 technology in my face, and download Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, right away, to see what all the fuss was about.
This novel, which women are gushing about and apparently buying since it’s on the New York Times Best Seller list, is best described as a poorly written Harlequin romance that tousled with sadomasochism in a back alley (or in Christian Grey’s red room, whichever.) It’s Danielle Steele’s alter ego. It’s Twilight gone wrong. It does for literature what porn does for the film industry – which is to say, extremely little.
Taken at that level, if that’s all you’re looking for, it has its fair share of sex scenes. My greatest disappointment was that the characters having the terrific, “mind-blowing” orgasms – as they are often described (does that mean anything to you?) are, how can I put this delicately; dumb. Thus, the dialogue, and the email correspondence that we must endure is more painful than the positions Christian puts Anastasia through.
I love being taken new places in literature, and within the confines of an S&M relationship is definitely new to me. I thought I might learn something. Stop snickering. Not just a few new moves; I was hoping to get a glimpse into why people get off on getting whipped. It’s the inflicting pain thing that I stumble with, the line (or, in my case, the mile between) where agony becomes pleasure. The protagonist (I can’t use the word heroine, I just can’t), Anastasia, is as perplexed as I am about this, but is so desperate to keep Christian that she bends over backwards (and sideways, and stays on her knees, and gets tied up, etc.) in order to keep him.
Here is the very likely, believable scenario: Christian Grey is a young, enigmatic, billionaire, who meets and is bedazzled by Anastasia Steele, despite her being a clumsy, virginal, poor, insecure college student. She has a habit of biting her lip, which drives Christian mad with desire. This either leads to his eyes darkening, or alternatively causes him to look at her with hooded eyes.
A small aside here: have you ever been driven mad with desire by someone chewing on their lip? Have you ever noticed someone’s eyes changing color simply because they are turned on? And by hooded eyes, does the author mean half-closed? If the answer is yes, and you don’t have a problem with eyes being hooded, you might in fact enjoy this book. But beware, it happens repeatedly.
The kicker, the most unforgivable aspect, is that James tries to use Anastasia’s favorite book, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as a metaphor for her twisted relationship with Christian. As though Tess and Anastasia can have anything in common, besides youth and breath. If Anastasia were to be dragged dramatically to the guillotine, she would likely grace us with her usual eloquent answer to everything, “Oh, crap.” Or might it call for her more earnest reaction of “Double crap?”
I can only wonder. I certainly won’t read the other books in the trilogy to find out.